January 30, 2024

Mass Central Rail Trail in Wayland.


People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues,

-Haruki Murakami


Today, Waldo and I are out walking with Phyllis on the rail-trail near her home in Weston.  It’s the one that runs straight as an arrow under some high-tension power lines.  The original plan was to walk the next leg of the Bay Circuit Trail, but I had to cancel at the last minute and we came up with this as an alternative.  I had a hard night and only got about three hours of sleep; I’m not sure why.  Maybe it had something to do with a pain in my right chest wall that kept waking me up.  It’s still there, but walking doesn’t make it worse, so, here we are.  Ah, the aches and pains that old age is heir to…

We got to the parking lot, where we are to meet Phyllis, little early, so we’re out strolling in circles, waiting for her.  A red SUV, about the same color as Phyllis’s car, but not the right model, pulls up about four car lengths away from us and a white-haired woman gets out.  Waldo immediately shakes his butt and wants to cross over to where she is.  I’m sure he thinks she’s Phyllis.  He constantly shows me how intelligent he is.  Even more often, he shows me how twisted his brain is, like when he puts some of the stuff in his mouth that he does.

It’s not long and Phyllis shows up and we’re off (as soon as Waldo is finished doing his welcoming waggy, licky ritual and getting his requisite pets and pats in return).  It rained last night and there are still a lot of clouds blocking what meager sunlight we get this time of year.  The ground is still a little damp, but there isn’t a lot of standing water or mud.  The temperature is in the high 30s, but there’s not much wind, so it’s not that cold.  Waldo seems quite happy and is off at the front of the leash, doing his Waldo thing.

There’s this weird thing that happens with friends.  Maybe you don’t see them for weeks, then, when you do, you strike up a conversation as if it began with a comma.  You know, you jump right into the middle of something like it was the continuation of a subject you just started discussing a minute ago.  We’re talking about all manner of stuff, some of which I’m more interested in, some that intrigues Phyllis.  Stuff like the benefits of a vegan diet (Phyllis), the requirements for a study to be called a “scientific” study (me), how delicious a recent gourmet meal was (Phyllis) and how I know Phyllis can learn a new language because, after all, she can speak English perfectly well and all languages use the same part of the brain (me).  A little over an hour into our trek and the conversation wanders over to a person Phyllis knows who was just diagnosed with tubo-ovarian cancer.

It turns out that this woman had some respiratory symptoms that caused her to get a chest x-ray.  Two different radiologists looked at it.  One thought there might be a lesion suspicious for a metastasis, and the other thought that was an over-read.  The woman’s PCP decided to follow it up and she got an abdominal CT.  That showed an ovarian mass and some spots on her liver.  A laparoscopy confirmed all this and they got a piece of tissue that they tested that revealed the cancer.  I’m hearing all this and shaking my head, yeah.  This is the usual way that ovarian cancer is found – incidentally.  It’s asymptomatic in its early stages and most often found serendipitously only at a late stage.  If there are metastases in the lung and liver (probably elsewhere too) it is late-stage cancer.

“What I don’t understand,” says Phyllis, “is why this happened to her.  She is young, only slightly more than half our age, she has no family history, she eats healthy, doesn’t smoke or drink, and exercises regularly.”

Personally, I don’t ask “why” when something happens.  That suggests that there is someone or something that directs what happens and can be made to justify their choices.  I ask how, when and to what extent, but that isn’t relevant here.  So, I listen.

“She’s married, has a couple of kids and is living a good life.  Why would this happen to her?” says Phyllis.  “I just don’t understand.”

It really is tragic and I understand Phyllis isn’t really looking for an answer, she needs to release some of the angst it has caused.  Some of our conversations are more pleasant than others, but the fact that we are friends means we can talk about anything.  And I don’t need to say anything here.  It’s my job to listen.

As much as life pains us, there is only so much that can be said about its vagaries.  We wallow in the sorrow of it all and then move on.  I think Phyllis is comforted, a bit, in sharing her pain, but she can be hard to read.  Soon, we’re back to our cars and we’ve walked 10 miles.

Maybe next time, we can talk about more pleasant things.


No power lines on the Marlborough rail trail.

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