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Allison Gruber


You sound so calm, a friend said last week during a phone call. Is it the Prozac? She asked, hopefully, as though the solace we all seek is available in pill form. 


She mistakes my quiet for calm. 


Once a month, I drive down the mountain to Scottsdale to get, what I call “rich people treatment” for the stage iv cancer I was diagnosed with back in January. I stay in an all-but-abandoned Holiday Inn and watch a series about airplane disasters on the Weather Channel. 


I enjoy the anonymity provided by masks. One can only approximate who I am. From a distance, one cannot be certain this is me. My oncologist says, through his mask, that they won’t be starting me on “the good drug” because it reduces white blood cell counts and, well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I get the next best thing - tiny rust colored pills that leave a vaguely metallic taste in my mouth. 


I absorb copious amounts of news in print and on television. In between the body count on CNN, advertisements of the “good drug” I’m supposed to be taking now but am not because of COVID. The women in the ads typically have twenty years on me and are doing things like greeting their grandchildren on wooden porches or wiping their brows with the backs of their hands as they plant tulips or meeting other women their age at crowded cafes, an activity unthinkable now.


Sometimes, I miss my radiation treatments because I was able to talk to other people who have cancer during a pandemic: once a guy with melanoma in his eye. Another time a guy with throat cancer that spread to his liver and lungs. Breast cancer recurrence, I revealed to the latter. That spread to my chest wall and spine. 


Then we are quiet. 


Silence is more often resignation than it is peace. 


How am I? Slightly radioactive; muted. 


Today, I was home. Up at five with the puppy, swallowed my battalion of pills, drank coffee, watered “the kitchen jungle” - the mint bending toward the window, the spider plants that have grown upward and tangled into the hanging fern, the string of pearls that must be repotted - one day. 


If my “good drug,” my next PET scan, my next surgery can wait, then so can plants. 


How am I? Void of urgency; lingering on the precipice of a brand new nostalgia. 


I spend time on video calls with my students; increasingly their faces are replaced by avatars -- anime, stills from films, cats. The avatars pulse when they speak. Each week is more sparsely attended than the next. I’m not angry about their absences, but I miss them, miss being together in my classroom. 


In the early fall, there are sunflowers in the meadow across the street; their cheerfulness used to distract us. 


Someday it will again be early fall, and the sunflowers will quietly be there, even if we aren’t. 


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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020