It’s Wednesday or Sunday and it might be getting close to noon because I can hear Dr. Oz promos on the television. I’m lying on the bathroom floor, staring at the pipes behind the toilet and wondering how many gallons have gone through them. I try to imagine how much water is used in one flush and how many flushes my city block goes through in a day and I try to imagine how many flushes it would take to empty the ocean.
My mother pokes her head in and asks me if I’ve taken my fish oil today and I say, “No,” and she lowers her hand to me. Ask and you shall receive. Fish oil. I stick it in my mouth, gag, drink water, gag, puke, and put the pill in the toilet. My mom says, “Can I get you anything?” and I say, “My wife.”
Jade enters a few minutes later and I say, “I want to try cannabis. If it doesn’t work and it doesn’t make a difference, then fine, I’ll stop, but these pills aren’t working and it’s all bullshit. I keep puking the anti-puking pills up and the pain in my body makes me want to stick a gun in my mouth.”
She sits down on the floor with me, pulls out her smart phone and begins punching something in. A few moments later she says, “There’s a doctor in Hollywood. We can schedule you an appointment today—” and I say, “I can just call Bernard. He’ll hook us up,” and her face goes red and she says, “Listen to me! I’m not dealing with cancer and a pot head. If we’re doing this medically then you need to be responsible about it and only take it when you need it. OK?” and I say, “Oh-kay,” and she says, “And if I ever hear you use the term wake and bake we’re done, OK?” and I say, “Yes, oh-kay,” and she hits the call button on the phone and schedules me an appointment for tomorrow early afternoon.
That night, like the last ten days, I sleep a total of forty-five minutes in scattered and broken chunks. I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and stare at the fan and smell the blankets and touch my wife’s back and sometimes I cry. I just sit in the dark, in the silence and let tears run down my face and feel sorry for myself and then I call myself a pussy and tell myself to man up. The hatred I feel for my own weakness is palpable.
I feel so alone.
The sensation of needing to stretch my legs washes over me and so I push them out but it doesn’t go away. I crunch them up to my body and then try again but still the feeling abides. This is restless leg syndrome, RLS, something I would have thought was a total joke—some new-age medical Make Believe to help sell over the counter, bottled placebos—until I had it myself and it kept me from sleeping.
I shut my eyes and the sensation washes through me and so I wiggle my toes but it just digs in deeper. I move my ankles from side to side and then roll over onto my stomach and bury my head under a pillow, my preferred method of sleep.
I’m out . . .and I’m just starting to dream . . . and then I’m awake again and the sensation is back and so I lift one leg in the air. My wife wakes up and asks, “Are you all right?” and I say, “I think I have RLS—that’s, uh—restless leg syndrome,” and then, because I think it somehow makes it more legitimate, I say, “It’s a real thing, you know,” and she says, “Uh-huh,” and then I can hear her heavy sleep-breathing again.
Finally, exhausted and angry, I stand up on restless legs and give them what they want—a short walk into the living room where I find myself craving Cinnamon Toast Crunch, one of the only things I find I can actually stomach, even in small quantities.
I pour myself a huge bowl—sixteen toasts deep—grab my copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and throw myself down in My Yellow Chair. For the next two-and-a-half hours, I skim pages, trying to fight my way to the end of Patrick Bateman’s free-flowing, psychotic narrative.
It’s the last book I’ll be able to read until The End.
Finally, hearing birds chirping outside the window, I decide to make my way back to bed, lie down, and shut my eyes. When I wake up, it’s morning and my wife is getting ready for work. She tells me that my appointment with the weed doctor is at 2:30 and she’s emailed me the address and then says, “I did some research and I think our best bet is going to be to get you a vaporizer because it’s the cleanest—cleanest, honestly—way to go. Better than joints,” and I say, “I’m fine with buying a pipe,” and she says, “JOHN, NO. Do you hear what I’m saying? It’s cleaner. It’s cleaner, whatever that means. You have lung—did you just space out?” and I say, “Yeah.”
Space out, zone out, daze out—this is what we call the absent seizures I’ve had since I was a kid. My eyes roll back in my head for a few seconds, taking me out of reality, before I suddenly snap back, aware that something strange has happened. I don’t fall down or convulse; I simply . . . blank out. I was diagnosed in seventh grade, and after literally years and years of trial and error with different seizure medications, the doctors and neurologists were finally able to peg a specific cocktail that eradicated my seizures completely without causing mood swings or stomachaches. The medication keeps them tame and at bay but they tend to make special guest appearances when I’m really tired or when I don’t take my pills. Which I haven’t because I simply throw them up. Which I am because I have RLS and haven’t been sleeping. I tell her this and she says, “Well, knock it off—start taking your pills. Why are you messing around with this?” and I say, “I PUKE. THEM. UP. I can’t swallow anything! You think I want to be spacing out like—”
“It just happened again! Take your pills!” and she storms out of the room and comes back with a pill. I take it and she leaves and I lie in bed for the next twenty minutes, trying to keep it down.
Eventually, I lose and watch the little red capsule float, half dissolved, in the toilet.
When I walk into the kitchen, my mom asks me how I slept and I say, “I think I have RLS,” and she says, “Oh, nooooo. What is that?” and I try to explain it but just give up because it sounds so stupid rolling out of my mouth.
She asks if I want any breakfast and I tell her that a 10 oz. steak and eggs would be nice. She chuckles and takes a sip of her coffee while I ask her, a traditionally conservative person, what she thinks about this “marijuana thing”. She smiles and says, “If it helps, it helps.” It’s the closest thing she’s going to say to, “Go smoke weed, dear.” I nod and smile.
The TV rolls on and on with various daytime television shows and I watch the shadows shrink on the floor as the sun shifts across the sky (or, as I go hurtling past it in space) and I think about the journey in front of me; not just the one I’m taking into Hollywood today but the whole journey, The Cancer Journey. I wonder what the next few rounds are going to do to my body. I’m already sore and depressed and weak. I try to imagine how it could possibly be worse. I feel like a cat in some animal-testing factory; locked in a cage and forced to undergo experiments until I either, ultimately, live or die.
I wonder what That Guy is doing in my edit bay at work right now, not thinking about a thing, making my money, working on my projects, sitting in my chair, eating cookies from Cookie Dave that are supposed to be mine and wondering what he’s going to eat for lunch while I eat nothing and—
Thanks to the chemo, I’m freezing everywhere I go so it’s not unusual for me to be wearing a long-sleeved thermal, then a T-shirt, then a sweater, then a light jacket with a scarf and beanie underneath a large winter parka designed for South Dakota blizzards, fuzzy hood pulled up and covering my face. I’m constantly shivering, an army of goose bumps standing at full attention around the clock like fleshy militia men, my nipples always fully erect and easily 7s on the mineral hardness scale. I live and die in these clothes. In my chair, in the car, in bed, in the hospital, this is what I’m wearing, bundled up like a baby chick in a cotton incubator.
My mom puts on a light jacket over her T-shirt and grabs her car keys while I sit in my chair, ready to take on life. As long as life doesn’t entail anything more exhausting or hazardous than sleeping. “You ready to go?” she asks and I say, “This is me. Anything that happens—this is what you get. It isn’t much but it’s all I have,” and she says, “Come off it,” and I roll off the chair and lie on the ground and say, “I want to buy a wheelchair,” but when I look up she’s already walked out the door.
We stop at a gas station to fill up and my mom asks me if I want anything. I tell her that a Yoo-hoo is sounding about right, and when she brings two out, I drink the first all in one long hit like a wino slamming a 40 of Olde E. I can’t help it; it’s just so delicious. Nothing has felt so sweet and refreshing on my palate for . . . how long?
We get on the road and I crack the second Yoo-hoo, get through half of it, and then ask her to kindly pull over the car. I open the door and puke up delicious “chocolate drink”. This activity has become so regular that my mom doesn’t even ask if I’m all right anymore. Instead she just starts flipping through radio stations, trying to find something that sounds like The Jackson 5.
I shut the door and put my seatbelt back on and just nod and she puts the car into drive and away we go. This is chemo shorthand.
Now, it should be said that my mother is not one for driving in big cities. On family vacations while growing up, it was typically my father who would sit behind the wheel, navigating us down congested freeways and through strange cities, and even now, as an adult, whenever my parents travel together, it is my dad who drives.
So, having my mother live with us for six months was going to require her to acclimate to highways and on-ramps and carpool lanes and aggressive drivers and traffic jams and tailgaters and honking and all the horrible things that come along with big cities.
She’s white knuckling the steering wheel, cruising down the 101, driving in the far right lane as slow as the law allows, cars flying past in the other four lanes and honking. “What do they want?” she asks me and I say, “I think they want you to break 45,” and she says, “I’m comfortable here,” and I say, “I’m comfortable here, as well.”
I look at my phone and read her the directions, “In three-quarters of a mile you’re going to take the Highland Boulevard exit. The road is going to sort of bend around and then force you onto Cahuenga, but it becomes Highland—here it is—just keep following that white car—see how the road—”
And then my mind and body, without warning, completely shut down.