By Mark Nepo
We were waiting in the airport food court. It was early and he was sitting by himself stirring his coffee. I could hear the wooden stick against the styrofoam. He had a hitch of sudden pain. It was then I saw the growth like a softball on his right shoulder. There were only a few of us, waiting for security; trying to wake up before being carried from the earth.
Maybe it was being half-conscious, almost removed for a while from our lives, quietly chewing like chipmunks before dawn. But he started telling his story as if we all knew each other. He was dying and it only seemed frightening when he kept it to himself, “The damn thing is too close to my spine to operate, so I’ve just got to wait.” Then he laughed, “But hey, we’ve had a lot a’ practice at waitin’ eh?”
He’d pulled back the curtain between us. Now we were warming each other around the fire; the one that never goes out, the one kept going by the pain we throw into it. A kind flight attendant on her way to Japan moved closer, “You just stay positive, sweetheart, that’s what my Daddy used to say.”
I felt my own history of cancer, of bursting through the pretense that we’re strangers. The flight attendant left and I wanted to speak to him, to tell him that either way he’s already aglow. My heart was pounding. Then his flight was called. He was startled and I knew, recognized, that he heard the call, for a second, as the one into his doctor’s office when he was diagnosed, and then, as the one that brought him into chemo. He went more urgently than he needed to and left a small bag.
I grabbed it and ran after him, tapped him on his other shoulder, and began to confess, “I too-” He dropped his shoulders, the one with the tumor making him look like Atlas. He took my hand and comforted me, uttering, “I know.”