I once knew a lady who eventually died of pancreatic cancer. She must have been by then in her early seventies. Her name was Marilyn, and I went to grade school with her son Tom. we went back a long way. I guess I was in my early thirties by the time what happened, happened.
Marilyn’s husband, Forrest, had died a few months earlier. I knew him, too. She missed him terribly, but she tried to soldier on, going to social events in the community. Alone, of course, ones they would have frequented together had he lived.
It was at an event one Saturday night in Topsfield, a nearby community to Newburyport. I believe it was Christmastime and may have been a Christmas party. I can’t now remember. It was sponsored by a bar/restaurant owner in Newburyport, one I frequented enough to be included in the invitations.
My friend Marilyn was there, and when I came in, she approached me, and we chatted. She was a small woman, a little bulky, “dressed to the nines,” as the saying goes. Her hair, I suspected, had been specially styled for the evening. The party was a little bit on the formal side, although I was not wearing anything special.
I have no memory of what Marilyn and I were talking about, except that she asked if I could give her a ride back to Newburyport if I left soon. Of course, I had not brought her, and I suppose she believed her ride would be much later.
I thought no more of this promise as I surveyed the scene. I was looking for a single woman I might hook up with. Maybe even someone I knew from the bar scene. But the pickings were lean there, and it being a Saturday night, my plan soon became to leave as soon as possible and visit a few bars in Newburyport.
I stayed long enough to exchange a few words with the host and left. I thought of Marilyn before leaving and realized I didn’t really want to deal with her stories, listening to her saying how hard it had been since Forrest passed. The night didn’t promise to be special without adding such a depressing account.
My job in those years was as a social worker, so I heard many sad stories all day. It was something I wished to avoid on a Saturday night out. So I left, saying not a word to anyone, Marilyn included, although I was well aware I was skipping out on her. She came with someone else and would leave with them, I figured. And so she did. But much later.
About a week later, I happened to meet Marilyn on the street in Newburyport, at which point she angrily tore into me, accusing me of not wanting to be seen leaving the party with such an old lady. “Was that possible?” I thought. “Was that part of my motive in standing Marilyn up?” I knew it was not everything, though perhaps it was part of my reason for leaving without her that evening. I didn’t see Marilyn again before I read of her death in the newspaper.
I don’t know much about medicine, but I read somewhere in my travels that pancreatic cancer often takes you quickly, and a fast exit, I was sure, was her preference.
By far, Marilyn’s preference. And maybe mine too, that evening.
Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.