March 2nd, 2013 - Ann Dávila Cardinal
We had just returned from celebrating my fiftieth birthday in Puerto Rico. Ten days filled with laughter, conversations, and dancing with family and friends, lost in the nurturing, starchy embrace of fried plantain, the minty-lime taste of mojitos still on our tongues. On March second, 2013, as we settled back into our routines back in Vermont, I saw the monumental birthday as a push to help me jump into the next decade with both feet and a renewed focus on building a writing career. Our son Carlos was sixteen, busy with sports, school, and friends, and it was time for me to really dig in to my craft.
My husband’s colonoscopy the next day was nothing more than an item on our post vacation to-do list. A few months earlier I had found a coffee-stained letter on the kitchen counter telling Doug it was time to get a colonoscopy. When I ask him about it, he waved it off. “I’m too busy right now.” To which I responded, “Oh hell no,” and made an appointment for when we got back. But there we were, trying to catch up after vacation, and both of us lamented the interruption to our lives. On the way to the hospital Doug groused, “This growing old thing is a pain in the ass.”
That afternoon I left work early to pick him up at the hospital. I was going to bring him home, then have drinks with a friend while he slept off the anesthesia. But when I checked in at radiology I was told the doctor wanted to talk to me. Confused, I followed the nurse to recovery where the doctor was talking to a still groggy Doug. I wasn’t worried yet, but it felt weird, like it was happening to someone else. “Mrs. Cardinal, as I was just telling your husband, I’m afraid it’s cancer. We’ll be making you an appointment with an oncologist.”
I had obviously stepped into some film plot, something probably starring Julia Roberts and filled with overwrought and emotionally manipulative tropes. I stared at the doctor, weirdly focused on how the hairs of his white eyebrows hung over his eyes like awnings. “No. Not possible. How can you know that? Don’t you have to do a biopsy?” Clearly the man was an idiot.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that I can assure you it is. We won’t know if its spread to his lymph nodes until we do the surgery—”
“Surgery?” My mind skittered to catch up, running on the ice of his words, unable to find purchase. I looked down at Doug all tucked in under his warmed hospital blanket, smiling, forearms crossing each other as if he were rehearsing for the coffin. I wanted to pull his hands apart and shake him. What are you smiling about?
The doctor saw me looking at him. “He still has anesthesia in his system. He probably doesn’t really understand yet.”
“Oh, he understands.” I knew that for Doug, this wasn’t a crisis. If our roles were reversed? He’d be a mess, but I’d learned long ago my husband didn’t fear his own death much, perhaps from his abusive childhood, perhaps from flirting with it so many times in his rough and tumble rural Vermont childhood. But my death? Our son’s? Those terrified him. Being dead was easy, being left behind was hard.
We gathered his things, took our paper of instructions and upcoming appointments, and drove home in a daze. Later that afternoon, when our Carlos came home from basketball practice, we sat him down and told him what we knew. When you are a family of three, there are few secrets. With a lean familial unit each member feels the emotional eddies of the other two, getting pulled into the wake of triumphs and crises alike, whether you want to or not. We faced this together with tears, laughter, misplaced anger, and a fuckload of love.
We called it the year that cancer took, but even though it had spread to his lymph nodes (stage three colon cancer), damned if it was going to find Doug’s cranky-ass body hospitable. Despite smoking a pack of unfiltered cigarettes a day, he was über fit and wasted zero time feeling sorry for himself. He was pissed when on chemo days when they told him he couldn’t go to work. He shoveled the snow for the disabled neighbors with an infusion pack strapped to his chest, poison being continuously fed into the port they’d installed under his skin. Me? I spent every lunch time writing in the college library, banging away at a horror novel, feeling like that hour was sacred, it was mine and mine alone. Well, as it turns out, the cancer didn’t have a chance in my “hey you kids get off my lawn” husband, and year later he was declared cancer-free.
In the ten years since, both my son and I faced our own battles with near-death illnesses, but both of us survived, making the three of us even more resilient, stronger as a family and as individuals. Today, having just celebrated my sixtieth birthday with friends and family, I am writing this from the balcony of my uncle’s condo in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, the sound of the waves a constant accompaniment to the words on the page. The funny thing is, with all we went through, my writing flourished. In the last ten years I’ve written seven novels, four short stories, and three scripts, and Carlos and I are now writing scripts together. I have learned more about the craft and the business of writing than I ever imagined possible and feel buoyed by an outstanding community of writers who love and support each other. Last month I left my job of twenty-four years to give a go at writing full time.
How is Doug these days? No recurrence of cancer (knocking wood as I type). Of all the things I’ve learned the last ten years about the craft of writing, about family, our bodies and health, about life, it’s this:
Growing old might be a pain in the ass, but it is so much better than the alternative.
I look forward to seeing where I am in March of 2033. See you then?
Ann Dávila Cardinal is a fiction writer with an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her young adult novels include Five Midnights (winner of a 2020 International Latino Book Award and a finalist for a Bram Stoker), Category Five, and this year’s Breakup from Hell, a horror romcom from HarperCollins. The Storyteller’s Death, released in October 2022, was her first novel for adults, and her second, We Need No Wings, is scheduled for release from Sourcebooks in October of 2024. Ann lives in Vermont with her husband Doug, and is finally, joyously, writing full-time.