The Wild Mandrake by Jason Jobin is a story told in short glimpses that redefines what it means to survive. Jobin brings together the illuminated moments of loss and joy as he navigates chronic illness and builds from it something new and wildly unexpected. Read an excerpt below, and be sure to find a copy at your local bookstore or on our website.
Days pass and the chemo goes into me and then stops, and we begin to wait for things to get awful. George’s buddy comes to visit. I listen to their conversation through the curtain. They talk about cars. Mercedes Benz. BMW. Audi. About which car is the best.
And boats. And golfing. George wants to golf again, drive nice cars again. The buddy is all support, fast talking, agitated. George has some nasty kind of leukemia, I’ve deduced. The leukemia may be in and around his spinal cord, which is not where you want it. Lots of leukemias up here on the fifteenth floor. Up to now, I’ve been of the opinion that leukemias are mild and get zapped no problem, but that’s probably not true. He’s a few weeks beyond the bone marrow transplant, ahead of me, on the mend. Feeling good. But they are keeping him here, not letting him leave, though he wants to leave. He talks with the buddy about how soon he can leave — very soon, they’ve told him, they’ve promised — and how great it will be to get out. Yeah, says the buddy, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. A few days later, the head oncologist comes into the room and closes the curtain to speak with George in private. The doctor talks about how, yes, he knows they said things were looking good, but now they aren’t looking so good. “What?” asks George. “The things,” says the doctor. “They aren’t looking so good.”
George doesn’t understand. Did the head oncologist not say at an earlier date that things were looking good? He did, says the head oncologist, he did say that things were looking good, at that earlier date. But now. Yes, but now. Some stuff going on around the spine. Some stuff going on inside the bones. I don’t catch everything. I’m on drugs, woozy, starting my long descent through ablation and cell death, though I don’t yet feel them fully, don’t yet comprehend the scope. Anyway, now they can’t let George leave, cannot discharge him as they said they would. He isn’t happy. Because they said he could go on a particular date and now the date has changed. Almost everything that happens to people on this ward is chiselled and set in stone, but the dates are not. It will be more chemo for George. Just a little more. To get more of the cancer. To scour away the stuff bothering these doctors. And then they will discharge him, at that later date. They will? Yes, they will see how these new injections go, and then at that later date possibly discharge. How does that sound? Okay, okay. Later, George’s wife visits. He’s upset. She’s sad or angry, had also grown attached to the now-cancelled discharge date. They are cold to each other. Marriage must be hard. With the devastation. With the kids. And she’s sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed — I can hear its legs squeak against the hard plastic floor — and trying to say that it’ll all work out. Interesting that she’s in a chair. There is no sitting on the edge of his bed, no cuddling. But then again, I don’t know, maybe old people don’t cuddle. Maybe they aren’t together anymore. Maybe it’s just the kids they have, if they have kids. Just the duty to be present, as dates change. I have my own dates to consider. No discharge set for me. Much too early. Far to go before that is even considered. First, these drugs taking hold and killing off every white blood cell. When they are all dead, I will rebuild an immune system so this never happens again. But I try not to hope for that, try not to feel it’s promised, though how I’m feeling now makes such promises seem owed for having to go through such misery. A new immune system. What an idea. Not fully new, though. The same scaffold, the same code of me. And the promises? I won’t get them, and George won’t get them — they are not ours. Instead, we’ll both just be in this cold room, on our sides of the curtain, listening to each other’s lives and drawing our conclusions.
Jason Jobin’s writing has been longlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize, and been published in Cleaver Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and the Sun Magazine. His stories have won a National Magazine Award and been featured in the 2018 and 2019 Journey Prize anthology. He lives in Victoria.