Getting Dead

Judith Lichtendorf


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It was mid-July. We were there for his final oncology appointment, though, of course, we didn’t know it then. A few weeks before, I had rented one of those small battery powered chairs that roll the lame and halt along the streets, and my husband, who loved to drive, had immediately taken to the little chair (shiny red and chrome) and drove it like it was an Aston Martin somehow deposited onto York Avenue in Manhattan, believing its mission was to look for a race track near Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Joe wheeled around an old man using a three-pronged cane and slithered around a woman selling ices from a little sidewalk stand.

Joe, for God’s sake, I said.

You only live once, he said.


The protocol at the oncology department: you sign in at a reception desk, and wait, blue industrial tweed covered chairs with faux wooden armrests and legs, plastic-wood coffee tables, ragged issues of out-of-date Golf Digest and Newsweek magazines, People magazine in Spanish, left-over newspapers from days, sometimes weeks, before. The crossword puzzles already filled in. Finally your name is called, a technician draws blood, then you’re sent back to the waiting room to hang around with the other dying patients and their wives or husbands or children or hired attendants. Very few are there alone. Eventually your blood work results come back from the insti-lab and you get ushered into a little room with a paper wrapped examining table, a faded Degas print and a stool.

Now that Joe had the power chair, we barely fit in the room. I sat on the examining table, leaving the stool for the Big Shot Oncologist who always took at least 10 minutes to enter the room; he was a very busy man – he had a lot of dying people to talk to. A tall gray-haired man, who projected nothing, no empathy, no humor, no ability to even engage his eyes with yours. At times I imagined desperate patients grabbing hold of his white coat to keep him just one minute longer, to explain just a bit more, to force him to offer a little more of something that was absolutely not available.

So what’s the new number, Joe asked.

A normal PSA is under four; when the cancer was discovered, Joe’s was 17. It had been rising quite steadily since—taking breaks for radiology and then hormone treatments. Both treatments worked for a while, and then the numbers started to rise again. Last week the magic number came in at one hundred forty.

For the first time, the doctor’s bright blue eyes looked straight at my husband. Are you ready? He said. Eight hundred and sixty-four.

We all paused. The number hung in the air.

That’s some chair, the oncologist said. He ran his finger over the red and the chrome.

I love it, Joe said. I can’t believe how fast it can go.

What does that number mean? I said. I’ve never heard of a number that high.

That’s the point, the oncologist said; it’s only a number. My father-in-law had numbers over a thousand. It’s just a number.

Okay, it was just a number.


I thought about asking how high his father-in-law’s numbers had gone before he died, but that question seemed pointless, needless. What difference would it make?

We made an appointment for next week, and went to the always crowded cafeteria for some food. Joe had mostly lost his appetite, but I loved how the cancer cafeteria made grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, and sometimes Joe would forget he didn’t like to eat any longer and take a bite. I left him to guard a table while I got the sandwich and a bottle of water. When I came back, Joe looked at me, his hands still on red chair’s steering wheel, and gave me a big grin.

Eight hundred and sixty-four, he said.

I looked at him, he looked at me and finally we started to laugh.

Eight hundred and sixty-four, he kept giggling. Fucking eight hundred and sixty-four.


Three months ago, we had moved from our house in East Hampton to a large apartment building in Manhattan, where we rented a small apartment with a tiny kitchen but a great view of the FDR drive and the East River from the living room and the bedroom and, of course, it was just five blocks from Memorial Sloan Kettering. Convenient if you had cancer.

I had made us move. I had made us sell our house. We were down to almost no money, and the only real asset we had was the house. Joe was a combination of his parents with money— very worried about it, just like his mother, but worry was always trumped by his Dad’s free spending, careless ways. When we married, Joe had taken charge of our money; I signed my paycheck and handed it to him, he paid the bills, and chose our investments. After all, I was just a creative, an advertising copywriter. Joe, on the other hand, had an MBA, he was a businessman, a financial sophisticate. Also a very casual, trusting man, it turned out. The investments that he made listening to broker after broker left us broker and broker. And the final nail in our financial coffin came when he forgot to pay the premium on his life insurance, and by the time he remembered, the cancer had been diagnosed and radiation had started. So there was no life insurance. He couldn’t work; I was taking care of him and bringing in no money.

You’re right, I know you’re right, I know we can’t afford to stay, Joe had said. I know it’s the right choice, but I’d rather be here, at home.

I felt like the villain. How could I be saying no to him?

But how could he be so cavalier about what would happen to me? I was fifty-five; way too old to go back to advertising. It was a young person’s business.

Was I angry with him? Then, I would have said no. But of course I was angry. He was supposed to take care of me – that was part of our deal, and he was taking me to the cleaners instead. I wanted Joe to have everything he wanted. Yet I knew we should sell, take the profits, reduce our expenses and move back to Manhattan. Where my sisters lived. My son lived. Two of Joe’s daughters lived. Where we would be close to his doctors, not four hours away, the way we were now. Where they could—where they would—keep him alive.

So Joe was uprooted and thrown into a new place, a new vista, an unknown perspective. Of course, on the other hand, if we had still been living in East Hampton, his friends probably would never have made the hours long car trip out to see him there. So there’s that.

And, most happily, the day after we’d gotten the eight hundred and sixty-four result, his friends from Larchmont finally came to visit. This was a long planned event—there were three of them; Joe had been the fourth amigo. They had met as young men, young husbands and fathers, at the beginning of their careers. Commuter friends, bar-car buddies first, then eventually, since they all lived in the same Westchester community, over the years the wives had become friendly, and they all became a social group. For many years the four amigos had owned Jets season tickets—finally giving up on the seats and the Jets when they left New York and moved to Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

I was the second wife, and Joe and I had never lived in Westchester, so I didn’t really know any of the amigos, or particularly care—except for my particular amigo, Joe, who was so elated that his old friends were coming to visit him.

Why do you think it took them this long?

Joe, I said. Think about it. When you knew Sherman was dying you couldn’t even pick up the phone and talk to his wife, aside from him. You didn’t even go to the funeral. And you knew Sherman over forty years.

He didn’t say anything. But it was the truth – people hate death, and people really dread the dying. It is such a reminder of everything no one wants to be reminded about.

At any rate, the friends came. They all sat in the living room, Joe with a pillow behind him, and after I brought in cookies and coffee I got out of the way and stayed in our bedroom and tried to read. But I could hear them—first halted and tense-sounding, and after a while they were all laughing, telling stories, I could clearly make out Joe’s whoops and cackles. And after they left, Joe’s face was truly glowing. It’s a description I’ve often read, but this was the first time I’d seen it—he was like a white Halloween pumpkin with a candle inside, so satisfied and so happy to have been visited.

Now comes the part where it goes to hell in a hand basket.

Whatever that means.

Joe slept on the side of the bed nearest to the bathroom. I slept near the window. That next morning he groaned and said, I need the toilet and I can’t move fast enough. His voice was rising, almost shrieking and he was trying to wrap his hands around the walker next to him, frantically working to extract himself from the bed sheets and blankets. At the same time I was out of my side of the bed and running to his but as I got him standing and holding the walker, starting the lurching trip towards the bathroom, black liquid began to flow out from his anus and he began to vomit the same black stuff. I got him onto the toilet seat and gave him a wastebasket to hold for the vomit and called the hospital.

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