The author narrates this account of the death of her husband, Miecu, a Polish physician, from cancer of the esophagus. The couple meet in 1954, marry in 1962, and in 1966 Miecu is found to have "heart trouble" and some "gastric problems." A gastrectomy is performed, but the cancer has metastasized and, after more surgery, his wife takes him home, and cares for him until he dies.


What makes this account fascinating is what it reveals about medical practice in England in the 1960s. The relationship between Miecu and Marlena is characterized by medically endorsed paternalistic deception in the guise of mutual protection.

Committed to his private practice, Miecu at first postpones tests and then tells his wife the results were nothing to worry about. She looks up his symptoms in his medical books, and learns otherwise. He lies about when his surgery is scheduled to take place, so that she won't worry. Then, after the second operation, Miecu's surgeon lies to him, saying the pain was caused by adhesions, not metastases, but tells Marlena the truth: that he has about a month to live.

He tells her what the patient has been told: " . . . he believes [it was adhesions] for the time being. How long we can keep the truth from him I don't know. As a doctor he will soon begin to suspect when he realizes he isn't making any progress. The trouble is that his mind is so sharp and alert. If it stays that way right to the end we shall never be able to keep it from him" (55).

The mutual deception that underlies Miecu's dying goes largely unquestioned. There is no sense in the narrative that a preferable alternative to deception might exist. Marlena plays along, not allowing him to see her grief and fear, although she has moments of doubt: "my heart revolted at the lousy game we were playing; all pretending that all went well when really we were already in mourning" (91).

Finally, Miecu's doctor gives him what appears to be an overdose of painkillers in an attempt to put him in a coma until death. It fails to achieve this, leaving him delirious but conscious. His death comes slowly, with many false endings. He keeps saying he should be back in hospital because he's not healing, and the doctor articulates his problem with this to Marlena: "If I say he will be better off at home he will know the situation is hopeless and I can't tell him that. I have never told anyone. No matter how strong they insist they are or how bravely they may be able to take it. I just can't do it. You just can't leave people without hope" (125).

Miecu is finally returned to hospital and one last struggle takes place: as he's dying, a priest arrives and insists on trying to administer the last rites, despite Marlena's increasingly violent objections. The sometimes over-sentimental recollections of her husband are offset by the author's clear-sighted account of his death, and by the fascinating insights the work provides into the management of terminally ill patients thirty years ago.


Allison & Busby

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