40 Greatest Stories

The Death of a Poet

Young Judith McPheron, fuller of life than most, faces the end.

“Help me, I can’t say the light I need to travel by”
–Judith McPheron (1946-1981)

Discovery: Oklahoma City, Spring 1976
While bending down to light the gas in the fireplace, Judith McPheron feels a lump behind her right knee. The doctor tells her it is a Baker’s cyst and that it has to come out.

“Yep, that’s a beauty,” says the doctor, looking at her legs. “You must be quite athletic. What sports do you play?”

“Athletic? I was always the last one left when the volleyball team captains chose sides.”

“Well, you must get around a lot or something. Here’s the name of a surgeon. I think you’ll like him, okay?”

“Okay.”

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The surgeon, too, wonders what sports Judith plays. The cyst is the biggest he has ever seen, he says. It doesn’t hurt when he prods with his fingers. Fun to take it out, he pronounces.

Judith and her husband travel to St. Anthony’s hospital for the surgery in June. The nurse’s aides elbow one another at the sight of Judith’s stack of books.

“It looks like we got a perfessah here,” one of them says.

She sits down on the bed, overcome by the smell. A man walks by on the roof of the next building outside. She tries to concentrate on the theory of surplus value, but the words dissolve into hieroglyphs.

They take her down to the basement and roll her around on the X-ray table, trying to get a good shot of her cyst. They draw purple lines around it and inject it, but the cyst, it seems, is unphotogenic. When the surgeon lopes in, she starts to cry.

“What’s wrong? Are they hurting you?”

“No, it’s just institutional alienation,” she says.

“Well, that’s the damnedest cyst. Won’t light up. Might be a fatty tumor. Benign of course. I’m sure you’ve thought of that.”

“No, I hadn’t.”

When Judith wakes up the next afternoon, the leg is huge and white in its plaster cast. A nurse’s aide is standing at the foot of her bed telling her that she feels bad.

“Go home, then,” Judith says, and falls asleep.

When she awakes again, her husband is there. The “cyst” is a malignant tumor. At worst, it would be off with the leg, but probably just cutting away more of the tissue where the tumor had been is all that will be needed.

“Okay,” she says. “I’ll stump around like Captain Ahab and disturb all the people reading in the library. Will you buy me a hand-carved wooden leg?”

Groggy from the anesthetic, she falls asleep again. Screaming awakens her. She clamps her hands over her mouth in case it is her own screaming, but it is not. She wishes she could get up. Look what they can do to you if you weaken, she thinks. If you let them. The stern voices of nurses come from the hallway. Suffering turns the nurses’ voices gritty with hatred and disgust. The screaming dies down to a little-girl whimper.

Later that morning the surgeon lopes in again.

“Are you a librarian?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it’s a malignant tumor.”

“Aren’t you supposed to hold my hand, or something? How malignant?”

“I don’t know. The lab will know more tomorrow, but you’ll need more surgery.”

“Chop off the leg?”

“Maybe not, maybe so.”

“Can I go back to work?”

“Sure. Now, listen, I’m sure it hasn’t spread.”

“How are you sure?”

“Well, that’s fair. I don’t blame you if you don’t trust me. I said before that I was sure it was just a fatty tumor. But this kind, well, it moves very slowly. You’ll be fine.”

“Mind telling me the name?”

“Liposarcoma. Can I do anything for you?”

“Get me out of here.”

“Sure, just want a chest X-ray first. Just relax. I’ll get you some tranquilizers.”

Judith feels her stomach closing like a drawbridge. They take her to the X-ray room in a wheelchair. By the time the fourth person asks how she has broken her leg, she has an answer.

“Ice skating,” she says.

• • •

Wearing her only skirt over the cast, Judith receives her friends from the library at home. They bring her food, wine, and snapdragons. She laughs and talks and pretends she is royalty, while pushing the terror down.

The cast is so big she can barely get it into the bathroom. To pee she has to prop the leg up on the garbage pail, but still she wets herself and the floor. She decides to stop drinking coffee.

As long as she is not alone, she thinks, nothing can happen to her.

She wakes up on the couch, groggy, the leg hurting, and calls for her husband. No answer. She calls louder.

She drags herself, step by small step, to the back door. The car is gone. She is soaking with sweat. She drags herself back to the bed and sobs.

A minute later her husband is running through the back doorway, apologizing, crying, smoothing her skirt. He had thought she would sleep on, and he had gone to the hospital for some medical records.

She makes him promise never to leave her alone again, and laughs at herself for not being brave.

• • •

The doctor tells Judith she has half a chance. The survival rate from liposarcoma after five years is 50 percent. The doctor tells Judith’s husband that he has never seen anyone take it like she has. He thinks she must have one hell of a strong personality. Her husband tells her she is inordinately proud and mad at herself at the same time. Judith wonders why she should be studying to be a prizefighter of the psyche. It just lets the doctor off easy.

Liposarcoma, she later discovers in her research at the library, is one of the rarest forms of cancer. Less than 2 percent of malignant tumors are in the soft tissues, and only a small percentage of those are liposarcomas. They can occur in any part of the body where there is fatty tissue, which means just about anywhere. This cancer strikes at any age, but most often between 40 and 60. Judith is 30 years old.

She is sunny, chirpy, resolutely normal. Her friends’ relief at this is almost physical. She tells her brother that if he is going to act weepy, he’ll have to stand in the backyard and sing “Cherry-Ripe” with his hands on his head. Somewhere, something is resolutely hiding that will split everything apart, she thinks, as she smiles.

She has been writing poetry, and the first of six poems on cancer emerges:

Is cancer a
violent revolution or
the ebbing of the tide
I wonder as I stare
at the acoustical-tiled ceiling
trying to erase
the insistent pattern there.

Blood or salty water
it’s all the same
to me
my bones reply.

They drive to New Mexico, where Judith’s father-in-law, a radiologist, has brought in a specialist friend from Houston. They fill the little car with books and papers and create a platform in the front on which Judith can rest the cast. They stay off the interstate and drive through the bright Texas sun. Judith’s husband ticks off the names of wildflowers as they pass. In Lubbock they see a perfect double rainbow in a slate gray sky. It is an omen, they say, a good omen.

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