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The 'C' Word by Dennis Stein




All that Phil Rollins could do was sit there, his eyes fixed at a point low on the wall of the office. His hands lay intertwined in his lap limply.

  "I'm very sorry, Mr. Rollins. I know you need some time to process this. Would you rather I leave for a few minutes?"

   Phil looked up at the doctor sitting in front of him, his eyes veiled in a glaze that saw nothing.

  "Can you say it again? Maybe slower this time and in simpler words?" said Phil in a voice he didn't recognize as his own.

  The doctor cleared his throat slightly and began again. He detailed the illness that Phil Rollins was suffering and would very soon die from. Stage four abdominal cancer: it was the cause of his recent bouts of indigestion, nausea, and occasionally vomiting up a bit of blood. The cancer was very aggressive, and the doctor repeated once again in a firm tone that he believed the old man sitting in front of him would likely not be here six months from now.

  The doctor offered to forward his findings to the Oncologist in the next town, for confirmation. All Phil could manage, without a word, was a wave of his hand.

  Phil had left the office with his daughter, Ellen, who had driven him to his appointment. He told her nothing about what he had just heard. He had already made his decision. He had had a great life, full and wonderful, with very few bumps in the road of health up to this point. He had a beautiful wife, two equally beautiful and intelligent daughters, and a handful of grandchildren as well.

  He had planned a 'Medically Assisted Death', which was not even legal a few years before, and a 'Celebration of Life'. He had no idea what that really meant, but what he did know was that this way, he could skip past all the pain, the medical bills, and the grinding sorrow that his loved ones would have to endure watching him shrivel and die in pain each day.

  His wife and daughters were resistant, one of his girls especially. She had stormed out of the house, refusing to continue talking about it. They pleaded for Phil to go through with the second opinion, additional tests, and treatment.

  Phil had adamantly refused, and told them that it was his life, and he had made the best decision for all of them, himself included. It took time for them to relent, and his one daughter in particular would not return to the conversation about any of it.

   The planning went forward however, and Phil began to become comfortable with the idea of ending his existence his way. His daughter Ellen and his wife usually gave the same understanding look to him, complete with a deep sadness in their usually sparkling eyes.

  "Goddamn Cancer!" his daughter would say, and his wife would remind her not to take the Lord's name in vain. The conversation would degenerate into bickering, and Phil would have to intervene firmly between the two.

 

  The day arrived, and Phil had gone in the morning to receive the prescription which would bring about his end. It was a carefully controlled process, but eventually, he had been able to go home, where he wished this to happen. His wife and daughter had tears in their eyes most of the day, and finally Phil sat them down at home just before his celebration of life was to begin.

  "You must understand, these are my wishes. It does no good for the two of you to wander around crying today. I want people to be happy. I want people to remember me now, not some shriveled husk of a man who can't even get out of bed to shit and lives every minute until his end in horrific pain."

  They nodded, trying their best to straighten up.

  "Any word from Amanda?" asked Phil, looking at Ellen.

  "No. Hopefully she will show up," Ellen replied.

  People began to arrive, and the two women kept themselves busy, anything to keep their minds off the coming events. They served small snacks from trays, drawing the guest’s attention to collages of photos of Philip Rollins. These images were a cascade of memories of Phil with his family and friends, at all stages of his life.

  As his eyes traced over these pictures, the nostalgia of some of the moments brought with them a flood of emotions. As a boy, his first fish caught at the end of the dock, with some unknown lake in the background. As a young man, proudly behind the wheel of his first car, his best friend seated grinning in the passenger's seat. As he was now, a grandfather holding one of his sleeping grandchildren wrapped in a blanket, only hours after being born.

  Conversation flowed, people came and went, and during the time that Phil spent talking to them, he was mildly surprised that the topic of his impending end was carefully and craftily avoided for the most part.

  Eventually everyone was ushered out, and Phil was left with his wife and one daughter. The second of his girls, Amanda, was still unaccounted for. Phil almost considered postponing his decision in hopes that she would finally show up. But her intentions and disagreement with the matter were clear to him.

  He stood, kissed his wife, and then his daughter, and retired to his bedroom to take his 'medicine.'

 

  Sitting on the edge of his bed, he took the two pills in his hand delicately, as if they might crumble in his thick, old palm. He rewound the thoughts he had had about this moment in the past few days. There was no return from this. Once he lay down after taking these pills, he would most certainly die. The physician had told him emphatically that there would be no pain, that he would drift off into a sleep that he would not re-awaken from, and it would be over. He would not even realize he was taking his last breath.

  Phil pulled his phone out of his pocket, looking at the time, but hoping that he would see a missed call on the screen. There wasn't. He set it on the nightstand beside him.

Won't be needing that thing anymore. he thought.

  He took a deep breath. It wasn't too late to back out. He could do the bullshit tests, could do chemotherapy and spend the last of his miserable days losing what he had left of his hair and puking his guts out day in and day out. He could let his wife and daughters help change his bedsheets when he soiled himself, watch him become a twisted, broken and sickly shadow of his former self. Screw that.

  Phil put the two capsules into his mouth, and picked up the cut crystal whiskey glass, washing them down with a good-sized shot of a fine Cuban Rum he had been saving for a special occasion. This definitely fit the bill. He felt the heat from the straight alcohol hit his stomach, giving him a moment of pain, and took another deep breath. He had started the clock, and his time would be up soon now.

  He laid himself out on the bed in what he thought would be a suitably dignified position, his hands clasped over his chest, ankles crossed, relaxed. He could already feel the medication beginning its dark work on his body.

  The ring of his phone shattered the quiet of his bedroom. He fumbled absently for it. Maybe it was Amanda. He might at least get to say goodbye to her this way. It wasn't. The number that showed up was from a hospital that his brain registered was in the next town. He could at least brush aside the cynical thought about what a time it was for some scam call.

  He answered, still lying flat on his back on the bed. A voice spoke to him through the gathering mist in his mind.

  "Hello, Mr. Rollins. Sorry to disturb you. My name is Dr. Armand from Mercy General. Do you have a minute?"

  Phil almost chuckled at the idea.

  "Only a couple."

  "We need you to come in right away. It seems that someone at your local hospital fumbled with your scans. You don't have cancer anywhere in your body that we can detect. Your other physician diagnosed that on the basis of a shadow in your scans. A simple procedure for an ulcer will cure your issues with digestion. They were looking at someone else's scan. Your scans are clear."

  Phil could not sit up. His body would not react. He could feel strength draining from him by the second.

  "How is this possible?" he asked, head swimming.

"We're very sorry. But we need you to come in right away to fix that ulcer; otherwise you will be in worse trouble."

Phil could feel his blood slowing down in his veins. He fought to speak.

"Whose scan were they looking at?" he croaked, realizing that it was a useless question.

"Well, that's a conversation I wanted to have later...they were your daughter's scans..."

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