R. S. Steinberg started writing after an injury ended his career practicing and teaching orthopaedic surgery. His work has appeared in Fiction, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere; he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson. He lives with his wife near Boston, and has returned to cycling after the events recounted in “Of Death and Venice.”
By R. S. Steinberg
Four days before my scheduled surgery, we ran into a couple of Provincetown acquaintances in Cambridge instead of on Commercial Street. When are you going back to Italy? they asked. He is Italian. We know them well enough to stop and chat, but vows to get together here in Provincetown or in the Boston real world or even in Florence where they have a place have not yet borne fruit.
My wife said, We changed our plans for medical reasons.
We all paused an awkward pause as the moment turned weird.
The other wife appraised me. The husband studied his hands. We hadn’t decided Whom to Tell, or What to Tell Them. In that fog of reticence, the four of us stared past and through each other on four skewed axes until murmured assurances of intent to get together let us escape.
One short month later I looked up from typing to admire the sun on the harbor while my wife rummaged up lunch. My cancer sat in a Mass General refrigerator. We had every reason to believe that I was safe—from that threat, at least—but I worried that in the other couples’ minds I remained a Person With Cancer, about whom presumptions are bad, like a policeman’s Person of Interest.
A Person With Cancer is old or pitiful. We adjure him to ‘fight,’ but in that context, that word sets off my mendacity detector. A Person With Cancer is On The Way Out. He may even write a lugubrious memoir. Once your aunt or colleague becomes one, you have to negotiate the visits and flowers and greeting cards and the (gulp!) chance encounters. Figure it out, then breathe a sigh of relief, because once she’s squared away at a safe distance, it doesn’t have much to do with you. For now.
But from that moment on, every time your phone peeps, that unexpected email might be, you know…
Or we could look deeper.
Four years earlier, on the day before my operation for benign prostate obstruction, I was a normal guy with a common problem. The next day I became an uncomfortable guy with a catheter and a solved problem—or so I thought. That delusion lasted for a week until my surgeon phoned me to say that a few of the scraps of tissue he had removed contained a little cancer.
A little cancer? ‘Little’ was about right: fewer than 5% of the scraps contained it, and the microscopic appearance of the cells was the least scary grade of cancer. Keep calm and (watchfully) wait and see. But notice: for months or years during which I had thought of myself as a thin, fit, cheerful geezer without diseases, I had, in fact, been a person with cancer. Uh oh… My prostate problem had turned into a cancer problem. Was I on my way to Hamlet’s undiscovered country? Does this bus go to the Bourne Bridge, or to that bourne from which no traveler returns?
Sensible of my own creeped-out reaction to such persons, I chose to keep it private. My wife concurred. Don’t scare the children. Nobody likes an Ancient Mariner. So, through four years of normal blood tests, I played the part of a Person With (Secret) Cancer who managed normal interactions with others. Until. Until my blood test went up and a biopsy showed worse cancer and I signed up for a bigger operation. The week we canceled Venice we ran into that other couple we had hoped to know better. In their eyes I may well be stuck with my new designation, although everything we now know (tumor confined to the prostate, clean specimen margins, negative lymph nodes) suggests that I am more likely a Person Without Cancer today than I actually was, say, five years ago. The cancer is out. I have outed myself—but I am no more On The Way Out than you are—and no less.
So what’s next for me? I want to spend more time in the civilized society that is Italy before I forget the Italian I’ve learned. I will go back. I will carry my bag out of the dim Stazione Santa Lucia into the sunshine and colorful hubbub of the Grand Canal. Past the crowds lined up to buy vaporetto tickets. Left over the old bridge toward where we like to stay in Dorsoduro. My mouth will water for the seppie in nero at our favorite Taverna San Trovaso. The curtain will rise; the city’s beauty will overwhelm me. Venice, La Serenissima, and I are both old. We are both awash and sinking, but she buoys me up. Certo, ella mi rinfrancherà. She will hearten me.
Meanwhile I’m getting my head straight about how to talk about my condition with people I run into who know that I’m a Person with Treated Cancer, and whether to do so with those who don’t. Some who do know wrinkle their brows and tilt their heads before they open their eyes wide to inquire, How are you feeling? As they enunciate with care at a slower than normal cadence, they proclaim that theirs is no normal greeting. To tell the truth, I can’t tell whether the twitch of aversion I feel when people ask that way reflects my awareness of their discomfort at Visiting the Sick, or comes from my own denial of what has happened to me.
For the people who don’t know, I’m still mapping out the border between their need to know and my choice to tell or not. I should like to work out how to accept the concern of others and keep myself present without allowing this one bit of history to poison the interaction with weirdness—or to dominate it.
While my part in such moments remains a work in progress, I have become able to talk more easily with friends who have been treated for cancer about their experience, and also about the existential issues. Such conversations used to be heavy lifting back when I ‘didn’t have cancer.’ These days I pay more attention to the certainty that in this imperfect world, all of us, from those who once had cancer to those who never will, will age, become ill and die. With that truth in mind, I find it easier to dial my own face and my own tone back toward normal. We’re in this together. It’s one to a customer. Let’s remember that and avoid those weird silences as we accept, and offer, acknowledgement of our common transience.