Chapter 6: Thursday, Oct. 12

In which, sadly, breaking a habit called "life" becomes a real possibility.

Published July 11, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

We have had the worst possible news. I went with Elsbeth to the clinic this morning. We knew it wasn't good the moment we entered Dr. Berns' office. I sat next to Elsbeth holding her hand. The good doctor shuffled some papers, took off his glasses, and sighed. "I'm afraid," he said, "the results are not good." "We've found a tumor in the pancreas. A very aggressive form. The prognosis is not good even with treatment." His words blurred. I held her hand thinking only that before long there would be no hand to hold. The doctor said we could try therapy, but he did not recommend it. He said he had some medication that would ease the discomfort and keep the symptoms at bay. "You have perhaps three months, perhaps less. I would try to live them as best you can."

Elsbeth, I must say, took it rather well. After a few moments of quiet shock in which she let the reality of her situation register, she gave me a hug and turned to the doctor to discuss with him several salient points.

"I want to stay home," she said. Then, "I'm staying home regardless. No tubes. No needles. No beeping machines. No endless tests to find out how badly I'm doing." She laughed, inviting us to laugh, such is her generosity of spirit. She said she wanted "killer" drugs for sleeping, "but honestly, I don't want to drowse my way into the next world."

Dr. Berns, a large, bearded presence, said he would have all the tests run again. He wrote out a sheaf of prescriptions. He told her to call him any time of the day or week if she needed him. There was more than a trace of emotion in his voice, and he gave her a big hug when we left.

In the car, in the low slung parking garage with the bright slabs of autumn light visible in the distance, she broke down and cried and cried in my arms. Then, composing herself, she said she had known about it for some time. Nothing specific, but something going fundamentally wrong. She said it had kindled within her a latent faith, "not so much in a personal God, Norman, but in life itself."

What could I say? Words of comfort failed me. Because there really were none. Reassurances? Of what? We'll make your death a nice one, Elsbeth, the best money can buy. Emotions, like words, can seem like clichis. Naturally, I am devastated when I am not being incredulous. Life is a habit, after all, and it's always a shock when death, that lurking, monstrous joker, reaches out and plucks a loved one from us.

And what do you do when you have news like this? I feel constrained to call up friends and invite them over for a drink. For a lot of drinks. But we have no ritual response for such announcements. The prognostication of death is, culturally speaking, a recent phenomena. But surely, we need the comfort of family and friends at these moments, more perhaps than when the body is already cold.

I did call Diantha and Winslow, Jr., Elbeth's daughter and son. Diantha, who has been estranged from Elsbeth for more than a year -- some dispute over a boyfriend -- broke down and wept. "Let me speak to Mommy," she kept saying. I put Elsbeth on and tip-toed away, leaving them to a tearful, long-distance reconciliation.

Win, Jr., a businessman very much like his late father, took the news very much in stride. He consulted his calendar and said he would fly in from New York this coming Sunday. He had been able, just, it seems, to fit his mother into his schedule.

I also called our good friends Izzy and Lotte Landes. They dropped by in the afternoon "for a drink and a good weep." Lotte, who has become a good friend of Elsbeth's over the last couple of years, ran her through a gamut of life-saving drills. Yes, Berns was a good GP, but Keller Infirmary wasn't called "Killer Infirmary" for nothing. They knew a specialist in Chicago who had come up with a new aggressive therapy that showed lots of promise.

Elsbeth shook her head. "I'm not up for some kind of high-tech torture." But she calmed and comforted them as well. Was her resignation, I wondered, her way of reassuring the rest of us?

Korky Kummerbund came over right away, bringing a big bouquet of lilies. He wept and figuratively, anyway, banged the walls. He is quite literally a sweet man, gay, but not in the least fussy about it. He's of the opinion that people of his predilections should stay in their closets, but make them much bigger, with porches and mountain views, and invite in special friends.

The Reverend Alfie Lopes, Minister in the Church and the Plumtree Professor of Morals, (They've dropped the "Christian," I've noticed, in the name of diversity. As long as they don't drop the "Morals," I shan't complain.) He said he would come to see both Elsbeth and me whenever we wanted him. I said why not simply have him over for dinner and a chat. We made a date. As the years go by, I have come to appreciate Alfie more and more. He refers to himself as an Afro-Saxon and is not shy about being proud of both traditions.

Elsbeth's plight has certainly put matters in perspective for me. There are times when I care and think of nothing else. Everything else pales to insignificance. I seethe and rant inwardly. Let killers roam the Genetics Lab. Let Wainscott have the Museum. Let war begin and the glaciers return. I don't care. I want my Elsbeth restored to her old vibrant self. I feel cursed. It seems I no sooner have Elsbeth in my life, have scarcely sat down at life's feast, when it is all going to be taken away from me. Perhaps I am being selfish in this. I know Elsbeth is the one who must suffer and die in the prime of her life. But I would change with her, take her place, in a moment. Only the result would be the same. My life would be over.

By Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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