A few more words from David Kalish, a writer of short stories, plays, and the new novel, The Opposite of Everything.
Thursday, April 3, 2014
My Membership in the Extremely Empathic Husbands Club
(Ruminator’s note: This essay is a factual retelling, more or less, of events depicted in my new novel, The Opposite of Everything)
For a brief and painful time in my life, I accomplished what every man since probably Adam has tried, and failed, to do.
I feltwhat my wife was feeling.
Now, I can hear all you guys, and gals, scoff. A resident of Mars cannot possibly live on Venus. Men and woman are fundamentally different creatures. There are situations, ranging from menopause to morning sickness, a man cannot pretend to know, or understand. But as a cancer survivor, my situation was special. It drew my wife and me closer than you can imagine – closer than I felt comfortable with. It deepened my understanding of not just my wife, but what I was going through.
The year was 2000. July. Two months after getting pregnant my wife, Ingrid, began to suffer morning sickness. Around the same time, I underwent chemotherapy treatment for thyroid cancer.
The morning after my first treatment, our symptoms collided. I awoke in our Brooklyn apartment, listening to the sickening whir of my portable fanny pack pumping chemo through a tube into my chest. I turned to ask my wife Ingrid to hand me my anti-nausea pills from the night table but she, for some reason, wasn’t around.
A wave of nausea washed over me. I staggered to the bathroom, made a beeline for the toilet, and loudly hurled. Just then Ingrid teetered in, looking as sick as I felt. As if to demonstrate the correct method, she vomited too, but quietly, like the Queen of England might pour tea, leaving scarcely a droplet on the rim. She wiped her lips with a tissue, and dabbed Crest on her toothbrush.
“Daniel,” she said, after gargling, in a weary voice. “Do you know the story of Jonah? He was spit out by a whale that sneezed. Just a sneeze forced him out!”
“I’m not sure … ”
“I mean, you should be afraid you may lose something you need. Like your soul.”
“I’m not following.”
“You need to vomit softly. I don’t want to hear your inner pig. You don’t know how sick I feel.”
“But I think I do,” I said, weakly.
As if on cue, my gut spasmed again, jetting the rest of its contents into the toilet.
Ingrid shook her head in disappointment and left the bathroom. I flushed the toilet, unsure where this nightmare was leading. I saw what I had suddenly become: an involuntary member of the Extremely Empathic Husbands Club. I would have done anything to quit. The last thing I frankly needed in my delicate state was retching lessons from a pregnant woman.
It was the sort of closeness I never expected or desired when Ingrid and I decided earlier that year to make a baby. Honestly, until that decision, having a child was the last thing on my mind. Ingrid, a recent immigrant from Colombia, was busy studying for her medical boards; I was a reporter at The Associated Press in Manhattan, just promoted to economics writer in Mexico City. All set to move, we’d sublet our Brooklyn apartment, changed our health insurance to international, sold our car, booked international movers. Lastly we married so Ingrid, on a student visa, could travel freely across borders with me.
But three weeks before we were to board a plane for another life, a routine scan revealed my thyroid cancer, until then stable and confined to my neck, had spread to my lungs. In a stunning reversal, I was forced to stay stateside for chemotherapy, instead of jetting around Latin America with reporter’s pad in hand.
Then came the clincher. Since chemo can hurt sex cells, the oncologist urged us to try to conceive before my treatment. Though I worried I’d feel too sick to chase after a kid with a leaky diaper, the doctor’s insistence won out.
Ingrid and I, wouldn’t you know it, were successful right away.
At first, I was too busy reversing my life to worry about the consequences of our success. I had to change my health insurance back to domestic, pay the subletters $2,000 so they wouldn’t sue me for breach of contract, relinquish my deposit on a car in Mexico City, and shop for one in Park Slope. I settled back into my old position on AP’s international desk, editing overseas stories by reporters stationed in exotic places that reminded him, painfully, of the one I’d given up.
Then came chemo and its clash with pregnancy. At first, I didn’t know what to make of my weird bathroom encounter with Ingrid – our odd physical convergence. What does it mean to share nausea with one’s spouse? I was still processing this weird coming together when, a week later, things grew even more awkward.
That Saturday morning, I spied a clump of hair in the shower drain. Examining it closely, I determined it was mine. As I dried myself with a towel, feeling emasculated, Ingrid strode up. Rolling up the bottom of her shirt, she revealed seven short black hairs sprouting around her naval.
“See? Isn’t it terrible? And that’s not the worst. Look.” I examined her in the fluorescent light. Fresh fuzz clung to the underside of her upper neck.
“Woop-di-doo,” I said, showing her the hairball in my hand. “Thanks to chemo, I’ve got a clump.”
She drew back. “Oh David! First we share stomach problems. But now we’re becoming opposites, in a similar way.”
She touched my head as if to share her new sense of solidarity with me, but I nudged away her hand a bit too forcefully. I was frankly in no mood to celebrate. I wanted to cling onto to my last shreds of dignity, much as I wanted to cling onto my hair. “Please don’t touch. My hair’s liable to fall out if you feel it. I’m trying to hold onto what I have.”
“If your hair bothers you so much,” she said, “why not let me shave you? Lots of sexy men are bald. Bruce Willis. Agassi. No need to look like a bad lawn.”
“Sure,” I snapped, thinking of a barbershop from Village of the Damned. “But first let me shave your peach fuzz.”
Her eyes moistened with hurt.
“Don’t give me your look,” I said. “That’s what you wanted to do to me, right? Shave me? Why can’t I say the same thing to you? Fair is fair!”
She switched off the light above the mirror. “Is it fair I look like an old woman with fuzz? Is it my choice? And now you would shave me so it grows back as stubble? Like a man with—how do you call it?—five o’clock shadow?”
Ingrid stalked out of the room, leaving me to stare in the mirror. A bad man with bad hair. That’s what I look and feel like.
It wasn’t so much I didn’t sympathize with her. It’s that I had less tolerance. We went days without talking after that. I blamed her anger on pregnancy hormones. Maybe they swam inside Ingrid in tempo with the chemicals eroding my insides. Researching over the Internet I learned that “human chorionic gonadotrophin” helped nourish the fetus by diverting nutrients from the mother’s bloodstream, provoking nausea.
One night, I had a dream about lump reversal — Ingrid birthing a tumor, and a fetus surgically removed from my throat. I jerked awake, famished and nauseous, squinting into the low morning sun through the window. I left Ingrid sleeping in bed, her back to me like an icy fortress, put on a baseball cap over my patchy scalp and went outside to forage for food that wouldn’t make me gag.
My first stop was at a café on Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue, where I ordered a cappuccino, but after one sip I spilled it down a sewer grate. When I gazed up, I saw I stood in front of a bodega, overripe platanos displayed in bins. An idea came to me.I went inside and bought a loaf of Bimbo, a crunchy bread Ingrid once told me she liked. Returning to the apartment, I showed her it and uttered the only four-syllable Spanish word I knew: “Mantequilla?”
She seemed too stunned to answer; I brought a stick of butter from the kitchen and spread some across a slice for her. Shutting her eyes, she crunched down.
She blinked as if waking from a dream. “Wait till I tell my mother you’re feeding our child Colombian food!” She crunched some more. “I remember toast for breakfast every Sunday in my home. And the fruits! In Colombia, the papayas and guanabanas so ripe and sweet and large.” A tear slipped down her cheek as she ate a second slice, rambling on with nostalgia.
“You are eating,” I whispered, happily. Struck with empathy worthy of the club I belonged to, I handed her a razor. A smile lit up her face. She pulled me to the bathroom, ran the water warm, splashed it across my scalp, and sprayed foam from her leg-shaving kit into her hands. For the next twenty minutes, as she hummed a Colombian melody, she spread foam and stroked the razor across my patchy skull, tracking its bumps and lumps gentle as a mother bird preening its fledgling.
“Gracias,” she said, when she was done, admiring her handiwork. “I felt I was living with a sick person. Now you’re sexy!”
Taking a deep breath, I gazed at my reflection and touched my smooth glistening skull as if it were someone else’s – someone cool with the situation, not angry and bitter over it. I realized something about Ingrid. She needs to nurture her sick husband, because if she can, her helpless unborn child should be a cinch.
The unspeakable tension in me lifted a bit. I imagined my lump having a one-on-one conversation with hers, breaking the communications barrier. A tête-à-tête, perhaps. “Maybe,” I joked, “we can get a group rate on lumpectomies.”
She kissed my scalp. “Please don’t refer to our future child as a lump.”
I wasn’t done paying my dues, staying bald and nauseous for the duration of pregnancy. But five months later I got my money’s worth. Ingrid gave birth to a healthy eight-pound girl named Sophie, and I felt, in a sense, that I’d given birth too.
That was thirteen years ago. I’ve since begun an experimental drug treatment that keeps my cancer at bay, and the only hair loss I experience is age-related. Next spring my daughter celebrates her Bat Mitzvah. Of her parents’ rival growths Sophie is the one who survived, thanks to a most unusual time in my life – thanks to my membership in the Extremely Empathic Husbands Club.
David Kalish is author of the new comedic novel,The Opposite of Everything, a finalist in the Somerset Fiction Awards. Next stop on his book tour is Thursday, April 10, 6:30 p.m., at Saratoga Springs Public Library. Click here for more information.