In her early twenties, Stephani Cook had already achieved the glittering externals. She had graduated from a prestigious college and, as a model, had seen her face on the covers of magazines. She had married a Wall Street businessman, and had given birth to two children. Then her golden life began to deteriorate.
Stephani Cook was not happy. The routines of married life bored her, and she felt the press of self-denial involved in raising small children. Unknown to her family, she closed herself off at nights to weep in the bathroom:
"Howling at the white tiles as I progressively lost control and perspective, sobbing and gurgling into yards of toilet paper I never bothered to detach from the roll, loathing myself for all this neurotic need coming to the surface like scum . . . I was rotting from the inside out."
Then she began to suffer sudden random chest pains, but they seemed to her physician to be only psychological spots of postpartum depression following her son's recent birth, and signs of her own discontent. Since doctors are the ringmasters of the body, she agreed.
"I obediently rummaged through the tangled circuits of my head, suspecting shorts or bad connections, sniffing for burnt-out junction boxes."
She felt relieved when she could enter the doctor's office with the tangible symptom of a bloody discharge. But even after a series of tests and hospitalizations, her malady eluded the physicians. All but one of the doctors who treated her are named in this book only by an initial; they take no more substance than the single letter of their last names. They are portrayed as distant, arrogant, and in her case, inefficient.
The medical team pursued the malady through a D & C, a procedure that scrapes tissue from the uterine wall. Her extreme chest pains would be relieved through a regime of antibiotics. When the symptoms eluded all treatment and a further batch of chest X-rays showed an increase of sinister dark blotches, it was determined that blood clots, or emboli, were being manufactured by her body, and in sweeping through her veins, were endangering her life.
In the institutional bed, Cook spent her days imagining how she would like to be loved. Her physician, Len, responded and initiated an affair.
At the same time, her prescribed drugs were proving ineffective against the increasing incidence of emboli. The doctors were unanimous in supposing that the clots were coming from veins that surround the ovaries. The cure would be a radical hysterectomy, with her lover as the surgeon.
The surgery brought a total immersion in pain. She sank into dimensions of discomfort that gave a body and weight to the sufferings of her mind. Cook began to believe that this suffering would burn away the debts she owed her family, and resolved to return to her duties at home, and be content. But she began to experience further symptoms, and was rehospitalized. The medical staff determined that immediate open-heart surgery was required, as the continuing build-up of emboli was threatening a massive assault to the heart. After the operation, tests showed that the clots were fragments of a tumor. Her symptoms had always been those of a rare form of cancer; a simple urinalysis could have diagnosed the correct disease two years earlier.
Illness had become an occupation by this time. The world had become a kind of narrow shelf, elevated above the cares of daily life. There was a pillow of drugs that could absorb some of the pain and terror, and there was the ever-present threat of rolling off the shelf and being bundled into eternity. Cook also discovered that she feared getting well, feared climbing down from her narrow shelf and resuming the full load of adult responsibility that health would require of her.
When chemotherapy finally arrested all evidence of the disease, she went home. The book at this point makes its circle. But contentment still eludes her, and she writes, "What I should have known was that to be cured is not necessarily to be healed." After agonizing between the internal voices of desire and duty, Cook decides to divorce her husband. Now single, she begins her life again.
"Second Chance" captures portions of the soul and pins them to the page. The author has a skill with the written word that makes vivid her physical and mental sufferings. Her language is rich with insights and imagery.
As another cancer patient in remission, I can appreciate the precision of Cook's account. We both have endured the countless hospitalizations; we both have been classified as terminal. We both know how the promises we make about what we'll do with our lives are interwoven with the thread of our fears.
Cook, like myself, has had her life returned to her for its season. What concerns me is that she has forgotten, or lacked the power, to make her character match her talent as a writer. I wonder if Stephani Cook will ever learn to know joy, if she will ever come to respect herself.