In Defiance of the Night

Chapter 28
Two Trips to Emergency
And a Renewal of Vows

Allen’s narration of Chapter 28

Chemotherapy is a nasty procedure. Yes, it can attack tumors, but it does not stop there—not even close. The treatment is highly toxic, assaulting vulnerable tissues and generating side effects that turn a normal life into purgatory.

  • It attacks the bone marrow where white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are generated.
  • It pummels the digestive system, turning the gut into a cesspool and weakening the patient by hindering the absorption of nutrients and energy.
  • It damages the nervous system, especially neuron cells that are least able to regenerate. Attention disorders, memory problems, and hearing and vision loss may also follow.
  • It assails the liver. Chemotherapy overworks the quintessential cleansing organ, often resulting in the accumulation of toxins, made evident by poor appetite, poor digestion, and poor energy.

I know what I’m talking about. I will neither glorify nor vilify the journey. It is what it is, and I can only convey my story.


My last cycle of chemo seemed to let fly all the sleeping bats—escaping in a flurry, reeking ruination wherever they chose to land. Within two weeks, I made two unexpected trips to emergency to deal with the havoc.

On the first excursion, my blood lab report showed my hemoglobin and red blood count were precipitously low. I waited in emergency for one slow hour after the other. On the fifth hour, I told the receptionist at the front desk they could find me around the corner.

“I’ll be playing the piano in the lobby,” I said.

“Got it. We’ll chase you down.”

When I sat at the piano, a fine seven-foot grand, I noodled on the 1940’s Jimmy Van Heusen classic, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” I rolled into the chorus when a woman with a friendly smile sidled up to the keyboard.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This piano is reserved for registered musicians.”

“I understand,” I said. “I used to play here, but I lost my job because I occasionally sang a tune. ‘Too distracting,’ I was told.”

“I see,” the woman said.

“Right now, I’m killing time. I’m waiting to get into emergency. I need more blood before I keel over. I thought playing the piano might keep me alive until then.”

“You do have a lovely touch,” she said. “Please continue. And consider registering with us again.”

“If I do, may I sing?” I asked from the corner of my mouth.

“We’ll talk about it,” she said, which I took as ‘not likely.’

I was still playing “Polka Dots” when I felt the shadow of another person. I looked up and tried to make out the eyes set above a blue Covid mask.

Evidently, she caught my perplexity. The mask came off.

“Judy!” I said, as I stood and pulled her into my arms.

Judy Clem

Judy Clem was the secretary and office manager for human relations when I worked at J.A. Jones Construction Services. Somehow, either by know-how or sheer magic, she managed to keep the department running smoothly. She was so real and competent I fell in love with her by the end of my first week on the job.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Judy said, her eyes pooling with tears. “Your story is so familiar. As you know, I lost my David to cancer.”

“Of course, I remember.”

“I thought I couldn’t call you without crying,” she said. “I didn’t want to add more weight to your burden.”

“Tears are okay,” I said. “Especially when the floodgates are holding back love.”

After a long gaze into each other’s eyes, we hugged again.

“Thank you for being my friend,” I whispered.

That embrace made the waiting tolerable. A few moments later, someone from the emergency desk tramped into the lobby and said, “We’re ready for you, Mr. Johnson.”

When I was finally discharged at three o’clock in the morning, I was already feeling better. I had received two units of five-hundred milliliters of red blood cells. I almost felt like dancing. Although to be clear, I was not thinking hip-hop or even a rumba. What I had in mind was more like a very slow Straussian waltz. One-two-three. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.


The relief did not last long. A week later, I made my second trip to emergency, this time for two more units of red blood cells and one unit of platelets. I needed the boost. I could not put on my pants or cross the room without having to sit to catch my breath. I wheezed like a fireplace bellows.

After the infusion, I could have easily walked a mile but didn’t.

Why not?

My arms, hands, legs, and feet were swollen with fluid trapped under my skin. The condition is called edema, a frequent side effect of chemotherapy. My tissues were so bloated, I weighed 190 pounds for the first time in my life—twenty-five pounds over my everyday weight class. I felt like a Disney hippopotamus in stretch leggings three sizes too small.

Being treated for edema was not straightforward. My oncologist wanted to make sure there wasn’t a serious underlying problem. My first task was to undergo a colonoscopy and endoscopy. For the uninitiated, the two procedures are designed to explore the upper and lower gastrointestinal tracks. The unpleasant part is having to drink a gallon of bowel preparation the night before and the morning of the procedure, which is only mildly more tolerable than drinking a bucket of gasoline.

Thank goodness, my digestive tract was clean—no new tumors to worry about.

But that still left me with legs, ankles, and feet that looked more elephantine than human. The prescription was for compression socks, a low-salt diet, exercise, and ten glasses of water. Later, a low twenty-milligram dosage of a “water pill,” a diuretic called Lasix, was prescribed to help produce more urine and eliminate excess water and salt. It worked. A week later, my legs looked vaguely familiar.


During my battles, Nita waged her own quiet discord. With every new day, she was progressively weaker. She was overtaken by sleep, only allowing her eyelids to break the seams long enough for a meager bite to eat or a syringe of water to swallow.

There was no question. She was dying.

Nita must have known she only had a few words left to pronounce. Thank God, I was at her side to hear them.

I was sitting beside her bed, her hand in mine. She was asleep.

I looked at her face, so at peace, so bereft of stress. It was a manner I knew well.

1968 Mercury Cougar

Fifty-four years earlier, she and I were sitting in my beloved 1968 lime-frost-green Mercury Cougar. For a while, we chatted about the Kelso High School’s football victory we had cheered on. Then we were quiet.

Nita leaned into me, not for a kiss but to snuggle her back into my chest. When she spoke, it was dispassionately, pragmatically. “Do you think we’ll have children?” she asked.

A simple question. But that was the first time there was any talk of our love affair growing into a marriage and perhaps a family. And although she always denied it, I insisted it was at that moment she proposed to me.

Thinking about it now at the end of our days, I’m not surprised. Nita was never one for fanfare. She never pursued rhinestone dresses, candlelight, and violins swooning in the background. She was always calm, serene, and easy to please. And, most beautifully, she knew her heart. Incredibly, she wanted me with all my flaws and peccadillos. In 1968, I was too full of myself to appreciate the magnitude of her gift. Today, my gratefulness has finally dethroned my ego.

I was thinking about that proposal as I gazed at Nita, her face aglow in the morning light. A week earlier, when her words came more freely, she had said. “Will you help me pack my suitcase? I want to go home.”

At the time, I thought she was confused about where she was, misunderstanding she was already home. Today, I’m persuaded she was speaking symbolically, that she wished to bundle her bags for her final destination and wanted me to help her board the gospel train—without regrets, without sorrow, without anguish.

I was thinking about that earlier exchange, and how I missed the poetry of her words. I promised myself I would do better this time. “Hi, honey,” I said.

She opened her eyes and let her lips curve into a gentle smile. Then, as clearly as the words declared on that fateful night in 1968, she said, “I love you so much.”

It was as though she had saved those five words for the last sentence to be spoken to me—ending our avowed life together as she had begun, by proclaiming her love for me.

“I love you, sweetheart,” I said. “More than any mortal—or immortal—can comprehend.”

Since that renewal of our vows, Nita’s words became indecipherable. Most phrases were so garbled and gibbered I could only pick out a word here or there. Complicating the riddle, I never knew if the few intelligible words were grounded in reality or dementia. Communicating was like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from three different images.

For that reason, her last clear declaration was all the more cherished. Although more gibberish would follow in days to come, I was consoled with the knowledge she had been and always would be perfectly Nita—loyal, unpretentious, and distinguished by radical love.

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