Abraham Stopped at Ten

By Alan Jolis '73 / January / February 1999
November 19th, 2007

The big moment finally arrives. It has been four weeks since my first CAT scan and two weeks since the surgeon operated on my brain. This is high-anxiety time. Will the emperor turn his thumb up or down?

At our first conference, my wife, Cilla, had felt terribly betrayed when the neurosurgeon smiled and, in a relaxed tone of voice, handed me what amounted to a preliminary death sentence. Now, for the final diagnosis, she has come prepared with a tape recorder, pen, paper, and a lot of attitude: This whole thing is completely unacceptable.

The doctor's smile evaporates when Cilla plonks down the tape machine in front of him. "Are you going to sue me?" he asks.

"No," she explains. "I just don't want to get anything wrong."

Cilla likes doctors who empathize and tell you how upset they feel. I prefer a no-nonsense techno-nerd who gives it to you straight. This one does: "The neuropathologist's preliminary report found no cancer, and his final report came to the same conclusion," the doctor tells us. "But today he found malignant cells and changed his final report. I am glad, because I was convinced of this all along." He smiles. "I didn't want him to come up with something that would later be proven wrong." So I have what my mother died of, a category-four brain tumor known as a glioblastoma multiforma. There is no known cure. With palliatives, radiation, and chemotherapy, most patients live a year. If you are young and healthy enough to be operated on again, you can live a year and a half to two years. The problem is that my tumor is on the left side of my brain, so a second operation may not leave me in great shape. And all the chemotherapies buy you an average of fifteen extra days of life. These are the statistics I recite in response to friends and family who generously call or write to tell me there is no question that I am going to survive. Although I appreciate their sentiments, I end up sounding like a funeral director as I inform them of the odds against me. Still, of the 150 cases of my type of cancer diagnosed in Stockholm every year, one or two patients live on for reasons no doctor can explain: luck, a miracle, willpower?

I have every intention of surviving. If I don't, it won't be from lack of trying. So we have decided to ignore the statistics - the median is not the message - as well as the doctors who tell me to let go and hang out at the beach.

My father-in-law once asked me if I ever would consider giving up my career as a writer. I answered, almost without thinking, "Every single cell in my body rejects that notion." The same is true now that the question concerns my life. I have a lot of books to finish, my commentaries on NPR's Marketplace to write, a new baby to father, my son Jake's soccer team to coach next spring. Translations of my books, Speak Sunlight and Love and Terror, are coming out in France, Germany, and Spain. My marriage has never been better. This is not the time for me to check out!

Every day when I get up at 4 a.m. and sit down at my desk to write before the kids wake up at 7, I feel blessed to be alive. I don't want to change my life; I only wish it would continue for another forty-five years. I am like Abraham dickering with God over the number of righteous it would take for Him to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, except I am dickering in years. Twenty-five, or twenty, or fifteen, or even ten more years would be great. Abraham stopped at ten righteous, but I would take five years. When my mother died at the age of seventy-six, I thought her death was terribly unfair. But now hers strikes me as a wonderful age at which to pass away, and if I could sign on the dotted line for seventy-six, I would do so this very second.

Some things in my daily routine have changed. Gustave Flaubert used to spend an entire afternoon deciding whether a period should be a semicolon. I can't say I emulate him these days. I no longer chase the kids out of my office; I let Jake sit at my knees and file my papers while I write. I take vitamins. We have become loosely defined vegetarians. Since doctors don't seem to have a clue about this cancer, we are trying alternative medicine - mistletoe extract, Brazilian ginseng. Cilla and I go for long walks.

Although I can't drive, and long letters must be read aloud to me, my quality of life is excellent. I am in no physical pain. My ability to read is slowly coming back, and my postoperative Frankenstein lurch is receding. All we need to do is prevent a regrowth of the tumor for six months. Some people die in plane crashes and don't have a chance to kiss their loved ones good-bye. Surrounded by my family, I am grateful for each day I still have on earth.

Alan Jolis lives with his wife and two sons in Bromma, Sweden. His most recent novel, Love And Terror, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in July.

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January / February 1999