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

I knew I wanted to do a story on my plumber, Frank Marchand, when he first showed up to my house for a job wearing a hospital bracelet.

It turns out he was just back from a chemotherapy appointment for colon cancer. When I apologized for asking him to work in those circumstances, he assured me there was nowhere he’d rather be.

Clearly, Marchand understood instinctually what oncologists often advise their patients: stick to your usual routines when going through cancer treatment, because the familiarity might help you relax and not ruminate on what comes next.

In fact, aside from a few breaks for surgery, Marchand, of Whately, Massachusetts, hasn’t taken time off throughout his ongoing treatment.

So the next time I called him — to figure out why my toilet tank was leaking — I asked if I could bring out my tape recorder.

‘I know where all the tubes connect’

As he talked, he sat on the floor of my bathroom, tightening the bolts at the base of the water tank. His hair went down to his shoulders; his clothing hung loosely on his tall, thin frame.

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

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

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

By now, he’s had two major surgeries and 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.’”

Plumber Frank Marchand, of Whately, Massachusetts, takes off his hospital bracelet while working a job. He had just come from a chemotherapy appointment.
Karen Brown
Plumber Frank Marchand, of Whately, Massachusetts, takes off his hospital bracelet while working a job. He had just come from a chemotherapy appointment.

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 doesn't 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

But 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.’”

Plumber Frank Marchand of Whately, Massachusetts, is working throughout cancer treatment.
Karen Brown
Plumber Frank Marchand of Whately, Massachusetts, is working throughout cancer treatment.

Yet eventually, the friend said, once he knows Marchand is OK, he will leave.

“‘And you have to find me. And when you do find me, you'll see that I found the nicest beach and 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 know how much time that is.”

When Marchand was done fixing my toilet, and 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 no plans to stop.

Editor's note: Music used in the audio story was written by Erik Satie, arranged by Peter Blanchette, and performed by the Virtual Consort. Used by permission. @2000 Peter Blanchette

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.