The stretch of road is not long by any stretch of the imagination. It runs through mostly flat farmlands. Off in the distance minor hills look as if they go on forever. The drive is, at first notice, rather boring. On either side of the road farms and cattle pass by; oblivious to the constant traffic. On the road wild animals pass away by way of tires and fenders and bumpers. Roadkill, of varying age, litters the road almost every inch of the way. Dark blotches, with minor patches of fur, indicate an old kill. What died? At what time was it hit? How long ago? How long until its remains remain no more?
The stretch of highway is quite deadly. The drive then becomes, if not interesting, then at the least not boring. Death, if one has an eye for it, and the heart, draws us toward it, calling and willing us to see it. On the soft shoulder lay freshly killed raccoons. Their black masks turned red. Their paws crushed. They will not become blotches. Tire treads will tread on them no longer. No longer will their remains be pounded into the asphalt and be so preserved. Another dark blotch blurs by and disappears far behind. A ground hog? A dog?
A squishy smack pounds on the windshield sounding another death. This time a locust has met a grizzly end. A splash of bug wash removes all trace. As soon as that’s done three more smacks pepper the windshield; futile to clean again. It’s a losing battle, though a musical one. The light splish of a smaller bug joins the deep splash of a bumblebee. Driving becomes conducting. Slowing the speed changes the pitch and closer to the shoulder increases the intensity.
On the right within a hundred yards of the road a colt lies still on a slight slope. Is it dead? Is it ill or just hot? A bird darts in front of the car and narrowly misses adding bass to the ever-present symphony. In its beak is a worm. Maybe a bug. It’s hard to tell in a fleeting glance what’s end is near.
I see death everywhere.
Splayed guts and intestines gleam bright red in the bright sun. The road glistens. I can almost hear the blood drying, baking on the asphalt. A fox has perished in a gory explosion of flesh. I saw it. The car ahead caused it, ignores it and continues to drive away. I close my eyes and see it still.
A mini van, decorated with insect slime, passes by at a dangerous speed. The potential for an accident greater as it barrels past. I hear their radio. I see their windows are rolled up and judge that their air conditioning is on full blast. A mobile quarantine as those within are inoculated against the death without. They miss the sound of insects and the gore of the open road. Their gaze falls onto the distance, the future, of where they will be rather than the now, of where they are. A human made cocoon. They protect themselves from having to actually see the death around them. Had they looked at me they would have seen it.
I am death. I am its cocoon, for it’s inside me. The cancer tells me so over and over. Yet I am life. The cancer tells me so over and over. Pain is an antagonizing reminder that I am not yet dead. It intensifies with time and tells me that I will not be alive much longer. The mutant genes inside double and redouble their efforts to grow and break free from their prison. Me.
I see signs of death everywhere. I feel the grim reaper as it lurks close, as it hovers and subtly makes me aware of its presence. In my grandmother’s case it was a thinning of the body, loss of hair, weakness of voice, increase of pain. In that order. For me, it may well be different. For me cancer has become The Cancer and through it the spectre of death grows bold in the shadows of my drawn cheeks, in my sunken eyes, and in the crevice of my collapsed nostrils.
The growth; an explosion of life that means death.
As I sit in the car, sweat trickles from my armpits down my sides. My shirt becomes a second skin, one that can be peeled off like a terrible sunburn. The heat is stifling. I need to slow down and rest. Driving taxes me more and more. I pull onto the shoulder and stop the car. The motion of decaying speed sets my head spinning. After a moment I step onto the shoulder. The air is wet, the earth dry. A humid breeze swirls the dust I kick up. The wet air teases the earth by pretending to show a rain that never comes. The cure for the drought so close, but remains unrealized. The grass in the ditch is brown and crispy under foot. Farmers’ corn wilts and in the wind rustles, sounding like paper ripping. Crop failure is imminent. Death of livelihoods is the prognosis.
I think of the air-conditioned passengers in the mini-van sitting untouched by the day’s heat. I find myself hoping they run out of gas or their radiator breaks, forcing them to experience the heat, experience their surroundings. Force them to experience this moment in their lives and understand that once it passes it is gone, dead forever. I know that dream is futile. Much like conquering my cancer.
I walk down the highway. The gravel on the shoulder crunches and shifts under my half weight. A year ago I would have tramped along, sending stones scurrying into the ditch. A year ago, I would have driven with my air conditioning. Those days are dead to me and fading quickly. I stop walking, suddenly out of breath. A few steps become so tiring. When did that happen? I cannot recall. In my desire for air I gasp and heave weakly. My heart races and my mind whirls. A moment, a very long moment, and my body begins to recover, though my mind does not. It races with thoughts of my impending future. I cannot escape it; I am too far-gone to be able to deceive myself anymore. Those days have ceased.
I spot a bundle of white far ahead. My troubles momentarily placed aside, though not forgotten, I shuffle slowly over to white object. A young white cat lies on the gravel. It appears comfortable as if stretched out on a carpet. I nudge it with my boot to make sure it’s dead. Nothing.
I never understood how a corpse could look peaceful, until now. The cat died in the prime of its life. It will never know debilitating pain or wasting away. At any moment I expect it to perk up, tilt its slender head to gaze up at me. It does not move. So recent was its death that no fly marks the white fur. The wind gently tugs at the whiskers and soft underbelly fur. It looks so disgustingly pure. In a rage I kick the cat. It’s body sails limply through the air and lands in the ditch. A small cloud of dust billows out from underneath the dead cat. I watch as the wind whisks the dust away like the fading memory of the event itself.
The pain in my abdomen intensifies and I double over to keep from screaming out. I regret kicking the cat instantly, though not for its sake. After a moment the pain dulls to a major throb. It has gotten worse in the last few weeks. It will continue to get worse. I do not recall how long I stood, hunched over and in pain. I imagine not long, but like when you’re having fun, time flies when all you concentrate on is pain.
An unaccompanied hearse drives by, startling me from my pain induced haze. Its slow speed and drawn curtains give evidence of a coffin on board. I laugh hysterically as I think of a yellow car sign with one of those suction cups to secure it to the window and it reads, ‘Body on Board.’ Certainly, it’d be a hit with the with the mortician crowd. And paramedics. And coroners. And pathologists. And teenagers who think their parents are boring.
Perhaps for them ‘Stiff on Board’ would be better. Referring to parents’ tendency to be rigid. Or as a sexual reference. Or as a double meaning for those morticians who dabble in necrophilia. I look at the hearse. Has anything been done to that body? Will anything be done to mine when the time comes?
As the hearse dwindles in the distance I wonder who it carries. He or she? How old? How did they die? A collage of death ensues in my mind, featuring many of the horrid ways in which a person might expire. Suffocation. Heart attack. Poisoning. Shot. Stabbed. Decapitation. Evisceration. Cancer.
Cancer; the word starts hard and ends softly. How contrary to reality. It starts softly, then turns bitterly hard.
What a business is cancer. Big business for the companies who ‘fight it.’ Tiring. I sniff the air. I cough. Everything I took for granted has been taken away; like the simple act of easy breathing. I suck in the humid air. The sky taunts the ground by offering only a hint of rain. Pharmaceutical companies treat us cancer victims by offering only a hint of a cure. We are nothing more than wilting corn. A pale, dried up version of our former selves.
I always wondered what I would say to a dying man. Now I am dying. I wonder what I should say to myself. What to say? That’s the ugly question that I now realize plays on everyone’s synapses. I warm up to people and chat about nothing, giving them a false sense of light hearted talk. Then the bombardier of my mind cries ‘Drop it.’ And I do. ‘I’m dying.’
My companion’s facial features turn blank a moment as if they can’t believe what just happened. It destroys the tracks upon which their train of thought had been chugging merrily along. From shock come amazing responses. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Pardon?’ ‘We’re all dying.’ Some people get mad. ‘Why did you tell me that? We were having a perfectly good talk.’ My response is always, ‘Before I killed it?’ Most offer the, now meaningless, condolences and then drift away. Physically and emotionally they distance themselves from me.
It begins with their eyes, which quickly avert away from my face. Then their heads turn followed shortly after by their hips. Off they go, walking away. Another destroyed conversation. My precious time is wasted on them. As the end of my life draws close I no longer play that game. I drop the bomb the instant trivial conversation pops up. Chit-chat is like a weed and I the gardener, for I can’t stand to waste my time. Every conversation is now a weed. Nothing has meaning for me anymore. My cancer killed meaning.
I look around the fields and the skies. My eyes searching for an answer to a question I’ve not allowed myself to ask. My mind has tried, but I shift my attention elsewhere, anywhere. ‘What happens when…?’
There it is, the question that has been dying to be asked. Now suddenly I am afraid. My eyes well up and the fear turns quickly to anger. Now crying. Now yelling. I cough. The cancer politely tells me how far I can let my hysteria go. These increasingly frequent bouts of severe emotion leave me breathless. I hate them; so little time to waste on crying. So little God damn time. I can feel my slack facial skin tighten around my chin as I scowl.
Time. How infinite we believe our time to be. Our days are filled with activity. What we don’t get done today can always be completed tomorrow. In our hearts we are all procrastinators. There’ll always be tomorrow. How minute our time actually is when our end is near. We delude ourselves by thinking that time is money and in the end pay for it. Time is life. I almost agree with the ancient Greeks and their three fates. Nothing can change your time. When it’s up it’s up. The only answer to the fates is to live while you can. Something I discovered too late.Photo by Jonathan Chasteen from FreeImages