It took me until 3AM to really figure out what the doc had told me earlier in the day. Of course, I had plenty of distractions. It was Tuesday evening, and we were in the usual rush to get Barton Weekly News ready for the printer Wednesday morning. As Editor-in-Chief, I had plenty to do. “Merle! Are we going to print that Letter to the Editor from Darryl Thompson or not?” my wife Annie yelled at me across the room, as the bitter cold February began to creep in around the edges of our poorly insulated office. She looked much the same as she did seven years ago when we got married. Shoulder length, jet black hair framed her delicate face, and her gorgeous green eyes. Despite her genteel appearance, she was all business at the paper. Because we had been unable to have kids, this newspaper was her kid— the focus of all of her energy. “Do the layout as if it’s in,” I mumbled back, “but I’ve got to read it again. It’s such bullshit. I hate to publish it. But if we don’t, all of Darryl’s friends will write us next week and complain. Its only midnight; we’ve got plenty of time to decide. Ed, how you comin’ along with your stories? We gonna be OK on them eh?” “Yeah, should be good. ‘Barn Fire’ is just about done. Just gotta figure which picture to use; got some more to do on ‘High School Wrestling’, but shouldn’t be too long,” said Ed Bolton, the last of the reporters still in the office working on his copy. Ed, a good head taller than both Annie and me, with long, brown, curly hair, shifted his trademark toothpick into the gap between his top front teeth. “How’s your back?” “Its fine,” I said, disregarding the pain that had begun to break through the Percocet the Doc had given me. “I can’t imagine what it would be like for you to actually get something done on time.” But his question brought the whole cascade back to mind: a slip on the ice while fishing last week, landing on my back, persistent pain which took me to the Doc for the first time in a decade. The CT scan he ordered showed a small fracture, which explained my pain. But it also showed a surprise: a tumor in my right adrenal gland. Doc told me that my tumor was pumping large amounts of steroids into my bloodstream, and probably had been for years. Malignant or not, the tumor would have to come out. “Gimme a break. For what you pay me, you’re lucky I’m here at all.” Ed’s reply brought me back to the present. “Only kiddin’, Ed.” For that entire evening and night I was brooding on it. The headlines slowly came into focus. They were: 1) I have a tumor that has to come out. 2) I have been on steroids for a long time. 3) When the tumor comes out, I will be coming off of the steroids, and I have no clue how that will affect me. That evening, I mainly came to grips with the first headline, but I was quite optimistic I would be just fine. No problem. I would just deal with it. “Done! Here you go, Sugar,” Ed said as he gently, almost tenderly, pressed his thumb drive into the palm of Annie’s hand and smiled at her. It struck me as an awkward maneuver for someone as rough as Ed. “Thanks,” Annie said as she looked away from him, flicked her hair back, and plugged the thumb drive into her laptop. “That about wraps it up. 2:30 AM. That’s early for a change!” “See you Thursday, Ed.” I said as Annie and I closed up the office. “Hope you feel better,” Ed replied, as he pulled the hood on his parka up over his head, put on his gloves, and opened the door to the developing snowstorm outside in the bleak middle of the night.<<<<>>>>Next morning I was up at 8AM, instead of sleeping in as I usually did on Wednesday. Thursday starts next week’s cycle, so Wednesday is my break. Annie heard me rustling around in the kitchen, came out, poured some coffee, and sat down at the kitchen table. “So what do you think about what Doc said?” Annie asked as the toast popped up. She brushed back her bangs and her green eyes squinted at me, a signal that she wanted a real answer. “He told me that they’d remove my right adrenal gland, including the tumor. It’s about the size of a golf ball. He says that’s easy. Very successful. 99%. He does it through a laparoscope. No big incision. Home the next day. He says my other adrenal gland is normal. It’ll take over. No big deal. I’ll need to take steroids for a while after the operation, but that’ll only be for about six weeks.” “Why the steroids after the operation?” Annie asked looking confused. “Been used to high levels of steroids for a long time. Can’t just go cold turkey. I’ll need to be weaned off.” What she didn’t ask was whether or not the tumor might explain our trouble with getting pregnant. I had actually asked the Doc that question, but his answer was a hedge. “Hard to say,” Doc replied when I asked him, “Lots of possible factors for infertility; this could be one.” I thought it was a dodge to a simple inquiry. I wished I had asked some follow-up questions to get more clarification. So I was glad Annie didn’t corner me about it, because I didn’t have an answer.
I don’t really remember too much about that day. I was ready. The Valium, or whatever they gave me before the surgery, made me feel like I was in love with everyone. After the operation, I remember waking up in my room and focusing in on Doc. He told me that everything went great. Annie was there, and I had very little pain. Life and the world seemed beautiful. If anything hurt, all I had to do was push a little button and I would get some morphine. I felt great, and happy to have the operation behind me. I would be able to go home the next day. Looking back, those few hours were probably the high point of my next decade.
“Merle! What are you doin’?” Annie shouted at me as I got up to get a beer from the fridge. She had been home with me for the entire 48 hours since I came back from the hospital. So much time together in a small home in the middle of the winter in Vermont was starting to take its toll. Her normally fresh appearance was beginning to look a little worn around the edges. “Getting’ a beer. What’s the problem?” I hadn’t shaved for four days, which is far from normal for me; nor had I been out of the bathrobe I came home in. So I was looking and feeling a little scruffy myself. “You know the problem. Doc told you to just hang out for a few days. You just had a big operation, but I can’t keep you down. Why won’t you just let me get you things for a couple of days?” “I can’t stand having you get me stuff. It doesn’t seem natural. The tumor is out; everything went great; I feel good, and I think I can get myself a beer.” “Doc Phillips warned you that you would feel better than you really are— especially early in your steroid wean. You’ve got to take it easy.” “It’ll drive me crazy just sitting around,” I countered. “Can’t wait to get back to the paper.” “Merle Williams! You know very well what he said: at least six weeks before you go back to the office. Don’t make me fight you on that,” she said, rolling her eyes. “So how will things work while I’m off?” I asked as I cracked open the Heinekens. “It’ll be fine. I’ll fill in till you get back. I can do that and the layout work on Tuesday night to put it to bed. The other reporters will do what they have always done. I’ll need some help to organize stuff, make assignments, set the schedule, make calls on advertisers . . . that kind of stuff. Ed can do that fine till you get back.” “Ed?” I said, jumping up. “Why Ed? He’s just another reporter like all the rest. What makes him so special?” Fact is that Ed, Annie, and I go back a long way. We all graduated from North Country High School ten years ago. He was the center on our regional championship basketball team, while I struggled as second-string guard. He was a tall basketball hero and I was a short, heavy set, square guy who rarely got into the game. He and Annie were an item most of the way through our senior year. But I was the editor of our high school newspaper. Ed never actually talked about the fact that Annie dumped him for me. It happened the autumn she and I went off to University of Vermont while Ed stayed at home doing odd jobs, and working on the family farm. Winning Annie was one of the high points of my life. So I was surprised when, three years ago, he applied for a job as a reporter at my Barton Weekly News. Even though I really didn’t like him, I felt I should hire him so I wouldn’t look like I was holding a grudge. At the age of 25, I was young to be running a newspaper, even if it was a weekly in upstate Vermont. In fact, I was the youngest Editor-In-Chief in the paper’s 55 year history. So I wanted to appear quite professional. “Simple, Merle,” she said as she vigorously flicked back her hair and squinted at me. “All the others are part-timers. They’ve got day jobs or don’t want to do more than one story a week, or two at the most. Ed’s different. The News is his life. It’s his big thing. He can organize people, make assignments, all of that stuff, so all I need to think about is putting it together and getting it to the publisher.” “OK. I see,” I said, although it didn’t seem right to me. I viewed Ed as a rube . . . a fool. I couldn’t imagine him actually managing people. But I had no choice. At that point I was recovering from surgery and Annie was running things till I got back. I’d have to clean up the mess when I returned. I couldn’t wait to get back in the driver’s seat.
It was six weeks after my operation, and time to get back to work. I was almost done with my steroid wean. Right after the surgery I couldn’t wait to get started, but now that the time was here, I wasn’t quite as excited. I really didn’t have the energy I was used to. One reason may have been the 15 pounds I put on just sitting around for six weeks, on steroids, eating a lot, and not exercising at all. I didn’t like looking at the extra chin I had developed as well as the jowls. Winter had begun to break and we had drifted into mud season, that time in Vermont between the beautiful snow, ice, and crisp air of the winter, and the mint greens and fragrant blossoms of the spring. Between those two times of year is mud season: dreary, raw, wet, and brown. Nothing but mud on the roads, fields, porches, and rugs. Even in the best of times, mud season’s no fun. If things aren’t great, it’s downright depressing. Plus I was home alone a lot. Annie was spending more and more time at the paper with Ed to get the work done. That was beginning to bother me. I thought I would start off slowly by just showing up at the shop. A Thursday morning meeting would be good. That’s where we plan the next week’s paper: decide on stories, assign people to cover them, review advertising income, and the various things that make a small weekly newspaper work. That way I could get a feel for what had happened over the time I have been gone. Annie and I had discussed my re-entry. Since she was Editor-in-Chief in my absence, she was running all of the meetings. Ed Bolton had managed to slip into the second-in-command position despite my objections. Every time I would challenge Ed’s apparent rise in power, Annie countered with endless examples of Ed’s extra work. He had done way more than his share of the stories and Annie had even brought him along on the lay-out work. Of course that meant many late Tuesday night/early Wednesday stints to get it done. She actually mentioned to me once that Ed had made some advances toward her during one of those sessions, but she assured me she told him to knock it off. The rest of the crew were part time reporters who simply showed up to get their assignments at the meeting on Thursday, and handed in their story sometime Tuesday. The whole arrangement was worrisome to me and I wanted to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. I found myself weirdly uncomfortable as I got ready to drive over to the paper that first Thursday morning. Her plan was for me just to just sit back and observe the first meeting, joining in as I felt comfortable. I reminded myself that I had run the paper for over a decade by myself with a little help from Annie. This should be no problem. Yet being away from it for six weeks, and having the paper be successfully run by my wife and her former beau, was a little unsettling. It felt like the first day jitters when I was a kid at the beginning of the school year. “Hey Merle! Welcome back, guy!” Ed Bolton shouted out the moment I slipped in the room through the back door. “I wanted you all to be surprised,” said Annie. “Merle has bounced back quickly, and he talked the Doc into beginning to come back to the paper, at least part-time.” The other three chimed in their welcome backs, and after a little more banter, Annie resumed control of the meeting. She turned it over to Ed, who handed out the assignments, keeping the most important or interesting ones for himself. Ed was looking at me funny. I figured that jerk was noting my extra weight or the beads of sweat on my forehead from just walking in from the car. I was really out of shape. Just as I was mentally planning my exit, Ed blurted out “I’ve got a great idea for the big feature of the week: Exclusive interview with Merle Williams: Back from surgery and better than ever!” It sounded sarcastic to me. “I don’t know about that, Ed,” I immediately replied. This was the first I had heard about that idea, and I hated it. I wasn’t ready to go public with this whole chapter of my life. I was still processing a bunch of stuff, and I wasn’t sure I knew how I felt. For sure, I didn’t like the idea of that story being reported by Ed Bolton, of all people. If anybody, it should be Annie. Also, I was not feeling particularly buoyant. I had begun to wonder if I was becoming a different person than Annie married. What was happening? How much of the man that Annie married was the steroids, and how much was me? I was getting nervous about that question. “Maybe we can do that in another month or two,” Annie finally chimed in, mercifully. . . . a little early, yet,” she said as her eyes meant mine. She had read my mind. At home, that evening was probably my low point. On my favorite sports radio talk show, the caller was rehashing the controversy over Barry Bonds going into the record books with 71 home runs in 2001. Now, years later, it has become almost a certainty that he was on steroids at the time. He was re-asking the question whether his record should have an asterisk after it . . . whether it should really count. His point was that it was the steroids, not the real Barry Bonds that accomplished the feat. I couldn’t help but wonder if there will be an asterisk after my major accomplishments: winning Annie from Ed, and being the youngest head of the Barton Weekly News.Four weeks after that first time back, Doc liberated me to go back to work full-time. Take it easy, he said, as if I had the energy to do anything else. I sure didn’t feel like the same person I was before I lost my tumor. I felt bad. I was pessimistic about the paper and life in general. For a while, I even considered just staying on part-time and letting Annie continue to run the paper. But I couldn’t stand her spending that much time with Ed. So I decided I needed to return full-time and take back my old job. <<<<<>>>>>
Maybe it was just having made that decision, but later that week, I was feeling a little better as I sat on our porch overlooking the pond on a perfect spring evening after dinner. Mud season had finally yielded to spring, the air was mild, and the days were finally getting longer. I watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed. The reflection of the sun had just met the sun itself on the water as it sank behind Hedgehog Mountain. The symphony of colors had commenced its parade of hues, finally settling on indigo as Annie joined me on the porch. She had been strangely quiet as we ate, and refused my help cleaning up in the kitchen. Something was wrong. “Pretty sunset,” I cast out into the evening air just to say something. Several minutes later she broke the silence. “Yeah it is,” she said as she shifted position in her Adirondack rocker. “I’m thinking about getting back to the paper next week. . . .I’m feeling halfway decent, so I thought I would give it a shot” I announced. “We’ll have to figure out what to do with Ed, now that I am back in action, and won’t need him acting as some kind of a big shot.” “Ed has done a spectacular job while you were out,” she said sharply. “You just can’t blow him off by sending him back to his old job! I was actually going to give him a raise, and promote him to Managing Editor.” “He’s only a reporter, nothing more. Moving him up won’t add anything except an extra layer of management that we can’t afford.” I said mustering a diminishing amount of energy for the fight I saw brewing. “It’s no time to add more salary expenses, given the stinking economy and everything that goes along with that.” By this time Annie was beginning to cry. Softly at first, and then more violently. “What happened to the guy I married? You were a kick-ass, get the job done, guy who never worried about a thing. Now you’re doom and gloom. You used to be fun,” she said as she slumped down in her chair. Instinctively, I went over to give her a hug. As I held her, she shook, and I tried to comfort her. “Don’t worry about it Annie. I’m sorry. Well figure it out. We don’t need to decide anything tonight. We can talk about it tomorrow.” “Merle, I have something to tell you.” A long silence. “What’s that?” “I’m pregnant.” The remaining indigo of the lingering sunset yielded to a roll of dark clouds on the western horizon which slowly, one by one, began erasing the stars.