The Cancer

Some years back, my wife received the news that absolutely no one ever wants to hear.  We were seated beside each other in front of her doctor’s desk as he told us the tests she’d undergone confirmed that she did, indeed, have Cancer.

In that instant, every item on our life’s to-do list faded to insignificance.  The scourge of Cancer immediately leapt to number one on our life-agenda.  We were, in a word, gobsmacked.

Over the next few weeks, we dragged ourselves through the same range of emotions so many other people have experienced, I’m sure—disbelief, anger, denial, terror, uncertainty, guilt, anxiety.  And then gradually, resolve, hope, and action.

A few years later, I received the same grim diagnosis, from a different doctor this time, but with the same gamut of emotions tumbling out in the wake of the news.  And with the same re-ordering of life’s priorities.  I suspect anyone who has received such a shock has experienced a similar phenomenon—every other issue of importance in one’s life comes to a jarring halt, at least for a time.

In both our situations, the Cancer had been growing inside our bodies for some while before we ever became aware of its presence.  And it had continued to grow during the time it took us to obtain medical advice, to undergo tests, and to receive the results back.  Our initial diffidence and slowness to act were based on a purely human trait, a perhaps-understandable reluctance to admit, even to ourselves, that something might be amiss, that something might disrupt the normalcy of our lives.

But Cancer, we discovered, is constrained by no such hesitancy.  It exists insidiously, mindlessly, remorselessly, bound by no laws except its own biological imperative to metastasize, to survive.  As with viruses, Cancer has no regard for our human concerns.  It has no mercy.

As I write this, both my wife and I have outdueled the scourge, at least for now.  But the possibility of recurrence is ever in our minds, even as our own innate optimism buoys us.  It fooled us once, but we are more vigilant now, and readier to act more quickly if the need arises.

Once bitten, as the old saw has it, twice shy.

But our personal experience reminds me, unhappily, of the situation in which we, as a species inhabiting this planet Earth, presently find ourselves.  For some time, a looming catastrophe has been growing, a sort of Cancer very few of us seem ready to acknowledge.  We are perhaps so wrapped-up with the management of other crises and issues of importance—pandemic disease, pollution and environmental degradation, malnourishment and hunger, government corruption and a rise in authoritarianism, regional wars, terrorism, substance abuse, domestic violence, to name a few—that we are unable to pause to re-order our priorities.

But like all other Cancers, this one will prove indifferent to our ignoring of its presence.  It will dwarf our other concerns, smother them, render them insignificant in the big picture, and will leap to the fore as humankind’s number one agenda-item.  It will continue to grow exponentially until such time as we resolve to take immediate, aggressive, and effective action to curtail it.  And by then—perhaps already—it may be too late.

Our planet, the only home we have in the vast reaches of the known universe, is overheating, so far uncontrollably.  It has been doing so for a long time now, since before we became aware of it, and has shown no sign of slowing down, even though some of the more learned and wise among us have finally acknowledged it. 

Glaciers melt, ocean-levels rise, moderate zones become sub-tropical, drought ravages formerly-fertile lands, famine spreads, extreme weather-events increase in frequency worldwide, wildfires rage.  And most ominously, global freshwater reservoirs are shrinking.

Like the oncologists my wife and I depended on to deal with our own Cancers, earth-scientists have conducted their tests, studied the results, and announced their diagnoses.  As they see it, climate change is the existential crisis of our time, the Cancer that has the potential to bring about the demise of human life on Earth as we know it. 

We ignore these warnings at our peril.

The hope, of course, is that advances in science and technology will merge with the ingenuity of humankind to arrest the changes that are upon us.  But even the most optimistic do not profess to believe the changes can be reversed.  Just as there is no guarantee my wife and I will remain Cancer-free forever, there is no assurance our Earth will fully recover from the climate-Cancer assailing it.

But we must deal with it.  And soon.

The Cancer has no mercy.


As a sometimes-hapless father, one of the things I learned about parenthood is there really wasn’t a lot that was new.  Most of it was just the same stuff I experienced in childhood, happening to my own children with me in the role my father once occupied.

I took a certain delight in discovering that.  It was fun to watch as my daughters encountered many of the same situations I faced when I was at their ages.  And it was comforting when I saw them reacting to circumstances in much the way I had.  It reinforced the notion that the values and beliefs my wife and I espoused were being passed along to them.

The tough part, of course, was watching what happened on the few instances when they made an unwise decision and had to face the consequences of their mistake.  I often wondered if my parents had felt the same conflicting emotions as I did on those occasions.

The hardest thing of all was resisting the temptation to tell my daughters what to do in every situation, to provide them a shortcut to what I’d had to find out on my own, sometimes through bitter experience.  But I’d managed to convince myself that keeping quiet was often safest, that the process of figuring out the best way to proceed was more important for them than just being given the right answer.

“They learn best through discovery,” I would tell myself.  “Not by being instructed.”  And I made myself believe that.

But the difficulty with that stance was brought home to me on the occasion of my oldest daughter’s first babysitting job.  Watching her go out the door, climb into someone else’s car, and drive off without so much as a backward glance was a bit of a wrench.

I could still remember how it felt when I went out like that.  From the time I was thirteen until I finished high school, I regularly picked up extra money by babysitting little kids in the neighbourhood.

Mostly, it involved spending time with them before bed, then packing them off before the Saturday night hockey game started on TV.  After getting them settled, I’d sit on the sofa, munching peanuts, sipping a cola until the parents came home.

To me, babysitting seemed like such a simple job back then.  Nothing ever went wrong.  And even if it had, there was always the telephone with the prominently-displayed number where the parents could be reached.  And in a pinch, I knew I could always call my mother.  Babysitting was easy!

But when it came my daughter’s turn, I was no longer so sure of that.  Seeing my little girl go off to her own first job caused me some worry.  At thirteen, she seemed awfully young to me!

Mind you, she was certainly well-prepared.  She’d enrolled in a babysitting course with several of her friends in order to prepare herself for the role, and had proudly received her certificate as proof of her readiness.

During the next few months, she’d taken on a couple of pseudo-babysitting jobs, looking after young children while their parents were still in the house.  By all accounts, she was a competent, confident, and caring babysitter.

I remember watching her pack her tote bag before going out on that first job.  She put in a couple of storybooks she thought the youngsters might like, a deck of playing cards, two of her favourite stuffed toys, note paper and a pen, along with sundry other items.  The only thing she didn’t have by the time she left was any doubt about her ability!

Nevertheless, I worried.

I remember leaping for the phone (uncharacteristic of me!) when it rang a couple of hours later.  But there was no problem.  She’d called only to let us know the kids were in bed, sleeping peacefully, while she was listening to one of her portable cassette tapes, and reading.

When she arrived home around midnight, flushed with the success of her first assignment, elated at the windfall of cash she had earned, I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Babysitting’s easy, Dad,” she said, and I heard the echo of my own younger sentiments.  “There’s nothing to worry about.”

There hadn’t been for her, I guess, just as there hadn’t been for me when I was doing it.  But her experience drove home the fact that, for me as a father, those babysitting jobs weren’t so easy after all!  And when her sister joined the babysitting ranks a couple of years later, those same worries carried on apace.

But now, our lives have sallied through another cycle, and my daughters’ children are striking out—babysitting, weekend jobs, summer employment.  I don’t fret so much about my grandchildren, though—partly because I’m more removed from them as a grandpa than I was as father to my own girls, partly because they have good fathers of their own to do the worrying, and mostly because the five of them are so darned competent at everything they do.

“Babysitting’s easy, Dad,” my daughter had said.  And looking back on it now, on the whole parenting thing, I can almost convince myself she’s right.

Sci Fi?

The subject of the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was sci fi, a topic about which I have very little knowledge and scant interest in. Here for your amusement is the piece I submitted.

* * * * * * *

I had no idea of the meaning of sci fi, the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group, so I asked a few of my learned friends.

“I’m not surprised you don’t know,” my doctor friend sniffed with a whiff of condescension.  “It’s a medical term for sciatic filiarae, a spinal disease caused by a small, threadlike roundworm.  Sci fi is nasty stuff.”

“Sounds like it,” I shuddered.  But I didn’t think that was the meaning intended by the writer’ group, so I asked some other folks.

“Sci fi is a short term for scintillating fidelity,” my aging-hippie friend smiled dreamily, exhaling a fragrant plume of smoke through his nostrils.  “Just listen to the sound from these speakers!”  The large black boxes were pumping out the strains of Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds, never one of my favourite bands, so I turned and left my friend to his relaxed ruminations.

My brother-in-law, a pretentious, retired university professor, told me the meaning in no uncertain terms.  “It’s short form for sciolistic fieldwork, something we tenured academics do to advance the frontiers of knowledge.  It comes from a root-word meaning to dabble, like a dilettante.  Any thing else you’d like to know?”

Sorry I’d asked, I shook my head wearily and gladly moved on, still not convinced I had found the meaning for the prompt.

“Ah, I’m glad you came to me,” my ornithologist friend smiled when I approached her.  “Sci fi is how we birders refer to the extremely rare scissortail firebird, an eastern subspecies of the northern Oriolewith a distinctive split tail.  You must tell me where you saw it.”

“I haven’t actually seen one,” I demurred, “but thanks for the info.”

My business consultant friend had yet another answer.  “It’s a rather pejorative abbreviation for scion firms, companies that are being run into the ground by the wastrel children of wealthy industrialists.  No self-respecting financial advisor would ever recommend investing in a sci fi, believe me.  You haven’t, have you?”

“No, no,” I assured him.  “My money’s safe.”

Rather desperate now, I approached a botanist friend with the question.  Even she had to look it up, but she was quite confident in her answer.  “The term refers to the scirocco filaree, an invasive weed most often found in the southwest part of the country.  Ranchers hate it, because it’s like a noxious drug that poisons their herds when they ingest it, like locoweed.”

“I can sympathize,” I said, thinking of my hippie-friend. 

My next query was to the daughter of an old friend, a young woman who had recently graduated from a PhD programme in nuclear energy.  “Glad you asked,” she said, pleased to be consulted.  “My dissertation went on at length about sci fi, which is scintilla fission, the quantum-splitting of unicellular organisms, dividing the cell into two more-or-less equal parts.  If you have an hour or so, I can give you the executive summary of the process.”

Pleading time constraints, I thanked her graciously and took my leave, still quite frustrated at having no confidence in any of the definitions I’d been given.

At the next meeting of my writers’ group, I apologized for not having produced a response to the prompt.  “I could never pin down the meaning of the term,” I kvetched, hoping they would understand my dilemma.  “I went to a lot of authoritative sources, but everybody had a different definition.”

“Tell us what they thought it meant,” one of my writing colleagues said.  “There must be something that would fit the bill.”

I ran through the entire list of explanations I’d received from my friends, smiling ruefully all the while.  “That’s it,” I said when I finished.  “That’s all I got.”

“Wow!” another colleague exclaimed.  “I can see why you’re so confused.  Those are pretty far-fetched descriptions.  They could be straight out of some sci fi novel, for goodness sake!”

“Exactly!” I agreed, feeling somewhat vindicated.

And then, too late, the light went on.