In the hospital, over the course of the following week, I get sick, I sleep and I listen to people talk. Everything happens as I imagine/predicted/knew. The Cure consumes me and turns me into a writhing mop of hopelessness.
The back of my throat is sore and bleeding, completely unrelated to Cancer and chemo, just a side effect of having no immune system. My wisdom tooth on my right side begins to force its way through my gums, making my jaw line feel swollen. Every time I move my mouth, a needle gets shoved into the root of my tooth. I drink Anbesol by the liter, hoping to drown out the pain.
I sit in the bathroom, get high, blow it into our homemade prison filter, apply Anbesol and try to eat, but everything is just too out of control. The Cycle is in full force and nothing can slow it down. There are no breaks on this ride.
Marijuana and over-the-counter pain medication aside, I still have a tremendously sore throat that feels like it’s made up of aluminum foil. Eating has become this thing that I used to be able to do; I am a bird with clipped wings dreaming of flying.
Dietary calls me and asks if I’d like the chicken or fish and I know they both look like they’ve just been pulled out of a drain pipe so I say, “Could I just have six iced teas, please?” and the man says, “Excuse me?” and I say, “Iced tea. You have iced tea?” and he says, “Oh . . . yes,” and I say, “I don’t want any food. You may keep the food. But I would like six glasses of your iced tea. It’s very delicious,” and he says, “Uh, yes. Yes, OK . . . six . . . uh . . . iced teas. Anything else?” and I say, “Popsicles,” and he hangs up.
While we wait for lunch, my mother and I slowly walk downstairs, IV in tow, outside to the “garden area,” a small block of concrete with a fake tree in a wicker basket. We sit on a bench and let the sunshine touch our skin and I notice, even in the middle of the day, even in the daylight, everything is cast in blue. Everything is cold and sterile. Everything is prosthetic. Half a block away, standing by the street, I see a healthy-looking man smoking a cigarette. My heart breaks for him and my guts wrench in my stomach and I want to run to him and say, “Listen to me! Look at me! I have lung cancer! Put that thing down! You’re young! You’re beautiful! Go get married! Go buy a fast car! Go to a rock and roll show!” and I want to rip the cigarette out of his mouth and stomp on it and just wheeze at him.
Instead I just gag and my mom asks me if I want to head upstairs. From the garden to our room on the fifth floor, it’s an easy four-minute walk, moving at a nice casual pace; the kind of pace where you put your hands behind your back and whistle.
It takes us twenty-five minutes. If I moved any slower I’d start drifting backward through time. I take small shuttling steps like a slow-motion Geisha, one floor, one hall, one tile at a time. We reach the elevator and my mom presses the CALL button while I sit down on a nearby chair, trying to catch my breath for the second half of our epic quest, this adventure from the garden to the room that is nothing short of Frodo’s quest to Mordor; my will and fortitude, my stamina and strength being tested.
The elevator door slides opens and a mother walks out with a young boy, maybe eight or nine. He’s got straight blonde hair the color of notebook paper and dull brown eyes, his shirt sporting some superhero television icon of the week. He’s healthy. His mom is healthy. I see their visitor badges and know that they’re either on their way out or on their way to the gift shop to buy candy bars and dying flowers.
Suddenly, I have this moment of clarity and I am standing outside of time and space. I’m shot through a wormhole and I can see this kid who’s standing in front of me, barely old enough to be called a prepubescent. I see him growing up. I see him meeting a girl and falling in love. I see that the girl smokes and I see that he takes one of her cigarettes. I see them driving down the freeway. He smokes two back to back and his buzz turns to nausea. I see him turn 18 and I see him buy his first pack. I see his summer fling with Chesterfields, his love affair with Parliaments and his eventual marriage to Camel Lights. I see him standing outside of a hospital on a blue day, smoking a cigarette while some kid with cancer watches him from a hundred yards away, wishing there was something he could do to stop it, to show him, to intervene.
The kid walks past my mother, my pole, and myself and looks up at my skeletal face, my yellow skin and my dead eyes. I say, “Hey,” and he and his mother both stop and she turns and looks at me but I never break my gaze with the kid. I say, “I’ve got lung cancer because I smoked cigarettes. Don’t ever try them, no matter what, because you might end up here like me.”
And then I reach out and press the 5 button and the kid and the mom just stare at me as the door closes, both of them looking caught off guard, their mouths cracked ajar. To this day I don’t know if it was a good idea or not. I don’t know if it did anything or had any effect, but I hope it planted a seed.
Back in my room the six iced teas have already been delivered and are positioned perfectly 3×2 on a large plastic tray. I sit down on the bed, insert a straw, and pull a few drops into my mouth, tilt my head back and the plan is to let them trickle down my throat painlessly but my reflexes kick in at the last second and my Adam’s apple rises and falls and I’m forced to swallow and the pain sears the back of my throat like a cattle prod and I grimace and shut my eyes.
When I open them a man is standing in my room with a plastic briefcase and I know what he wants even before he asks but I don’t want to give it to him and I kick and scream and they restrain me with physical force and leather belts. They strap me to the bed and I try to bite them and I spit at them and curse. A large black man shoves his ass onto my face while a smaller white man grabs my wrist and commands my wife and mother to hold me down while he takes my blood. I scream and cry through the black man’s butt but it all comes out in noises that sound like a tuba. Grrr! Raaah! Blluuu! He jams the steel into my flesh and pulls out my blood and I bite the black man and he forces my head sideways and I try to bite his fingers and my wife is crying and screaming and my mother has mascara running down her face and she is wrenching her hands and they’ve both dropped to their knees, embarrassed at my less than civilized behavior and then the men are gone and I’m left panting, drooling, foaming at the mouth spitting out, “You don’t know me! You don’t know me! Don’t judge me! You ain’t been where I been! Walk in my shoes! Walk in myyyyyy shoes!”
Granted, this exchange is all allegory but will hopefully give you a greater glimpse into my psyche, a peek into my internal emotional breakdown, a preview to how I feel when those needles come out. The emotions tend to run high. Things become exaggerated . . . .
Days pass and nights pass and reality TV shows come and go and begin and end and nurses come and go and I get high and sober and I vomit and try to brush my teeth and vomit again. My wife and mother come and go, arriving in the morning and leaving in the evening. I stare at the ceiling and at the tiles and at the blank, black, dead television, and the television looks back into my blank, black, dead eyes. I turn it on and watch an episode of I Love Lucy with the sound completely muted. Even with no one talking I can tell where the jokes go, where the audience is supposed to laugh. I shut the television off, drink some water, gag twice, and fall asleep. I wake up and it’s morning. Another day passes. They take more blood, they bring more iced tea, I sit in the garden and try to fall asleep in the sun but can’t. My wife lies in bed with me and curls in close and whispers in my ear, “We’re halfway done. We’re over halfway done,” and the word we’re echoes back in my head on and on and on and I wonder what her personal journey has been like—stress, anxiety, depression. I know and understand, logically and emotionally, that the three of us (myself, my wife, and my mother), are all on this train together and the train is spinning out of control for each of us in very different ways. While I feel hopeless, they feel helpless, unable to change anything or make a difference; they’re forced to just sit down and watch.
Another night falls and another moon rises and there is a machine in the hall breathing for someone who I imagine is a man with stringy white hair and translucent skin, his hands covered in liver spots, his eyes milky clouds. Hufff . . . . Grrrr . . . . Huffff . . . . Grrrrr . . . .
I stare out the window into infinite space and pray, “God, I am so scared. I could really use some courage here. Please let me know that you’ve got my back.”
I exhale and shut my eyes, and like a popular flood, sleep overtakes me.
Hospitals are like sitcoms; if you spend enough time with one you just start to see the same characters over and over again; nurses, doctors, janitors, lab techs, nutritionists. They are the cast and I . . . I think I’m the audience but maybe I’m just another character. Probably I’d be the super sexy dying kid in room 502 that all the really hot nurses are into and all the older nurses wish were their son. My character would be really modest, as well. Modest and sexy. And funny.
Channing Tatum would probably have to play me in the televised movie version. Channing Tatum or maybe The Rock.
On today’s episode there is a special-guest appearance by a new character. This is his only cameo, and I’ll never see him again. The man knocks and enters, pushing a small cart. He’s olive skinned, mid seventies, with tufts of white hair and deep lines set into his face like a cracked desert. I say, “Hello,” and he smiles at me and I can tell by the lines in his face that he smiles often.
He sets the tray on my table and says, “How are you today, young man?” and I say, “I’m as good as I can be today,” and he smiles and says, “That’s absolutely wonderful,” and then he turns around and leaves and I look at the clock and try to will it to move faster, hoping my mother and wife get here soon.
Hospitals are lonely places to be at with company. They’re like a sarcophagus when you’re alone.
I turn on the TV and immediately change my mind. I turn it off, turn my head, stare out the window. There’s a racetrack somewhere over there, the Santa Anita Park. Jade and her mother had once walked over there at my request to “put $25 on the horse with the funniest name.”
QuitYerBellyAchin cost me a pretty penny that day but I couldn’t complain without thinking about the irony the name and situation bore me.
Through the open window I watch all manners of cars drive to work during morning rush hour: silver Chevy Cavaliers and white Dodge Dynasties and red convertibles and blue Bonnevilles, and I desperately wish that I were sitting in any of those automobiles and I desperately wish I were driving to a job on the other side of the city and I wish I were zoning out to NPR, my body on autopilot, trying to get through the week instead of trying to get through the moment. I wish I were excited about lunch instead of fearing it.
It is at this moment that a great and fantastic revelation washes over me and life is suddenly so very clear. I’m standing at such great heights and I’m looking down at the world and I can see everything from a different perspective and I can see that we are all very tiny and desperate.
In that moment I realize that I can do anything. And in that moment I swear that when I get better, I will make wiser decisions and I will have a job that I love and I will only be driven by passion. I think to myself, “I never want to forget this. Burn it into your brain, into your soul. It’s easy to fall into routine. Keep it fresh. Stay sharp.”
I feel alive and free.
And then I grab one of the six iced teas, lift it to my lips, and as the icy-cold liquid freezes my teeth, I feel something drop onto my lap that had been stuck to the bottom of the Styrofoam cup. Looking down I see a small rectangle that is the same size and shape as a business card. It’s cream in color with a simple font on one side. There is no address guiding one to a further website or giving credit to any specific person or organization. It just says, “The Lord is Near to You.”
I don’t know what to make of that. I’m not saying it was a thing but I’m not not saying it was a thing. I’d spent collective weeks in the hospital previous to this moment and after this moment and I’d only ever seen this man this one time, directly on the coat tails of a prayer requesting a little pick-me-up juice from something bigger than me. What the “Bigger Than Me” thing is, I do not know. This is not meant to sway or convince anyone in relation to God or what that God may or may not. This is just me saying.
Several hours later my mother and wife arrive, both of them smelling like McDonald’s pancakes. I show them the card and they each take turns holding it and staring at it and turning it over in their hands. My mother even smells it before pulling out Yahtzee and rolling dice and shout-whispering, “Full house! Two of a kind! Straight!” while I try to stare through the ceiling, through reality, through this world and this dimension; while I relax my eyes and try to see God. I let my mind slowly wander and everything is beautiful.
Dr. Yen, my oncologist, enters my room and I smile and greet her and she says, “Hi, Johnny. How you doing?” and she pushes her glasses up on her nose with that finger and she scrunches her face up and says, “How’s mom and wife? Hospital food any good?” and I say, “They’re good. This, not so much,” and she says, “Yeah, I don’t blame you. Everyone’s on a budget and we gotta spend the good money on the medicine. It’s not a Hilton, you know? You know? It’s just not—but the medicine—trust me—that’s top of the line. It makes you feel sick, OK, you don’t feel good, am I right? But it’s getting the job done. If it’s making you sick, imagine what it’s doing to that cancer, OK?” and then she approaches me and pulls back the sheet and pulls up my gown and looks at my stitches where they removed my testicle and she says, “It’s healing nicely, OK,” and then she opens a manila envelope. I’ve learned that doctors and nurses only reference manila envelopes when they need to get the facts straight, when they’re about to deliver a bomb and they need to make sure the proper grenade is going to the proper person.
She scans her finger down something—a chart, numbers, information—and I shut my eyes and focus on the texture of the card in my hand and then she says words that I will never forget.
She says, “OK, it looks here like your cancer is gone,” and my mother drops the dice onto the floor and her hands go to her lips and someone squeezes my hand and I look down and see my wife and everything is moving in slow motion and the clock is making thundering TICK-TOCKS and my lips curl back and it’s the first time I’ve cried because I’ve been happy in a very long time because it’s the first time I’ve actually been happy in a very long time.
I choke out, “Thank you, thank you,” and she says, “Yes, uh, that’s it. It’s all gone but we’re going to, uh, we’re going to do one more round of chemo just to be safe, just to make sure. It’s 100% gone but we, uh, in this case we do want to beat a dead horse. The cancer is the dead horse, not you, even though you, uh, probably feel like one. Am I right? Am I right? You’re very much alive and will hopefully stay that way for a very long time,” and I lift my hand to my face and I wipe away tears and I nod and I say, “Yes. Thank you . . . ” and I squeeze the card in my hand until my knuckles turn white.
Dr. Yen leaves and the three of us just stare at one another, knowing that words can only spoil it.