Memoir

Oasis of Hope

Love, sex, and a mid-life crisis at a Tijuana cancer clinic

by
• 9,377 words

Photograph by Elinor CarucciElinor Carucci

My wife’s cancer is in her abdomen, and at this point she looks as if she’s in the early stages of pregnancy. We’re going to Mexico because the chemo has failed. There’s a hospital called Oasis of Hope in Tijuana, where they try to treat cancer with diet. They’ve had success, we’re told, and some Canadian artists have put money in my wife’s bank account because they want to help with our trip.

We fly to Chicago, then board a plane to San Diego, where a bus will take us to the hospital in Tijuana. But right away things start to go wrong. We are stalled on the runway for a couple of hours because of mechanical problems. For Carole, sitting upright creates painful problems. I give her a narcotic, Percocet. Carole doesn’t like them. They wipe out pain, but the constipation is brutal. Things are not right at the best of times. This is clearly going to be the worst of times.

We exit the plane and wait in O’Hare Airport. Our new plan is to reroute to LA and take a bus to the San Diego airport. From there a taxi will take us to the hotel, and from there we’ll be picked up in the morning and taken to Tijuana. Carole asks if a taxi will be waiting at the San Diego airport, ready to take us to the hotel. I rise to the occasion. I get pushy with the airline agents and ask hard questions. There are a lot of angry and bored people waiting with us. A woman on her cell speaks to head office describing, play by play, the chaos unfolding around us. I like her. She has an edge like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Her voice is unemotional, purely descriptive, narrating each detail as it happens. I fill in the other end of the call. There are no solutions coming from head office.

What happens if things get worse? Carole is temporarily enjoying the waves of pain relief from the Percocet. I pop one myself to take the edge off. I’m more patient when I’m stoned. Anyway, there’s nothing we can do. We’re helpless and we know it.

Carole is always urging me to read more, so I go to the airport bookstore. Elmore Leonard looks promising. I buy one and go off scouting for food.

Carole is allergic to wheat and many other things, so I don’t hold out much hope. I’m worried a long wait will turn into a medical emergency. Carole needs to eat at regular intervals. She’s brought soup, spelt muffins, and a few other treats a group of friends has prepared for the trip. Everything is organic. But her store of food is not going to last and she’s getting tired from sitting and waiting. The growing tumours press against her internal organs. I watch Carole from a distance. She worries if she catches me looking at her. She says I’m thinking about her dying.

She’s an extraordinary woman, an Irish-French beauty from Quebec. She has the most delicate skin and beautiful grey-green eyes. Her beauty is somehow more visible through the chemo and all the other calamities that have befallen her, losing her hair the most humiliating side effect of the last six years, her healthy hair, brown, curly, and full. I’ve learned how to look away before crying.

I show her the fruits of my travels: a yogourt, a juice, tea, and an Elmore Leonard book along with the New Yorker. She leafs through the New Yorker. I live for bringing surprises. I used to run to the store to buy her cigarettes, Matinée Extra Milds. I wonder if that caused the cancer.

I’m a boy showing my mother insects and frogs gathered from a field. But I’m also fifty years old and in a textbook mid-life crisis. Holding Carole’s hand, I entertain myself looking at attractive women in the boarding lounge. I hope she doesn’t notice. Carole is a warm and gracious woman, but the other side of her is ferocious. Her anger can melt aluminum at a hundred paces. I’ve spent sixteen years trying to understand it, trying to get around it, to no effect; she can’t be fooled or deterred. But cancer has softened the rage, and she meditates. Now I love her anger. She’s become my holy woman, and whenever I leave her presence I begin to feel uneasy.

A loudspeaker tells us we can board for LA.

After loading and taking off, Carole comments how like sheep Americans are. We’re led to believe that Americans fight for their rights, that they’re not as polite and docile as us. The evidence is mounting against that theory. A big man in the seat beside us says nothing matters anymore. We’re given a tiny packet of wheat pretzels. The airline is sorry. Carole closes her eyes, listening to Cuban music on the Discman.

I start in on the Elmore Leonard, but my mind’s fuzzy from the Percocet. It’s hard to concentrate. A stewardess neatly slides around first a passenger and then the drinks cart. Let me get a better look at that. I feel shame and return to Elmore Leonard as if it’s the Bible and can expiate my sins. I entertain the idea that Carole’s cancer is God’s punishment for my sins. My hellish libidinous thoughts are going to kill her.

I turn away and look at the darkness. I see my reflection.

I’m in grade nine. It’s fall, and I’m standing on the edge of a stony football field. There’s a shack where the balls and equipment are kept. If you stand around one side of this shack no one from the Bible school can see you. This is where Veronica and I stand. Veronica is from Manitoba. She’s in grade nine with me. Veronica has a fully developed bosom and light freckles on impeccable skin. Her thighs and legs are perfection. Her eyes are muted and mysterious, and when I look into them I feel her amusement at my desire. I love her completely and of that I’m sure. I want nothing more than her. My bad skin, my insecurity, my developing and raging desire want only her. I’ve won many ribbons of glory on the stony field beside us. I’ve no interest in that anymore. I move my face close to hers. She lets me all the way inside her mouth and our tongues explore each other. She groans. My erection embarrasses me, but I feel the earth move, I really do. It’s the finest moment in my short life without question.

The radio is playing a song. I’d heard it many times before. It’s a sentimental thing about a car accident. “Where oh where can my baby be, the Lord took her away from me …” or “We were out on a date in my daddy’s car, we hadn’t driven very far….” Veronica turns her head to the side to avoid my mouth. I’ve never experienced a stab like that. I think I’m going to die of humiliation. I say, “What’s wrong? ”

She looks away, listening to the music. “I can’t kiss you again. This song reminds me of my boyfriend. He died in a car accident this summer. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kissed you. I have to go now.”

I never got to kiss her again. I don’t know what happened to her. I think she left the school early that fall. It all started a pattern in my life that would repeat many times. When I’m close to something wonderful, when I’m about to attain what I want more than anything in the world, it’s snatched away.

It’s 2 a.m. at the LA airport when we land. We hustle off the plane to a waiting bus. It doesn’t take very long, and for this I am grateful. Carole is good, but she’s getting tired. She wants me to make sure that a taxi is waiting for us in San Diego. I screw up my courage and sound as tough as I can with the airline agents. They assure me that a fleet of taxis will be waiting in San Diego. Problem solved. I get us to the front of the line to board the bus. We load. The air conditioning is freezing, so I take off my thin windbreaker and wrap it around Carole. She tries to lay her head on my shoulder, and I try to become the strong male. We pull out of the LA airport. The steering is out of whack and I’m thinking there’s a hell of a lot of sway. I ask the driver if he can turn down the air conditioning. I’m wearing shorts in anticipation of Mexico, and my legs are freezing. I don’t think he understands me. Carole’s Percocet is still doing the job, and mine is at a nice stage as well, but the bus keeps lurching toward the guardrail and I have to read freeway signs to calm the anxiety. The names of famous beaches float by in the darkness, places I have heard named in songs. The driver stops the bus and gets off. He comes back on. We’ve got a flat tire. We’ll get it fixed in San Diego. I try and get my body as close to Carole as I can. She’s cold and her stomach is hurting. “Oh God, get us to San Diego alive and let Mexico do the rest.” I try to sleep but can’t. My mind is too busy.

The night the Beatles made their first Ed Sullivan appearance, I had to go to church. A friend’s dad was the head usher, a huge man as big as a wrestler. He loves to bully the young girls into taking a pew. He volunteered for this job, and it has become his kingdom of cruelty. He’s at war with young women who look at themselves in the mirror at the back of the church in the coat room. He’s very Islamic about it. I have to hang back and wait for the giant/dad/usher to chase seven female friends to their pew. He does this like he’s herding chickens. I move quickly up the back stairs to the balcony. It’s darker up there. The holy few sit downstairs in front. Up here is the hidden land. Dirty books sometimes are tucked inside Bibles, and a boy can look devout while doing something altogether different. How else do you entertain yourself through an hour and a half of basically the same stuff over and over again? I’m very excited about the Beatles. This is a wave I have to catch. I pause for a moment and cast my face down like I’ve remembered something important and then I shoot back down the stairs and out the door before it closes with that jailer’s clang.

I open our door. I’m home. There’s Dad sitting on the big chair. Ed Sullivan already on. I sit down. We don’t speak. Ed comes out, introduces the band, and the Beatles play a couple of songs. At the end of their set Dad gets up and turns off the TV. I think he might kill me. He grunts something about having to read the Bible and pray because we both missed church.

I ride my bike into the snowy, starry, prairie night. It’s a free feeling. No trees at all, just straight-out flatness. I think about who I want to be, which Beatle I want to be. It’s between Ringo or John. Later I would see A Hard Day’s Night and decide that I’m more a Ringo guy. I want the girls to like me, but not tear my clothes off, you know. Still, John Lennon’s voice calls out to me in a special way… and those harmonies? And who wouldn’t want to be Paul? Anybody can see why the girls love Paul. The other guy, the young one, he’s all right in a quiet way. He’s the friendly younger brother whom everybody likes. The Beatles are bigger than Trudeau would ever be and they’re a gathering hurricane that both my dad and I see coming.

San Diego is ahead. The driver tells us the airport is close by. We drop some passengers off in the middle of nowhere. I’m really worried about the taxis. We have to get the hell straight to the hotel. I have to get Carole into bed and cover her. We roar into the closed and empty airport, brakes screaming on the runway. There’s no taxi in sight.

“No fucking taxis at an airport? No fucking taxis anywhere? ” The woman from Chicago with the cellphone is back speaking with head office. Her voice rises another octave of contempt, but can it produce a taxi? I raise my own voice at the American Airline reps, but they couldn’t care less. A way off in the distance through the glass walls I see lights moving. Maybe it’s a cab. I run toward the lights.

The cab driver is friendly. He apologizes that they’ve only now been called. He wheels around to get my wife. I fill him in on the situation. He’s happy to help. We pick up the cellphone lady and drop her off first. Our hotel isn’t too far away, but it’s the middle of the night and I pray they know we are coming. They do, and I’m ecstatic. I talk too much. I’m giddy with delight as we sign in. I rush Carole into our room, and she slides between clean sheets. I make a special pact with God: “Heal my Carole and I will never sin again. And I will never have another ungenerous thought about America again. I mean it this time. I love California.”

Penticton was my Canadian California. The Okanagan Valley had everything except surfing. It was dry and red with mountains covered by fruit trees. The high blue Okanagan Lake was perfect for swimming. Girls and boys would gather there in large numbers in the summer. Beer was chilled in bathtubs in motels. lsd was now part of the equation. This was San Francisco without Berkeley. Guys would fight to impress the girls. The girls were starting to have sex on the pill. Everybody was having sex but us, the boys from Bible school. I was there with two preachers’ sons and two MG sports cars. We tell everybody we’re from California. It’s going to be the best of times. We have jumped the prison wall of Bible school. We’re young adults and nobody can tell us when to go home. We aren’t of legal age, but fuck that, we can still pull booze, nobody knows us here.

I see her in a parking lot in downtown Penticton. Her name is Kathy. It’s the first time I feel the power of the ass. She wears tight jeans, and her ass rounds up and is proud. She’s nice too. She’s gentle and real and she likes me. I swear I will never betray her. I ask God to punish me if I betray her. But God has to give her to me first.

God gives her to me, and I betray her the next summer in Vancouver, the day the Americans land on the moon.

Now I am lying in a dark San Diego bedroom dreading my future and hating my past. I betrayed Kathy and I never told her I was going. I never saw her again but once. She told me then I should have kicked her in the head instead. That was over thirty years ago. Will God believe anything I say to Him now?

Afew hours later I can see the morning sun through a tiny crack in the curtain. Carole is still sleeping, and I’m comforted by that. If she sleeps she can’t be in pain. I peek out onto the backyard, hoping to see a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean, but garbage is stacked around an industrial bin that sits beside a satellite dish, and above that is a freeway.

Where will I find a non-wheat breakfast for Carole? I tell myself I have to hit the ground running. Bring it on. I dress quickly and write a note and slip out the door.

Fuck! This is California. I suck it up, banish feelings, and admire the curve of the freeway overhead. I can’t get a handle on the light. It’s as I imagined it, but with more ultraviolet, a model of ozone depletion. Large concrete buildings and wire fences dominate. I see the restaurant ahead. It’s art deco all the way and screams “come in here for the biggest and the best.” I’m ready for some love. Give me some pancakes stacked a mile high. I want eggs. I want bacon and an endless cup of coffee. Inside, I squint and look around. It’s a Tarantino movie in here. Vegas-style and cold as last night’s bus. I expect to see Travolta dancing with Uma. A lovely thirtysomething woman seats me and hands me a menu as thick as my newspaper. She’s a dyed blond and very sincere. I open the three-foot-high menu and point at a picture. My breakfast is on the table in a flash. I look around the room. Americans aren’t that bad. Why do they vote like they do?

I pour one of seven coloured syrups onto my pancakes and cut down deep, and here comes the shame: I couldn’t do this in front of Carole. I haven’t thought about her for a while. How could I let her slip from my mind? I don’t need this breakfast. What if she wakes up afraid? What if she’s in pain? Of course she’ll be in pain, you idiot. She’s always in pain now. You’re filling your fat face and living the high life on Yankee dollars while she’s alone with no food in a strange room waiting to go to Mexico in a last-ditch attempt to save her life. And you’re looking at the waitress’s ass. I hate myself. I really do. I can’t eat anymore. I pay and leave a gigantic tip. The pancakes would have killed me anyway. God only knows what’s in that syrup. I step from the freezing cold to the toxic heat outside. I see several young punked-out freaks crossing the street. They look post-apocalyptic. I’m sure they’re going to kill me. I race back down the street. I’m really worried about her now. I was a fool to go for breakfast without talking to her.

I rush into our room. Carole is sitting up. She smiles at me. She asks me about my breakfast. I tell her about the kingdom of kitsch down the street. She wants to know if there’s anything she can eat. Eggs, I guess? I ask her how she feels.

“Those Percocets are wonderful.” She arranges her Holt Renfrew headpiece. What about the hospital bus? Have I seen it?

I assure Carole the bus will be on time at 9 a.m. The proprietor was absolutely sure about it. He phoned to make sure.

“Is he nice? ”

“The nicest man you’ll ever meet.”

I never get what I expect from Carole. I expect punishment, I don’t know why. I feel grateful for the love. I can’t lose her. I can’t drop the ball now. I feel guilty like I gave her cancer. I don’t deserve her. I try to stop the tape from running through my head. I click the pause button on my mind. I actually see it. For a moment I imagine the tape running through and whipping wildly about. The tape recorder can’t be stopped.

Carole hugs me briefly. I have to be careful with her abdomen. I’ve pressed too hard before, and the pain is excruciating. She is looking forward to a walk and seeing the restaurant. I fight back the tears as I watch her walk away.

I need something to stop my mind, maybe something to read. I open a drawer, and inside lies the Gideon. I think about my mother and father, and the Bible school where I dodged indoctrination. I open the Bible, hoping for one of those evangelical moments, a flash from the heavens, a life-changing message. I wander my finger down a page and something leaps out at me, something about how a strange woman is a narrow ditch and a prostitute is a deep hole.

I can’t pray. I want to but can’t. It takes energy to pray. The Man Without Qualities echoes in my mind, the title of a series of books by Robert Musil that I stole from the Winnipeg library system. I never read them, and God is punishing me for this.

“Where is my faith? Thought creates reality.” I repeat this to myself a few times while I brush my teeth. The Bible lies on the bed, and if Carole comes in and sees it she might worry, so I hide it. I have my own Bible, given to me by my mother in grade seven. I reach over and place my hand inside my duffel bag, down to the bottom through the socks and underwear and I touch the vinyl cover. God, please make Carole well.

I step out to the blinding sun. The bus from Mexico should be here soon. I walk a little ways down the street hoping to see Carole. I remember the apocalyptic youths and imagine Carole running into them on her return.

I see Carole and my heart jumps.

“Were you worried? ” she asks.

“Just a little. How was breakfast? ”

“I had eggs. They weren’t organic.”

“How would you know? ”

“I know.”

I see a van parked with the back door open. The gentleman proprietor introduces me to a Mexican driver as others are climbing into the van. I wonder which ones have cancer. I can’t tell. I get Carole and our bags from the room. Leaving San Diego we notice vast military installations and docks along the ocean, destroyers and other boats. Huge signs proclaiming “Entrance Forbidden.” Military hardware parked waiting for some adventure. We’re anxious to get out of here.

I place my arm around Carole. She lays her head on my shoulder. I must be strong. I’ve been warned that as Carole’s partner I’m expected to absorb a good deal of learning at the hospital. The partners are central to the treatment. It’s a two-year process of healing, but we will be at the hospital for only eight days. I will learn how to give needles and administer other procedures, whatever they are, and then we will be on our own back in Toronto. I brace myself. I wish I’d brought some marijuana. No one would believe I’d need to smuggle drugs into Mexico.

We reach the border quickly. Our driver half-turns and with genuine compassion says simply, “Welcome to Mexico.” For some reason this feels like the most generous gesture directed toward us in years.

The drive to the Oasis of Hope is along the border wall. There are arroyos and houses erected in impossible places and a smell of burnt tires and wood, mixed with garbage, sage, and tension. I feel a kind of kinship with Mexico. I know that I’m trying to align myself with the spirits and gods that can help us. We climb a long mountain road and come round a traffic circle.

The Oasis of Hope looks like a small luxury hotel, glass-fronted and surrounded by palms. I bounce out quickly, having opened sliding van doors many times in my career as a touring actor. I want to impress Carole with new-found hope and clarity. I smile and act friendly, hoping this will somehow induce the hospital to go that extra mile for Carole. I have developed a way of leading us into emergency rooms and hospitals over the last years, and experience has taught me to be more aggressive than is my natural inclination. I see a religious mural through the revolving door. I fight back depression. I walk across a marble floor to the front desk. We are assigned a room as soon as a copy of our credit card is made. Inside, I’m preaching: heal this woman, heal her.

A doctor leads us into a small private room for consultation. How many surgeries? How much was removed? Have you tried chemo? Yes, yes, it’s a calming liturgy. He speaks about diet. That’s why we’re here. He sets my wife up with a shoulder portal for the different shots I’ll be giving her.

Every resident cancer patient has a partner who will administer shots and coffee enemas as well as monitor the demanding juice, food, and pill schedules. That partner is me, so I psych myself up, turn on the inner coach. As we settle into our new room I give myself a lecture: “You’ve made some mistakes in the past, no question, but you’re essentially a good person. There’s no reason you can’t go out and win this ball game.”

The room is glass-walled and looks out onto a wilted and parched field littered with garbage. On all sides there are barbed wire fences. Men work two floors down bricking a wall. I sense an expansion is under way. There’s a television and a shower, and the nurse points to an eternally filled spring water fountain down the hall. The spring water must be used for everything except showers. Carole clicks the television on and runs through the menu. We have at least six English channels. Carole’s in a lot of pain but she can’t take any more painkillers because they are discouraged here. I go on full alert. I open the window. Not nice, the smell is bad and the air feels toxic. I close the window. I speak like a man in a lab coat when I say, “We’ll leave the air conditioning on.”

Soon we are blessed by a visit from Charlotte Gerson, the nutritional guru of the clinic. She is a powerful woman, tall, articulate, and inspiring. She sits on my bed and speaks to Carole lying in hers. She tells us that her father, a doctor and a psychiatrist, had suffered terribly with migraines. He began to experiment on himself with diets and found that eating only apples made the headaches go away. The same was true for 450 of his patients, some of whom were also cured of skin tuberculosis. The senior Gerson experimented further with diet and so today we have the Gerson method of healing.

Charlotte also explains that after the First World War it was discovered that mustard gas, aside from being a deadly poison in large amounts, could kill white blood cells. This meant it was effective against some cancers, such as Hodgkin’s disease. A conference of cancer doctors then decided that diet played no significant role in cancer treatment and that the only appropriate treatments would be chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. To escape potential legal problems, the clinic was now in Mexico, even if only by the width of a city block.

But what if a patient has already had those treatments? Charlotte Gerson makes it clear that any help that the Oasis of Hope can provide is severely limited.

I break in with, “But the doctor appeared hopeful.”

“Of course there is always hope, plenty of hope. We’ve seen spectacular results, sometimes wholly unexpected.”

After Charlotte leaves I say to Carole, “She reminds me of an older version of that actress who played that woman who did all that amazing research with baboons. We saw the film on an airplane.” We’ve no luck recalling her name.

Carole is looking for distraction, and I give her the television clicker. She finds Oprah in the mix. I prop pillows under her back. I love doing this because I’m good at it. Juice is arriving at the door, carried by a nurse. Carole has to drink one glass of juice every hour. I tell myself I have to stop looking at nurses as sexual objects.

Oprah means one thing to me: the Book Club. My wife is a novelist. Oprah has never chosen my wife’s books. I hate Oprah.

Carole loves and adores Oprah. I’ve never gotten it. I pull a chair up beside Carole’s bed to watch with her. I’ve never watched Oprah before.

Today Oprah is shining a light on fathers and their sons. I watch, holding Carole’s hand. It’s a hand I’ve held for a long time. Carole never fakes hand-holding. It’s always meaningful. I make sure that I am aware of this. I try to live in the moment. Carole takes great pleasure in hand-holding and kissing. I marvel at this as a French attribute while I watch a mini-documentary of a father and son who have recently united.

I get it. Oprah is a saint. She’s a modern saint. I watch, a new disciple, as Oprah interviews father and abandoned son. Emotional bombs are released in me. I’m having a religious experience. I get it. I get it. Oprah is a saint.

Carole puts her free hand to her heart each time she is moved by the story of the father and son. She keeps repeating, “That’s so moving, so moving.”

Another juice arrives at the door, orange and sickly sweet. Carole doesn’t like to drink overly sweet things. She gags a little. These juices are coming at an alarming rate. I check the time. Every hour for the next two years I will have to make Carole a juice. Twelve hours a day. The schedule is rigid. How will we live? How will I work? I push these thoughts away as non-helpful. The inner coach tells me to focus on Carole.

Carole is rubbing her abdomen. I ask her if I can do this for her. She says, “If you touch me in the most delicate manner. Can you do that? ”

I prepare to believe in the power of the laying on of hands. I gently caress her abdomen, which feels hard to the touch, as if she’s pregnant with a rock. I focus my love on my hand to melt the tumour. This outlaw tumour. This criminal. She has not invited this visitor into her body. I fill my mind with white light.

Carole’s skin is a pale white because she has avoided cancer-enhancing UV rays for some time. In our early summers together her skin would brown quickly and had a faint smell of berries. Making love to her was a delicate experience, like making love to 300 years of art. Everything Carole knew (which was considerable) she would bring to the table. She gave her essence. She was like exquisite tea china with a really big brain.

I can tell she wants me to end this. Having someone other than herself touch the tumours reminds her too much of their existence. I bring my face slowly to her cheek and kiss her, holding my lips to her skin. She wants to be healed now, that’s all she has patience for. Carole changes the mood and asks me about dinner.

The food here is organic and vegetarian, grown fresh in California and Mexico. It’s cooked ever so slowly at low heat, without butter or oils, everything sealed in its own juices. I will go and check out lunch. Carole is relieved that I have something to do that will distract me. She knows our stay here together will be taxing, not to mention taking charge of a two-year healing cycle. What was I doing yesterday? A week ago? I can’t remember. I was running a theatre. I was directing a play. It all seems unimportant now.

I walk down the hallway reading notices and hospital rules. It feels like summer camp with everyone in white outfits. The partners, my counterparts, are scurrying here and there carrying water for coffee enemas. My first workshop in injecting Carole with needles will be tomorrow. I look forward to learning this. There’s always been an element in me of wanting to serve her, to serve her genius, to give unequivocally. From the very beginning she objected to that in me and yet she enjoys it when I take care of things.

A religious mural dominates the dining room wall. It’s the story of a Mexican doctor as Christ; peasants and animals are situated around him. Belief in a higher power feels pretty central to this place. The landscape outside is Biblical, with heaven and hell outside the window. I am ready to submit to the holy men and women who will lead us to health.

Food is being laid out onto tables that are shaped in a T, like a church supper. French buffet-style: tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, salads, and soups. Tall steel containers boast fresh juices of all kinds. I get high on the sights and smells and know that Carole will be over the moon. She’s had to turn away from many things she loves over the last few years and now she will be able to eat everything on the table. I study the food closely, since I am going to be asked to prepare this kind of feast after we leave. But for the next eight days we’ll be living as organic kings and queens.

I fly back to the room and Carole is on the bed, pillows stacked under her knees, her legs raised. She can’t stay in one position for very long. I approach cautiously, having learned that my enthusiasms are not always welcome. She smiles and asks about the food. I explain what I’ve seen as if we are on a Mexican package tour, all inclusive.

Now it’s time for the final juice before the meal, and also time to take supplements. I carefully give Carole about nine different kinds of supplements, trying to remember the uses of each one. The last time I saw this many pills was during chemo treatments. Those were gauged to offset the severe side effects, but these are… who knows?

Thank God we get to go to dinner now. Carole walks slowly, favouring one side. She has lost a lot of upper-body weight. My heart cracks when I see this.

Idelight in the way Carole approaches food. I inhale her pleasure when she spots the vegetarian banquet for the first time. It’s the Grand Canyon of food. I keep repeating like an imbecile, “All of this organic, all organic.” We walk up and down all sides of the laden tables. I hold her in my arms for a brief hug as she sniffs closer to a tray of ripe tomatoes. She bubbles with excitement and anticipation. This is more fun than what, a barrel of monkeys? Clichés run through my mind: more fun than Disney, more fun than New Year’s Eve at the Waldorf…. I get plates for both of us. Carole’s joy fills me with gladness. I have never loved her more than now. There’s broccoli, beans, fruit dishes, garlic sauces. I want to throw myself onto the tables and roll in the food.

Carole is much happier now and wants to walk to the beach a few blocks away. She tires quickly, and we have been told treatment here requires complete rest. While she still has energy she wants to make the beach.

I bundle her up more than is necessary. I lacquer on the sunblock. I get us both hats. Carole looks paler than I’ve seen. As we step through the revolving door I am overcome by the image of her, sweet and vulnerable. The air is cooler than I imagined. The land is dry and desert-like. There will be no one swimming today. The smell of garbage is overwhelming. We walk steadily down a street of abandoned open-fronted beach shacks. It’s off-season, but we’ve been told that on weekends the locals still come for pleasure. We’ve also been assured of our safety. We hear a mariachi band somewhere up ahead. I walk ever so slowly beside Carole. We’re like two lost turtles in an empty carnival. The Mexican peasant music manages to sound joyful and melancholic at the same time. Today I’m hearing the melancholia more than the joy. The ocean air is mixed with smells of seaweed and garbage burning, but except for the mariachi band there’s no sign of life. We pass the tiny café where the band plays. I manufacture smiles of approval for everyone. The band looks to be practising. There’s a lone woman sitting bored in a corner. Ahead is the main thoroughfare that parallels the beach, the mighty Pacific. My heart leaps as Carole oohs and aahs.

There’s a tall fence on the right that separates Mexico from the United States. We walk slowly along the ocean to inspect it. The fence has hundreds of names painted on it, the names of those who died crossing into America; a monument to the dead and a warning to the living. The American side of the border is empty of buildings and life. It shouts no man’s land. We sit for a while on a bench at the top of concrete stairs that lead down to the ocean and beach. We won’t be attempting the stairs.

I feel heavy with regret as I half-carry Carole past the dusty and empty fairgrounds. There’s a Mercedes parked at the entrance to the grounds. A lone and well-dressed man jogs around. The Oasis of Hope has turned on its lights. I can’t wait to get there and put Carole to bed, propping up her knees with pillows. We’ll watch a little more television, and she can read. Carole looks at me and whispers, “I love you.” My mood brightens. I’m looking forward to this evening. I’m looking forward to relieving Carole’s pain with the delicate art of pillow stacking. I take great pride in this.

I lie on the bed beside Carole’s. I have one Percocet left. If there are any more emergencies what will I do? I plot my next move. I decide that tomorrow after my workshop in giving needles I’ll head down into the heart of Tijuana and look for backup painkillers.

As I prop new pillows around her and clear a path to the washroom I discuss with Carole my going downtown to scope out the local scene. She’s enthusiastic, she wants me to have whatever fun or holiday-type activity can be had on this trip. She even offers me a guilt-free association with a prostitute if I want. She smiles wanly, saying that conventional morality does not interest her much at this moment. Whatever I need, please do. I try to look uninterested. I get down on my knees beside her bed and press my head into her thigh. I do this gently, aware of the pressure on her abdomen. I assure Carole that sex is the last thing on my mind, which is not true. I am hungry for everything bad. I want to escape to a brothel of delights. I want alcohol, the excitement of strange women. It rises in me like yeasty bread. My grief is directly connected to my wanton desires, as if they’re hot-wired on the same circuit. The growth of one invites the other.

I turn out the light and return to my own bed. I shift my mind into a sexual fantasy and end up dreaming about women’s hands touching me. The pleasure so great I experience it as a kind of agony. The power in their hands both thrills and kills me. Later in the dark when I wake up I can sense Carole wrestling with demons. I blame myself for inviting them into the room.

“I love you, Carole.”

“I love you, too.” she says. “I wish I had some of those tomatoes right now. They were delicious.”

I call out for my inner John Wayne. Where’s the fighter who never gives up? I declare war on cancer and I will fight and fight and never give an inch. I declare war. I can see all the People portraits, all of them. They’re lined up, end to end, each one featuring a brave soul triumphing over cancer. I add our story. My wife’s face on the cover, her husband in the background in jogging clothes, his arm around the teenage daughter, both of them admiring the courage of their surviving heroine.

As night crawls to morning I declare a new day. I give myself my orders. Today, soldier, you go down into the heart of darkness that is Tijuana and you bring a new power home. It’s butt-kicking time.

I hear nurses stirring in the hallway. I get up with an erection that I hide from Carole. I cross the distance between our two beds and rest my hand gently on her leg. She tells me that she had a pleasant dream. She was at a wedding of two goats. What could it possibly mean? I pull the curtains back and morning light fills the room.

The first juice arrives at the door, and I prepare for my lesson in giving injections. Carole gags down the juice as I read about laetrile and something unpronounceable that I will be shooting into my wife’s body. I don’t know anything about laetrile; Carole doesn’t either but there’s a willingness on our parts to try anything. Bring it on: faith healers, psychics, naturopaths of all kinds, Chinese herbalists, Christian doctors. Every one has their gift to offer. Let the quacks sort themselves out in hell. I focus on the coffee I’m making. I’m going to stay positive and give all my good energy to Carole. I see myself as a young priest preparing wafers and wine. As I wait for the coffee, tubes and bowl in hand, I look forward to the coming afternoon in Tijuana.

The nurse who instructs me in injections is named Maria. She’s soft and beautiful with a good grasp of English. We have a natural affinity for each other, and she praises my quickness at learning. Maria has dark brown eyes, and I find myself lingering when I look into her round face. My arm brushes against hers, and I feel a pull toward any warm and loving woman. I wish we were wealthy, Maria. I’d take you back to Canada and pay you fabulous sums of money, and together we’d care for Carole. She shows me little tricks with the syringes and slaps me on the back when I manage them with finesse. I give her a high-five, and she disappears out the door.

Carole tells me she feels good, as though she’s getting better already. She thrills me by the way she trusts me with the needles.

She has a morning ahead with doctors and treatments that I’m not wanted for. This is my window for quality time in downtown Tijuana, but I wait until after breakfast and nurses wheel her to a steam room.

I wave to a cab that’s parked across the street and tell the driver I want to go downtown. “Tourist downtown? ” I nod. I have two American fifty-dollar bills burning a hole in my pocket and can feel Carole’s lips on my cheek where she kissed me goodbye.

The architecture could be called spaghetti-western Spanish-American. All the buildings are two storeys high. There are gringos mingling with the locals. The street looks like a carnival with an unbelievable number of drugstores. Every second store is a drugstore.

Where’s the famous red-light district? I know that’s where my feet are going. I just want to look. I just want to feel tempted. I see a strip joint out of the corner of my eye. I look serious and moral as I walk by. Men are beckoning me in.

I pass by the open front of a drugstore and I hear a lady’s voice. I think it’s directed at me: “Do you want a massage or have your cards read or do you want a really good blow job? ”

I make a mental note: that’s a good one to take back to Carole. I realize there’s a way to feel good about this if I act as Carole’s legs and eyes. She’s sent me here with stern orders. Enjoy yourself. Do what you really want to do. I feel ambivalent about my own desire. This has been a theme in our marriage. What do I want to do?

Right now I’d like some kind of drug, a powerful drug that makes me feel good, a narcotic of some kind. I step inside the shade of a drugstore, or at least it appears to be a drugstore. There are a couple of people waiting at a counter. I run through a quick list of what the woman thinks I might want: Percocet, Tylenol 3s, Valium, Lorazepam, Aspirin with codeine, codeine, and more codeine, and finally the woman says the magic word: “Morphina.” I nod my head. We have a winner. Fifty American dollars. I’m told to put the pills under my tongue, let them dissolve, only one, only one at a time. Morphina.

I walk around looking at the sights while I wait to get off. I spot what I think is a hooker standing in front of a small and dirty bar. I head in that direction. I’m getting off the beaten path. This looks promising.

I see a woman younger than the others. She’s in a pleated skirt. The Scotch plaid really does a number on me. The woman senses my interest and she smiles the biggest and most forced smile I’ve seen in my life. She asks if I want a fuckee. I shake my head, no thank you, as if I’m on my way to church and I’m just taking a shortcut through hell.

I look ahead while dozens of working women swim into my periphery. The street is cobblestoned and has rotting food in the gutters. I stare back down the street from where I came and then see the younger pleated-skirt woman. She’s about twenty-two years old, a lot younger than the others, and has a wonderful body. I imagine going to a private room with her and paying her for what? To tell me her story? I could pretend I’m researching a novel.

The morphine is starting to kick in. I feel something like hope, a ray of hope. Yes, it’s hope I’m feeling. Wonderful, I’ll go back to the hospital and spend some quality time with Carole. What did I think I was up to here? A woman reaches and grabs my balls, and I panic. How do I get out of here? I thank the woman for her interest in me and pull away. She laughs. I beat a retreat into a cab. “Take me to the Oasis of Hope.” I’m really stoned now. Pull it together. Carole doesn’t need to be with a moron. I hurry across the marble floor. I can’t wait to see my wife. I burst through the door of our room to see a note on the bed. “I love you. I’m having heat therapy.”

I pace the room, back and forth, until the door opens and Carole enters in a wheelchair, wrapped in towels. I’m not used to seeing her in a wheelchair. I help her into bed, covering her with blankets as she groans over and over. “I’m so tired, so tired. Don’t let me get a chill.”

“I’ll keep you warm. I’m here for you. I won’t leave.”

Her skin is bright red. I imagine the steam room. She smells good but looks like she’s on fire. She closes her eyes and sleeps. I shut the curtains and sit in a corner chair in the dark.

Carole looks unworried in her sleep. I think of our trip to the hospital after tests. The one where we were told, “It’s cancer,” the doctor’s office full of fear and fluorescent light. After leaving his office we went across the street to the parkade. Carole cried in terror and frustration. I said comforting things. “Surgery may solve this once and for all.”

How could this be happening to us? We aren’t strangers to death and tragedy, but when we got the diagnosis for cancer it had a special resonance all its own. It trumped past troubles.

Carole stirs, opening her eyes. I reach across and touch her. She’s had a dream she wants to write down. I get her pen and journal and turn on the light.

While she writes I go out into the hallway to check on the status of dinner. It’s nice having this close time with her, the two of us on a faux holiday retreat. I feel a terrible storm gathering, but for now we inhabit an island of peace and safety, our private corner in the mighty Mexican nation.

We have a few days of respite before going back out into the world, before the final assault. I buy a new bag to carry all the necessary vitamins and supplements for the Charlotte Gerson method. They have cost $4,000 (US) for a year’s supply—an optimistic purchase on our part—and I am afraid we will not get across the border with all the bottles and pills.

We’re driving back to the airport in San Diego with the same driver who brought us here. We approach the American border, a huge crossing with many lanes. The driver and customs agent speak Spanish. The agent appears rude and contemptuous and sends us to another line.

Our driver turns around and says that on the American side of the border the Mexican custom agents are the worst. They like to harass and make life difficult.

“Why? ”

“It’s power. They like to be powerful.” That’s all he says about it, and we sit in silence.

Okay, I’m afraid. What’s happening?

We’re waved ahead, and some armed guards walk toward the van. A bored man with a rifle asks the driver something in Spanish. The driver nods and the guard waves, slapping our driver’s arm in brotherly love. The driver turns his head halfway: “They know the Oasis of Hope.”

He takes us directly to the airport, past the battleships, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. We have a flight to catch, straight to Toronto.

Carole is weak and tense about the flight. She asks for a wheelchair at the airport, which is something new. It will help us get to the front of the lines and get seated first on the plane. We laugh about this privilege, as though we are acting and don’t really need the wheelchair. The wheelchair has one bad wheel, and I push it in a crooked line through the security gate.

I go looking for food. Carole waits in the wheelchair where I have set her so she can look out the window and down the airport corridor.

When I return with the yogourt, Carole’s in a rage. A family pushed her away from the window without asking for her consent. They wanted their kids to have the view. No one spoke a single word to her. It was as if she were invisible. This has pushed Carole’s deepest buttons. She sees the world now as the handicapped must see it, another lesson we learn. Carole’s pride is wounded. She has a hard time being in the chair.

We board, and Carole is subdued for the flight. The future is going to be harder.

We land in Toronto, get off the plane and find another wheelchair. I push Carole toward a customs desk and tell the man why we were in Mexico, a little nervous because the glass bottles are clinking in the orange bag. He finds something amiss with my identification papers.

“I’m Canadian, man, believe me, I’m Canadian.”

The agent looks at Carole and pales a little. He looks down and whispers, “Good luck,” stamping the papers, then he looks up into my eyes: “Welcome home, good luck.”

I am pushing everything dear to me toward the automatic doors.


  • Paul Jenkins

    Layne Coleman has captured something undiscussed in polite society but very real and maybe more typical than many of us would care to believe. Well done.