As we drive off the ferry my wife, Cathlin Baker, turns to me and says, “Don’t mind me, I have an extreme sense of well-being.” She then proceeds to chatter and laugh, even waving occasionally to strangers in cars beside us as we wait in traffic on our way to Boston.

Cathlin has always been a glass-overflowing kind of woman, but this is a bit much even for her, especially considering we are headed to her first chemotherapy treatment. In November Cathlin was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage one, curable, but already lodged in her lymph nodes. Since then there have been two surgeries, now chemotherapy, and later more surgery and radiation looms.

Her good cheer is not denial, though, but rather a side effect of the pre-chemo drugs she has been prescribed. We laughed when we read the label on the bottle, “warning can cause an extreme sense of well-being,” and we are laughing now. It feels good to laugh, a sound that has been in short supply since this journey began.

When Cathlin first received her diagnosis I felt disconnected and mostly in denial. I did a lot of pushups and felt the urge to go hunting, something I have never done, the more primal the better. Bow hunting or better yet, just a knife and a loin cloth.

Occasionally it would hit me, though, the full force of what was happening to my wife and as suddenly as a sneeze I would break down crying with no chance of holding it back. Once, while out walking, just the smell of a certain bush, a scent that took me back to childhood, set me off. I bawled as if I were in my room alone with the shades drawn, rather than walking the streets of Edgartown on a sunny winter morning. A Fedex man, his arms full of packages, emerged from his truck. He paused and looked at me.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

Upon arriving at Massachusetts General Hospital we head to the cancer wing. I say a silent thank-you to the Yawkey family who donated this wing. Philanthropists, doctors and nurses are now the most important people in our lives. We pass a gift shop filled not with the normal hospital tchotchkes, cards and stuffed animals, but a room overflowing with fluffy hats, head scarves, and wigs, yet another reminder that we are in the major leagues here.

In the waiting room an old man pushes around a cart loaded with snacks and water. He asks everyone how they are doing and within each cluster of people determines who is the patient.

“God bless you,” he tells each one in turn. “I hope everything goes well.”

Later, while Cathlin has her blood drawn and vitals checked, I take a walk down the hallway. Tibetan prayer flags hang from the ceiling, each one inscribed with the hopeful words of a loved one.

“Stay strong Mom.” “I love Dad.” “God help us.” And my favorite: “Bring it on.”

I enter the resource room, which I have been told is a great place to find all manner of books to help me deal with what we are going through. Mostly, though, I just find a new vocabulary. Not that I didn’t know what the word cancer meant, but now it is so much more real and no longer just some abstract scary word, like a mythical bogeyman lurking far off stage.

I continue to stroll down the rows of books, noticing one called Home before Dark, which sounds promising, but then decide the resource room is not for me when I encounter another titled, When the Sun Goes Down.

Some have the luxury of dealing with cancer on their own. Because Cathlin is the minister at the West Tisbury Congregational Church we had to go public quite early and I am thankful for this. I seem to have forgotten how to cook dinner, we have had so many delicious meals cooked for us by the community. The dinners are just one of many gifts that have been showered upon us during this time.

Because everyone in the community knew we also wanted to make sure our children, Hardy, age seven, and Eirene (aka Pickle) age three, were fully aware of what was happening to Mommy.

When we first told Hardy we wanted to talk with him, he edged to the far side of the room, suspecting he was in trouble. He digested the news quickly, the word cancer not holding for him the same ring of finality it has had for earlier generations, and immediately reached for his crayons and a piece of paper. He drew a battle scene with numerous bad guy cells, oddly enough they all had mustaches, and a ray gun destroying them. Then he quickly asked to be excused to play in his tree house.

Pickle has been talking a lot lately about taking a trip to outer space.

After Cathlin’s blood work is studied to make sure her white blood cell count is sufficient, we head into the infusion room. There are three other patients in our wing, all regulars it seems, as we are the only ones to receive the welcome talk and an explanation about what is about to happen and what to expect in the coming days. Everyone from the doctors to the nurses to the receptionists is so patient and kind, it goes beyond just liking and appreciating them, we want to take them home with us.

One of the other patients is a pregnant woman, her fluffy hat a sign that her hair has already fallen out. Her husband sits next to her, working at his computer. They have the routine down.

An older man sits in the far corner talking to a woman I assume is his wife. The man looks just like the French actor, Gerard Depardieu. He also looks incredibly healthy and has a full head of hair. That’s the thing about cancer in these early stages, outwardly someone with a minor cold looks sicker.

The other woman is alone, with no one at her bedside.

At first there is only minimal contact with our neighbors. Shy smiles mostly, but as the long afternoon progresses — it will take nearly four hours to administer all the bags of chemicals via an IV drip — there is small talk. Later, a magnificent sunset floods the room with a startling array of colors. Those that can, mostly the caregivers and nurses, stand together at the window marveling at the beauty of the moment.

Many people, when they stop and ask me how I am doing, tell me that they think the spouse has it harder. I am tired and scared but I disagree. Frustration is a constant source for the caregiver, an extension of the exhaustion and helplessness that comes with not being able to make someone feel better. But this cannot compare to what the patient faces. Cathlin often stares off into space now, something she never did before, confronting, I suspect, the very nature of our fragile and finite existence. She must also walk the physical challenges alone, from the side effects of chemotherapy (the other drugs do not offer up the same warm bubble of extreme well-being), to the reality of the changes her body must undergo.

A few weeks after her first infusion her hair falls out in large clumps. The children take her hair out to the backyard as an offering to the birds for their nests. Then I take Cathlin down the road not far from where we live to Patti Lynn’s salon to get her head shaved. I stand by her side the whole time and when the shears have quieted and we fully encounter this new person looking back at us in the mirror, I declare her beautiful. And I mean this sincerely. Her bald head highlights her bright blues eyes and her smile, under normal circumstances big and welcoming as a hug, seems even larger.

But I can tell she does not believe me.

When the nurse declares there is about 45 minutes left for the last bag of chemicals, I walk outside to make a reservation at a fancy restaurant near the hospital. Cathlin has about 36 hours before she starts feeling badly from the effects of the chemotherapy. But the woman at the front desk shakes her head when I ask about tables and tells me they are full that evening. I nod slowly and perhaps she senses something because she asks, “Are you celebrating anything special tonight?”

“The end of my wife’s first chemotherapy infusion,” I say.

The woman, who I later discover is a nurse in training, looks away briefly then turns back to me.

“There will be a table waiting for whatever time you choose, sir.”