This is What Happens When the Doctor Tells You You’re Dying

Roger D’Agostin

Jacob Schwartz marches toward me oblivious to the coffee dripping down his hand.  It’s not eight-thirty.  His tie is askew and I can’t tell if he messed up from the get go or if he’s been yanking on it the past half hour.  Not that it matters.  Not that it matters in the least since Jacob isn’t dying, and if he was, a poorly knotted tie would be of little concern.

“I need a favor,” Jacob stammers.  “We need to move Mike over to the conference room because there’s a leak in his office and he needs a phone and printer and everyone says the wireless in that room is spotty.  Is it spotty?  It can’t be spotty.” 

I told Jacob last week I am dying.  He immediately said his Uncle Tommy is ninety-one and had a brain tumor when he was fifty-one.  How many people without a brain tumor live until ninety-one?  He also told me about his cousin’s wife who was told she had a tumor in her shoulder twenty years ago and walked out of the hospital because she didn’t like the doctor.  She’s into crystals and says they healed her, but the fact is she’s alive.  “You have to have hope.” 

The doctor didn’t use that word.  He used concern.  The spots on my lung are a concern.  I told him my mom died of breast cancer and my father, stomach.  “This is exactly why it’s important to run more tests and begin treatment as soon as possible,” he added.

My wife is in denial.  Since my diagnosis, thirteen days ago, she has been on,, and every night.  “It makes no sense.  You don’t have shortness of breath.  Excessive coughing.  The spot could be a lot of things.”

I told Jacob this, last week, then I asked him for the favor, which he’s supposed to come through on today.  Surprisingly, Jacob didn’t and hasn’t asked more questions.  Not one.  I was grateful.  Because I didn’t want to explain how chemo killed my mom and then two years later, my dad.  Or that it extended their life, but not in a good way.  Ruin whatever hope he might have if, God forbid, he gets a cancer diagnosis one day.  He won’t want to know that what doctors don’t tell you is that chemotherapy doesn’t kill cancer.  It kills everything.  It’s like dropping a giant bomb and hoping the good guys have enough sense to run for cover and hopefully, eventually, emerge from the rubble and rebuild.  But we all know how that works.  The bad guys emerge, too.  And you can only keep bombing for so long.


Jacob nods when you speak to him even when it’s not socially necessary, like when you say, good morning and he asks how your weekend was and you say something like I raked leaves.  He nods and nods like one of those toys that sit on car dashboards and it makes you want to look past him, and hope he just stops but too often he doesn’t and you go on talking about food shopping and how the supermarket was so crowded and they were completely out of the tuna fish that was on sale.  I was grateful he didn’t start nodding when I told him about the spot on my lung.  That would have led to my parents’ cancer and I would have had to explain how their hair abandoned them in senseless packs and then their appetites fled.  Anything they managed to digest ran out of them like a polluted river. 

But I am wondering if Jacob forgot.  Or pretending he forgot.  I don’t think so because Jacob’s too nice of a guy.  Even if gravity’s been unkind to him, pulling the fat down his face obscuring his jawline and chin, and then the same trick on his torso creating problems as to the proper positioning of his belt, he’s one of those guys that’s always in a good mood but not a bullshit, fake good mood that pisses you off.  Whenever I pass him in the hallway he wants to bump fists.  He growls Destroyer ever since he found out I was born on March 15, 1976, which is the day Kiss released their album titled Destroyer.  He explained it to me after he found out my birthday because that’s his birthday as well.  “We’re Destroyer babies, man.”  But the real coincidence is that we were not only born on the same day, but in the same hospital, as well.  I know, it’s not like people talk about the hospitals they were born in, let alone actually know the name of the hospital, but we were having lunch about a month after I started and Jacob asked me where I was from and I told him Connecticut, but I was born in New York and that’s when he says me too, and then asks where and I tell him Queens.  He says, holy shit I’m pretty sure I was born in Queens and of course both of us dig up our birth certificates that evening and it turns out we were both born in St. John’s Hospital.  For a few weeks after, whenever he bumped fists with me he said St. John’s instead of Destroyer which I preferred, well if I had to choose, and those were my two choices, because it kind of felt like a blessing where Destroyer sounds like a middle school gang.  

Honestly, it’s hard to believe we’re the same age, because of the aforementioned gravity thing.  Sometimes, I wonder if I have it all wrong.  Perhaps Jacob looks fine and since I’m dying, and never realized this, I believed my emaciated frame was normal.

Jacob startles me from my thoughts when he barks, “Destroyer, man.  Destroyer.  Let’s do this.”  

I tell him I’ll take care of Mike, bump his fist, and head to the conference room. 

Mike audibly exhales.  He does this while creating his new space, so to speak, moving mesh trays and matching mesh cylinders.  He seems to be quite particular in regards to his desk calendar as well as pictures of his family. 

I wonder if all critters make such a fuss in their little, critter ways.  I mean, birds and squirrels and chipmunk, pushing leaves and sticks into their homes, chirping and chattering.  Then again that’s their house.  Mike only has to rebuild his office, really his desk, but he’s practically beside himself.  Who knows?  All that clicking and squawking could be bitching.

Mike doesn’t ask how I’m doing.  If he did I’d say, fine.  Besides, can I really say, probably dead in three months if I’m lucky, you?  Of course, he’d think I was just making a snarky comment and then Human Resources would get involved and that wouldn’t be good.  Even dying, even so soon, I still need my job.  There will be medical bills.  Not to mention, I’d really prefer to keep Human Resources out of my business.  They’re the reason I know.  They made everyone sign up for these physicals so the company could lower their medical insurance premiums.  Well, aren’t they in for a surprise?  A part of me wants to sign up for the chemo and radiation and every cancer treatment the medical establishment has to offer just to stick it to them.  But when I mull it over I’m not so certain I want to travel down that road of suffering in the name of spite.

Anyhow, hooking up the phone and printer is easy.  I tell Mike to call me if he has any wireless issues.  He tells me the wireless here is spotty and I lie and say it’s fixed.


Jacob over thanks me.  His hands are soaked with coffee, but I still reciprocate when he offers a handshake instead of a fist bump because that’s a big thing with him.  I notice his shirt has stains everywhere and I feel for his wife who never realized she would need to become a coffee stain removal expert.  You just don’t know what you’re getting into when you walk down the aisle.  My wife certainly didn’t.  Two years of marriage bought her a front row seat to the end of my existence.  One day she’s complaining I spend too much on mason jars for my pickling hobby and the next day she’s stroking my hair and telling me it’s OK I don’t have life insurance. 

When we leave the conference room Larry from accounting is running toward us screeching, “Schwartz.  Schwartz.  There’s no electricity.  There’s no electricity in my office.”  Jacob looks down at the floor and scratches his neck.  “I have to finish my monthly reports.  I can’t work without electricity.”  Jacob looks at me and I tell him I’ll look at it with him and if we need to, I can run an extension cord.  I want to ask if he called.  I told him to call this morning.  That was the favor.  Like I said before, he didn’t ask why.  I even gave him a script to read.  He just nodded and kept his head down.

I walk as fast as Jacob to Larry’s office.  Why not?  In a month, the cancer may have progressed to the point where I can barely manage a few steps. 

Of course, Larry’s walking ahead of us.  I wish he didn’t look so good.  I wish he had dark circles under his eyes and thinning hair.  He could keep the physique as long as his skin was pasty.  Then his crisis driven personality would fit.  But Larry has high cheekbones, a perfect nose, and an olive complexion which complements his light green eyes.  Women stare, until his hysterics and stupidity emerge.  But a few still make attempts to engage him.  I envy their hope.

Jacob announces it’s the power strip.  “You must have stepped on the switch.”  Larry’s not embarrassed.  His eyes brighten when his computer screen flickers.  He hugs Jacob.  Really hugs him and gushes thank you.   

We’re leaving and Jacob tells me he has to use the john.  “Wait here.  I have to ask you something.”  Of course, he has to bump my fist before he departs and while I’m waiting I start thinking that maybe I should ask him.  Not pry, but he did say he was going to do it.  If he doesn’t want to.  I’ll have to find someone else. 

That’s when Jane Smithers pages me.  She’s the receptionist and she does her job.  Really.  She’s the only receptionist I’ve ever worked with who simply does her job.  So I leave Jacob, and I tell myself perhaps it’s for the best. 

When I arrive at her desk, she apologizes but tells me my wife said, it’s an emergency which means it must be bad, when you consider the circumstances.

I pick up the phone and she blurts, “They made a mistake.  The x-ray’s bad.  There’s a spot on all the x-rays.  He kept calling you Bob.  I told him your name’s Robert.  Why does everyone assume that?  We should sue.  I’m calling Lisa to get the name of a lawyer.  You remember her, right?  She used to be a lawyer-”

I talk her down.  I keep repeating are you sure?  And she keeps repeating what she just said so I change tactics and ask what did the doctor say exactly, even though I know, and she corrects me and tells me she didn’t speak to a doctor but rather the receptionist, male, male receptionist, and then repeats it was a mistake.  They shouldn’t make mistakes.  I tell her to focus on the positive.  She tells me tonight we’re going to celebrate and I’m not sure if that means sex or going out to dinner but I don’t press.  I just say, “Great.” 

When I hang up the phone Jacob’s at my side.  He tells me we have one more fire to put out.  He apologizes profusely and since his cup is empty, he’s quite expressive with his hands.  “Erica’s power is out,” Jacob explains.  “And she’s not an idiot like Larry so maybe there is something going on.  If we could run extension cords I can call the electricians and they can take a look.” 

I tell him thanks.  He avoids my eyes.  “No.  No.  I really appreciate it.  My wife just called.” 

I want to tell him more.  Sit him down and tell him how bad it could be and how I don’t want that, but he’s hunched up like a dog that’s trying not to get pulled somewhere.  So I tell him I need to run downstairs and grab them from my office. 

“Right, right,” he answers.  “I’ll meet you there.”  Then I hear, “Jacob Schwartz phone call” over the speakers.  I turn back around and see him marching toward me and everything slows down just like when I was twelve and my mom told us at the dinner table she had breast cancer but she was going to fight it.  It was a Friday night and she had made hamburgers but she always overcooked them so you had to drench them in ketchup and I hated how the fat seeped onto the plate and thickened into gray puss.  She didn’t wait until me and Dad were finished eating.  She blurted it out right in the middle and then I noticed she had not one piece of food on her plate.  After that everything changed.

“Look,” I tell Jacob.  “Why don’t you call the electrician and I’ll tell Jane you’ll be up there in a second.  Then I’ll meet you at Erica’s.”  Jacob offers his fist.  I say, “St. John’s.  St. John’s.”

Author Bio

Roger DAugustin This is What Happens

Roger D’Agostin is a writer living in Connecticut.  His work has most recently appeared in New South, Heavy Feather Review, and Rejection Letters.  He is currently working on a short story collection.