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

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

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

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

I say, “OK, go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I say, “Any of your AIDS blood?”

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

And I say, “Cold move.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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160,000 Gallons of Life

Last Tuesday, September 17 was, as far as the Roman calendar is concerned, my 31st birthday.  But, time being relative and limited and unlimited only by the things we measure it by, it’s hard to say how old I really am.  For example, yes, I’m 31 years old or 372 months old or roughly 11,160 days old but I could just as easily say that I’m 160,000 gallons of water old, if I were measuring time by the amount of water that dropped from a faucet since the day I was born.  The point is, age, as well as time, is relative, it’s just a number that is representative of a measure of time that we have created.  You can’t look at a chart and say, here I rest, just entering into the middle section of life because “middle section” implies that your specific life line will stretch until “The End”, presumably 90-something.

Which it probably won’t.
You, like most people, probably won’t live to a ripe old age.  You, like most people, will die earlier than you planned, leaving behind a lot of things unfinished and unsaid and unaccomplished because you, like me, like most people, never tried to do them all.
Age, like dreams, are only relative to what you do with them.  What are you spending your time with / on?  Are you bottling 31 “years” up inside of you with 31 years of “talent” and “hope” and “fear” because you’re afraid to show anyone anything or afraid to try because you’re afraid to fail or, worse yet, you’re afraid that everyone is going to sniff you out and know that you’re a fake.  He’s not a writer!  He’s not a director!  She’s not a musician!  She’s not a photographer / actor / artist/ restaurant owner / chef / Pie Eating Champion of the World!  I know him!  He worked at Subway!  She’s a mom!  She’s a barista!  You make coffee and that’s what you do
And I want to tell you that it’s bullshit.
Five years ago, on my 26th birthday, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer; testicular, Lymphoma, heart and lungs.  I was looking down the barrel of a gun and pleading for my life and swearing that yes, when I came through the other end, things would be different and I wouldn’t be so complacent about my life and I wouldn’t be bored or boring and I would do all the things that needed to be done and say the things that needed to be said and if I died with a list of regrets when I was 90 or 80 or 70 or 35, that list would be incredibly short and pathetic and would contain things like, “Eat a pizza from the inside out.”
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ABOVE: CLOCK READS 12:02am.  MY BIRTHDAY HAS JUST BEGUN AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S HEADING TOWARDS ME.
I told myself that I would start a family… and I have; a set of twins with a third one on the way.  I told myself I would start directing; the entire reason I moved to this city… and I have.  I’ve worked on commercials both for the internet as well as broadcast and have gotten my personal work into several film festivals and have worked with musicians who’s work inspires me.  I told myself I would read Moby Dick… and I did and it was the worst thing ever but I finished it and can say with utter confidence that you should never pick it up.  I told myself I would read Grapes of Wrath… and I did and it’s one of the best things ever and I can say with utter confidence that you should pick it up.  I told myself that I would tell my father that I loved him on a semi-regular basis and even though, for some reason it’s very difficult for sons and fathers to say these things to one another for a variety of reasons… I have.  I told myself I would start camping… with my kids… and I have.  I’ve taken vacations and adventures with them.
I’ve written TV pilots and done podcasts and directed music videos and had 80s parties and made new friends have started a blog and am learning to play guitar and I play hide and seek at least once a week and, even though my kids don’t quite understand the concept of “Be quiet, we need to hide,” and they just scream instead it’s still so much fun!  I’ve started playing frisbee golf and hiking and I just got a membership to a gun range where I will learn the rules of steel.  I read.  Everyday.  Sometimes out loud with my wife.  I write.  Almost everyday.  I keep a journal but I almost never read it.  I go to live shows, both theatrical and band performances.  I started a financial budget with my wife and we’ve done pretty good at sticking to it.  I’ve loved those around me because I almost lost them all.
My point is just this; first off, don’t get cancer.  And I know there’s only so much you can do about that but do what you can.  Second off, just go.  Get out there.  Stop waiting because today, sadly, you and I and everyone, we are older and older and older and today I looked at a photo of myself when I graduated high school and I didn’t recognize that kid.  He doesn’t stare out of the mirror at me anymore.  Sure, some shade of him is still there but… we’re getting older and you can’t trade in your regrets for extra days.  They’re just baggage.
My last word here is this and it is a truly desperate plea…
Shut off your TVs.
That sounds righteous and high-and-mighty and maybe it is but television is killing our creativity.  It is sapping our time and melting our brains.  We say to each other, “I’d love to do this or that but I just don’t have any time,” but we still manage to watch 3 hours of TV in the evening after a full day of work.  Shut it off.  Pull the plug.  Throw it away.  Whatever you have to do.  Television is a crack in the dam by which all motivation drains out.  I would challenge anyone reading this to put their TV in a closet for a month and then examine how much they’ve accomplished.  Practice music, read a book, go to the gym, pray, meditate, play a board game and talk to your spouse but please, please, please, shut off your TV…*
Don’t wait to get sick.  Don’t wait until you’re lying in a hospital bed to have your personal revelation.  God made you a very particular way with very particular talents and you know what they are (and if you don’t, you need to start looking harder).  Stop building walls around your gold to try and keep everyone out.  Tear them down and let everyone see it regardless of your age because you are never too old.
Too old and too tired and too busy are excuses invented by lazy people with no personal ambition.  Age is relative.  Time is relative.  Even success is relative.  But what you do with your time and your 31 years or your 54,000 ocean waves or your 7 Summer Cycles – your every move, even your non-moves, are very, very relative.  Today, take your first steps; buy that used guitar, sign up for piano lessons, research small business loans, purchase a copy of Harry Potter.
Life is too short to be stagnant and The End already comes too swiftly; don’t be sitting back in a recliner with a TV dinner and a re-run of Pawn Stars on when it happens.  Don’t be caught off guard.
When Death finally comes to me, hopefully in 60 more years, I want to smile broadly and look at my To Do list and I want the last words I see to be, “Embrace Death.  You did everything.”
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ABOVE: ME LOOKING LIKE THE POSTER CHILD FOR THE MAKE-A-WISH FOUNDATION ON MY FINAL DAY IN THE HOSPITAL.
BELOW: ME AUDITIONING FOR CALVIN KLEIN’S NEW FALL LINE “CANCER CHIC”.
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*If you’re going to participate in this exercise, I would strongly suggest waiting until September, 29th when the finale of Breaking Bad airs.
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