A Visit from the Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies doesn’t stand on ceremony, he makes house calls.

He whispered to me in the doctor’s voice telling me that I had cancerous cells in my pap smear.

He came to me, a week earlier, actually, when the doctor said he was seeing some abnormal cells, and wanted to do another pap test.

He came to me, years earlier when previously I had had an “abnormal result.” and a re-test found nothing amiss.

Clearly, the emperor is a patient soul.

Now, however, there was something amiss.

There are a million ways to respond to this news and my response was “get on it.” I phoned Sloan Kettering and made an appointment with gynecologic cancer specialist, Dr. Abu Rustum. And he scheduled me for a laparoscopic hysterectomy in two weeks time.

Waiting.

I didn’t broadcast the news, but told the man who has since become my husband, and my daughter, who was about 30 at the time. She and I were re-building a badly frayed relationship. I could say that our relationship deteriorated because of the divorce but really, it suffered because of pain, deep emotional pain that made me less the mother that I wanted to be, and her pain, which I guess made her less the daughter she wanted to be.

But was time running out?

The man in my life had received only very cursory approval from her, which I understood, since my daughter and I were still standing far apart, trying to rebuild trust and show respect. She was all grown up and I could not presume anything.

But that man, ah, that man. We had worked together in a newsroom for years. We had come together only two years before in mourning, both of us having lost the editor we both loved and respected and he had lost his fiancee three months before that. Death rimmed us. When I looked into his eyes I saw the fear he was trying to hide — the fear that whispered “Oh no, not again.”

The emperor isn’t death, exactly, but plays the role of John the Baptist, preparing the way.

And what was that way? That this man would love and lose again? That she would never become the daughter she wanted to be? That I would not get to live this new love that was just blooming? That I would never get to be the mother I wanted to be?

I left both of them at the swing doors that led to the operating theaters. Both of them standing, apart. And I walked into the future.

That room was cold as I was prepped.

And then I was groggily awake, warm, with my two great loves each holding one of my hands. I knew then that the emperor holds miracles in his: Of love finding its way through time. 

Each of them, a miracle.

 Eds. note: Yes, I borrowed the emperor and his title from Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-American physician, biologist, oncologist, and author. In 2010 he published The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, It’s a great book, and not nearly as depressing as you might think!

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