Here begins PART 3 of our journey.
It is a great and long chapter and a massive turning point in our tale.
“It’s the end of the word as we know it, and I feel . . . ”
Dr. Odegaard, the GP who had made my very first “there is definitely a lump” diagnosis some 30 days ago (yes, ALL OF THIS, has happened in one month) and had recommended me to Dr. Honda, my urologist, has now recommended an oncologist for me to meet with at White Memorial Hospital in downtown Los Angeles.
My wife and I enter the hospital and find that the main lobby is under construction and is being poorly partitioned. Dust and specks of insulation and dirt and cement and broken tile lie about and float in the air. It’s less hospital and more third-world-country-post-war-zone chic. I ask the receptionist where I should be, and she directs me to an elevator that looks as though it were designed and installed at the turn of the century and hasn’t had a maintenance check since. Upon exiting my floor I find red (blood/rust/chemical/vomit/paint??) stains on the carpet and water stains on the ceiling.
All hospitals are not created equal.
I enter the waiting room, and the very first thing I notice is that there are patients everywhere; all the chairs packed, people standing and sitting on the floor, nearly stepping on one another, two and three deep and I just keep thinking, “There are so many. So many sick people. There aren’t enough doctors here.” And while I focus on this weird ratio of patients to professionals, I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . .
An hour past my appointment time, I approach the window and ask for an ETA on my “reservation” and they tell me that they’re running about 90 minutes behind schedule. I ask if a doctor got sick and the receptionist says, “No,” and I ask, “Is this pretty standard?” and she sort of gives me a shy I’m-not-supposed-to-say-this type smile and it’s enough of an answer for me. I sit back in my chair and mumble angrily to myself and wish there were some sort of air freshener in this room because it’s starting to smell like body sweat.
Thirty minutes later, they call my name—“Mr. Brootbagk”—and lead me like a lamb to the slaughter (you know the feeling), and once I get into the doctor’s exam room I wait more and more and more, and it’s not the kind of waiting that one expects in a doctor’s office. It is the endless abyss of waiting where time stretches on indefinitely and seconds become hours and you wonder if the doctor is just enjoying a ham sandwich in the break room.
The door finally opens and someone enters. A young man. A doctor. He sits down and calls me the wrong name, I correct him, at which point he realizes he’s in the incorrect room. Leaves. We wait. A second doctor enters. Asks me two questions, and gets my name right. Excuses himself. We wait. We wait. We wait. A third doctor enters. He sits down and asks me what my name is and what I’m doing here. He has no folder, no information on us or my surgery or background. He’s just winging it off the cuff, I guess. He exits. He returns with our folder.
The doctor tells me that I have stage 2 cancer. He tells me they biopsied my testicle (put it in a blender and looked at the goop under a microscope). He tells me that there are two different kinds of cancer; there is nonseminoma and there is just plain old seminoma and that I have the first. I take a deep breath, relieved, because clearly, “non” is always better. He sighs and says, “Nonseminoma is actually the more aggressive of the two,” and now, every comedic deflection I have is being ground out of me and my lip begins to quiver and I still don’t understand why this is happening. He tells me, “Nonseminoma breaks down into four categories and you also have the most aggressive of the four.”
I say, “The most aggressive of the most aggressive . . . ” and he says, “Yes,” and my hand has turned purple and then white from Jade squeezing it and I look over and see that she has mascara and tears streaming down her cheeks and her eyes are red and her face is puffy and I feel like I’m going to pass out but manage to say, “So . . . what . . . does that . . . mean?” And I say this because . . . what else do you say? How else do you respond? Someone tells you that you have some of the most aggressive cancer on Earth and—
The doctor says, “I’d like to admit you today, right now. I’d like you to start chemotherapy,” and my breath catches in my throat because now I am a Cancer Patient. More visions of ghostly bald kids with hollow eyes shoot through my brain and images of me hiding somewhere in the crowd with my IV, pulling it sadly behind me. I ask the doctor, “But . . . my job. I work tomorr—” and before I’m even done with my sentence he’s shaking his head. “No. You’re not. You won’t work again until this is over,” and I say, “But I can work. I can make it work—they’re cool with my schedule,” and he says, “No. You won’t work. You won’t read. You won’t watch TV. I just want to be very transparent with you about this—I’ve seen this take men in the military down to . . . nothing,” and I just keep thinking, “Why is he telling me this? Why is he saying these things?” and me, grabbing at straws, trying to make ends meet, throwing myself at any possible outcome that doesn’t involve chemotherapy, say, “Dr. Honda—he says he wants to pull out my lymph nodes! Cut me open from gullet to groin and pluck pluck pluck! We can just do that!” because, in my head, surgery is not as serious as chemotherapy. Surgery is manageable and understandable and considerably more familiar ground but the doctor says, “No. It’s . . . . That’s not possible. The cancer is too aggressive and it’s moving fast. We have to just get you into chemotherapy as soon as possible and try to kill it—” (me) “—that way. It’s our best shot. Surgery will just delay it and, ultimately, you’ll still have to undergo chemo just to make sure.”
My wife is still crying and he says, “I’ll get the paperwork,” and I say, “No,” and the doctor says, “What’s that now?” and I say, “No. We’re not checking in here.”
And we rise up and we leave, pushing blindly through walls and walls and walls made of patients on standby.
In the car, we call Dr. Honda, our urologist who had suggested pulling out my lymph nodes, and we tell him about our experience at White Memorial. I tell him about the floors and the ceiling and the dust and the dirt and the waiting and the missing files and the three doctors and all the people just standing there and I say, “I can’t do that. I can’t leave my life in the hands of those people. I just . . . . If I have to do chemotherapy, fine, I have to do it but you make sure I have to do it and please, please, please, just put me somewhere else. I don’t trust them.”
We hang up the phone and it immediately rings with an unrecognized number. Curiosity wins out and my wife clicks it open while I drive. “Hello?” she says.
It’s the doctor from White Memorial.
“Please,” he says, “I can’t stress this enough. You must check in somewhere today. You must begin treatment today. Your disease is so aggressive—” (There’s that word again, like a mad dog or a cage fighter or an acid: aggressive.) “—it’s not something to mess around with. Just . . . please.” And then, “Why don’t you come back? I can be your oncologist.” At first he sounded like he was genuinely pleading my case and then it sounded like he was freshly employed, and needed the experience under his belt and so my wife tells him, in the politest way possible, that his hospital reminded us of any number of post-apocalyptic movies.
There’s a pause on the phone and the doctor speaks again, softer. He says, “I understand. Fine. But please, listen to me. Listen. Don’t mess around with this. I don’t care where you go, just . . . go. Go somewhere. Go there now and check in,” and my wife says, “Thank you,” and hangs up and neither of us says anything but we both recognize something so desperate in his voice that we each have to wonder just what it is we’re dealing with here.
We know it’s bad but . . . how bad? How aggressive?
Several days later, my wife and I are finally sitting in front of Dr. Honda and, yes, I know the last doctor said we needed to check in ASAP, but the truth is, there are channels one must go through and sometimes those channels are clogged by other patients that are not you and you must simply . . . wait.
And that’s Cancer: waiting. Waiting in doctor’s offices, waiting in exam rooms, waiting in waiting rooms slowly, waiting, dying, healing hopefully, but dying and fearing and waiting.
“Cancer markers,” Dr. Honda says and all I can picture is children with thick black markers coloring the walls of a classroom in living venom slime, the dark goo dripping down and running everywhere, growing and attaching to anything with DNA.
“Cancer markers are in your blood. They let us know how much cancer you have. A normal, healthy, cancer-free person would have zero.” I say, “OK,” because the math seems to make sense. He tells me that previous to my surgery they did a blood test and my cancer markers were at 32 and I say, “What?! Thirty-two out of what?! Is that high?!” And he says, “Higher than it should be. Mine is zero,” and I shrug because this, too, is sound logic.
He tells me that two days after surgery, my numbers hit 619 and my jaw drops to the floor and my teeth fall out and the doctor says, “Today you hit 900,” and now my breathing is shallow and my tongue is dry and everything is blurry and I don’t know if I’m crying or if my eyeballs are just dry or if I’m getting faint, but I do the quick math and realize that I now have roughly 30 times the amount of cancer I had a couple days ago when I still had a bawl. The doctor at the Ghetto Hospital’s voice suddenly rings through my head, and I hear all his desperation with new ears.
I hear that word.
Dr. Honda says, “We need to check you in somewhere,” and, making a personal suggestion, he says a good friend of his is an oncologist at Arcadia Methodist. He says it’ll be a far drive but— And we don’t let him finish the thought. We love him so much that anything he says is Gospel. If he likes the doctor, we like the doctor. We take his word for it and make a bee-line for the place, site unseen.
An hour later, in the parking lot of the hospital, my wife snaps a photo of me standing in front of the monolithic building – a soft, four-story cube. I’m staring directly into the camera with the fullest beard I can grow, a large smile and a full, confident face. It’s the last time I’ll see that expression for some time. I’m sporting aviator sunglasses, hair, and hope but I’ll slowly lose all three of them before long.
WARNING: Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. This trip is about to get bumpy.
*** *** *** *** ***
We walk through the doors and immediately I see the clean, white, sterile, horrible hospital. Even the best hospitals are horrible and hideous and terrible. Even the cleanest and purest and friendliest are hateful places, filled with the sick and the dead and dying. The smell of cleaning supplies masking the stench of vomit hits my nose. The smell of rubbing alcohol and latex and linen mixes with powdered mashed potatoes and powdered scrambled eggs and powdered milk. All roads have led to here. This is the trajectory my entire life has been on, like a rocket aimed at the moon. Houston, we have contact.
I know that I have a long fight in front of me and, although I’m happy to be getting started, I do wish I were instead at home or at work or, really, anywhere. But instead I’m here, in this elevator . . . and now in this hallway . . . and now in this room that will be my home for the next eight days.
I undress, put on the gown, and set my personal belongings on a small shelf. On a table next to the bed, I place a novel I won’t open; my iPod, which I will barely turn on; and my journal, which has served as the skeleton and fact checker for this book; journals that I’m eternally thankful for because my brain is about to turn into something slightly softer than Jell-O, something slightly less formless than a raw egg. This is your brain—this is your brain on chemo.
The nurse enters with the IV and my knees lock and my heart speeds up and my forehead starts to sweat and she tells me to lie down. I don’t bother fighting it but I tell her how afraid I am and every time, every needle, it never gets easier, it just gets worse and worse and worse. My wife holds my hand and rubs the back of my palms with her thumb and my toes wiggle and I feel the metallic stick slide into my arm and fish around and I’m not breathing and then it’s done and she says I can release my fist. She applies some tape and tells me to relax and says that she’ll be back in a little bit and now it begins.
I look at the IV pole to my left and I am One of Them. I am a Cancer Patient.
My wife turns on a reality TV show and I try to write in my journal while not upsetting my IV in any fashion, so afraid that it’s going to get caught on something and yank out. The TV goes to commercial break just as a man enters the room and tells me they want to do a CAT scan on me and at this point I’m just a sack of potatoes, their puppet, to push around and wheel back and forth and poke and prod and maneuver in any way they see fit, so I say, “OK,” and my wife keeps watching a show where a family has eighteen kids and I can’t have any.
The giant Mechanical Donut is down in the basement of the hospital and the room is run by two guys who look like they drink lots of beer while consuming pharmaceuticals that they steal from work. They both have tattoos on their arms and long hair, and honestly, it’s kind of nice to talk to two people who aren’t “doctors” or “nurses” or “hospital staff” but just “dudes.” I ask them how long they’ve been working here and what they want to be doing long term and they ask me what I’ve got and what I’m doing and they’re pretty impressed with my weird story about cancer and they tell me about how they once gave David Hasselhoff a CAT scan.
The bed shifts and moves and pulls me into the donut and the same female robot from the first hospital (different donut) says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” I do and I turn my head to the left, trying to relax. On the wall is a motivational poster with a photo of a stream and the caption: IN THE BATTLE BETWEEN WATER AND THE ROCK, THE WATER WILL ALWAYS WIN. NOT BECAUSE OF STRENGTH, BUT BECAUSE OF PERSISTENCE. I look back at the ceiling and try to decide if I find this cheesy or poignant or both. The stoner guy says, “Here comes the dye,” and I feel like I just pissed my pants.
The David Hasselhoff guy wheels me back to my room and wishes me luck and I still think about him often. I wonder if he’s still working next to that Mechanical Donut and I wonder how many times he’s told his David Hasselhoff story and I wonder if he’s ever met David Hasselhoff again.
My wife asks me if everything went well and I sort of shrug and say, “I think I still have cancer but . . . the machine didn’t blow up whilst I was inside of it, if that’s what you’re asking,” and she says, “Good,” and then turns her attention back to the TV, where a sweaty woman is giving birth and screaming.
I pick up my cell phone, an old Motorola Razor (you know it’s badass because it’s named after a blade) and call my mom. She says, “Hi, sweetie! How is your daaaay!?” and again, I just want to reiterate that I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t planning on sleeping in a hospital tonight. It wasn’t marked on my calendar. So you can see the loaded question here. “Well, uh . . . ” I say, “I’m doing good. Sort of. I’m, uh, my cancer is back,” and there’s silence on the phone and then quiet crying. I say, “I’m in the hospital right now,” and panic is setting in with her, “Are you OK? What’s wrong?” and I say, “I’m, uh, I’m getting chemotherapy,” and there’s more quiet crying and I hear my dad in the background ask what’s wrong and he takes the phone and he says, “Hello?” and I say, “It’s me,” and he says, “Oh. What’s wrong?” and I say, “Nothing’s wrong, I mean . . . yeah. I’m in the hospital. I’m getting chemotherapy. My cancer is back—or—it never left, I guess. They didn’t get it all. I’ll be here for a while— I’ll be here for a week. About eight days,” and my dad says, “We’re coming out.”
A few hours later an old man enters my room pushing a cart that smells like cafeteria food. He places a tray on my bedside table and says, “Bon appetit!” and then vanishes. Because I haven’t eaten since previous to my appointment with Dr. Honda, my stomach is grumbling and I don’t care what’s under that plate cover, it’s going in mouth and down my throat. I lift up the warm lid and there is absolutely no amount of money that would sway me into placing that food on my tongue. The menu would probably call it “meatloaf” but I would call it “gunk at back of fridge mashed into patty formation.” The fact that it’s swimming in powdered gravy doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that the powdered gravy is the consistency of snot. I ask Jade if she wants any and she says, “Uh, no, thank you,” and then I say, “I dare you to take a bite of this meatloaf,” and she says, “No,” and I say, “No, seriously. What would it take for you to take a bite of this meatloaf?” and she says, “A one-hour back rub,” and I say, “OK. Fine,” because I really want to see her gag. She looks at the plate and then, reconsidering, “I can’t do it.”
I put the lid back on the tray and scoot the entire table toward the door where the smell is least offensive while my wife leaves to purchase us Panda Express.
She’s gone for about forty-five minutes while I just sit in the room, alone, reflecting, and I will soon find out that this is one of the biggest problems with cancer. When you can’t do anything, all you can do is dwell on yourself, your problem, your condition.
It’s not so bad right now and my attitude is pretty good and I’m certain it’s just going to be like getting the flu and that doctor didn’t know what he was talking about when he said that it would shut me down. I’m not a robot.
People walk by in the hallway and there is a general background noise happening out there—talking and footsteps and intercoms and beeping. And so I get up and shut the door and turn on the TV but can’t find anything to watch so I put in my earphones and think of Ben (Folds) and wonder what he’s doing right now—some guy somewhere that has no idea where I am, what I’m doing. He’s playing a show, punching his piano, and signing autographs and here I am, remembering him while I drown out everything else.
I open my eyes and Jade is standing in the room, staring at me, a big white bag of fast food in her hands. She says, “Dinner bell,” and I sit up while she sits at the foot of the bed. She pulls over the coffee table, which is now empty—I assume someone came in and took the “food” while my eyes were closed—and we eat dinner, we watch TV, we talk, and we wonder when The Chemotherapy will begin.
Eight o’clock rolls around and still no drugs so I hit my buzzer and a nurse enters who has a very sweet face and I ask her when I’ll be starting my “thing” and she tells me, “Tomorrow, in the morning,” and I smile and nod my head and am not sure if this is good news or bad news or indifferent news. The nurse leaves and Jade snuggles up next to me. There is a cot in the room but we don’t use it. That night the two of us just crush our bodies together in a platonic, nonsexual, but still really desperately needy way and sleep in very broken segments, two kids that are stupid and lost and scared.
*** *** *** *** ***
In the morning, the old man serves us “eggs” and “bacon” and “toast” but the only thing either of us consumes is the “fruit.” Neither of us are big breakfast eaters nor fans of food that tastes like someone’s vinegar-soaked jock strap.
There’s another reality show on TV and I think this one might be about wedding disasters and the victims therein. Sigh, tragedy. My wife is locked on, saying, “What! Shut . . . up . . . What?” and then the nurse who gave me my IV yesterday is back but she’s wearing a full hazmat suit over her regular nurse get-up and she has on a face mask and gloves and she carries a dark bag that’s covered in plastic.
I ask, “What is . . . that?” but I already know the answer. She says, “This is bleomycin; it’s the first of four medicines you’ll be receiving today.”
Medicine. Boy, we’re really throwing that word around, aren’t we? I imagine that in the future, people will say, “Can you believe they used to give patients chemo??? They poisoned them to cure them—how savage! Luckily, the scientists have found the cure for cancer in oil. Too bad we used it all driving our SUVs with only one person in the car and now the polar bears are all dead because of global warming! Hip-hip-hooray! The future really is a brighter place. But only because the atmosphere has finally dissolved and the sun is now shining directly onto our reddened, burnt skin! Yay for technology! Yay!
I unconsciously slide away from the IV pole, trying to put distance between us and I say, “Why is it in two bags?” and the nurse says, “So if it leaks it doesn’t spill,” and I say, “And why are you dressed like that?” and she says, “So in case it spills it doesn’t get on my skin,” and I say, “And where is that going?” and she says, “Into your IV,” and I swallow hard.
She hangs the bag upside down and allows gravity to do what it does best. She plugs a tube into one of my ports and turns a small dial with her thumb. I watch the liquid drip-drip-drop from the bag and race toward my arm and I hold my breath. Here it comes. Here it is. And I say, in a strained voice, “Will this hurt?” and the nurse says, “No,” but I don’t believe her. The clear liquid enters my body and she’s right. I don’t feel anything.
She tells me she’ll be back in about two hours and then leaves. Jade turns from the TV and sits down next to me on the bed and we both watch each little drop race down into my body and my wife says, “Each drop is you getting better. We’ll be OK.”