At a party a few weeks ago, a stranger said to me: “Tell me about yourself.”
So I told him where I live, and what I do, and I added that my favorite sandwich these days is peanut butter and banana, by way of communicating my opinion that the command “tell me about yourself” is exactly the kind of asinine conversational shortcut that a man “in finance” would use.
I thought about that later, though, that non-question, “Tell me about yourself.” How can I define myself to a stranger at a cocktail party? I’m not sure that I can, but, here’s a thing about me:
I wake up happy every morning.
Last Monday, my parents, my sister, and I clustered into half of a hospital room on the chemotherapy floor of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We wore white surgical masks that hooked around our ears, to protect the embattled immune systems around us from our robust pathogens. For a few minutes we fussed with shopping bags, and pillows, and chairs. The quiet center of us was my brother-in-law Jamon. He stood still, wheezing gently with every breath he took. He also had a white mask for a face.
Jamon’s window showed a world outside occupied with the hours of late afternoon. Across the East River were the four smokestacks of Big Allis, the Trans Canada power station, sticking into the sky above Queens, merrily striped in red and white, like asbestos candy canes.
I narrowed my eyes at those stacks, and thought, you.
The doctors say the cause of Jamon’s cancer is environmental.
Would that be the lead pipes in his first apartment? The chemical cosmopolitan of pesticides and herbicides used to conscientiously bomb the soybeans that grow on our farm? Parabens? Three years of smoking? Second-hand smoking? Cell phone signals? Car exhaust fumes? Diet Soda? Regular soda? Weekly consumption of red meat? Negative thoughts? A hex from an old girlfriend? 9/11?
Pick a card, any card.
Modern life can inspire a bit of cynicism, and that can especially flare up during a presidential campaign. The ice caps are melting and the Maldives are screwed. The space shuttle is a museum piece. People in Libya are going lynch-mob homicidal because of a glorified home movie posted on the internet by some sad, irrelevant loony. The Pinta Island Tortoise has just gone extinct. There are mass shootings. There are suggestions to arm everyone as a way of preventing mass shootings. Practically everyone I know under thirty is on Lexapro. Wireless devices may not be facilitating interaction so much as replacing it. Some of my friends think they were born too late. Others too early.
I’ll tell you this: I’m not thinking about the ice caps when I wake up in the morning.
Jamon’s hospital room was divided in half by a curtain. The other half was occupied by a Parisian businessman being treated for leukemia. The curtain had a muted floral pattern, but as a screen to privacy it was only a fig leaf. We overheard him talking to his children on Skype, telling his son to do his homework. Later that night, while my sister and brother-in-law and I sat talking, we heard the businessman vomiting. I winced at every violent retch and avoided my sister’s stricken face. For a minute we tried not to listen to the sound of sickness crashing into cure, the grinding gears of a death thrown into reverse. I stumbled over the end of the story I was telling and fell quiet, silenced by this intimacy with a dying stranger, who in three days we never once spoke to.
But had I not been born in these modern times, had I been born in, say, 1740, I would have died at age thirteen. That’s how old I was when I contracted one of those unnamed infections that crawls out of parents’ nightmares, the withering kind that starts out like a regular kid sickness but just keeps getting worse. It turned my strong lungs into asthmatic sacs and my strong brain into a thing that tortured me with dreams of war every night. I was in bed for a little over a month. The antibiotic that eventually cured me was erythromycin.
Maybe the next time a bored man in finance says, “Tell me about yourself,” I should raise my glass and spread my arms and say, “Congratulate me, friend! For I have cheated death!”
Over forty-eight hours, Jamon received rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, prednisone, pegfilgrastim, allopurinol, acyclovir, sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim, fluconazole, sennosides, prochlorperazine, oxycodone, docusate, prilosec, lorazepam, and alprazolam.
The golf-ball-sized tumor under his jaw shrank and disappeared. Every time I came back to the hospital room, he was a different color. First white. Then grey, then yellow. Then, on the morning of the third day… pink.
Four days later I was in the back of a cab speeding through Queens, on the way to LaGuardia airport. I was staring sleepily out the window when I recognized the red and white smoke stacks of Big Allis, with the dark skyline of Manhattan behind. The early morning light was on them, and they glowed, now cast like that against the city.
I don’t know what happened to the Parisian businessman.
I wake up every morning. And I’m happy.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.