The word spread through Colburn quickly the way it often does in small towns—not by an article in the Colburn Messenger or even in the Hartford or New Haven papers, both of which stated simply that Thomas Kearns was being treated for an undisclosed illness. In truth, only the big city papers even identified him as Thomas Kearns, Chief Executive Officer of Northeast Casualty; the smaller and more personal Messenger did not need to be so specific. Everyone in Colburn knew Tommy. And now everyone knew that something was wrong with him.
And only forty—too young for a heart attack or a stroke—too young for anything but cancer. That healthy tan, some said, had apparently been bought at some cost.
It’s not that at all, others said, especially the ones who had seen him smoking outside restaurants and meeting rooms. Lung cancer, they said, belaboring the obvious but realizing also, as everyone did, that with his money and the finest care, any malady, even an undisclosed one redolent with danger and foreboding, presented merely a bump in the road. Others, less interested in the diagnosis than the effects, lamented Kearns’s never having married, conjectured about how important it was to have loved ones around at times like that. Still others countered with the bromide about everyone dying alone no matter what. And finally a few, struggling to make ends meet, reminded each other—with a tone that bordered on pleasure or at least satisfaction—that wealth never provides guarantees.
The Chamber of Commerce dispatched a gaudy bouquet, of course, and several execs had their assistants or secretaries send cards. He’d have preferred cigarettes, for in the unalloyed boredom of his afternoons flitting from city to city and specialist to specialist, he smoked them continuously. Colleagues and associates told each other he looked good, healthy, far too vital to be the victim of anything. And Tommy, when he heard them, soft-pedaled his ailment, remained nebulous about outcomes, spoke obliquely about prognoses. It may have been undisclosed, but if it was bad, nobody knew.
But Tommy Kearns knew. Ten to fourteen months: after that he would be dead. A year give or take—that’s how long his particular cancer could be held at bay with new protocols and, eventually, palliative treatments. Radiation could be employed to stop the spread, and chemotherapy remained an option, and there were clinical trials ongoing in hospitals as far away as Vietnam and as close as New York City. But in the end, no matter how sanguine a conversation might appear on a given day, no matter how earth-shaking some laboratory discovery might be, Tommy Kearns didn’t need a dictionary to know what palliative meant. In his case, ten to fourteen months.
“When it starts in the pancreas,” the specialists said, each reaffirming the previous one, “it gets too far before anyone knows it’s there...and it begins to spread...and….”
After a few such consultations, Tommy stopped listening to the facts and started searching for nuance—a slight shift in tone, a leaning toward optimism. In the end, though, it was always the same: ten to fourteen months.
So he split the difference—one year even—and in an understandable but macabre fit of anger, opened his laptop calendar and typed in dead for the following Valentine’s Day. Then he made a checklist of remaining events:
Next Thanksgiving. He typed in probably.
Next Christmas. Maybe. Ten months was cutting it close.
A conference this coming March. Definitely.
Summer weekends at his home in Mystic. Of course.
The following summer? And all the summers to follow? He typed in no and cut and pasted some squiggly lines until he grew tired of it..
The print-out hung on a bulletin board in his office at home where he could see it daily, but every time he looked at it, he realized it could be expanded—that there were events to fit in between. The previous year he had attended a Fourth of July fireworks display—something he hadn’t done since high school. That might be feasible five months from now. He kept altering, squeezing in, inserting, until the neat computer-generated font looked more like a badly edited manuscript or some alien hieroglyph. Every Sunday he crumpled it and dropped it into a wastebasket, not even deigning to shred it. And every Sunday be began again.
With each revision he realized there was more to do than merely endure a bunch of holidays or pretend to marvel at some explosives making pretty patterns in the air. It was too late for fluff like that, not when one’s life could be measured in months, days, hours. Each new list was shorter, more concise. It contained no place names, no holidays, no destinations, no tasks, no fireworks.
Two items only scribbled in on every Sunday.
1. Find out once and for all.
2. Fix it.
By the middle of March, not long after he’d received his death sentence, he began sleeping soundly for the first time in years.
“Thirty-one days,” he said. “A long month. I got that going for me.”