“I want to rule out cancer,” the hippie doctor with bad coffee breath tells me as I sit exposed on a cracked vinyl examining table in a run-down clinic downtown. My mind starts racing as my fingers probe the canyons in the vinyl, picking at the foam core.

Cancer. I’m so young.

“We’ll run some tests,” he quips as he scratches notes in my file, my life unworthy of neat penmanship. He snaps it shut, sets it down, far away from my eyes, as though my illness should be kept secret from me.

Feeling my neck with his fingers in little circular motions, he mumbles to himself, uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, another secret he keeps from me.

“Is it bad?” I stammer, trying not to cry in front of this man who looks like he lives in his car, the byproduct of me not having insurance, which is also racing through my mind. Health is a privilege in this country. You have no right to it, no entitlement, and I have learned not to expect it.

But I never expected cancer.

I eat right, organic for the most part, and I exercise every day. I quit smoking cigarettes years ago, and though I occasionally enjoy a joint now and then, I seldom drink, though I’m told a glass of wine now and then is good for you. I control my sugar intake, watch the red meat, skip anything with hydrogenated anything in it or bleached four or high fructose corn syrup, which is now being relabeled as just corn syrup because consumers have caught of to the food conspiracy.

How did this happen to me?

“I’ll know more when I get the results,” he says already on his way out.

“Ok,” I barely utter as the door closes.

And then I am left alone. Alone under the stale fluorescent lights. Alone with the cracked vinyl and wooden tongue depressors and blood pressure machine.

I think about the first time I died, when my sister jumped on my head in Lisa Buell’s pool and knocked me out. Lisa’s dad had to give me mouth to mouth, and I remember the taste of cheap beer, probably Coors Light. Dying then had been peaceful, as I wasn’t conscious to struggle against the water that came crashing through my lungs. It was coming back to life that was violent, and I’ve often wondered if that was a mistake, if I wasn’t supposed to die there on the Spanish tile by the side of the pool.

I think about all the people I’ve wronged. Make a mental list of everyone who deserves an apology from me, including Debbie Gordon, the girl I beat up in eighth grade for spreading rumors about me. She might have deserved it, but violence never solves anything. I know this now. I’m sorry, Debbie.

I think of my Mom, of how her face will crack and spill onto the floor when I tell her I might have cancer. I watch her heart fall from her chest and crash onto the floor and shatter into a million jagged pieces.

I hear my sister cry in her bathroom, shut away from the ears of her six children, my beautiful nieces and nephews, who listen at the other side of the door unbeknown to her. I see their confused and conflicted faces as I wipe the tears away from my own eyes.

Then I see my brother cry, and that undoes me. The tears fall, and I don’t care if the homeless doctor sees them.

Forty five minutes and a box of Kleenex after I’ve been handed a bomb to hold, a nurse finally enters with a yellow tackle box of needles and vials. She rolls up my sleeves and taps at my veins. “Oh, you’ve got great veins,” she says, smiling. She’s too excited by them, and I wonder if she’s a junky. I try to examine her teeth, but she’s looking down, down at my blue veins that may or may not be pumping cancer through my body.

“That’s all there is to it,” she says, snapping off her latex gloves and tossing them into the trashcan. “We’ll call to schedule the biopsy. You’ll need to pay at the desk on the right on your way out.” Then she leaves without any fanfare, and I’m left wondering if this is how it all ends, in a dimestore clinic with buzzing overhead lights on a cracked vinyl examining table in the middle of winter.

Death be not proud.

And neither should the dying.


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When she isn't making movies or music, DUCKY WILSON serves as a spy for the Bokonon Underground Army, living by the foma that makes her brave and kind and healthy and happy. Her poetry has been published in several literary magazines, none of which you've ever read, and her nonfiction work can be read exclusively on The Nervous Breakdown. Currently, she is in development on her next film, an offbeat musical about misfits looking to belong.

34 responses to “The Middle of Winter”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    God, Ducky, you can’t leave us hanging like this!
    What do they suspect?
    Do you know the results already?
    Please say it was a false alarm!

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Irene, those doctors kept me hanging for months. You can imagine the agony. They shouldn’t be allowed to throw the C word around so casually. Glad I left you feeling the same way I felt. And no, it is not cancer, thank the universe.

      • Irene Zion says:

        I am so relieved!
        You really had me feeling terrible, so you succeeded in making me feel what you felt.
        Good job!

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Oh, I didn’t mean to make you feel terrible! My next post will be happier. To counterbalance.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Ducky you did what you meant to do, that’s a good thing.
          I’m just glad you’re okay.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Irene, I’ll still post a spirited one next, for my own sanity. This past year has been too grave.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Irene, I just read your bio on the home page. I used to work for the guy you went on a cruise with. He was a first class boss.

        • Irene Zion says:

          That’s nice to hear, Ducky,
          It wasn’t a cruise, though, it was traveling from Italy to Brooklyn.
          No one flew back then!

  2. Matt says:

    First off, though the cicrumstances aren’t admirable, it’s good to see you back here. You’ve been sorely missed.

    As someone who’s been dealing with his own mystery medical ailments (including 3 different diagnoses and upcoming surgery), I know exactly where you’re coming from. The probing, the questions, the off-the-cuff musing that raise more worries than they quell…going to the doctor for anything other than a routine physical is such a pain in the ass, mentally and physically.

    Hope the biopsy results came back negative!

    Oh, and I get the “good veins” thing from nurses too, all the time.

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Thanks, Matt. Good to be back. This last year has been a total drag, literally. My energy was gone and I just couldn’t think clearly. My brain was definitely affected by all this, besides the chronic worrying. But I’m on meds now, much to my chagrin, and though I’m not 100% yet, I am feeling better, though I’m told it will take several months before I’m back to my old self. Very happy to be back at TNB. Thanks for missing me.

  3. Hank Cherry says:

    Oh, I just really love the way you move through the time of this piece. Starts fast, then migrates into your head, and a kind of timelessness that all of our heads can be. Absolutely golden. That the story is without an end is the worry of living. Thanks for letting us to come inside.

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Hank, thanks for going on the journey with me. And yes, you hit it exactly, the note I was trying to hit. The worry of living.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, man. I couldn’t believe how you ended it (which, of course, makes total and perfect sense).

    My dad had a scare yesterday. He went in for an x-ray and the doctor said ‘Hmmm… doesn’t look too good. I’ll be right back.’

    What he meant was that the x-ray itself was foggy and the lens needed cleaning.

    But he only explained that after he’d re-entered the room, leaving my dad to freak for ten minutes.

    Glad it’s not the big C, Ducky.

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Yeah, me too, Simon. Very glad. Don’t understand why doctors aren’t more sensitive to these matters and watch what they say. In all fairness, I have a lump in my throat, so it was a plausible diagnosis, but still, yeesh, he’s gotta start out with the big c?!

  5. Judy Prince says:

    Ducky—-I have so totally missed you, remembering your fabulous poem *My Waitress at Sonic”!!! When I saw your yellow gravatar pop up yesterday on someone’s comments page, what a delight. And now you have me with tears in my eyes reading this piece. Thank goodness I could scroll thru the comments and see your response about the no-cancer verdict!

    Your writing’s spectacular, incisive, intense and vivid with aching wit. You gripped, continuously, with such as this:

    ” . . . he scratches notes in my file, my life unworthy of neat penmanship.”

    “Alone under the stale fluorescent lights. Alone with the cracked vinyl and wooden tongue depressors and blood pressure machine.”

    ” . . . she’s looking down, down at my blue veins that may or may not be pumping cancer through my body.”

    “Then she leaves without any fanfare, and I’m left wondering if this is how it all ends, in a dimestore clinic with buzzing overhead lights on a cracked vinyl examining table in the middle of winter.”

    Welcome back—–and what a return!

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Oh, Judy, you’re so sweet. Such wonderful compliments. Thanks.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Ducky, I’m not sweet! oh, ok, I’m sweet. 😉

        I had such a scare as you describe, lasting a weekend, during which I decided the thing I’d want to have done before dying is write and illustrate stories for my grandkids. So I did a couple—-they were really really bad, but I felt great. And there was good news after the weekend.

        Another time, in a doctor’s office, the nurse was about to take a blood sample while near-pneumonia was coursing through my veins. I said, “Do you mind if I close my eyes?” She said, “OK, I will, too.”

        Stay with us, Ducky—–we need your wild writing self!

        @ simon: Your Dad’s experience was arse-awful! And hilarious!

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Judy, you are definitely sweet. Why have it any other way?

          And WTF about that nurse? I hope she was kidding, though I can imagine my nurse saying the same thing – nodding off on her heroin high.

          Did your grandkids like your book?

        • Judy Prince says:

          Ducky, people who know me Really Well would have to differ with you about my being sweet—-but I’m gonna bask in the glow you have given me! 😉

          Nah, that nurse was joking—and it really gave me a lift. They oughta hire nurses for their wit as well as for their compassion. BTW, I just read an article on “self-compassion” and the word has stayed with me, wonderfully useful for times when I need to exit the Perfectionist game.

          Yeah, the grandkids liked the stories and illustrations, so I sent a few more, even having some bound as books. It was good experience to write and illustrate, and I went on to illustrate a friend’s poetry pamphlet as well as one of my own. Bottom line was that my response to thinking I was gonna snuff it soon was to come up with an activity that helped me through the terror.

          Your accurate and powerful image of that doctor’s office stays with me, Ducky. Most doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are sterile (both meanings of the word) and cold, grim and prison-like. There’re many ways they could make them look good, user-friendly for the patient, and warm in tone and mood. I’ve always thought that doctors offices and hospitals are planned for doctors and administrators—-not for patients, nurses, cleaning staff and security.

          No one—-NO ONE—-in this wealthy nation of ours (USA) should have to go to such a facility as you’ve described. I’ve had three medical appointments in England with National Health Insurance doctors, nurses and staff (I paid for the visits because I’m not eligible for NHS). The doctors and nurses were terrific and took a great deal of time and care with me. One doctor, at the end of the appointment, reasonably wondered why I kept saying, “Now where will I go?” She must’ve thought I was a nut case, and she finally said, “Just go home.” I had thought I had to go somewhere to pay the rest of the bill since I’d only paid the equivalent of $40 when I first went in. Turns out that was all I had to pay!!

          Come to England, Ducky! Although most things are more expensive in England, they have many many practical, humane services for people. They don’t kick folks to the kerb and expect them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They don’t turn a blind eye to people in need. The current coalition party in power is trying to reverse all of that, but my feeling’s that Brits, being very independent-minded individualists, will boot them out of power as soon as possible.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Yes, a sense of humor is invaluable around potentially sick people. It’s as healing as medicine. Maybe more.

          I won’t get on my soap box about this nation’s priorities, particularly as it seems we agree. I work with a charity who helps cancer patients get treatment in Belize. The cost is about 150 bucks per chemo treatment. No where near the astronomical cost for the same thing here. And while I do wish our government would prioritize healthcare over military, I’d be happy to pay for insurance if it was actually something one could afford.

          If I thought I could get a job in England, I just might entertain moving.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Ducky, you’ve no idea how relieved and pleased I am that you feel the same about healthcare here in the States. You know it from your charity experience for those in Belize and the relatively astronomical price of the same care in the States. I think, honestly, that you and others of your generation (I was at uni in the 60’s) will make major inroads in correcting the healthcare and other systems that inordinately favour the wealthy and punish the middles and the poor.

          Keep me and dear Rodent in mind if you happen to hop the pond. We’d be delighted to see you! I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for jobs there for you. Let me know the kind of work you most love to do.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          America is very divided on this issue, and I’m not sure our side will win. When people like Sarah Palin and Glen Beck are so popular, makes me very worried. I’ve often thought that humans were devolving as opposed to evolving, but I’m glad you have so much faith in my generation, as I certainly do not.

          England? Oh, that’s a dream. I’m a filmmaker, so there’s no way in hell I’m getting a job over there.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Gotta admit I agree with you again, Ducky, re the Sarah Palin-Glen Beck folk, but then there’ve always been odd, off-base, groups in our USA politics. The lovely part is that more of us are “onto” their game these days, and more people are “getting” what needs to be done to carry us onto the paths of equality, as evidenced by our electing Barack Obama.

          Now I get super-chuffed and serious at the same time—-bcuz you mention filmmaking in England. I’m a playwright and poet, and naturally can’t resist analyzing films to see what makes them work well, if they do; it helps me understand what works in a play. Right now, H’Wood films are not so good and they overly-influence filmmakers in other countries. I do so hope that English filmmakers will resist that influence. George Clooney’s amongst those who believe that English filmmakers do it better than H’Wood does. I hope you and I will discuss this much much more. And I aim to find out more here in England about filmmakers/filmmaking. Right now it’s time to treat m’self to a major jet-lag cure: sleep!

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Oh, I hope you’re right that people are finally on to these people, but I don’t know. What gets me is that it isn’t uneducated, impressionable people who vote for these asswipes, it’s highly intelligent people like my brother, who should be able to see through them right off. My brother still listens to Beck, and he still defends Bush! (I love him anyway.)

          I agree about Hollywood. I’m trying like hell to bust open the door so I can change all that. But feel free to find me work in England! LOL. I have a running joke with an actor friend; we always say “let’s just hire a Brit, they’ll do it right.”

          Clooney = yumyum.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Ducky, I could watch George Clooney yawning and scratching his wotsits or reading the telephone directory. A good mate of my son in LA composes music for films and has worked with Clooney, thinks he’s a terrific, straightforwardly honest and funny man.

          Yes, I know what you mean about folks who think the Tea Party types are a good thing. And I’ve learned to never talk politics with family and friends, just, like you, to love them.

          There’ve been cutbacks and re-organising in UK government-funded groups, but they’ll stay sharp, I think. Google the *UK Film Council* for excellent info re what’s going on.

          I think you’ll also find useful and fascinating this interview with English director Andrea Arnold:


        • Ducky Wilson says:

          I’m 100% in agreement about Clooney.

          Thanks for the link. Will check it out!

  6. Glad to have you back and even gladder that it wasn’t the big C. The docs do like to through it around a bit to much. I’ve had it used around me several times and by the end I just thought to myself, “What the fuck do doctors know?” Stupid, but in the end they were all wrong – wrong to have guessed and wrong to have said it aloud.

    Anyway, very well told story, Ducky. Glad again that you’re back.

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Agreed. They do, indeed. I’d rather them say they don’t know but they’ll figure it out than to start guessing, especially with such dire effects.

  7. jmblaine says:

    to hell

    you are
    & missed

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      And you know just what to say to make a duck quack.

      Incidentally, that piece of music you helped me with, Sad City Blues, Lazy Lester is attached to my next movie, in addition to the RHS as you so cleverly guessed. So some good news in the year. I’ve been practicing, and I plan on making him jam with me every break. Thanks for the chords.

  8. Gloria says:

    Just getting to this, Ducky.

    SO glad it’s not cancer. I love the images of the cracked vinyl and the fluorescent lights. The pacing; the tone; the fluid, rapid movement through space and time. You set a mean stage.

    You’re right – health is a privilege and not a right in this country. That’s so sad, but succinct.

    Glad to see you back around here!

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Thanks, Gloria. Good to be back. Been a crazy year, in so many ways. Stories forthcoming, I assure you.

      I thought about sending this in to Obama care. I’m still furious they took the public option off the table. Would have helped a lot of people, and would have cost the country nothing. Ah, my soap box…

  9. Quenby Moone says:

    I had to skip ahead to the comments to make sure it wasn’t cancer. Ugh. Thanks-to-goodness-be that it isn’t.

    I don’t know what it is, which makes me nervous, but then again…I see your point.

    In other news, completely inappropriately light-heartedly, there is a story of 28,800 ducks floating at sea here now, and I thought of you. I’m glad you’re back.

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