“I like to watch things that are on the tipping point of gravity,” Jaylan said. I wasn’t sure which thing he meant. It seemed that everything we owned was out of its proper place and on the edge of falling.
We sat in the cluttered living room watching TV, surrounded by piles of things we owned. Toby and Frank, our cats, lounged on the other side of the small room, and Pimai, our dog, was stretched out on the sofa in front of us. Behind us on the counter were piles of papers: receipts for medicine, packets of information about the possible side-effects of all the drugs Jaylan is taking, consent forms for medical trials we didn’t end up qualifying for, notebooks full of notes from meetings with neuro-oncologists and radio-oncologists, calendars filled with appointments, and junk mail. There were tubes of Chapstick, small plastic pieces whose origin or proper place we didn’t know, used coffee cups, the laser pointer the cats know is there, cards sent months ago from well-wishers, scraps of envelopes with addresses we needed to save in order to write thank you cards some day, a box of Kleenex, a box of Milkbone dog treats, a drinking glass embossed with the image of Sylvester, the cat from Looney Tunes, and from somewhere, a small toy Ninja Turtle in its original packaging. Donatello.
The vacuum cleaner stood in the corner, its loosely coiled cord still plugged in to the wall. The Swiffer mop leaned up against the fridge. The dishes were undone. The bedsheets, washed three weeks ago, remained balled up on the chair in the bedroom where we’d come to stack things we weren’t ready to put away. The dresser was piled high with clean clothes, and the laundry basket with dirty. The litter box needed changing. And the office . . . . dear Science, the office. Everything that we owned was testing the edge.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the dog and the quilt in front of her shiny black legs. It was bunched up at the edge of the couch and slowly but surely sliding onto the floor.
“Yep,” I said. We watched it move toward the floor like slow clouds on a calm day, pushed by an invisible hand, one fold at a time. Seconds went by; one maroon edge touched the swirl-patterned rug. Like a worn-out accordion, the folds started to slip loose, but they didn’t fall, and they didn’t fall, and they didn’t fall. They hung, suspended in the air at an increasingly steep angle. We waited for the inevitable, for the clear moment when the quilt would cease to be falling and would, finally, have fallen. It seemed to be worth watching, as though to catch that moment of change in action would give us some sort of satisfaction, and so we wanted it more, to be in control of our contentedness, to look deliberately at a thing until it did what we predicted it would do, what it should do, as dictated by the unbreakable laws of nature.
A heavy sigh from Pimai broke the silence, and with a comfortable stretch, she pushed the quilt on to the floor. We looked away.
Imagine you’re Wile E. Coyote. You’ve just fallen out of an airplane, which is fine—you’ve got that parachute—but you look back and see the pilot is the Roadrunner, and he’s pushing a piano out the open door, and with a descending whistle and a dissonant clang, that piano lands squarely in your arms. You’re not dead yet, but you’ve certainly accelerated, and your parachute has collapsed.
This is a little bit what it’s like to be told that you have about one year to live.
People often ask us whether we ask, as if anyone would answer, why this has happened to us. But we tend to ask other questions: What is the mind? How long is time? How much does the universe weigh? What if we could fly? How strong is the strongest?
The world’s strongest men can drag a VW Bug one hundred meters in minutes. They flip enormous tires, raise boulders from where they are anchored to the ground and rest them on graduated pillars. They spend their lives molding their bulbous bodies into the image of Atlas. Their efficient bodies are both dominant and free, and it seems there is nothing they can not push away—no weight that can not be resisted. The only thing they cannot do, it seems, is fly.
Say you’re a mosquito. You’re flying around, looking for some fresh blood to suck, when out of nowhere the sky opens up and rain comes down on your body with the force of death. If you, the mosquito, were human-sized, say, and standing on the ground, the effect would be the equivalent of getting hit with an SUV.
But, mosquitos don’t die. When struck by a force many thousand times their own weight, a seemingly unbearable burden, the graceful mosquito doesn’t die. It dips. When rain falls on a mosquito, its continued motion through the air sufficiently distributes the enormous weight of the water that the mosquito doesn’t fall, doesn’t die. It swerves, it dips, and it carries on, undeterred. Maybe it dodges the next wet missile. Either way, it survives.
Like everyone, I admire winged creatures. I imagine being free of the constructed everything, of inhabiting the world of dreams, of existing in a space with fewer limits. But now I think that perhaps I have missed the best part of the ability to fly. Now I see wings as survival, not as a mechanism of escape, but of persistence, through the pianos and SUVs that are thrown into our arms with impossible force and always when we least expect it.
Cancer fell on us, and the earth did not expand, did not become elastic, did not sink beneath our feet to help us bear this unexpected weight. We are not like mosquitos, though we try for buoyancy. We have learned that a real test of strength measures not how much we can press away from ourselves, but how much we can bear on our backs without collapsing. Some people are more buoyant than others.
Last night, we got on the elevator for the eighth floor, where Jaylan receives infusion chemotherapy. A bubbly woman boarded just as the doors were trying to close. She was out of breath and began searching through her purse for something, exclaiming, first, “Oh, shit!” and then, “Oh, good!” with equally good nature. She seemed like the kind of person who spoke to everyone within reach at the same time, and she was. She was so glad she’d caught this elevator and not had to wait, she told us. The Cascade elevators were, according to her experience, “Sooo slow.”
She noticed that we’d pushed number eight. “Are you going to the eighth floor, too?” she asked. We were.
“Really? Eight Northeast or Southeast? Are you going to the left or to the right?”
To the right, we told her.
“Organ?” she asked.
Jaylan and I exchanged a glance; we didn’t understand.
“My husband has blood cancer,” she announced, upbeat. “So we go to the left. The right is organ cancer.”
“Oh, then, yes,” we told her. “Organ.”
“Ooh. Okay. Wait – is it one of you?”
“It’s me,” said Jaylan. I said nothing.
The woman expressed her profound disbelief. In her opinion, Jaylan looked wonderful. And he did. He does. The doors opened. I wished her good luck, and we parted ways: Jaylan and I to the organ side of the infusion unit, and she and, somewhere, her husband, to blood. A few hours later, we were on our way home, feeling strong, even buoyant. We were still moving. We had not fallen. We were the very image of endurance.