vendredi 8 mai 2009

Sam, Me -- Egalité

Les pieds sals de Sisyphe

September 15, 2003


He owes me his life. I owe him mine.

A few weeks ago, Sam knocked on the open door of my room and asked if he could come in. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, just about to put my shoes on.

"Sure, come in. What's up?" He looked down at my foot and cocked his head and frowned.

"What's that?"

"What?"

"That, on your toe. The dark spot." Oh, that. "How long have you had that?" I thought about it. Actually, I had been thinking about it on and off for awhile.

"I don't know." I shook my head and thought about it. "I don't know how long I have had it, or if it has always been there. I have been trying to remember. Longer than a year, I think. Maybe two? I don't know." We both continued to look at the beauty spot on the inside of the second toe on my right foot, nearly in the web.

"You should get it checked out. Bob Marley died of a thing like that on his foot." Bob Marley. I could end up like Bob Marley, dead from a cancer on my toe. How ignoble.

That's too bad your mom died. What was it, Sam? That's what he'd hear all his life.

Like Bob Marley, a melanoma on her toe. That's what he'd answer.

I nodded.

Later, I went and searched through my photos on the computer. There was one that I had taken of my dirty gardening feet back in my earliest gardening days here. I was wearing a pair of beach thongs I got in the States earlier that summer, just like my sister's. I was amused that day at how dirty I can get working in the garden.

As bad as the quality of the photo is, it confirmed that no, I had not always had this thing on my toe.

I didn't think I had.

I asked Audouin what he thought before we went to bed that night. He looked at the spot and said, "Je ne sais pas. Je suis nul en dermato."

We went to sleep.

A couple of days later, I was checking what everyone was up to on Facebook, and someone had posted 5 pictures of melanomas. I did a double take and took off my sneaker and sock. Bob Marley died of a thing like that on his foot. That evening I suggested to Audouin that he try to get me in to see a dermatologist. I was leaving for a few days in Brest a week later. Just before I left, he suggested that maybe our sister-in-law, a doctor, too, could get me in to see someone there. I shrugged, "Je ne sais pas. C'est plus facile de voir quelqu'un ici. Dans le cas où." He nodded.

Christine offered to get me in to see the dermatologist where her sister works, "Ca ne pose aucun problème."

"Oui. Je sais. Merci. Mais, je pense qu'il vaut mieux voir quelqu'un à Mantes, quand je serai rentrée. Si on a besoin de l'enlever, on pourrait le faire où je serais suivie." She nodded. When I got back, Audouin called me from the hospital one day -- highly unusual -- and said, "Tu as rendez-vous chez le dermato mardi 10h45. Avec Pedreiro. Il est bon. Sois à l'heure; il t'a rajouté à son programme. Normalement c'est 6 mois pour avoir un rendez-vous. " I nodded. He couldn't see, so I said, "D'accord. Merci."

"Sois à l'heure. Avant même."

"Je le serai. T'inquiète."

A 10h50 mardi le 28, Pedreiro looked at my dark spot and then up at me, where my head was at the other end of the examining table. He furrowed his brow, drawing his eyebrows together, and said, "On va l'enlever immédiatement. Ce matin," and proceeded to draw a circle around the spot, 1 or 2 mm larger, to be sure to remove enough.

"Est-ce que c'est profond ou superficiel?" I asked. He looked up at me again. I was starting not to like that look very much.

"J'espère pour vous," he said, "qu'il n'est pas profond." I nodded. He had answered a different question. Not the one I had asked. I meant are these things deep or superficial? He meant if they are deep, you are in trouble. He used the word melanoma.

It looked like I might be in trouble of a sort that was new to me.

Audouin was waiting in the corridor when I came out.

"Ce fut toi qui appellais tout à l'heure?" He nodded. The phone had been ringing insistently while he was cutting and stitching me back up. I thought it was probably Audouin at the nurse's station. It was. It wasn't a moment when they could answer.

"Ca va?" he asked. I nodded.

"It's a melanoma." Pedreiro came out into the corridor and stepped up close to Audouin. They spoke in medical language in low tones. The sentences came quickly. I caught little of it, smiling like I was at a cocktail party where everyone was speaking Polish, while I was just beginning to learn it and grasping the general meaning, unsure I was intended to. My odd beauty mark was on its way to the lab in Paris. He'd asked to have the results in a week, 10 days at the latest.

We walked back out together to pay the fee. The young woman handed me a folded note and gestured to leave my purse at my side, my checkbook tucked safely inside. I slipped the note inside next to it. I'd read it later. Madame de Lanète? she had looked up at me when I presented myself at the counter for my paperwork. I didn't recognize you! It's been, she looked at her computer, and then back at me, with a smile I usually see only from the friends who see me the least and, so, have the most reason to appreciate me most, 2 years. I'm so glad the doctor is with someone like you, she continued. He deserves to be very happy.

One after another, the young women smiled their au revoirs and we headed to the lobby doors and on to my bike, parked under the stairs to the esplanade. He had patients waiting for him in the emergency room.

"Ca va?"

"Oui, bien sur."

"Il a été gentil avec toi?"

"Oui. Pas comme les secrétaires, mais je ne demande que qu'il soit bon et correcte." He hovered a moment while I removed the lock, pulled on my gloves.

"Ben. Je devrais y aller."

"Je sais. Vas y vite." He looked at me staring back from my helmet and leaned down to kiss me under the lifted visor.

"Ne t'enquiète pas, d'accord?" I nodded and we backed my bike out. I climbed on and started the engine, heading toward the gate as the first drops of a shower started to fall and slide down my visor.

At home later that evening, he asked what the note said.

"Quel mot?"

"Celui de ma patiente dans l'administration ce matin."

"Oh! Je l'ai oublié." I pulled it out and unfolded it. "C'est gentil. C'est ses numéros de téléphone pour que je puisse l'appeler et elle me prendra tous mes rendez-vous. Elle dit qu'elle connait tous les secrétaires et peut avoir les rendez-vous avec qui qu'on veut tout de suite."

"C'est gentil de sa part." The truth is that Audouin can do that for me, too, but everyone wants to do things for him, even for me, for him.

10 days was time to clean up and weed the lower garden, and while doing that, I was seized with the need to repaint the guest rooms in the petite maison. Right away. My foot didn't even hurt. I wasn't going to be running, but I could drag the mess to the burning pile and climb up and down my ladder, applying plaster to smooth the walls and sand, drive back and forth to IKEA and Leroy Merlin for curtains and supplies. The days passed. Audouin asked if I were worried. I asked if he wanted to do my bandage. He seemed perfectly unconcerned. I did my own.

The following Tuesday came and went, but there had been a holiday in between, and the results were not ready. Pedreiro says Thursday. Friday at the latest. But Friday is the holiday...

Thursday was warm for the season, with a brilliant sunshine. I called the plumber to tell them the fumes from the furnace stunk to high heaven, an acrid odor, like an electrical fire with tires thrown on top, every time the furnace came on to keep the water in the boiler hot. Madame Molas said she'd send someone during the day. It was their son, fresh out of his apprenticeship at 19, who cleaned the furnace and chimney the week before. He said it would continue to smell bad dans un première temps, but were we in a deuxième now, or not?

I called electricians from the Yellow Pages to come and fix the severed cable to the pool pump so we can clean it up. I'd rather swim in the fish-pond-in-a-fountain. There was one recommended by Madame Molas, another by Sabine at the pool installation and supply store. Three others from nearby.

One came at noon, just before Johan, who has done the plumbing work here since I arrived. His wife is a patient of Audouin's. We watched the fish and the frogs in the basin. He cut the overgrowth in the neighbor's tree from around the chimney, which is was smothering on one side, to make sure it wasn't the problem. He adjusted the furnace. The bad smell went away. I applied the plaster, sanded, swept, watched the dogs and cats, listened to the frogs.

The second electrician called to say they would be there on Monday morning. The office of the first called to say the estimate was on its way. I applied plaster and sanded, swept, watched the dogs and cats, listened to the frogs.

The third came at 6 pm and gave me a verbal estimate for one fourth the price of the first, under 100 euros. I applied plaster to the ceiling and thought in just a couple of hours, I could get news that will change everything. I could learn that I will die. The sun shone on the frogs calling out for mates in the basin. It was a beautiful late afternoon. I drew the trowel across the plaster and felt peaceful. I have two or three hours to enjoy the sunshine and the frogs, my dogs and my cats, the flowers and my work. I smiled. I was happy and serene. I had two or three hours of peace to enjoy. Just enjoy these moments right now. Enjoy them.

Schroedinger's cat. As long as the box isn't opened, the cat still has a 50% chance of being alive, and so did I. Enjoy it while the box was closed.

The gate below slid open at 8 in the evening.

"Baccarat! Viens ici!" he barked. Oh-oh, I thought, he sounds grumpy. Maybe not such a good sign. But, he is always grumpy when Baccarat darts out the gate and disobeys, wandering up the lane, pretending she has no idea we are calling her, followed by Rapide. The gate slid closed. I continued to apply plaster to the ceiling. He walked across the terrace, directly into the house.

"Salut," I called from my ladder in the room across the lawn.

"Un instant. J'arrive." I spread plaster with my trowel. He appeared beside my ladder, a grin breaking out.

"J'ai des bonnes nouvelles."

"Je n'ai rien!" I teased.

"Non. Tu n'as pas rien. Tu as un melanome, mais c'est le moins mauvais possible." The smile faded, and he looked exhausted. "Je ne pense pas que tu sais combien tu es passée de près."

No, I did realize how close I came. I did. I thought. I learned that I didn't at all. Melanomas of a certain depth are certain to have metastasized. They are untreatable.

"Je ne savais pas tous ces derniers jours si j'allais n'avoir que de te voir mourir dans les 3 mois sans rien pouvoir faire."

If I didn't know how close I had come, it was because he had refused to let me know. He had kept it all to himself. I was more worried about his constant abdominal problems and his sleepless nights for two or three weeks, suggesting that maybe he should see a doctor, worried that he was sick, but I also suspected that he was very worried, and it wasn't the time to teach him that he needs to stop protecting me so much. He needed to do that. I am stronger than he thinks, and he has needs, too, but I couldn't pierce the bubble he had made to protect me. He was asking me not to by pretending not to worry, and so I didn't ask my questions or go do any research. It wasn't necessary. It was easier for him if I lived without worrying. He was doing enough of that for all of us.

I told him that I was certainly aware that I could have metastases, that I could die. I have a 95% survival chance in 5 years, "That's about as good as life offers," I said. He nodded. I will have to have more tissue removed -- 4 mm all around what he has already taken --, and then I will be followed very closely and regularly for any further suspicious changes in any beauty marks I have.

I was embarrassed to learn that his colleagues had all known and were worried to death about me, and for him. He had to tell them because they needed him to take a day on duty this weekend -- there have been problems during this month full of long weekends (that's May in France) -- covering the on calls the weekend. Here, one doctor in certain emergency services like obstetrics and gynecology has to be in the hospital at all times, so they each have nights where they are there all night to handle any problems in the birthing rooms, emergencies, emergency surgery, etc. --, and he had to say no. The chief of staff told him that they had each taken a Saturday, and it was his turn. Audouin told him he needed to speak with him outside the room, where he told him that I had a melanoma and that he was expecting the results Thursday. Berardi was upset, too.

He returned to the meeting with Audouin and said that Audouin had "family problems" and that he couldn't take any nights on duty for a period of time. He told the room full of the medical staff that he agreed that he shouldn't; they'd all pick up the slack for him. By yesterday, Audouin told them all what it was, and he said that their faces fell all around the room at the staff meeting -- all the doctors, the nurses and midwives of the department in attendance.

"Je ne peux pas prendre des gardes," he said to me. "Je dois pouvoir concentrer, et je ne pense qu'à toi." He was collapsing from fatigue. What relief allows you to do, but it doesn't feel better yet.

I had no idea all this was going on.

Audouin had to be at the hospital at Poissy on Tuesday, but he returned to Mantes to see the dermatologist and wait for the results in the late morning. They would come by 12:30 pm, if they were to come. When they didn't arrive, he returned to Poissy. I asked why he had done that; why he had come all the way back from Poissy, when he'd have to return, only to come back to Mantes to see patients at 4:30, "Pedreiro could have called, couldn't he?"

"He said he wanted to discuss the results in person when they arrived," and they wanted to be able to see the results on the first possible day. It was Tuesday that Pedreiro found out that he'd have them Thursday. Audouin didn't tell me any of that.

I suspected when he called his daughter to tell her that he thought it would be more fun to be with her mother on her birthday Thursday, and he explained to her mother why. She just had a lumpectomy and will undergo radiation for breast cancer with an excellent prognosis. When he told her -- a midwife -- that it was a melanoma, even she was concerned, despite her long-standing hatred of me. I was suspecting by then. It is highly, extremely not like him to cancel anything with his children. He told his daughter that we'd celebrate her birthday once he was certain everything was alright.

If he would be certain everything would be alright.

"Le téléphone sonnait tout l'après-midi," he told me, colleagues calling to hear the lab results, from Mantes and Poissy. I had seen one the day before at the gym. He had an appointment with our trainer right after I did, and the three of us had coffee together, and we talked about how he has been doing since the end of a long relationship. He was doing well; he had lost weight. I was so happy to hear what he was saying, delighted for him, and then when he saw Audouin yesterday at the hospital, he told him that he had nearly started to cry when he saw me. I hadn't even known that he knew.

I was stunned, and grateful and moved, but, as we talked, Audouin turned grayer and his face folded into a multitude of lines. He was exhausted. He needed me. It was time to take care of him now.

"Si j'avais appris que tu aller mourir, j'aurais voulu que ça soit moi." Terrible, beautiful words I never thought I would hear, or have to say.

"Demain, je voudrais qu'on se ballade ensemble."

"Moi aussi," I said.

"J'ai appris," he said, "que je t'aime." I learned, he said, that I love you. He smiled an ironic little smile. I think he did. I know I did. He turned and walked into the house to call his daughter. I cleaned my tools and put everything away. I turned out the light, and closed the door behind me, taking a second to look at the work I'd leave for a couple of days before following him into the house, where he was bent down in front of the little refridgerator, pulling a bottle of champagne out of the freezer. He doesn't drink champagne. I do. He has the smallest old single malt scotch, not even a single finger in the bottom of the glass. I am the one who puts champagne to chill to celebrate. I was touched. I didn't point out that he didn't get the crystal out. Paper cups would have been fine.

We sat in the kitchen in the fading evening light, listening to the frogs and the birds, drinking our champagne across a pile of unfolded laundry. It felt like a champagne of duty. A champagne of desperation and loss avoided, joy somewhere just past exhaustion and the lingering presence of fear tearing apart, like a chill fog in which he'd been caught.

"Je t'aime. Je ne veux pas te perdre."

"Vas te reposer. Tu dois manger, et tu ne vas pas me perdre."

The next morning, I went up to see Sam in his room. He had been out and came in while we slept. He was still in bed.

"Sam?" I heard a groan of recognition from the other side of the door. "May I come in?"

"Unnnh." I took that for a yes. He was curled on his side, and turned his head toward me. I sat down next to him and put an arm around his legs.

"Nice save. I have the best prognosis possible for a melanoma, thanks to you." We looked at each other for a moment, before I added, "Not bad for a 17 year old." He smiled. "Thanks. If you owe me your life, I owe you mine."

He nodded and let me kiss him. I let him go back to sleep, and we headed off to spend the day with family and friends, to enjoy these moments of peace and safety while they are ours.
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