Proton Therapy


It was the fifth day without sunshine, the fifth day of wind that crawls under your pant legs and stabs you and boils your face, the fifth day of cold rain, a day of wet squirrels and outdoor cats, and feather- and beak-shaking birds.

Farmer Orville and Quilt Queen’s old, raggedy, yellow barn cat lay on a towel under a lawn chair under the carport. The sidewalk was littered with crushed walnut and acorn husks. To the east, a neighbor’s Trump flag tried to blow off its pole. I was tempted to help it do so.

The couple were sitting in the kitchen and watching Dr. Phil, and Beverly was making toast and microwaving Jimmy Dean sausage. A huge canister of Pepperidge Farm Cookies was set at my place on the table. Mint Milano, there was my personal addiction. So, I sat and drank coffee and ate cookies and sausage.

Orville was filling my coffee cup at the counter. To the question, how are you? Quilt Queen said, “Oh, you know,” and pointed to her husband’s back as if to say, he’s not well. It has been a long eight months for those two, fear of Covid-19, fear that Orville might not survive his proton therapy, fear that the two of them were getting too old to deal with their land and buildings, fear that the astronomical cost of Orville’s cancer medications might ruin them financially.

“I should have my own talk show,” Quilt Queen said. “I’d know what to say to those broken kids on Dr. Phil.”

To hear her talk, you would assume Bev was born and raised on a farm. Her childhood was a nightmare, living in a St. Louis tenement, with cockroaches and rats and mice crawling in the walls. A newspaper showed a photo of little Beverly pointing to her lip where a rat had bitten her the night before. She has an irrational fear of rats and mice.

A subatomic proton is yin to an electron’s yang. A concentrated beam of it is an alternative to X-ray radiation. The jury is out on its efficacy.

To Orville, proton therapy involves lying naked and restrained in a tube for an MRI which shows where to fire the protons, and every once in a while, feeling a nurse’s hands lifting or moving his testicles around and or inserting something “up my ass,” which makes him uneasy. “You know.” Afterward, it is common to feel exhausted and have burns on the area affected by the treatment.

The universe is composed of atoms, and we are atoms “glued” together, and imagination plays a huge part in our reality. There are no new atoms being created; we literally borrow existing atoms and glue ourselves into us. Sir Arthur Eddington posited that the universe is composed of ten viginsextillion atoms. I just like saying “viginsextillion” and “sex.”

The reality today was a warm kitchen and trust—that the three of us were okay in each other’s company. Quilt Queen suffers from seasonal effective disorder, SAD, as do I, and weeks like this one do not help. We caught up on each other’s lives and shared photographs. They saw pics of Scout the cat, known recluse, for the first time, laughing at my cat asleep with her paws in my slippers. In the several years Orville cat sat for me when I was traveling, he never saw the cat.

The word for the day was not proton but death. Coming soon. Returning one’s atoms back to the universe so that someone else, some thing else, can gather them, glue them, and re-form. That’s me the existentialist talking. I wouldn’t mind coming back as a bird.

Orville and Quilt Queen are on the heaven train.


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