The first thing I do when I get home is fire up YouTube to figure out how to use a vaporizer since it didn’t come with any proper instructions. A fourteen-year-old with a lisp tells me that it’s essentially a large hot plate that slowly heats up the plant versus doing a straight burn with the chemicals in the butane lighter. Again, “cleaner.”
I slowly open the childproof cap and stare down at my beautiful green bulbs with orange strands flecked upon them like glitter. I pull one out and place it in the grinder, turning the plant to dust. I pour the remains in the bowl, flip the switch on the device, and wait for optimum heat.
Meanwhile, my mother sits next to me, watching, staring, observing, obvious that she’s fascinated by not only the process, but the plant itself. I hand her the pill bottle and say, “Smell.” She lifts it to her nose and says, “It’s sweet.”
I bring the tube from the vaporizer to my mouth, feeling like the caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and pull. The first silver strands weave their way up the plastic lining until they’re in my mouth and in my throat and in my lungs and I’m lifting off my feet and I’m smiling and I shut my eyes and everything is so good right now.
I think of all the times I’ve smoked pot with my sister, sitting on her kitchen floor trying to use every magnet letter on the fridge to spell words, phrases like, CREEP GUY CAN’T DANCE and AARON WILL EAT FARTS. We’re smoking and listening to No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” and playing Hogan’s Alley on her Nintendo. We’re eating fudge. We’re talking about being young and growing up and being very overly philosophical about the minutia of life and I open my eyes and my mom is sitting next to me and I say, “I love you, Mom,” and it’s such a stupid thing to say in that moment because of what’s happening but I feel it so strongly and so truly and I just want her to know that I appreciate everything she’s doing for us and sacrificing for us to be here and she leans in and gives me a hug and I say, “Thank you. Thank you. I love you,” and then I stand up and just start snapping my fingers and bobbing my head. My wife enters the room and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “I don’t know, I just—I just feel so good. I need to dance. I need to dance! And if you don’t dance then you’re no friend of mine.”
Instead of dancing, my wife just stares at me and itches her nose. I say, “It just feels so good to be alive, doesn’t it?! It feels so good! The three of us here, doing this together—doing life together! Oh, man. Mom, you should move to Los Angeles. You should live here forever! We could turn our garage into a little house. You wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch—we could build a little bathroom out there. How great would that be? How great?”
There’s no music playing but I’m sliding back and forth on the cheap tile floor in my socks. I turn around and try to moonwalk but it just looks like when everyone tries to moonwalk; just me walking backward, sliding the soles of my feet across a dirty floor.
I open up the cabinet and pour myself a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and eat the entire thing. I open a drawer and pull out a Butterfinger—the size you’d get in a Halloween handout—and eat two. I drink a glass of water and sit down on a bar stool at the island in my kitchen. I turn to my wife and tell her some stupid joke that both begins and ends with, “So a baby seal walks into a club . . . ” and then I laugh and my mom is shaking her head and smiling and saying, “Oh, John Lowell. My high little boy,” and I suddenly remember that I am high and that my mother is here and then there is a flood of information that drowns my brain in a heartbeat. I remember that I’m sick, that I have Cancer, that I’m only on the first round. I remember that I’m sterile. I remember that I might die.
And it hits me like a bullet in the dick. I say, “Jade . . . ” and she says, “Yes, dear?” and I say, “I have . . . cancer . . . ” and tears well up in my eyes and she says, “Oh, geez, here we go.” A salty tear runs down my cheek and I stick another Butterfinger in my mouth.
My mom makes pasta for dinner but I’m too full to eat, a sensation that has become quite foreign to me. Regardless, I sit at the table with my family instead of in My Yellow Chair and I have a discussion about faith and God and disease and purpose.
Now. Stop. Everybody put the brakes on. I don’t know how to make a foot note in Word – I’m fancy like that – but would like to interject a side bar that is both, for me, equal parts ridiculous and necessary. Please bear with me for just one moment.
I was 26 when this cancer thing happened to me. I am 35 today. What? Yes. And in those 9 years God and I have developed a very strange kind of relationship. We’re kind of like two kids that were dating in high school and thought they were going to get married and live happily ever after but then at the last moment one of us decided that the other one wasn’t real and so that kind of threw everything about our relationship out of whack. You know how it goes. We don’t really talk like we used to but I think about the old guy often and wonder what our world would have looked like if we’d stuck it out. But that is a story for another story.
There are some things coming up in this tale that felt true at the time and felt real at the time and how I personally align those two opposing world-view experiences is neither here nor there. This is not a story about religion and theology. That said, spirituality played a large part in my experience and so it must be included and it must be told and it must be represented as it was experienced at the time.
Disclaimer over. Please continue.
There is something about being on the very edge of life that forces you to walk directly up to the cliff and look over it. So maybe it’s chemo-brain or maybe it’s the sharp focus of death or maybe it’s the evacuation of everyday routine like jobs and chores, but my world feels like it’s falling apart—legitimately pulling away at the seams, the fabric of reality between this world and the next beginning to unravel.
I begin to feel a deep sense of calm connectedness to the world around me and to (what I would call at that time) God – a benevolent being. It’s hard to validate emotional and spiritual experiences to other people because there is simply something inside every individual that happens and I can’t make it more real than that.
For me, it was all real. It was experience. It was truth.
Every Sunday, regardless of how poor my health was, my wife, mother, and I would go to church. The music at the beginning of service would throttle my ears and penetrate my bones and make me feel as though my face were going to split open and snakes were going to poor out but it was a necessary evil to endure. Being there felt right and good and warm. There was a tangible hope that I could sink into.
Once the service was over, they would invite anyone who wanted prayer to come to the front. Strangers would place their hands on my shoulders and pray so fervently that I was certain their words were somehow more tangible than my own.
Once, during a particularly rough week when I was too tired to walk, my wife led a small group of individuals to the back where I was slouched in half, breathing deeply and wheezing. Four people I’d never met circled around me, this thing that looked like a pile of dirty laundry.
Among them was a tall red-headed woman whose regular Texan accent suddenly slipped sideways, mid-prayer, into a language I’d never heard as she began to speak in tongues. I’m not going to get into the theology of this and I’m neither going to validate nor excuse the practice. From the mundane to the bizarre, these are the events that occurred.
The tall red head, suddenly breaking back into English, speaks a single, penetrating phrase. She says, without knowledge of our infertility, “I see babies . . . lots and lots of babies . . . ” and then it’s all over.
So now, here at dinner, blitzed out of my gourd and talking to my mother about Christmas traditions and how Pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christianity, it is I who suggests creating chain links out of construction paper and draping them from the ceiling.
We created 147 loops, one for every day I had left in chemo, and on each loop we wrote a Bible verse and every night we’d tear one down and read it together. It was these evenings that I looked forward to the most—just sitting and thinking about one specific hopeful thought, allowing my weak and warbled brain to slowly digest it.
This chain would become my visual reference for the rest of my journey. If everything went according to plan, I could see the end.
And I could see that The End was still a ridiculously long way away.
*** *** *** *** ***
People ask me if I’m mad at God for giving me Cancer and I say that I don’t believe He gave me Cancer any more than I think He gave me the flu or my buddy Ben the herpes.
Sorry, Ben. If you don’t want to get your new shoes dirty, you shouldn’t jump into a muddy hole.
We all have consequences for our actions, and even outside of cause and effect, I believe that we sometimes just draw wild cards. Perhaps this thing was happening to me because of personal decisions I had made—smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fast food, using microwaves—or maybe it was because of decisions my parents had made by not removing my distended testicle, or maybe it was family history and it was just an unavoidable fate that rested in my genes (my jeans), or maybe it was just my lucky day. I’d never really won any big raffles before and I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.
In any event, it didn’t matter where it came from or who was to blame. It just mattered that I got through it, however possible. And for me, that meant clinging to God with everything my fried little brain and frail little body could muster.