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Life Lines 

There are things about cancer that are obvious even to those who've escaped its poisonous breath 'til now.

But the mind can't dwell on even its own possible demise without stopping, so it turns to other things and maybe some of those things aren't obvious to us all.

Steve gestures at the hospital window.

"Sometimes I sit in the window there and look at the cars turning off from the river road and going down the side streets and then turning onto Jefferson Highway. And I think about the drivers and how oblivious most of them are and I want to tell them, 'Feel lucky. Feel good about your health.' I know how oblivious they are because last year I was one of them. I didn't have a problem until I had a problem."

There's a problem now. Steve has 50 birthdays, one kidney and one chemo treatment remaining. The six previous chemo treatments have taken all of his hair so that his friends now call him "Colonel Kurtz" after the shaved-head Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now.

"A nurse took me in the bathroom with a razor and said, 'Either you're gonna worry about it or not. But as long as you smile, you'll look OK.'"

Steve smiles and begins to elevate his hospital bed. He's in hospital a lot, maybe half the time since last July. In that time, he's had seven spinal taps, two bone marrows and more than 80 blood transfusions.

He's had six chemo treatments, one every three weeks, and this is the pattern: the first day is real rough because he has to take a large dose of methotrexate, which is big poison and they want you in hospital until you pass it all. So you're always in for five days and you are plenty of the time pinned to the bed because you're hooked up to all these needles. On the PCC line, which is where they surgically implant a couple of tubes inside the forearm for easy access.

Each time Steve leaves the hospital, it's with his white blood cells flattened and his immune system down. And within a couple of days, he always picks up some infection, and he's got 101, 102 degrees of fever. Plus he also gets mouth trouble: cuts on his gums, fever blisters under his tongue. No nausea, but each and every time this agony with his mouth so that only chicken noodle soup gets eaten. And always another two or three days back in the hospital. Last time, they didn't like his blood count, and he was in for 14 days.

When he's like this, there's more to it than an aching body. There's bad cabin fever, the walls closing in on the wish and tease, the call and song of life. When he's like this -- with all the time in the world and maybe not enough time -- he thinks of the things that people without cancer probably never think about.

· "My depression is about the hospital, not dying. What do I know about that?"

· "You've got to fight in little ways to keep your humanity and not see yourself as an invalid."

· "I don't deny what's happened to me. I don't accept it either."

· "There's a dichotomy. You can't face this whole process; it's overwhelming. You gotta do it a week at a time. You think you'll be glad to get to the end, but the anxiety is there because at the end, you may get an answer you don't like. This ain't no sprint. It's a marathon all the way."

· "I'm a New Orleans person. Certain bands, certain bars, I was there. My wife and I, we did music, we did movies, we did theater. Then we did nothing."

"When I'm out the hospital, I'm basically home by seven. I watch a lot of the History Channel now. There was something good on the other night about Stalin's paralysis when the Germans invaded."

In 1995, Steve had had a tumor next to his kidney. But it had all happened so fast, it was like they'd reached in and snipped it out in a week or two, and a week or two after that he was back to work.

"But in this leukemia, there's nothing to snip out. It's like your DNA has just broken down. And it's slow."

Steve's wife, Joan, enters the room, smiling nervously all the while. They met in college, married 30 years ago, have two children grown and living away.

"I bet when you took me 'for better or worse,' you didn't have anything like this in mind," Steve jokes on the level.

In cases like this, the spouse does everything. Takes the car to the shop, changes the cat litter, sleeps alone.

"I can't see past my nose," Joan says. "Last month, a blood clot got up next to his lung, and they took him to emergency to put a filter in his leg. I couldn't get him on the phone, and I kinda panicked." Joan has gotten two speeding tickets hurrying to the hospital and has a prescription for Prozac.

A tall blonde nurse named Stephanie comes in to check some monitors. Steve gets out of bed and goes over to the window, the one from which you can easily look down and see all the oblivious people driving their cars down the little side streets and turning onto Jefferson Highway.

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