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SOLAR ECLIPSE: CHAPTER 31

 

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Once in a great while the sun and the moon align in a total solar eclipse and the stars uncross and the fates smile and, like a miracle from the hand of a savior, I am able to stand and to walk on my very own. I am able to laugh and tell jokes and drink juice and taste food without getting sick.

These are not the days when sickness is almost out of my body. These are the days when the cure almost is.

On the days when the chemo is nearly out-processed and I am beginning to get my thoughts back in order and the soft mush that is my brain is beginning to firm up, it is these two or three days before going back to the hospital that I must take advantage of my circumstances.

As my wife helps me bundle up in my full arctic wear, complete with scarf, I notice that the clock reads 6:15 p.m. I know we need, need, need to be home by 9 o’clock at the very absolute latest because, no matter how good I currently feel (relatively speaking), I won’t make it to 9:15 p.m. Quarter after rolls around and I will, home or not, be dead to the world. My carriage will turn back into a pumpkin and my clarity will turn back to pay-per-view static. Goodbye, world. Au revoir. Adios. Time to sleep.

Jade unlocks the car and I fall into the passenger seat and turn the radio on, letting music quietly fill the air.

I miss it so much. Of all the superficial things, I miss music the most. I can hear the raspy voices of Kurt Cobain, Frank Black, and Isaac Brock coughing out lyrics in my furthest memories, but it’s like listening to them through a joint wall shared by a neighbor in a duplex.

Bad news comes, don’t you worry

Even when it lands

Good news will work its way to all them plans

Jade cranks the key, slams the gear shift, and punches the gas and then we’re off like a herd of turtles, gently coasting down the streets of The Valley, navigating through streets with powerful names like Victory, beautiful names like Magnolia, and disgusting names like Cumpston. We pull onto the freeway and the night envelops us, pulling our automobile into her black cloak and then, at 80 miles per hour, a song by Rage Against the Machine begins to wah-wah out of the radio and Zack de la Rocha’s voice suddenly reminds me of how this all started; me blasting through the desert to Vegas, alone, hungry for drugs and alcohol. Me with a couple hundred bucks on fire in my pocket. Me with my invincible bullshit attitude and . . . I hate that guy. It’s only been three months but I don’t recognize him and I can no longer relate.

The things that guy wants are moot. His desires are dead. I don’t feel remorseful or sorry. I don’t mourn his loss but secretly celebrate it, wondering who this new skin will shape up to be once it gets to crawl out and spread its wings. How will his brain think? How will his heart feel? What will his soul search for?

Only time will tell but tonight his soul searches for Mexican food in the flavor of a little restaurante in Westwood. Some friends of ours had called us a few weeks back, requesting a dinner date and my wife tells them, “Yes! Perfect! We’d love to see you!” and they had said, “How’s 7:30?” and Jade had answered with, “Perfect. How is nineteen days from now? Johnny should be in some kind of working order by then.”

The silence on the other end of the phone lasts for a few moments before my friend’s wife says, “I’ll have to check the calendar . . . yes? Maybe?” I have nothing to do and no time to do it in. My life is a blank page that I can’t read. My days are newspaper articles written in Cantonese. My nights are like iPods with no headphones. I am existing without being operational. Here I am, flesh and blood, present in time and space, but unable to be useful.

Jade pulls into the parking lot, gives the keys to the valet, and we both walk inside, she dressed up for a well-deserved night out, me looking like a homeless man trying to pass for “merely unemployed.” None of my clothes fit as I’m in the exact opposite stage that most pregnant women find themselves—too big to fit into their old clothes and just too depressed to go buy more because they know this season will be over soon and they can squeeze back into those old jeans and T-shirts.

In the meantime I look like that Fievel Mousekewitz character from An American Tale, oversized rags hanging from my body.

This is our first outing since The Beginning. This is the first time we’ve been out of the house to somewhere that was not directly related to Cancer: hospital, clinic, marijuana dispensary, church. It’s also the first night that my wife and I have been away from my mother since she got here and it somehow feels like our little circle has been broken and one of our members is absent from a meeting.

We enter the warm building and find our friends, Killian and Emily, sitting on a small bench in the “Just Have a Seat” area. They approach and hug us, both of them dwarfing me, wrapping their average sized arms around my depleting frame and crushing the life from my bones. They say, “How are you?” and they say, “You look good,” and they say, “This place is our favorite,” and they say, “You really do look good . . . ” and I know that I look like an emaciated version of The Yellow Bastard from the popular graphic novel, Sin City.

The waiter points us to our table and we walk through the cramped spaces, navigating to our booth in a back corner. We sit down and I try to take it all in. I want to remember this. I know my time is almost up. The eclipse is almost over. My chariot will be a pumpkin before too long.

Strange hand-painted tribal masks hang along the walls the entire length of the restaurant—blue faces with white lips, orange faces with blue dots on the cheeks, black faces with red streaks running from the eyes, one hundred vacant expressions watching us from the walls.

I’m staring into one of these masks, getting lost in thought when I realize that a senorita is standing by my side taking drink orders. Like clockwork, all three guests—Killian, Emily, and Jade—order extra large margaritas. I smile. Even Jade is taking advantage of her own solar eclipse.

The waitress looks at me and says, “Margarita for you, sir?” and the thought of consuming salty alcohol makes me shiver. I say, “No, thank you. I’ll just have the, uh . . . ” and then I glance back at the menu, run my finger down their alcohol menu, stop on a random drink, look back up and say, “Milk, please,” and the waitress stares at me and says, “Milk. Like . . . a White Russian?” and I say, “No . . . like, two percent,” and Jade laughs because she knows it’s the only thing besides Gatorade that’s actually able to help soothe my stomach and sore throat. Killian says, “You can get a margarita. Dinner’s on us!” and I laugh and say, “Milk is fine. Thanks.”

Back around the table again, the waitress takes our meal orders. Killian gets a number 17 combination plate of four shrimp tacos, beans, rice, two enchiladas, and a side salad. Emily orders a number 4: smothered chicken burrito with a bowl of tortilla soup on the side and an appetizer of jalapeño poppers. Jade orders a number 11: two chicken enchiladas, two beef enchiladas, rice, beans, and two sides of her choice for which she requests double portions of corn cake. The waitress turns to me and I put down the menu, my mouth slavering from all the options and I say, “I would like . . . a taco, please,” and she says, “A taco meal?” and I say, “A . . . sorry. I would like one taco,” and then, just to add a little cultural flair I say, “Uno. Taco. Por favor.” And I know she doesn’t understand why I’m ordering so scarcely and I don’t feel like explaining the whole long story or even some shortened and bastardized version of the tale that goes something like, “I’m sick and tonight is my night to eat a delicious meal and I’m very excited but still, I’m sick and I can’t eat like a totally normal person. I still have to be aware and conscious because I am completely aware and totally conscious that I puke every single day, multiple times a day, and I am also aware and conscious that I am in a public establishment with my friends and family right now, a public establishment that is filled mostly with strangers, and I don’t want to vomit here. I don’t want to vomit on your table. I don’t want to vomit on your floor. I don’t want to vomit in front of my friends, next to their food, ruining their meals. I haven’t eaten much in the last few months and so my stomach has shrunk down to a fraction of its previous size. No longer a softball, it’s now a walnut.” Killian says, “You can order more. Dinner’s on us!” and I say, “One taco is all I need.”

I imagine taking them up on their offer and ordering a “regular portion” for the sake of being polite. I imagine it arriving, the plate overflowing with food, steaming with flavor, the waitress saying, “Careful, it’s hot,” as she sets it down on our table with pot holders. I imagine everyone grabbing their forks and digging in, ravaging their food, tearing apart those gummy enchilada rolls, shoveling refried beans into their mouths and slicing chicken and beef like butchers while I stare at my plate and eat half a taco before sliding the plate up and saying, “So good . . . so full . . . . ”

The waitress leaves and our pre-dinner conversation starts and I quickly realize just how out of the game I’ve been. They ask us if we’ve seen this show or that show and they ask us if we’ve seen this movie or that movie and they ask us if we’ve heard this news story or that news story and Jade reaches over, under the table, and squeezes my hand twice, gently, in a friendly manner and I know she’s thinking the same thing I am, which is, “I have no idea what is going on in the world.”

We’ve been so ingrained in our adventure, so zipped up in the body bag that is Cancer Life that the rest of the world has slowly passed us by. While we’ve been huddled around the fire, trying to stay warm, Wall Street has continued on, Hollywood has continued on, Earth has continued spinning and changing and growing.

The words that everyone speaks float from their mouths to my ears but die before they ever hit my brain. Everything feels superficial. Everything feels plastic and fake. Not my friends, not my wife, but our words. Hollywood and Wall Street. It all suddenly feels so . . . dirty. Everything feels so fleeting. When life and death are hanging in the balance, money quickly loses its value because you realize it can’t help you. It can’t buy you health. It can buy you healthy food and it can buy you good doctors but it can’t buy you health. Health, like respect, is earned.

A moment later a young man appears at our table holding a tray of drinks, a young man who is decidedly not the young woman who had originally taken our orders and so he is unsure exactly which margarita goes to which patron. He says, “Straw . . . berry?” and Emily raises her hand and he sets it down and says, “There you go . . . . Mango?” and Killian says, “Right here,” and reaches out and takes it from him and the waiter says, “Passion fruit?” and he looks at Jade and me and Jade smiles and says, “I’ll be taking that,” and then all of our eyes are resting on his tray where the only cup left is a tiny half-sized little sippy cup with a Styrofoam lid and a wacky bendy straw and the guy says, “Sorry, I . . . I thought this was for a kid,” and I say, “Yeah, that’s right. You better go put my drink in a big-boy glass.”

That night, on our drive home, I can feel the effects of our night out. My eyes are heavy, my arms are anchors, the weight of one taco pulling me down and drawing me into darkness. I fall asleep on the ride home and when I wake up I’m in my bed. The eclipse is over. The carriage is gone. Tomorrow it all starts over again.

Tomorrow is Round 3.

 

 

 

 

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NODULES: CHAPTER 17

It’s been a few weeks since the last chapter. I apologize. I’ve been out of town celebrating my father-in-laws 60th birthday as well as the birth of my nephew, Gavin John.

But now I’m back.

And so is the story.

We last left off here. Surgery was done. Testicle was removed. And then we went back to the doctor where he informed us that the cancer was back and was 300x more active than previously thought.

That’s called a plot twist. And it was a true to life WTF moment. Very hard reality to swallow.

The previous chapter covers the very beginnings of chemotherapy, getting the IV, the drips beginning and Jade and I wondering what comes next.

And now we press on with chapter 17: Nodules. We’ll pick up with the very first morning following the very first chemo.

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I open my eyes and immediately notice two things: The first is that the sun is trying to peek through my blinds, scooping its rays around the edge of the window. The second is that I feel incredibly hung over and the sensation seems to just be amplifying by the second. I take several deep breaths and fumble around in the gray light, looking for a cup of water while trying not to wake my wife.

I manage to kick my feet off the side of the bed and take three big gulps from a cup filled with something that’s the same temperature as horse spit. My stomach churns and rolls and I gag and the water rises up my esophagus and into my mouth. I hop off the bed, pursing my lips and waddle into the cramped bathroom, pulling my IV (mine, mine, mine) behind me. I bend over and open my mouth and the three gulps fall gracefully into the toilet like Olympians at the high dive. Ker-splash.

I gag, gag, gag again but nothing comes up. I sit down on the floor and hear Jade in the other room shift around, “Are you OK?”

“I’m just . . . sick.”

A nurse enters and asks if everything is OK and I tell him that I puked and he tells me that it’s a side effect. I thank him and expect him to leave but instead he takes my blood and I wonder if they’re going to do another cancer marker test and if those numbers are going to be lower than 900.

Jade turns on the television and the show with the million kids is on again so I just turn my head and stare at the drip-drip-drip and try to imagine my numbers dropping, 900-899-898, even though I know there’s no possible way it could be decreasing so rapidly.

By lunch the nausea has increased so much that I consider just making camp in the bathroom. I keep munching on ice chips but my wife continues to suggest that I eat something solid. “Panda Express?” she asks, “In-N-Out?” she asks, “Chipotle?” she asks.

I cover my eyes with my forearm and gag. I tell her she should just go grab some-gag­-thing for her-gag-self. She leaves and a nurse enters and takes my blood and I wonder what those cancer markers look like: numbers floating around in my blood like alphabet soup? The nurse thanks me for some reason and then I flip through the channels and, of course, there’s nothing on, so I just find the least offensive show I can and dig in, some episode of Family Guy, but it’s on the final act so it ends too quickly and then I watch an episode of Seinfeld and Jade is back with food and I manage to take a couple bites.

 

The Hazmat Nurse comes back in and changes my bag to Medicine #2, something called Platinum and I can only picture Madonna. “One bag down!” I think and am genuinely happy. “I feel a bit pukey but this isn’t so hard!” The Hazmat Nurse exits and a short Asian woman in a yellow shirt and lanyard around her neck enters. “I’m Dr. Yen,” she says and offers a tight but friendly smile, adjusting her glasses with her index finger. “I’ll be your oncologist, OK?” This is the good friend/specialist to whom Dr. Honda had recommended us. This is the woman who will oversee the ritual. This is our personal witch doctor. She smiles politely and says, “How are you feeling?” and I tell her that I’m a little nauseated and she tells me that it’s normal and that she’ll order me some anti-nausea medication. I thank her and ask what I should expect and she takes a few steps toward my IV pole, examines the bag and then takes a few steps back. She says, “Here’s what we’re dealing with. Most people, your regular cancer patient, they’re going to get what’s called outpatient chemo, OK? There’s a clinic, like the one at my office, and they come there and hang out for a couple hours, OK, and they leave and go home and go to work and then come back two weeks later and get another two-hour treatment and so on and so forth, OK, until we’ve, uh, eradicated the cancer, all right? OK?” and I say, “OK. But that’s not what I’m doing,” and she says, “No.”

She walks around the bed and looks at the Panda Express and says, “Panda Express. Man, I love those egg rolls,” and my wife smiles and offers her one, but Dr. Yen shakes her head and says, “No, I try not to eat them. Too greasy.” Jade sighs and pops half of it in her mouth while the doctor continues.

“You’re going to stay with us for six days and we’re going to give you chemotherapy every day, for six hours a day. Six and six. Once it’s over, we’ll release you back to your home for two weeks and then, just when you start feeling better, we’re going to bring you back in,” and I say, “Uh . . . wow,” and she says, “We’re going to do this three or four times,” and I say, “ . . . All right.”

 

She asks me if I have any questions and I say, “A million,” and she says, “Shoot,” and the first and foremost that’s been resting on my brain for the past month is, “Am I going to die?” and with wildly strong confidence she answers, “No. You won’t die. Well, I won’t say won’t. I’ll say you shouldn’t die because there’s always that chance but your odds are very good. You’re young. You’re strong,” and I say, “OK. Then do what you have to do,” and she says, “Listen to me. I’m going to hit you with a Mack truck. I’m going to run you over. I’m going to take you right to the edge . . . and then I’m going to bring you back. You’re not going to like me very much,” and I just smile and look at the bag and say, “Keep them—” gag “—coming.”

 

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The only thing that’s saving me, poison or not, is the constant, drip-drip-drip that’s running into my arm. The miracle of modern medicine. The blessing of science and technology.

Later that night, my parents show up, having driven straight through from Mitchell, South Dakota, all the way to Los Angeles over night. It’s a 1,500-mile trip and they took it in one 22-hour hit.

My mom walks into the room first and throws her purse in a chair and bends down over me and hugs me and just cries. I say, “It’s OK, it’s OK. I’m just fine,” and she says, “You’re not fine! You have cancer! You’re getting chemotherapy! You keep telling me you’re fine on the phone and it’s not a big deal but Theresa (my sister) ran into June (my mother-in-law) and she says that you’re not well at all and that this IS a big deal and that you haven’t been completely up front with us about this! John Lowell   . . . what . . . how sick are you?” and I say, “The doctor says I’ll probably survive,” and my mother wails and says, “Pro-bab-lee?!” in all italics like that and holds me tight and it’s not until years later when I have children of my own that I’m able to actually imagine a shadow of the pain and fear she must have been experiencing.

 

She loosens her grip and leans back and I say, “Mother?” and she says, “What?” and I say, “Listen. I just need to tell you . . . that . . . you have . . . mascara running down your face,” and she laughs and slaps me and says, “John Lowell. Shut up. Mascara.” She stands up and exits into the bathroom to fix herself up while my dad bends down and gives me one of those Dad Hugs that is sort of in the styling of one-arm-draped-loosely-around-your-neck-side-squeeze things and then quickly stands up and says, “You look good. Down in the parking lot I told your mom that she needed to be ready because you were probably going to look pretty sick, like one of those kids on the quarter collections you see in restaurants but—you look good.”

He sits down and says, “They feed you here?” and I say, “Not food,” and my mom comes out of the bathroom and says, “Did you guys eat?” and Jade says, “I ate. He’s been feeling pretty sick,” and I realize that it’s already happening. They’re starting to talk about me like I’m not here, like I’m just this thing that’s happening and everyone needs to take care of.

 

The next several days play out in a slow-motion blur of blood withdrawals, bad food, reality shows, chemotherapy bags, good nurses, bad nurses, sleeping, and vomiting. I become intimately acquainted with the toilet as I bow down before the porcelain throne and give my tithe.

My parents come and go—they’re staying at our house while they’re in town—and Jade, working a part-time job, stays the night with me if she doesn’t have to work in the morning. The second and third night she sleeps on the cot because, as romantic and harlequin as it is for two young lovers to share a single hospital bed, it is actually extremely uncomfortable and nearly impossible to sleep while your partner continues to shudder with dry—gag—heaves.

Nurses periodically bring me nausea medication but it’s never quick enough to stop the sickness or strong enough to fight it back. They try pills and they try intravenous injections and it seems to take the edge off but not enough to actually stop it from cutting.

On November 26, while my wife is outside the hospital smoking a cigarette (I won’t even get into the irony of it), an older gentleman sporting a plaid button-up and thick glasses enters my room and introduces himself as Dr. Sharpe, a partner to Dr. Yen. He tells me that she’s busy at their office today but he wanted to come by to quickly speak with me.

I say, “Nice to meet you,” and he pulls up a chair and says, “Likewise,” although there is no smile in his voice. It’s just a word rolling off a tongue, a guttural noise that has some human meaning.

He opens a manila folder, pulls the glasses from his face, and holds them halfway between himself and the paper. “The reports of your CAT scan are back and it says here that you have several nodules on your lungs.”

 

Silence.

 

“Nodules? What is that? What is—”

 

“Sorry. Tumors.”

 

“Tumors? On my lungs?” and there are so, so many thoughts flying through my head at this one moment but the one thing, above all else that I just can’t seem to process is the term lung cancer. I mean, I know that I have cancer. I’ve accepted that and am taking the proper precautions to make sure it doesn’t spread and I’m lying on this bed, plugged into this beeping machine that’s lowering chemicals into my body and probably killing my kidneys and I gave up my testicle and what’s that now? Lung cancer? Did I mention that my wife is outside smoking a cigarette while I’m being told this?

 

“Yes. Lung cancer. There are several dark spots,” and I say, “Several like three?” and I can feel my voice starting to crack and there’s nothing I can do to control it. There is, in fact, nothing I can do to control anything. I wipe my nose with my hand and pretend that I’m just wiping “casual snot” away and not “crying snot.”

“I’m not exactly sure. A lot. Maybe 17 of various sizes.”

And then he stands up and says, “But this,” and he signals to my IV bag, “should take care of it. You should probably be fine.”

 

Probably.

 

And then, without saying goodbye, he leaves and I am alone.

 

Alone.

 

The reality show plays on mute and I stare at the TV but I don’t see anything. My vision goes blurry and my nose starts to run and tears stream down my cheeks and my head slumps down and it has broken me one week in and—

The doctor pokes his head back in, the way someone might pop back in to say, “Did I leave my keys here?” but instead of inquiring about a misplaced item, says, “Oh, sorry. I forgot to mention, there are also spots on your heart,” and then, like that, he disappears.

I’m sitting hunchbacked, head tilted down, tears dropping onto my groin in such quantity that it’s actually looking like I’ve pissed this stupid blue robe. My wife enters and says, “What’s wrong? Are you OK? What happened?” and I say, “I have lung cancer and heart cancer. I have stage four cancer,” and I sob and take a breath and say, “Do you know how high those numbers go?” and Jade is silent so I say, “Four. They only go to four.”

 

I believe the human spirit can evolve through nearly anything and, given enough time, most things about cancer even become routine and expected. Months and months down the road, the brokenness and isolation and hopelessness will be old hat but today it is brand new. Today I’ve been told that my cancer is twice as strong as it was when I walked in the door. Today the hopelessness is fresh and new and horrific. My wife and I are twenty-four and twenty-six, respectively, and I’m wondering if I only have months to live and my wife is wondering if she’ll be a widow before her twenty-fifth birthday. We wonder how far this can go. How deep is this hole? How dark is this blackness? And we wonder it all in silence as we squeeze each other’s hands and shoulders and we both stare at our feet and we shut our eyes and we gasp and sob, confronted by the potential of personal death here and now.

 

The sun goes down as I’m left wondering what I’ll think of Cancer once I’m on the other side, in Remission. I try to imagine how it will look when I’m standing much further away. How will it change me? Will it change me?

But yes, I already know the answer to that. When I come out the other side, I will be something altogether new and transformed. I already know that I’ll never be the same. I already know that Cancer is my chrysalis, and when it cracks open, something that flies will emerge.

 

Jade lies on the bed next to me and runs her hand through my beard and says, “I’m going to quit smoking,” and I can smell the stale cigarettes on her fingertips. She doesn’t stand up and dramatically march to the garbage can, throwing her soft pack of Parliament Lights 100s into the trash. She doesn’t make a declaration of Cold Turkey. She doesn’t even immediately denounce her nicotine habit that has lasted her a pack a day every day since she was sixteen. Instead she just says, “I’m going to quit smoking,” and I believe her and one week later, she does. She snuffs out her final cigarette, leaving me to wonder how many years my cancer has purchased her . . . this thing that’s killing me is saving her. I wonder about Cancer and alternative purposes or “Higher Purposes” or silver linings. Call it whatever you want. It’s all the same. Bad news with happy endings.

Drip-drip-drip.

822-821-820.

I think about dying and death and cemeteries and morgues and morticians and corpses being embalmed. I think about the blood being sucked out and some foreign chemical being pumped back in so as to preserve the host.

Drip-drip-drip.

809-808-807.

Someone comes in to take my blood out of my body and away to a lab. Someone else comes in and gives me new chemo, some chemical pumping into my body to preserve the host.

Alive or dead, I am a corpse.

 

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As always, thank you for reading. Next week continues with CHAPTER 18: INTERMISSION

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