“We’ll Die Walking”: Lessons From Reading In a Hospital

Remember when you could sit down and read a book for a couple of hours? Yeah, me too. That was before kids. I read whenever, wherever, and however I can these days.

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Yesterday morning, I had a strange experience while reading on my walk into work. I’m halfway through “The Lost City of Z,” which my friend Jill loaned to me last January and I’m finally getting around to. I can’t give you any spoilers because I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s really good (thanks, Jilly!). It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer in the Amazon who set off in 1925 to search for a city of gold and ended up vanishing into the jungle without a trace. Or maybe there are traces later, but like I said, not finished yet.

I was engrossed in the story of one of Fawcett’s early expeditions, a trek to find the source of the Verde River between Bolivia and Brasil. The expedition hit snags and Fawcett and his men–after a few bad decisions about how much canned food to carry–ended up starving in the jungle next to a poisoned river with nary a fish. Fawcett refused to turn back, even though most of his men were falling ill from the fevers brought by the relentless mosquitos and vampire bats.

There I was, hurrying to the end of the chapter in hopes that I could find out how the party made it out alive before I had to clock in. My face buried in the book, I trekked up the sidewalk, right at the crepe myrtles, left at the rosemary, then I ducked into the building through the side door under the Rehab pool. A wall of icy air-conditioning hit me but I never looked up from the page. Just like Fawcett in the “green hell,” I was confident that I could find my way.

PET scan of the brain

PET scan of the brain

No one is ever in that hallway. The only thing back there is a storage closet and the back entrance to the P.E.T. scan area. What’s a PET scan, you might ask? That’s a kind of radiology test where some highly skilled people put a radioactive tracer in you then take a picture or Positron Emission Tomograph to map out disease activity in your body. It’s the test that shows you if cancer has spread. When cancer survivors say they have to go in for a scan, it’s probably a PET scan to monitor the progress or remission of their disease. A PET scan explores the previously invisible life of our organs. In a way, it’s like Fawcett heading off into the jungle hoping to find treasures and fearing what may be revealed.

Like I said, that hallway is safe for reading because no one is ever back there. But that morning, I had to pull up short before tripping right over a group of three people. They walked out of the PET scan doors in a cluster–the radiology tech in his sage green scrubs, a young woman carrying two purses and a sheaf of papers, and one women of about sixty, who looked to be carrying the world on her shoulders. They didn’t pay me any attention, there behind my book.

“We’ll get these read this afternoon, and your doctor will call you with the results,” he said, looking the older woman right in the eye and nodding gently. Neither woman spoke but they both nodded in return. He smacked the button on the wall that opens the doors to the Radiation Oncology department. They hesitated a second while the doors swung open then he led them through in silence. I waited in the hall for the doors to close behind them.

Walking through that spot, the spot where that woman had stood a second before, I felt like I was walking through a cloud of her fear. It was tangible, buzzing, a gray heaviness like a swarm of jungle mosquitos carrying yellow fever. That fear that a cancer patient feels, coming to the hospital for the scan that will bring good news or the worst news. The scan that reveals the next part of her life and how it will go. That ordinary woman seemed like Fawcett chopping his way into the jungle, one foot at a time, never knowing if the next moment would bring a viper or a city of gold.

I thought about that woman and her daughter, how their afternoon would stretch out before them until the jangle of the phone would send their hearts to the ground. I hoped the news would be good. Please, please, please let that scan be clear. Let her laugh with relief and let the tears that they cry today be tears of joy. I took a couple of breaths, thought about all the times Richard and I had waited for one test or another. Thumbs up, thumbs down–will our life go on?

I pressed the button for the elevator. As I waited, I was struck by this passage in the tale of the Verde River party:

The starving expedition. Fawcett far right.

The starving expedition had a camera but no food. Fawcett front right.

“Fawcett soon noticed that one of the men had vanished. He eventually came upon him sitting collapsed against a tree. Fawcett ordered the man to get up, but he begged Fawcett to let him die there. He refused to move, and Fawcett took out his knife. The blade gleamed before the man’s eyes; Fawcett ached with hunger. Waving the knife, Fawcett forced him to his feet.┬áIf we die, Fawcett said, we’ll die walking.”

– David Grann, The Lost City of Z

I thought of that woman and how her shoulders stooped. I had assumed she was carrying her fear of dying. But really, she wasn’t like the starving man who wanted to surrender to death. She wasn’t rolling over and giving up–she was still walking, still consulting with her doctors, still LIVING. Regardless of the results of her scan.

I don’t remember if Richard ever had a PET scan. With blood cancers, your cancer is everywhere from the get go, metastatic from square one.

I do know that he never gave up. The man looked at me not twelve hours before he died and mumbled through cracked and bloody lips: “I’m just going through a rough patch.” He insisted on living, right up until the moment he died. He never quit walking, and I followed him right through that jungle, right up to the gate of the golden city.

“If we die, we’ll die walking.”


Want to read it for yourself? Here’s a link!

3 thoughts on ““We’ll Die Walking”: Lessons From Reading In a Hospital

  1. Chris

    Hmmmm. Beautifully written, as always, Ash, but the premise? I’ll cotton to live walking as long as I can, but I want to die curled up in a corner with a good book.Dying at my age has become political with very little input from the ‘patient.’

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  2. mariner2mother

    I can’t imagine what it is to watch your beloved die. I wasn’t with either of my parents when they both died. Sometimes, very rarely, I think about how one day I will likely be with my husband when he dies. I, of course, am assuming I’ll outlive him. And what will life be like afterwards.

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