I’m back in Connecticut for Christmas visiting my sister whose house is filled with the memories of her husband, Jerome. It’s been over six years since the day I went with him to see that healer. If I’d known then that would be our last day together I would’ve done things differently. I’d have asked him more questions about his life, for one thing. Thanked him for taking care of my sister and my niece and nephews.
I would’ve done something, because the next day I was flying home to Alaska.
A year later Jerome would be half his normal weight and confined to a hospice bed. Pale. Bald. Gripping my ten year old nephew’s hand as he slipped away. A few months after that they’d put him in the ground.
When I close my eyes I am right back there on the last day of my visit. A grey, March morning. We are having breakfast when Jerome asks if I want to go see a friend of his.
“Sure,” I say. “Who’s the friend?” I slice off some butter and start spreading it on my toast.
“His name’s Woody. He’s a healer. A guy I met the last time I was hospitalized.”
I nod. “Sure.”
The name Woody doesn’t sound like someone who cures people. And I don’t know what Jerome means by “healer.”
“Woody?” I say.
“The guy works with wood.” He spoons some oatmeal into his mouth. “He’s a carpenter.”
“And a healer?”
Jerome clears his throat. “Woody heals children. He doesn’t work with adults. He’s larger than life,” Jerome says. “I think of him more as a spirit than a human being.”
“So, we’re going to see a ghost?” I say.
He sips his coffee and smiles. “In a manner of speaking.”
After leaving the suburbs of North Haven that day we head north on 15 and Jerome fumbles with the dial, searching for a good station. Four years earlier he’d woken in the middle of the night, choking. Or feeling like he was choking. My sister rushed him to the ER where doctors found a tumor in his throat. A biopsy later showed an aggressive form of esophageal cancer and he was given a fifteen percent chance of living another three years.
His first response was the obvious one. Panic. “We better get all my affairs in order,” he told my sister later that night. “I’ll be dead in a year.”
Over the next few weeks panic turned to anger, which calcified into depression. A kind of dread I can’t yet fathom and hope I never understand. But, as weeks turned into months, Jerome’s resolve started to kick in. He’d been a marathon runner and had an athlete’s propensity for stamina and endurance. He also had four children to live for. Zack, Nate, Susannah, and Jackson. And my sister, Ruth—calm, strong, and resilient. There’s no doubt her support helped Jerome survive much longer than he otherwise would have.
So, he was not dead within a year. In fact, two, three, even four years later he was very much alive. And cancer free. After a six hour surgery that removed his tumor and stretched parts of his stomach up to his throat to replace missing tissue.
But a year after that the cancer had returned. And so had Jerome’s depression. I came to visit, not knowing it would be for the last time.
He lands on a blues station—B.B. King plucking a perfect string of notes from the air. That sound. Lucille. Almost as recognizable as the iconic, gravelly voice—swelled with emotion and a mile deep. This is something Jerome and I had always bonded over. A mutual passion for music.
“I think this is our exit,” he says. “I’ve never been out here, but Woody gave me detailed directions.”
Jerome smiles. He looks healthy and strong today. The tight curls of his dark hair. Those sharp brown eyes. How could the cancer be back? I wonder what would happen if we never got checkups or biopsies? Would cancer go away on its own most of the time? Is it the anxiety and fear of being told you have cancer that usually kills you? Or the horrible treatments people endure. Somewhere I’d read that the average human being gets cancer at least six times in their life without ever knowing it, because their immune systems drive it away.
But is that really true?
My friend Luke died of cancer. His doctor had told him he was perfectly healthy except for his brain tumor. And that’s the thing. Like Jerome, he was healthy. A backcountry skier who had skinned up rugged mountain peaks most of his life. From the Tetons of Wyoming to the Chugach of Alaska.
Jerome had always had a good diet. He never smoked. Never drank to excess. Only 54 at the time of diagnosis, he was way too young to widow my sister and leave four children fatherless. If there was anyone who did not deserve cancer it was him. But that irony only made it worse. Harder to believe. Harder to take. Jerome was a brilliant musician and songwriter. A therapist who made life better for countless patients. An excellent father, a loyal son, and a caring husband.
The road to Woody’s house grows narrower and narrower and we’ve driven an impossibly long way. I’d have thought we’d run out of Connecticut by now and crossed into another state. Vermont or New Hampshire or some place where this kind of deep woods would seem more plausible. But just as that thought crosses my mind, Jerome slows and turns down a long gravel driveway. After a quarter mile we come to a tall makeshift house surrounded by dense forest and almost camouflaged amongst the trees. Almost like it’s growing right out of the ground along with the oaks and willows and maples. Like a huge, elaborate tree fort, or something children would build together. Until we get out of the car and walk up close where I see that the carpentry and wood work is masterful and exquisite. Nothing makeshift about it.
Jerome knocks, the front door opens and one of the tallest men I’ve ever seen emerges from inside. Beaming. A huge grin on his face. He’s thin, but muscular—the physique of a carpenter who’s never heard of power tools. His sandy, unruly hair is everywhere, like he’s just emerged from a wind tunnel instead of a house.
“Jerome!” he says, and gives my brother-in-law a huge hug.
“Great to see you, man.” Jerome smiles. “This is Iver.”
Woody turns and shakes my hand. He has the spirit of a child, no doubt, but his face is leathery with deep lines around his eyes and mouth. He could be fifty years old or seventy. Or anywhere in between. I have no idea.
“Come in, come in. I’ve got hot water on the stove and all kinds of tea.”
I follow Woody and Jerome into the house and walk down a long, narrow hallway, overwhelmed by all the decorations cluttering the walls. Everything from stick figure drawings to beautiful water color landscapes. Framed photos of children hang here and there. Some bald and laying in hospital beds. But most of them are playing outside with baseball bats or footballs. Others are angling, casting fishing line out across lakes and rivers. Or on skis, smiling at us from snowy mountain tops.
When we reach the kitchen, Jerome and I sit around a small table as Woody sets cups of hot water in front of us.
“Birch bark tea?” he says. “Just harvested some this morning.” I detect a faint accent but I can’t pinpoint it. “Boiled it in the pot.”
I take a sip, expecting something bitter. But to my surprise it’s really good. Even smells a bit like the forests of Connecticut.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
Woody tops off our cups and sits down. “I’m Welch,” he says. “But I moved to the States when I was a teenager. Been a long time since I lived in Wales.”
He turns to Jerome. “So how’ve you been?” he says.
“Been good,” Jerome shrugs. “Every day’s different. But today’s a good day.”
Woody nods and looks down into his cup. Then he turns and asks me where I grew up.
“Between Virginia and North Dakota,” I say. “I live in Alaska now.”
“Oh, I’d love to see Alaska one day.”
I ask him how long he’s been a healer, expecting to hear about degrees, titles, and certificates. Instead, he just shrugs. “All me life,” he says. “I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t trying to heal. My mother was a healer, too.”
He gazes out his kitchen window into the woods outside.
Jerome looks up at Woody. “Well, what have you been up to?”
“I’m trying to get a grant from New Haven Children’s Hospital. I want to go back to re-do an old program. One I came up with fifteen years ago or more.”
Jerome sips from his tea and asks what kind of program it is.
Woody nods proudly. “The wooden tumor project,” he says. “One of my first. The idea is to teach kids how to whittle. Start them off with a block of wood. Something non-descript. Square. Whatever. We make all kinds of things at first. I visit each child in the cancer ward once a day and we whittle whatever they want. Just have fun with it, you know? Get their minds off of cancer for a while. Then on the last day with them I hand out a block of wood painted dark grey and tell them that’s their tumor.” He pronounces it like chumor. “Not a representation. Not a symbol. It’s their actual tumor. That’s the important thing. Not that they think, Okay maybe. Not even that they believe it. But that they know it. You follow me?”
Jerome’s nodding and I find myself nodding, too. But I’m not sure why. I don’t understand the difference between believing and knowing. I’ve never thought about it till now. But I don’t say that. And I don’t know why. At the moment there’s just too much to process.
Woody smiles and goes on. “Right,” he says. “Then we start carving.”
I clear my throat. “You start carving?”
“Yeah. The tumor. We start carving it. Together. Into something beautiful. Whatever they want. Whatever they imagine, Mate. A butterfly. A dragon. A racecar—”
There’s another long pause. I study the grains of wood in the kitchen table. Jerome looks confused. But even from the corner of my eye I can tell Woody’s glowing.
Jerome lifts his cup to his lips, but then sets it down without drinking. “Then what?” he asks.
Woody smiles even wider. “Then?” he says. “Then, we obliterate them. We turn those bloody tumors into mulch.”
“We go down to the hospital maintenance room where they let me set up power tools and, I tell you what, we waste those tumors. Turn them all into saw dust.” Woody is trembling with excitement. He really is a kind of spirit. His passion is palpable, with a weight of its own. Taking up its own space in the kitchen.
“Finally,” he says, gently, but with an air of authority, “we take the sawdust back to their rooms in big zip lock baggies and blow that sawdust out the window. Out into the ether. Into nothing.”
My mind still doubts what my body is starting to feel, on a visceral level. Could it really work?
“Wow,” I say. “Then what?”
“Then what?” His mouth drops open, dumbfounded. Woody looks around the room, as if for answers. “Then nothing. That’s it.”
Jerome and I are silent. I’m scared to ask more. Scared to hear what happens afterwards when the kids and the doctors and the grief-stricken parents realize the block of wood was not, in fact, their tumor. That the cancer is still inside them. Growing and growing. Within striking distance of their lives. I’m scared to ask what happens after the funerals. After the parents bury their children. What does everyone think of the wooden tumor project then?
Woody finally clears his throat. “I have photos,” he says. “Whole albums. I’ll be right back.”
He disappears from the kitchen and I can hear him climbing stairs in another part of the house. Then I hear him coming back down.
“Let’s have a look,” he says, re-entering the kitchen.
Jerome and I slide our chairs closer as he opens the first album to a photo of a bald black kid lying in a hospital bed. The boy’s emaciated, skeletal.
“Ah,” Woody says, “Stanley. A wonderful kid. I loved hearing the stories of his grandmother. The trips they took to her farm. When this photo was taken they said he wouldn’t live another three months.”
Woody turns the pages past different pictures of Stanley in the hospital bed, proudly displaying all the things he’d whittled. A few more pages and Woody stops on another photo. This one of a girl, also bald, but healthier somehow. She’s standing, for one thing. In her hospital gown. Proudly showing off her own woodwork.
“Claire,” he says. “Another lovely child.”
None of the photos are labeled but Woody remembers all their names and detailed information about their lives. He speaks of all of them the way you would a loved one, yet none are singled out as favorites. Or as problem children for that matter. He seems to feel the same overwhelming love for all of them. All twenty some children, diagnosed with advanced forms of cancer who he claims to have helped.
Again, I wonder how many actually survived and how much it had to do with this wooden tumor project. I clear my throat. “So—”
Woody looks up from the photo album with a serene, nostalgic face.
“So, what happened to the kids?”
“Happened?” Woody seems shocked that I would ask.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know…how many survived?”
“Survived?” He laughs. “All of them. They’ve all survived. I’m still in touch with them. Well, actually, come to think of it, James died five years ago in a car accident. And Katie drowned in a swimming pool. So sad.” He looks down and shakes his head. “But, yeah, the other eighteen are alive. Cancer free. Stanley’s twenty six now. An accountant. His wife just found out she’s pregnant. Claire is studying to be a doctor. She wants to help other kids with cancer.”
He goes on and on, describing where all the children now live as adults and what they’re doing with their lives. It’s mind-blowing and yet I believe every word. Not because he knows so much about them. Anyone could fake that. I believe him because I can feel his sincerity. I sensed from the first moment I met him that he was genuine. A little crazy, maybe, but genuine.
As Woody goes on and on about these kids it starts to make sense. Not logically or intellectually. But on an instinctive level. Something like this could work. With children. Maybe I was wrong about Jerome being too young for cancer. Maybe the bigger challenge was that he was too old. Too old for the physical resiliency someone has in their twenties or thirties, of course. But more importantly, too old to simply will his tumors elsewhere. To make that cancer…just go away. Like it should have. That’s the power children possess. But like Jerome, most of us outgrow that power way too soon. Or never realize we have it in the first place.
In the car on the way home—after another cup of tea, a few more stories, and our goodbyes—I wonder what Jerome thinks about Woody healing all those kids. But I don’t ask him. I can’t tell if he wants to talk about it or not. I’m scared that it’ll make us both uncomfortable. Maybe he doesn’t have that much hope this time around—his second attempt at fighting cancer. Maybe, like me, he realizes that what Woody does will probably never work for adults.
Still, I wish I’d been brave and brought it up. I regret all the things I never asked Jerome. All the things I never said and will never get to say.
And then it hits me. I realize what Woody meant. It’s not enough to simply believe. All belief is prone to doubt. You have to know. Children understand this. And the kids Woody heals know that piece of wood really is their tumor. Not some metaphor. Or symbol. But their actual tumor. They can carve it up. Obliterate it. It isn’t inside them anymore. It’s outside their bodies and they have the power to destroy it.
Like Woody says, you have to know, not believe, that piece of wood is your tumor. That’s the only way it works. Like walking a tight rope. If you don’t look down, you’re not walking at all. You’re floating. Flying. No rope beneath you. Nothing. Just air.
Perception is reality. Not the other way around. Just like believing is seeing.
So what happens to that wisdom of childhood? Where and when do we sluff it off for a harder, stricter sense of logic? When do we stop realizing that, sometimes, all we have to do is whittle our problems down? Make them a little more manageable. Maybe make them disappear?
But not the way Jerome disappeared.
From my sister. From his kids and family. Not the way it all seemed to vanish too fast the next day as my plane lifted into a cloudy sky above the Hartford Airport.
Looking out from my window seat that day it was hard to see anything till those clouds suddenly broke. Just for a moment. And I could peer down across the rolling hills of Connecticut. Somewhere down there was Woody’s place. Ruth and Jerome’s house. The New Haven Children’s Hospital. The hospice where Jerome would eventually draw his last breath. It was all down there somewhere.
Until those clouds blew back in, and swallowed everything up.