SONG OF THE REDWOODS
Francis fills a bag with perishables from the fridge: milk for his lattes, oat milk for Lucy’s, salad ingredients, a chicken, leftovers, and random stuff, like the twenty-three-ounce bottle of Frank’s Red Hot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce. He adds Lucy’s vodka and his gin because they can never remember if they finished those bottles at the other place. Their goal is to avoid having to go to the grocery store for as long as possible. He stuffs his pills into his toiletries bag and throws it, along with a few clothes, into a white laundry sack, stolen long ago, labeled Majestic Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City. He puts his laptop and books in his briefcase. Lucy always brings the same straw bag with a few clothes and her laptop. After Francis loads the trunk, they stand in the doorway and ask each other what they have forgotten. They agree they have forgotten nothing, but are always wrong. They blame their forgetfulness on age but have forgotten that they used to forget too.
Quincy, their Kerry Blue terrier, senses that a trip is coming up, even before Francis takes him on the short version of their morning walk. At the summer house, Quincy can scare off the geckos that lie in the sun on the cement patio, he can greet the wild turkey that comes to the sliding glass door to peck and squawk at its reflection, and he can chase deer through the woods, picking up burrs, returning with a satisfied grin.
Quincy sleeps in the back seat during the ninety-minute trip. Lucy bluetooths her playlist from her phone into the car’s sound system. Her photographic memory contains the lyrics to thousands of songs going back to the sixties. She sings along when she is happy and carefree, and this makes Francis happy, but she will not sing today.
“Do you think Weasel or Badger will call, or just let us get the results on MyChart?” Lucy asks. Weasel is their pejorative nickname for Francis’s urologist. Badger, his oncologist, earned that title by graduating from the University of Wisconsin and by turning aggressive when cornered.
“They’ll just wait for our reaction.” Francis has worked as a neurologist for almost fifty years and understands how hospitals function.
“Francis, if it shows progression, I found a clinical trial at MD Anderson.” Lucy is a healthcare entrepreneur, not an oncologist, but has been working with cancer drugs for thirty years, and knows them as well as Bob Dylan lyrics. She likes to intimidate people with jargon. “Patients get niraparib with or without cetrelimab, after treatment with cabazitaxel, carboplatin, and cetrelimab. It looks like you would qualify.”
“MD Anderson is a fabulous hospital,” Francis says, thinking that he never wants to go there. He imagines it as the opposite of the summer house in every way. He has spent enough of his life in hospitals.
The last half-mile is a narrow, rutted dirt road, switchbacking up through redwoods. It is as good a diagnostic test as the MRI, for each lurch of the car stabs his moth-eaten spine. My back is killing me, literally, he thinks ruefully. His cancer first appeared eight years ago as an innocuous lab abnormality but turned out not to be innocuous when he lost his prostate and his sex life to surgery. It recurred five years later as a fracture of his hip due to a metastasis. More surgery, and chemo; he lost his hair, his gait, and his optimism, but at least his hair grew back, as Badger promised. Then immunotherapy, more chemo, combo therapy, and a downward spiral.
Quincy bounds from the car and circles the house. Francis follows. The house sits atop a hill, overlooking the town, through which the Russian River flows. “Stumptown” it was called back in the late 1800’s, when most of the ancient redwoods were toppled. New-growth redwoods surround the house on three sides, framing the view of town.
The wooden Buddha in the corner of the patio continues to laugh, despite the new splat of bird shit on his forehead. It trickles down alongside his nose like a string of tears. Lucy and Francis unload the car then smile at each other as if they have accomplished something momentous. They relax. They have attained their refuge. Francis attempts a gumbo recipe for dinner, using the filé powder he ordered online. Gumbo will be his project for the summer.
At the end of the day, they lie on the chaise lounges, looking down at the village as shadows climb the tree-covered slope on the far side of the valley. Sad country songs drift up from the dive bar on Main Street. It’s a different singer every weekend, but always the same sad songs. Lucy sings along quietly to “Since I Lost My Baby.”
“Pinetop Perkins,” Francis mumbles, and she continues with the second verse, where the gypsy reads her fortune and delivers bad news.
Francis interrupts before she starts to cry, “Lucy, yesterday I read an article about old California redwoods. If you prune the upper branches, bushes around the base, up to one hundred yards away, stop growing.” Lucy is silent now. “What do we know about the thousand-year-old root systems of these trees? Do redwoods develop wisdom after so long? Do they communicate with their environment?” Francis loves these old trees. Lucy starts to say something about the MD Anderson trial but stops herself. Francis fails to notice, swept away by his enthusiasm.
In the morning they practice yoga next to the Buddha. The sun is shining, but the valley is still filled with fog, like a bowl of oatmeal with them at the rim. Quincy sits and watches, alert for any wildlife. Lucy is better at yoga than Francis. He lacks flexibility, and when he says that she smiles, wishing that he were more flexible in other aspects of his life, not just yoga. His balance isn’t great either; they attempt Vrksasana, tree pose, and he topples over several times while Lucy stands serenely on one leg.
In the evening, two days after their arrival, Francis is busy observing the geckos, like a carefree ten-year-old boy. Four geckos are lined up at the edge of the patio, flexing and straightening their front limbs, and happen to be in synchrony.
“Hey, Lucy, look, they’re doing push-ups. It’s a gecko exercise class.”
“Francis, is that all you have to think about?”
Francis consults his phone, and reads to Lucy, “It is a form of communication, a gecko announcing that he is strong and ready for sex or anything else that geckos do.”
“Dammit Francis, your MRI shows metastases up and down your spine, and God knows where else. You can’t just sit here laughing at geckos. Or staring at trees.” Lucy tenses with frustration, awaiting an answer. He doesn’t reply, and she continues, “Badger left me a message. He said he tried you, but your phone was off. Says there are options to consider. He sounded positive.”
The geckos have fled. Lucy glares at Francis, fuming, waiting for his answer.
“I can’t deal with more chemo,” he tells her quietly, fully realizing it for the first time.
“Francis, you have to fight this.” Lucy sounds determined, leaving no doubt what her choice would be if the decision were hers to make.
Francis hates the ‘fight cancer’ metaphor. If you have an aggressive cancer, it will kill you; if you survive, it is because your cancer is more indolent, not because you fought harder.
“Lucy, that’s easy for you to say, you don’t get the side effects.” Besides, Francis thinks, this is my body, and I’m going to listen to what it tells me.
“Fine, do what you want. Just leave me out of this completely.” Lucy storms off into the house, slamming the door emphatically, leaving Francis alone. He blinks at the suddenness of it all. A wave of panic rises in his chest. He feels sweat forming and cooling his face; his heart races. He tries to breathe slowly. He is dying of cancer, and now his only support has been kicked out from under him. He has never felt more isolated and defeated. He is acutely aware of every point in his back that hurts, and he feels too weak to move.
He wonders what he did for Lucy to abandon him. He can’t remember her ever having done anything like that before. Since the onset of his illness, she has always been steadfastly supportive. Was it something he said, or did? Eventually, he stumbles upon the realization that from Lucy’s perspective, he is the one abandoning her. She often spoke of how alone she felt after each of her first two husbands left her, even though she was simultaneously glad to be rid of them.
Francis goes inside and sits on the sofa beside Lucy. She eyes him with suspicion.
“I don’t want to leave you,” he whispers, “you have to understand, I don’t want to leave you.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want,” Lucy replies softly. “You are going to leave me.” The silence between them lengthens. The twilight deepens, making their facial features indistinct, but neither of them moves to turn on a light. Outside, a barn owl screeches. Francis blinks, starts to cry, and squeezes her hands. He tells her that the least he can do is go listen to Badger.
A week later they inch down the rutted trail to the highway, then drive into the city to the university hospital.
Badger is methodical. He quizzes Francis in detail about new symptoms and does a complete physical exam. Then he ensconces himself behind his desk. He has a stout body, short limbs, and a thick mobile neck as is typical of his species. He smells faintly of damp earth. He describes treatment options, listing the pros and cons of each. For each, Francis asks if it will increase mean survival time and the severity of side effects. Lucy asks about the MD Anderson trial. Badger, surprised that she knows about it, tells her that the university is one of the sites for the trial and that visits are every two weeks, so they could stay at the summer house.
“What about hospice?” Francis’s question hangs in the air. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Lucy bite her lip, but she doesn’t speak.
“Yes, that’s certainly an option too, Francis,” Badger says. “It’s up to you.”
Francis drops out of the MD Anderson trial after two weeks. He was throwing up everything he ate and losing weight. Badger is disappointed, they can see it in his shifty black eyes, but he doesn’t say anything. Lucy cries. Francis volunteers to try another trial if they can find one.
Once off chemo, his appetite returns, and Lucy takes over the gumbo project. She does most things for him now. She is going to be OK, Francis thinks, because she still sings along to her playlist, and to the songs that drift up from the dive bar. As a neurologist, he can give you the scientific explanation: music stimulates neurons in the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and cerebellum, and these neurons release dopamine.
It is Francis’s birthday, and they know it will be his last. They vow to celebrate. They open their best bottle of champagne, and Lucy labors over the last gumbo of the summer. After dinner they stumble up the stairs, rip off their clothes, and lie naked on the bed. The room is hot, the ceiling fan turns languidly, and the windows are wide open. The redwoods huddle in the darkness outside, watching over them.
They have not had sex for years, but they find themselves kissing, tentatively, like it’s all new. After a long time, Lucy hovers over Francis’ upper chest with her knees beside his ears. Her bush is in his face, and he begins to kiss and lick. He is a gecko with a lizard tongue. She smells like jasmine and tastes like tears. Eventually she begins to breathe more deeply, to squirm, to fuckmoan, quietly at first, then loudly. From the foot of the bed, Quincy emits a low growl, then barks. Outside, coyotes howl. Lucy explodes, like she used to, long ago. For a few minutes Francis is cancer-free.
The next morning, while meditating next to the Buddha, he feels a new calmness, and the presence of all of the redwoods throughout the valley. They stand patiently, as they always have, communing with each other, and now with him. His back pain has vanished. He stands too, and with their encouragement, attempts Vrksasana, tree pose. Balancing on his left foot, he tucks his right foot against his upper thigh, looks straight ahead, and raises his arms. To his surprise, he doesn’t even wobble. He has become one with the trees and understands that they are sentient witnesses to all life. Entranced, he holds the pose for five minutes without wavering or tiring, until Lucy steps in front of him. She places her fingers on his hips, reaches up, and kisses him lightly. He wobbles and stumbles, disoriented as if just waking up, a silly grin on his face. Lucy steadies him, holding him gently, so as not to hurt his back.
“That was amazing, Francis.”
Francis relaxes in his chaise lounge and watches the hawks circle in the updrafts, tottering, but not flapping their wings at all. The town emptied out at the end of summer and now shimmers in the heat. The IV pole beside him is hot to touch, but it is part of the world’s greatest invention, patient-controlled anesthesia. With the push of a button, he gets a burst of intravenous fentanyl. Here’s to home hospice care. He takes a small sip of his martini. He is afraid of a larger sip after pushing the fentanyl button.
Francis inspects the panorama of redwoods before him, as he often does now. They are dignified and beautiful and have been here forever. He feels in solidarity with them, just another being in tree pose. They sing to him. Not music exactly, more low-pitched hums, like the woodwind section of an orchestra warming up.
As evening creeps in, Lucy brings him a sweater and sits beside him with her drink. She takes his hand and recoils from its iciness. He punches a low number into the IV flowmeter and pushes his martini out of easy reach. A shiny crow alights on a nearby branch, caws three times, and listens.
He is aware that what he says will be remembered after he is gone. “I’ve been thinking about something. Promise you won’t laugh at me, OK?”
Lucy agrees but looks amused already.
He blurts it out: “I want to sing with you.”
Lucy is unable to stifle her laugh. “You’ve always told me you couldn’t sing. I remember when I first met you, you whistled instead like your father did; it was so irritating I almost dumped you.”
“Yeah, and as soon as you told me I was like my father, I stopped.” Lucy is curious. Him singing is the first novel idea that has been introduced into their relationship in a long time.
“So why do you want to sing? Why now?”
“To connect me to you. I know that sounds vague.” He plunges ahead. “I want you to keep singing after I’m gone. Maybe I will still be able to hear you.”
“You don’t believe in an afterlife.”
“No, but if you spread my ashes among the redwoods like we talked about, the molecules that were me will get taken up. I will be a small part of them. The forest will hear you.”
They go quiet. Francis’s back hurts, he turns up the fentanyl, they clink glasses and sip. After a few minutes, Lucy begins to sing quietly the Beatles song, “In My Life,” that they chose for their wedding all those years ago. He tries to sing along but is so far off-key they both laugh.
“I have a suggestion for you, but want to tell you a story first,” Francis says. He explains that he bought a house once with Isabelle, his first wife, from a guy who was dying from cancer. The guy was offering it for a good price because he wanted to arrange everything for his wife before he was gone. He sold it to us, Francis continued, bought his wife a condo downtown, and died.
“That was noble of him, I guess,” Lucy said.
“Yeah, except it wasn’t what she really wanted. Two years later she sold the condo and bought another house on our street. She missed her neighbors.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“Just that you can ignore my suggestion. Me dying is way harder for you than for me. I feel terrible for you. I want to do everything I can for you. But I need to get used to the fact that I won’t be here. I won’t matter.”
“OK, so what’s your suggestion?”
Francis tries to control his enthusiasm, “Let’s buy the dive bar. The Greek who owns it moved back to the city last year and wants to sell. He isn’t asking for much. You could sing there on weekends all summer.”
Lucy laughs, “I’m not a professional singer!”
“You know you sing really, really well. Singing makes you happy. It’s a huge part of your life. You know the lyrics to every song ever written.” Francis stops abruptly, surprised to see that Lucy is crying.
“What did I say?”
“No one ever said that to me before.”
“That I’m a good singer. My ex-husbands didn’t like me singing. Jeff would even tell me to shut up.”
“Really?” Lucy had never told him this before. He takes her hands and looks into her eyes. “Your voice is the most beautiful I have ever heard. I have listened to it for twenty years, and wish I could listen to it forever.”
November arrives, the days shorten, and in the evenings Francis’s IV pole is icy cold. He sings with Lucy. He treasures their intimacy in the quiet spaces between songs. He sits out under a blanket, and they watch the line of shadow rise gradually from the town, up the other side of the valley, until the tip of the tallest redwood falls into darkness, and stars materialize from the void. Fingers of fog slip among the trees. Another of his few remaining days has dwindled away, a millisecond in the lifespan of a redwood. He squeezes Lucy’s hand. They know that soon he will be enveloped by the forest, and they are at peace.
David Waters is a semi-retired cardiologist who lives in San Francisco with his wife Bobbi and Kerry Blue terrier Trey. His short stories have appeared in the San Antonio Review, 34th Parallel, the Dillydoun Review, Flash Fiction, Beyond Words, Amarillo Bay, Marrow, Umbrella Factory, The MacGuffin, and Cleaver.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #44.