Winter at the Zoo
First-place award, fiction writing, Wisconsin Academy’s 129th annual conference. A young adult faces cancer.

As leaves begin to flutter off neighborhood trees, I walk to the small zoo next to the giant medical center. At a zoo picnic bench, I sit holding detailed and endless treatment plans that I’m too scared to read. I am 30 years old and work as an accountant at a company that donated enough money to have the zoo’s reptile house named after it. About now, my boss should be wondering where I am.

I consider sitting at the zoo all day, hiding in the bathroom at night, and never leaving until spring. After an hour, I peel out of this trance. To stand, I have to lift my body from the bench. When I do, I see a speck of red that looks like blood on my finger. I’m disoriented. Blood? I look back at the bench and realize that I sat on a ketchup packet. I touch the back of my pants and smatter more ketchup over my hand.

Nearby, a boy as tall as a fire hydrant watches me and laughs. An adult tells him to stay with his assigned partner, but he’s too busy pointing at me to others.

I wipe my pants with a few leaves. It’s not the worst thing that happened to me today. Late this morning, I sat in a tiny office at the giant medical center and learned I have a disease I can’t pronounce or spell, but that a doctor, whom I just met, told me is serious, very serious. I love numbers. I’m good with numbers. Still, I never ask about percentages about my fate.

My chemotherapy treatments start Monday morning.


A six-foot pole holds three bags with substances that I can’t pronounce or spell. It’s my second of five morning-long chemo treatments. After two weeks of rest, I’ll start the process again. This pattern will continue over three months, my doctor says, until late winter at least.

Sitting next to me is a wrinkled man the nurse introduced as Herm. He’s wearing a frown and a hat promoting a farm seed company. He’s watching “The Price is Right” on the overhead TV. The volume is turned so loud that the show’s contestants seem more delirious than usual. Herm’s treatment ends in a half hour, which hardly seems fair considering I’m scheduled for another three hours plus. I tell the nurse this, but she touches my hand that’s stuck with an IV needle and explains that I’m young and can take extensive chemo treatments. Others, she adds, aren’t so lucky.

When I finish today, I feel oddly rejuvenated. I’m not nauseous. I’m hungry. I tell the nurse how good I feel, and she forces a smile while telling me that I’m off to a great start but that chemo will wear me down this weekend.

I feel good enough, however, to walk to the zoo. I hardly realized the zoo existed before. It’s the most serene place in the winter to relax and to boast to the animals how I’m going to beat this crazy illness.

The animals are remarkably good listeners.


A month later, two doctors examine my chest X-rays outside a tiny room where I sit wearing a thin gown and socks. I read a People magazine article about the widow of an adventure reality show host who mingled with bears in the wild.

I can hear the doctors discuss my X-rays, so I begin to hum my college’s fight song to stop the intrusion.

My doctor, all business, walks into the room. He tells me he conferred with a colleague about my X-rays. The other doctor, he says, looked at my spotted lungs and said, “Wow.”

I smile nervously. I have a form of testicular cancer, but it has spread to my lungs.

“I don’t suppose that was ‘wow’ as in ‘very good.’”

The doctor, all business, says no.


I know about cancer already. Breast cancer killed my mother five years after her diagnosis; lung cancer killed my father six months after his.

As I walk through the zoo, I tell the animals about this. Of course, I don’t talk out loud. I think it as if the animals can hear me.

I tell them about my fear, too. How I pace my apartment at the darkest times: 1:26 a.m., 2:14 a.m., 3:26 a.m., 3:55 a.m. The doctor used the word “rare” to describe my condition yesterday.

On post-chemo weekends, I vomit until it feels like I’ve spit up everything, including my toe nails. There’s also fatigue. Extreme, extreme fatigue. I measure these weekends by minutes. It’s an approach one of the llamas suggested.


My hair is gone. I wear a bandanna because looking like Homer Simpson doesn’t suit me. I return to work between chemo weeks. My co-workers approach me tentatively as if I’m a stray dog. I avoid mirrors and my watch band keeps needing to get tighter. Still, I go to work and spend lunchtime at the zoo.

When I’m away, I trace the zoo in my mind.

There’s the lion who sits on his heated rock; the harbor seals happily swimming in dirty water; the tiger who paces obsessively; the mother-and-son giraffes; several llamas who always eye me curiously because the zoo has few viewers in early February; and a dozen other oddball animal friends of mine.

I photograph each one and send them to Snapfish for a bound copy. I take it with me to the giant medical center to help take my mind off the endless drip, drip, drip of chemo filling my veins.


My ex-girlfriend visits me twice a week and calls frequently. She brings meals neatly packed in Tupperware. Her current boyfriend says she’s spending too much time with me, but she scoffs at this and kisses me like a sister whenever she leaves.

My brother calls each week from another time zone. My parents, both heavy smokers, died after slow illnesses in the last decade.

Two co-workers stop by my apartment on occasion, and we silently watch whatever sporting event is on TV.

Just before leaving my apartment, one co-worker thumbs through the pages of my animal photos.

“Hey, these are from our zoo,” he says brightly. “My kid loves it there; he just loves it.”


After nearly eighty hours of chemo, I’m not better. I might be, my doctor says, but there are still spots on my left lung. Could be scars, could be tumors, he says. Tumors would be bad — that doesn’t need to be spoken.

“I’m worried about it,” the doctor adds. He’s all business.

Three days later, he asks me to take a walk with him to meet a surgeon. The rest is a blur: I need surgery to remove the upper half of my lung. If the lung is clear, I’m fine. If there are tumors, there’s trouble.

They can’t do a biopsy.

They can’t find out from a CT scan.

There’s no other choice.

I try to gather my breath. I cry. The surgeon says he understands. I drink water. I gain composure. I write down dates and times. Recovery will take a month. It’s nasty surgery that’s called something I can’t pronounce or spell.

We won’t know the results of the pathology report until six days after the surgery.

I stand looking out the surgeon’s sixth-floor window. I can see the zoo’s black bears enjoying the frigid weather.

“That’s quite a view you have,” I say.

The surgeon gets up from his desk and eyes the zoo as if he hadn’t noticed it before.

“Yes, it is,” he says. “I need to walk through there some day.”


Here’s what I do the day before my surgery: An hour before the zoo closes, I say — out loud — to each animal that I will get better. Then I imagine each animal wishing me luck and telling me they’ll be thinking about me.

I’m speaking fairly loudly by the time I reach the remote area for camels. There’s a wooden sign for summertime visitors, giving instructions about camel rides for children. My favorite is: “Obey the camel handler.”

Three camels, with furry coats that look like bad rugs, glance vaguely in my direction. “Hello, camels,” I shout. “I will get better.”

I hear someone else’s voice and jump.

It’s a man’s voice.

I turn around. There’s a bearded worker zipping up his muddy brown jacket. He nods at me and repeats what he said, “Yes, you will.”

With that, he leaves me alone.


Six days after surgery, I sit in a tiny room at the giant medical center to hear the results of the pathologist’s report on my lung. I can’t lift my left arm, and I scream to maneuver myself out of bed. A nurse has begun her twice-a-day visits to my apartment.

Waiting for the doctor, I stare at the pictures of the animals in my photo album:

The penguins, an emu, the porcupine. . .

Still no doctor.

The grizzly bears, a toucan, the bison. . .

Still no doctor.

The elephants, a zebra, the camels. . .

The door opens.

The black bears, a prairie dog, the tortoises. . .

Good news, the doctor says, all business. Then he smiles.


My hair has grown back. I’m in my sixth month of cancer remission. My doctor says I have an excellent chance to be cured someday — maybe four years, five years down the road, he says, all business.

I return to the giant medical center for chest X-rays, CAT scans, and blood tests every three months.

In a finger snap, cancer could return. I met a cancer patient who told me that when your hair grows back everybody thinks you’re better and forgets about your illness. He shook his head, then explained that his colon cancer had returned after two years of remission.


When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died,  I felt oddly sad. I admired the guy. But, really, I was upset that someone with every possible medical advance available to him still died of cancer.

I walk through the zoo to tell the animals what bothers me: The guy had the world’s best doctors and, still, he died.

I no longer say my thoughts out loud to the animals. It’s August and crowds fill the zoo. Four camels, with kids riding them, plod around a dirt circle not much bigger than a pitcher’s mound. I close my eyes and think:

God, I know how difficult it is for a person to die.

I know.

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