Robert Haydon Jones and Greg Lippert

 

Chemo
By Greg Lippert
Response

 

The Right Place for Love
By Robert Haydon Jones
Inspiration Piece

Looking back, trying to figure out why the Treatment Kerchief Lady had not responded to him, Jimmy O’Hara realized that for all his good intentions and passionate empathy — he just might have freaked her out.

Jimmy had met the Treatment Kerchief Lady at the halfway point of his daily walk in the Dog Park with Maurice, his Blenheim, Cavalier, King Charles spaniel. Maurice, an utterly fetching pooch with a regal look, was a rock star at the Dog Park.

Maurice did not seek out other dogs at the Dog Park – he was on constant patrol for people, preferably women, most preferably, good-looking, sexy women. Maurice came, saw, submitted to caresses, and conquered. Jimmy was happy to be along for the ride. He liked looking at good-looking, sexy women.

The attraction was definitely not mutual. Recently, Jimmy had realized he had crossed over from older guy to real old man. Just a few days back, Mick Molloy, Jimmy’s 81-year old friend and AA sponsor, had joked about getting to the age where you looked so old–ugly you literally repelled young people.

It was a hard fact to remember — since Jimmy was accustomed to seeing himself and friends like Mick Molloy on a regular basis. Also, a lot depended on the medium. Jimmy didn’t look all that old-ugly to himself in the mirror when he was shaving. But when he looked at a new digital photo of himself on his iphone or ipad, he was surprised and unsettled. He was old-ugly.

There was no question that the old-ugly thing definitely might be a big part of the problem with the Treatment Kerchief Lady. Maurice had bounded up to her and her teenage son, at the halfway circle on the main trail. They had fussed and cooed over Maurice and then walked on with Jimmy as he followed Maurice down the path.

“Hey,” the kid said to Jimmy. “Aren’t you an ump?”

It turned out the kid pitched for Fairport High. Jimmy had been the plate umpire on a great game the kid had pitched about two weeks back. The kid had a future. He was a sophomore — but his fastball was already in the high 80’s – and he had a really nasty slider. Fairport had lost the game to a top team from upstate in the final inning on an error.

“You pitched an outstanding game,” Jimmy said. “That was a tough loss. Sorry, I didn’t recognize you – all you pitchers look the same to me.”

The kid didn’t smile. “That’s what you said at the game.”

“Well, it’s true”, Jimmy said. “All you guys look the same to me. But I would know who was throwing your slider the next time I see it.”

Now the kid did smile. Jimmy was telling the truth and the kid knew it. He knew Jimmy was telling him he had a really nasty slider – so nasty that even an old plate ump found it memorable. “Yeah,” the kid said, “that pitch is a real difference maker. I’m hoping to go on with the game.”

The kid said this evenly at a conversational pitch – but Jimmy could tell the kid was working hard to dampen down his ambition. Jimmy recalled that in the early innings of the game, the kid had hit two batters hard in the shins. The last hit batsman had groaned and hobbled around in big pain. After that, no one leaned out over the plate looking for the slider.

“My mom thinks my pitching is a waste of time”, the kid said. “But I love it. I’m just a sophomore, but already a bunch of top colleges are asking me to come visit.

My coach tells me pro scouts are checking me out. I wish you could get my mother to stop worrying about me — she’s got enough on her plate.”

Jimmy motioned to the kid to walk ahead with Maurice. Before Jimmy could say anything, the Treatment Kerchief Lady said, “I don’t worry about him like he thinks. I worry that baseball is everything to him. The better he does – the colder he gets. I don’t care about the scholarships or that he might play pro ball some day. What concerns me is that my 16-year-old son has lost his boy.”

“Well”, Jimmy said, “your son has unusual ability. If he’s going to make the most of it, he has to have intense focus. That’s the make or break factor — mental toughness.

“Oh, Kyle is mentally tough all right”, she said.

Jimmy said, “I notice you are wearing a treatment kerchief. Are you doing chemo? I ‘m a cancer survivor myself.”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m doing treatment for Stage 2b breast cancer. I just finished my next to last treatment two days ago. I can’t bear what the chemo has done to me. If I had known it would do what it has done to me I would never have agreed to treatment. Knowing what I know now, if I had the choice to make again, I would choose death.”

Jimmy felt himself flinch inside. She would choose death! He looked at her again. Under the treatment kerchief, big green eyes, a full-lipped mouth, in her late thirties or very early forties. She looked a little like Ava Gardner. He realized now that her son looked a lot like her; he looked like a male Ava Gardner. Jimmy had wondered who it was the kid reminded him of.

“Oh, I really know what you mean,” Jimmy said excitedly. “I had small cell lung cancer 18 years back – even now almost no one survives it. They took out the upper lobe of my left lung. The pain afterward was terrible. I yelled and screamed for days and weeks. Because of my history of addiction, I was allergic to the morphine. I had a Code Blue on that. While they were trying to figure out what to do, I went into cardiac arrest from the pain – the Vagal Response, they called it. I had a Code Blue on that. Finally, a doctor friend of mine suggested that they try giving me morphine in tablet form and I wasn’t allergic to it in that form and that saved me.”

Jimmy paused. Usually at this point of his narrative, people would make a comment like: “Gee, 2 Code Blues!” “You had a history of addiction?” “How are you doing now?” But the woman said nothing. She just looked at him. Her green eyes were flat.

So, Jimmy went right on with the second half of his cancer story. “I didn’t know that the worst was yet to come, “ he said. “The chemo was coming as soon as I built up a little strength. I didn’t know it, but in those days small cell lung cancer killed just about everyone — so the oncologists just ran lines into you and pumped the latest brew into you to cover their asses.”

The woman suddenly started coughing – a dry hacking cough that went on for ten seconds or so and finished up wet. She put a handkerchief to her mouth. Jimmy felt a rush of his old companion, terror.

“I didn’t know that the world really is comprised of those who have had chemo and those who haven’t. I am still haunted by the chemo I had 18 summers back. Did you know the Sioux Indians count their age in summers? They say ‘I ‘ve had 74 summers’ rather than I am 74 years old.

“So I know what you mean about chemo. They had warned me about nausea and no appetite and no hair and all that. As a matter of fact, when they started the first chemo drip on me, I immediately went into arrest – and they had themselves an ass-over-tea-kettle Code Blue bringing me back. It was noisy and frantic with a siren blaring and helmeted resuscitators crowding about me. After they brought me back, they figured a work-around. Once again, I was able to tolerate the dry form of the med, so my chemo ended up as a combo — part drip, with the other poison in an orange tablet that was so humongous I gagged every time I swallowed it.

“But that was no biggy. What was beyond big was something no one had talked about. The chemo attacked my soul. It was pain beyond pain. I tried to explain it and people tried to listen to me but no one understood and I couldn’t stand it that no one knew what I was going through. It was a wrenching, pitiless, utterly solitary, loneliness I couldn’t endure. I pleaded with them to find me someone who had been on both sides of the chemo inferno who could help me.

“My kid brother somehow found a woman who had been through my chemo. She called me every night at 9. She lived in Oregon. All she did was listen and say little things that showed she had been there — so I knew she understood when I told her what I was feeling.

“I don’t think I could have gone on without her. I was a lost soul until she found me.

“As it turned out, the chemo killed my tumor just milliseconds before it sucked the last bit of light out of my soul. I wouldn’t want to play for those stakes ever again. So, I know what you mean about choosing death knowing what you know.”

Jimmy suddenly realized that he had crowded close to the woman. He was way too close – really crowding her. And his voice had gotten louder and louder as he told her about coming to the end of his chemo and how the lady chemo survivor on the phone from Oregon had rescued him just in the nick of time before his spirit swirled away down the drain as he lay on his back naked — staked out in the chemo dessert.

Jimmy stepped back. Then he stepped back some more. People were looking over at them – it probably looked like Jimmy was haranguing the Treatment Kerchief Lady. It probably looked like the start of trouble.

“Geez, I’m sorry, “ Jimmy said. “I didn’t mean to get carried away.”

Just then, her son, who was about 30 yards away, showing off Maurice to a cluster of teenage girls, yelled over, “Are you okay, Mom?”

She raised her hand. “I’m just fine,” she yelled back.

Then to Jimmy, “That dog of yours really seems to attract pretty girls. Maybe, I should get one for Kyle.”

“Geez, I’m really sorry,” Jimmy said. “Seeing you like this hurting from the chemo has really stirred me up. I want to help you. I want you to know I am here for you if you ever want to talk to someone who has been on both sides of the chemo inferno.”

She didn’t say anything. Jimmy tried to connect with the green eyes but they were the same flat. No contact.

Her son was coming back toward them with Maurice and two of the girls. Jimmy pulled out his wallet, fished out a business card, and held it out to her.

“Please take this and know that if you ever need to converse with someone who knows what chemo is like, you can call me or text me or email me and I will be there for you.”

She took the card. The kid had paused a few feet away. He was talking to the girls.

Maurice ran up to Jimmy and sat down. He was hoping for a cookie.

“Listen,” Jimmy said,” I want you to know you don’t have to be alone with it. That was the worse part for me. The solitude. No one knew. How could anyone know unless they had been there? Let me show you now by telling you something that only a chemo survivor would know: I was dying of a thirst that no liquid could quench.”

“Stop”, she said. “My son’s coming. Please stop.”

“Okay,” Jimmy said. “But did you hear me? I was dying of a thirst that no liquid could quench. And the lady on the phone from Oregon saved me. I can be like that for you.”

“Yes,” she whispered urgently, “Dying of thirst… the woman from Oregon saved you…and if I need to converse with you, I will converse with you. But, please, stop now. I don’t want to worry Kyle.”

Jimmy wondered why his old, broken brain had twezzered up the word, “converse”, when it was the absolutely worst word to use. “Converse” was way beyond wrong. If he were a spy who had learned to speak English in the spy school in the town in Kazakhstan that was a replica of Middlebury, Vermont – who right now was giving himself away early in the movie – then “converse” would be the perfect choice.

Kyle was dallying with the girls. Maurice gave a short, sharp bark. Jimmy slipped him a cookie.

“Listen,” Jimmy whispered. “I’m very sorry I said, ‘converse.’ I want to help you. I’m a survivor. I learned a lot. I know a lot of stuff that can help you.

“A famous homeopathic doctor friend of mine got me to visualize my T-cells kicking the hell out of my tumor. Every night before I went to sleep, I would think of my T-Cells, a whole squad of them in red sweaters with the initials JO on them – my name is Jimmy O’Hara – I would visualize them doing squad calisthenics like we did in the Marines – and then I’d give a signal and they would run off to do battle with my tumor. I did this every night – and here I am 18 years later. You should do it too.

“You have to join the fight against your cancer. It makes a big difference. You have to decide you’re going to fight. Then you fight. Every day you fight as hard as you can. Please tell me you’ll do this. Please tell me you’ll do your part – that you’ve decided you deserve to recover from your cancer.”

The Treatment Kerchief Lady caught Jimmy’s eyes and gave him a sad smile. Just then, the kid walked up and she grabbed his hand and they walked away.

Jimmy almost ran after them.

That was early in June and now it was late November and she had never called or texted or emailed. She had not appeared at the Dog Park. Jimmy had umpired the summer and fall seasons of American Legion baseball – but had not encountered the kid pitcher.

He thought about her a lot. And the kid. Looking back, he got embarrassed, thinking of what it must have been like for them when this old-ugly dude suddenly jumped them and started to babble out the story of his operation.

Like being jumped by Bozo the clown. Or by Clarabelle, if you were an old timer.

He thought of the bond he had with her. He thought of the bond he had with the woman from Oregon. He wished he had handled himself a whole lot better with the Treatment Kerchief Lady.

Every time he thought about it, he felt his interior blush. He remembered her sad smile. He wondered if she was alive or if she had died. He wondered how the woman from Oregon was doing.

 

© 2012, RHJA, LLC. All Rights Reserved

 

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10 Comments

  1. Quentin
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 10:16 am | #

    This is one of my favorites! Love it… Quentin

  2. dan shulman
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 6:39 am | #

    Wow! As with everything Jones writes, this hits hard, feels true, and opens up emotional depths well worth plumbing.

  3. Ed Lambertson
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:31 am | #

    A sad but hopeful story of both the frailty and strength of the human spirit. Touching and haunting.

  4. Dave Monroe
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 8:26 pm | #

    A moving, powerful story.

  5. Jack Orth
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 11:26 am | #

    RHJ sets your mind spinning right away, especally if you’re his age, which I am. Jimmy gets you involved in the story fast, and it speeds up as he gos along. But the genius of RHJ is that he gets you involved with each word, and you hope for an ending that you’d see in a movie. But most movies are’nt real life, and this wonderful piece is real life. Sometimes real life doesn’t end with a “They Lived Happilly ever after”, but the story gets you so involved that you just hope things work out for The Kerchief Lady & her son, Kyle. You also are in Jimmy’s corner & hope he gets to see the Kerchief Lady again. You’ll get involved–great stories do that to you!

  6. Charles DeFanti
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm | #

    Like the Treatment Kerchief Lady, the reader is snagged by Jones’s Ancient Mariner, who won’t let go. And we can’t resist the tale, as it surges to its climax, with all the energy of a typical Jones piece. Riveting.

  7. seanbeaudoin
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 6:47 pm | #

    Jimmy O’Hara takes Alex Rodriguez out for a walk! Good stuff.

  8. Posted January 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm | #

    This story is sufficient motivation to seek skulking cancer to kick the shit out of. It is human and compassionate as it looks into the canyon of death beautifully written and manages to leave us hanging without a great deal of resentment m

  9. paul zalon
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:26 pm | #

    One of my favorite RHJ pieces. There is so much emotional detail in so few words; I feel I know what each character is feeling at every single moment (maybe even Maurice.) I love how the kid’s pitching allows the two adults to connect. RHJ writes with elegance and simplicity; every word is there for a reason; if you took one word out or added one word – it might change the total composition. A true miniaturist with words.

  10. Barry Schwartz
    Posted March 7, 2013 at 9:23 am | #

    I always enjoy RHJ pieces. No two are alike and this one is a masterpiece. My only regret is its a short story and not a novel. Do us all a favor Bob, write a novel!

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