Vältteri Valkönen is a Finnish high school chemistry teacher living in the modest suburb of Kemijärvi, not that far from Helsinki. Nothing is that far from Helsinki. Shortly before his fiftieth birthday, he’s given the devastating news that he has inoperable lung cancer. In shock, he decides that he needs to do something drastic to safeguard his family’s future.
To figure out what to do, first, he takes a sauna with his brother-in-law, Henri. Henri is a cop and a good guy but after watching too many American cop movies, he’s a bit bored and frustrated with his job in low-crime Finland. For instance, police are required to obtain permission from a superior officer before shooting anyone, and for once, just, just once, Henri would love to shoot his gun like he sees in those American Wild West and Terminator movies. Blam! Blam! Blam! Henri is also good at keeping secrets and likes to take saunas, so Vältteri forgives him everything.
However, Vältteri suddenly realizes that Henri is best friends with his doctor–so he can’t tell him his secret plan to go rogue and get a second opinion by the best cancer doctor…in Sweden! Vältteri sets off alone. The school is okay with it because for each month a Finn works full time, s/he earns at least two days of annual leave–so Vältteri has time to burn. On the way to the Kemijärvi train station, he runs into his former student, Jessi. Jessi enjoyed Vältteri’s class very much and, after a stint availing himself of great unemployment benefits and basic income that sustained him while he tried to figure out his life’s plan, he is now a junior chemist with the Finnish company, Jatka Eteenpäin Pest! that is researching non-toxic extermination formulas–it’s work he loves and brings meaning to his life. He’s just returned from a conference exploring whether natural chemicals in marigolds and chrysanthemums might work to repel bedbugs.
Vältteri is feeling very alone and so he convinces Jessi to come with him. Vältteri, as a teacher, is very well paid; buying Jessi’s ticket is not a problem. Nor is crossing the border. The European Union is an open system so they don’t need visas. Also, Finland is bilingual, so they already speak Swedish. And everyone also learns English in school. This is grand!
The bad news is, the Swedish doctor concurs that it’s curtains for Vältteri (again, because the countries are all part of the EU, Vältteri doesn’t need to enter a foreign medical system). He and Jessi begin the return journey, chastened.
On the way back, at the well appointed Swedish train station, the pair grab a meal at fast food chicken place, Kyckling Bröder.
Vältteri, still a little loopy from the biopsy anesthesia, has some fun with the super-nice proprietor, Gus, telling him his name is “Heisenberg.” Gus doesn’t get it, but he politely laughs and gives the pair some lingonberry sauce for the chicken for free.
At home, Vältteri is torn whether to tell his wife, Skyler, and his son, Vältteri junior, about his condition or just let them enjoy the time they have left together. He doesn’t have to decide tonight. Vältteri junior has just started high school and is having a blast. He loves school. Who wouldn’t? Vältteri junior is a super healthy athletic kid because his mother got great maternal care (universal healthcare!) and also state-mandated maternity leave, where she and the excellent doctors were able to catch some of Vältteri junior’s congenital problems early, before they became permanent. Vältteri junior loves taking the public transportation to school and being seen walking in with his father because a teacher is a super prestigious occupation in Finland, like being a doctor or lawyer. Vältteri’s work is acknowledged to be so essential to society, his master’s degree was paid for 100% by the government!
Vältteri gets a pain pill; it’s all paid for by his universal healthcare system. He eats some herring with new potatoes that Skyler made special, some fried Lapland cheese for dessert, and goes to bed, grateful that his doctor caught this cancer early, while he’s still pretty functional, and that if he does somehow miraculously recover, his job will, by law, still be waiting for him. But, the more likely scenario is that he’ll sicken and die within a year, maybe two. However, he also knows that Skyler, with Finland’s universal pension, and structures in place so that women’s labor force participation (and pay) are at about the same rate as men’s, and also Vältteri junior, with his free first-rate education and guaranteed minimum income, will always be okay.
Camera pans out of scene of Walter lying on his back, pondering all this, as his consciousness slowly seeps away. He falls asleep with a smile.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a founder of the Asian American Writers Workshop. Her next novel is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster. Fiction has appeared the Kenyon Review, FiveChapters, TriQuarterly, Witness, Guernica and is forthcoming in Joyland. Nonfiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, New York Times, The Nation, and The Paris Review. She teaches creative writing at Columbia and is originally from Hibbing, Minnesota.