Life, death and plumbing: Western Massachusetts man keeps working throughout cancer treatment

Life, death and plumbing: Western Massachusetts man keeps working throughout cancer treatment

I knew I wanted to do a story about my plumber, Frank Marchand, when he first came to my house with a hospital bracelet to do a job.

It turned out he had just returned from a chemotherapy appointment for colon cancer. When I apologized for asking him to work under those circumstances, he assured me there was nowhere he would rather be.

Apparently, Marchand instinctively understood what oncologists often advise their patients: Stick to your usual routines in your cancer treatment, because the familiarity might help you relax and not think about what’s next.

In fact, Marchand, of Whately, Massachusetts, has not taken any time off during his ongoing treatment, aside from a few breaks for surgeries.

The next time I called him – to find out why my toilet tank was leaking – I asked him if I could get my tape recorder out.

“I know where all hoses come together”

As he spoke, he sat on the floor of my bathroom and tightened the screws at the bottom of the water tank. His hair reached his shoulders; his clothes hung loose on his tall, thin body.

His hospital bracelet was still on his wrist from his cancer treatment that morning.

“This is my 94th chemo treatment,” Marchand said with a touch of pride.

That’s over the course of seven years since a colonoscopy found stage 4 colon cancer at age 60.

So far he has had two major surgeries and does not expect to be cured. But he is hoping the two-month treatments at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton will prolong his life.

“I look at the nurse and I’m like, ‘Listen, why don’t you go to breakfast? I’ll take care of the rest because I know where all the pipes connect and how to start the gear and stuff,'” he said.

Over the years, Marchand has met many people at the hospital, including some from his childhood days in Franklin County.

“I call them ‘hell companions’ in the chemotherapy room,” he said. “One of them was my seventh grade chemistry teacher. I looked at him and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Are you visiting someone?’ He says no. I have leukemia.’”

That was last year. His former teacher lived not 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 and getting into that nasty crawl space under their house,” Marchand said. “But I stood in line to offer my condolences at the wake and his wife Janet came first. She said, “Oh my god. He was so popular that even his plumber showed up?’”

In lieu of flowers, the family asked for donations to the hospital. And since it was just before Halloween, Marchand had an idea. He went out and bought old candy bars to give out at the cancer center in honor of his former teacher.

“Sugar Daddies and Mary Janes and Atomic Hot Balls, all that stuff I remember as a kid,” he said. “And I put treat bags together for each of the patients with a note that said, ‘May these treats remind you of when life was simpler.'”

Whately, Massachusetts plumber Frank Marchand removes his hospital bracelet while on a job. He just got back from a chemotherapy appointment.

Marchand has been a plumber for 47 years, most of that time working for himself. But it all started when he was 12 years old and living across a narrow stream in Sunderland.

“I used to go over there every day after school, rip grass out of the side bank and dam that creek. And when I was successful enough to actually stop the water, it would find its way around my perineum and flush it out. And I was frustrated that I could never control that,” he said. “I think ingrained in my brain was the concept that if water behaves badly, you are responsible for making it behave.”

Since then, Marchand has been fascinated by water – all bodies of water. But because of his cancer treatment, he rarely goes to the beach anymore.

He remembered the last time he climbed the sand at Hammonasset Beach in Connecticut — and that might have been the last time ever.

“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, son.'”

Death, Comfort and Corned Beef Hash

Sometimes Marchand meets customers on his plumbing rounds who are facing the same agony of cancer as he is.

“In one house, a man was lying on his sofa and weighed 85 pounds,” he said. “They called because they didn’t have hot water. But he hadn’t eaten in about a week and was destined for hospice.”

Marchand told him he also had cancer.

“He looks at me, ‘Stop that. You have long hair. you have the attitude You don’t have cancer!’ I said, ‘I definitely do,'” he recalled.

When Marchand had finished repairing their water heater, he came back upstairs to sit with the dying man and offer him some advice.

“Have you ever thought about what you’re going to think about on your deathbed?” Marchand said he asked the man. “Because that’s important. I mean, you don’t want to lie around and be like, ‘Why me? Why me?’ and focus on that.”

“He says, ‘No, I didn’t think about it.'”

Marchand had thought about it. And as he told the man, he had no intention of dwelling on his mistakes or his regrets.

“What I’m going to spend my time contemplating while I’m on my deathbed is the best corned beef hash I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “The Green Heron in Kennebunkport, Maine. You almost burned the potatoes – burnt on the outside and really soft on the inside. Caramelized onions and a piece of corned beef. They just chopped it up with a machete and threw it in. And just before serving, they mixed in shredded boiled cabbage. Oh dear God. i loved it so much I sat there and ordered another plate of it.”

In the end, Marchand said to his client, he would like to think of these transcendent moments.

“I wish him the best, I wish he was safe, strong and remembered the good stuff. Remember that you’ve touched people’s lives in a positive way,'” he said. “And his wife called me after he died to tell me… ‘He took what you said to heart.’ And he was peaceful.”

“Do I want to sit on the couch, watch TV… and worry?”

While Marchand was telling me this story, dipping his hands in my water tank, I noticed that he was coughing a lot. As I handed him some water, I had to ask myself – wouldn’t it be easier for him to take medical leave? At 67, he could well justify retirement, cancer or not.

That’s not an option for Marchand.

“I told myself from the start that my immune system has to work really hard to fight this disease that I can’t control,” he said. “So do I want to sit on the couch, watch TV, eat chips, drink soda and think about what’s growing inside me? Because now [my immune system] will deal with bile and fear and anxiety about what is going on that you cannot control.

Plumbing, on the other hand, is one of the few things he can control.

“If I’m working at work and the valve there isn’t working, I need to know exactly where to go to the nearest valve that will stop the water if it breaks off my hand,” he said. “So there is control when you are able to control your environment. And certainly knowing that anxiety will cripple my immune system, why not just go to work?”

He also admitted that he really can’t retire. Although Marchand is now on Medicare, 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 it.

“I’m the one with the insurance policy through a business insurance company,” he said. “If I break my cover, my wife and stepson will lose theirs.”

Help from an imaginary friend

But I still wanted to know how Marchand is dealing with what he’s about to come, with mortality itself.

For a time he had help from a voice in his head – his imaginary childhood friend. It’s the same friend who, as a three-year-old, kept him company playing with toy dump trucks, as he vividly remembers.

“My mom comes out of the house, looks at me and says, ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘My friend.’ “But there is nobody there.” ‘Yes there is. My friend is here.'”

In recent decades, Marchand stopped hearing from the boyfriend — through marriage, children, divorce, a second marriage — until shortly after his surgeon told him in a hospital recovery room that the cancer was incurable.

“And I’m lying on the bed all alone, scared to death. And who shows up? The imaginary friend,” he said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up? You’re shaking, why are you shaking?’

“‘I don’t know,'” Marchand replied. “‘I mean, the message I just got, I have no idea how much time I have left. I know I’ll never finish the projects I’ve started, all the things I’ve hoped for in my life. I only have a limited time.’

“And there’s a pause, and he’s like, ‘You don’t know this, but I’ve been with you your whole life and I’ve watched every move you make. And I can understand your concern about having to do this. But what will happen is the time will come. And I won’t let you do this alone. I will go with you.'”

Frank Marchand, a plumber from Whately, Massachusetts, works throughout the cancer treatment process.

Frank Marchand, a plumber from Whately, Massachusetts, works throughout the cancer treatment process.

But at some point, said the friend, he will leave as soon as he knows that Marchand is fine.

“‘And you have to find me. And if you find me, you will see that I have found the most beautiful beach and reserved a lounger for you.’”

Marchand told me he knew there were no real friends. It’s his own voice, his own conscience. And yet: “This experience took the weight of 20 tons off my shoulders to come to the realization that I am not immortal. And to prioritize the time I have left,” he said. “Because you don’t know how much time that is.”

When Marchand finished fixing my toilet and I was on the verge of tears myself, I wanted some sort of reassurance that the next time I needed him he would still be on the phone.

“That’s the plan,” he said with a grin. “If it rings heaven, then you have the wrong number.”

A few weeks later my radiator started leaking. And Marchand came back – hospital bracelet on his wrist, telling stories and no plans to stop.

Editor’s Note: The music used in the audio story was written by Erik Satie, arranged by Peter Blanchette, and performed by the Virtual Consort. Used with permission. @2000 Peter Blanchette