“Siljander, report to medical,” a voice boomed over the prison loudspeakers. The results of my biopsy must have finally come in. Leaving my dingy cell, I walked the grim hallway to the medical waiting room where I joined three or four other men, all of us wearing the same khaki uniform.
The wait seemed long, but finally the doctor hustled through the waiting area, refusing to meet my eyes, and a nurse ushered me into the doctor’s cramped office.
Now he met me at the door and did let me have his eyes, but he looked sober. This was going to be bad news, for sure.
He shut the door and embraced me. The doctor, a stocky man from Central America, was one of the few people working at the prison who showed any compassion for inmates, and I considered him a friend. I think he enjoyed that I practiced my broken Spanish at every opportunity.
“I’m so sorry.” His voice sounded husky with emotion.
He motioned to the chair opposite him, and leaned against his gun-metal gray desk, heaped with stacks of medical files. “The good news is that you’ll be out of here soon.” He tried to smile, but couldn’t pull it off.
“And the bad news?” Of course, I assumed it was something terrible, but there was no way I could be prepared for what he said next.
“It’s cancer. You have less than three months to live.”
I was stunned. But I felt fine. I had been out jogging that morning. “Are you sure?” I asked, but of course he was sure. You don’t deliver a letter like that unless you're sure. “What kind of cancer is it?” My voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. Someone I didn’t know.
“It’s a rhabdoid sarcoma,” he said. “It’s very rare. Usually we see it only in children under the age of five. It begins in one of the major organs and then metastasizes. None survives more than six months. You must have had it for eight months already.” “Then why am I still alive?” I asked.
He didn’t know, but assured me that since my time was so short, at least I could die with my family at my side.
I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to think.
My doctor hugged me again.
I mustered a smile, a show of false bravado, looked at him and said, “We all have to die sometime.”
He smiled back at me, with sadness in his eyes.
But I felt as if I’d been blasted with a stun gun. I walked numbly outside and crossed the prison campus to my cell, where I slid onto the lower bunk and lay there immobile.