Jane Hulstrunk and Jewel Beth Davis

Jane Hulstrunk

Prime Numbers With No End
By Jewel Beth Davis
Inspiration piece

“Nan’s gone, Jewel,” her sister Stephanie says on the phone.

Gone. Cancer. The cells went crazy. Out of control. They stopped following the rules. Sometimes I feel the world spinning out of control just like the cancer cells do.

One of the last times I saw Nan, I stopped at Tuttle’s, her favorite farm stand, to pick up an oversized bag of fresh green beans because she loved them; as if I thought the size of what I bought her would make up for all the years she’d lose. Really, she wasn’t eating much by this point. I brought things over hoping to tempt her repressed appetite. The green beans, so fresh and full of health, made a loud snap when she broke them in half. She ate as much as she could but her stomach was no longer processing and using the vitamins in the food. The tumors were stealing all the good from everything she ate.

“I can feel them filling up my stomach and it’s very uncomfortable to sleep or bend over. There’s no more room in there,” she said.

I felt a wave of panic when she said that. I couldn’t stop the tumors from taking up more space in her belly. It was out of my control. I just tried to be there and speak openly with her so she could say everything she needed to.  Before she couldn’t. She wanted to talk about dying. No one else would.

At her last Christmas, after Midnight Mass at 7, Nan told me she hadn’t taken Communion in twenty-five years because her long time partner, Bill, was a married man. All these years I’d known them both, cared for them both, and I never knew. When she lived in my apartment building, they were always fighting. One day he banged on her door for a full hour. She wouldn’t let him in.

I should have guessed he was married. She always tried to break up with him. Fighting and breaking up.  How was I not suspicious?

She said she wasn’t willing to give Bill up, which she would have to do if she went to Confession in order to take Communion.  Bill was married, with a family in Florida, with a whole other life. He didn’t want to leave his wife. He was Catholic. He didn’t believe in divorce. But marital infidelity was all right?

Nan hadn’t told me she was having an extramarital affair. Maybe she was afraid I’d think poorly of her and tell her she was doing the wrong thing. When she finally told me about Bill that Christmas Eve 2006, I wasn’t at all judgmental. I just felt sad. She deserved a guy who was just hers alone. And she deserved a religion that accepted her in spite of her flaws. If she’d gone to confession, she would have been absolved by her religion but she’d have to stop sinning and she didn’t want to.

I wonder if deep inner conflict could be one of the elements contributing to the causes of cancer when the cells go crazy and attack the other cells. Conflict comes in many forms. Perhaps one form of conflict influences another to seed. From the physical level to the cellular level.

I gave the eulogy at Nan’s funeral. I sat alone in the uncomfortable wooden pews of St. Mary’s, both my feet propped on the kneelers, trying to collect my thoughts about Nan. From a distance, I heard the priest call my name. I walked to the lectern to say the right words for my friend.

“My dear friend of eighteen years, Nan McArthur, passed away on the morning of March 7, 2007 at her home as a result of metastasized cancer in her liver and kidneys. She was fifty-nine years old. She was on the phone with Bill, her long-time partner, and she died after handing the phone back to her sister. In all the months since she became so sick, I never heard her complain about her fate or about the pain she must have felt.  I’d say to her, ‘This is so lousy.’ And she’d say, ‘I know, Jewel.’  She spoke to me openly about dying. I’m grateful for that, because is it not just another part of living? I only pray to have such grace and dignity in similar circumstances.”

I pushed my hair back out of my eyes where it forever migrated

and looked out over the crowded church. Without thinking, I tried to gauge the “audience” response to my words. I’m an actor and theater trains a person to be sensitive to the audience. The people in the pews seemed to listen without a flicker of movement. I went on.

“You knew what you were getting with Nan; she was exactly whom she seemed to be and there wasn’t a particle of pretension in her.”

I stopped momentarily as I realized what I’d said. I could have amended my statement to: She was whom she seemed to be except for one thing- her relationship with Bill. But even I wasn’t that ballsy. Besides, it wouldn’t have accomplished what I wanted.

“She was as bright, strong, and independent a woman as I have ever known. I was fortunate to have spent time with her in the weeks and months before she passed. She asked me to bring her to Midnight Mass this past Christmas, and we had a wonderful time. As usual, I sang too loudly. She didn’t mind. She was a bit unsteady on her feet that night and I wanted to get her right home but as were leaving St. Mary’s, Nan broke away from me to give directions to a parishioner looking for the restroom. She actually led the woman right to the door. When I chastised her for it, she said she’d better keep doing these things while she could. And of course, she was right.

She’d asked me to come this weekend to read her some of my stories she hadn’t yet heard, but we ran out of time. She did hear my story of getting caught in the carwash with the windows down. She laughed even though it hurt her . I wanted to stop reading but she insisted I finish.

Nan was a reserved woman, but this year, she never hung up the phone without telling me, ‘I love you.’ In the past few months, she never let me walk out the door without holding me tightly.

There are some things I could only speak to Nan about and be certain I’d be understood. So since she’s gone, there are some conversations I won’t be having with anyone again. I’ll save them for the future.“

I walked back to my seat. It went well, I thought, after the rush of adrenalin settled. It felt right. I would have preferred making a speech at her retirement party. I was brought out of my thoughts because they were rolling Nan’s big black casket down the center aisle toward the hearse. I spent some time in the church recreation hall speaking to Nan’s brothers and sisters then left, looking for Bill.  I could see him at the end of the hallway that connected to the sanctuary. There were deep lines cut in his usually cheerful countenance, his eyes red and swollen. His gray thinning hair was greased back in an old fashioned style. He was responding intermittently, lackadaisically, to a small group of men lingering at the border of the sanctuary. He looked as if he didn’t know where to go or what to do. Maybe he was questioning his choices.

Bill hadn’t been with Nan when she died; he’d been in Florida. I had no intention of berating him; he’d have to live with his decisions every day but I couldn’t help thinking my thoughts. That he’d been in Dover very little during the last six months of Nan’s life. That his grandson had taken priority over Nan’s illness during the past few years since Bill had retired. Before this, Bill traveled up to Dover every couple of months and stay for an entire month. He’d even bought a home in Dover and they spoke about living there together in the future. But for the past two years, he’d come up for only a week every six months. He could have been there caring for Nan during her long process of final separation and release. She’d devoted her adult life to him. He all but abandoned her at the end and he knew it. I could see it in his eyes. He’d been crying nonstop since I’d seen him at the wake the night before. He had not dealt well with Nan’s dying and now he was not dealing well with her death. I felt angry with him. Because he’d stayed in a loveless marriage to keep up appearances or thought it would be better for his children. Because he’d stayed home in Florida the last two weeks of Nan’s life using his grandson as the excuse. And now his life was broken and no one could repair it.

The cancer cells are out of control. No one knows why or how they get that way. The cells just keep multiplying like prime numbers with no end. Our bodies are telling us there’s something gone awry in this world. It feels to me like the world has cancer.  I can’t do anything about Nan’s death, or those of my family members who died of cancer. I can’t do anything about a lot of things. Little is in my control. All I can do is let go. All I can do is to keep on. Keep living, keep trying, keep reaching for higher ground.

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