When the doctor arrived, I was surprised. I’d been prepared for a long wait. We’d been in the room for only a few minutes, sitting rigid, side by side. He politely asked if I was coming, and I stammered. In fact, he was addressing Pierre. He’d spoken to him directly, without even looking at me. His manner was professional, maybe a bit ceremonious. Pierre said, “Yes” and got up, and I followed suit.
We sat on iron chairs, facing a big desk. The doctor took a seat on the other side and put his notes in order. He seemed to hesitate; he was practically squinting, his eye darting from Pierre to me as if he couldn’t decide. I started feeling uneasy. Maybe he was just getting warmed up.
Finally, he lowered his eyes to his pages again. He read the figures in silence, nodding.
I gazed at Pierre. There was nothing to read on his face, not the slightest expression. He was waiting, and I decided to imitate him. Through the window, a little courtyard was visible. A well of light, with four walls a few meters apart. Brilliant rays were falling into it. I wondered what the sky looked like.
The doctor coughed, giving the signal: he was ready. Pierre started to make a movement but then changed his mind. He looked so nervous that I asked myself how long I’d been staring outside.
“The results aren’t good.”
That came too fast. I wasn’t expecting it, not even after the coughing. I mean, I didn’t think the announcement would come so directly. Pierre fidgeted. I saw his lips move, but I didn’t hear anything. I put my hand on his and signaled to the doctor to go on.
There was something. A spot, a growth on the head of the pancreas. Further tests would be necessary; the doctor suspected complications. The white stools—they were the reason. There was also dark urine sometimes, but that wasn’t systematic. Pierre’s fatigue, his vomiting, his backaches: they all had the same explanation.
“It’s a tumor. It’s too soon to say how far along it is, but we must react quickly.”
The silence that followed was, I believe, deliberate. He was giving us time to absorb the information.
Pierre’s hand began to tremble against mine.
I compensated for the trembling by squeezing harder.
The doctor started to talk again, and his timing was perfect.
“Whatever the level of seriousness may be, an operation is necessary. From the looks of it, it seems possible to remove the whole thing. That’s a good point.”
I gave Pierre a smile, a tense smile. He wasn’t looking at me.
The doctor talked about the operation: “Major surgery, but the techniques are well understood.” He spelled out the risks: 80 percent success rate. He asked us what we thought. I say “us,” but he was gazing at my son. There was no more hesitation, neither in his voice nor in his eyes. Pierre, on the other hand, turned to me. I could see the fear spread across his face.
“I…I agree… If it’s necessary… Right, Dad?”
I averted my eyes. I was ashamed. I couldn’t bear to meet his. I said yes, of course, we agree. The sooner, the better. The doctor nodded, looking grave, and then he smiled. “I’m going to perform the operation myself. Everything will be fine.”
There were some more complicated details. Date, anesthetic, allergies. Pierre answered the questions, and I tried to concentrate. That made my forehead hot, and I had trouble breathing. I looked into the courtyard, but a cloud was obstructing the sun. Not a bright spot to be seen.
Pierre shook my arm, and the doctor repeated himself: “Is it all right with you if your son comes back to the hospital tomorrow morning?”
Tomorrow. The word resounded inside my skull. I murmured in agreement. After that, I sighed a long, slow sigh. I felt panic coming on, and I didn’t want it to show.
“Perfect, we’ll meet again tomorrow.”
He stood up and gave us his hand. A smile was fixed to his lips. It was comforting to see how self-assured he was. He accompanied us to the door of his office. I stepped ahead and didn’t see Pierre’s face. The sounds of our footsteps echoed on the staircase. We were suddenly alone, and I had to speak. I was terrified. I settled for going down the stairs and turning around from time to time.
The air outside was like a slap on the nose. We took a few steps, and I put my arm around his shoulders.
“It’ll be all right, my Pierrot. I…”
I didn’t finish my sentence. Pierre had raised his eyes—they were filled with tears.
I pulled him close, and he slumped against my shoulder.
Back home, I regained my calm. I tried to reassure him and then cooked us something to eat, talking about the progress of medicine as I did so. I don’t think he was listening to me; he wanted to know. What did it all mean? Because, after all, the doctor hadn’t said a whole lot. A tumor, yes, that sure sounded bad, but he hadn’t said “cancer.” Was there a difference?
There we were, too alone and too ignorant not to torment ourselves. We were going to have to get used to it. Nobody would say anything—at least, not right away. There would be other tests and careful, rigorous diagnoses. But all the same: they were going to lay him on a table and open his belly. The doctor had been confident, which counted for a lot. But how about afterward? Would that be the end of it?
Surely not. So why hadn’t he clarified anything?
When Pierre became insistent, I told him to calm down. I didn’t know any more than he did, and it was eating away at me just as much.
I clowned around for him, and it made me think about Lucille. It was strange. I often did that for her. Maybe that’s all I’ve got. An outdated weapon, a glass wall.
It was pathetic, but I kept it up all the same. Pierre smiled once or twice, so I scored a few points. When the meal was over, he went out to see some friends. To my surprise, that made me feel good.
I got after the dishes, humming a familiar tune. My hands shook in the stream of water from the faucet. I felt the walls closing in, and so I sang louder. Blood rushed to my skull, my heart raced in my chest. I thought that I’d suffered with Lucille, and how, but I’d never been afraid. It took Pierre to scare me to death. Whenever he came home too late, whenever he was gone too long. After a while, I learned to recognize it. That anxiety, that terrible frustration: as if all things were determined to slip away from me.
My son. Only he could put me in such a state. My brain raving, my imagination shooting off in a thousand directions at once. You find yourself making up all kinds of nonsense. He always wound up coming home in the end, and I’d get annoyed at myself for having worried so much.
A dish slipped out of my hand and broke in the sink. I watched the water running over the broken pieces of crockery.
Maybe this time was different.
Pierre entered the hospital at eleven in the morning. Operation tomorrow. I stayed with him the whole day. They served him a light midday meal. He wasn’t hungry. We talked, the two of us, mostly me. Nobody came in to tell us anything; I had no idea how much time he would spend here. I offered to bring him some books to read, but he declined. “I’ll be too tired.” I insisted, and in the end he gave me a list of novels.
The surgeon came to see Pierre in the afternoon. He explained the operation to us. He went through the whole thing, every step. He spoke well, but there was too much distance. I mean, the words he used, they were no doubt the right words. And the details too, they were helpful in reassuring us. He knew what he was doing. However, I’d expected something more personal. Why didn’t he touch my son? He could have sat down beside him, could have made a gesture; that would have been warmer. But he remained standing at the foot of the bed, and his voice resounded too far away from us.
A few moments later, he left the room. I felt like following him into the corridor. There were so many questions. I restrained myself so as not to upset Pierre. I stayed at his side, and—finally—he fell asleep. Seeing him so tired made me feel guilty. I hadn’t seen anything coming. The weeks when he’d been so exhausted, the backaches he’d complained about, the vomiting. He was my son, I spent my time looking at him. But I had missed the only thing that really counted.
It was almost seven in the evening. I stood up and walked over to the window. The sun’s last rays were lighting up the walls of the hospital. A shimmering orange veil settled over the buildings. I’ve always loved the fading light of day. The final parade, a lap of honor, and then the night.
The nurse came in to tell me that visiting hours were over. I could come back tomorrow; the operation was scheduled for the early morning. I thanked her and leaned down over Pierre. He’d woken up and was silently observing me. I wanted to hug him, but I restrained myself. I never do that sort of thing—I’m afraid it may be too solemn.
I ran my hand through his hair. There was a gleam in the depths of his eyes. Not fear, no. Maybe a little apprehension. I thought he was pretty damn brave. I told him so, and he blushed slightly.
Out in the corridor, everything seemed smaller than it had when we got there. I took a little tour to see if I might be able to find the doctor. All I saw were a couple of nurse’s aides, two women who were clearing away the meal trays; they smiled at me as I passed. I went downstairs with an old man. In the elevator, I realized that he hadn’t even noticed me. Everything seemed so familiar to him; he must have been coming here for a long time.
It was cold outside. The night had won in the end. I walked to my car. Not far away, the main thoroughfare was roaring with traffic as people left work. Since I didn’t want to go home, I turned on my roof light. I felt better at once—my taxi often has that effect on me.
As I was pulling out of the parking area, a woman raised her hand, and I stopped.
She didn’t wait long before starting to prattle away. Ordinarily, I like passengers who talk. But in this case, I was sorry I’d picked her up. I wanted to concentrate on myself, on my hopes and fears. I needed to let my brain analyze the situation, fabricate the future, reflect on what could happen to us. Rising to the occasion would require some imagination on my part.
Of course, there was no way that the woman in the back seat could know any of this. She just kept on telling her story. Her husband was the reason why she was there. “It’s hard to recover from a heart attack at his age.” I understood completely, but I didn’t give a damn. I muttered, “Yes, yes,” as experience had taught me to do. Her voice was too loud. I couldn’t think.
“He will recover.”
As to that, I should have no doubt. A sturdy fellow, her Léon. And besides, his time wasn’t up yet. “The problem is physical degeneration. He’s always been a force of nature.” My own father too, that’s the type of guy he was. A bear. My mother liked to call him that. But Léon didn’t like anything about losing his strength. “It’s terrible, you know? He needs a nurse to help him relieve himself. That’s what’s wearing him down, having to depend on other people…”
When we reached her destination, she left me a big tip. I thanked her and wished her good luck. She walked away. I watched her go, because there was an incredible dignity in her step.