Category Archives: Cancer

EPILOGUE

PART 5

“Woo-Hoo!”

-Blur

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The Cancer was gone but—as far as I could tell—nothing had changed. When I got in the car, I still felt sick and we had to pull over twice on the way home for me to throw up. Upon arriving back at the house, I sat in My Yellow Chair and slept wearing my heavy green parka (with a smile on my face).

My wife set the celebratory chocolate cake on the counter with plans to stick it in the freezer, but while I was asleep and while Jade was in the shower and while my mother was outside, my dog pulled it down and ate two-thirds of it.

I never got to taste the cake that I suffered so much for, but my dog looked very happy and slept very well that night.

Slowly, over the course of the next few weeks, my appetite did begin to return and I found myself slowly eating more and more, slowly scooping larger and larger portions onto my place, slowly starting to say things like, “In-N-Out for dinner? Steak? Chicken sounds good,” although I refused to touch any type of alcohol, and for years afterward, was terrified to put anything in my body that wasn’t for purely nutritional value. In fact, I became so entirely hyperconscious of the state and condition of my food that I insisted we get rid of the microwave.

My wife approaches me one night and says that a friend of ours from high school who was now living in Oregon had given us an open invitation to visit her. We jointly decided that this was an ideal point to begin our If Not Now, When? Adventures.

My mother agreed to stay at our home for an additional week to watch our dogs and we hit the road. It was a beautiful and memorable journey up the coast. I look back at photos from that particular road trip and it amazes me to see that it literally looks like my wife was traveling with another man; someone who smiled and laughed but was emaciated and pale. While I was eating better, the weight simply wasn’t pouring back on. Even after gaining ten pounds I was still six feet tall and weighing in at a buck forty.

On our journey we began to talk about baby names and, when we got back, it was that conversation that finally led us to take the paternal plunge. After speaking with the fertility clinic, they informed us that we had eleven completely fertilized eggs that were frozen and ready to implant. I stare at the phone as a single phrase that I’d heard from a woman at church months and months ago echoes through my mind. “I see babies. Lots and lots of babies.”

In February 2010 we began the initial stages of in vitro fertilization and three months later we found out we were pregnant.

With twins.

The pregnancy and delivery were both textbook. Jade went full term and on January 6, 2011, Quinn Marie was born two minutes before her brother, Rory James.

Becoming a father and raising twins has been an adventure in its own right that could (and maybe will?) fill a book. My children are wild and savage and inquisitive beings. Their personalities could not be further apart and every day with them is living life in a full, bright spectrum of color.

Every single day with them has been completely insane in the best way possible, and I have Cancer to thank. Without Cancer I never would have banked. Without Cancer we never would have done IVF. Without Cancer we never would have implanted two eggs.

And now, knowing the life I have, knowing what Cancer brought me, I would roll through it all again if it meant being given the opportunity to raise the two of them together.

Just after the Twinkies turned two, we decided to revisit the fertility clinic and walk through the process again. This time, out of fear that we would become the parents of two sets of twins we only implanted a single egg, which stuck temporarily before we suffered a miscarriage several weeks later.

Tragedies cannot be compared and I can’t tell you that a miscarriage is worse than cancer is worse than my grandfather passing. They are not better or worse, they are simply different perspectives of loss. Each tragedy a unique experience that calls out to us and seems to embed itself in the very threads of our DNA, forcing us to carry it around for the rest of our time on the planet.

A few months later we tried a second time for a third child, again with only a single egg. The results came back positive and for the next nine months we held our baited breaths nervously until October 7, 2013, when Bryce Alison entered the universe.

And then, four years later, we went back for one more family upgrade. On Nov. 14, 2017 Beau Natalie arrived with ten fingers, ten toes, and an opinion about everything.

Every day I have on this Earth, with my wife, with my children, with my family, with myself, is an absolute gift and it’s something that I’ll never take for granted. Everything is beautiful and every day is an adventure. I have had the rare gift to glimpse death in the face, see what my life is worth to me, and then stand up from the table and walk away.

Thoughts of cancer follow me everywhere and the reminders are constant; every time I hear The Ice-Cream truck drive down the street, every time I see the reality show about the family with all the kids, every time I drive past the Wiltern in LA where we saw Ben Folds Five, every time I hear the music of Ben Folds Five, every time someone says the word Arcadia, every time someone mentions Las Vegas or Kings of Leon or the words saline solution or ninjas or George Harrison or the word flood. These things and many, many more are all instant triggers and not a day goes by that something doesn’t drop a red flag and send me back to It. And I’d have it no other way. My baggage is a constant reminder that every day is not a good day to die. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t my day to die. Because it just might be. Death opens its arms wide and simply pulls in what it can, like an enormous whale consuming krill.

Every day I hug my children. Every day I say “Yes” to opportunity. Every day I embrace the unknown. Everyday I contemplate and cast wonder at the magnificent and magical world around me, the good and the evil, all wrapped up together, living in all things around us, breathing, eating and existing in beautiful and marvelous complexity.

I look at my life—I look at what has come before cancer and I see all the things I wanted to do. When I was in high school I had hoped to someday buy a van and just head out, to drive without direction or purpose. I wanted to write things and create things and live a life that pushed my boundaries of experience and culture and . . . then I got a job that locked up my time and helped to strangle my ambitions.

I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I was looking down the barrel of a gun and pleading for my life and swearing that, yes, when I came through the other end, things would be different and I wouldn’t be so complacent about my life and I wouldn’t be bored or boring and I would do all the things that needed to be done and say the things that needed to be said and if I died with a list of regrets when I was ninety or eighty or seventy or thirty-five, that list would be incredibly short and pathetic and would contain only random and asinine things like “Eat a pizza from the inside out” because I planned to live the rest of my days chasing daily adventure.

I told myself that I would start a family. And I have. I told myself I would pursue directing. And I have. I’ve directed short films and music videos and have worked with musicians whose work inspires me and have gotten my work into film festivals and my music videos featured on Rolling Stone. I’ve started a production company and created commercial spots that air nationally on broadcast television. I chased that dream and I caught it. I told myself I would read Moby Dick. And I have. And it was the worst thing ever but I finished it and can say with utter confidence that you should never pick it up. I told myself I would read Grapes of Wrath. And I have. And it’s one of the best things ever and I can say with utter confidence that you should pick it up. I told myself I would start camping. And I have. I’ve taken my family on meandering, aimless, vacations in a minivan and I can finally high five that teenage version of myself.

I’ve written television pilots and recorded podcasts and learned to cook and had ’80s-themed parties and made new friends that have become my family and have started a blog and am learning to play the guitar and the ukulele and I play hide and seek at least once a week. I’ve started playing Frisbee golf and hiking and I just got a membership to a gun range where I have learned that I prefer a revolver to a pistol but my accuracy is superior with a rifle. I recently killed and cleaned my first fish and by the light of three headlamps, I gutted and cooked it with my bare hands before feeding it to my tribe. I flew to Nicaragua, slept at the base of a volcano, went zip lining, and helped a woman who was being mugged.

I read. Every day. Sometimes out loud with my wife. I write. Almost every day. I keep a journal but I almost never read it. I go to concerts and the theater and I say yes to any strange food that happens across my plate, which is how I ended up eating blood sausage and frog meat. I started a financial budget with my wife and we’ve done a pretty decent job of sticking to it. I love those around me every day because I almost lost each and every one of them.

My mantra has become Year of the Yes. Whenever someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done the answer is yes, yes, yes, always yes. I want to live strong and loud and uncomfortable. I want to find my boundaries and push past them and expand my culture and thoughts and experiences and love for all of humanity and the energy of life itself.

I never want to say that I am too old or too tired or too busy to go attempt something or to succeed at something or to fail at something. Too old and too tired and too busy are excuses invented by lazy people with no personal ambition. Age is relative. Time is relative. Even success is relative. But what we do with our time is not. Every move counts.

Life is too short to be stagnant and The End already comes too swiftly. When Death finally knocks on my front door, beckoning me home, I want to smile broadly, look at my to-do list and I want the last words I see to be, “Embrace Death. You did everything.”

 

 

And here is the beautiful lady herself.

Jade, thank you so much for standing by me through the most difficult time of my life. You are amazing and brave and kind and incredible and I can never pay you back.

I can never pay you back. And I hope that the opportunity to do so never arises.

Thank you for supporting me through this entire insane book. Thank you for continuing to support my wild ideas, dreams and goals over the last 15 years. We have gone to the ends of the earth together and I could not have done any of this alone.

Your spirit is beautiful.

Thank you for standing next to me.

-Johnny

 

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THE FINAL DAY | CHAPTER 40

I wake up in a dark room. I am seven years old. I look out the window and there is snow covering the ground. It’s fresh. Strange ice patterns have crawled up the glass panels, trying to creep into my home, into my house. I run to the bed next to mine and shake my sister awake. She snorts and sits up, pushing me away. I stand back and say nothing. I just watch her. And then I see the realization dawn on her face. She knows. She’s been waiting. And now it’s here. It’s finally here.

The two of us bound down the stairs together, two at a time, nearly tripping over each other’s feet. We each grab the banister and rocket ourselves into the living room where we lay our eyes upon one of the sweetest things an American child will ever see:

A Christmas tree pregnant with gifts.

Oh . . . try to remember, try to remember. The full tree, the red globes. The lights. The stockings. The presents. I am seven and this is my currency. These are my diamonds. There are so many boxes of so many shapes and sizes in so many varying brands and designs of wrapping paper. Where to start?!

The night before was torture; lying awake in bed, in the dark, staring at the ceiling. You must sleep! I tell myself. Shut your eyes! But my desperation for what tomorrow brings is too great. I lie in bed until exhaustion overpowers me and, like a robot, my body simply shuts down.

I tentatively reach out and touch the first present, the second present. What’s in the big box? A Super Nintendo? A go-kart? A time machine?! I begin to tear and shred; paper is raining down upon my sister and me as we are swallowed up into a complete endorphin high. Neither of us can hear the other squealing with glee.

All is good. All is happy. Everything is perfect.

This is not a story meant to pluck your heartstrings in a way that says, “Ah, but the seven-year-old did not know what awaited him in twenty years.” This story has a bigger purpose than mere parallel emotional trite.

There is a magic in Christmas morning for children. It is something we have all felt and experienced but have lost having grown up. Certainly, Christmas is still fun and warm and inviting as adults but there is something unique about the quality in the air as a child that, once gone, can never be recaptured.

But here and now I tell you that, as a twenty-six-year-old man, lying in my bed on the fifth floor of the Arcadia Methodist Hospital on January 15, 2009, I feel like a seven-year-old on Christmas morning. That magic was back.

My time, my journey, my experience, my nightmare was finally coming to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was not only in sight. It was here. Today. From my initial diagnosis to the final drip-drop of chemotherapy, my grand total was 163 days under the gun—3,912 hours of fire-refining damage control.

I wish I could tell you that there was one single moment where I simply crossed a line or walked out the door and then it was over with a bang, finished like a race. But that’s not the case.

This is how Cancer ends.

Not with a bang but a whimper.

A nurse enters, and looking at my final chemo bag, unceremoniously states, “All done.”

I shut my eyes and I pull in breath and I sob in happiness for the first time since my brain cancer came back negative. After so much distress and tragedy and bad news piled on top of us, here it is. Tears roll down my cheeks and onto my pillow and my wife squeezes my hand and my mother squeezes my other hand and the three of us have made it through alive.

We. Have. Survived.

The nurse pulls out my IV for the last time, and just like that, I am free. While I’d love to tell you that it ends there, it doesn’t. Because the reality is I’m still very sick. I still have gasoline and particles of nuclear fusion soaring through my veins and it will be weeks before they’re out and it will be months before I feel like an actual living human again. Who knows how long it will take for my eyebrows to come back . . . .

Sue leads my entire nursing staff into the room, six of them total. It is this group of complete strangers that have made me feel as much at home as I possibly could have over the course of the last six months. They’ve given of their time and energy to help me keep my attitude highest when it wanted to live in the depths of oblivion. They were my cheerleaders, my team, my friends, my family in a time when I needed all of those things. These people went above and beyond their duty to bring me safely to The Other Side. They guided me back across the river Styx.

Sue sets a chocolate cake in front of me and says, “For when you get appetite back.” The cake is the most delicious and unappetizing thing I’ve ever seen and it turns my stomach but I value the personal token of friendship deeply.

I remember the first hospital we’d visited where they’d forgotten my paperwork and I try to imagine what six months under the care of The Careless would have been like. I shudder.

I stand up slowly and individually hug each of them, staining the shoulders of their smocks with my tears. I embrace Sue last, our special mother-nurse and I whisper, “Thank you,” in her ear. Her body is small and frail and I realize that I currently have the same physical build.

She says, “Mike will take you outside. Sit down,” and she signals to a wheelchair. The Wheelchair. The Final Wheelchair. Mike steps behind me, grabs the handles and pushes me into the hallway where my wife snaps a photo of me with the group of them. It will become something that I cherish deeply.

Mike begins to push me forward, and Sue says, “See you later,” and I turn around and say to her, “Sue, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea but . . . I hope I never see you again.” She smiles and laughs and says, “Yes . . . . Yes, I hope I never see you again either. Be healthy. Be well!” and then she turns and disappears into another room, with another patient, to change another life.

Mike pushes me to the front door where my mother is waiting for me with the car. I stand up, turn, and shake Mike’s hand. He’s always been a man of very few words and so he just says, “Good luck,” and I say, “Thank you for everything.”

I turn and walk out of the hospital and into the light.

 

 

 

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FINAL ROUND: CHAPTER 39

 

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At this point I believe that there is nothing that can be said that hasn’t already been said before. You, reader, are just as familiar with the routine as I am. Even though this is the last round and the celebratory party hats should, at the very least, be brought out and dusted off, I can’t help but feel a strange mourning and lingering.

Even though my mother keeps saying, “This is it, this is it! That’s the last time we’ll drive through those gates. That’s the last time we’ll enter these doors. That’s the last time you’ll check in. That’s your last IV. How does it feel?” I can’t help but think that this is not The Last. This is just Another. This is just Another Stop that takes me on and on and on. I’m so mentally broken and physically destroyed that the idea of getting off this ride makes no sense to me. I’m so brainwashed by procedure and routine that the idea of the Long Spoken of and Prophesized, Great and Powerful END could not really be here.

Over the last few weeks I’ve developed a sore throat that stings like rug burn, a side effect I blame fully on the vaporizer. And so, having recently become so conscious of the health of my body, I’ve decided to give up smoking weed completely in lieu of my own well-being. I don’t want any more drugs in my system. I want them all gone and out of me. Everything.

The nausea has been stronger than usual but I fight through it (as though I have a choice), spending days with my eyes closed while focusing on my breathing. Time has lost all relevancy and the clock is just a geographical readout that happens to tell me where the sun is in the sky. I feel every second and am given the chance to stare at it and mull it over, dissect it, assess it, pass it on, examine the next one.

I try to imagine everything that I’ve missed—the six months of the world that has been existing without me—and I realize in a very sobering way that I do not matter. I am very insignificant in, not only the greater scheme of things, but in the most absolute minutia of life. I am replaceable, interchangeable and forgotten.

No matter what I do or what happens to me, the world will continue to spin, the glaciers will continue to melt, and Coca-Cola will still have bubbles.

I am not invincible.

But I can do anything and there is no longer anything to fear.

 

 

 

 

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TWO FRIENDS, part 1 & 2: CHAPTER 38

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PART 1: ROB

 During the summer between my eighth- and ninth-grade years, I ended up meeting a boy my same age named Rob who lived across town from me. He is a mental fixture in my childhood and was a very important part of my adolescence, and although I wrack my brain over and over, I can’t seem to recall how the two of us first met. Presently, as a thirty-year-old man, this makes me very sad as I know that things I hold dear to me are beginning to slowly evaporate while I’m not looking.

His parents had divorced long before I knew him, and he was mostly left alone throughout the day during summer break. His mom’s small house became our kingdom; its four walls were ours. We could crank the stereo and listen to our music as loud as we wanted. It was that summer that Rob introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, and rock and roll.

He would date a girl, I would date a girl, we’d break up with them and date each other’s ex-girlfriends; once we even made out with the same girl at the same time, both of us feeling her up while awkwardly trying to avoid each other’s hands. That encounter finally ended with the three of us all giving a collective, “This is weird, yeah?” and then driving to Burger King for lunch.

A few years later, Rob and I began to change and grow apart (as people do). He began spending countless hours at the library (pre Internet) researching Buddhism and Hinduism and various forms of monkhood. He claimed to spend hours each day in his room meditating on nothing but clearing his mind and disconnecting from the world.

We’d spend endless hours bickering wildly over the existence and nature of God, me with all of my “hard facts” he was ignorantly overlooking. I would point and condemn, using fear as a weapon. It makes me grimace to remember the things I’d say; the way I’d try to shove a very specific brand of American Christianity down his throat like a horse pill. “Just take two of these and you’ll be fine!”

Religion was a drug to me. It lifted me up and made me feel good and certain and right. I couldn’t get enough – I mean, who doesn’t want to feel absolute certainty in the unknown? Certainty gives us a sense of superiority. And superiority damages relationships. And eventually, as most drugs do, it devoured me and alienated my friend. It’s funny how religion – a supposedly cosmic belief system based in love, unity and the divine – can separate and isolate human beings so harshly if we allow it to.

Years passed and Rob and I grew further and further apart, only seeing each other randomly in the high-school parking lots. We became involved with different groups of friends but still nodded silently to each other when we passed by happenstance in the halls.

Then, sometime during our junior year, I heard from a mutual friend that he had suddenly taken a bus to California. It wasn’t until years and years later that the two of us would meet again, this time at his new home, a Hare Krishna community in Santa Monica he’d been living in since he left South Dakota. We were different people—both of us half a country away from our hometown, both of us half a decade older, me a bit balder from genetics, he with a purposefully shaved head save for a sprout of hair in the back. I wear a T-shirt and ripped jeans, he an orange robe.

We’ve both matured as men and are able to discuss our cosmic curiosities in a more social manner, taking the time to learn from one another rather than attempting merely to teach and talk. He asks me to stay for lunch and we walk through a veritable buffet of vegetarian Indian cuisine and he purchases my meal for me. We say grace together and dig in, reminiscing about people we once knew.

He tells me that he had discovered this temple during one of his various faith studies, contacted them, and they’d sent him an invite along with the bus fare. At seventeen years old he had packed a single bag, got on the Greyhound, and never returned.

Once I was diagnosed with cancer, he and his new wife were one of the very first and very few to come visit us in the hospital. Then, six months later, toward the end of my treatment, he invited my family to his temple for a small lunch. It could not have come at a better time as I was truly feeling as though I needed to unload a minivan of emotional baggage. There were dark things happening deep down in my soul and they were going to come out; Pandora’s box was going to crack open. I was feeling very bad things and I needed to say them. I needed to get them into the air around me and I needed someone I trusted to hit them all like Whack-A-Moles when they appeared.

Looking back, I hope to God that these emotions were simply my renegade hormones speaking; my lack of AndroGel and imbalance of testosterone. But even today, years later, I can’t say with any absolute clarity. I can’t say for certain that I wasn’t on the brink of something darker.

Rob, who was now going by the name of Haladhara, and I sat down at a small table while, at my request, our wives and my mother sat down separately. We both say our customary blessing and then I thank him for buying me lunch yet again. He says, “Dude . . . dude . . . c’mon. It’s the least I can do.”

I look at my large plate with my meager portions and remember the last time I ate here—I had heaping stacks of food. He asks, “How is everything? How are you doing?” and I reach out and pick up a biscuit that might be made out of potatoes and spinach and I take a bite. I say, “I’m not very good, man. I’m not doing very good,” and my voice cracks on that last word and he says, “What’s wrong?”

I look around the restaurant and see people seated at different tables. My initial fear when we walked in the door had been that I would throw up and make a scene. My new fear is that I was about to start crying uncontrollably with an audience.

I say, “I’m . . . so . . . I don’t know. Just inside. Everything feels all weird. It feels all sick,” and he says, “But it’s gone, yeah? It’s all—you’re out of it?” and I say, “The cancer is gone . . . but the cancer—it’s never been the problem. It’s the chemo. The chemotherapy is the monster, and I’ve got one round left. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I have it in me,” and Rob, or Haladhara, puts down his food and puts his fingertips together and just listens to me talk. I ramble.

“It hurts so much. I can’t walk. I can’t talk. I’m . . . pain . . . everything is fuzzy. The ice-cream truck made me cry. Jade is giving me baths. I can’t take care of myself. Can’t walk. Can barely think, talk . . . . I can’t eat. I don’t know. If I had to do this again, I can’t say, I can’t say, I don’t know that I wouldn’t just . . . kill myself. I don’t think I can do it again.”

These are the darkest words I’ve ever spoken and I consider this moment to be my darkest hour. I glance around the small room and find that no one is looking at me but everyone is paying attention. I try to stifle my gasps but I have no control over anything. I put my face into my hands and try to hold back visceral wails that seem to be clawing their way out of my very soul. Thinking these monstrous and loathing thoughts is evil and poisonous toxicity—thinking about suicide. Speaking the words out loud feels so much more tangible and dangerous. It feels as though I’m speaking some kind of taboo truth into them that I hate, bringing it to life or somehow birthing it into our world. I don’t want to say it, don’t want to admit it but I want to get in front of the problem, get it into the air, out in the open; murder it before it murders me.

I am broken.

Rob reaches across the table and puts his hand on mine and says, “You’re going to be all right. You’re so strong. Everything you’re going through is difficult. But you will get through it. You are inspiring.”

This moment between two people. This compassion. This empathy. This kindness. This is what God looks like.

 

PART 2: LUCY

At some point in the early 2000s, my brother-in-law, Jarod, moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he began work as a bartender while attending college. It was at this bar he met a girl and fellow employee named Lucy.

The two hit it off well enough, and when Jarod discovered that she was moving to Los Angeles, he volunteered to connect her with my wife and myself.

So one extremely windy day, we all met at a Starbucks and drank overpriced burnt coffee and chatted about our plans to “take over this town.” She was one of the nicest people I’d ever met; she wore a constant smile, made well-timed jokes, and laughed when expected. All that aside, we were living in different parts of the city, and the three of us were simply too preoccupied with other things to navigate a new and strange friendship.

It would be years before either Jade or I saw her again.

Fast forward several tax seasons until I’d finally found myself working as the lead editor at a start-up post-production company in Studio City. The owner, an enormously tall Dutchman named Radu, had a weakness for cheeses, Entourage, and loose women. He had a constant interest in “The Dakotas,” a cowboy land filled with bars, gunfights, and no electricity that I had apparently somehow escaped, presumably on the back of a wild stallion.

He’d wander around the office, ducking through doorways, moving from edit bay to edit bay proclaiming, “Rah-DO-IT!” if he agreed with something you were creating.

A year into my job there, he decided to bring on our very first assistant editor; a young lady named Amber who had just finished college up north and was now trying to get her foot into some steady work.

One Wednesday, Radu called a meeting (which usually just entailed Amber and I sitting at a table in the front lobby while he showed us his favorite moments from Entourage and splurged on exotic cheeses) to tell us about a new client we had coming in; some foreign documentary that needed editing. “I know neither of you speaks Spanish—hell, Brookbank barely speaks English—but we’re going to just Rah-do-it. You got it?” Honestly, he was like a character out of a TV show.

I reach out for a piece of cheese, and he slaps my hand away. “This ain’t no soup kitchen! You pay for that cheese? Were you born in a barn, Dakota? You probably were born in a barn—go buy your own Velveeta cheddar slices, whatever. This is good cheese. Fine, here’s one piece, just to try. Savor it because you’ll probably not get anymore again. How much you think this cheese platter cost? Forty bucks.”

I say, “This cheese tastes like a jock strap,” and Radu says, “You have the etiquette of a possum. Shut your mouth when you eat, you rat bastard. Now, listen, the client is Such and Such—” except he actually names the client and doesn’t say such and such and Amber says, “Such and Such on Miracle Mile?” and Radu says, “Yes; you know them?” and Amber says, “Yeah, my best friend Lucy works there—we graduated from Bozeman together,” and I say, “You went to Bozeman? Lucy who?” and Amber says, “Lucy Such and Such!” and I say, “Black hair? Thin? Laughs when she’s supposed to?” and Amber says, “Yes!” and I say, “My brother-in-law is Jarod. Do you know him?” and she says, “I know Jarod!” and Radu says, “I ain’t got time for this. I’m going to take a shit. Nobody touch my cheese,” and then he leaves the room.

This is how I met Lucy for the second time.

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There are people that you meet from time to time and you can just tell that karma is out to get them, or is, at the very least, lying dormant and waiting for the perfect time to strike. Then there are people who, conversely, you meet and you just think that even their dandruff should be considered good luck powder in most circles.

Lucy was one of these latter. Although, it should be stated that she does not, so far as I am aware, have dandruff. When you meet her, you immediately think to yourself, “You’re a wonderful person. You’re happy and you know what happiness is and I can simply tell that you are a good friend with a trustworthy personality.”

Over the course of the following years, Lucy and my wife and myself all keep up, fighting through the weirdness that is LA friendships in order to get together for the odd and random dinner. Our friendship matures and Lucy ultimately becomes a close friend of both my wife and myself.

Then, one day, years later, I’m sitting in My Yellow Chair with my blanket when my phone rings and it’s Lucy and she’s asking if she can come over to visit. Of course, we say and when my wife shouts, “Come in!” a few hours later, Lucy hobbles into my living room wearing a full blown please-sign-here leg cast.

After the initial, “What-the-what?!” and “Is that fer real?!” questions out of the way, she regales us with her tale of woe.

Two nights ago, she says, she was coming home with her roommate. It was about 11 p.m. and she had to park about a block away from her house. “It’s a good neighborhood though so not a big deal.”

She and her roommate exit the car, begin the track back up the block and—someone punches her in the back of the head, knocking her 110-pound frame to the ground. She rolls over in time to see two young men begin to stomp, literally stomp on her leg until it is cracked and broken, only stopping when porch lights begin to turn on from her wretched screaming. The two boys take her purse and disappeared into the darkness while her roommate fumbles with 911.

I say, “They . . . stomped . . . on your leg . . . until it snapped?” and she says, “Yes, with their feet. They just jumped up and down on it. They shattered my leg. And, yes, I’m moving to New York City.”

There is silence between us when my wife says, “New York? Isn’t that dangerous?” and Lucy says, “I don’t know. Probably. Maybe. Certain neighborhoods. I just can’t—every day I think they’ll be there. Every day, no matter where I am, I’m afraid they’ll be there. If I’m in a parking garage at nine p.m. or a Target parking lot at eleven a.m. I think they’re following me—I mean, I know they’re not following me, but I’m waiting for them to come back. I was mugged and I’m afraid it’s going to happen again. I’m afraid of them returning. Do you know what I mean?”

I look at her and I say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I know what it’s like to have them return again and again and again. Mine doesn’t come in the form of two cowardly men; mine comes in the form of bad news over and over and over. Testicular cancer, surgery, heart cancer, lung cancer, grand mal seizure, fainting, puking, RLS, blood vomiting, insomnia, constipation, atrophy, platelets, blood transfusions, lockjaw.

The process has a way of getting under your skin, into your soul and making you not trust The Good News. Cancer wasn’t done with me; it was going to come and find me in some parking lot and finish the job. Lately I’d just been spending my days waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I say, “New York will be awesome. Be safe,” and Lucy leaves for her new life where she will find success in producing. I love Lucy’s story because it shows that goodness and opportunity can come from anywhere. Two bottom feeders break your leg, steal your purse, and re-route your train for New York where you find more happiness and success than you ever had in Los Angeles. It’s a high price to pay, but the even higher price is a life lived in mediocrity.

Feeling suddenly inspired to make moves and to get out there and to feel the hustle that I heard Lucy talking about, I decide to e-mail my boss. I’ve been in correspondence with him over the last few months, and he, to his great credit, has been nothing short of compassionate. When I had to leave he said, “Go, take as much time as you want. Whatever you need. We’ll work with you,” and for an employee, that inspires comfort and safety. In an industry where everyone is flaky, it was a breath of fresh air; while dealing with a disease that was unpredictable, it was wonderful to have predictability. It was nice to know that, at the end, my job was there.

I’d hit him up every three to four weeks just to touch base and say hi, let him know I was still alive. He writes back with, “No problem! Just beat that cancer! Quit worrying about the job! It’s here! It’s yours! Just get better! Good luck!”

So it is upon this day that I write him one final time to give him the good news, “My cancer is gone and it looks like I’m going to wander the Earth for a few more years after all. I should be able to return in about six weeks and I just want to say thank you so much for keeping it open for me.”

Our medical bills were now into the hundreds of thousands and we needed a financial Band-Aid soon. This job was the only rope I could see that would pull us to safety.

I send the e-mail and I hear the whoosh indicating that the digital file is flying through cyber space and I imagine Phil’s e-mail giving him a little bing notification. I imagine him reading it and smiling and feeling warm and fuzzy that he is such a huge part in helping me to gather the shattered pieces of my life and glue them back together. He can sleep easy tonight knowing that he and he alone was the boat that sailed my job through the storm. He was the captain at sea while I was in the infirmary. I stare at my blank computer monitor and I think, “I hope he knows how much that means to me. I hope I was articulate enough.”

BING.

I receive an email. From Phil. Wonderful! I quickly open it up, excited for the warm words of encouragement from o captain, my captain. I smile and begin to read, paraphrased as, “Johnny. I’m so glad to hear you’re better. Unfortunately, I gave your job away two weeks after you left and didn’t have the heart to tell you. I’ll put out a couple feelers. Be well. Phil.”

I reach over and sip my hot tea, fold my hands and purse my lips as I try to decide what my emotional response should be to this terse letter.

I look toward the door and, nodding, I see our collection of footwear. It appears the other shoe has finally fallen.

 

 

 

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(A)ND (I)F I (D)ON’T (S)IGN? CHAPTER 37

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I can’t believe that the emergency room has a waiting room. I mean, I get it but . . . you just would not believe the lines in the Los Angeles E.R. It rivals the DMV. It truly does.

After two predictable hours of mentally dissecting Georgia O’Keeffe paintings (How did she get a corner on the medical market??) we’re finally called into a private room where they deduce that I need another blood transfusion, “But,” the nurse tells me far too casually, “Before we can get to that, we’re going to need you to sign these contracts here, here, here, and here, Mr. Brookbank.” I grab the pen and say, “Oh . . . kay . . . . What is this for? What am I signing?” and the nurse says, “Just in case you get AIDS from this blood you can’t sue us,” and I say, “EXCUSE ME?” The nurse laughs and says, “The chances are very small—I mean, less than one percent,” and I say, “Nothing to do with you but, honestly, my luck has been pretty shady lately so, just to abate my own curiosity, would you mind walking me through your screening process before potentially pumping me chock full of AIDS blood?”

The nurse says, “Someone comes in and gives blood—small vial. We test that blood. If it’s clear, we ask them to come back—typically a day or two later—and this is when we’ll take several bags of it.”

I say, “OK, go on.”

And the nurse says, “Well, it’s possible that they contracted AIDS in those two days.”

And I say, “That’s not the end of your screening process? You test the blood again, yes?”

And she says, “Yes, we do but . . . there is always room for human error and that’s where this—” and her finger pokes the contract, “comes in.”

I say, “I see,” and look at my wife who says, “If he gets AIDS—I mean, if you give him AIDS—what does that mean?”

And the nurse says, “Well, he will have AIDS.”

And my wife says, “Yes, I’m clear on that but . . . we have no follow through? He just has AIDS? You’re not held responsible?”

And the nurse says, “Not if you sign that contract.”

And so I say, “And what if I don’t sign the contract?”

And the nurse says, “Then you can’t have any of our blood.”

And I say, “Any of your AIDS blood?”

And she says, “Any of our blood at all, AIDS or otherwise.”

And I say, “Cold move.”

And the nurse says, “I know. I just work here.”

So I sign the paperwork and the nurse says, “Good choice. I’ll be back to get you in a bit,” and then she leaves us.

In the waiting area where we’re all staged sits a robust African American woman with a cast on her foot. I see her all by herself looking nervous and so I direct my chauffer to the given target and Theresa begins to slowly wheel me over to her. I say, “You waiting to get your blood drawn?” and she nods and I say, “What happened to your foot?” and she says she slipped and fell and broke it. I grimace and say, “Could be worse,” and she says, “Oh, not being able to walk is pretty bad enough,” and I laugh and say, “But it could be worse so you’re pretty lucky,” and then I say, “Hey, I’m afraid of needles. How about you go in there before me and when you come out, you tell me if the nurse is any good. If she’s shoddy I’ll request someone new.” The woman nods and agrees and laughs.

She says, “Are you getting your blood drawn, too?” and I say, “Yeah,” and she says, “I hate them needles,” and I say, “I know. That’s why you need to be the guinea pig. I don’t want to get jabbed a bunch. You gotta take one for the team,” and she laughs and says, “Why you here?” which is a pretty invasive question and so I cough a couple times, really hard, into my fist and say, “I’ve got this really contagious disease that they’re still trying to figure out. It’s like the bird flu but with no remedy. It’s airborne.” I sniff really loudly and then cough into my sleeve and say, “Sorry.” The woman slowly pushes her wheelchair back and says, “Maybe you . . . should have one of those masks or . . . ” and I say, “Yeah, I basically live in a bubble at my house – like a little plastic tent. But once in a while I get to come out. I’m just not supposed to be very close to people. You should be fine,” and then I cough into my hand again and simply look at the floor, in silence.

Behind me, I can feel my sister touch my shoulder. She’s not very good at this sort of game so I’m sure she’s very uncomfortable right now. I look up at the woman and smile and she smiles back with a mouth full of fear and weirdly friendly eyes that seem to say, “Act natural. Act naturaaaaal . . . . ” And then I start to laugh and I say, “I’m just kidding!” and she laughs as well and my sister releases a burst of awkward laughter and then I say, “I was actually at church—that’s my family over there. We were over at church this morning and I was standing in the lobby and suddenly everything just went dark. I passed out. When I woke up, my tongue was white.” I stick it out and she pulls her lips back in open disgust and says, “Ick.” I say, “Thank you, yes, I know,” and she starts to laugh again and says, “You passed out in church?” and I say, “Yeah, right there,” and she says, “Boy, I bet they all thought you were having a gen-u-wine religious experience!” and then she has a mock seizure. She says, “Why do you think that happened?” and I say, “Well . . . I have cancer,” and she says, “Oh, OK. Yes. CANCER. I get it. You’re like Mr. Funny Guy, huh? Do they keep you in a cancer bubble at home?” and my sister and I both stare at her dead pan and I say, “There is no such thing as a cancer bubble.”

A long moment passes before the woman says, “Oh, dear,” and then I laugh and say, “It’s OK. I actually don’t have cancer anymore but I’m still in chemotherapy,” and then a nurse enters and calls the woman’s name. The two of them disappear into a back room and reappear moments later, tape now stitched around the woman’s arm joint. I say, “How is she?” and she says, “It was fast,” and I say, “Good.”

The black woman looks at me and says, “God bless you,” and I say, “Didn’t you hear me? I said I don’t have cancer anymore.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

Two floors up I’m getting another blood transfusion; the platelets are draining back into my body like a soggy hourglass. My wife clicks through the TV. Nothing is on and we watch all of it.

This is the first time that cancer has proven to me that, just because it’s gone, it’s not vanquished. Just because it’s out of sight, doesn’t mean it’s out of mind. Cancer is the king who, once dead, you realize has booby-trapped the whole palace.

I stick out my tongue and say, “What color is it?” My sister looks up from her phone and says, “Pink,” and I know I’ve won another battle and I’m also certain that the war is coming to an end. I just have to wonder how much PTSD is going to come along with it.

A few days later everything is back to “normal.” My dad is clicking away on his laptop, my sister is nowhere to be found, my wife is at work for the day, and my mother is making random notes on napkins, a habit she’s exhibited my entire life. On every vacation she takes she’ll find herself a pen along with a napkin or some form of old scrap paper and begin jotting down short-hand journal entries. I can only assume it’s some form of coping mechanism.

As I walk past her I look down at the paper and read: dad & t arrive / movie / popcorn w caramel / enchilada / Harry Potter / church / faint / blood-plates / butterfly needle and then there’s a picture of a smiley face and a series of numbers. I say, “Mother?” and she looks up. I say, “Have you ever seen A Beautiful Mind?” and she says, “I don’t know. Who’s in it?”

I look over at my dad, who’s staring at me, the clicking stopped. “That’s her, yes. YES. Hahaha,” and then click-click-click. My mom writes down A Beautiful Mine onto the paper and asks if it’s about coal or something. I say, “Yes,” and walk out the back door to sit in the sun for a bit.

Growing up, my grandparents lived right down the street from me and it seemed that, without fail, any time I drove by, the two of them would be resting on their front porch. When I was a child and full of enough energy to power a small village, I thought this was strange, the idea of people sitting and doing nothing, but today . . . something is going on inside of me. I’ve been given a gift. Cancer has been a crystal ball into my future and it has said, “Look! Behold! Observe! Here is a glimpse into your life! THIS is what it feels like to grow old! Your energies will be sapped and your motivations will run dry! Thank me! Thank me for showing you this!” and in my head I say, “Thank you, Cancer. Thank you for showing this to me. I’ll never be the same after this . . . . Thank you.”

But today I am the same. Today I have no energy and today I am an old person. I find my sister sitting outside and smoking cigarettes while texting her boyfriend. I sit down next to her but don’t say anything. I just push my face into the sky and shut my eyes. The sunlight is as tangible as a warm washcloth.

My sister says, “I love you,” and I open my eyes and find her crying. Tears are rolling down her checks like broken faucets and her hands are shaking. I say, “I love you too, Trees—what’s—what’s wrong? Did you and Jes break up?” and she laughs and makes a noise that sounds like it means, “No.” She shakes her head and stares at her feet.

She says, “I saw pictures of you that mom had sent over on her phone and you . . . . I’m sorry . . . . You didn’t look very good. You looked sick, you know,” and I say, “Yeah, OK. I mean, I am sick,” and she says, “You’re not sick! You have CANCER,” and I say, “Had . . . not have.”

She looks at me and says, “I showed up and I wasn’t expecting my big brother to look like this. In real life you look— I’m sorry . . . so much worse,” and I say, “It’s my lack of eyebrows that freak you out, huh?” and she laughs a snorty-pig laugh and shakes her head.

“You look really, really terrible and you’re my big brother and it’s scaring me,” and then she just breaks down. Meanwhile, my stomach rolls over unexpectedly and I bend over and vomit at my feet, spattering spittle onto my socks.

I say, “Sorry,” but my sister just stands up and walks away. Away from the picnic table. Away from me. Away from the backyard, around the house . . . .

. . . And then she’s back and I say, “What was that?” and she says, “That was my last cigarette. I’m not—I can’t—I’m not smoking anymore, ever again,” and I smile, thankful that Cancer is changing the lives of those around me in powerful and positive ways.

 

 

 

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TONGUE: CHAPTER 36

 

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When I open my eyes, moonlight is still shining through my windows and my wife’s breathing is still soft and rhythmic. I know I won’t get back to sleep so I just Imagine. When there is nothing to do, it’s all there is. When everything is gone outside, when your body has been reduced to rubble, when your emotions are running rampant and every thought clouds your brain with fog, all you can do is Imagine.

I focus in on one single thing, one detail, one moment, one idea and I circle around it, staring at it, examining it and dissecting it. The thought this morning is My Fourth Round. I try to Imagine what one level deeper will look like; I Imagine it as a deep sub-basement. A cellar. There aren’t many people here and those who shuffle around in the darkness are pale and sinewy. I Imagine a nurse in the not-too-distant future pulling an IV out of my arm and saying, “All right, you’re done,” and then I Imagine walking out of the hospital and entering into the sunlight and feeling alive and free and while I lie there in the darkness, in my True Reality, everything still seems far away and unattainable.

People say to me, “One more round! Just one more round! The light is at the end of the tunnel!” and I see the light but it doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer. I understand that time is passing but why does it have to happen in Matrix bullet time?

I push my blankets back and drape my legs over the edge of the bed. I need to pee. I stand up and take a deep breath and my wife turns over and says, “Are you OK?” She’s like a mother with a new baby, sensing every movement in the silence. I say, “Yeah. Just gotta pee, ” and I smile and she says, “Shout if you need something,” and I smile again, open the bedroom door and exit.

Walking through the darkened house, I hear a faint click-click-click of computer keys and round a corner where I find my dad sitting at our dining-room table doing work remotely on his laptop, a twice filled bowl of Cocoa Puffs next to him. He looks up and smiles but doesn’t say anything. I say, “Hi,” and, “What time is it?” and he says, “Seven a.m. my time. I’ve been up for two hours,” and I nod, and doing the simple math, figure it must be around 5 a.m. here. I pee and walk into the kitchen and he keeps typing without looking up.

I want to sit down at the table and speak to him and ask him what he’s doing or ask him how he’s doing or ask something, anything that will fill the silence in the kitchen. Click-click-click.

I open up the cabinets and the fridge, searching for food that I won’t eat; some repressed muscle memory pushing me on, not wanting to face the fact that I don’t fully know the man sitting in my dining room even though I’ve lived in the same house with him my entire life. I open up a cupboard filled with frying pans and just stare at them, trying to look busy. I say, “What are you working on?” and he says, “Building my website,” and I say, “Ah.” I pull out a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a bowl before putting them both away. I consider going back to the bedroom but the darkness in there is just too heavy and I know I’ll drown in it. I end up sitting down at the table and staring at the back of his laptop, at the glowing logo. I say, “What’s your website about?” and he says, “Cars I’m working on . . . building stuff.” Click-click-click.

I am dealing with complete anarchy in my personal life and pushing forward every single day, one step further, one step further, one step further and here I am, sitting at a table in an empty house with my biological father and I have no idea how to confront this situation. I have no idea what to say, what to do. I try to make a joke but neither of us laughs. I start to feel funny (strange, not haha) and just lie my head in my hands. He asks if I’m OK and I say, “Sometimes.”

My sister enters the room. My mother enters the room. My wife enters the room. Cereal is made. Oatmeal is made. Toast is made. Orange juice is poured. My sister sits down next to me and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “What am I doing-what? What do you mean?” and she says, “Your tongue is kind of a weird color,” and when I examine myself in the mirror I see that it is indeed the same shade as raw beef that’s been left in the sun for too long. My wife says, “Do we need to go to the hospital?” and I turn on her like a corner and say, “No, no, no. No hospitals. No emergency rooms. No nothing,” and my dad says, “If we need to take you to the hospital, you will go. I will overpower you. I can overpower you,” and I understand now, today, what he meant, but at the time it inflamed my emotions. Even though it sounds like a joke, he wasn’t messing around. He wasn’t being coy. He genuinely meant what he said. He would bear hug me and drag me kicking and screaming to the E.R. if it’s what my wife said I needed.

I turn on him next and say, with as much acidity as I can muster, “You touch me and I will fight you.” At first glance this looks like the eternal power struggle between father and son, a story as old as time, but on second glance it’s just my struggle. To control something. Anything. He raises an eyebrow and looks at Jade, who looks at me and so I say, “The E.R. is a waste of time. We’re going to show up, sit in a waiting room for two hours. They’re going to draw some blood and tell me to hydrate. I don’t need a replay of The Adventures of Blood Vomit. I don’t need Christmas Eve take two. I don’t need to stay another night there. What I need is to relax and take it easy. I did it your way last time and it was a total bust and now we’re doing it my way. This time it’s my turn.”

Grasping at control.

Jade never answers. Instead she just exhales deeply and turns away. My dad turns back to his laptop. My sister’s phone buzzes and she reads a text. I say, “Who’s that?” and she says, “None of yer bizzznus,” and I say, “Is it your boyfriend? Is it that guy I met? Is it Jes?” and she glances at my dad—click-click-click—and makes wide eyes at me that seem to say, Shut up! So I do. She texts something back and I say, “What did you just text him back? Was that Jes you were texting? That guy you were dating? The guy I met?” and she says, “I told you to shut up,” and then she walks outside.

I met Jes about a year previous and we’d only spoken on two separate occasions. He was a nice enough fellow but had recently, I guess, gotten involved in and charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and was going to be doing some prison time. No one was really sure which members of our family knew or did not know so my sister was very sensitive about the subject being broached at all. My extended family is full of strange secrets and double-crosses and so most things, regardless of how lacking in logic, are just taken with a grain of salt.

I stand up and move to My Yellow Chair before closing my eyes. I’ve been up for about two hours and it’s starting to make me feel strange, light headed. I say, “Church this morning?” and my mother says, “Yes,” and my wife says, “If you’re OK,” and my sister is outside, and my dad goes click-click-click.

I shut my eyes and nap.

When I wake up there is an electric movement in the air that says something is happening. Grab your things, c’mon, let’s go! It’s time! I slide my feet into a pair of old yellow sneakers and stand up. “I’m ready.”

My mother spruces her hair up. My wife spritzes herself with perfume. My sister changes shirts and jeans and shoes and then shirts again and then ties her hair back and then lets it down. I feel strange again but, since feeling strange has become a complete recurring theme in my life, I simply ignore it and soldier on.

We all gather by the front door and my mother says, “Mike, are you ready to go?” and my dad looks up from his computer and says, “Huh?” and my mother says, “To church? We’re leaving,” and he goes click-click-click . . . CLICK, and then shuts his laptop and we all walk out the door.

In the car I lay my head against the glass and feel the bumps in the road gyrate my skull and shake my brain. Next to me I can hear my sister click-click-clicking on her BlackBerry, every button a stapler to the temple. The problem with those phones is that even if you silence the “clicking sound” feature, those buttons are just built to click. Click-click-click! CLICK-CLICK-CLICK! CLLIIICCCKK!! Click-click-click.

I turn to my sister and say, “How is work?” and she starts to tell me about her job and about how she thinks her boss doesn’t like her and how she’s thinking about quitting and all the scandalous things that happen there and I nod politely and ask questions and in the front seat my dad says, “These billboards are all in Spanish. I can’t read Spanish. Wait, I think that one says something about the number three… and maybe something about a burrito.” I say, “That’s El Pollo Loco.”

My sister says, “So what are you going to do when you go back? Back to work? Are you going to have the same job or what?” and truly, truly, it’s a fear that has weighed on my heart since this first happened, since this all began. What next?

Will I be able to just jump back into my career, back into my job? Will I be able to sit in an edit bay for ten hours a day after knowing that death is imminent? Will I be able to commute an hour each way and wile away in a cube while my life escapes through me one moment at a time? I don’t know.

I don’t think so.

When I am released back into the world I want to break the social norms and destroy the constraints and I want to live by a set of guidelines that work for me because, quite frankly, the ones I’ve been using aren’t really blowing my hair back. I don’t think humans were meant to live like caged chickens and . . . .

. . . I begin to speak; to relay these thoughts to Theresa. I begin to pour my heart out, wearing my fear on my sleeve like a patch. I turn my head and glance back out the window but continue to talk. The words are coming easier and easier, the fears becoming easier to speak about. It feels good to get it off my chest and then, suddenly, my sister just blurts out, in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard, the word, “HOLA!”

That’s what she says. She says, “HOLA!” and she nearly shouts it, like she’s welcoming the Chilean soccer team back to their home country after winning a major victory. “HOLA!”

I turn my head to put this interruption into context and I see her . . . on her phone. It was on silent so I didn’t hear it ring. Apparently I had just been talking to myself. I look into the front seat and see my mom and dad both staring straight ahead in silence.

I am pouring out my heart to the world passing by. I say, “Are you kidding me?!” and my sister says, “What?” and I say, “I’m sitting here talking to you and—“ she just holds a finger up over her lips and says, “Shhh.”

How dare you shush me! My brain explodes in rage and indignation and I raise my fist in the air, but my sister merely mocks me. I whisper-shout, “You think the cancer kid can’t beat you up?! You think I can’t take you down?! Well, you’re probably right but I’m going to remember this! All of this! HOLA, indeed!” and then she puts her finger to her mouth and shushes me again, violently, truly wanting me to hush.

I say, “Who are you talking to?” and she mouths, “Shut up! Jes,” and I say, “Jes? Jes, your boyfriend? Jes, the guy you’re dating? Jes, the guy I met?” I pause and then say, “Give me the phone . . . . ”

Theresa glares at me, unsure how to accept this challenge. She knows we’d met before (twice) and she knows that we got along all right (twice) but she has no idea why it is I would want to talk to this man after having not seen him for close to a year.

She says, into the phone, “My brother . . . wants to talk to you . . . . I don’t know . . . . I don’t know . . . . Is that OK? OK.” And then she holds out the phone and I reach out for it but she pulls it away at the last minute, leaving me grasping at air. I say, “What?” and she just raises her fist in the air, mocking me again and says, “I’m serious.”

I push the mobile device to my ear and say, “Hello. Jes?” And he mumbles something, sounding unsure, unsure of our conversation, unsure of himself, unsure of everything. I say, “What’s going on?” and he says, “You know, not much, uh . . . . ”

We sit in silence for a moment and then I say, “So, you’re going away for a bit?” and he agrees and my sister slaps the palm of her hand against her face. I turn my head and look out the window and I say, “I just wanted to say that I think we’re both going through something very unusual and I hope that when we come out the other end we can be very different people. I hope these things change us for the better and uh . . . keep it together, man,” and he says, “Oh . . . uh . . . thanks. Thank you,” and I say, “See ya,” and hand the phone back to my sister who just stares at me for a moment before speaking into it and saying, “Hello . . . hi. Yeah . . . I don’t . . . know . . . . ”

Years later, the two of them will be married and I’ll stand up for them at their wedding, not simply because they asked me to but because I believe in their marriage. Prison will affect and change Jes in fantastic ways and when he comes out of the darkness, he will be a new man, ready to embrace life for himself. Today he’s one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know and I would put my personal reputation on the line for him at any turn.

Life has a very funny way of changing us.

We take the Highland exit and I mentally take note of the spot where I slipped into my grand mal seizure. I don’t know it then, but I’ll red flag it for the rest of my life. A mile up and I take another mental note of the spot where I woke up. I mark the trees, the light poles, the bus stop. I sigh and everything swims in front of me for a moment but then is gone. A few miles later we hang a right on Wilshire and pull into the parking lot of the church.

My family shuffles down the sidewalk, I leading the way for a change. I turn around, perhaps too quickly, and say, “Remember to silence your cell phones,” and everyone reaches into their pockets to do so. When I turn back around I feel something in the very furthest recess of my brain, a white mist. Then I feel something in my toes.

We enter the lobby and find ourselves standing in a throng of individuals. I’ve just walked a block and am feeling extremely exhausted . . . far more tired than I have any right to be, even in my present state. I think, “Something is not right. I need . . . to sit . . . down.”

I take two steps toward a support column in the center of the room and that white mist suddenly makes a lunging maneuver from the back of my brain and circles around to the front. The feeling in my toes shoots up my legs and into my thighs and everything is becoming a strange water-color painting.

My wife says, “Are you all—”

And then I feel my knees buckle and the weight of the world is on my shoulders—every screaming child, every warring nation, every lusting adult. Every prayer is being shoveled on top of me and I’m slowly drowning. God reaches down, grabs the room and spins it like a top (or perhaps a dreidel, depending on your religious orientation) and my right foot shoots out to establish my balance and my left foot shoots forward to counter.

Someone says something else and I’m trying to stand up but it’s all so heavy and spinning and then the words are just electrical motor engines and the darkness on my brain consumes my eyeballs and the world around me fades . . . to . . . black.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

When I open my eyes it takes a few moments for my reality to click on but when it does, it’s just like a light; everything is illuminated. I’m here, the church, the people, the embarrassment. Don’t be embarrassed! But I am, I’m lying on a floor in a room filled with strangers who are all staring at me. Drink this! A cup of water. Great. I would love to throw this up in front of you all when I’m nice and ready. Don’t stand up! Great, I’ll just hang out down here. Just lay down! No. Absolutely not. I will not look as though I’m taking a nap in the center of the floor. I understand what happened here was a little weird and everyone is a little freaked out but I don’t need to lie down. I am a grown-ass man.

I sit up cross-legged and say, “Jade, please help me up,” and my dad says, “Just hang on, John,” and I say, “Help me . . . up,” and they do because, unless they’re going to pin me down, I’m not lying here like Lieutenant Dan.

My sister says, “Whoa. Your tongue is . . . really white,” and I say, “What do you mean, white?” and the rest of the my family suddenly makes a noise like a vampire seeing a cross and even a couple of people standing next to me take a small step back. My wife snaps a photo on her phone and shows it to me.

Oh, I think, they meant white. Like paper. Or snow. Or a ghost. My tongue had been drained of all color and now it just looked like someone had shoved one of those weird albino dog turds between my lips.

I clap my hands together and say, “Well . . . so . . . to the hospital then?” and without any verbal agreement, we all just turn and start walking back to the car.

 

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MY BLOODY VALENTINE: CHAPTER 35

 

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Days pass like kidney stones. Dr. Oz is playing and so I think it must be around noon. I want to push the TV off the shelf. I hate how standardized it is. I hate how scheduled it is. I hate how predictable the entire process is. I hate that everyone on the TV is so happy and falsely charming and plastic. I hate them gazing out at me, into my house, not seeing me but trying to talk to me, give me advice, counsel me, imagining that they, the daytime teevees, know everything what the world is going through; the details, the minutia, the process.

My hormones are going off the wall and through the roof. My testicle (both my testicles) are missing and I’m angry and then I’m sad. I tell my mom that I love her and then I want to break a vase but only one that’s owned by a person that pronounces it vozz. I cover my head with a blanket and just want to be left alone in the silence. I want to paint my nails black, embrace death, and write gothic poetry about moonbeams, dark angels, and religious sacrifices. I shut my eyes and try to logically explain to myself that I’m not upset or happy or sad, it’s all hormones. It’s all just a chemical reaction in my brain and your brain is misfiring left and right. I would see a piece of vanilla cake and want to cut it with a knife . . . but not to eat it. I just want to hurt it because it’s pretty.

I begin to feel as though my emotions (like everything else) are outside of my control. Imagine you’re at your workplace and you’re doing a phenomenal job and you have been doing a phenomenal job for a year or two. You’re at the absolute top of your game, proud of your achievements and when raise time comes around, you go into your boss’s office and he fires you on the spot for not performing at company standards.

So, of course, you’re really mad. You’re furious at him and at the company. And that’s fine because those feelings are totally normal for that circumstance.

Now imagine you’re sitting on a beach and you’ve got the place totally to yourself, with nice weather, good food, a special someone. You sit back, pull out a beer, and then you feel that horrible flood of emotions mentioned above. They’re not tied to anything; there is no event, past or present. They just show up randomly and you want to hiss and fight.

When you lose control of your hormones, you lose control of yourself. You become a slave to their chemical whims and it’s very scary because it all happens at a moment’s notice.

So I stand up and coast slowly into the bathroom where I remove my shirt, pull out my AndroGel-steroid-hormone-medication pump (or, My New Testicles) and apply two full squirts of the gel onto my shoulder blades. It quickly dissipates into a sticky residue that I have to let dry on my skin, covering me in a thin sheen that “no one is allowed to touch under any circumstances. Doctor’s orders.”

I hobble back into the dining room just as Dr. Oz is ending and I stare at him with his chiseled features and his piercing eyes and his charming smile and voice like buttered bread and I say, “If I ever meet you, I’m going to bite your ear off,” and then it’s 12:30 and he’s gone and something else comes on and the television is just as predictable as—something unexpectedly moves past the living room window in a dark blur. It’s outside and it was quick but I saw it, whatever it was. I say, “Uh . . . Jade,” and she says, “Yeah?” and I look over at my mom and she says, very sheepishly, “What? What? Whaaaaaat?” and I say, “Who is here?” and Jade says, “Someone is here? I need to pick up the house!” and then I hear footsteps whose tone, weight, and cadence immediately harkens me back to my childhood. There’s a sudden knock on the door. It’s brief but with a level of force that I recognize.

When I see that both Jade and my mother are waiting for me to get up and answer the door, I simply do so vocally. “Come in!” The doorknob twists and in walk my sister and dad.

I stand up in a state of shock, my nipples hard from the cold air, my frame an old flannel on a wire hanger. My sister and dad approach me, both smiling, knowing they’ve surprised me. My sister reaches me first and throws out her arms but I jerk backward and throw up my hands as though I were fending off a mugger, screaming something that sounds like, “I-wahh-kooo!” which is not so much a word as it is a guttural noise that translates roughly to, “Don’t touch me, I’m wearing AndroGel Man Poison.”

I tell my sister that if she were to touch me she’d grow a mustache and so I instead stick out my arm, shaking hands with her. She stares at me and grips my hand and tears suddenly fill her eyes and I say, “Thanks for coming,” and she, never good with words but always full of emotions, croaks out, “Yes, yes, of course. Always. Anything. Wouldn’t miss it.” I release her hand and step around her to my father, who I’ve never seen eye to eye with. I stick out my hand and he embraces me and I say, “Thank you for coming,” and he says, “How do you feel?” and I say, “Good . . . . That’s a lie. I’m sick.” He releases me and I wander back to My Yellow Chair, slip down into it, cover myself up with a blanket and shut my eyes while my dad speaks, always in his precise and succinct military fashion.

“We drove all day yesterday and then all night. Stopped in a Kmart parking lot and slept for two and a half hours and then kept going. Made it from South Dakota to California in record time; twenty-one and a half hours!”

This is my dad. These are his passions. Personal time trials.

He asks what we want to do today and I shut my eyes and say, “This is it,” and he says, “You guys wanna go to the beach?” and I say, “No,” and he says, “Car museum?” and I say, “I can’t walk.” He purses his lips and I say, “Welcome to the suck.”

My dad sits down next to me, unfolds a newspaper, and begins to read. My sister sits at the table and texts her boyfriend. And so goes the rest of the day.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

Cancer made me into an agoraphobic. I was afraid to go anywhere, everywhere, because, and I know I’ve probably mentioned this to death, my sudden trigger vomiting was so powerful and out of control that I was afraid I would be caught in public without access to a restroom. My home was my comfort zone and I didn’t want to leave it for fear of being caught in the open.

My home was my sanctuary.

The following day we go out for Mexican food and then to an early show of My Bloody Valentine in 3-D. For ninety minutes, I sit between my dad and sister and watch naked chicks get hacked to pieces. The movie was my choice and I regretted every minute of it. As the credits begin to roll I feel my stomach turn over and I stand up and say, “I think . . . I’m going to be sick,” and my mom says, “OK, we’re leaving,” and I say, “No . . . I’m going to be sick right now,” and people are sort of just shuffling in the aisles like lost sheep stupidly grazing and I’m about to heave and puke and when it happens I know, I can just feel it, that it’s not going to stop, it’s going to roll and wave and heave and push and pour and nothing within a 15-foot radius will be safe from my spray and so I shout the word, “MOVE!” and everyone does. Everyone in the entire row sits down or steps aside and I run with the undiscovered fusion energy of an atom bomb. I leap over laps, hurdle seats, lunge down stairs, race up the inclined aisle, marathon down the halls, find the restrooms, kick open the doors, push pass a group of people in line, shove past a man just entering the stall and just as I say, “Excuse m—“ it all comes up, red and yellow and brown and lumpy like potatoes, again and again and again, spittle and saliva and bile hanging from my lips and pouring from my nose. My hands clutch the handicap rails and I hate everything about this. I’m angry at myself for puking, for vomiting, for not being able to keep it together.

There’s a very internal struggle happening wherein I start to get very angry at myself and pick and peck and poke and say, “You pussy. You pussy. Get your shit together. Pull it together,” and I puke again and it’s cherry red and I don’t know what I’ve eaten but it just looks like more blood. I wish more than anything that I were just at home, back in the comforts of my four walls, my territory, my familiar space; back in My Yellow Chair, under my jacket; back on the couch, under a blanket; in my bed. Somewhere where “making a scene” is not considered “making a scene.”

You know you’re amongst close family when you can puke in front of them and they all just keep eating dinner like nothing happened.

I heave again and a tear runs down my face, dropping into the toilet. My stomach feels like it’s tearing open and I push my knuckles against the cold tile wall. My legs shake and I bend down, proposing to Queen Porcelain, my knees instantly soaking with the piss of strangers.

I hate what I’ve become.

I hear a door open and I dry heave and cough and dry heave and cover my hand over my mouth and wipe my lips on my sleeve and push my face into my shoulder and I just want to weep. I hate being such a convalescent. I am twenty-six years old. I should be in peak health!

There’s a tap on the bathroom stall and my dad says, “Are you OK?” and I say, “No . . . but . . . yeah. I’ll be out in just a minute,” and he says, “OK,” and then I hear him take a few steps away from the door and wait.

My father and I have never been emotionally close and so I anticipate him waiting for me in the hallway, taking the extra ten steps and giving me that “casual privacy” you would offer to someone who is sick. But instead he sits on the sink and waits and suddenly the bathroom isn’t so bad.

 

 

 

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ICE CREAM: CHAPTER 34

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PART 4

“The sun is gone, but I have a light.”

–Kurt Cobain

 

I’m lying in my living room, completely healed, cancer free, and asking myself, “Is this remission?” because I still feel naked and exposed and vulnerable. I still feel sick and there’s still a bucket resting on the floor next to me.

I’ve been home for one day, and even with the good news, great news, fantastic news, it’s the worst day yet. I’m still bearing the weight of five months of chemotherapy and my mind and body are just as atrophied as ever and the world around me is still too much and too intense to comprehend. Everything is still flooding. I am still drowning in poison. The battle is no longer me versus cancer. It’s now me versus chemo. I’m a contestant on the world’s worst episode of Fear Factor. Joe Rogan says, “Can he take one more round of chemotherapy!?” and my competitors are all trying to slam me and say things like, “He looks like that skeleton in biology classrooms!” and, “He ain’t got game!” and, “Bitch needs to go hoooome,” and I wish so badly that I could just walk off this really terrible game show and simply give up.

Outside of my house, crawling down the street at a slug’s pace, I can hear the ice-cream man and his filthy truck slithering toward all the kiddies. His speaker and stereo have been broken the entire time we’ve lived in this house so his music always sounds like a predatory warning more than a cheerful welcome. He’s the ice-cream man in a Wes Craven film. I hear his music and always picture him smoking rolled cigarettes, yellow teeth, yellow eyes, totally emaciated, some junkie pushing dairy.

The “music” gets louder and louder, the speaker scratching and popping, hissing and whining, the tune slowing down and speeding up, the music bending like a warped record. It’s elevator music leading to Dante’s inferno.

I shut my eyes and tell myself that he’ll be gone in a moment. I tell myself to just hang on, to just breathe, to just pray, to just focus on something, anything. I put a pillow over my head but I can still hear the noise, the sound, boring into my brain, into the center of me, into my veins, my soul. It’s pushing me against the wall and cracking me open and breaking me and I can’t get away from it and it’s not going to make me puke but it is going to destroy me if he stops and then he does stop. He stops right outside my house, right outside my window, and the tune plays over and over and over and over and over again, looping on loops on loops, breaking and bending, warping and warbling, slowing and speeding. No children are approaching the van. The siren wails and screams, and then it does break me and I wish I could explain this to you better than I am but I also hope you never understand. I wish I could reach into your brain and into your stomach and squeeze your nuts until you cough up blood and twist the knife so you know what it feels like, how the music makes me feel, how the chemo makes me feel, how the poison makes me feel, how the medicine makes me feel, because it’s not an ice-cream truck, it’s an Ice-Cream Truck and it’s like one of those horrible ones from Maximum Overdrive or one of the Decepticons and I know it has ultimate intelligence and it knows that I’m in here and its sole purpose and intention is to do only one thing and that one thing is to seek and destroy.

Me.

And then the missile, the A-Bomb, the C-chord, the broken and beaten tune sniffs me out and finds me and I am done. I break down and I weep uncontrollably, and it’s not because I’m sad and it’s not because I’m sick and it’s not because I’m depressed but it’s because of the Ice-Cream Truck and that music and it hurts so bad in such a foreign way and I am drowning.

Someone touches my shoulder and I pull the blanket down and pull the pillow off my head and pull my hood back and take off my hat and open my eyes and Jade is standing there and she says, “Are you—oh . . . . Are you crying?” and I say, “The . . . ice-cream truck! It’s trying to kill me!” and she says, “Are you high?” and I say, “No,” and she says, “Do you want to be?” and I roll off the couch and caterpillar myself into the kitchen. Jade carries my cocoon behind me and wraps me back up in My Yellow Chair.

My wife sets the machine down in front of me and I begin to examine the plastic tube while my mother grinds the plant like an apothecary. Where it was once translucent and clean, it’s now become discolored with muck the shade of infected urine. Whether that’s from the plant or the burn, I’m not certain, but I have to stop and wonder if my throat looks like an organic replica.

I mindlessly rub my Adam’s apple and intentionally cough up something deep down. Unwilling to swallow it I spit it into my puke bucket.

Brown.

Something grotesque wafts under my nose and I turn my face away. Some repugnant scent; something bitter and acrid; something . . . I lift my arm . . . it’s me. I turn my head and look in the mirror and I am truly one mottled beard away from looking like a wilderness person.

My wife says, “John?” and I say, “Huh? Yes?” and she says, “What’s wrong?” and I say, “I . . . need a bath,” and she says, “A bath?” and I say, “Yeah . . . I smell like shit,” and she stands up and walks out of the room and I hear the bathtub turn on and I hear the octaves of aqua slowly rise and she comes back and holds out her hand and I stand up and she supports me into the bathroom where steam rises out of the small pool.

She shuts the door behind me and she unzips my coat and pulls it off my shoulders and lets it fall to the ground, revealing my true size. She pulls my hat off, revealing my smooth skull. She pulls my shirt off, revealing my ribs and emaciated arms. She unbuckles my belt and pulls off my pants, revealing my hairless legs and finally, she pulls off my underwear, revealing my scar. I take one step onto the scale and she says, “Don’t . . . ” and I say, “Wait . . . ” and I see that I am 130 pounds completely stark naked. I am the same weight as a large dog, a Great Dane. I am the same weight as a high-school girl.

I look at myself in the mirror and I suddenly see me. Not the way I have seen myself, which is in such minute changes that I haven’t seen change but I suddenly see myself as I was and now as I am, two people at once. I see a stranger. I see a disease. I see struggle and I see . . . Survival.

I see Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard covered in blood and bruises, broken glass stuck in his feet. I see Bruce Campbell at the end of Army of Darkness, covered in filth and pelted by evil. I see Bruce Springsteen.

I am The Boss.

I turn and step off the scale and Jade holds my geriatric elbow as I step into the steaming water and lower my smelly body into the scented fragrance and perfumes and soaps and steams and I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “You’re welcome,” and then she picks up a washcloth and dips it in the water and begins to scrub my back and my chest and my legs and here I am, I realize, at my weakest and my most vulnerable. So far, anyway.

She points to my bicep, or, at the very least, the place on my arm where my bicep should be and says, “What is this?” I look down and see dark brown striations running underneath my skin that look like tiger scratches or stretch marks. I exhale and say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention those. The chemo is burning my skin from the inside.”

So small is this on the full scale of weirdness that it doesn’t even warrant further conversation from either of us.

She runs the washcloth over the marks (which don’t wash off), over my head and over my face and the water runs down my chin and I think that five months ago I was a pothead driving to Las Vegas, screaming on the freeway and singing at the top of my lungs, watching the sun rise, the biggest concern in my life a job that I didn’t enjoy.

Five months.

Like a car accident, it all happened so fast and spun out of control so quickly; it all came out of nowhere and suddenly I was thrust over the steering wheel and I was crashing through the windshield and falling and falling and falling until my wife is giving me a sponge bath because I can’t do it myself. An ice-cream truck reduces me to tears. I don’t recognize myself.

Five months.

Water trickles off my chin and I try to look into the future. I try to gaze five months down the road. Chemotherapy will be done, remission will have begun, my mom will have gone home, I will have gone back to work and . . . it all seems like an intangible impossibility. None of it seems likely or possible or even probable.

I say, “Do you think this will end?” and Jade says, “Soon,” and I say, “It seems weird, doesn’t it? Going back to normal,” and Jade says, “Things will never be normal again,” and I nod and grunt and she scrubs my knees and my feet and I say, “We’ll never be the same, will we?” and she says, “No,” and then, “I hope not,” and I grunt again, glad that she is having her own revelations.

She says, “I want to travel more,” and I say, “I want to camp more,” and she says, “I want a family,” and I say, “Me too,” and then everything is silent except for the dripping water until I say, “One drip at a time,” and she says, “Yeah . . . we did it . . . one drip at a time. Only a few bags left,” and I shudder to think that it’s over but we’re not done. My tears mix with the water running down my face and the thought of another round is so unbearable that I have to push it from my mind and focus on the victory at hand.

She pushes her forehead against my ear and whispers, “I love you,” and I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “For what?” and I say, “Everything. For staying. For helping. For just . . . the doctors, the files, the organizing, the appointments, the medicines, the charts, the insurance, the fights with the hospital, with the nurses, with the doctors, with me. Thank you for just . . . everything. I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here. I really don’t. I’m so thankful for you and I hope I never have to be on your end. I hope you never have to be on my end. I hope this is it and you’ve just been . . . incredible. I love you,” and when I look over she has tears running down her face and so I say, “Hey! We’re both crying!” and she says, “You’re—” sob, “not crying . . . ” and I say, “No!” Sob! “I am! I was just hiding my tears in the water! It was total espionage because I didn’t—” sob, “want you to know it!” and then she says, “You’re an idiot,” and I say, “I—” sob, “know,” and then she hands me a towel and I walk out of the bathroom smelling less like sulfur and more like a Starbucks winter-themed drink—pumpkin latte or cinnamon mochaccino.

 

 

 

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MINOR DETAILS: CHAPTER 33

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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.

And strong.

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.

 

 

 

 

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ROUND 3: CHAPTER 32

 

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I’m sitting in the backseat of our Pontiac Vibe in the parking lot of the Arcadia Methodist hospital. My breaths are coming in quick staccato bursts, my heart threatening to beat right through my rib cage. My mother is sitting in the passenger seat saying, “Just relax. We’re in no rush . . . just calm down,” and my wife is saying nothing, knowing that there is nothing to say. She sits in the driver’s seat biting her nails and checking her Facebook, knowing that I just need to process these emotions myself.

I throw myself back onto the seat and say, “I’m not going. I can’t go back in there! I . . . . Please, GOD, don’t make me go back in,” and then I’m curling my knees into my chest and covering my eyes with the bend of my elbow and just begging for a miraculous healing because I am terrified of chemotherapy.

It is burning and damaging and destructive. It is fire and earthquakes and hurricanes. I am a witch being led to the pyre again and again and again. I’m walking over hot coals, walking into the pain willingly, tirelessly, for the third time. It was easier when I didn’t know. It was scarier when I didn’t know but it was easier. The unknown was untouched territory that I slowly felt through in the dark, finding the rhythms of my sickness, the pulse of my body, the schedule of my Sub Life.

Now I know. Now I’m aware. I see the guillotine and the hangman’s noose. I see myself curled over and hurling up blood in less than 24 hours. I see my bones feeling like glass. I see my stomach churning and rolling as paint thinner is pumped into me. The fire is lit and everyone is chanting, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon . . . round three,” and I say, “It’s not even the end! It’s not even the end . . . ” and images of doing this entire thing one more time keep flashing through my head and I’m so scared and I’m so alone and I don’t want to get out of the car. I just want to die, to die, to be struck dead. I am Prometheus and my liver is eaten and renewed and eaten and renewed and eaten and it doesn’t end, it never ends. God, if you won’t heal me, kill me! I am begging for a miracle, either of fantastic goodness or diabolical madness, anything that will deviate me from my current course of action.

I can taste the saline they pump through my veins to flush my IV. I can smell the cleaning supplies. I can hear that beeping IV ringing in my ear, stabbing my brain. I can hear that machine in the hall breathing for the man who is either still alive or very dead. I can feel the needles resting in my arms, and my eyes are glass and my ears are bleeding and everything stinks, physically stinks of rot and death and body odor.

Jade shuts her phone off and says, “Johnny,” and I say, “Hhhhh,” and she says, “We need to go inside now,” and I stand up and hold her hand and she takes another picture of me outside of the hospital, paper thin and red eyed and then we’re walking inside and you already know how this plays out.

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