"Forever House" by Joe Bardin

Joe Bardin

Joe Bardin

Joe is an essayist and playwright based in Arizona by way of Trenton, NJ, Washington DC, and Tel Aviv. He is the author of the essay collection Outlier Heart, (IFERS Press). His essays have appeared in numerous publications including Interim, Louisville Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rock & Sling, and Eclectica, and been anthologized in the Transhumanism Handbook (Springer). His plays have been performed both domestically and abroad. A scholarship alumni of the Valley Community of Writers, he is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

Forever House

When Bernie and I get home from the oncologist Jim is cooking dinner with pots, pans and utensils deployed democratically across counters, spiking up from the sink at abrupt angles, flying flags of soiled rags and soaked towels, and two pairs of scissors—why two? —all mucked up with everything else. 

Even through her anxiety, Bernie registers an annoyance that has survived decades of their living together, as if she still holds hopes that Jim will come around. But he manifests messes with as great an enthusiasm as ever, making their conflict a form of domestic immortality in itself. Lana, on the floor communing with the dogs, is no check to Jim’s collage of chaos—somehow she doesn’t see it. She’s not great at turning lights out either, much to my chagrin. 

Looking up from the throes of his creation, Jim asks how Bernie’s appointment went. He’s loved her longer than I have, which is an assurance to me rather than a threat, and he and Lana are as invested in her wellbeing as I am. But Bernie pauses, as if to honor some privacy between us, the privilege of our coupledom, or maybe just to spare them bad news. 

We just got back from meeting with Bernie’s care team. Before the meeting, the receptionist gave me the most recent PET scan report. Positron emission tomography (PET) uses radioactive materials to visually light up metabolic activity, including tumors. Typically, the doctor reviews the PET scan report with us when we meet, but Bernie just had her scan done the day before, and somehow in the last-minute shuffle the report fell directly into my hands. 

It seemed to say that Bernie had several new lesions on her spine and in her lungs. I read it again to be sure, but Bernie was already asking me what it says, and trying to edit out my fear, I sound like some emotionally absent clinician (maybe that’s why they sound that way). But she knew anyway. 

We were called in to meet the doctor. With his direct gaze and factual, reliable manner, he explained that these additional sites were tiny, so small in fact that they probably are not cancer and don’t represent any serious advancement whatsoever. He told us that for liability reasons the imaging company reports every single thing that shows up, just in case it turns into a tumor later, so they can’t be found negligent. 

But there was something else; a spot showed up in Bernie’s head, just outside her brain. It didn’t look like a malignancy, but we will need to find out. Bernie looked to me for encouragement, but I found none to offer. The PET scan report did me in, or maybe it was my own forced optimism that emptied me. I believe in Bernie absolutely, but cancer’s worry insinuates into areas of the mind too tired to defend themselves. If I am Bernie’s everything, then everything is not enough, and we will both perish from the sheer dryness of the well. 

We have lived with Jim and Lana long enough for there to be some dispute about how long we have lived together, but it’s more than fifteen years (I think). Lana’s full name is Ilana, but she is so quick minded in an intuitive way that she seemed to always be waiting for me to finish saying her name, so we could move on. So I’ve accelerated it to Lana for both of our sake.  She has the muscular build of being a personal trainer, but is empathetic to a fault, and advocates for Bernie’s comfort to a degree Jim and I sometimes overlook.

Jim is tall and broad shouldered and carries himself with an upright, regal bearing that people associate with celebrities. Though I don’t quite see it, they think he looks like David Bowie or Don Henley, maybe because of his handsome swept back hair; but he has the heart of a nurturer with excellent instincts for answering bodily complaints of all sorts. 

Though our house is large enough for four adults, no square footage would be sufficient if we didn’t flow. We live in the desert outside of Phoenix, our yard snake-proofed against rattlesnakes who appear at the beginning and end of the heat, often laying themselves right across the doorstep to cool down by the A/C. Roadrunners come and go as they please, as do bobcats, which I’ve come upon on a couple occasions in the early morning, crossing the patio with feline cool. And Harris Hawks, slate gray with a splash of rust on their well-fed bodies, can be seen hunting in three’s and fours from telephone poles, saguaros and mesquite trees. 

We typically talk openly about Bernie’s condition with Jim and Lana, who make up our war council. Oncologists speak with the authority of life and death, and we tend to want to make them the high priests of our health. Perhaps some lucky patients can do that—they meet a doctor who becomes their trusted guide through the whole span of treatment from start to finish, and what that doctor says goes. 

But when the first doctor’s approach doesn’t carry the day, and the second one doesn’t either, it becomes clear that they each have their particular approach to advocate for. Once you’ve heard well-intentioned, well-respected doctors propose widely divergent strategies of care, you know they don’t hold the truth—we do. The truth that we are the ones who have to live with the results.

But keeping the details of treatment options clear in our heads and weighing them against other options isn’t always simple. The clash of information and emotion, like cool air hitting hot, can leave us foggy. Each time we have to make a decision about Bernie’s care, the four of us sit together and talk it through, testing our recall of the information, our assessments of the implications and of the people involved. The final decision is Bernie’s.

Still, this news about the spot in Bernie’s brain seems to want to hide (like the spot itself). Maybe it’s our fear driving this concealment—which neither of us has spoken of openly—seeking to foster its power in silence.   

When Bernie was first diagnosed, she didn’t want to tell too many people. She’s a public speaker who, along with Jim, leads a group on longevity, so contracting cancer was not what she wanted to talk about. But the very next meeting after she got the news she went right ahead and told a room of a hundred people. Living her life out in the open is a key to Bernie’s longevity; secrets loom large but telling them can shrink them to size.

Why keep this worry to ourselves now? Is it somehow exclusive to us as lovers, a burden of our intimacy only we can bear? Is there something shameful about it that we must conceal? With cancer fear isn’t a character flaw—it’s as inevitable a byproduct as inflammation. Or does it broach some unspoken agreement of optimism between us, that all news must be framed in the most positive possible terms; how do we do that now? Optimism is great until it must be faked to be maintained, and then becomes just another form of dread.

I’m waiting for Bernie to open, but she’s waiting for me, as if we really don’t know whose news this is, mine or hers. It’s her brain, but she’s my life; what a strange sharing-of-body intimacy brings. And from it swells this bubble of silence that holds Bernie and I separate. Until finally I stop waiting for her and burst it myself, and start telling them about the scan, and Bernie opens her feelings. And then Lana and Jim rush to us, filling the places emptied by anxiety and emotional fatigue with a transfusion of feeling where ours had run out. 

Such spirit given and received wholly is holy, and a divine force moves among us in our disordered kitchen, not called down from on high, but drawn out from within; we walk together through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no cancer. Bernie is so receptive, so ready to rise that like a remedy under her tongue, their feeling goes straight into her bloodstream and she straightens up in front of our eyes, like a dry plant watered in time lapse photography.  This raises me too, because I need Bernie to feel her life, sometimes too much, since she can’t always get there. 

Why couldn’t my words of support have saved the day? They often do, but this time she needed to hear a different voice telling her she was living and moving toward more life, and I did too. If comfort is medicine, which it surely is, then sometimes we need to change up the prescription and dosage. 

In our culture, we easily resort to pieties about being “family” for almost any group that gets along, from a productive office to a basketball team on a winning streak, as if it is the ultimate expression of collective purpose. But family is a blood contract that lacks living fluidity—too much unresolved gunk in the emotional gears. 

We require some other unit of measure of togetherness, not founded on reproduction, on giving life to others, who in turn make it their purpose to do the same, but on living ourselves. Let’s call it a household, in the old English sense of hold, or place of refuge, but also because we hold one another. Jim and Bernie are business partners and before that they were intimate partners, and by not separating when that ended, by letting their feeling outlive the form, they shaped it into something larger, a forever feeling, which we all shelter in. 

It makes me wonder at the limitation built into the architecture of coupledom, which with just two people to support it, seems set up to fall. I suppose people find it hard enough to live with one person let alone more, but I wonder if couples would wear out at the same rate if they weren’t so isolated by the single-family dwelling.  

There is deep quiet at night out in the desert, broken sometimes by the bass hooting of gray owls and the wild cackling of coyotes. But that night I have trouble finding sleep, as my brain keeps clocking in—am I asleep yet? So I focus on letting go instead, a direct message to my brain to stop going guard dog I do this by picturing Bernie and Jim and Lana, holding me as I float in water. Why Jim and Lana and not just Bernie, my bedmate? Maybe I need more buoyancy than just what she can give, even in my mind; or maybe she needs a hand holding me up. Why should it just be left up to us two to stay afloat anyway?  With the assistance of Lana, Bernie and Jim, my brain releases its hold, and sleep comes on its own terms.  

One morning afterward, I’m writing in my office as usual, when to my dismay, a three-foot-long Mojave rattlesnake slithers past the sliding glass door. We secured every drain with chicken wire and fastened matting at the base of each gate so snakes can’t slip under, but a corner of matting has broken off below one gate, leaving a gap in plain view where the Mojave came through. Fat after feeding, the snake is a bit sluggish, and I risk losing sight of it to go call Jim to see it. Maybe he will take its execution off my hands. 

We have two dogs who may not even know how to kill a cottontail anymore and you can’t shoo a Mojave away. The most venomous snake in North America, they have both neurotoxic venom affecting nervous system and brain, and hemotoxic venom, which damages blood and tissue. Perhaps because of this power, they coil when confronted—even the babies—who are more deadly because they dump all their venom in a single bite.

With a five-foot-long former squeegee with a sharp metal edge, they are easy to kill when they coil, though the butchery is abhorrent and after all, it is their desert as much as ours. I’ve had to kill several over the years in a primal rush of adrenaline and blood, but this morning I can’t do it; after what felt like a close call with Bernie’s scan, I don’t want death anywhere near me. Though gentle by nature, Jim is an Arizona native, and he’s used to critters and sometimes having to kill them. 

We rush back outside and the snake is still in plain view on the patio. You can tell a Mojave by the black and white banded rattle, and the pattern of brown diamonds down their back.

Like seeing coyotes, javelina, bobcat, owls and hawks up close, its appearance opens an almost paranormal window into the dimension of the wild within our world, and we are both transfixed by it for a moment. 

By the wisdom of our household, and the virtue that neither Bernie or Lana takes sides with or against their man, Jim and I have learned to disagree with comfort, and to agree without the posturing of power. When I have definite feelings, no one moves me off them, but the truth is that, as with cooking, Jim does a lot of what I don’t want to do around the house anyway, and he does it better than me. Like killing snakes. 

But then something miraculous happens. Perhaps by the grace of our togetherness, the snake senses our presence, and rather than coiling, it makes a long, slow u-turn, and heads right out the gap it had come in. And there is no death in our forever house today.