“Treatment” is an excerpted chapter from my novel GOOD HEART, published in 2018 by Gefen Publishing House. GOOD HEART interweaves the stories of a Jewish family and a Christian family over three generations. The reader is taken from World War II Europe to a small town evangelical church in Indiana to Ethiopia, and on to modern Israel. This chapter explores the preconceptions of Jews and Christians about each other and Israel. GOOD HEART is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and at Steimatzy bookstores in Israel.
Off to the right of the Palm Grove Cancer Center’s chemotherapy waiting room, a dozen tropical fish swam in their cubic world. With a soothing slow motion and synchronized pace, they easily avoided colliding with each other or sideswiping the three steep coral mountains. It was 2008, and while the rest of the country listened to Alicia Keys and Chris Brown, soft oldies tunes washed over the Florida hospital’s older patients.
In the center of the waiting room, sitting behind an oval island desk was the tall young woman who reviewed the sign-in sheet. She’d watch the patients autograph the lined page, and with a soft voice she identically told each patient, “Please take a seat until you are called.”
Comfortable bucket chairs and sofas were arranged in groups of two, three, and four, and side tables offered neat stacks of up-to-date magazines.
As a result of Bobby’s diagnosis, even though he and Andrea were in their forties, they had decided to retire early and rent a home in Florida half the year. The cancer made it very difficult for Bobby to continue working. Thankfully, he’d done very well for himself as an engineer, so retiring early was an option. He and Andrea had always dreamed of retiring to an area with warm weather and a beach. With Bobby’s declining health, they decided to live there part-time as Meredith went off to college.
Bobby was already sitting alone in the middle of a three-chair grouping when Arnie Krakow walked in. Arnie sat down and began shuffling through a manila folder stuffed with newspaper clippings. His head was tilted up and his eyes focused down as he looked though the lower half of his eyeglasses, trying to read each piece’s headline.
Recognizing each other from prior visits, Bobby and Arnie nodded. They had seen each other three or four times and shared simple pleasantries. Bobby imagined that this kind of modern medicine camaraderie, shaped by common misfortune, must be similar to combat buddies in a shared foxhole. They silently acknowledged each other’s courage, understanding the other’s pains and fears.
Bobby sat down near Arnie and asked reflexively, “How are you doing?”
Arnie responded, “You know what they say. What’s a little cancer so long as you’ve got your health?”
Bobby burst out laughing. “Perfect.”
“It’s a favorite of mine.”
“That really sums up it up. Half full, half empty,” Bobby added.
Arnie continued, “More like quarter full, half empty.”
Arnie had always liked non sequiturs with their clever use of the absurd and clear disrespect for the conventional, the convenient, and the cliché.
Minutes later, a nurse, carrying a thick folder, stepped partway through the double doors at the back of the waiting room and called out Arnie’s name. “Arnold…Krakow, Arnold.”
Arnie thought to himself about the sonorous, hopeful tone that doctor’s office nurses used when they announced your name. It never seemed to fit the situation. He wondered if maybe they thought they were announcing your winning selection by the lottery commissioner and didn’t realize that what you hear is the warden’s unsympathetic voice echoing down the concrete corridors of death row.
When Bobby’s name was called, like Arnie’s before him, he passed through the double doors and was led to a cozy, square room designed not to feel like a hospital. Instead of stainless steel, white Formica, and glass, there was wooden furniture and comfortable seating.
Exiting the pre-treatment room, Bobby was then escorted through another set of double doors and around a corner to the infusion room, where a plaid lounge chair waited. There, magic elixirs would be introduced into his body through his previously installed chest port.
The infusion room’s chemo delivery chairs were nicely spaced and separated by privacy curtains that were drawn back. The chairs looked much like La-Z-Boy loungers, but with extended armrests. Different combinations of electronic monitors, rolling infusion poles, two-tier utility carts, and visitors’ chairs stood by each patient. As Bobby walked by, Arnie looked up, happy to see that he was to be docked right next to him.
Bobby was soon seated, wired, and connected. His specially prepared cancer-fighting cocktail dripped through a tube downstream from a saline pouch that hung limply from a pole. Arnie thought to himself that he’d give Bobby time for the nurses to complete their routine before he began a conversation.
About fifteen minutes later, Arnie looked to his left and saw Bobby was awake and looking passively at the tiled ceiling. Quietly, he asked Bobby, “Are you comfortable? Would you like to chat?”
Bobby turned his head and then his shoulders toward Arnie. “Sure, it’s a good way to make the time pass. Let me introduce myself.”
Bobby felt the loneliness of battling cancer. His wife Andrea had been so kind and supportive. But the impossible-to-suppress fears for himself ping-ponged around in his mind.
Sometimes, Bobby thought back to his father and mother and their clear-eyed view of right and wrong. He faced the battle with cancer knowing he was his father’s son. Recalling the Indiana home where he was raised and the events that had shaped his life, Bobby thought to himself, Dad fought his way across Europe and survived to tell about it, and now I have to tough it out with radiation and chemo and whatever else is in store for me.
Bobby rearranged his blanket and began, “I’m Bobby Langford. I’m originally from a small town in Indiana, and my wife Andrea and I still live near there. We have a small winter home here in sunny Florida near Stuart.”
Brightening, he added, “I told my wife I could handle this one by myself. She’ll be here to pick me up afterwards. How about you?”
Pausing for a moment, Arnie had to organize his thoughts so he could give an equally succinct response. “I was born and raised in New York City, and we lived in New Jersey before retiring to Florida,” he said. “We have a place near Boynton Beach.”
Bobby nodded. Arnie continued, “Yeah, Fran will retrieve me later, too. She’s off duty right now.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Arnie noted, “Congratulations to us. Neither of us chose to identify our cancers.”
“Great. I don’t know about you, but I resent being tagged as the ‘fill-in-the-blank malignant organ guy,’” he said.
Gathering steam, Arnie added, “We both led full lives and there was no damn reason why some misanthrope’s ‘glad it’s not me’ pity should define me as one diagnosis, one flawed body part, and skip over the full measure of my life, and not acknowledge all the good stuff.”
Bobby smiled back and agreed, “Absolutely right. It’s the same as when somebody dies and all the chatter is about what in his last days or minutes he said or did. It’s all out of proportion.”
As Arnie repositioned himself in his lounge chair, a manila folder stuffed with news clippings slid off his blanket and onto the floor.
The clippings cascaded out. An auburn-haired nurse happened to see the minor accident and glided over. She scooped up the newspaper fragments and tucked them back into the folder. With a smile, she handed them back to Arnie.
Bobby casually asked Arnie, “Whatcha got there? Working on something interesting?” Arnie was now faced with a dilemma. He thought to himself that Bobby, who was a total stranger, seemed like a bright, affable fellow. They had exchanged only a few dozen unremarkable words, but Bobby did appreciate his gallows humor.
The real reason for the clippings was to help Arnie craft a letter to the editor of a national paper concerning a sensitive subject. Arnie was unsure of how to answer Bobby or how candid he should be.
Arnie cautiously inched forward with his explanation. “Well, I don’t know your politics, but here goes.” Deliberately avoiding the big reveal about his touchy subject and his point of view, Arnie stalled, “I’m writing a letter to the editor to a national paper. It probably won’t be published, but it makes me feel better.”
Bobby listened carefully, waiting for the specifics. He showed no reaction and simply inhaled and exhaled a little more deeply. The tubes, the funky colored liquids with the little bubbles, the antiseptic smells, and the unnatural quiet of the facility had slowed down his reality.
It had occurred to Bobby that he had surrendered some big chunk of himself to the science that was keeping him alive; instead of the flowing medicine becoming part of him, he had become a part of the invasive, hygienic, therapeutic plumbing. He was just one stage, one human component, in a chemotherapy filtering and absorption process. Where did he end and the chemistry begin?
When first forming relationships with people, Arnie knew you should proceed slowly, ducking and weaving around any potentially sensitive subjects. Certainly, his wife Fran appreciated when he chose to “just let it go.” Fran was just as committed to his causes, but she thoughtfully selected who was worthy to discuss them with.
Robert Langford – he’s a Christian, he’s gotta be, Arnie thought to himself. Therefore, especially when it comes to Israel, you should step cautiously forward into the dark waters of political or religious discourse. First dip in your opinionated big toe; check how cold the water is.
Being Jewish himself, Arnie saw Christians as a people for whom things came more easily and more naturally. After all, America was largely a Christian country. He figured Christians could feel at home, comfortable in their own skins.
When it came to how Christians, in general, felt about Jews and Israel, Arnie assumed a genuinely benign indifference. He guessed they viewed Jewish stereotypes with some amusement.
“I want to refute the false, uninformed, and probably malign claims made by a bone-headed, biased reporter. He is the typical hack that the paper employs. The paper has a bad reputation for its…” Arnie decided to slow down as he verbally ran to the end of the proverbial dock.
As he lay there essentially motionless, Bobby waited for the specifics. Bobby’s mind was pleasantly still, and he watched Arnie struggle to articulate his issue.
Arnie revealed, “This biased columnist is impugning the sincerity of Israel’s desire for peace with the Palestinians. He’s accusing Israeli leadership of hypocrisy, delay, and dishonesty. This self-appointed genius wrote that Israel’s settlement policy was singularly ruining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and he didn’t once mention the generous offers Israel has made that were rejected.”
Well, I guess I’ll find out now if we’ll be friends or not, Arnie thought. Once again, he had opted for bluntness. Arnie pondered whether his chemotherapy mate knew or cared about the subject and whether he would respond with interest. Hey, he might take the absolute opposite point of view.
Over the years, Arnie had struggled to accept the reality that not everybody was predisposed positively to Israel and to the Jews. He was painfully aware that many Jews and non-Jews were simply indifferent to the festering geopolitical Middle East Gordian knot. It was an old story for Arnie. It was Arnie’s story.
Today Arnie hadn’t wanted to litigate Israel’s or the Jewish people’s many trials and conflicts. Yes, he could vigorously argue the case; he could, with legal exactitude, trot out the evidence. He could cite the millennia-old archeological and biblical proof. He could refute the oldest and most cleverly masked anti-Semitic or anti-Israel canards. He could face down the Holocaust deniers, the biased, the haters, the self-loathers, and the ill-informed.
Today, Arnie was worn down. He would have preferred talking about movies, travel, favorite foods, or family. Even over the few seconds describing the letter to the editor, Arnie regretted revealing his deeply held beliefs. It was too much.
With the cancer and all the associated uncertainty, Arnie had softened. His passionate, hair-trigger combativeness was being replaced by self-pity. The stress of juggling doctors, medicines, and medical discoveries weighed down on him.
Bobby simply told him in a low, even voice, “My best friend is Jewish, and his wife was born in Israel. Over the years, we’ve kept up with all the fighting, terrorism, and efforts to make peace.”
Confidently, Bobby professed, “The initiatives of Barak in 2000 and Olmert in 2008 would have given the Palestinians almost all of what they want today. Even the 1947 UN Resolution 181…it offered the Arabs a lion’s share of British-controlled Palestine. Arafat and Abbas, they’re two guys who just can’t get beyond the victimization story line.”
He looked to Arnie, asking, “Wasn’t it Abba Eban who said, ‘They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’?’’
Arnie just lay silently in his medical lounge chair and didn’t move a muscle. He wondered if all this was real. He was stunned.
Bobby had even more to say, but for now, he closed his eyes and tried to relax until his treatment was completed.
Arnie sat quietly, alone with his thoughts. His mind wandered back to memories from before he knew he had cancer.