NOTIONS: Standing face to face with the end of the universe

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Editor’s note:

Bruce Hetrick this month won first place for best bylined commentary in a national competition conducted by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. The winning entry, about Hetrick’s wife, Pamela Klein, was first published in IBJ on March 1, 2004. It is reprinted here. Klein died March 5, 2005.

It’s Saturday morning. I’m sitting on the window ledge in my wife, Pam’s, room at Methodist Hospital. Outside, the February sky is as gray as my spirit. While Pam sleeps off the effects of anesthesia, I watch semis and sedans roll by on Interstate 65.

In The New York Times this day, there’s a story about fate. It says: “A dark unseen energy is steadily pushing the universe apart, just as Einstein predicted, suggesting the universe may have a more peaceful end than recent theories envision.”

It goes on to explain that some scientists believe this force, which Einstein called “the cosmological constant,” will pull life apart, tens of billions of years from now, in “the big rip.”

Other scientists believe this force will someday shut down, allowing gravity to predominate and causing the universe to collapse upon itself in “the big crunch.”

The article triggers in my memory a Robert Frost verse:

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.

I emerge from my poetic reverie to see a nurse, standing in the hallway, beckoning for my attention. Outside, she tells me the doctor needs to speak with me about Pam’s computed tomograpy (CT) scan. We walk down the corridor to a small office. A sign on the door says “This room for educational purposes ONLY.” Inside, my friend the doctor is waiting. His face, one I’ve known for 30 years, is etched deep with concern. He tells me there’s a problem. He tells me that even after surgery to remove tumors, nerves, lymph nodes and muscle tissue from Pam’s neck; even after jolts of radiation to stifle any cancer left behind; even after a positron emission tomography (PET) scan that found no cancer anywhere else, the CT scan shows a few tiny lesions on both of Pam’s lungs. And he tells me they can’t safely operate on them. And he tells me they can’t safely radiate them. And he tells me chemotherapy has a lousy cure rate for this kind of cancer.

And by the time he’s finished, I’m lying on the floor, because my eyes are clouding and my ears are roaring; and Einstein with his big rips and big crunches, and Frost with his fire and ice, and all the scientists with their forecasts of oblivion tens of billions of years from now are all wrong because oblivion is here, at this moment, on this industrial carpet, in this ever-shrinking room for educational purposes ONLY.

And then it gets worse.

Because we have to tell Pam.

We have to tell her that even after she’s downed her doses of radioactive Kool-Aid, and lain stock-still on scanning devices, and had needles poked in her lymph nodes, and suffered a serious surgery, and had radiation shot into the open wound and had the whole thing stapled shut, this blasted, baneful, cursed, execrable, infernal, damnable disease isn’t gone. It’s still inside her. Hatching its hideous cells. And the physicians are telling us they can’t kill it.

And when we’ve delivered this fateful news, when the doctor has returned reluctantly to his wife and kids, when Pam and I are alone with the notion of ultimate loneliness, we hold one another in silence, the cars passing by on the highway below, the gray sky looming overhead.

But we don’t cry.

And we don’t throw the IV pole through the window.

And we don’t curse God.

And we don’t ask “Why us?”

And we wonder, each in our own minds: Why don’t we do these things? And what’s wrong with us? And how are we supposed to feel?

“I wonder how long it takes,” Pam asks.

“What?” I say.

“To die,” she says.

And the word lies there, like a cat, purring softly at the end of the bed.

For most of us, mortality lies far beyond the horizon. We contemplate it occasionally. Fear it’s coming from time to time. Mourn those who’ve passed while thanking God it wasn’t us or ours.

Death, our death, is supposed to come later, much later. After we’ve watched the kids grow up. After we’ve wrestled with the grandkids on the floor. After the retirement party. And ten thousand sunsets. And trips to far-away lands. And holding wrinkled hands while carolers call on Christmas Eve.

Not now. Please God, not now.

Having faced, this past week, the prospect of dying; and having shed, at last, our tears; and having emerged from these depths determined to fight, Pam and I embark on a new journey-a journey in search of medical miracles, a journey lifted by the faith of friends, a journey more cognizant that every moment we’re given in this expanding universe matters deeply.

Hetrick is president and creative director at Hetrick Communications Inc., a local public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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