You know that feeling when you’ve got the flu and your stomach is just rolling around in your guts? That feeling where the back of your throat feels sensitive? That feeling where you just shut your eyes and cover your mouth and try to take some slow and easy breaths, telling yourself, “Just relax. Don’t puke . . . ” but no matter what you say you know that you’re going to eventually lose it and you’re going to have to make a mad dash for the bathroom and hopefully, hopefully, hopefully you’re lucky enough to actually make it to the toilet before your lunch bursts from your cheeks like a fire hose?
That feeling? You know the one. That’s how chemo makes you feel all day long.
Somebody says, “You need to eat something! Want a bite of salmon?” and you just shake your head and wish they’d stop talking about fish.
You know that feeling when you haven’t eaten anything all day and you’re so hungry that you’re actually considering feasting on really weird foods that you typically wouldn’t touch? You’re like, “Oh, if I only had a cheese-covered pretzel right now! If I only had a meatball sandwich with black olives and mayonnaise! If I only had a taco pizza that was folded in half into the shape of an actual taco . . . . ”
That feeling when you’re just starving and ravenous and you don’t want to eat, you simply want to consume . . . . That’s how chemo makes you feel all day long. Because you can’t eat. Because you throw everything up. So you’re constantly starving.
Two feelings that exist on completely opposite ends of the spectrum come together in your body and cause the perfect storm. It’s loving and hating someone. It’s giggling and crying. It’s jumping and falling.
This is chemotherapy’s intermission Round 2.
I’m sitting back in My Yellow Chair wishing that the doctors would just put me in a drug induced coma for the next few months, loss of time be damned.
One of our friends comes over. It’s easier to meet us at our house, on a level playing field, than it is in my hospital room, which is truly one floor above a morgue. She’s pregnant and stays for dinner. My wife and mother talk to her about the baby and her boyfriend and their life and their plans and their names and how excited they all are. Meanwhile, I sit in My Yellow Chair, eyes closed, breathing slowly and willing myself to not puke in front of our guest.
For dinner, I gorge myself on 12 grains of rice and half a baby carrot.
I slowly stand up, casually excusing myself. My wife and mother both rise, “Do you need help? Are you OK?” but I wave them off, smile and mumble, “Just fine.” (Breathe deeply). “Be right—” (breathe deeply) “back . . . ” and then I disappear around the corner, into the bathroom, and shut the door behind me.
I drop to my knees, grab the toilet seat, stick my face six inches above the water and puke, once, twice, three times. I lie my face on the cold porcelain and try to remember a time before this; when my biggest concern was being punctual for work. I heave again and more stomach bile rises up in my throat. I hate what I’ve become. This is not who I am. I’m supposed to be sitting at that table, telling jokes and making people laugh and I’m supposed to have my legs crossed with one arm thrown tightly around my wife but instead I’m a dying animal, hunched over the toilet with my face stuffed into a receptacle for human waste.
My lips are dry and my throat is parched, an ancient tube filled with desert sand. All I want is water to pour down onto me, into me, through me. I want to feel the cold refreshing waves rush over my tongue and down my gullet, filling my belly with icy relief until I can hear the liquid sloshing inside of me. But I know that if I drink, if I swallow, if I even open my mouth, I’ll be sick. I know that any water I drink comes back up and I know that the process is painful. I know what I want and I know that I can’t have it and then I’m trying to stand up, clutching the edge of the sink. I’m pulling myself up, saying, “To hell with the pain,” and my weak knees are shaking and I punch the faucet and the water is pouring down and I know it’s going to hurt so bad but I just need something to ease my constant thirst and then I thrust my face under the falling water and chills run down my spine and I’m taking in huge gulps, barely stopping to breathe. I gasp and shut my eyes and drink more and my stomach is expanding and stretching and crying out for me to stop but the water tastes so good and I want to scream and cry and I want to drink more and so I do. It’s rushing down my cheeks, down my chin, soaking the collar of my shirt and I’m swallowing and coughing and swallowing again and I know I’m about to regret this.
I lie my head on the counter and just listen to the water run out of the faucet and down the drain, the sound one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever heard. My hand fumbles around and finds the handle, brings it down and everything is silent. My legs give out and I drop back to the ground, palms down. I breathe heavy, trying to relive the immediate relief of the cold water but only feeling the hurt coming on and my gorge rising. My stomach is crying out in pain and I don’t care. This is the price I pay.
I throw myself at the toilet and a fountain of water bursts from my mouth with such force that I’m sure my cheeks are gyrating under the sheer magnitude. Every splash, every drop, every ounce comes rushing out and I feel it all—the perfect negative of all the goodness I’d previously ingested.
I tip over sideways and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. Someone knocks on the door and Jade asks if I’m all right. I mumble something and she goes away.
My stomach starts to cramp and I roll over, facedown, curling into a tight ball on the floor. I turn my head and see dust bunnies under the sink. So many dust bunnies. They’re reproducing. I rest my face against the frigid tile floor and try to push the chill through the rest of my body, which suddenly feels on fire.
Breathe . . . slowly . . . gag . . . breathe . . . slowly . . . gag . . . gag . . . . I sit up, bend over the toilet again and vomit up more creamy acid that, instead of being yellow, is pink in color. My stomach contracts and I vomit again. Bile that is not pink but red. My stomach contracts and I vomit again. Bile that is not red but crimson. Bile that is not bile but blood.
I stare at the pink droplets branching out in the water like a family tree and wonder where it’s coming from, why it’s coming from my mouth, my stomach, ulcers . . . definitely could be. Definitely could be caused from stress. Could the lining of my stomach be torn from vomiting so much? So harshly? Makes sense. It could definitely be that. Could it be stomach cancer? Giant tumors growing in my belly, eating away at my innards, making me rot from the inside out? No. It most definitely couldn’t be that. It’s most definitely not that thing. It’s probably one of the first two that I mentioned . . . the, uh . . . the ulcers or the ripped stomach lining. I decide to just let that be what it is and assume that my body will simply repair itself in the following days.
Do I want to go see a doctor about this? Absolutely not. Do I think that I probably should? Logic is a wild beast when dealing with matters of the heart. One can make oneself believe nearly anything if the event calls for it. Persuasion, to an audience of yourself, is astoundingly simple. I say, “Of course you don’t want to go to a doctor . . . because there is no need. They would make much to do about nothing and you have, if nothing else, this under control.
I have this under control.
This thing, this thing that belongs to me, this bit of knowledge, is mine and mine alone and it is something that I can hold in my hand and look at and decide what will become of it. When I’m in a hospital bed being wheeled up and down hallways and shoved into machines and having drugs pumped into me and having my lungs tested and my vitals taken and my blood drawn, it’s all out of control. Nothing is mine; not even I am mine. But this . . . this is mine.
What has become of me? How did I get here? This is me understanding that I have lost total control. This is me bent over a toilet filled with my blood. This is me, completely helpless to my inner maladies and my outer surroundings.
This is what Cancer looks like.
In the other room, I hear our friend packing up to leave and someone knocks on the door again and Jade says, “Angie is leaving, do you want to come out and say goodbye?” and I just say, “Uh . . . I . . . can’t,” and Jade says, “I’ll give her your best,” before I hear her footsteps disappearing down the hall.
I puke again and, looking down into the toilet, I realize that there is so much blood resting in the bowl that if I had stumbled upon this horrific scene unknowingly, I would assume that one of those I-didn’t-know-I-was-pregnant girls had decided to drop calf in my house.
A few hours later, another friend, Jake, arrives just to say hi. My mother opens the door and says, “My . . . you look just like Jason Bateman,” and, truly, Jake does. I say, “Teen Wolf 2,” and Jake, probably too stoned to function, just smiles at me, having not seen me for quite some months. The change that has taken place in my face has been gradual, sneaking up on me the way holiday weight does; but to Jake, who last saw me fifty pounds heavier, is visibly shocked at my physical appearance. He stares at me and says, “There are two black holes where your eyes should be.” I nod and pat the couch. He sits down and my mom begins asking questions about Jason Bateman’s recent resurgence into the public’s eye. She talks about his career in the ’80s and about his sister, “His sister, what was her name? She was on Family Ties, I believe. Sarah? Samantha? Jennifer? Jennifer Bateman?” and then she turns to Jake and asks, “What is her name?” and she says it with such genuine interest that I think she must have forgotten that this is not Jason Bateman nor is this fellow in any real relation to Jason Bateman, nor does he have any idea who Jason Bateman is outside of his roles on Arrested Development and, of course, the aforementioned Teen Wolf 2.
My mother says, “He got arrested? For what?” and I say, “No, it’s . . . a show . . . . It’s . . . ” and she says, “On TV?” and I say, “Yes. A show . . . on TV,” and she says, “Is his sister on it, too?” and I say, “I . . .don’t think so,” and she says, “Was this back in the ’80s?” and I say, “Yes . . . it was in the ’80s. He and his sister Samantha Bateman starred in it,” and she says, “Huh . . . I’ll have to check this out on IMBD Database dot com,” and I say, “I-M-D . . . nevermind.”
And then Jake leaves and then I throw up more blood and something inside of me says that maybe I shouldn’t be hiding this and so I casually wobble into the dining room, supporting myself against walls and counters like a wino on a bender, sit down next to Jade and say, “Jade?” and she says, “Oh, geez. What? What is it now? What have you done? What is happening?” and I say, “Wh-what? Wh-what do you mean?” but my inflections are all wrong so I sound really guilty.
I say, “I just threw up,” and she says, “What’s new?” and I say, “It was bloody . . . I mean . . . . It was blood. I just threw up blood. From my mouth.”
Jade stares at me but says nothing. She slowly sets down her pencil and slides her Sudoku puzzle away from her. She stands up and walks to the closet while I say, “I think it’s fine. I think it’s just a stomach—” gag “thing and it’ll probably—” gag, “take care of itself but—” gag, “I just wanted you to—” gag, “know.”
Jade slips on a coat and I say, “You going to the store? You going to pick up some Pepto-Bismol? You mind grabbing a Butterfinger while you’re there?” and she says, “We’re going to the hospital. To the E.R. Now,” and I say, “Hey, uh, wait now. What’s that?” and she says, “You’re vomiting up blood. BLOOD. You’re throwing up blood. Do you look at that scenario and think that’s normal?” and I say, “Well . . . ” and she says, “SHUT UP. You’ve got cancer of the almost everything and now you’re throwing up blood. I’m not taking chances. You’re,” and I try to interject but she says, “NO. Whatever you’re going to say. No. Just put on your sweater and your jacket and your hoodie and your overcoat and your scarf and your hat and your mittens and let’s go,” and like a scolded puppy, I stick my tail between my legs and do as I’m told.
On the way to the hospital, my mother sits shotgun while I sit in the backseat thinking that everything is out of my control. Stupid secret. Should have just kept it all to myself. Should have just let my stupid stomach heal all on its own. Two or three days, I bet that’s all I’d need.
We pull into the parking lot and I manage to walk into the E.R. by myself. A young male nurse approaches and leads us into the back, sets me on a table and tells me that a doctor will be with us shortly.
Various people come through this long and narrow room that we’ve been put in—more of a hallway with beds, curtains, and various machines than an actual room. I lie down on the thin bed and breathe slowly, not wanting to vomit again because it hurts so badly. The contractions rack my body with pain and cramping and my skin breaks out in sweat and then chills and I can feel the stress and strain all the way down in my toes.
I shut my eyes and think about how I wouldn’t even be here if I’d just kept my big, dumb mouth shut and not said a damned word. Jade says, “Are you OK?” and I say, “No,” a black mood rising up inside me that’s very ugly. I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to hear what some stupid doctor has to say and I don’t want another IV and I don’t want to be lying on this cold, hard excuse for a bed and I don’t want to be around all these sick people with my already compromised immune system and I don’t want to keep throwing up and I don’t want to wait one more minute for this incompetent physician to walk through the curtain because this is the EMERGENCY ROOM AND JUST WHAT IS THE HOLD UP?!
Sometimes being mad at something is the only control you have. More often than not it’s the wrong thing to do, but like a secret that’s been told, once it’s out there, it can never come back.
I tap my foot on the ground and Jade says, “Relax,” and I say, “I shouldn’t even—we shouldn’t even be here. This is a waste of time and money. Time and money!” and Jade says, “Relax,” and, “Smile,” and she takes another photo of me.
I say, “How do I look?” and she says, “Really horrible,” and I say, “Then you probably got my good side.” The curtain shifts around and a young doctor who appears to be too young to be a doctor enters and sits down and says, “OK, so what are we dealing with here today?” and I say nothing because I already know how this works. I sit here and play the garden gnome role—silent and stupid looking—while my wife dishes all the details. She says, “He has this and that and he’s sick with this and that and we’ve been here and there and they’ve told us this and that and here’s this paperwork and these cards and this information and then a few hours ago he started throwing up blood,” and the doctor looks at me and says, “How much?” and Jade looks at me and my mom looks at me and I say, “Just a little,” and Jade says, “How much?” and I say, “I don’t know, like . . . a quarter size every time I puke,” and the doctor says, “And how often do you vomit?” and I say, “All the time,” and he says, “And what color is it?” and I say, “The blood . . . is red . . . ” and I cross my legs and my arms. Take. THAT!
Doogie Howser presses the tips of his fingers together just below his nose before saying, “OK. We’re going to need to do a rectal exam,” and both of my eyebrows rise into the air and I don’t need to hear one more word because I am stepping into this situation and taking control. THIS will not be taken away from me. My butthole is MINE. I say, “No, we won’t,” and now it is the doctor’s turn to raise his eyebrows and lower his hands and he is clearly not used to a patient in the E.R. telling him what will and will not be done. He says, “Excuse me?” and I say, “We won’t be doing a rectal anything,” and Jade says, “John . . . ” and I firmly say, “No.”
Jade sees that this has gone beyond basic stubbornness into the realm of the untamable and so turns to the doctor and says, “What is it for? The rectal exam?” and the doctor says, “We need to see what color the blood is, if it’s pink or red or black. If it’s black, it’s very bad,” and I say, “It’s red. Bright. Red,” and the doctor says, “We need to do a test to see what color the blood is. The rectal exam gives us the closest—” and I say, “It’s bright red. It’s not black. You cut your finger. Blood comes out. It looks like that,” and the doctor, ignoring me, says, “It’s really just a quick procedure,” and I say, “Are you listening to me?” and the doctor says, “It’s very brief, just a quick culture and—” I say, “I’m going to be sick, hand me—” gag— “something. Quick,” and the doctor grabs a kidney shaped bedpan and hands it to Jade who hands it to me. I lift it up to my mouth and puke up a sizable chunk of red blood, stand up, walk over to the doctor, hold it under his face and say, “Is that a good specimen?”
The doctor looks at me and says, “That’s red blood. You probably just tore your stomach from vomiting too hard. I doubt it’s ulcers but we’ll give you some medicine anyway. I’d like to keep you overnight just to make sure. Is that OK?” and I say, “No,” and Jade says, “John . . . ” and, this just being stubbornness now and not actual decisiveness, I say, “Fine.”