“The ancient splendor and beauty of Prague, a city beyond compare, left an impression on my imagination that will never fade.” – Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Phil had promised to call his wife, Jenny, when the doctor gave him the results of the tests. His back had been bothering him and he felt an occasional sharp pain in his stomach but all of that was annoying more than anything else. He went to the doctor because Jenny insisted and he knew that he was lying to himself when he thought “there’s nothing to worry about” because he mastered in worrying. He had Googled his symptoms and tried to dismiss it because the symptoms also fit a gall bladder attack among other maladies.

The nurse had asked him to sit but he was too nervous as he paced the tiny office waiting for the doctor. He saw it in the nurse’s face when she called him back from the waiting room, the false smile; the quick eye contact as if what he had was contagious and deadly.

But it was deadly, “Adenocarcinoma, the medical term for pancreatic cancer, it might not be Stage IV but we’ll need more tests,” the doctor said, trying to be comforting but not succeeding.

The news hit him hard, like when Jenny had awoken him in the night to tell him his father had died. The numbness spread through his limbs until standing became an effort and he had to sit.

“How long?” he had asked since he knew that pancreatic cancer was not one of the “lucky” cancers that had wrist bands and walk-a-thons and most importantly, a cure.

“How long?” he asked again because the doctor was hemming and hawing talking about trials and aggressive treatment and comfort and hospice. “Probably a year” the doctor said, “depending on how” he paused “and if, we attempt treatment.” The doctor kept talking but the numbness was now in his ear drums and the hum of the drum beat drowned out all but his thoughts of Jenny and his daughter, Cathy.

Driving back from the doctor’s office, he had a hard time turning the steering wheel. His arms were numb and lacked strength. He was in his driveway and could not recall getting there. He sat in the car not wanting to go in and break his Jenny’s heart with the news that he was going to die. He thought of all the retirement planning, the talks of selling the house and snow birding to Florida. He was 57 and might see 58. He looked up and saw Cathy on the swing set in the back yard, the swing set he pulled down fifteen years ago when it had rusted and she was older. He heard her laughing as he pushed her into the perfectly blue summer sky until she floated, weightless for that split second before gravity brought her back to earth.

The weak rap on the window brought him back. It was Jenny. She knew it was very bad when she saw how he looked at her. He turned his head down away from her gaze. She saw the tears dropping from his cheeks spotting his jacket. Jenny opened the door and hugged him as they cried together in the front seat.

“How long” she tried to ask.

“Maybe a year” Phil thought he said but he could not hear the words or feel them leaving his tongue.

“Oh no Phil,” she cried over and over as Phil could feel her embrace grow tighter.

He could not measure the time they spent holding each other in the front seat of the car. “I’m sorry,” Phil kept saying because that is all he could think of saying. Sorry that he was leaving her. Sorry for all the plans that would never come to fruition. Sorry that she would have to watch him die.

They went inside, he leaned on her, he could only think of Cathy swinging, her blond hair floating and following her body. He heard her laugh. Now he had to call her, how do you tell your child that you are going to die he thought?

Phil decided not to seek treatment. The hour long meeting with the doctor and his colleagues dragged as they went over options with graphs and side effects and trips to the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins. The MBA in Phil’s business mind weighed the pros and cons and return on investment just wasn’t there.

Phil’s one-day preparation for dying tour followed with the trip to the lawyer. Jenny did not want to do it the same day as the medical consultation but he did not want to waste time. He didn’t “have” time. He was glad that everything was in order; all of the insurance and the will, the obligations people let slip that produce the desperate stories of penniless widows that you hear from family and friends.

The funeral home was next which filled him with dread because he remembered the soft-hard sell of the vulture funeral director trying to add on the add-ons to his father’s pre-arrangements. He had wanted to knock the guy out but he did not want to upset his mother. He walked out when he proof read his father’s obituary and the funeral home had misspelled the name of the town they all lived in. “You can’t spell the name of the place where you live?” he mocked them as he went out into the parking lot to get away from those unbelievable people.

Phil picked out his simple casket and the flowers, keeping the expense to the minimum. When the up-sell came he glared. Luckily this vulture was smart enough to realize he had treaded into a danger zone. Phil was relieved when that surreal necessity was behind him. He was especially happy at the thought that he would never step into that place alive again.

Phil’s work was next; he had called ahead to his boss, the CEO, to make sure that he was available. Phil warned him that he had news and the news was not good. He sat in Rob’s big office that he once aspired to occupy and wondered why he had wanted it so badly. He played all the politics, worked all of the hours, but he never made it to the top.

It was worth it in the end he thought, he had been a Senior Vice-President now for years and his position was beginning to devolve into almost sinecure type status as he eased into retirement he would never see. The job had enabled him to provide well for his family and send Cathy to the best schools.

“Is there anything I can do?” Rob asked after a pause to absorb the news.

Phil thanked Rob for his offer and was prepared with his response. “Paid leave until the end?” he asked.

“Of course,” Rob responded, “I’ll set up a meeting with legal as soon as you are ready” Rob said calling to his Admin.

“I’m ready now,” Phil responded.

“Do you want people to know?” Rob asked.

“People”? “Know”? These words rattled for a while in Phil’s thoughts.

“I’ll go tell my staff after we are done, feel free to send out an e-mail about my leave of absence, word will get around quick enough about why I am out.”

When Legal was done Phil walked down to his office. It felt like years since he had been there and as he looked at the diplomas with his name and his things on the walls and waited for his staff to come in and sit down. He held the picture of Cathy’s graduation from Wharton. The knock at his door startled him.

Regaining his form Phil told his staff quickly and without emotion as he had told them about bad financials or the need for lay-offs. The shock froze them.

“Is there anything we can do?” Steve, Phil’s heir apparent, said breaking the silence.

Phil was glad to hear the sincerity in Steve’s voice because he could see the impatience in Steve’s actions as he waited for Phil to retire so he could continue his ambitious climb.

“No,” Phil said “I apologize for dropping this on you but it is what it is. Remember this is just a job. Slow down, you’ll get there. Don’t settle for average unless average is the best outcome. Don’t forget to laugh every now and then.”

“Thank you,” he continued. “I’m getting too philosophical in my old age. I’m sorry for being tough on you sometimes but I really think my toughness made you better at your job, good luck in your careers.”

Back home in his study he started the lists, he was a list guy. One was labeled “Must Do,” the other “Want to Do.” The “must do” list came fairly easily even adding what he had already accomplished to make the list look better, a trick he learned from an old boss in a long ago cubicle farm.

The “Want to Do” list was tougher than he thought. There was so much he still wanted out of his life. The exercise of putting this down on paper made it seem like he was giving away any hope even though he knew he had none. He had to prioritize and realistically think of his capability to accomplish each wish. People were already telling him that they were praying for a miracle. Phil appreciated their thoughts and would welcome a miracle but he knew he could not hope away the inevitable. To give into the hope he thought would take away from his urgency to do the most with the little time he had left.

The list was written and rewritten dozens of times. One “want to do” that made every iteration of the list was returning to Prague.

When Phil was asked about the months he spent in Prague as a graduate student his response would always begin with “it was the best time of my life.” He ended all conversations about Prague longingly with “someday I’ll go back.”  That “someday” always became “some other time” when his busy life, worries and obligations were measured against the choice of a return trip. He would go on Expedia or Orbitz, make his plans, and check the fares, but that was just to keep the dream alive more than an actual intention on going. There was always something more important; work, tuition, a new roof or some unexpected bill. Prague was always relegated for some other time.

That “some other time” was here. Phil closed his eyes and walked across the Charles Bridge amid the tourists. He walked the cobblestone back streets looking for the perfect restaurant that didn’t have a menu in English. He sat on a bench looking out onto the Old Town Square eating a sausage with sauerkraut on fresh baked roll. He climbed the never ending steps to Prague Castle and looked down on the beautiful city. He wrote a note next to “Return to Prague”: “go while I can still climb the steps.”

Phil opened the Orbitz website and put in the “To” and “From” cities. He clicked on the calendar for the departure date and his eyes were drawn immediately to December. He would go for his last Christmas. He had always thought of how great it would be to spend the holidays in Europe. He envisioned Munich, Vienna or Salzburg and laughed at himself for never thinking about Prague. He had dreamt of the snow; Handel’s Messiah in a 500 year old cathedral, and a warm pastry with spiced wine. It would be a good final act, he thought.

He finished his list and headed into the living room where Jenny was reading.

“How’s the list going?” she asked.

“Christmas in Prague?” he asked, reaching out to hold her hand.

“Perfect,” she said, pulling him in close for a kiss.

All of the letters from the doctors for all the drugs he had to carry, the ordering of the passports, the pain of telling family that they were going away for Christmas was all behind him as he boarded the Czech Air flight at JFK. Phil felt young again and as though the cancer that was killing him was gone and he was at the start of a long, youthful adventure. He settled into his first class comfort between his wife and his daughter.

The taxi dropped them off at the Mamaison Hotel near the River Vltava a few blocks from Old Town. There was a massive Christmas tree in the lobby festooned with exquisite hand-blown glass ornaments and gold tinsel. It was perfect. On top of the tree was the most beautiful angel he had ever seen. She seemed to come alive as he looked at her, he was mesmerized by the warm glow of her smile. Like an angel greeting you to heaven Phil thought.

Jenny and Cathy saw Phil transfixed on the angel.

“She’s beautiful,” Jenny said as they joined Phil.

They dressed for their long cold walk and ventured out into the streets that he had dreamed of walking again. There was a light snow in the air as huge flakes drifted carelessly down not knowing that they were subject to the law of gravity. Charles Bridge was full of people, carolers and vendors. Phil stopped and rubbed the bronze image of St. John of Nepomuk, as he had done years earlier at the urging of their tour guide, because she said that if you rubbed the statue you would come back to Prague. He thanked the kind saint for bringing him safely back.

The steps of Prague Castle were slowly ascended and the view of the city below was as he remembered except that the ancient city seemed to have more vitality. He had been there shortly after the communists had been dumped onto the ash heap of history and he attributed this new vibrancy to freedom which made him immensely happy. Phil thought that in a strange way he had been freed by his impending death. He no longer worried about money, his career and all that goes with it.

By dinner they were back in the Old Town for a hearty meal just as he remembered, of roast pork, red cabbage, roasted potatoes and several glasses of Krusovice at the Plzenska Beer Hall Restaurant. He thought of the TV show with the travelling chef that visited Prague and the kinship he felt with the chef as he ate his way through the city. The chef noted after his tenth straight meal featuring porcine fair that “in Prague, pork is king, welcome to Porkopolis”.

Phil laughed to himself at that thought. Cathy saw his smile; she got up and gave her father a hug.

“Welcome home Dad,” she whispered in his ear.

“I’m so sorry that I have to leave you,” Phil said savoring the face of his daughter.

“I’ll always have you,” she reassured him. She looked out to the streets of Old Town, “and soooommme daaaayyy I’ll come back to Prague” she laughed.

It was the first time Phil had heard her do an imitation of him and he wondered how many times over the years he had talked longingly about Prague. He laughed until his tears of sadness mixed with his tears of laughter, becoming one.

He could not take his eyes off of his beautiful daughter.

“Anytime I questioned whether my life was important, whether I had accomplished enough I would look at you and know that it was worth it, because of you.”

He wiped the tear from her cheek before kissing her.

“We have a present for you” Cathy said as her smile returned and she motioned to her mom to join her next to Phil.

He laughed because Jenny and Cathy had done quite a bit of shopping as they walked the city which he should have expected but had not considered.

“Here” she said handing him the wrapped present.

“For me?” he joked as he began tearing at the paper.

Phil opened the box; it was the angel from the hotel Christmas tree. He was stunned.

“I asked the concierge where I could find one”

“This is so beautiful, it is absolutely the best present, thank you so much” he said as regained his composure.

As they sipped their after dinner coffee and Calvados they could hear the music drifting over from the Municipal House next door; it was appropriately somber and beautiful at the same time, one of his favorite quartets from Beethoven. The alcohol and pain killers gave him a warm buzz and liberation from the thoughts of his mortality; he was far away from pancreatic cancer, thankfully far from the funeral home vultures.

Phil walked out into the snow and the lights of the Old Town Square supported by Jenny and Cathy. They stopped to watch the Astronomical clock announce midnight and herald in a new day. “Another day,” he smiled as he looked to the sky over Prague as he floated with the snowflakes and his angel.

The End

Photo by Ullisan