What We Talk About When We’re Trying Not To Talk About Death

The woods of northern Michigan can be unseasonably cold in July. Even when the temperature reaches 80 degrees, the moment you venture into the dark, Tolkienesque forest, it might as well be mid-February. It’s damp and unpleasant and the ground is still frostbitten from the winter. It’s where happiness goes to die. You can feel the chill in your blood, particularly if you’re just wearing a wet bathing suit and flip-flops.

There are many, many places I’d rather be than wandering through this godforsaken Midwestern jungle. I’d rather be swimming in Lake Michigan, for instance. And that’s exactly where I was just ten minutes ago. I should still be out there, floating in the blue water and trying to assure myself that the ominous-looking shadow swimming just below me isn’t a bull shark. Instead, I’m on an expedition to find a man with a brain tumor.

I’m not sure what I should be yelling to get his attention. Is he in any mental condition to recognize his own name? Wouldn’t it make as much sense to yell French toast or Bolshevik Revolution? What does it matter? If he was thinking clearly, he wouldn’t have gotten lost in the first place. I want to mention this to my mom, but I don’t think she’d see the humor in the situation.

“Tiiiiiiiim,” she yells, her voice straining, not from fatigue but emotional weariness. In the deep, dark part of her brain, I think she’d be relieved if we just found his body lying in a bed of leaves. She’d never admit it out loud, but I know she’s getting tired of being his caretaker, and after the sting of my father, she’s in no mood to bury another husband.

“Let’s just forget this,” I want to tell her. “The cancer’s had its way with him. His brain is like oatmeal now. He’s playing Hungry Hungry Hippos with his synapses, and he’s losing.” But I don’t say that. Not because it isn’t true, but because it’s mean. I should be saying happy things, supportive things, things like “He’ll turn up” or “We’ll all laugh about this tomorrow.” Not “There are worse ways to go then ending up a squirrel buffet” or “At least my dad dropped dead in the kitchen. If you’re going to keel over, have the common decency to do it someplace where people can find you.”

When my mom married Tim and he got sick, there wasn’t any circling of the wagons like there was with my father. Maybe it’s because Tim’s illness took longer. Cancer takes its time, plotting against your body like a chess player, while a heart attack knocks you out in one punch, a Mike Tyson swing to your coronary artery. When he was diagnosed, Tim’s family was just quietly shocked, avoiding all discussion of cancer entirely, and I think that just made it worse for them. If there’s one thing I learned from losing my dad, it’s that sometimes the only logical response to tragedy is to race it to the punchline.

There is never a convenient time to find out there’s a softball-sized tumor claiming squatter’s rights on your brain, but Tim and my mother have only been married for six months. That has to be the worst honeymoon gift ever. Personally, I think you should be in a romantic relationship with somebody for no fewer than two years before asking them to help you die. Anything less than that is just rude. But my mom stayed with him anyway, becoming his full-time nurse and getting acquainted with his bodily functions in ways that no human being without a medical degree should ever have to.

I’ve never been a fan of those “Love Is” comics (you know, with the naked children with the big methed-out eyes and scary lack of genitalia), but I’m pretty sure they never published one that read: “Love is ... giving him sponge baths and cleaning up his poop as he waits for the sweet release of death.”

We’re so deep into the woods by now that my paranoia has kicked in. I’m scanning the trees not just for a confused old man but for shadowy glimpses of vengeful spirits or evidence of a Wiccan hootenanny, like a burned- out firepit or a pentagram made out of branches. Even my mom has stopped calling out Tim’s name, not because she shares my occult alertness but because her voice has gone hoarse. We study the forest like it’s an optical illusion painting, convinced that if we just unfocus our eyes, Tim’s face will magically appear in the foliage.

“You know,” my mom says, breaking the silence, “he had the tumor before he met me.”

I stare back at her but don’t break my stride. I’m afraid of where this is heading. “You don’t say.”

“That’s what the doctor told me,” she says, her voice calm and measured. “He said Timmy probably had the tumor for years. That’s why it’s so big. It’s been growing in him for longer than I’ve known him.”

I nod and try to look busy, squinting to get a better look at some rustling leaves in the distance.

“It’s possible I never really knew him at all,” she says, more to herself than to me. “The cancer could have changed his entire personality. Who’s to say he wasn’t completely different before it took over? So maybe I didn’t fall in love with him, I fell in love with the tumor.”

I just smile and squeeze her hand, but my mind is reeling. Her offhand comment has sparked my imagination. As we walk in silence, I get a vivid image of my mom being wooed by a tumor, brown and smooth, like a lima bean with arms and legs.

When my mother announced that she was bringing Tim to our summer cottage, I braced myself for the worst. He was recovering from several brain surgeries, in an unsuccessful attempt to cut out the tumor, and my mom warned us that he had some cranial swelling. I expected ... well, I don’t know what I expected. I’d never known anyone who’d had his head twisted open like a stubborn mayonnaise jar. When I finally set eyes on him, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Sure, it was difficult not to stare at the almost comical scar that stretched across his forehead, and his head was definitely bigger than I remembered. He reminded me of a golem or that translucent, big-brained alien from The Outer Limits.

Otherwise, he seemed normal enough. He didn’t blurt out random verbs, but he did sometimes act peculiar. His eyes would go in and out of focus without warning, and his gaze would drift aimlessly around the room, like he was lost in thought or pondering philosophical tangents we couldn’t begin to comprehend. My brother and I did everything in our power to ignore his quirks and be sociable. We engaged him in polite conversation, bringing up innocuous topics, laughing at harmless jokes, and somehow avoiding the questions that begged to be asked.

I was a volcano of inappropriateness. “What’s it like to know you’re going to die?” I wanted to scream at him. “Do you just not think about it, or are you clinging to hope that the tumor’s going to give up and come crawling out of your ears, carrying all of its belongings in a hobo bindle? Are you like those death-row inmates who convince themselves that the governor’s going to call at the last minute, just before they throw the switch, and issue an official pardon? You know it doesn’t work like that, right? The state has no jurisdiction on cancer.”

When talking about nothing lost its appeal, my brother and I turned our attention to the recreational activities we usually enjoy during a Michigan summer. And Tim, unsupervised and momentarily overconfident in his ability to navigate, wandered out of the house and disappeared. When my mom realized he was missing, she organized a search party. My brother scoured the roads leading in and out of town, and my mom and I braved the forest. There are plenty of clearly marked hiking trails in the woods surrounding our cottage, but they probably mean nothing to Tim, whose brain has betrayed him and is likely whispering bad directions.

Every few dozen yards we bump into hikers, and we try not to alarm them with our questions. “Have you seen a guy wander past?” we ask. “He’s sixty but looks much older, big Frankenstein scar on his head, lurching but in a non-menacing kinda way, maybe muttering to himself, acting vaguely tumory. No? Okay, if you see him, please don’t chase him into an old windmill and burn it down. He’s with us.”

The sun is getting lower in the sky. Within less than an hour, it’ll be dark and we’ll need to go home. I can tell my mom doesn’t want to call the police. It’ll invariably lead to helicopters and searchlights, and she doesn’t want the neighbors to talk. She’s managed to downplay his condition — brain surgery scars aren’t nearly as noticeable if you’re wearing a variety of hats — but this is just the sort of embarrassing spectacle that leads to whispered gossip at neighborhood potlucks.

“So what’s he like?” I suddenly ask.

“What’s who like?”

“This tumor you’re all head over heels for,” I say. “Is he like the bad boy that your parents don’t approve of, but every time he drives by the soda shop in his 57 Chrysler convertible you can’t resist jumping into the back seat?”

She eyes me uneasily. It was a tasteless and totally inappropriate thing to say, especially to a woman well on her way to being a widow for the second time. But then she smiles at me, and it’s the first smile I’ve seen from her in months, so I decide to take a chance and press on.

I tell her my theory. She’s dressed in a poodle skirt and curls, I explain, and the tumor is wearing a wife-beater and jeans, flicking cigarette butts and smirking like James Dean. I imagine her in her parents’ kitchen, yelling at them, “You don’t know him like I do! I can change him!” But the truth is, she likes his devil-may-care attitude. She likes that he has a chip on his shoulder and gets into bar fights with T-cells and can’t be tamed.

“I don’t know, I pictured him a lot differently,” she says, her grin widening. “Like maybe he has a really thin mustache which he’s always pinching.”

“You mean in a silent film villain kinda way or an Ivy League grad student writing bad poetry in a coffee shop kinda way?”

“Definitely the poet,” she says. “He’s a vegan for moral reasons and only watches French New Wave movies.”

“Ah yes, I know the kind,” I say. “He smokes American Spirits, wears an ascot and self-published his own chapbook, which he insists is a modern take on The Canterbury Tales.”

“He has strong opinions about pinot noir and jazz, and a huge collection of spoken-word vinyl.”

“He lives alone with a cat named Chairman Meow, and he’ll explain the pun to you whether you ask or not.”

“He’s painted his bedroom red because he thinks it’ll affect his dreams.”

“Wow, Mom,” I mutter, shaking my head with exaggerated sympathy. “I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your tumor boyfriend is a pretentious prick.”

And that’s when we both lose it. It isn’t polite, restrained laughter. It’s like air being let out of a balloon. The kind of hysterical guffawing that people initially join in with but then stop abruptly and stare back at you like they think you intend to hurt them.

Have you ever been at a funeral when somebody farts and you can’t stop yourself from laughing? That’s what it was like. It’s when somebody sucks the sad out of a room by doing or saying something juvenile and disrespectful and completely stupid.

We eventually track down Tim. Turns out he’d never gone anywhere near the forest. He’s been sitting on a dock down by the beach, staring out at Lake Michigan, and for some reason he’s dressed only in a bathrobe and my brother’s moonboots. He flashes us a feeble smile, and we know there’s no way we can scold him for wandering off. So we sit down next to him and watch the sunset.

I want him to say something profound, because that’s what sick people are supposed to do. If this was a short story, Tim would share an inspirational platitude that wouldn’t seem out of place on a fortune cookie. “I used to think I was lost, but then I realized we’re all exactly where we should be. Home is where you choose it.” Fiction and the movies have taught me that cancer turns everyone into Buddhist philosophers.

Instead, he just grins at us, like a baby looking up at the goo-gooing faces of adults. “The sunset sure is beautiful tonight,” he says, his scar glowing like it’s radioactive.

We nod but say nothing. We watch the sun slowly disappear behind the lake. And then my mom turns to me and says, “Yeah, he definitely wears an ascot.”

We both start laughing again, rolling around the dock and clutching our sides. We’re laughing so hard we’re almost heaving. Tim looks at us, confused and a little scared, but we don’t bother to explain. He wouldn’t understand.

He doesn’t know it yet, but my mom is breaking up with his tumor.

Eric Spitznagel is a writer in Savannah, Georgia. He hopes his brain will be preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, Walt Disney-style.

Stefan Grambart is an illustrator in Toronto. When his time comes, he wants to die knowing the robo-pocalypse was probably his fault.