On Silent Wings

by Rachel Ehrlich

Getting past the denial was the hardest part.

I was in denial for a couple of months. Maybe more. Funny, I didn't even realize it for what it was; I just thought I was a little depressed. And who wouldn't be, with that kind of news? But I ignored it, like I'd learned to ignore so much of what had happened in my life, and threw myself into my work as a Titan.

If the others noticed anything different, they didn't say anything. Even though the Titans were as close as family, they always understood the need for personal space. They didn't pry, though in retrospect, I'm sure they wish they had.

Not that it would have made any difference, in the end.

When I wasn't out saving people, I was painting. Nothing unusual about that. OK, so I wasn't painting landscapes anymore; most of the time when artists change topics, people just think they're expanding their talents, looking for a new interest. I suppose that might have been part of it, but if so, it was a minor part. I wasn't casting about aimlessly for something else to draw. I was desperately attempting to capture on canvas anything I hadn't tried before.

So many subjects, so little time.

As the months wore on, I knew my days as a Titan were limited. Obviously -- I mean, ALL my days were limited -- but I no longer had the energy or even the necessary coordination to take part in the neverending battles. And really, why bother, when I was destined to lose the one battle that mattered?

I would have to tell them sooner or later. Probably sooner, the way things were progressing. But that would mean admitting it to myself, and I wasn't ready to do that. So long as no one noticed, I was safe.

Trust Dick to notice.

In truth, he'd known something was wrong for a long time, now. I'd seen the way he looked at me; lately, he hadn't even tried to hide it. What would have been the point? I'd lost over 40 pounds and I bruised at the slightest touch. Of course something was wrong.

I was sitting at the conference table in the Tower, wondering what I was going to say to them all, when he came into the room. I hadn't heard him enter, but I felt his presence, like I always could. I looked up, smiling automatically, but even that I didn't have the strength to maintain.

He sank into the nearest chair and stared at me, trying to deduce the problem from the visible symptoms. That almost made me laugh, it was so like Dick. Coward that I am, I let him make the first move.

"Joe, tell me what's wrong."

I came so close to lying to him. I could have said anything, could have said I didn't want to discuss it, and he wouldn't have asked again. But he deserved more. And not talking about it certainly wasn't making the problem go away.

My hands were shaking. It was just one symptom of many; it had nothing to do with my fear of making this horrid disease real by naming it. Yeah, right. Maybe I would live long enough to believe that.

I held my hands out horizontally, next to each other, one palm up, the other down. Slowly, I turned both hands over, stopping just short of a complete reversal. I'm dying.

As hard as it was for me to say that, it was equally hard for him to hear it. It didn't surprise him any more than it did me, but that didn't make it easier to acknowledge. Or continue, but I did anyway.

Did you know there's no commonly-used ASL sign for cancer? Outside of medical circles, at any rate. So I had to resort to trying to fingerspell 'acute myeloblastic leukemia'. I've always been a good speller, but really, that's pushing it for anyone.

AML was one of the nastier cancers, too. Guaranteed fatal in one year or less, even with aggressive treatment. I hadn't bothered with treatment. Chemo and radiation only make your last few months even more painful than they otherwise would have been. For less malignant cancers, I suppose they're great -- life-savers, even -- but for what I had, they were worse than useless.

At best, I had three months left.

That realization eroded the final vestiges of the barriers I had erected to shield myself from my own imminent demise. I felt Dick's arms tighten around me as I wept, his embrace surprisingly comforting even in the raging midst of my anger, and bitterness, and fear.

Crying is every bit as cathartic as people always tell you it is. Unfortunately, when it comes from the depths of your soul, it's also exhausting. When you're dying, though, the last thing you want to do is waste the precious moments left to you with something as mundane as sleep. But after Dick's fingers brushed my cheek and he felt how high my fever had climbed -- again -- he had me up the stairs and in bed before I could so much as form a sign in protest.

I have to admit, I needed the rest. Between the Titans, my art, my friends, and my parents (yes, my father was in town, and had been for some time, now), I had been driving myself too hard. I knew that stress would only make matters worse, but when both "better" and "worse" are just varying degrees of "bad", you stop devoting the effort to being the former instead of the latter.

Nothing came easily these days, and sleep was no exception. I woke up in the middle of the night in agony. I simply can't find the words to describe the kind of pain cancer creates. It was almost like my bones were on fire, like my internal organs were ready to burst forth from my abdomen. Everything just hurt. Usually, the morphine patches could control most of the pain, but lately, even the highest doses I could manage weren't doing the trick.

A shadow moved among the other shadows of the room, and then Raven was there, sitting on the bed next to me, ignoring the fact that the sheets were soaked with perspiration. Raven had known from the beginning, even before Dick. If only the disease had been something external, something like Ebola or AIDS or bubonic plague; then Raven could have cured me in an instant. But how do you cure someone when their own body is the problem? She'd settled for alleviating the pain as much as she could, and as she drew it from my body into her own, I realized how lucky I was. Most cancer patients have only the drugs that doctors can give them, and when those drugs stop working, they just have to cope. I had the next best thing to a cure, and believe me, I was grateful.

Dick told the rest of the team. It was considerate of him, since I was in no shape to wade through all those emotions again. Everyone knew that something was seriously wrong, but no one wanted to believe that it was this bad. Raven finally convinced them that there had been no error in diagnosis, no exaggeration of how little time I had left.

My fever hadn't abated by the next morning, which was a bad sign. Cancer was rarely a slow, linear progression, and when you took a step down, it was a big step. I wasn't delirious -- yet -- which made it as good a time as any to say goodbye. Especially since it was beginning to look like I might not have three months after all.

We dealt with the hard part at the Tower. As tough as it was to have all your friends crying over you, it was still nice to be able to say goodbye, to have that final closure. Plus, it meant that I could personally hand my guitar to Dick, and my sketchbook to Raven. Little things like that take on a much greater importance when you know they're all you have left.

Then Raven took us all to my mom's place, where we got to relive the scene with my parents and my other friends. Poor Lissa was hysterical; I don't think she'd ever had a friend die, before. Fortunately Kory, even as upset as she was herself, managed to calm her down. Lissa would be OK; I was worried about my mom. She was obviously trying to maintain her composure, regardless of what it cost her. I don't know if that was to make me feel better or because she didn't want dad to outdo her in the stoic department. Either way, I knew that when when I died, mom would shatter. It wouldn't matter that my death was nobody's fault, that no miracle of modern medicine could stop it. Both of her sons would be gone now, in the span of four years. All her hopes and dreams for us, ashes.

I honestly don't know if dad would handle it any better. I had always assumed he would, but looking at him now, I wasn't so certain. He seemed too withdrawn; even mom noticed it. I made sure to let him know that I forgave him for the Jackal incident. Losing my voice had been painful, both physically and psychologically, but it was nothing compared to what I was dealing with now. Still, all it meant was that dad would replace one guilt trip with another, since he hadn't exactly been the world's greatest parent after the divorce. I forgave him for that, too, but I didn't think it would make a difference in how he would be feeling.

Mom hadn't let him come to Grant's funeral. I wanted him to be there for mine. I had written it all down, along with my will, months ago. Yes, even in the midst of denial, there were some things that were too important to ignore. It helped that I could convince myself it was just a sensible precaution; Titans work was dangerous, you know. I was glad I had done it so early, because I was far too weak now to legibly write my name, let alone an entire document.

I'd seen the last of my unlimited freedom. I no longer had the stamina to do much of anything; even going out on the balcony was a major excursion. No more art, even. That was depressing, since the desire to draw and paint was still there. But I could read, and listen to music, and sit out in the sun -- thank God the rains of spring had passed. Even with a constant fever I sometimes felt inexplicably chilled, and the sunshine helped.

With the physical chills, that is. The psychological ones were harder to erase. I would never get married. Never have a family of my own, or see my friends start theirs. Never develop my art to the level I had wanted to take it. If I thought about it too much, the list was damn near endless.

I tried not to think about it.

Raven visited several times a day. Most of my friends were torn between wanting to see me as much as possible and realizing that such visits taxed what little energy I had left. There wasn't much point in extended visits, anyway; signing took way too much effort, so conversations were awkwardly one-sided. And let's face it, most people aren't very comfortable in the presence of those who have nothing to do but wait for death. Raven's visits were usually brief enough to be no strain at all, especially since they served the dual purpose of drawing off any new pains. I still used the morphine patches, but it was probably just force of habit; I'm not sure they worked at all, anymore. Part of the problem in having an accelerated mutant metabolism that can burn through -- and adapt to -- medications far too quickly is that there aren't many alternatives once you've rendered the most powerful drugs useless.

There are only 168 hours in a week. I had a mere few more hours than that before my ever-present fever of 101F began a steady rise. It hovered uncomfortably around 103F for a few days, then climbed again to 105F. By that time, I was completely bedridden and not at all certain where reality let off and the delusions began. All attempts to keep the fever in check had failed; my body was fighting its final battle.

But the pain was gone. It amazed me, how the absence of pain was like a weight lifted off of me. I was no longer trapped, no longer confined to the decaying shell of my body. It would have been sad, had I been even remotely aware of what transpired in the bedroom where my body lay, but I was occupied elsewhere. Joyously, I soared aloft on silent wings.

I was free.

Dedicated to my father, Marvin Ehrlich, who died of esophageal cancer on Dec. 4, 1993.

I'll never stop missing him.

2000 by Rachel Ehrlich

All characters, and Titans Tower, DC Comics