When I wake up, the first thing I notice is a group of trees in the distance, far away and small. Maybe pines? The second thing I notice are innumerable cars racing back and forth between myself and the trees. The third thing I notice is a man I’ve never seen before hovering over me in a blue suit. He’s holding my shoulder and telling me to relax.
I breathe slowly and deliberately and try to look around. Standing on the sidewalk is my mother, her eyes red and glassy, her hands shaking; another, slightly heavier man, stands next to the first, also wearing a blue suit—no, not a suit. A uniform. I turn my head and see a red truck—an ambulance. Paramedics.
The man with his hand on my shoulder tells me to take it easy and to have a seat and I see for the first time that the heavy man has a wheelchair. I get out of the car—Whose car is this?—and sit in the wheelchair—How did I get here?—and the heavy man kicks a switch and the wheelchair reclines and the feet kick out and, just like that, I’m on a stretcher.
I have no idea where I am or why. I have no idea where I was going or where I was coming from or what happened to me in between the two and it isn’t until this very moment that I remember that I don’t remember anything. My past is abyss; just blank space that rolls into the horizon.
The men push me into the back of the ambulance and I say, “What’s—I’m sorry—what’s happening?” and the main paramedic, crawling in behind me says, “You had a grand mal seizure, and your mom called 911. Can you tell me what year it is?” and I say, “2001,” and he says, “OK, it’s 2008, Johnny,” and I cock my head to the side feeling as though I’ve had nearly a decade of time stolen away from me. Where have I been? What was lost? And he says, “Can you tell me who the president is?” and I say, “Bush—President George Bush,” and the paramedic says nothing, so I say, “Am I right?” and he says, “The President is Barack Obama,” and I shut my eyes. What is happening to my brain? Don’t take my brain! Don’t take my brain! It’s all I have! My nuts are gone, my health is gone, my HAIR is gone! Leave my brain!
He says, “Do you know where you live?” and I stare at the paramedic . . . and then I look out the back doors . . . and I hold my breath, feeling like if I just buy some time I can find the answer. If I just have a moment to rummage around in my memory banks I can pull it up and then they’ll know that I’m not as sick as they think; this was all just a mistake. I know it’s there, the information, somewhere. I sigh and say, “Somewhere . . . in the Valley . . . ” and he says, “Do you know who your wife is?” and I say with complete confidence, “Jade Brookbank. My wife’s name is Jade Brookbank.”
It’s the only thing I can remember.
The doors swing shut behind me and I find myself in a claustrophobic steel box, the paramedic leaning over me. I shut my eyes and just can’t believe this is happening. Everything is getting worse.
The paramedic turns and comes back with an oxygen mask that he tries to place over my mouth but I brush him away and say, “No—no oxygen,” and he says, “It’s OK, just relax,” and tries to put it over my mouth again. There’s some light in the back of my brain, some glimmer of a memory; I hear a doctor saying, “The bleomycin will effect your lungs—you can’t have pure oxygen—it will damage the lining. You can’t scuba dive, you can’t have oxygen masks,” and so I brush it away again. The paramedic raises an eyebrow at me and I say, “I can’t have it—it’ll hurt me,” and he says, “Everything is OK, just—“ and he tries to put it on one more time but then, behind him, The Mother Bear comes to the rescue of her cub.
“STOP!” and the paramedic looks over and she says, “He can’t have it,” and the paramedic slowly puts down the mask and says, “Oh, uh, ok . . . . ”
He gives me an IV while I have a panic attack, seat belts me in/straps me to a slab, takes a seat, and says to the driver, “Hit it,” while spinning his finger in the air.
The driver/heavy paramedic twists the key, flips a switch, and punches the gas. The cherries flash on, the sirens wail, and I feel the ambulance drop off the curb and then blow 70 miles an hour down the freeway.
We’re at the Burbank hospital in a matter of minutes. The paramedics wheel me inside and leave me in a hallway, pressed against a wall on my gurney, alone. I stare at the ceiling, feeling out of place, while various patients and visitors walk past me; I’m a sideshow or a misplaced trinket. Where is my wife? Where is my mother?
I wonder if she’s gotten lost somewhere in the city, unable to find her way out of the rat’s nest that is Hollywood, and then time bends and refracts and they’re both suddenly at my side. My mother, she wraps her trembling fingers around my skeletal hand and kisses me and says, “You scared your ol’ mama, little man,” and I realize then that it’s how she still sees me—just her little boy who she raised from birth, now lying in front of her, looking like the recently dead rather than the slowly dying, my weight dropping, my eyes sinking, my cheeks going sallow and pale. She sees a little boy on a tricycle with white hair, straight as straw. She sees a little boy on his first day of school, crying and afraid. She sees the little boy who used to sneak into his mother and father’s bedroom at night and sleep on the floor at the foot of the bed. No matter how old I become, she will forever see me stuck in time and now Cancer is poisoning that child and those memories for her.
She tells me that we were chatting on the freeway, taking the exit, taking the bend and then my head hit my knees and I curled into a tight ball and began to growl.
I say, “What?” and she says, “At first I thought you were just being John Lowell and trying to be funny but then you didn’t stop and you started leaning into me,” and I say, “What?” and she says, “I just put my arm out and tried to hold you back—you had your seat belt on but . . . I came off that exit and there was no shoulder and nowhere to pull off, I didn’t know what to do. As soon as I saw a sidewalk I just pulled onto it and stopped.”
“You drove on the sidewalk?” and she says, “I didn’t drive on it. I parked on it—and I was terrified. John, I don’t know where I am. I just started praying to God for help—you were—I don’t even know—and I don’t know where I was and—I called 911 and they asked where I was and I couldn’t see any street signs and I couldn’t remember the name of the exit we just took and then . . . a little family of angels showed up,” and I say, “A whole family?” and she says, “A mini-van pulled up behind me and a man and a woman got out and approached me and asked if I was all right. I told them what I could and then the man took the phone from me and spoke to the dispatcher . . . and then they waited with me until the ambulance arrived. One of them held your hand while the other one held your head. They were my little angels that Jesus sent.”
I say, “Well. At least I wasn’t driving,” and my mother says, “John Lowell. Yes, at least. I swear.”
A nurse pushes me into a side room, closes the curtain around us, and says a doctor will be with us shortly. The doctor enters and says something about my absent seizures or petite mal seizures; the little space outs that I have. He says they’re caused when one little part of my brain misfires. Petite, little.
But he says that, depending on a number of factors (lack of sleep and not taking the prescribed dosage of medication among them) that one misfire can signal a second can signal a third and so on and so forth until it grabs an entire section of my brain, effectively causing a grand mal seizure. Grand, big.
He tells us this should be an isolated incident and then my wife says, “He has cancer,” and the doctor says, “Cancer?” and he flips through his papers, “What kind of cancer?” and my wife says, “Stage 4. It started with testicular and then turned to lymphoma and now it’s in his heart and lungs,” and the doctor tries to sell it but he fails. You can see the muscles in his face tighten and his eyes narrow ever so slightly; he’s in a spaghetti western standoff and he doesn’t want to trigger any alarm from the opposition.
He doesn’t say the words but he might as well have shouted them in my ear.
He coughs into his hand and says, “OK, well, we’ll just do a CAT scan—very typical for all first-time patients—make sure everything is clear and then—I’ll send someone in right now,” and then he disappears behind the curtain like a magician after a show.
None of us says a word. My wife holds my left hand and my mother holds my right hand and I shut my eyes and try to picture the tumors that are now probably resting directly behind them, throbbing and rotting away at me.
When I first started dating my wife in high school, her cousin, a seventeen-year-old football player, was fighting a losing battle with brain cancer. The first time I met him he was sitting on a couch, covered in blankets, his eyes nearly closed. His mother said, “Nate, this is Johnny,” and I, eighteen at the time and only one year older than this kid, held my hand in the air and said, “Hi.” I remember Nate lifting his hand up until it was level with his heart, not even having the strength to tilt the fingers toward the ceiling. They just pointed straight toward me like a salute.
The next time I saw Nate was at his wake.
A male nurse pushes my gurney down to the basement; they stick me inside The Mechanical Donut, push the dye in, make me feel like I’ve pissed and shit myself, and then wheel me back upstairs and into my room where my mother and wife look as sick as I do.
We wait two hours for the test results to come back with no word from a doctor or nurse or anyone outside of the curtain. There is nothing in our room but the three of us. We talk, speculate, avoid the elephant tumor in the room and wait, all of us silently saying prayers in the back our of minds until finally we are all praying out loud together with words that couldn’t possibly contain more faith or desperation. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. I can’t take it. Please let the tests come back negative. Please, God. Not my brain. Leave me my brain! And visceral images of me not being cognitive or conscious come to me. An image of me sitting on a couch, covered in blankets, too tired to raise my hand. Me in a coffin, my wife standing over me, weeping. My mother standing over me, weeping. Me, dead. Images of my wife getting married again and me being a story her new husband is told. Me, existing only in photographs and anecdotes and popular paperback book form.
The doctor enters and hands me a piece of paper. I turn it around and see a black and white scan of my brain. Printed across it in large black letters, all caps, is the word NEGATIVE and I choke and say, “Negative—that’s good, right? That’s good? Do I have brain cancer? What does this mean?!” and the doctor says, “You do not have brain cancer,” and I just weep in a way that has never overtaken me before or since.
Both my hands are squeezed until my fingers are white and numb and crushed with wonderful pain that I can feel for another day that is mine.