Something about the smell of Dr. Schein’s office reminded Larry Dugin of visits to the school nurse when he was a child—white walls, white cabinets, and grey rug; next to where Larry was seated, the syringe disposal box with it’s tilted lid; the magazines on the table that previous patients had forgotten to return to the waiting room. He lost himself in the history of his own health every time he entered this office. Dr. Schein, standing grim-faced and stiff in front of the lightbox on the opposite wall, was Larry’s oncologist. Using his right index finger, Dr. Schein pointed to a white spot on the scan that resembled a tiny cluster of five small grapes.
“The scan confirms that there are now five glioblastomas, only the most posterior of which is operable,” began Dr. Schein. “The interior four are not. Unfortunately, glioblastomas respond poorly to radiation, and the interior four have grown at an alarming rate despite the chemotherapy.”
A humming inside Larry’s skull persisted for several seconds. He tilted the lid of the syringe disposal box and looked inside. He looked at the plastic model of the human brain on Dr. Schein’s desk. He did not look at the scan. Suddenly the doctor’s voice broke through:
“—you may have trouble remembering recent events, but you won’t experience any pain. In about six months, you’ll probably have to stop driving, I’m afraid, and if you go out for a walk, you may need someone with you to get you back home.”
It was at that moment Larry made up his mind to start lying. Not self-serving lies—just the opposite. In the radically shortened future he saw ahead of him, lying would be his salvation—antidote to the misery truth had brought into his life. He imagined the pleasure he might gift his wife and remaining child, his friends and co-workers, even Dr. Schein himself—looking so angst-ridden as he spoke, supplying details that Larry ignored.
As Dr. Schein droned on, Larry reviewed the events that had brought him to this point: the third blow in less than a year! The unfairness was infuriating, and struck him harder than the bad news itself. First, there had been the original diagnosis, delivered by the same doctor last June. He and his wife of fifteen years, Renee, rewrote his will together, “just in case,” but they both believed—as did Dr. Schein at the time—that chemotherapy would be successful. Second, in October, Larry’s thirteen year-old daughter Zoe died in a freak car accident, the news delivered by a young doctor in the ER who—without waiting for Larry and Renee to finish rising from their seats—had blurted out, “We did everything we could, Mr. Dugin.” Everything? What does that even mean? Renee became a rag doll in Larry’s arms; as she sobbed hysterically between requests to see her daughter, with her fingers digging into the soft flesh of his arm, Larry tried to keep up with his anger. His anger had mass to it, had heft. It flew past the young physician whose statement had such brutal casualness to it; past the elderly man whose heart attack behind the wheel had caused the pile-up; past the school bus driver whose dimwittedness had guided him into, instead of away from, the path of the elderly man’s truck. The anger gave him the energy to accompany Renee into the ER, give his daughter a good-bye kiss, accept condolences from friends and strangers alike, get through the funeral, look his wife in the eye day after day after day and not break down, and continue to wake up every morning.
Rather than dissipating, the core of anger mutated into a numbness that persisted throughout the winter, accompanied by new headaches Larry attributed to the rage he had let fester unaddressed. Because the headaches were frontal, and the tumors posterior, his family doctor had diagnosed migraines; medicine seemed to help, and when the first days of spring proved surprisingly warm and sunny, the headaches ended. Larry, Renee, and their son Patrick, ten, vacationed in St. Johns, breathed fully and deeply, and smiled again, and looked forward to baseball games and Sunday morning bike trips. All along, the side effects of the chemo had been surprisingly mild, which Larry took to be a positive sign, and he kept his work life, and home life, as vigorous as ever.
In June, Larry had submitted to Dr. Schein’s new set of scans—“precautionary follow-up, normal procedure,” he’d said—which had led to this visit. The unexpected, dark prognosis knocked the residual anger out of him like a Heimlich maneuver. Into that empty space vague thoughts about God and the afterlife began to pour—surprisingly—into a soothing vision of being accepted into some kind of heaven as one of the good guys. A good father. A decent husband who had never cheated, never even contemplated cheating. A thoughtful co-worker. A Democrat, for God’s sake! With no hint of self-pity, he imagined himself not alive. Not breathing. Not seeing or hearing or feeling. Inside a cramped coffin. This led to severe anxiety which he combated by re-imagining himself above the earth, floating and observing his family, but unable to communicate. I should have started imagining heaven earlier in life. Note to self: no coffin. Read up on cremation. That seemed acceptable.
Having blocked out the doctor’s lengthy synopsis of upcoming symptoms, Larry made a vow: to lie in order to make the world around him a happier place. The moment he had the idea it felt natural, as if it were the yang to his cancer’s yin. It filled completely the space his anger had just occupied. Finding happiness for himself, he felt, was impossible. And since possibilities are what Larry felt moved people from one moment to the next, it followed naturally: say whatever you have to in order to bring happiness into someone else’s life. What is wrong with lying, really—if the goal is happiness?
Larry imagined reaching across the table to shake the doctor—so obviously uncomfortable—by the shoulders and sharing this amazing insight: There is a greater good beyond me. So much happiness is still possible—just not for me. And that makes it all that much easier to give away! I am no longer competing for it! Oh heavenly insight! The understanding came to him in an instant, or perhaps the few seconds it takes a cloud to form atop a high peak, or for a misty dew to become a dense fog. Larry remained seated as the doctor resumed, offering Larry a series of palliatives:
“Would you like to speak with anyone? A pastor? A minister here in the hospital? And of course you should seek a second opinion,” the doctor intoned, dully, as if from a written script. “Won’t bother me at all. Everyone does it.”
Larry realized that his first opportunity might be now: this difficult moment for the doctor himself. The prospect of waiting for a second opinion, which doubtless would confirm the first, ran counter to the flow of Larry’s new-found momentum. But for you, doc—my getting a second opinion might release you from the burden of being the sole bearer of bad news.
“I will. Yes. Yes. First thing tomorrow. Any suggestions, doc?” Easy-peasy. Too easy? More like a run scored off the infield fly rule, instead of a hit. More like a reprieve than happiness for the good doctor.
But for the first time since Larry had entered the office, Dr. Schein smiled. Re-energized, he began scribbling a list of names on the back of his prescription pad. “I will understand if you want to change doctors, Larry. Call me if you decide to use any of these referrals, and also to let me know how you’re feeling. For now, we can discuss some drugs that will really cut down the symptoms.”
Dear God, look at his face. Try to tell me you don’t love me for this lie.