Monday, October 6, 2008


Ronald Reagan was diagnosed as having cancer in the summer of 1985. The announcement of the president's short flirt with a terminal illness was televised world-wide, interrupting the entertainment of millions to broadcast the news of his cancerous bowel.

A few weeks later on a bright summer day, the phone rang. It was Mom.

"Hold it a minute, Mom," I said, after greeting her, "I have to get it quiet around here so I can hear myself think." After reminding my daughter, Andrea, and her little girl friends to get their sun screen on, I chased them outside to play and turned to the phone.

"My doctor tells me that I have cancer," she tried to sound cheerful.

She had been feeling ill for several weeks and was seeking medical help to determine the source of the problem. I wasn't surprised by the news. After working for decades in hospital intensive care units and emergency rooms I've learned to be prepared for the worst. Her symptoms were ominous: weakness, fatigue, and out of whack blood tests. In a tone that made me think she had already given up, he told me more about the illness and plans for treatment.

As I turned from the phone the cries of children playing outside seemed far away. I stared out the window. The sunlight, so bright and luminous moments before, now appeared covered with a dirty film... or was it just a window needing to be cleaned.

"Multiple" myeloma they called it. As if one wasn't enough. "A malignant type of widespread bone destruction" was the briefest of definitions. I remembered a bone scan I had years before. A hard lump on my leg was suspicous. An IV was started. A technician, clad in a chalky white uniform pushed a radioactive substance from a leaded syringe into my vein. I waited an hour for it to circulate while trying to direct my thoughts. On the scan, my skeletal system was outlined in pinpoints of light generated by the radioactive substance. Abnormal areas had a brighter concentration of light, like a faraway comet, or a cluster of stars seen through weak binoculars.

The president's cancer was a polyp in the bowel, which could be neatly cut out. But who ever heard of removing malignant bones? What kind of human would a person without a skeletal system be?

We began to make plans. Karen, my wife, was six months pregnant, so we couldn't do any traveling before the baby came. We poured over calendars and travel itineraries. Thanksgiving was the earliest we could cover the twenty-eight hundred miles east to visit Mom. We calculated the airline fares over and over again. It was just too expensive. So we bought tickets on Amtrak and I began to get excited. I love trains.

Things were happening. At Reagan's wish, Contras were killing Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In Illinois, a young woman who had been born again confessed that she lied about being raped, a lie that put an innocent man in prison for six years. And somewhere beyond the solar system, Halley's Comet was headed for a winter rendevous with Planet Earth.

Like most kids, I had heard of Halley's Comet from the earliest grades in school. Teachers would show students pictures of it and I figured out the distant year it would return again. Calculating when Halley's Comet would return was one of the few mathematical problems that made sense. It had purpose and meaning for life. Iwanted to see it for myself, and that time would soon be here.


Mother was getting worse while everyone seemed to have forgotten about Reagan's cancer. Debate raged across the country. Were the Contras a legitimate fighting force or a band of terrorists? Reagan's cancer was losing the fight to destroy his body as his Contras lost support in Congress, but in Mom the cancer was winning. The chemotherapy only made her sicker. She spent several days in the hospital. It was hard to imagine her incapacitated. She was a woman of endless energy. I remember her working all day, six days a week. She spent hours in the garden pulling weeds or picking vegetables, bending over in an upside-down U shape with her knees straight to do the work. She didn't kneel or crouch there, claiming that she had a weak knee and was afraid that if she knelt down, might not be able to rise again.

Karen arose from the chair. " I think we better go." she said. A quick phone call and we had child care. Our three daughters had no desire to witness the birth, although we offered the experience to them. The baby came quickly. The time from beginning of labor to delivery was just a couple hours. A friend brought our girls to the hospital and they took turns sitting in a large spongy chair with thick armrests for a chance to hold their new sister. They stared at her in awe and she squirmed uncomfortably at being passed from arms to arms. It was late at night. The next morning I called my mother to tell her the news.

"We named her Lindsay Rebecca," I said.

"Oh, I like that!" was Mom's reply.

"I don't know when I'll get to see her.... if ever," she added.


The train was late. It was after midnight when we left Boise. The children dropped off to sleep in their reclined seats, but I stayed awake for hours . I like the connected feeling I get from trains and railroads. Like a personal letter or an unexpected gift, the tracks join people who are otherwise separated by large distances. When I was younger and living hundreds of miles from family, I would occassionally drive to the nearest airport and hang out for a few hours watching planes come and go and studying the lists of arrivals and departures. It made me feel closer to home. Trains with their visible tracks on the Earth's surface do it even better.

At noon the next day, I wasn't hungry. Lindsay, now a little over two months old, was sleeping and the others wanted lunch. I offered to hold her. They headed for the dining car and I reclined my seat with the sleeping baby on my chest. My hand on her back rose and fell with each tiny breath. I felt the warmth of her body against my shirt and marveled at how much heat an infant can generate. My tired head relaxed against the headrest. I dozed and entered my parent's home in Pennsylvania one summer morning. Fresh sunlight chased me through the door. It was quiet - too quiet. Mom and Dad should be up by now. Perhaps they were getting a little extra rest. The day was young. Let them sleep. There was plenty of time. I sat down on the friendly worn sofa and opened a magazine.

What was that? It sounded like an alarm clock. I waited, but it kept ringing. Usually they turned it off so quickly you weren't sure the ringing had been real. I dropped the magazine and walked toward the stairs. This was not an open stairway, like new houses have, but an enclosed one. A rectangular tunnel with steps and a thin handrail. I climbed them, the ringing getting louder as I neared the second floor. The half-opened door to my parent's room was to the right. I cautiously entered the room. They were in the bed, apparently asleep. The alarm clock rattled on, next to their pillow. I reached down and lifted it, pushing on the metal switch behind the 12 to turn it off. My finger met only the flat back of the clock. I turned it over and looked at it. There was a metal knob to wind it up, another to set the time, and one to set the alarm, but no switch to turn it off when it started ringing. The ringing went on and on, changing slowly to a dull hum with motion as I awoke in the speeding train. Lindsay was awake, too, and had slid off my chest toward the floor. She squirmed uncomfortably on my abdomen, her tiny feet dangling between my thighs. Concerned looks from other passengers turned to expressions of relief as I
reached to halt her slide.


That evening, a Mormon couple offered to buy dinner for our family. They said our daughters reminded them of their grandchildren. We ate together in the brightly lit dining car, exchanging crucial information about our families. Outside, the darkness of early winter, nicked with small chips of light, rushed by the window. After the meal we thanked our new friends and returned to our seats. On the way I found a used newspaper. The train was like a spaceship isolating passengers from television and radio. I was hungry for information. The news was not uplifting. A judge in Illinois could not understand why someone would apologize for telling a lie six years before. The innocent "rapist" would not be freed. The news from outer space was disappointing also. Halley's was coming, but the view would not be great. It wouldn't get very close to earth this trip. Those who wanted a better view would have to wait until 2062.


On the train, we waited. The brown, open spaces of Nebraska in winter swept by the windows. I calculated our speed. The little white mileposts were 42 seconds apart. That meant we were going about 86 miles per hour. The comet's speed was measured in thousands of miles per hour. In Chicago, we used the hours between trains to ride the elevator up the Sears Tower. The view was stunning from the top even though limited by clouds and smog. I wished for a clear dark night so I could check the skies.

The trains east of Chicago were noisy. The aged and crowded passenger cars clattered and clanged over the rails. We almost didn't get seats together. It was a relief to arrive at our destination.


We walked down the corridor toward my mother's room. I checked the dark room numbers on the white wall by the side of each door. Room 641. I entered the open door crowding my father just ahead while the others trailed behind. The tortured face of the woman in bed was the face of a stranger. I lifted my hand to touch my dad's shoulder and tell him we were in the wrong room, but he kept going. I stopped to look for something to recognize in her features. She looked thirty years older than the healthy mother who had visited us in Idaho earlier in the year. Her breathing was labored and her eyes closed. We tried to visit with her that day and each day for more than a week, but she was too ill. Perhaps she knew who we were, but couldn't respond. It was impossible to tell. Without her, we feasted on Thanksgiving Day and connected with family in a reunion haunted by the shadow of her terminal illness. Others celebrated. The governor of Illinois released the falsely accused prisoner and no sign of Reagan's cancer reappeared. Even the besieged people of Nicaragua received a reprieve as Congress cut funding for the Contras.


Weeks later, after mother's funeral and back in Idaho, I went to see the comet. It was late at night and out in the desert away from city lights. Telescopes had been set up for public viewing. Everyone wanted to see. Streams of cars, nearly bumper to bumper, trailed each other away from town. From a distance their lights looked like the tail of a comet. Shivering people stood in long, dark lines to peer through a telescope. To the north, a silhouette of mountain peaks interrupted the sky line, but did nothing to block the arctic winds, and to the east Halley's Comet hugged the horizon line like a malignant growth in the night sky, hopelessly trying to hide.

(Previously published in a 1994 Boise State Univ. class publication: "Just About Noon at Two Dudes Nacho Hut")

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