Call Me Jack


Call Me Jack



            “It’s likely cancer.”  

            I look at Jack. He looks at me. I’m sure the doctor has said this thousands of times, but it’s our first time hearing it. Also a first, we don’t have words for each other: nothing loving, nothing funny, nothing angry, nothing argumentative. 

            Ours is an unexpected love story. He swept me from my single childless life into his whirlwind of kids, grandkids, ex-wives, and extended family in Canada and Europe. Despite his age— now 64 and 15 years my senior—and unhealthy eating habits, in our six years together, it’s lung cancer that I’ve feared.

            We’re at the top of a cliff, hand in hand, blindfolded, and waiting to be told which direction to jump. I have never felt so helpless.


            Earlier this morning, we arrived at Toronto General Hospital to see Dr. Kasia Czarnecka at the Thoracic Clinic. I was anxious; Jack was laughing. “Can you believe? Her assistant calls her ‘Ka-Sigh-a’,”  exaggerating the incorrect pronunciation of a Polish name properly pronounced “Kasha” with a short “a.”  

            Bored with mocking, Jack looked around. “I’ve been here. There’s a fridge there.” He pointed behind the counter. These staff didn’t recognize him but many do when we go places. Sometimes he greets people by name. His appliance service business has taken him around the city, his charm leaving its imprint.

            We were ushered into an exam room and a nurse arrived to take Jack’s vitals. As the nurse recorded things, so did I. 

               Temp normal

               Heart rate normal

               Oxygen normal

Blood pressure proved challenging; the cuff was not working. 

            “I’ll fix that,” Jack said, brandishing his pocketknife.

            “Don’t!” The nurse spoke too late. Grinning, Jack had lopped the end off the hose and was ready to splice it to fix a kink. The horrified nurse stopped him. Jack sat like a chastened child, annoyed she’d interrupted him from showing what he does best - fix things. 

            I remember our first meeting.


            “Call me Jack,” he said, entering my condo, toolbox in hand.  

            “Is that your name?” I asked.

            “No. Canadians can’t pronounce it.” 

            “Try me.” I might as well chat to him. “Kitchen’s here.  Fridge makes a weird noise. Want coffee?”

            “What weird noise? Banging? Humming? Stays cold? It’s Jacek,” he said, already pulling things out of my over-the-fridge freezer: butter, cheese-filled tortellini, a bag of peas, coffee beans, half a loaf of multigrain. “No coffee, thanks,” he replied as an afterthought. “Had one in truck.”

            “Cold, yes, but it’s sorta banging - never stops. Ya-sick.” I repeated slowly, rolling the word around in my mouth.

            “No. Watch my mouth.” He looked at me and said his name again. Turning back to the fridge, the bottle of vodka caught his eye and he turned to catch mine, his blue eyes probing and playful. He pointed knowingly to the bottle, setting it on my counter. 

            I smiled back at the vodka gesture. “Yat-sick,” I tried again, slower and louder, hoping to match the way he said it. Suddenly, I wanted to impress him. “How do you spell it?” I asked, looking for a clue.

            “Better. Not right.” He shrugged. “It’s J - A - C - E - K. Doesn’t matter. Call me Jack.”

            “Where are you from?” The space between us suddenly sparkled with unexpected spirit.

            Freezer empty, he rummaged in his toolbox, mumbling, “need screwdriver.” Locating one, he popped the cover off the fan in the freezer floor.  

            “Three guesses,” he replied, definitely flirting, glancing at me and back to the freezer.

            Before I could answer, he pronounced, “Yup, fan’s fucked. How old?” He pointed at my cheap fridge.

            “Two years and about two days.” I looked at his hands, strong and confident in their work.

            We both laughed. Warranty expired, I was on the hook for this repair.  

            “Don’t know. Russian?” I’m bad at accents and felt like an idiot but wanted to please him. The brushcut and moustache pointed to that part of the world.

            “No!” Decisive, a bit angry. He switched to our other conversation: “I brought fan. They break.”

            “Great,” I replied, worried I’d offended though. His colouring was dark so I took another stab at the origin. “Israeli?” 

            “No!” His full lips parted as he smiled. He’d heard this guess before. He slipped the new fan in and screwed the cover back.

            “Greek!” Feeling very silly now but saying it emphatically. But really, could someone look and sound Russian, Israeli, and Greek?

            “No. That’s three. If you like, wipe before putting food back.” He pointed at the empty freezer, with smears of tomato sauce, ice chips, and loose peas. He stepped out of the kitchen, clearly expecting me to clean it. 

            I suppressed the urge to say, “I’ll get it later.” Or truthfully, “the cleaning lady will get it one day, I’m sure.” I pushed myself off my perch on the sofa arm and moved to the sink, dampened the dishrag, and grudgingly started washing away two years of freezer detritus. I felt the heat of the cloth against the still-cold freezer wall. 

            “Just learned ‘if you like’ from your voice-mail. I like it.”

            “Oh,” I replied, flattered, impressed he enjoyed picking up some of the language, wondering what else he learned in our back and forth to book this appointment. Had I learned anything? “It’s a good expression.” Not sure what more to say, I reverted to the other conversation. “Where are you from? I need to know.”

            “Poland,” saying it proudly.

            “Really?” He was olive-skinned and his salt and pepper hair was once dark. I didn’t know any Poles but weren’t they all blonde? “Clean enough.” I began reloading the freezer. When I slid the vodka inside I noticed its label. “Hey, this is Polish!” I looked at him.

            He beamed back.

            I reclaimed my spot on the couch arm. He returned the screwdriver to the toolbox. “You want?” proffering the dead fan.

            “Toss it,” pointing to the tiny garbage can, perfect for a single woman who frequently dined out. 

            He reached down to open the lid. The pockets of his jeans were unexpectedly embroidered with gold thread with a flap and button. He must be what - 10, 15 years older than I am? I was intrigued. His bum was cute.

            “Came to Canada in 1986,” he said. “Wife Number One and I divorced. My sister and uncle were here. I came for holiday and stayed. I’m citizen now.” It was an important proclamation.

            “Wow! Was it a tough adjustment?” imagining how different Canada would have been from Poland. 


            “Was it hard to get used to living here?” rephrasing to not stump him. Poland hadn’t liberalized then, right? Shit. I regretted being busy in the 80s going to high school, not following Polish politics. I reached for some history: “That was during the solidarity movement, right? Lech Walesa?” He looked confused. I butchered the name twice more before he recognized it.

            “Oh!’Vawensa,’” pronouncing the second syllable nasally - nearly a French ‘en’. “Fucking idiot.” I hoped he didn’t mean me. “Electrician on docks in Gdańsk. Puppet for movement.” And he was off, weaving easily through topics: Polish politics, the Communist Party, solidarity, Catholicism, and how things were going to hell in a hand basket back home. I didn’t want miss any of it. I struggled with his accent and syntax, but his vocabulary was impressive. He was smart - and fascinating.  

            I waited for a break in the flow: “Do you go to Poland much?”

            “Every year. Mother’s still alive. And my oldest son is there. Doctor of osteopathy,” he said proudly. “My next son is in London, sells Harleys. Could sell anything to anyone.” More pride. “Have two kids from second settlement in Canada. Daughter, Alexa, works. My youngest monkey, Tomek, is in high school. They live with me.” He clearly loved his kids.

            What a funny use of ‘settlement.’ He must mean ‘marriage’, I thought. Finding my way through his brand of English is fun.

            “Two grandchildren,” shaking his head at all this progeny.  “Going to divorce number two. No lawyer this time. Took all money in first divorce. Lawyers are greedy.” He took a breath and turned to face me: “Know what ‘lawyer’ means?” He was eager to see me react to the joke. “Loyal liar,” chuckling at wordplay in his second language. 

            I smiled.

            “We bought house in Brampton. Mistake. Didn’t get along for years before we bought it. I love house. Built gazebo, have garden,” his face brightening about achieving the Canadian dream of homeownership. “I sleep in basement. She has bedroom.” 

            “Ah,” I replied, not sure the right response.

            Jack rifled through his toolbox. “Shit, I forgot invoice. Might be in truck,” he said, neither surprised nor concerned. “I write on card and mail you invoice.” He pulled the contents out of his front jeans pocket: a lighter, a washer, a pocket knife, two dimes, and a pen. “Parts department,” he quipped, selecting the pen and shoving the rest back into his pants. He took a dog-eared card from his shirt pocket and wrote on the back:

FAN $45

HST $18.85

TOTAL: $163.85

            “People can’t do math in their heads,” he remarked. He silently added “CELL: 416-917-9997.” I watched his hand closely, its strong stubby fingers, clean, well-cut nails, dark nicotine stains. “Eighty percent of people are idiots.” He said it as if it were fact. Funny, I often agreed but would not typically say it. I was relieved he was not pushing me into a cash deal. (And the mobile number!) I pulled out my chequebook.

            “To Accord Appliance Service Centre. You like name? I picked it for reason it is at beginning of appliance repair in yellow pages. No yellow pages now. No Perly’s either.” I knew the reference to the old Toronto map book, although many wouldn’t. He was off on another tangent about changes during his time in Canada. His brain travelled quickly and in many directions at once, challenging me to keep up. Not boring like men I’d met online. 

            At the door, he shook my hand, saying: “You didn’t say what you do for living?” 

            “I’m a lawyer,” I replied, taking my hand from his, warm to the touch. I closed the door. My heart rate was up and I hoped the door would open again for him soon.

            Minutes later, he called. I didn’t answer, too busy on the phone reporting this encounter to a friend. “It’s Jack. Sorry about lawyer comment,” he said on my voicemail and hung up.

            That week, I mentally replayed the service call many times, wondering about its potential. The next Saturday, I left a message on his mobile: “My vodka is chilled now.  Want to celebrate with me?” I hoped he’d catch the reference back to the bottle in my freezer. I used my most flirtatious, carefully rehearsed voice, then hung up. Would the spark catch? 

            It did!


            I wasn’t surprised when Jack tried to fix hospital equipment 10 minutes ago. Also not surprised by Kasia’s words: “It’s likely cancer.”   

            She’s showing us a diagram of the chest. “Could be worse -  its only one spot in the lung and two lymph nodes and theyre all on one side of the body.

            “Anything else it might be?” I ask hopefully.


            “What’s next?”

            “I’ll book an MRI and a biopsy and refer Jack to the lung clinic at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. They’ll have treatment options.” Kasia continues, unprompted,Id say Jack has a 20% chance of full recovery. Given the location of the spots, surgery is not likely an option. My guess is theyll treat it with chemo and radiation. Beyond that, I cant say.” 

            She then starts to speak Polish. Jack waves her to stop. English is fine,he says.  I want Celia to hear what I hear.I smile at him, grateful for his concern. The magnet between us strengthens.


 Celia Chandler

Celia Chandler lives in Toronto where she spent COVID exploring her love for writing, so much so she quit lawyering. Her writing has appeared in where she won a Canadian Online Publishing Award for her series on her husband’s medically assisted death. Celia has been shortlisted three consecutive times for her submissions to the Wild Atlantic Writers Awards contests. She’s taken courses, attended festivals, and talked with fellow memoirists all by Zoom but resolves to be in-person with other writers in 2023! Read her blog about grief, medically assisted death, pets, and life here:


  1. a solid read. thanks.

    1. Thank you, Cassie. I appreciate you reading my piece. Celia

  2. Is it possible to laugh and cry at the same time? Most definitely. This instalment did not disappoint. It was my morning salve, despite stirring feelings of sadness for the loss something beautiful. Yet evoking the warmth of a love story that goes on. Love survives death through memories shared. This is a memoir of lives fully lived, with the excitement of a roller coaster. Ups and downs that fill the heart. A good way to start the day, thank you.

    1. Thank you. Those are kind words. Celia

  3. Oh Celia! What a beautiful piece. So lively, provocative, and poignant all at the same time.

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