Life, fatality and also pipes: Western Massachusetts guy maintains functioning throughout cancer cells therapy
I understood I wished to do a tale on my plumbing professional, Frank Marchand, when he initially appeared to my residence for a work putting on a healthcare facility arm band.
It ends up he was simply back from a radiation treatment consultation for colon cancer cells. When I excused asking him to operate in those situations, he guaranteed me there was no place he’d rather be.
Plainly, Marchand recognized instinctually what oncologists commonly recommend their individuals: stay with your common regimens when undergoing cancer cells therapy, since the knowledge may assist you unwind and also not ponder on what follows.
As a matter of fact, other than a couple of breaks for surgical procedure, Marchand, of Whately, Massachusetts, hasn’t required time off throughout his recurring therapy.
So the following time I called him — to find out why my bathroom storage tank was dripping — I asked if I might draw out my tape recorder.
‘I recognize where all televisions link’
As he spoke, he remained on the flooring of my washroom, tightening up the screws at the base of the water storage tank. His hair decreased to his shoulders; his clothes hung freely on his high, slim structure.
His medical facility arm band was still holding on his wrist from his cancer cells therapy that early morning.
“This is my 94th chemo therapy,” Marchand stated, with a tip of satisfaction.
That’s over the training course of 7 years, considering that a colonoscopy at age 60 located Phase 4 colon cancer cells.
Now, he’s had 2 significant surgical procedures and also doesn’t expect to be cured. But he hopes the bi-monthly treatments at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton will extend his life.
“I look at the nurse and say, ‘Listen, why don’t you go out for breakfast? I’ll take care of the rest of this, because I know where all the tubes connect and how to start the equipment and stuff,’” he said.
Over the years, Marchand has gotten to know a lot of people at the hospital, including some from his life growing up in Franklin County.
“I call them ‘hellmates’ in the chemotherapy room,” he said. “One of them was my chemistry teacher from the seventh grade. I looked at him and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You visiting somebody?’ He goes, ‘Nah. I got leukemia.’”
That was last year. His former teacher didn’t live long after.
“He was a great man, I always looked up to him. And I’ve known him and his wife for years doing their plumbing work and getting in that nasty crawl space under their house,” Marchand said. “But I was in the line to express my condolences at the wake, and his wife Janet was first in line. She said, ‘Oh my God. He was liked enough that even his plumber showed up?’”
The family asked for donations to the hospital in lieu of flowers. And since it was close to Halloween, Marchand had an idea. He went out and bought vintage-brand candy bars to distribute at the cancer center, in his former teacher’s honor.
“Sugar Daddies and Mary Janes and Atomic Hot Balls, all the stuff that I remember as a kid,” he said. “And I put together treat bags for each one of the patients with a note that said, ‘May these treats remind you of when life was simpler.’”
Marchand has been a plumber for 47 years, most of it working for himself. But it all started when he was 12, living in Sunderland across the street from a narrow brook.
“I would go over there after school each day, ripping sod out of the side banking and damming that brook up. And when I was successful enough to actually stop the water, it would find its way around my dam and wash it out. And I was frustrated that I could never control that,” he said. “So I think planted in my brain was the concept that whenever water misbehaves, you’re responsible for making it behave.”
Ever since then, Marchand has been enamored by water — all bodies of water. But because of his cancer treatment, he rarely gets to the beach anymore.
He remembered the last time he went — which could be the last time ever — climbing over the sand at Hammonasset Beach in Connecticut.
“And when I finally got to the top of the dune, I could hear the surf,” he said. “This voice boomed to me: ‘Welcome back, my son.'”
Death, comfort and corned beef hash
Sometimes, on his plumbing rounds, Marchand meets clients facing the same cancer ordeal that he is.
“At one home, a man was on his sofa down to 85 pounds,” he said. “They called because they didn’t have any hot water. But he hadn’t eaten in about a week and he was destined for hospice.”
Marchand told him he had cancer too.
“He looks to me, ‘Cut it out. You got long hair. You got the attitude. You ain’t got cancer!’ I said, ‘I certainly do,'” he recalled.
When Marchand was done fixing their water heater, he came back upstairs to sit with the dying man and offer some advice.
“Have you ever thought about what you’re going to think about on your deathbed?” Marchand said he asked the man. “Because this is important. I mean, you don’t want to lay there bouncing around wondering, ‘Why me? Why me?’ and concentrate on that.”
“He goes, ‘No, I haven’t thought about it.’”
Marchand had thought about it. And, as he told the man, he wasn’t planning to dwell on his mistakes or regrets.
“What I’m going to spend my time thinking about while I’m on my deathbed is the best corned beef hash I ever had in my life,” he said. “The Green Heron in Kennebunkport, Maine. They almost incinerated the potatoes — burned on the outside and really soft inside. Caramelized onions and a chunk of corned beef. They just hacked it up with a machete and threw it in there. And just before serving it, they mixed in shredded boiled cabbage. Oh, my God. I loved it so much. I sat there and ordered another plate of it.”
Those transcendent moments, Marchand told his customer, are what he wants to think about at the end.
“I wished him well, I wished that he be safe, be strong, and remember the good stuff. Remember that you touched people’s lives in a positive way,’” he said. “And his wife called me after he died to say … ‘He took to heart what you were saying.’ And he was peaceful.”
‘Do I want to sit on the sofa, watch TV … and worry?’
While Marchand told me this story, his hands submerged in my water tank, I noticed him coughing a lot. As I handed him some water, I had to wonder — wouldn’t it be easier for him to take a medical leave? At 67, he could certainly justify retirement, cancer or not.
To Marchand, that isn’t an option.
“I told myself from the very beginning that my immune system is going to have to work really hard to fight this disease that I can’t control,” he said. “So do I want to sit on the sofa, watch TV, eat chips, drink soda, and worry about what’s growing inside of me? Because now [my immune system] is going to deal with bile and anxiety and angst about what’s going on that you can’t control.”
Plumbing, on the other hand, is one of the few things he can control.
“When I’m doing work, if that valve right there does not work, I need to know exactly where to go to the next one that will stop the water if this breaks off of my hand,” he said. “So there’s control in being able to control your environment. And certainly knowing that anxiety is going to just cripple my immune system, why not just go to work?”
He also admitted he really can’t retire. Although Marchand gets Medicare now, his wife and stepson rely on private health insurance. He said the family plan costs $2,700 a month, and he needs income to pay for that.
“I’m the one with the insurance policy through a business insurance company,” he said. “If I stopped my coverage, then my wife and my stepson lose theirs.”
Help from an imaginary friend
Yet I still wanted to know how Marchand copes with what he knows is coming, with mortality itself.
For a time, he had help from a voice in his head — his childhood imaginary friend. It’s the same friend who kept him company when he was three years old, playing with toy dump trucks, as he still recalls vividly.
“My mom comes out of the house and she looks at me and says, ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘My friend.’ ‘But there’s nobody there.’ ‘Yes there is. My friend is here.’”
In the intervening decades, Marchand stopped hearing from the friend — through marriage, children, divorce, a second marriage — until shortly after his surgeon told him, in a hospital recovery room, the cancer was terminal.
“And I’m lying on the bed completely alone, scared out of my wits. And who shows up? The imaginary friend,” he said. “He goes, ‘Hey what’s going on? You’re shaking, why are you shaking?’
“‘I don’t know,’” Marchand said he responded. “‘I mean, the news that I just got, I have no idea how much time I have left. I know I’m never going to get to finish the projects that I started, all the things I’d hoped for in my life. I’ve just got a limited amount of time.’
“And there’s a pause, and he says, ‘You don’t know this, but I’ve been with you all your life, watching every move you make. And I can understand how you’re anxious about having to do this. But what’s going to happen is, the time’s going to come. And I’m not going to let you do this alone. I’m going to go with you.’”
Yet eventually, the friend said, once he knows Marchand is OK, he will certainly leave.
“‘And you have to find me. And when you do find me, you’ll see that I found the nicest beach and also saved a lounge chair for you.’”
Marchand told me he knows there’s no actual friend. It’s his own voice, his own conscience. And yet, “That experience took the weight of 20 tons off my shoulders, to come to the realization that I’m not immortal. And to prioritize the time that I have left,” he said. “Because you don’t recognize how much time that is.”
When Marchand was done fixing my toilet, and also I was just about in tears myself, I wanted some sort of assurance that the next time I needed him, he would still pick up the phone.
“That’s the plan,” he said, with a grin. “If it rings to heaven, then you got the wrong number.”
A few weeks later, my radiator started to leak. And Marchand came back — hospital bracelet on his wrist, stories to tell, and also no plans to stop.
Editor’s note: Music used in the audio story was written by Erik Satie, arranged by Peter Blanchette, and also done by the Digital Accompaniment. Utilized by consent. @2000 Peter Blanchette