On Wednesday, my husband Richard watched on a monitor as a doctor maneuvered a tiny scope into his bladder to look at the mass revealed by a CT scan he had last week. (He's been peeing blood for weeks now, with no other signs of illness. After extensive testing, he was referred for a CT scan, and then this cystoscopy.) When the papillary carcinoma - a tumor caused by bladder cancer - came into view, Richard, ever the artist, described it as "beautiful."
"It's on a narrow stalk," he said later as we walked hand and hand under old trees in one of our favorite Denver neighborhoods, "and the doctor called it a sea anenome, but that's not quite right. It's too - I don't know, filmy."
"A sea pen?" I suggested, and he nodded.
"It's got these tissue-thin 'petals' at the top of the stalk, and I could see them waving gently in the current in my bladder." He stopped to admire the calligraphy of two redbud trees across the way, their spare branches painted in intense pink bloom, and the explosion of yellow flowers on a forsythia bush.
"It's a lovely color, too," he said. "It's really beautiful."
"You should draw it," I said.
We got into the car and headed west through Denver, past the suburbs that sprawl right up to where the mountains muscle out of the Plains, and wound uphill in a rocky canyon on our way to the first of three mountain passes we would cross on our drive home. As I drove, I thought about cancer and the beauty Richard could see in this tumor.
My dictionary defines cancer as "the disease caused by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells." It traces the word to the Greek karkinos, or "crab," perhaps because the swollen veins supplying tumors looked like crabs' legs. What the dictionary doesn't say is that those "abnormal" cells are your own tissue with the factors that normally limit cell division turned off or blocked.
Cancers vary enormously, but what they have in common is uncontrolled growth, and the fact that the cells that divide without limit are our own cells - not strangers or foreigners. Richard's bladder tumor is simply bladder cells that have lost their ability to stop multiplying. His cancer is thus an intimate part of him. Unwanted, with potentially serious consequences - but still Richard.
So I can see embracing this sea-pen delicate tumor as part of one's self. But beautiful? That's a stretch for me.
On the drive to Denver, we saw a flock of about 50 white pelicans tracing the looping meanders of a hot-spring-fed stream through the grasslands of South Park. Watching the birds rise out of the grass on white wings edged with crisp black and flap with deliberate strokes, cupping the air, I felt the chill air rush through feathers. That's beauty. Winding our way back through the mountains on our way home, we passed two bighorn sheep grazing on new green grass right beside the highway, their winter coats shedding in shaggy hunks of fur. Those sheep looked like part of the landscape, their muscles chisled like stone, their pelage colored just like the weathered granitic boulders around them. That's beauty too.
Richard was born when the sun traveled in Cancer, the constellation named for the Crab in the myth of Hercules. The constellation was rising over the horizon at the time of his birth as well. Perhaps as a Cancer, he can see things about his namesake illness that I cannot see.
I know this: his company in my days is a blessing. I'm learning to appreciate every moment we have. That's beauty too.