She viewed them as the harshest strokes devised by the Romans: angled lines gashed into stone with a minimal number of blows, figures designed with the indelicate elegance offered by a mallet pounding on a chisel. The first stood upright alone, the succeeding two were slanted at opposite inclinations with their vertex at the bottom. The three strokes that formed the number cast before her commanded it to exist without subtlety: IV. On none of her medical charts, records or other documents had she seen the current stage of her cancer represented by the numeral 4.
Stationed in a white-walled room, she wondered about the experts who had decided the crude markings of archaic tally sticks offered the most fitting symbol to denote the fourth level of such a brutal, ruining beast. They must have concluded that the slender Hindu-Arabic lines and curves gracing so much of modern Western civilization weren't up to the task.
Poisons dripped into her body while she sat in a padded chair. Words sharing Greek and Latin origins roiled through her mind and tattooed themselves onto her cells: metastatic, metastasis. Which language should she use and what root should she select to define each term, to make sense of their demands for submission? "To stand across?" "To move over?" She decided upon "beyond rest."
Supplementing the linguistic puzzle was the fact that so much of her treatment required an infusion from another representation of the Roman four, this one embracing the initial letters directly from the bloodthirsty Latin phrase intra venous. She recalled the tetraphobia of the Chinese. Wasn't four their most unlucky number, the very sound of its name a homophone for death? She saw Roman fours everywhere, and she was all too aware she would be offered no future access to a Stage V. She knew where that downward pointing caret led, and the solitude of the I missing before it remained as distinct as Martin Buber's.
She couldn't resist viewing her current situation as the terminus of a perverse numerical progression in which each previous increment offered joy while this final one provided only obliteration. Her husband twinned the sense of oneness that had overwhelmed her upon the loss of her parents, their adopted daughter comprised the third that redefined her family, and now all was dashed upon a fourth step that directed her return to solitude.
Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy... therapeia by its definition promised curing and healing, but for her there would be no benign outcome ahead. It added to her frustration that entire vocabularies, beyond their individual words, now failed to suffice.
Trained to analyze idioms from multiple perspectives, she was experiencing the unforeseen result of a lifetime spent studying ancient languages and ethnologies. Assessing the symbols on the equipment in the treatment room, she reweighed the values of Aegean and Attic numerals and tossed them aside for their lost isopsephy. Her reckoning now forced to focus on numbers that moved beyond counting, she totaled her teachers and her students, and factored her husband and daughter into an equation that kept its unknown variable so well-protected no "golden ratio" could admit to a solution.