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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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CHRISTMAS EVE: CHAPTER 27

 

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If the fifth floor of the hospital was a kind of relative paradise for chemo in-patients—big rooms, big beds, remote controls, specialty nurses—then the second floor was one step above a skid row methadone clinic.

 

A red-haired nurse who’s seen better days leads us out of the elevator and down a narrow hallway with, I kid you not, a flickering fluorescent light. The tiles in the hallway are cracked and breaking, green and white checkered, garbage cans are over flowing and puddles of water seem to be leaking out from the cracks in the walls. We pass a clock and I see that it’s just breaking 2:15 a.m. and is officially Christmas Eve.

 

My eyelids are getting heavy and my legs are feeling even heavier. I’m running on fumes, and when they lead me into the dark room, no one even bothers turning on a light. I lie down in bed, my wife covers me up, says something about coming back later, my eyes flicker, and she’s gone.

 

I wake up forty-five minutes later, lean over the side of the bed and puke into the garbage can, unsure of where the bathroom is. The cable connecting me to my IV, which they gave me in the E.R., cramps up and starts beeping. Nobody comes. I press the CALL button on my receiver but nobody comes. I press it again… and again . . . and again . . . but nobody comes. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP.

 

The thought of bubbles traveling down the tube into my veins doesn’t bother me so much as the actual noise of the blips. Each tone acts like an arrow through my skull. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP. It holds open my eyelids, slides a metal plate under my eyeball, shoves down, pops it out, disconnects my optic nerve with a hacksaw, and jams a white hot screwdriver into my brain.

 

I reach out into the darkness and push the machine as far away as I can, 3 or 4 feet. I push the CALL button again . . . and again . . . and again. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen minutes pass. Twenty minutes pass. I look around and see a phone just out of my reach but don’t know whom I’d actually ring.

 

Suddenly, in the hallway, I hear footsteps approaching. A shadow begins to grace my narrow vision through the doorframe. Finally. Finally. Finally.

 

A nurse with dark skin and purple scrubs approaches . . . and continues on . . . heading somewhere else. I cough into my hand and shout, “HEY! EXCUSE ME! UH . . . MISS?!” The footsteps stop and I hear the soles of her shoes turn on the tile before they begin to grow louder again. She turns into the room and, seeming unsure, says, “Hi, how are you?” and I say, “This machine, it’s . . . I don’t know what’s—” gag— “wrong with it and—” gag— “can I get some nausea medication? I’m—” gag— “I have cancer and I—” gag— “sorry . . . I just need something for my stomach and I don’t think this call button works,” and the nurse says, “I’ll see what I can do about the medication. Your call button should work fine. I’ll get you some ice chips,” and she turns to leave just as I lose control of my stomach and vomit more blood into the trashcan.

 

Twenty minutes later a man enters and takes my blood. I puke again. I roll onto my side. I mash my face into the pillow. I turn on my other side. I can’t sleep. The sloshing sickness in my stomach is listlessly rolling through my entire body. My brain feels like it’s bleeding. My toenails hurt. My bones hurt. I try to sleep but am wide awake, alone, cold. Where is my medicine? I start to gag again and my stomach feels like someone is twisting a knife into it. I slam my thumb into the CALL button three times in a row before shouting, “HELLO?!” Nothing.

 

Another man enters and says he needs to take my blood. I tell him someone was just here forty minutes ago. He says he doesn’t know about that even though I show him the Band-Aid and the hole. He takes blood from my other arm. I tell him I need a nurse and he says he’ll fetch someone. Twenty minutes later the nurse shows back up. It’s 3-something-a.m. at this point and I feel as though I’m about to begin hallucinating with exhaustion. I ask about my nausea medicine and she says that she spoke to the pharmacy and they said I’d need a doctor’s prescription first.

 

This is how hospitals work. You have stage 4 cancer. You’re skin and bones. You’re a grown man who weighs 130 pounds. You’ve been admitted to the E.R. for vomiting up blood. You have a track record of various ailments and, at 3:30 in the morning, nobody will give you medicine to stop you from throwing up more blood because the doctor, who is asleep, can’t sign off on a form.

 

The nurse, in all of her wisdom, brings me enough aspirin to tame a mild headache. This is tantamount to trying to fix the World Trade Center with Elmer’s Glue. I would kick her in the teeth if only I had the energy. She tells me she’s trying to get a hold of the physician and I say, “Isn’t he asleep?” and she says, “Yes but . . . uh . . . we’re trying to reach him . . . ” and I say, “OK . . . please hurry.” The nausea is growing in me like a weed, choking out my life and energy, taking over all my thoughts.

 

The Useless Nurse leaves and the machine starts to beep again and the first man enters and takes my blood again, claiming that he didn’t get enough vials for all the tests. I tell him that a second man was already here and that he should have quite enough between the two of them and he tells me he doesn’t know of a second man. He pokes me in my arm, takes more vials and leaves, fetching the nurse. She returns, adjusts the machine and says that there’s still no word from the doctor.

 

It’s 4:30. I sit up in bed and stare at my feet, thinking about how I’m not even halfway through this process yet. Wondering if this is how death looks. Wondering if these will be my final memories. Not this moment exactly . . . but a collection of moments just like it—hospitals, nurses, beeping, cleaning solution, needles, blood, vomit, and stiff hospital sheets, crunchy with starch and dried urine. I puke again and the blood seems to be retreating, being replaced by yellow bile. That’s a good sign, I think to myself. I lie back down, place my forearm over my face, and try to force myself to cry. It sounds lame but sometimes a good cry is all you need.

 

Instead of crying, I puke again. My stomach is a war zone filled with corpses.

 

I stand up and make my way to the dark bathroom, the fluid from the IV bag washing through me and cleansing my kidneys from all the poison I’ve taken in. I am a junkie, drugs coursing through my veins, ruining my life.

 

I pee, crawl back into bed, and watch the sky start to turn gray. The clock reads 5:45 and I still haven’t slept. Still no word from the pharmacy. Still no aspirin or ice chips. This place is getting a bad Yelp review fer sher.

 

At 6:15, the second man enters my room again and says he needs to draw my blood. He says they had enough blood but forgot to do one test. Beaten, broken, destroyed, I say nothing. I just stick out my thrice-stabbed arms and let him take as much as he wants. I turn on my side, pull my knees to my chest and wonder where my wife is, where my mother is, where Sue is.

 

I press the call button. Nothing.

 

At 7 a.m. the Useless Nurse shows up with more Aspirin. I swallow it and puke it up. She says she’s still waiting to hear from the doctor. I don’t say anything. She leaves.

 

At 8:50 my wife shows up and I am so happy and hopeless and helpless that I finally do cry. I am so alone without her. I tell her everything and she says, “What? WHAT? WHAT?” and when the first man enters to take my blood a fourth time because someone just called in one more test, Jade says, “No. You’re not taking his blood. Get out. Get out of here,” and the man says, “But we—”and Jade says, “That’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Leave.” And the man turns and walks away.

 

The Useless Nurse enters, and before she can speak, Jade says, “He needs his nausea medication,” and the nurse says, “I know, he—” and Jade says, “No. You don’t know. He’s in here because he’s puking up blood and you give him, sorry, aspirin? ASPIRIN? Where did you go to school? His call button doesn’t work? Where are we? What is this place? You think ice chips are going to help him? He can’t eat. Did you call the doctor?” and the nurse says, “I . . . left him a message . . . ” and Jade says, “Where’s the pharmacy? I’ll go talk to them,” and, twenty minutes later, my wife, not an employee of the medical field, returns with good news. She says that someone will bring me a bag right away—not a pill, but a bag of medication so I can’t throw it up.

 

At 10:15 a.m. we ask if we can go and we’re told that the doctor wants to see us first. At 11:30, we ask where the doctor is and they say he’s making his rounds but will definitely be here before noon. At 12:45 we ask how much longer he’ll be, and they say he’s on his lunch break but will absolutely probably be here directly after that at some point. At 1:15 Jade leaves to get herself lunch. At 2:30, he still hasn’t shown up but somebody tells us that he’s on the fifth floor. At 3:45 people stop showing up to our room. At 4:15, there is still no sign of anyone. At 5:15, a male nurse walks by in the hallway and my wife grabs him and says, “Where is Dr. Manfred?” and the nurse says, “He should be here shortly,” and Jade says, “Can we leave whenever we want?” and the nurse says, “Yes . . . I mean . . . we can’t force you to stay but   . . . a doctor should see you,” and Jade says, “You have 15 minutes to bring him here or we’re walking out this door.” At 5:30 Dr. Manfred shows up sporting an arm cast and says to me, “How you feeling?” I say, “Good.” He says, “Throwing up blood?” I say, “No. Not since last night.” He says, “Good. Call us if anything changes. You may leave.”

 

This is how hospitals work. Well-oiled machines of idiocy.

 

 

 

 

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ROUND 2: CHAPTER 25

 

ABOVE: (LEFT) ROUND 1 (RIGHT) ROUND 2

There is a stop sign posted half a block from my house that, circa 10 days ago, I could barely walk to. With my mother holding me around the waist, the two of us feebly hobble down the sidewalk in order for me to get some of that Vitamin D and “exercise” that everyone seems to think is so important. By the time I touch the pole I am so winded and utterly exhausted that I’m ready to sleep. And I apologize for the redundancy, but I just really want to stress that I just walked 300 feet with the assistance of my mother and am now ready for a nap.

 

I am a side effect.

 

But that was ten days ago. Today I’m walking through a grocery store at 11 a.m. I’m still leaning a little heavily on the cart for support, but we’ve been meandering for fifteen minutes and I bet I’ve walked at least two thousand feet. Maybe even three thousand!

 

I can eat here and there without the assistance of the vaporizer and I can walk and I can exist in a world without vomiting because the chemo is slowly draining from my system and everything is getting better and sounds don’t make my stomach churn and I’m starting to live again and . . . today I go back in for Round 2.

 

Today I start over.

 

There is a strange elation and excitement that fills my body and mind and maybe it’s just hopeful naiveté but I am excited to go back in.

 

I’ve been receiving letters in the mail and phone calls and emails and messages via social media from various people—friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family, and even strangers who say they’ve been reading my blog and watching my story unfold and looking at the pictures my wife has been posting and they’re just . . . amazed . . . at our fantastic attitudes.

 

“You’re able to laugh at the whole thing!” they say and I, with tears streaming down my cheeks and quaking hands, think, Har-har-har.

 

But the letters and text messages keep coming. “My niece has cancer and I told her your story and sent her to your blog,” and, “My son had cancer and God bless you,” and, “Your story is so inspiring. You put my life into focus,” and I sit in my chair reading these and feeling like a fake because of all my talk about death.

Last week I was in a state of true fear about my approaching second round. I couldn’t dream of willingly going back and allowing them to do this to me, setting me back to square one. The needles, the poison, the nurses, the dark bags of chemicals dripping into me, the smells, the puking, the pain, the hunger, the fear, the fear, the fear and, most especially, The Unknown.

 

It’s truly not the impending death that destroys you but the utter hopelessness of life, your energy being sapped and drained from your body until you feel like the last brittle leaf hanging onto a tree in an autumn storm.

 

Even chewing your food becomes a chore and a challenge because it takes too much of your scarce reserves. But, Johnny, you ask, why don’t you just get high all the time? If it helps your appetite and helps you sleep and gives you energy? Why aren’t you getting baked? Go green! And the answer to that, my little Doobie Brother, is because, while that little miracle drug works like a charm, it comes at a cost, an actual hard cost. I’m talking finances. And I can’t just go on a binge and burn through every green dollar I own. For the next six months I have to buy groceries and pay rent, not to mention the myriad of other expenses that occur on a regular basis: car insurance, health insurance, electricity, etc., etc. May I remind you that I’m not working ? We’re rolling in a car with three wheels that’s running on fumes and a prayer.

 

Watching our pennies disappear one by one, we call to inquire about government assistance but they tell us we don’t qualify because we “made too much money last year.” My wife says, “Yes, but last year my husband was healthy and had a good job. That makes sense. This year he has cancer and can barely walk and definitely can’t hold a job and we need to eat,” and the person on the phone says, “You will qualify next year,” and my wife, says, “That doesn’t make any sense,” and the person says, “We rate you off the previous year,” and my wife slams the phone onto the table.

 

I watch the clock tick tock away and think that every second I’m just a little closer to The End, whatever result it may be, life or death. However this fight turns out, we’re chugging full steam ahead.

 

Two hours till go time and I feel positive. I try to soak everything in because I know that my happy moments are limited and finite. I know that tomorrow morning I’m going to be lying in bed with my eyes slammed shut, feeling sorry for myself. I know that tomorrow there will be nothing but pain and hunger. Gotta get sick to get better.

 

So today, now, in this moment, I just soak it in, trying to take pictures of everything in my mind, storing it all away to look at later. How does the air smell? How do the birds sound? How does this food taste?

 

Chemo ruins everything. It manipulates your taste buds, turns your eyes to delicate glass orbs and your ears to amplifiers. Everything is blinding and gluttonous excessiveness. Every piece of stimuli feels like a flood hitting your brain and drowning it. It feels like everything is coming in but nothing is going out and your skull becomes crowded with blurring and buzzing. Chemo covers your brain in moss and turns all your memories and thoughts into fuzzy bubbles and television static. Life becomes a copy of a copy of a copy; details falling away, edges blurring, clarity collapsing.

 

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it (and yes, I read that on a poster in a doctor’s office). And, this Courage with a capital C that I have acquired quickly becomes courage all lowercased once we pull into the parking lot and I’m left staring at the monolithic hospital that will become my home for the next five days. I stare at it, my prison, trying to keep my composure steady, my attitude high.

 

My wife says, “Look here,” and I turn around and she snaps another photo of me entering the hospital. I look considerably thinner in this one; my beard gone, my cheeks a little deeper, my eyes red and dry around the sockets.

 

We enter the building and my courage sinks down and vanishes. I squeeze my hands into fists and think, I don’t want to be here I don’t want to be here I need to get out of here, but I keep walking, into the elevators, onto the fifth floor, down the hallway, into my private room, my spa, my cell.

 

I lay out all my personal accouterments (journal, pen, iPod, Bible) and sit on the bed. Jade finds the show about the family with all the kids and now I guess they’re having another one. I ask her to change it. The show about the man losing his face is on again and we decide to rewatch it.

 

The nurse enters with the IV while I stare at the TV, thinking about the wilderness and camping. She sticks me and walks away and that’s it. I’m now tied up to the stables like one of the horses in a sad western. Me and my pole, buddies for life.

 

Suddenly, the machine I’m connected to starts beeping and a small Asian nurse in her early fifties rushes in, presses a few buttons, and straightens out my tubes. She says, “Hello. My name is Sue. I will be your nurse for the next couple days. You are . . . Johnny.” I smile and wave my hand. She says, “How are you doing?” and I say, “Well, all things considered . . . ” and she says, “Yes. You have very bad cancer but we are going to fix you! You are young and strong and you have good blood and good veins and good attitude!” and my wife says, “Sometimes . . . ” and Sue laughs and she lights up the room and she says, “We no allow bad attitude here! You take it somewhere else! Here—only good attitude! Because we fix you! I be right back!”

 

And she turns to leave and I say to Jade, “I like her.” Sue returns with my first bag of chemotherapy and a small piece of chocolate, which she gives to me. “You feel well? You no have chemo for two weeks?” and I say, “Yes. That’s right,” and she says, “You eat this now before you get sick!”

 

I open the chocolate bar and she flips a switch and here . . . we . . . go . . . .

 

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Hours later, I wake up all alone in the middle of the night. My room is dark and quiet save for the incessant beeping that is coming from my IV machine. I shift my body weight and examine it to see if there’s some giant red warning button I can push.

 

Nothing.

 

I navigate my hand down the side of the bed and find the CALL NURSE button. A few moments later, a pale chick who looks like she’s been working the nightshift for too long wanders in and asks what’s wrong. I tell her I don’t know. I tell her my IV thing is beeping. She hits a quick combination of buttons and everything goes silent. I ask, “Why does it do that?” and she says, “Means there are bubbles stuck in the tube,” and I say, “Bubbles? Won’t those kill me if they get in my veins?” and she says, “Yeah . . . . . they can,” and then she turns and leaves without saying anything else.

 

I lie in the dark and stare at the shut blinds, wishing I could see the stars but knowing that, even if they were open, LA’s blanket of smog would cloud them from my vision. I think about my wife and mother, both sound asleep in beds forty minutes away. My wife has to work in the morning so I’m flying solo tonight. We toyed with the idea of my mother staying behind but ultimately decided that the hospital bed just wasn’t big enough for the both of us, even with her curled up at the bottom like so many teacup Chihuahuas.

 

In the hallway I can hear various machines and hospital mechanics at work in the silent hours. Beep. Beep. Beep. A heart monitor. I hear a machine that sounds like it’s breathing for someone. Kerrrrr—inhale. Vhoooosh—exhale. Underneath is a man moaning, his wails creeping down the hallway like fog. It is the groaning of a man lost in delirium.

 

I shut my eyes for a moment and when I open them, an old man is standing in my room with a plastic briefcase. He pulls out a syringe and takes my blood. I shut my eyes and when I open them again, a young Latino gentleman is standing in my room emptying my trash can. I shut my eyes and when I open them again, a young African American woman is standing in my room with my breakfast. I tell her I’m not very—gag—hungry and would she please mind taking it away but leaving the orange juice, which I casually sip on.

 

I stare at the clock and watch its arms turn. I stare at the window and watch the shadow of the sun rise. I listen to footsteps in the hallway pass. I try to catch conversations but nothing sticks. I wonder who else is on this floor: old people, young people, someone I could talk to, relate to, converse with?

 

I hate the doctors telling me what I’ll feel, how I’ll feel, what to prepare for, what to expect. They only know because they’ve been told. They don’t know. They have no personal point of reference. This is one of the loneliest factors—surrounded by people, you feel alone in your experience.

 

My mother arrives; my wife arrives. I curl into a ball and shut my eyes. It’s happening again: never-ending motion sickness. I put my hands over my face and breathe deeply. Jade asks how I’m feeling, and instead of answering, I just shake my head, trying to fight back The Great and Hopeless Depression that is rising up inside of me, threatening to take over, The Voice that whispers inside my head, “Every day. Every day. Every day you’ll be sick. I’m never leaving you. You’re trapped here, stuck here, and every day those nurses are going to enter and keep filling you with Sickness, more and more, and just when you think it’s over, you’ll be back and you’ll do it again. You think today is bad? Think about tomorrow. Think about the next day. Think about next week and the week after that and the month after that and the month after that. This road you’re on is a long one, Johnny, and I’m going to ride your shit into the ground. You think today is bad? You have no idea. You have no idea what I’m going to do to you. You have no idea how long this will go,” and, because I no longer have any grasp on time and because my minutes stretch on for days, this really could be some relative millennia.

 

Anxiety begins to twist a knot in my guts as I try to understand the overwhelming process that lies before me and the pain I have to endure before this is all over. My mom asks if I’ve eaten breakfast and I shake my head again, hands still over eyes. My mom asks if I need to “medicate,” and it takes me a moment to grasp what she’s asking me. I nod my head and slowly sit up, the movements sending my equilibrium reeling. I can feel my brain sloshing around inside my skull like dirty water in a fish tank.

 

My mother sets a small suitcase on my bed and unzips it, pulls up the cover and begins digging through various articles of clothing, bathroom paraphernalia, and pill bottles, pulling them out one by one. Then I see it. Sitting at the very bottom of the suitcase is my vaporizer. I chuckle thinking about my mom smuggling, what basically amounts to a very fancy pipe and soft drugs into a hospital for me to smoke. Do I want to “medicate”? It’s the closest thing my mom will ever say to, “Honey, do you want to get baked?”

 

But, I suppose this is what it’s for. This is how we should be treating it. If medicinal marijuana is to be used and respected as an actual drug and if it actually wants to shake it’s street stigma, then perhaps I should be medicating and not getting high.

 

Jade helps me stand up and leads me into the bathroom. I lean against the wall and slouch to the floor. My mother hands me the vaporizer and, while I try to find a proper place to set it, she plugs it into a nearby socket. My wife hands me a small box that contains various strains of medication, as well as my grinder.

 

My mother turns to leave and my wife holds her hand out to me and says, “Here. I made this for you.” I reach out and take a toilet paper roll stuffed with scented dryer sheets. She says, “It’s a filter . . . to hide the smell.” I say, “You’re Bill Nye!” and she says, “You’re Tommy Chong.” I smile and she shuts the door.

 

The bathroom is silent save for the quiet murmur of the television creeping under the door. I open a pill bottle, select a “pill,” grind it up, place it in the bowl, heat it up, and pull.

 

We have take off.

 

The anxiety in my stomach loosens, loosens, loosens, disappears. I begin tapping my finger to some Beatles song that pops into my head. My depression vanishes. I hold the homemade filter to my mouth and blow through it. Everything smells like Mountain Spring Grass.

 

I pick up a comedy book about ninjas called Real Ultimate Power written by a man posing as a child named Robert Hamburger. To this day, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, stoned or sober. I laugh so hard my sides hurt. I laugh so hard that I cough. I laugh so hard, I can’t breathe.

 

In the other room, I hear a nurse enter. Sue. I hear my wife say that I’m in the bathroom. I hear the nurse ask if I’m having a bowel movement. I hear Jade lie and say, “Yes.” I hear the nurse say she’ll be back.

 

Jade knocks on the door and says, “Hurry up in there, White Snoop Dogg! They’re looking for you!” and I say, “I’ll be here for five days. They’ll find me,” and I laugh and take another hit and then I say, “Just relax, White Marge Simpson.”

 

Robert Hamburger talks about how he saw a ninja cut off a man’s head once just for dropping a spoon in a restaurant and then I stare at an illustration of a samurai for 15 minutes. The artistry of the drawing is astounding.

 

In the other room, I hear Sue return and ask where I am. I hear Jade say that I’m still in the bathroom. I hear Sue ask if I’m constipated. I hear my mother say something about, “Just being a man, taking his time.” I hear Sue say she’ll be back. I hear Sue leave. I hear Jade bang on the door, louder this time and far more aggressively. She says, “Hey, Jerry Garcia. Get your ass out here! You’ve been taking a shit for 35 minutes, and it’s starting to look suspicious.”

 

“OK, OK,” I mumble and slowly clean all my paraphernalia up, tucking it behind the shower curtain. I crawl to the toilet, using it to brace myself while standing up and then slowly walk out of the bathroom with the biggest, dopiest expression my face can muster. As I open the door, I try to hide it, not wanting my mom to think I’m . . . what? Wait . . . high . . . ? She knows. There’s no reason to hide it. Is this OK? What is happening? I think I’ve done something wrong.

 

My mom says, “Take your time,” and my wife says, “You know how uncomfortable it is to lie to them? They’re freaking out because they think you’re constipated. You do that again and I’m telling them you need an enema.”

 

Just as she finishes her thought, Sue walks back in with her cart and says, “Johnny! You are here! You are all right?”

 

And I say, “Yes! Great!”

 

And she says, “You poop OK?”

 

And I say, “Far as I know!”

 

And she says, “You in bathroom long time. You no strain?”

 

And I say, “No. Just reading a book,”

 

And she says, “OK. You tell me you constipated. I get you more pills,”

 

And I say, “OK.”

 

She tells me she needs to take my vitals and I say, “Cool,”

 

And she says, “You want to sit down?”

 

And I say, “Can I stand?”

 

And she says, “You . . . can . . . if you have the energy,”

 

And I snap my fingers and say, “Sweetheart, you better believe it.”

 

She sticks a thermometer in my mouth and I say, “How’s it look?”

 

And she says, “You’re alive. That’s good,”

 

And I say, “No doubt. Hey, thanks for giving it to me orally. The guy last night gave me an anal exam and it was really painful.” Jade says, “JOHN,” and my mom says, “Ew,” and Sue says, “What was his name?” and I say, “I don’t know but he just kept breathing really heavily in my ear.”

 

Sue wraps a cuff around my bicep to take my blood pressure and I casually glance around, overly aware that my heart seems to be beating weirdly slow. Buh-dunce . . . buh-dunce . . . beating to the rhythm of a Pink Floyd song. She presses a button and I feel the band tightening on my skin, squeezing it like a really weak boa constrictor and then slowly, slowly, releasing. Sue looks at the digital read out and says, “Huh,” and I say, “What?” and she says, “Your blood pressure is a little low,” and I laugh and my wife quickly interjects with another half-cooked lie. “Yeah, it’s always a little low. He’s just a very chill fellow, he-he . . . ” and Sue says, “Hmm . . . ” and I shrug and say, “Sue, listen. Listen. I feel good. I feel great. You wanna see me try to moonwalk?” and she says, “Nope. I’ll be back later. You strong. Good attitude.”

 

Over the course of the next few days, Sue becomes a fourth member of our group, sitting on the end of my bed and hanging out to chat after she takes my vitals. She hangs around my room even when she’s off duty and pokes in before going home just to make sure the night nurse has everything under control.

 

In the mornings she brings me muffins, and even though I can’t eat them, I am grateful for the simple gesture. In the afternoon, she comes to me and says, “Nurses have big feast downstairs. Pot luck. I bring you food,” and then, sure enough, forty minutes later she shows up with nothing less than eight plates of home-cooked goodies ranging from pastas to banana bread to casseroles to desserts hailing from various homelands; Germany and Holland and Spain.

 

She tells us about her past life—where she grew up, what her parents did, how long she’s lived in Arcadia. She tells us she loves to cook and says she’ll bring us some “real Korean food” after catching us eating Panda Express for the third day in a row. Twenty-four hours later, she appears with a menagerie of hot plates and store-bought chocolates that the four of us share in a communal setting.

 

Cancer is a very lonely disease to have because most people you know simply fade into the background. It’s a disease that makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do or what to say or how to respond or what to bring you. Nobody is showing up to sign your cast and I believe it’s just too depressing to come visit your friend or family member while they slowly turn into dried fruit. Here you are, stuck in a bed, a needle shoved in your arm, looking like a pretty accurate living depiction of a mummified Egyptian Pharaoh, which is to say, decrepit and dusty. Your friends enter and they see you as you are, not as you were, and they see you trapped here in this hospital, in your cute little nightgown and they know you’ll lie here for six days and they feel bad for leaving. They feel like they have to stay or they’re abandoning you. They feel guilty going back to their lives while their friend molds and becomes one with the hospital bed in holy union. It’s easier . . . to just not show up. Things are safer at a distance.

 

And for the person with cancer—for me, for you, for your cousin or aunt, for the person sitting in the chair or the bed, for the person getting the chemo drip-dropped into their veins like a toxic tributary—this act is beyond infuriating.

 

It is heartbreaking.

 

During the Apollo 8 missions, astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders would lose contact with Earth for forty-five minutes as they disappeared behind the far side of the moon during each of their ten orbits. Some may say it’s the loneliest anyone has ever been, being completely out of touch with your own species.

 

The radios were dead. Contact was dead. The three of them were in complete and utter isolation, blocked off from the entire human race. Granted, Earth was still there and Earth still carried on and the Earth people still went to work and smiled and laughed but somewhere in the darkness, three men sailed quietly and desperately through the solitude just hoping to come out the other side, hoping to reestablish contact, hoping to, eventually, be integrated back into humanity after they’d viewed it from such a new and exhilarating perspective.

 

Ideally, I don’t have to spell out my analogy for you because I think it’s fairly spot on. Also, P.S.: In my parallel, I am Frank Borman because he is straight up dreamy. My mother and wife can fight over the other two in our made-up, playtime scenario.

 

Your family members who you’ve grown up with and your friends who you’ve shared your life with, people who would stand up with you in a fight, back down against cancer. Nearly everyone leaves you alone, fragmented, isolated, and blocked off from the world. People stop calling. People stop writing. People stop coming by. Even before you’re gone, you don’t exist. You’re the dead and dying dog at the shelter. You’re the starving kid in Africa. You’re the homeless family on the street, and you are easier to ignore.

 

Your sickness, your issue, your thing you’re going through is so bizarre and weird and awful and outside the realm of possible imaginings that people just slowly vanish into the crowd, and while you sit alone, grasping at any hope, you think about them and you wonder what they’re doing and you wonder why they’re not calling or writing or coming by. You wonder what you possibly could have meant to them. It saddens you, it angers you, and it breaks you. It makes you feel like an old and forgotten toy left out in the rain.

 

And I say this not as a self-pitying statement (although I am aware that it is how it sounds), I say this as a warning. If someone you know has cancer and if you’ve made yourself scarce, you have abandoned a person of your tribe during his or her greatest need.

 

I get it. It’s hard to be involved. It’s hard to step up to the plate and put someone else’s needs before our own. It’s hard to be selfless, and it doesn’t come natural to any of us. We’re humans and we want things to be easy, but we’re humans and we’re in this together. And maybe the awful truth of cancer wouldn’t feel so foreign to us if we all stepped onto the altar and looked into the coffin; if we all took a chance and said, “I’m here for you because you need me to be.” When you watch from a distance, everything is filtered through the lens of a camera. It’s difficult to get your hands dirty when you just paid for a manicure.

 

But Sue . . . Sue was born to have dirty hands. Her short-cut nails spoke of a baker who had her fingers in many pies. She cared with the true compassion of a parent. She wasn’t merely doing a job. She was living her life and making sure it was worth something.

 

I think about Sue often, and though I’ve never written her a letter, I’ve sat down to do it on several occasions but am always stopped by some voice asking if she would remember me, another Face in the Crowd. She had a significant impact, not only on my cancer journey and experience, but also on my healing process and my point of view on life. How can I be more like Sue? How can I help those around me? How can I give what I have—my heart and soul and identity—how can I pour that into something to show someone love and compassion?

 

There are people that try to make the world a better place. Budda. Jesus. Bono. Sue. We are all capable if we try.

 

 

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ABOVE: Me on my last day (in the hospital, not on Earth, even though it does look that way). Sue on far left.

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300: CHAPTER 19

 

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I wake up outside, my back sore from the wrought iron chair I’ve fallen asleep in. My mother has been insisting that I need to get more vitamin D and so I keep heading to the back yard and passing out. This is before I had a smart phone – back when my flip phone was still the rage. No fun games while I sit around. There is only staring into the distance and contemplating the mundane.

I shuffle back inside, sit back in my yellow chair and think about time passing, oceans turning to deserts, rocks turning to sand, babies turning to men turning to dust.

On a bored whim I decide to write my boss to tell him what’s been happening to me and how thankful I am that he’s saving my job until I get back. He responds and says that someone is filling in for me temporarily and that I should “get well soon,” a sentiment that I always find painfully cheap and obvious.

Oh, you’re sick? Get well soon. Don’t stay sick! The sooner you can get back to health, the better! That’s what I always say! Look! I’ve even had it inscribed onto this delightful commemorative Mylar balloon!

In any event, the part about my job being there raises my spirits. Our money is sinking fast and we’re going to need some serious dough when we come out the other side of this made-for-TV original movie. The nest egg I’d set aside to make my feature film has become our landing pad, our safety net, our buffer. It’s the only thing separating us from total and complete bankruptcy. The money is not going into camera rentals and crew; it’s going into food and rent and electricity. It is our life source and umbilical cord to survival.

A few days later, my dad leaves to head back to South Dakota and his job and real life. He gives me that awkward side hug again and then goes to bed saying, “I’m leaving around four in the morning so I probably won’t see you again.” He disappears around the corner and I wonder if he thinks about how heavy those words sound.

He and my mother had had a previous conversation a few nights prior wherein they’d discussed her staying with us, operating as third eyes and extra hands; helping, supporting, cooking, cleaning, anything, everything; watching me while Jade went to work, entertaining Jade while I slept. She helps keep sanity, helps us keep a link to the outside world. We both welcome the idea with open arms and for six months my mother left her husband, her own mother, her brothers and sisters. My family is very close and my mother has her helping hands in a lot of pies back home and for half a year she left everyone. She quit her job and stopped her life to come sit by Jade and me and suffer with us.

Let this be a true example of a mother’s love. She gave everything she had.

She takes up residence in our guest bedroom and it’s the first piece of good news we’ve had in some time. Her presence is an absolute godsend because, I don’t care how old you are, there is something inherently primitive and wonderful about having your mother around. Mothers are, after all, the original chicken soup for the soul.

So on those days when I just feel like I am the world’s last unicorn and am shedding a tear of sorrow for my lost species, she is there to make me feel just a little bit better. Fly, unicorn, fly.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

It’s either a Monday or a Thursday and it’s either 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. The sun rises and sets and the clock spins and resets and day and night keep changing places like characters in a David Lynch film. Without a job or any regular routine, time becomes irrelevant. I sit in my chair, glossy eyed, and listen to my mother and wife talk about dogs and work and God and recipes and marriage and cotton, the fabric of our lives.

I lean forward and stand up on legs that feel atrophied after only a couple weeks of inactivity and wobble into the guest bedroom and collapse onto the bed.

I bury my face in a pillow, shut my eyes and pray for a miraculous healing. But nothing happens. I’m still sick.

I fall asleep and an undisclosed amount of time passes wherein I wake, cramped and sweaty, vomit, fall back to sleep, kick off the blankets, find I’m chilled, vomit, roll over, wish I were dead, regret my weakness, and then fall back to sleep.

When I wake, I find a short, curly hair stuck in my mouth and, for once, I don’t gag from the chemo. An image of my father’s naked body crosses my mind, his thick shoulders pressed into this very mattress, his back hair dropping off him and resting dormant until I vacuum them into my gaping face hole.

I am eating my father’s back hair.

Gag.

Quicker than I’ve moved in weeks, I sit up and see that my pillow is covered in them; easily twenty hairs populate the upper mattress area and I make a note to ask my mom if Dad sheds often.

I sit up and place my feet firmly on the floor—as firmly as I’m able to—and stare at myself in the full-length closet mirror. I’m still me but . . . a little thinner. It’s only been two weeks but, like a newborn with an eating disorder, I only consume very delicate portions, unable to hold anything down. The bags that I always carry with me under my eyes are suddenly starting to look a little darker, a little heavier, less like bags and more like luggage for a long cross-country road trip. I sigh and rub my chin and when I look at my hand, my stomach leaps into my throat.

My palm is covered in hundreds of short, tight hairs. Hairs that look exactly like the ones on the mattress. My hair. My beard. It’s falling out. In large chunks.

I reach up, grab a handful of beard in my hand, and gently pull. Like a ten-year-old on a greased up Slip ’N Slide, my hair slides out of my follicles and away from my face. No tug, no pluck, no tension. Yanking grass from the Earth would put up a better fight. My hair had, for all intents and purposes, suddenly just given up.

I shout for Jade, and when she enters the room, I hold out my hand and she says, “What . . . . Oh . . . . ” We both stare at my hand in silence for a moment, both of us thinking about bald kids coughing blood into Kleenexes.

“My hair is falling out,” I say and my wife nods and her eyes well up a little. “Do you want to . . . shave it?” and I nod.

It takes less than three days for my eyebrows, armpit, and pubic hair to follow suit. I look, in short, like one of those hairless Egyptian cats but with less sex appeal.

The next day is dreary and overcast as we drive into my bi-weekly oncology checkup. Sitting in the cold office, Dr. Yen asks me a series of inquiries, listens to my heart, takes my blood and asks if I have any questions.

I say, “I’m always cold.”

She says, “That’s normal.”

I say, “Will this go away?”

She says, “Probably not.”

I say, “Ever?”

She says, “Never.”

I say, “I feel like shit.”

She says, “That’s normal.”

I say, “Will this go away?”

She says, “Someday. I told you. Mack Truck.”

My wife says, “He’s really depressed.”

The doctor says, “I have a pill for that.”

My blood count comes back from the lab and the results are grim; my red count is too low, which essentially amounts to me being filled to the brim with bad blood. Imagine putting gas in your car that’s been cut with water. Or perhaps an even more accurate analogy would be to say, “Imagine putting water in your body that’s been cut with gasoline.”

On the oncologist’s command, we drive straight from her office to the hospital for a platelet transfusion. My white blood count is too low, as well, leaving my body weak and defenseless, able to be killed (very literally) by a common cold. Every sneeze is a bullet.

The nurse who comes in to give me my IV is a middle-aged Asian woman who, when questioned, claims she is The Best EYE-VEE-Giver this hospital has and that I am lucky to have her. This immediately puts my mind at ease.

She sticks the 2-inch needle into my forearm and I slam my eyes closed like iron-blast doors and wiggle my toes and imagine I’m in Norway and then she lets go of me and I say, “That was fast,” but she says, “I couldn’t find a vein,” and when I open my eyes she’s still holding the needle in her hand.

I rest my head back on the pillow and she begins tapping around my bicep. “There we go. There’s a good one,” she says and I close my eyes again as the silver thread sneaks under my skin and sniffs around for its— “Oops—OK—I just blew your vein. I’m really sorry. One more time.”

I turn my head aside and fight back a scream of terror as the knife gets thrust into my forearm a third time at an awkward angle and is taped down. “Bingo!” she shouts, and I jokingly/seriously say, “The best, huh?” and she says, “Well, the best intern.”

She exits, and I sigh while my mother and wife play Yahtzee. Moments later, the intern returns with a bag of milky glue and hangs it from my IV pole. Then, like a crazy straw being set into the world’s grossest milkshake, she inserts my IV tube into the bag and the cummy sludge gloops and glops down into my veins . . . for 12 hours.

I watch the drizzling cream leak into me and wonder who it belonged to—a starving college student, a man on the brink of poverty, an immigrant, some Good Samaritan who makes monthly donations? From their body to mine, they don’t know it, but they’re helping me, saving me, pulling me out of the red and into the black. I’m still sick. I’m still hopeless. I’m still depressed. I still want to stick my head in the microwave. But . . . sitting up in bed, I do suddenly feel a small surge of energy idly pulsing through me. It’s not a forest fire. But it is a spark.

The nurse comes back with an update on my HCG levels, those cancer markers that had sky rocketed from 300 to 900. Today, she tells me that they’ve dropped back to 300.

Three hundred.

The cancer is dying. It’s fighting, but it’s dying. And it is here that I shut my eyes and see that spark flicker and grow a little brighter. I’m going to win. I’m going to choke you to death, you son of a bitch. You’re going to pull me down to the swamps of disease and despair and I’ll follow along until you’re neck deep in whatever primordial muck you’ve come from and then, at the last moment, I’ll pull the trigger and cut you free and you’ll sink away back into those vile depths.

I open my eyes and watch a television show about a man who gets a face transplant after being mauled by a bear.

I have no real problems.

 

 

 

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INTERMISSION: CHAPTER 18

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I have spent my last half a week curled up in a ball trying to sleep away the days so that I could just hurry and get to my nights to sleep more. Vomiting has become as commonplace as blinking, and because personal hygiene is the very last thing on my mind, I haven’t showered or brushed my teeth in something like ninety-six hours.

I keep telling Jade that I’m sick and she keeps telling the nurse that I’m sick and the nurse keeps bringing nausea medication but it never works. It’s like taking Tylenol because your leg just got ripped off. The sickness has grown and amplified and magnified, no longer a harmless garden variety lizard but now a towering reptilian monster destroying various major cities that are, symbolically, each of my organs.

My “hangover” has matured into a full-fledged Death Bed Shutdown where I don’t feel pain; I am pain. It radiates from the center of my body, at a point where my ribs and lungs meet. I can feel my diaphragm; I can feel the meat and bone surrounding it. I can feel every inch of tissue, every cell, every strand of DNA, flowing with black hatred. My heart pumps blood and my stomach churns food and my lungs circulate oxygen and this spot in my chest produces pain, sending it out in waves, reaching into the furthest extremities of my limbs. My eyeballs throb and the light is blinding and sickening and overwhelming, every bright color a dart to the back of my skull. Every noise is sent through a megaphone placed against my ear. The television, the radio, the beeping of my IV machine, footsteps, toilets flushing, birds chirping, everything hits my brain like a bare-knuckled super soldier. Pliers twist and grind inside my head, and my stomach feels like an ocean filled with buttery fat, wave after wave of sloshy curdled goop washing onto my shores. I puke into the buttery waves and the world screams at me and the pain pinches my eyes and blasts through my body and I am on fire, filled with poison, my body shoving chemicals in and out, in and out, my liver screaming like a witch at the pyre.

 

The Black Tendrils are slowly dying, curling back like a rose bush in winter solstice, but a new monster is rising up, something worse than cancer, something without a face or a cure. Because it is the cure. This is not the cancer making me sick. This is the medicine making me sick.

I make earnest prayers to God to please just let me die. I am in so much pain. Every ounce of energy I have stored is being pulled away from me. Everything is a fight. Everything is a battle. Walking, talking, eating, chewing, shitting, blinking, breathing, it’s all one vicious fight after the next. My life is a Faces of Death segment played in super slow motion.

My stomach hurts so badly that I feel as though I can’t stand up. Every movement I make, no matter how small or subtle, upsets my senses like a boat in the ocean, capsizing it and drowning the crew. I lie as still as possible for as long as possible and think about how the doctor told me that the treatments will compound, that they’ll become worse every time.

This is just the beginning and I am at the end of my rope.

Never before or since have I felt such pain as that which plagued me through chemotherapy. I cry often and often I cry alone. I shut my eyes and see the flame of hope flickering, threatening to extinguish. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is far away, through a maze of subterranean tubes, and out of sight, out of mind. I’m in the desert and my ending is a slow burn. I can’t imagine ever coming out of this, ever being healthy, ever being unsick. I can’t see past the next moment in time, the next bag of chemo, the next dose of medicine. The pain builds and grows inside me with every passing moment, a thermometer rising, the mercury inside of it threatening to burst out in a spray of toxicity.

 

On Monday, I tell Jade that I want to die. On Tuesday, I repeat myself. On Wednesday, I say it again until I absolutely believe it. On Thursday, I just keep mumbling it over and over like a mantra, begging the darkness to swallow me up. Tiny violins play wherever I go. On Friday, Jade sits down next to me and says, “Is that really what you want? To die?” and I look at my feet, ashamed and feeling stupid all of a sudden. She repeats herself but I don’t answer. She tells me that I’m not going through this alone. She tells me that I’m not alone. She tells me—and I cut her off. I say, “I am alone. I’m the one in the hospital bed. I’m the one with the IV stuck in my arm. I’m the one with the pain in my bones and the fear in my brain—” and now it’s her turn to cut me off. She says, “You’re not going through this alone. You might be carrying the pain around but I’m twenty-four years old and I have to sit aside and watch my husband die . . . and the worst part is he’s just going right along without even swinging a punch. Where’s your fight?” and then she lets that thought hang in the air like rotten fruit.

She takes my hand in hers and rubs her thumb along the ridge of my plain, gold wedding band. “It’s loose,” she says, and I look down. Even my fingers are losing weight. I shrug. She slides my ring off my finger and silently reads the inscription that runs around its inside, hidden from view. She laughs and says, “I remember when I took this ring to the jeweler to have it engraved. There was a really old woman behind the counter and she told me to write down exactly, exactly what I wanted it to say. When I handed her the paper, her face,” Jade laughs. “Her mouth dropped open and her eyes popped out and she goes, ‘Is this a joke?’ And I say, ‘Nope.’ And the woman says, ‘This is for a wedding ring?’ and I told her it was for my husband to-be. She had this look that was like, Young people . . . . “Then,” she continues, “I remember on our wedding day, we walked down the aisle, just married and, in the backroom, waiting to be announced outside for the rice throwing, I told you to take it off and read it. Do you remember?”

 

And yes, I do remember. I gave it a tug and it came off easy that day, as well, from my nervous-sweaty hands. I held the shining circle up to the light, tilted it just so and read the following words, laid out in all caps: WE’RE NOT GONNA MAKE IT.

If I had any doubts about marrying the right girl, they vanished right there.

Jade now, in real time, in the hospital, three years into our marriage, slides the ring back onto my finger and says, “We are going to make it. Both of us. You stop telling yourself otherwise.”

I say, “OK,” and, “I know,” and, “You’re right,” and, while I quit saying those things and while I try hard to stop thinking them, they still rattle around in the dark recesses of my brain, cluttering it and infecting it.

I reach my hand out and hold hers, rubbing my thumb against the back of her palm until the nurse enters to remove my IV because, thank God so very, very much, today is the day we’re leaving.

The nurse at hand struggles with removing the IV thanks to the massive amounts of tape that had been used to set it to my arm. She apologetically pulls and tugs at the sticky material, tearing out countless arm hairs while ruthlessly jerking the catheter tube that rests in my vein in and out, in and out. I bite my bottom lip and my eyes pinch shut. The nurse picks at the tape with her fingernail and rips another strip off with a drawn out, “Sohhhhh-ryyyyy,” and a grimace.

 

When she finally manages to pull out the tube, I experience a sensation that I can only equate to that which you feel after jumping off of a trampoline, the way the ground feels foreign and strange. After eight days of the constant tug of the pole and tubes I feel like a part of me is missing.

By policy I’m not allowed to walk to the exit myself so I’m asked to sit in a wheelchair while my wife escorts me. I feel humiliated every time we pass someone in the hall even though I know the emotion is stupid and senseless.

One week after beginning my six-month treatment, I am released from the hospital and allowed to go home for an intermission—two weeks of down time before I return for my second interval.

When we get in the car, I lie down in the backseat and shut my eyes. On the forty-minute drive home I feel every single bump in the freeway, every pothole, every stomp of the brake. I feel everything, my senses not numbed but amplified. I am a glass of liquid, waiting to spill.

I ask Jade to turn down the music and she does but then I ask her to shut it off completely. I put my hands over my ears and can’t imagine this getting any worse. I ask her to pull over and I puke into the gutter twice.

We get home and I sit down in a soft yellow rocking chair, a piece of furniture that my wife and I found abandoned under a bridge when we first moved to LA. It seemed like it was in good enough condition so we brought it home.

 

Like a good dog, it’s been well loved.

Severe chills run up and down my body so I put on a thick hoodie, pull up the hood and give the strings a good tug, scrunching my field of vision. I shut my eyes and try to sleep but to no avail.

My mom asks if we feel like playing that popular board game Sorry! and my wife says sure and I say nothing but sit at the table and stare at the board. I roll the die—

—die—

—and move my marker and roll my die and move my marker and die and Cancer Marker.

I sit back in my chair and Jade asks what I want for dinner and I tell her I’m not hungry. My stomach hurts. I puke again, this time simply at the thought of food being placed on my tongue.

The hospital has sent us home with a small suitcase filled with pharmaceuticals: two kinds of anti-nausea pills, several pain relievers for head, several pain relievers for body, stool softeners because the pain relievers cause constipation; vitamins A through F, K through P and R, V and Z individually. My mother has also personally prescribed fish oil and ginkgo biloba, which I think is for memory loss but I can’t exactly recall.

Lying in bed that night, I stare at the fan blades spinning round and wonder how many times they’ve turned since I’ve lived in this house. Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? I start counting but only get to seven when my wife reaches over and gives me a kiss on my cheek.

 

I turn to her and she says, “Hey,” and I say, “Hey,” and, because I realize that I still haven’t brushed my teeth in over a week now, I sort of avert my mouth.

She places her hand on my stomach and says, “Hey,” and raises an eyebrow and I say, “Uh . . . ” and, even though I’ve promised myself to “be strong” the thought that keeps rolling through my head is, “I just want to die, I just want to die, I just want to die,” but instead I say, “Is this, like, sympathy sex?” and she laughs and says that she digs guys with cancer.

I smile and give her a kiss on the cheek and we try our very best but the entire time I’m just fighting my gag reflex from the constant rocking and my bones feel like they’re going to crumble and for some reason I keep picturing my dick as raw butcher meat and I am just totally worthless and there’s no way this is happening.

Cancer: the ultimate cock block.

I eventually say, “I . . . I can’t do this,” and lie back on the bed and say, “Sorry,” and she says, “It’s OK, I’m really into guys that are emotionally and physically damaged.”

We hold hands and I tickle her back and she goes to sleep and I continue to count, “Eight . . . nine . . . ten . . . .”

 

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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.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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SURGERY: CHAPTER 13

 

 

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We drive to the hospital on a Friday morning for my out-patient surgery. I always assumed that, when the time finally came, I would be considerably more depressed or mournful. But instead, there is a freedom that is both liberating and intoxicating in the air. I’m just happy that this will soon be over. Today.

Take my nut. Just save my life. Take the poison before it spreads.

As I sit in the waiting room, no thoughts of hormone supplements cross my mind. The word eunuch never enters my brain. The only thing I can think about right now, the only impending doom I can imagine, the enormous, inevitable snowball that’s rushing toward the small village that is my psyche, is the thought of the IV.

But, thankfully, I tell myself, it’s the last one for a long, long time. “Just get through this one and you’re good. You’re gold. You can do it.”

On the television in the waiting room is a talk show where the special guest is a young musician speaking about coffee enemas. I stand up and turn the TV off just as a nurse calls my name.

My testicle leaps nervously into my stomach and it feels like it’s trying to give me one last hug. I say, “I hate goodbyes,” but it won’t let go.

The nurse leads my wife and I into a cream-colored room and instructs me to put on The Gown. When I come out of the bathroom, dressed for surgery, she’s ready to stick me with the IV and for some reason I feel like this is The Line. I feel as though, at any point before the IV, I was free to turn around and run away and lead a life anyway I chose, but the IV . . . . It represents a kind of umbilical cord to the hospital. Like red vests at Wal-Mart—they make it very easy to differentiate between who belongs here and who doesn’t.

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I tell the nurse that I’m afraid of needles and she just laughs and I lean forward and say, “No, listen. I’m afraid. Do you have a numbing shot? I’ve heard that such a thing exists.” And she says, “A shot before the shot?” and I say, “ . . . Yes,” and she says,

“ . . . Sure.”

The nurse excuses herself to get the pre-numbing needle and returns with a freaking golden retriever! Bedside manner, ladies and gentlemen. The extra mile.

I say, “What the H-E-C-K is this!?” and the nurse says, “This is Samantha. She’s our therapy dog. We let children pet her before they get shots—I mean patients—we let all patients of every age pet her before they get shots.”

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I say, “I see,” and stare into Samantha’s eyes while I lie back. They’re a beautiful brown, almost golden color, and I hand my arm to The Extra Mile Nurse and Samantha pants and smells my right hand and The Extra Mile nurse taps my left forearm. Samantha says, “Don’t worry, kid, everything is going to be all right because I love you just for being you,” and I say to The Extra Mile Nurse, “Don’t forget the numbing needle,” and she says, “Of course,” and I feel a poke and I look deep down into Samantha’s eyes while I hold my breath and I wonder how many hundreds and thousands of children this dog has been loved by, how many eyes have stared directly into hers. I wonder where she sleeps at night and how she’s treated.

“All done,” The Extra Mile Nurse says and I say, “I only felt one poke,” and she says, “I know; the numbing shot worked!” and I look over on the table and only see the remains of a single syringe.

The Extra Mile Nurse turns to leave and pats her leg and takes Samantha with her, and I feel my hand run down her head, down her back, down her tail, and she’s gone.

I never see either of them again.

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Later, another, younger nurse comes in and tells me that she’s here to give me a “cocktail.” She says it will help take the edge off and make me a little sleepy. I ask her where she was twenty minutes ago.

She plugs a bag into my IV and I . . . take . . . a nap . . . .

Minutes or hours or days have passed. I wake up, and I’m still in the same room. I feel my crotch. My testicle is still there. My tumor is still there. For a true moment, I was hoping they had pulled a quick one on me and had it all done with.

The Young Nurse comes back in, tells me that it’s time to go, and takes me away. Two more nurses meet her in the hallway and the three of them navigate me through wide, bright, green corridors. I watch the overhead lights wash over me and try to remember every movie I’ve ever seen that uses that shot. I listen to the wheel on my gurney squeak.

This is it.

They push me around a corner, and I sit up and look over my shoulder and wave to my wife. She waves back and shouts, “Good luck! I love you! I love you!” and then I’m all alone, surrounded by scrubs.

They push me through a set of double doors and into a large room that smells like rubbing alcohol. Two women help me slide from my bed onto another bed. No—this isn’t a bed. This is an operating table. I’m on The Slab.

I lie back and stare at the ceiling, where a gigantic light on a rotating arm hangs above me. A pretty young lady with red hair leans down over me and says, “Are you comfortable?” and I adjust my shoulders and say, “Yes,” and she says, “Good.” She says, “I’m going to inject you with something. Is that all right?” and I say, “Is this—is this the stuff that’s going to put me down?” and she laughs as her thumb slowly pushes on the plunger, and there is an explosion in my chest that rises into my mouth that tastes like copper. I lick my lips and say, “See you on the—”

Other side.

When I wake up moments later I find myself sick and wanting to vomit. An oxygen mask covers my face. I try to sit up and look around because I have this feeling of complete nakedness. Not of nudeness, not the sensation of being unclothed, but of being exposed and out of place. I can only equate it to the feeling I get when I suddenly find myself walking through the young teen’s bra section at Target. What—how did I get here? I hope no one sees me—where’s the exit? Run! No, don’t run, you’ll look suspicious. Walk slowly—no, not that slowly, you’ll look like you’re perusing. Just keep moving.

I look to my right and see a row of hospital gurneys that are all empty and I suddenly feel a sense of impending doom, like I’m the next and final victim in some mad science experiment.

Why do I taste pennies?

My throat hurts fiercely. I bring up my hand to rub my trachea and see that there’s a tube taped to my forearm. Oh, yeah. Everything hits me in a quick wave: Cancer. Hospital. Testicle. I remember why I’m here, what I’m doing. I lie down and hold back my gag reflex. The only thing worse than being in the bra section at Target is puking there.

Suddenly, a nurse is standing above me but I don’t remember what she looks like or how old she was. She asks how I’m doing, and I tell her that it feels like I’m burping up pennies. She laughs and asks if she can touch my beard. I have to pause and reflect if she’s having a bad day and needs a therapy dog like Samantha to help her through it. I willingly tilt up my chin and she runs her fingers through my face pubes.

She tells me that she thinks I might be Amish—a remark I get often thanks to the pattern in which my beard naturally grows; two long side burns into a neck beard thing I call The Hanging Tomato Plant. Hair simply refuses to grow on my cheeks or upper lip.

I tell her I’m not Amish, as far as I know, but secretly wish I were, which is true. I tell her my throat really is sore and she tells me it’s because they stuck a tube down it and I ask if they used a hammer to get the job done.

I shift my eyes to the left and have a quick daydream. I suddenly see my naked, flaccid body on a slab. I see a tube shoved down my throat. I see eight people standing around me, cutting me, sucking my blood into machines, moving my penis and pulling my testicle out through a hole in my abdomen; a male C-section. I see the tumor, a big black pulsating alien brain connected to veins leading back into my cavity. I see them cauterize the wound. I see scissors and sutures. And I see this nurse, standing next to me, holding my penis up with a gloved hand to keep it out of the way of danger.

My eyes shift back to the right.

After what The Faceless Nurse deemed an acceptable length of time, someone wheels me downstairs to a second recovery room where they prop me into a recliner that I swear was the softest chair I’d ever, ever been in.

A new nurse, a chubby blonde woman in her late fifties, gives me some crackers and apple juice, and I’m certain she was probably a kindergarten teacher at some point and is just role-playing with me.

I tell her I feel sick, hoping to get some kind of high-powered-hospital-quality medicine that is going to take away these waves of nausea, but instead, she brings me a bed pan shaped liked an old man’s kidney.

Gee, thanks. You shouldn’t have.

She takes one step back and I puke three times; acidy strings of yellow and white saliva get stuck in my beard. The Teacher Nurse says, “Are you Amish?” and I wipe my chin on my sleeve and hand her the kidney. She says, “You should probably just keep that.”

Over her shoulder, I see my wife enter the room and, thank you, thank you, thank you, I’m no longer alone. I’m no longer scared or afraid. It’s just her and me and that’s it. She says, “Gross! You puked! In front of everyone!” and I laugh.

She hands me a real life cactus that has been decorated with construction paper flowers and adorned with various Game Boy cartridges. At my heart, I am a stupid little vomiting boy.

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I say, “Thank you. This is very nice. I’m going to puke again,” and she says, “OK,” and takes the flowers from me. I grab the defiled bedpan and hold the rank and frothy mixture up to my mouth. I heave once, twice, and then puke doesn’t come up but instead some kind of salty cracker concoction. When I look up I see both my wife and The Teacher Nurse staring at me. I look to my left and see another older nurse that I hadn’t registered before watching me, as well. Where were these people coming from? Did they hear there was going to be a show? I politely ask them all why they’re staring at me and each of them, in turn, looks down at their feet.

I stare back into my bedpan and can feel all three sets of eyes slowly rise up, waiting, watching, anticipating me, each of them so excited to watch me erupt. “Oh, yes,” they are surely thinking, “Here he goes—his breathing is getting heavy! This is going to be amazing!”

Nothing comes out and there is a collective sigh. Sorry to disappoint. I tell The Teacher Nurse that I have to go to the bathroom and she says, “Number one or number two?” and then I’m positive that I’m stuck in some weird role-play with her. I say, “Uh, I just sort of have to pee,” and she says, “OK, that’s number one. Let me help you up, sweetie.”

I hobble across the floor with a 4-foot, 2-inch, fifty-something year old woman “supporting” me. Her perfume is pungent. She opens a door, and I mumble my thanks before shutting it and opening my robe and this is the first time that I realize I’m wearing some kind of—I don’t really know the best way to describe it—a nut-sack diaper, I guess.

It’s like a jock strap with no cup.

Scrotal

I exit the bathroom and excitedly ask the nurse if I get to keep my new accessory and she says, with an air of English dignity, “It’s called a scrotal support. And yes, it’s yours to keep.” The best gift a boy could ask for. I say, “It’s perfect. You’re so sweet. You shouldn’t have.”

The Teacher Nurse helps me back to my chair where I find a doctor handing a folder to my wife. He says, “I don’t know what you’re going to do with them, but we took ’em,” and Jade smiles and says, “Thanks,” and the doctor says, “From what I could tell, we got it in time and it hasn’t spread.” My heart leaps in my chest. It’s over. “But,” the Doctor Guy continues, “check in with your urologist next week. I’m sure he’s going to want to follow up with you.”

Sure, sure, whatever. I. Am. Healed! Hallelujah! I hear a chorus of angels playing the mambo. I want to dance with them but my scrotal support is simply too constricting.

A nurse pulls out my IV and wheels me to the hospital exit. My wife pulls up in the car, and I feel like a woman having just been released from childbirth. Except I have no baby.

I have no baby.

And my balls are . . . completely gone . . . every chance of children I have rests on the shoulders of others.

Jade honks the horn, and I saunter over to the car and crawl into the passenger seat. She hands me the manila folder and says, “One last surprise.” I open the file and find three digital photos that have been printed out on high gloss paper, each one more gruesome than the last.

She says, “I figured that little bastard has given you so many problems in the last month you’d at least want to see his face.”

Inside are three pictures of my bloody testicle sitting on a blue rag with a small gray tumor stuck to its side. We go home, frame one, and put it on a shelf in our living room.

Jade says, “We made it. We survived cancer.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Well, that’s the very end of the story. Thanks for reading!

Just kidding. There’s still an awful lot of shit heading right towards this fan.

Tune back in next Monday for THE BLACK TENDRILS: CHAPTER 14 as Cancer reaches out from the grave.

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BABY BLOCKS: CHAPTER 11

 

Another double whammy this week on the chapter front. We’ll start out with BABY BLOCKS: CHAPTER 11, which will mostly round out our cryo-banking experience (as far as it’s detailed here) followed closely by TIME OFF: CHAPTER 12, which is a shorty and doesn’t really work as a stand alone.

If you’re new to what we’re doing here, I’m releasing my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo one chapter a week All. Year. Long. This week is chapter 11 and 12 but it’s not too late to catch up! To start reading from the very beginning, just click here!

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Three hundred million: That is both the amount of money Forrest Gump made theatrically, as well as the average number of human sperm per serving, according to Wikipedia.

Fifty-six: the yearly average number of people on the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, bowling league, as well as the number of healthy sperm in my semen analysis, according to Dr. Chaplips, whom I currently have on the phone.

I ask him what the chances are of me getting my wife pregnant. I hear him lick his lips and, judging by the crackling noise coming through the line, I assume he still hasn’t solved his oral issue. “Aaahh,” he says. “Almost impossible. Very unlikely.” I say, “One thousand to one?” and he pauses before saying, “Probably higher.”

“Higher? Like what? What are my chances of a standard human pregnancy?” I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. I don’t know why I’m asking these questions. It’s already too late to do anything about it because the cryobank suggests that I abstain from myself for three days previous to each deposit. I just feel this desire to know how defective I am. If I were a term paper, what grade would I receive?

“Probably more around one hundred thousand to one.”

I take a couple small breaths and ever the Dumb and Dumber enthusiast, say, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” He’s clearly never seen the movie because he just says, “No. I’m not.” I thank him and hang up. I tell my wife the great news. “Babe,” I say, “We never, ever, ever have to use condoms again! Don’t you get it? I’m as sterile as a crayon! A potato has more potential for reproduction than I do! This is fantastic! This—this sucks . . . . ”

 

Inside I can feel the growth, the landmass, the intruder, the Cancer, growing larger and larger on my testicle. Every moment of every day I am reminded of it. Every moment of every day, I have a constant throbbing pain. Every day it grows and grows and grows. What was once a tiny pea is now a lima bean. It’s getting bigger. It’s stretching out. It’s making itself at home. And still I can do nothing. If I want to bank what little functioning sperm I have, there is nothing to do but wait. If I want children, I must gamble with my life. True Russian roulette.

The pain grows and the doctor prescribes me Vicodin, which I begin to pop like Tic Tacs or cashews or addictive prescription drugs. The pain grows more and I pop more Vicodin and the pain grows more and I pop more Vicodin and the pain grows more and I wait and wait and wait to bank. The banking will take a month. The banking will take thirty days. Cancer will take full advantage of me in that time, feeding itself and fueling itself off me.

The waiting gives me anxiety, and I neurotically touch My Lump, the way people will continue to play with a hangnail or tongue the sore spot in their mouth. My body wants it out, and I’m forcing it to stay in. My body hates me, and I am sorry.

Call me selfish. Call me crazy. Call me reckless. But I’ll have my children.

Even if it kills me.

Fast forward a couple blurry days, and I’m taking the Olympic Boulevard exit off the 405 freeway at 8 a.m. I’ve got my first appointment scheduled with the sperm bank this morning and am very excited to open a savings account with them.

The building is tucked away and is fairly understated, causing me to drive around the block a couple times before I find it. The parking lot only holds about eleven cars and most of the spaces are empty. On the front door is an intercom switch. I hit the button and wait. Someone buzzes me in.

Hidden buildings, hi-tech locks, espionage! This is getting dead sexy, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to know that the chicks involved are going to be hot. I open the door and put on my “cool face,” expecting to see some smoking bombshell blonde in a short nurse’s skirt. In my head, she looks just like the girl on the cover of Blink 182’s Enema of the State album. Those clowns at the semen analysis place don’t know shit about shit, making me rub one out in a dentist chair. These people here are professionals. I have no doubt about that. Professionals. Hot Nurses. Hot Nurse Professionals.

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(ABOVE: THE DREAM.)

 

I cup my hand over my mouth, smell my breath, and walk into a reception area containing only six chairs. An older gentleman who arrived before me lowers his newspaper and glances at me through Coke-bottle glasses. We make eye contact and both immediately think, You’re here to jack off! and then, JINX! 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!

He lifts his paper back up, and I turn my attention to the Hot Nurse Station where I come face to face with Bill Cosby and Mimi from The Drew Carey Show. The first sits behind an ancient IBM whose white plastic sheen has turned the color of eggnog, while Mimi digs through towering filing cabinets twice her height.

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(ABOVE: THE REALITY)

 

Now it should be noted that these two people are not actual Bill Cosby and not actual Mimi from The Drew Carey Show but individuals who look so incredibly similar that they could be hired to work at a children’s birthday party as cheap duplicates.

One final word on their characters: I will describe the first person as both “Bill Cosby” and then as “she” but trust me when I say that both of these descriptors are not only accurate, they are also absolutely necessary.

Bill Cosby says, “License, please,” and I slide my ID over the counter. Without looking up, she says, “Is this your current address?” and I say, “No. I didn’t drive that far.” She looks at me sideways, and I say, “It’s a South Dakota license.”

She glances back at it and laughs far harder than is deemed even remotely necessary for what can only be considered a subpar joke. She then repeats her folly to her coworker, Mimi, in a fit of giggles. Mimi says, “What? You’re laughing too hard. I can’t understand,” and so Bill repeats it again, the poor joke becoming less and less funny with every turn.

“Riiiiiight . . . . Buzz him in,” Mimi commands and Bill Cosby opens a door, ushering me to The Back. He/she hands me a small cup—sort of the ATM deposit envelope, if you will—and then says, “Choose any door on your right.” I examine each of them in turn and discover that they all look identical save for room 4, which has been decorated with wallpaper adorned with silhouettes of naked women.

I choose the room I’m standing in front of. I figure it’s the closest to reception and therefore probably the least used. Only a true pervert would choose this room, so close to other people. Only a true sicko would choose—I stop analyzing my choice.

Bill Cosby hands me a disc. I look at it: an adult DVD artfully titled Bangin’ at the Cabo Cabana. I say, “Thank you,” and he/she turns and walks away.

I enter the room and shut the door. Lock the door. This is not what I expected on the drive over. It’s a 4 x 4 closet with a 7” flat screen television and a stack of hardcore, full penetration, tit-squishing, spread-’em-wide, take-no-prisoners, anything goes, pornographic magazines.

I flip through a couple, and the pages are genuinely stuck together, crusty with usage. The classic joke isn’t that funny when you find your fingers running over a stranger’s dried semen. I drop the magazines and pop in the DVD. At this point, I’m still not certain if I’m going to watch it to the end. I’m not sure how I feel about this, making children like this. “Son, I remember the day I ejaculated you. I was in a closet by myself, watching a Puerto Rican girl get sandwiched by a couple of brothers who kept high-fiving.”

Curiosity being what it is, I hit play and turn the volume down. There is a pair of headphones connected to the television but I have no desire to touch them, let alone put them on my head. I wait. And then it begins. The most horrific thing I could imagine begins. From the sky, eight individual baby blocks drop until they’re in the middle of the screen. On each block is a letter and, all of them together spell out the name of the production company, which I won’t name here, a production company that, obviously, specializes in making porno strictly for sperm banks.

Everything really has been thought of. Half of me is disgusted and half of me applauds their ingenuity and sense of entrepreneurial pioneering. Actually, half and half is an unfair ratio. I’ll call it a 90/10 split, respectively.

And then, just like that, without any set up or story, without someone entering a room or taking off their clothes, without any dialogue or foreplay, from frame numero uno, Bangin’ at the Cabo Cabana immediately earns its title.

I reach up and hit stop. The screen goes black again. Much like the girl in the video, I feel as though I’ve gotten my fill of Hector (my name for the male actor), and I’m really concerned that if I watch the video to the end, the guy, rather than choosing to go with the “traditional” adult ending, will just decide to neatly collect his “product” in a little plastic vial and then set it on a nearby counter and frankly, if that happens, I believe I would just go limper than a spaghetti noodle in a bubble bath.

Mimi and Bill Cosby stop outside my door to chat about a party this weekend, some kind of dinner date. Mimi has a bad cough, full of phlegm. Bill Cosby does most of the talking and laughing. I double check to make sure the door is locked.

I’m so ashamed to be here. Not that I’m ashamed that I have cancer or that I’m sterile. I’m just feeling these very powerful emotions of human shame about masturbating. I can only equate it to pooping in the woods. You know it’s OK. You know everyone that you’re with is doing it and it’s totally normal but you’re just afraid someone is going to come around the corner and catch you in your most exposed state.

Snap out of it, Brookbank! I yell at myself. You’re paying them to be here! Now pull out that dick, and get yer whack on!

I do. And with the help of those sticky-paged magazines and the blonde cop with the nightstick on p. 27, it takes considerably less time then the dentist’s reclining chair experience did. I’m not really going to get into the logistics of the deposit itself, but I will say this: Even after my final visit, I’m still not completely certain what the best way to get the “money” from my “wallet” into the “envelope” is.

Once the deed is done, I screw the yellow lid on and it’s only then that I realize that they’ve never told me what to do with it. At the semen analysis place there was a Mr. Ed style half-door that I opened and placed the jar into to be gathered up by a faceless technician in the next room. I search the walls. Nothing.

I put my pants back on (yes, I felt the strange need to remove them completely, as the only thing that could make this a bit more awkward is dried cum gracing the cover of my jeans), unlock the door and slowly, slowly open it. I don’t want to alert anyone that I’m done. More shame. Shame. Shameful Shaming Shame!

Should I leave my cum basket behind? Should I take it with me? Which is the least horrendous situation: the one where I abandon it in the room and a stranger finds it, or the one where I’m caught in the hallway trouncing around with a porno snack pack?

After weighing the pros and cons endlessly, I decide to plant the plastic container into my palm and sort of twist my hand backward so that no approaching person will see what I’m carrying. I walk through a small labyrinth of narrow hallways up to another counter with more bulletproof glass, and I stop to wonder how many times sperm banks have been robbed. I set my collection of human sperm down on the counter and ring a bell. DING! ATTENTION EVERYONE IN THE GENERAL VICINITY! THIS YOUNG MAN HAS JUST COMPLETED HIS JACK OFF! CONGRATULATIONS, SIR!

I turn to leave and almost make it back to the exit when a small Asian woman who looks like Michelle Kwan wearing a baggy blue hazmat suit (helmet and all) pops her head out from the sliding glass door and says in a Darth Vadery voice, “Excuse me . . . sir . . . . ” All these dots are where Darth is doing his heavy breathing. “I need to ask you . . . a few questions . . . . ”

I come back over to Darth Kwan and, with my canned specimen resting next to her writing hand, she says, “How long . . . have you been . . . absent . . . ?” and I just assume she means abstinent.

She says, “Did you get it all . . . in the cup?”

I want to tell her that most of it went on the floor because of their stupid little cup technology. I want to tell her it’s on the TV and all over the magazines and on the headphones. I want to tell her that someone needs to go in there with some baby wipes and give every object in that room a cursory once-over.

But I don’t. Instead I just nod and say, “Yes, ma’am. It was a clean escape.”

At the front desk they charge me a hundred bucks and I say, “A hundred bucks? But I did all the work!” and ol’ Bill Cosby certainly thought THAT one was funny. And I don’t blame him/her.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

 

cancer_title_12 

I’ve been banking “successfully” for several weeks now. Every Monday and Thursday, I come into work feeling like a completely twisted weirdo. My producer asks me how my morning is, and I turn to him, a guy I call Cookie Dave, and say, “Cookie Dave, this morning I jacked off into a cup inside of a commercial business. If I’m being totally honest with you, the last couple weeks have been pretty strange.” He hands me a small napkin with a cookie in it and asks if I’d like it. “Thank you.” Peanut butter. My favorite.

He asks me how the whole “cancer thing” is going, and I say, “They’re going to cut out my ball in a few days. They’re going to just . . . cut it out completely,” and he says, “Ouch,” and takes another bite.

“Yes,” I say. “Ouch,” I repeat. Cookie Dave tells me to call him when I’m done with my edit, and he exits just as my boss walks into my bay and begins telling me about some zombie movie he recently saw. I try to listen, but his words all run together into a sonic blur. He says, “Dead,” he says, “Blood,” he says, “Tumor,” and I say, “What?” and he says, “TWO MORE! They’re making two more sequels!” and I say, “I have cancer,” and he sits down on my couch and says, “What?”

I try to explain it in the most succinct way possible. “I felt a lump on my nuts . . . . I went to the doctor . . . . I have cancer.”

“Uh . . . uh . . . ” he stammers. This speech pattern and the blank looks and the blind stares and the hopeless get-well-soon phrases are something to which I’ll shortly become accustomed. He looks at me like I’m a puppy that’s had its hind legs blown off and now rolls around in one of those sort of cute, sort of depressing doggy wheelchairs. “Well . . . uh . . . that sucks.” “Yes,” I say. “It does suck. I have surgery in a couple days and they’re going to try to remove it. I need some time off,” and he says, “Yes! Yes! Absolutely! Anything you need! Any time off you need, you take it!” And then, again, “That sucks, man. That really . . . sucks.”

The room is silent, and I feel my tumor throbbing, calling out to me, begging for attention. I sniff and rub my nose, not crying, just trying to make noise to break the horrible silence. He says, “Wow,” and I say, “This zombie movie . . . . It’s good?” and he says, “They run!

The throbbing continues and the black venom stretches out slowly into my body while I do nothing but wait.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

Next week is pretty monumental as we are going to be covering SURGERY: CHAPTER 13, wherein the tumor and the testicle will be attacked by strangers wielding blades and laser beams. So if that appeals to you (why would it not?), then you’re in for a real treat.

 

 

 

 

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MECHANICAL DONUT: CHAPTER 7

 

Hey, baby! Whether you’re here because you like the comedy or the train wreck, it’s Cancer Monday! And this week is a double whammy because you’re getting chapters 7 and 8 together! Oh, my goodness. What a deal.

So. If you’re all caught up and want to continue reading, please do! If you’re new here. WELCOME. This is a story about when I had cancer. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes there is just fierce ambivalence to the force of life. Click here to jump to the beginning and start reading this tale of wonderful woe from the very top.

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For the past few days, I’ve been drinking a radioactive concoction called barium and trust me, there is neither anything berry or yum about it. Seventy-two hours ago, a small yellow package showed up at my front door postmarked from the hospital, asking that I mix this powder with water and drink deeply. How to describe it? So many competing tastes and textures. If I were being polite, I would say it has the consistency of semen swimming in powdered eggs (powdered lumps included) and tastes of Elmer’s glue with just a hint of mint.

So no, it’s not terrible but it is bad enough to make me plug my nose and gag while I try to chug it as quickly as possible lest flies mistake it for what it smells like and begin to lay eggs in it.

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The chemical drink, I’m told, causes my insides to “light up” and reveal any inconsistencies with a “normal, healthy human,” which, as far as I can tell, I am not. I’m not exactly sure what this procedure will be, but I assume they have some kind of machine that will take pictures of my insides; some kind of giant X-ray. I’m imagining lying on a bed and smiling; it’s school photos all over again. THEN I’m imagining going across the street to Denny’s because I saw that they’re featuring their seasonal pumpkin pancakes right now, and I feel like I deserve a little comfort food.

A male nurse with black hair and a soul patch approaches me with a gown and says, “OK, Mr. Brookbank, we’re going to get you in and out with your CAT scan. First, we’ll have you put this gown on and then we’ll get you all hooked up with your IV and blah blah blah.” Everything else he says turns into static. My eyes shift to my wife, who grimaces. I say, “Uh . . . OK . . . OK. Do you . . . do you have a restroom I can change in and, uh . . . have a panic attack?” and the male nurse with the soul patch says, “Yes, absolutely. Right this way.”

Inside the bathroom I change into the knee length, butt-revealing gown and stare at myself in the mirror; blue eyes filled with fear, wispy beard standing on end, skin the color of bad eggs. I don’t give myself a pep talk. I don’t say anything. I just stare at my reflection and try to imagine what it feels like to not be afraid of needles.

“Everyone is afraid of needles,” my wife says and I respond with, “No. Nobody likes needles. Not everyone is afraid of them. I don’t like the cold. I’m not afraid of it. You don’t like onions. You’re not afraid of them. My fear is deeply psychological and . . . it’s very . . . you wouldn’t understand. They’re pointy and silver and . . . They’re just so fucking pointy and silver!”

The Internet tells me the complex is called trypanophobia, an illness so foul that they actually had to give it a name no one could pronounce.

Soul Patch calls my name and escorts me into The Room. The door shuts and clicks behind me. In the middle of the floor is a giant Mechanical Donut, 6-and-a-half-feet high with a bed that rolls in and out of its delicious center. Next to the circular, steel pastry is a robotic arm that has a bag filled with clear liquid dangling from its “hand.” It is this clear liquid, I understand without being told, that will be shot into my veins to assist and activate the barium.

I ask Soul Patch how long he’s been doing this and he says, “Coupla’ years,” and I say, “I mean IVs. How long? Are you good at it?” and he says, “Oh. Yeah. Couple years. I’m good.”

Yeah, right. Your voice has the confidence of an eighth grader buying beer. Intern! Intern! Intern! And for the first time I find myself intentionally trying to focus on the pulsating lump of my lump, trying to distract myself from the needle.

I ask him what the CAT scan is for, and he noncommittally answers, “Oh, you’re a new patient, and we just like to do preliminary work on everyone prior to surgery,” and I say, “But specifically my pelvis, abdomen, and lungs?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah . . . sort of everywhere, but yeah. There, mostly,” and I think, “Shame on you, kid. You’re not old enough to buy beer and that is a fake ID.” I think, “I know what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see if it’s spread anywhere. You’re looking to see if it’s growing. You want to know what to do if the surgery doesn’t work or if you’re too late.”

Soul Patch tells me to lie back and I do, reluctantly. He tells me to hold out my arm and I do, reluctantly. He holds my wrist and starts to slap around my forearm with two fingers. “How,” he asks, “are your veins?” and I tell him I don’t know. He asks if I’ve drunk any water recently and I say, “A little,” and he says, “Uh, OK. This is usually a bit easier if you’ve been drinking water but we’ll see what we can—” slap, slap—“do . . . . ”

My eyes are the size of dinner saucers, and my hands curl into fists of fear. I want to scream for Jade to bring me water, water, WATER!!! A cup, a glass, a gallon, a hose, anything. We’ll see what we can do??!! What does that mean?? I imagine him sliding the needle under my skin and into my vein, missing and probing, fishing, hooking, sticking, stabbing, wiggling, my wrinkled and hibernating vein exploding over and over, blood leaking out and running all over the floor. In my mind, Soul Patch keeps saying, “Oops, oops, sorry, again, once more, my bad,” until I finally just pass out.

“There ya go.” I look down, and it’s done. He tells me to lie back and keep my arm with the silvery, pointy needle sticking in it above my head. “Keep it pointed at the ceiling,” and I say, “The needle—is the needle still in my arm?” and he says, “Uh . . . no. It’s just a small rubber hose,” and I say, “Can I bend my arm without getting poked?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah. I’ll be in this room over here and I’ll give you directions over the intercom.” I try to bend my arm and feel a little poke. Intern! Or maybe it was just the tape pulling at a hair. I don’t know. But I bet that needle is still in there. In my arm. In my vein.

Soul Patch’s voice comes over the intercom, and I turn my head to the left. He’s in a booth that looks like it’s being protected from radiation caused by nuclear fallout. I have to pause and wonder what sort of danger my body is currently in, what sort of rays I am about to endure. I try to remember what it was that The Fantastic Four were hit with when my train of thought is interrupted.

“Remember to keep your arm up—at the ceiling—like you have a question.” The only question I have is, When will this be over?

I have no idea how unanswerable that actually is.

The tech, from his bomb shelter, says, “And here comes the dye.” I watch the fluid come down the bag, through the tube, and into my arm, and then I’m pretty certain that I have legitimately shit my pants. Everything from my abdomen to my thighs is steaming hot.

The intercom comes back on. Soul Patch says, “The dye may cause you to feel like you’ve . . . wet . . . your pants,” and I shut my eyes and take a deep breath, trying not to focus on the warmth in my pelvis.

The bed jerks and slides into the donut. I open my eyes and read a sign taped to the top of the donut hole: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE LASER. A female robot voice comes through the donut, The Bakery God, and says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” And I do. And I shut my eyes. And I pray. Not to the bakery god, but to That Faceless And Eternal Being. I do not blame you. I do not understand. Help me.

“You. May. Breathe.” The robot says and the bed pulls me out of the donut sanctuary. “Doing OK?” Soul Patch asks, and I say, “Yeah,” but in my head I think, Not so great . . . . Did I shit my pants?

The bed jerks forward again and the robot tells me, “Hold. Your. Breath.”

What hangs in the balance of this test? What will these results reveal? The thought of this being the beginning of something bigger crosses my mind, and I try to push it away. For me, surgery is the end. There is a definitive period afterward, and I go home and go back to work and that’s it but . . . .

What if . . . .

What if the cancer has spread? Lungs? Stomach? Liver? Is this possible? Yes. Yes, it’s all definitely possible. But is it probable? I pause, trying to be logical and not emotional and yes, I realize, it is probable.

“You. May. Breathe.”

Will I die in six months? Could I die in six months? I could die in six months. If it has spread, what are my chances for survival? The Internet tells me that, depending on what kind of cancer I have, it could be anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent survival rate, which is basically like saying, “Maybe you’ll die. Maybe you won’t,” and then shrugging unapologetically.

“Hold. Your. Breath.”

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Like all good hospitals, ours made us wait the entire weekend before giving us the (maybe) life-changing results of our test. Over those three days, every stomachache turned into stomach cancer, every pain in my finger exploded into bone cancer, every headache transformed into brain cancer. By the time they called back late Monday afternoon, I had diagnosed myself as a tumor wearing clothes.

“What are my results? My, uh, my test results?” and the lady on the phone says, “I’m not allowed to give out that information, sir,” and I say, “I know. I know you’re not. But it’s OK. It’s me, er, my body. It’s my body. It’s not a secret to me,” and she says, “I just really can’t, and actually, I just don’t have access to the information. The doctor would, however, like to speak with you.”

Outside, thunder claps and lightening strikes and the camera zooms dramatically into my face and I hear the soundtrack of my life play dun-DUN-DUUUUUUN!!!

I take a half-day off work the next day and drive back to Arcadia to visit with Dr. Honda, the friendly neighborhood urologist. When I arrive, all the receptionists know me by name and smile and welcome me in and everything is just too friendly. Jade and I sit down and she picks up the same copy of Better Homes she’d been reading previously and opens up to the page she had habitually dog-eared.

A woman calls my name and both my wife and I stand up. I start walking forward while Jade casually slides the magazine into her purse. The receptionist leads us back through a narrow corridor crowded by old people with various urinating issues. We take a seat in the room where I was told I had cancer and Jade says, “Is this where he told you?”

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Where were you sitting?”

And I say, “Here.”

And she says, “And was he right here?”

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Did you cry?”

And I say, “No. I said, ‘Rats.’”

She glances suspiciously around before sliding out her hot copy of Better Homes just before Dr. Honda knock-knock-enters. Jade shoves the magazine back in her purse like she’s just been caught trying to purchase extra-tiny condoms. The doctor shakes my hand, and I introduce him to my wife. He smiles and says, “Nice to meet you,” and takes a seat.

To his right he sets down a regular manila envelope with my name scratched onto the tab. Inside that envelope, I think, is everything. My future is just out of my reach.

He makes small talk with me and asks how my job is going, and I answer in short but courteous statements. He finally says, “Welp!” and grabs the folder and opens it on his lap and here comes The News.

“You have,” and he slides his finger down the page, turns it, examines the second page, “stage one cancer.”

I drop to my knees and tear my shirt and wail and scream and curse the Earth and the doctor says, “That’s . . . uh . . .that’s the kind we already knew you had,” and I immediately sit back on the paper-covered table and compose myself and say, “That’s great!”

Dr. Honda says, “It hasn’t spread. We’ll do the surgery and that should be it.”

YES!” We are going to (literally) cut this villain off at the pass and bury it alive. Goodnight, dickwad!

“Just out of curiosity,” I ask, “How high do the stages go?” and the doctor says, “Four. They go to four.”

 

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If you’re reading this with us weekly, thank you. The above chapters were such a bizarre place for us. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety. What is going to happen is a good question but what IS happening is maybe the better one.

Next week we’re going to get into sexy finances. That’s right, sweetheart. Chapter nine is about sperm banking. World’s most awkward excerpt below . . .

 

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The woman behind the desk hands me a cup and says, “Back through that door on the right. No lubrication. No spit,” and she looks directly at my wife and I say, “Oh . . . Ooooooh . . . .

We walk through the appropriate door and find ourselves in a room roughly the size of a hotel conference hall. Everything is white. Everything is sterile. The fluorescents buzz in the ceiling. On the walls: Georgia O’Keeffe.

Of course.

Sitting next to the door is a small table cluttered with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions. Motivation. In the center of the room is a chair that can only be described as something you would get a root canal in. It’s black, leather, and constantly at a slight recline. I sit in it and assume that this specific posture has been scientifically proven to help nervous men climax in public places.

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Click FOLLOW or SUBSCRIBE or whatever the button below says to get updates with new chapters!

 

 

 

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PARENTS: CHAPTER 6

 

Welcome back for Cancer Monday. Every week we’re releasing a chapter from my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, which chronicles that one time I had cancer at 26, until the very bittersweet end.

If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here.

Otherwise, let’s press forward and read together about what it was like to call my parental units to inform them about my tumor.

 

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Over the last few weeks I’ve left my parents in the dark because I didn’t want to put them through unnecessary Cancer worry, especially if the problem were going to simply solve itself. Which it didn’t. So now I have to work on The Big Reveal. And remember, as any good salesman will tell you, presentation is everything.

Jade pulls into a Walgreen’s parking lot to buy a Diet Coke and we sit on the sidewalk and call her mom. “It’s a lump. It’s cancer. They’re taking it, yes.” My mother-in-law asks to speak to me. She asks me how I’m doing. She asks me how I’m feeling. I tell her that it’s no big deal. I tell her that absolute very worst-case scenario is that I have to get a little chemotherapy, just some needle and I’ll feel like I’ve got the flu for a bit. I’ll get better. Whatever.

She says, “Wow.” She says, “You’re brave.” She says, “Stay strong.”

The truth is, I’m not brave. I’m being forced kicking and screaming through this scenario. I don’t want to be here, and I never would have volunteered. I don’t deserve this.

Deserve. That’s an awfully big word that gets thrown around a lot. Maybe I do deserve it. I try to examine my life from a higher perspective. I’ve lied, cheated, and stolen; said hurtful things to people intentionally; torn people down verbally with complete purpose; and talked shit about my friends and family behind their backs. Maybe I do deserve this.

We drive home and I take a seat in my backyard on our patio furniture. I lean back in the chair and let the sun, one of the only absolute constants in our lives, hit my face, warm me, comfort me.

A man walks through my alley pushing a shopping cart and shouting, “Tamale! Tamale! Tamale con queso!” and I think about him and all my neighbors and how, as far as I know, none of them have cancer. Just me. Just all of a sudden. Nobody knows about my balls. Nobody anywhere knows or cares about anything right now.

My mom wanders around her home 1,500 miles away, feeding her dogs, her healthy children somewhere in the back of her head. My dad fixes a computer, thoughts of gigabytes and RAM clouding his brain, the world a dull fuzz outside of his peripheral.

Everything is about to change for them. They are about to become Parents Of A Child With Cancer.

I pick up the phone and call my mom first. I let it ring six times before I hang up. I set the phone down and stare at it, wondering if maybe she’ll call right back. I stand up and start pacing, rubbing my thumb along the inside of my pinky, a nervous tick I have.

I pick up the phone again and try my dad. It rings twice before he answers in a distracted, gruffly voice. “This is Mike,” he says. “Hey, Daaaaaad. It’s me.” I sort of let the word play out like that because I have no idea how to get into this conversation, how to ease into it; I didn’t plan an opening act or monologue. “How’s it going?” I ask, and he begins to tell me about computer problems that I don’t and probably won’t ever understand. I listen, but only to be polite because I didn’t call to hear what he’s been up to. I didn’t call for any polite reason. I called with one intent and I’m just waiting for my selfish turn to speak.

“What’s new with you?” he asks. And there’s my window.

“Well,” I say, struggling for the words, hoping that they would find me if I just started talking but . . . no. I throw eloquence and pacing to the wind and just say, “I have cancer.”

There’s a long pause on the other end like he’s waiting for the punch line. The great joke this is bound to be. It doesn’t come. Trust me, I’m still waiting myself.

He says, “Oh . . . kay . . . . Did you tell your mom?” and I say, “No,” and he says, “You better let me tell her,” and I quickly say, “NO! No . . . I’d rather tell her myself,” and he says, “Oh . . . kay . . . . ” and I quickly fill in the blanks with, “There’s a good chance I’ll survive. I just . . . I have cancer . . . . ” There’s more silence. Loads of it. Then he says, “Your mom just got home. Why don’t you call her?” And I do.

Yellow, John Boy! How ya’ doin’?” My mother is forever the chipper woman, her syllables bouncing up and down playfully. I feel bad that I have to destroy this. I say, “I’m doing good. I’m doing OK. Did Dad talk to you?” and she, with a hint of suspicion, says, “Nooo-ooooh. What’s going on?”

I take a deep breath and shut my eyes. In my head I think, I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to tell you this. I wish I could just keep it from you and spare you and not drag you into it. I wish I didn’t have to damage you with this information, and I’m sorry for the pain I’m about to cause you. I feel sick to my stomach.

“I have cancer.”

Another long silence. I’ll get used to these. Like an old computer reading a large file, people need a chunk of time to process a sizable piece of information like that.

There are no tears. She doesn’t cry. Everything about this interaction is atypical. I tell her I should survive and she says, “OK.” I tell her I’ll keep her posted on everything and then, as she’s telling me goodbye, I hear her voice crack and I realize that she is first and foremost in shock, and second, trying to keep a straight face for my sake. I tell her goodbye and the moment I slam the phone closed I begin to cry, vicious sobs that wrench my body.

Moments later my phone rings, and I assume it’s my mom calling back, but no. It’s my brother-in-law, Jarod. I cover my eyes with the palm of my hand and wipe down, pushing the tears away. I look up at the sky, and I think about how there are people out there with real problems. People starving. People dying. Currently dying of cancer. Lung cancer. Heart cancer. Brain cancer. Get it together. I answer the phone, trying to sound cool but coming off like a mop. “Hey . . . . ”

Jarod, three years my senior, says, “Heeeey. So I just heard about . . . . How are you doing?” and this is the one person I’ve spoken to so far who I don’t want to cry in front of. This is my brother-in-law and the person I just want to shrug it off with and give an, “Eh, you know,” but for some reason, I can’t hold it back. Everything comes out. Everything I didn’t tell my mom. Everything I didn’t tell my dad. Everything I didn’t tell my mother-in-law. Everything I didn’t tell my wife. It comes out now.

Everything overflows.

I’m so afraid. I’m so fucking afraid. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t . . . I don’t fucking deserve this and . . . it’s so fucked up. I can’t have kids— I’m like some fucking . . . sterile . . . . I can’t fucking have kids! And they’re going to cut my nut off. I’m so afraid that I’m going to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” And then I just cry into the phone and it feels so great and so terrible and Jarod says the absolute wisest thing he can.

Nothing.

He simply listens.

 

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Next week we’re talking about The Mechanical Donut. Excerpt below . . .

 

What hangs in the balance of this test? What will these results reveal? The thought of this being the beginning of something bigger crosses my mind, and I try to push it away. For me, surgery is the end. There is a definitive period afterward, and I go home and go back to work and that’s it but . . . .

What if . . . .

What if the cancer has spread? Lungs? Stomach? Liver? Is this possible? Yes. Yes, it’s all definitely possible. But is it probable? I pause, trying to be logical and not emotional and yes, I realize, it is probable.

Will I die in six months? Could I die in six months? I could die in six months. If it has spread, what are my chances for survival? The Internet tells me that, depending on what kind of cancer I have, it could be anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent survival rate, which is basically like saying, “Maybe you’ll die. Maybe you won’t,” and then shrugging unapologetically.

 

 

 

 

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