Tag Archives: Cancer

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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LOCKJAW: CHAPTER 30

 

It is an easy life to wake up every morning and to hate our jobs. It is an easy life to piss and moan while we drive to work. It is an easy life to hate our bosses and to begrudgingly accomplish a list of tasks set out before us. It is an easy life to be put upon, allowing the world and circumstances and fate to blow us this way or that way and to kick the ground and say, “If only my luck would change.”

It’s easy to be a victim.

Whether it’s a bad marriage or a job that is uninspiring or a disease that catches us off guard, it’s easy to slouch down, shut our eyes, and feel sorry for ourselves.

It is also very amazing how quickly our perspective will shift and change once these horrible responsibilities that have been “placed on our shoulders” are suddenly gone and missing. How desperately we would eat the scraps from the table we were previously dining at.

Sitting in My Yellow Chair, I think to myself that I would do near anything to have my job back. To have any job back. I would go back to the video store I worked at as a senior in high school, I would go back to the coffee shop I worked at as a junior, I would go back to the sandwich shop I worked at as a sophomore. Paperboy, garbage man, toll-booth attendant, just let me live. Let me stand in the sunshine and talk to someone. Let my cares be menial and pointless and let me eat turkey sandwiches for lunch. Let me leave at five and drive home in bumper to bumper traffic and give me my thoughts—reasonable, logical thoughts. Let me think of my wife as the woman I married and love dearly; let her be the object of my affection and desire and let me not see her as my caretaker any longer. Let me grow old and come to take care of my mother. Don’t let my mother stand by idly and watch me die, cradling her son in her arms as I shrivel away, fading further and further into The Black.

Give me Life. Give me Freedom. Give me Adventure. I want to sail. I want to scuba dive. I want to scream. I want to skydive. I want to camp, hike, and swim. I want to travel in an RV. I want to visit Nicaragua and Ireland. I want to live in the woods. I want to fire a gun. I want to make a movie. I want to write a book. I want to have a family, grow old, and die with no regrets. I want to learn to play guitar, cook, and perform sleight of hand magic tricks. I want to stand up in front of a large group of people and say, “THIS is my story. THIS is what happened to me. THIS is how I got through it.” I want to donate my time to something, someone, anyone. I want to donate my money to something, someone, anyone. I want to make a difference. I want to talk to a child with cancer and say, “You’re going to be OK.” I want to alter and inspire those around me. I want to effect change. When I die, I don’t want to say, “I wish I . . . . ” Instead I want to say, “I did all.” If I saw it, I took it. Life is a fruit tree and everything is waiting to be picked and gobbled up. Some fruit is higher than others but, with the proper motivation to climb, all is attainable.

All is attainable.

More than anything, though, when I come out the other side of this disease, and you believe me, mark my words, I will—when I come out the other side, I am going to be a different person. Baptized by fire, existence will not look down on me but I will look down on existence, and I will conquer it and I will own it and I will eat everything it has to offer.

When I can walk, I will run. When I can think, I will write. When I can move, I will create, accomplish, execute.

Until then . . . until then, I will sit here and I will hibernate and I will simply try to inspire myself.

Cancer has a very vicious duality to it. The one side, the first side, the more prominent side, is very sad and dark and depressing. It’s very aggressive. It has sharp teeth and it bites and it (literally) kills you and (figuratively) those around you. It attacks your mind, body and spirit. It chips away at you piece by piece and makes you hate yourself and your life and your existence. But then, there, on the obverse side, is the stranger side of Cancer; the bit that people rarely speak about and the bit that the public rarely sees. Cancer is inspiring and life changing. It will clear your mind. The world comes into focus. The path becomes clear; the path of movement and forward momentum; the plan of attack.

My mother looks at me and says, “What are you thinking about?” and I look up and say, “I just want to live,” and she says, “I know . . . you will,” and I say, “No . . . I mean . . . when this is over. I want to go—” I reach up and touch my jaw. Something feels Wrong. Off. Stiff.

I place my thumb under my jawbone and apply pressure and I rub my cheek and I try to open my mouth but suddenly my teeth are clamping down on each other with the tenacity of a bear trap and my mom says, “What are you doing?” and between pursed lips I say, “I . . . can’t open my mouth.”

And so, how do you respond to that? Someone has a seizure, call 911. Someone is turning yellow, put them in the sun. Your heart hurts? You’re probably having a heart attack. Your face is going limp? You’re the victim of a stroke. These are obvious decisions but . . . I just can’t open my mouth. My mom says, “Does it hurt?” and I say, “Uh . . . no,” and then we both sit in silence trying to figure out what to do in the least dramatic scene of all time.

I wave my mom over and lift up my hands and she grabs me and I stand up and I say, “Let’s go for a walk,” and, instead of going outside, we just manipulate ourselves in a great big circle around and around and around the inside of my house. I make seven laps before I’m completely winded and need to take a break.

In the kitchen I lean heavily on the counter, stick my fingers between my teeth, and try to pry my mouth open. It’s a scene directly out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Jade enters and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “I can’t open my mouth,” and Jade says, “Why?” and I say, “I don’t know. I think I have lockjaw,” and Jade says, “Right . . . ” and I say, “Look at me! My jaw . . . is locked! I cannot open it! I have no key! How much more evidence do you need?!” and she steps forward and examines my face and says, “Hmmm. We could take you to the doctor?” and I say, “NO! No more doctors! No more IVs! No more hospital beds until I have to go back for the chemo. We’re figuring this out on our own. Who do we know? Can we Ask Jeeves?” and all of my words are coming out in chunky gusts and gasps.

My mom says, “Your aunt used to be a nurse,” and I say, “Yes! Absolutely! That’s right. Get her on the phone. Let’s solve this mystery!” and now my teeth are biting so hard into each other that it actually is starting to hurt and I’m getting so tired from standing up that I decide to go lie down on the couch, burying my face deep down into the crevices of the pillows.

I hear the phone click and my mom says, “Drink milk,” and I say, “And then what?” and she says, “I don’t know. I guess that’s it. Something about . . . blood and . . . I don’t know.”

Jade raises an eyebrow and shrugs and says, “You should probably get more calcium in your diet anyway,” and I say, “But of course,” and she pours me a tiny glass and I drink half of it, gag, drink the other half and sit down. Jade brings me another glass and I sip on it before, slowly, like oil on the Tin Woodman in Oz, my joints begin to loosen and I can stretch my jaw and talk again.

Cancer is, if nothing else, a very tragic adventure unlike any other that I’ve been on. Like a haunted house, it keeps you on your toes and it keeps you guessing and it makes you roll with the punches. Seizure! Swerve, block. Blood transfusion! Uppercut! Heart cancer, lung cancer! Pop-bang! “And now here comes his signature move: Lockjaw!”

Of all the things Cancer is, boring is not one of them.

I shut my eyes and wonder what tomorrow will bring.

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ALAN: CHAPTER 28

 

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I haven’t eaten anything of true substance for months—just bites of candy bars, portions of cereal, some chicken, rice, carrots. I can eat when I’m high, but I can’t always be high. I’ve lost over one quarter of my body weight. The man staring out of the mirror is not me. It’s not JOHNNY. It’s some dark replacement, a temporary placeholder.

 

When I was in high school, a kid I was supposed to graduate with died of bone cancer during our senior year. I only knew him by proximity, our entire graduating class consisting of about 300 kids, but found myself attending his funeral regardless. When somebody that young dies in a town that small, it sends a ripple through the community that everyone feels.

 

I remember standing in front of his coffin and staring down at him. The boy, his name was Alan (this is a fake name and a real story), would never be called big. In his Earthly life he was never going to be a successful football player and he didn’t have the physique for track. He was a gear head with a very average-sized body. Nothing particularly large or small about him but that was not who I was looking at in the coffin. Average Alan was not staring back at me. This body was a shadow of his existence. His skin looked jaundiced, his cheeks were hollow bulbs, his head appeared to have grown in size, pulling his hair line back although I understood that it was all smoke and mirrors, death’s way of manipulating your perspective. His head wasn’t growing; his body was shrinking, or rather, had shrunk. His fat cells had been depleted.

 

Some mortician’s assistant had painted him and tried to give him blush and color and joie de vivre but . . . he was just a dead kid with make-up on. This wasn’t Alan. This was just Alan’s body, and his killer was hunting me.

 

Now, almost a decade later, I see Alan staring back at me in the mirror. The pasty skin. The bland features. The inhuman persona. I would look more at home in a George Romero film.

 

Is this what I’ll look like when I die? Is this what people will see? Will remember? Is this who my wife will recall? This sad little man hunched over in a chair, spending his days sleeping?

 

I picture the people I’ve seen at nursing homes, men in recliners staring at birds in cages. Old men staring, watching, waiting for the end. These men who were once vigorous young boys, running, jumping, dancing, chasing, fighting, kicking, screaming, laughing, living. This is what time does. Eighty years, ninety years, one hundred years. Time saps away everything precious and leaves you with the remains. It eats all the food and gives you the wrapper and hands you the bill.

 

This is me, a ninety-year-old man watching birds, just glad to finally be out of that hospital and back in the safety of familiar surroundings. Me, sitting in my backyard with a blanket across my lap, my eyes shut, listening to that distant chirp, chirp, chirp.

 

When this journey began, sitting outside to get Vitamin D was a joke, some kind of pathetic attempt to grasp at straws. Today I’ll do anything to try and get better. I’ll do anything for a bit of strength. I’ll take your magic pills. I’ll swallow your magic beans. Somebody tells me that raspberries help cure cancer so I buy a palette full of them and try to eat a few every day.

 

I haven’t heard anything about my cancer markers in some time and have no idea what they’re doing; 300, 600, 14,000, 62. It doesn’t matter. I feel like shit. I shut my eyes and listen to chirp, chirp, chirp and it’s just so beautiful. The birds are so calm and soothing. I watch a small brown one jump from branch to branch. Chirp, chirp. I watch a squirrel run up a tree. I watch a row of ants marching back and forth, back and forth, back and forth at my feet. Somebody walks through my alley and I wonder where he’s heading. The guy looks at me and waves and says, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” even though it isn’t until tomorrow. I raise my hand halfway up, too tired to speak. This is what Cancer looks like. Saying “Hello” feels like a quick run. Saying “Merry Christmas!” with all of its syllables and uppercase letters and its great, big, tall exclamation point is a marathon.

 

I inhale deeply, hold the breath, count to five, and then slowly let it out. In the house to my left it sounds like someone is showering. In the house to my right it sounds like someone just broke a dish. In the tree 20 feet in front of me I hear a bird chirping and think about how I am the only one hearing this noise; this little bird is singing its song while the world goes to work and pays bills and buys clothes and sleeps and watches reality TV and here I am, sitting in my backyard all alone, the sole audience for the performance of a lifetime.

 

I feel as though I am able to examine the world around me in great and fascinating detail. I feel like I am seeing it in a fourth dimension. I feel like the strands of existence are breaking and tearing and opening up and I’m able to see through them into some other realm of beauty. I’m seeing things that no one else can. I’m seeing the color green for what it is. I’m seeing green grass and it’s so beautiful and I understand that it’s so beautiful and everything I’ve taken for granted, the wonderful, majestic world around me, is suddenly alive and vibrant and vivacious. The trees are towering monoliths, hundreds of years old. The dirt, the grass, the bugs, everything is working together in perfect unison, perfect harmony, a world separate in my very own backyard.

 

I look at it all happening and I see everything. I see every detail. I hear everything. I see how intricately everything works together. I see the ants. I see a bug eat an ant. I see a bug get stuck in a spider web. I see the spider eat the bug. I see a fly. I see a piece of disgusting dog shit and I see the fly land on it and plant maggots in it and everything, everything, everything, even the most disgusting, grotesque pieces of us play a greater role. It’s perfect, it’s flawless, a complicated tapestry of interwoven threads. When I die I’ll feed something, fertilize the earth, turn into a tree, give oxygen to everyone.

 

Perfect.

 

I turn my eyes inward and stare into my body and see my lungs and my heart and my lymph nodes turning black. I see the disease fighting to survive. I try to understand what it’s doing, what it’s thinking, what its purpose is. Maybe it’s supposed to cull the herd. Natural selection.

 

I stand up and go back inside. It’s Christmas Eve 2008. I slowly walk through the house and shut all the blinds, sit down in My Yellow Chair and stare at our Christmas tree, glowing white and red.

 

My mother had told my wife she shouldn’t worry about the tree. She tells her there is so much on her plate. She tells her to just relax. But my wife says no. She says she’s going to put it up. She says we’re going to celebrate Christmas. She says we’re going to be as normal as possible. This is her grasping at her own sense of control in an otherwise chaotic existence. The two of them put up the tree while I watch. That was four weeks ago. Tonight I just soak in its radiance. I want to crawl underneath it and stare up at its electric stars, drowning out the world around me in color and design.

 

Instead I walk to my bedroom and lie down, pull my stocking hat over my face, pull my hood over my head, pull my blankets up to my chin and try to sleep but instead just stare at the back of my eyelids, breathing heavily, trying not to vomit.

 

In the other room I can hear my mother and wife rolling dice for yet another game of Yahtzee. The sound of the cubes hitting the table is like hammers pounding steel. Their voices are like forks scraping against glass plates. Everything feels like hot wax being poured over my brain. I cover my ears with a pillow and squeeze. I can hear them making dinner, something with pasta in it. The smell reaches me and I furl into my hobbit hole even further, deeper. I want to go somewhere else, be somewhere else, be someone else. I want someone to take my place, to deal with these effects. I want to walk away.

 

Jade enters and says, “Dinner’s ready,” and I fall out of bed, onto the floor and pull myself into the kitchen. The delicious aroma of manicotti makes me gag and I say, “Smells great.” Truly, I want nothing more than for someone to take that whole pan of disgusting shit tomato pasta and throw it out the window. I sit down at the table and casually cover my mouth and nose with my hand. My mom asks if I’d like just a little and I shake my head and take a sip of water. I shut my eyes and listen to these two women, my closest family, my caretakers, the one, the woman who brought me into this world and the other, the woman who will be by my side until one of us goes out, talk about recipes and marriage and cleaning.

 

Halfway through dinner I get up and go back to bed and lie down and sleep.

 

I wake up just after midnight. It’s Christmas.

 

_JBP6854

 

 

 

 

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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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TAKE CONTROL: CHAPTER 26

 

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You know that feeling when you’ve got the flu and your stomach is just rolling around in your guts? That feeling where the back of your throat feels sensitive? That feeling where you just shut your eyes and cover your mouth and try to take some slow and easy breaths, telling yourself, “Just relax. Don’t puke . . . ” but no matter what you say you know that you’re going to eventually lose it and you’re going to have to make a mad dash for the bathroom and hopefully, hopefully, hopefully you’re lucky enough to actually make it to the toilet before your lunch bursts from your cheeks like a fire hose?

 

That feeling? You know the one. That’s how chemo makes you feel all day long.

 

Somebody says, “You need to eat something! Want a bite of salmon?” and you just shake your head and wish they’d stop talking about fish.

 

You know that feeling when you haven’t eaten anything all day and you’re so hungry that you’re actually considering feasting on really weird foods that you typically wouldn’t touch? You’re like, “Oh, if I only had a cheese-covered pretzel right now! If I only had a meatball sandwich with black olives and mayonnaise! If I only had a taco pizza that was folded in half into the shape of an actual taco . . . . ”

 

That feeling when you’re just starving and ravenous and you don’t want to eat, you simply want to consume . . . . That’s how chemo makes you feel all day long. Because you can’t eat. Because you throw everything up. So you’re constantly starving.

 

Two feelings that exist on completely opposite ends of the spectrum come together in your body and cause the perfect storm. It’s loving and hating someone. It’s giggling and crying. It’s jumping and falling.

 

This is chemotherapy’s intermission Round 2.

 

I’m sitting back in My Yellow Chair wishing that the doctors would just put me in a drug induced coma for the next few months, loss of time be damned.

 

One of our friends comes over. It’s easier to meet us at our house, on a level playing field, than it is in my hospital room, which is truly one floor above a morgue. She’s pregnant and stays for dinner. My wife and mother talk to her about the baby and her boyfriend and their life and their plans and their names and how excited they all are. Meanwhile, I sit in My Yellow Chair, eyes closed, breathing slowly and willing myself to not puke in front of our guest.

 

For dinner, I gorge myself on 12 grains of rice and half a baby carrot.

 

I slowly stand up, casually excusing myself. My wife and mother both rise, “Do you need help? Are you OK?” but I wave them off, smile and mumble, “Just fine.” (Breathe deeply). “Be right—” (breathe deeply) “back . . . ” and then I disappear around the corner, into the bathroom, and shut the door behind me.

 

I drop to my knees, grab the toilet seat, stick my face six inches above the water and puke, once, twice, three times. I lie my face on the cold porcelain and try to remember a time before this; when my biggest concern was being punctual for work. I heave again and more stomach bile rises up in my throat. I hate what I’ve become. This is not who I am. I’m supposed to be sitting at that table, telling jokes and making people laugh and I’m supposed to have my legs crossed with one arm thrown tightly around my wife but instead I’m a dying animal, hunched over the toilet with my face stuffed into a receptacle for human waste.

 

My lips are dry and my throat is parched, an ancient tube filled with desert sand. All I want is water to pour down onto me, into me, through me. I want to feel the cold refreshing waves rush over my tongue and down my gullet, filling my belly with icy relief until I can hear the liquid sloshing inside of me. But I know that if I drink, if I swallow, if I even open my mouth, I’ll be sick. I know that any water I drink comes back up and I know that the process is painful. I know what I want and I know that I can’t have it and then I’m trying to stand up, clutching the edge of the sink. I’m pulling myself up, saying, “To hell with the pain,” and my weak knees are shaking and I punch the faucet and the water is pouring down and I know it’s going to hurt so bad but I just need something to ease my constant thirst and then I thrust my face under the falling water and chills run down my spine and I’m taking in huge gulps, barely stopping to breathe. I gasp and shut my eyes and drink more and my stomach is expanding and stretching and crying out for me to stop but the water tastes so good and I want to scream and cry and I want to drink more and so I do. It’s rushing down my cheeks, down my chin, soaking the collar of my shirt and I’m swallowing and coughing and swallowing again and I know I’m about to regret this.

 

I lie my head on the counter and just listen to the water run out of the faucet and down the drain, the sound one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever heard. My hand fumbles around and finds the handle, brings it down and everything is silent. My legs give out and I drop back to the ground, palms down. I breathe heavy, trying to relive the immediate relief of the cold water but only feeling the hurt coming on and my gorge rising. My stomach is crying out in pain and I don’t care. This is the price I pay.

 

I throw myself at the toilet and a fountain of water bursts from my mouth with such force that I’m sure my cheeks are gyrating under the sheer magnitude. Every splash, every drop, every ounce comes rushing out and I feel it all—the perfect negative of all the goodness I’d previously ingested.

 

I tip over sideways and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. Someone knocks on the door and Jade asks if I’m all right. I mumble something and she goes away.

 

My stomach starts to cramp and I roll over, facedown, curling into a tight ball on the floor. I turn my head and see dust bunnies under the sink. So many dust bunnies. They’re reproducing. I rest my face against the frigid tile floor and try to push the chill through the rest of my body, which suddenly feels on fire.

 

Breathe . . . slowly . . . gag . . . breathe . . . slowly . . . gag . . . gag . . . . I sit up, bend over the toilet again and vomit up more creamy acid that, instead of being yellow, is pink in color. My stomach contracts and I vomit again. Bile that is not pink but red. My stomach contracts and I vomit again. Bile that is not red but crimson. Bile that is not bile but blood.

 

I stare at the pink droplets branching out in the water like a family tree and wonder where it’s coming from, why it’s coming from my mouth, my stomach, ulcers . . . definitely could be. Definitely could be caused from stress. Could the lining of my stomach be torn from vomiting so much? So harshly? Makes sense. It could definitely be that. Could it be stomach cancer? Giant tumors growing in my belly, eating away at my innards, making me rot from the inside out? No. It most definitely couldn’t be that. It’s most definitely not that thing. It’s probably one of the first two that I mentioned . . . the, uh . . . the ulcers or the ripped stomach lining. I decide to just let that be what it is and assume that my body will simply repair itself in the following days.

 

Do I want to go see a doctor about this? Absolutely not. Do I think that I probably should? Logic is a wild beast when dealing with matters of the heart. One can make oneself believe nearly anything if the event calls for it. Persuasion, to an audience of yourself, is astoundingly simple. I say, “Of course you don’t want to go to a doctor . . . because there is no need. They would make much to do about nothing and you have, if nothing else, this under control.

 

I have this under control.

 

This thing, this thing that belongs to me, this bit of knowledge, is mine and mine alone and it is something that I can hold in my hand and look at and decide what will become of it. When I’m in a hospital bed being wheeled up and down hallways and shoved into machines and having drugs pumped into me and having my lungs tested and my vitals taken and my blood drawn, it’s all out of control. Nothing is mine; not even I am mine. But this . . . this is mine.

 

What has become of me? How did I get here? This is me understanding that I have lost total control. This is me bent over a toilet filled with my blood. This is me, completely helpless to my inner maladies and my outer surroundings.

 

This is what Cancer looks like.

 

In the other room, I hear our friend packing up to leave and someone knocks on the door again and Jade says, “Angie is leaving, do you want to come out and say goodbye?” and I just say, “Uh . . . I . . . can’t,” and Jade says, “I’ll give her your best,” before I hear her footsteps disappearing down the hall.

 

I puke again and, looking down into the toilet, I realize that there is so much blood resting in the bowl that if I had stumbled upon this horrific scene unknowingly, I would assume that one of those I-didn’t-know-I-was-pregnant girls had decided to drop calf in my house.

 

A few hours later, another friend, Jake, arrives just to say hi. My mother opens the door and says, “My . . . you look just like Jason Bateman,” and, truly, Jake does. I say, “Teen Wolf 2,” and Jake, probably too stoned to function, just smiles at me, having not seen me for quite some months. The change that has taken place in my face has been gradual, sneaking up on me the way holiday weight does; but to Jake, who last saw me fifty pounds heavier, is visibly shocked at my physical appearance. He stares at me and says, “There are two black holes where your eyes should be.” I nod and pat the couch. He sits down and my mom begins asking questions about Jason Bateman’s recent resurgence into the public’s eye. She talks about his career in the ’80s and about his sister, “His sister, what was her name? She was on Family Ties, I believe. Sarah? Samantha? Jennifer? Jennifer Bateman?” and then she turns to Jake and asks, “What is her name?” and she says it with such genuine interest that I think she must have forgotten that this is not Jason Bateman nor is this fellow in any real relation to Jason Bateman, nor does he have any idea who Jason Bateman is outside of his roles on Arrested Development and, of course, the aforementioned Teen Wolf 2.

 

My mother says, “He got arrested? For what?” and I say, “No, it’s . . . a show . . . . It’s . . . ” and she says, “On TV?” and I say, “Yes. A show . . . on TV,” and she says, “Is his sister on it, too?” and I say, “I . . .don’t think so,” and she says, “Was this back in the ’80s?” and I say, “Yes . . . it was in the ’80s. He and his sister Samantha Bateman starred in it,” and she says, “Huh . . . I’ll have to check this out on IMBD Database dot com,” and I say, “I-M-D . . . nevermind.”

 

And then Jake leaves and then I throw up more blood and something inside of me says that maybe I shouldn’t be hiding this and so I casually wobble into the dining room, supporting myself against walls and counters like a wino on a bender, sit down next to Jade and say, “Jade?” and she says, “Oh, geez. What? What is it now? What have you done? What is happening?” and I say, “Wh-what? Wh-what do you mean?” but my inflections are all wrong so I sound really guilty.

 

I say, “I just threw up,” and she says, “What’s new?” and I say, “It was bloody . . . I mean . . . . It was blood. I just threw up blood. From my mouth.”

 

Jade stares at me but says nothing. She slowly sets down her pencil and slides her Sudoku puzzle away from her. She stands up and walks to the closet while I say, “I think it’s fine. I think it’s just a stomach—” gag “thing and it’ll probably—” gag, “take care of itself but—” gag, “I just wanted you to—” gag, “know.”

 

Jade slips on a coat and I say, “You going to the store? You going to pick up some Pepto-Bismol? You mind grabbing a Butterfinger while you’re there?” and she says, “We’re going to the hospital. To the E.R. Now,” and I say, “Hey, uh, wait now. What’s that?” and she says, “You’re vomiting up blood. BLOOD. You’re throwing up blood. Do you look at that scenario and think that’s normal?” and I say, “Well . . . ” and she says, “SHUT UP. You’ve got cancer of the almost everything and now you’re throwing up blood. I’m not taking chances. You’re,” and I try to interject but she says, “NO. Whatever you’re going to say. No. Just put on your sweater and your jacket and your hoodie and your overcoat and your scarf and your hat and your mittens and let’s go,” and like a scolded puppy, I stick my tail between my legs and do as I’m told.

 

On the way to the hospital, my mother sits shotgun while I sit in the backseat thinking that everything is out of my control. Stupid secret. Should have just kept it all to myself. Should have just let my stupid stomach heal all on its own. Two or three days, I bet that’s all I’d need.

 

We pull into the parking lot and I manage to walk into the E.R. by myself. A young male nurse approaches and leads us into the back, sets me on a table and tells me that a doctor will be with us shortly.

 

Various people come through this long and narrow room that we’ve been put in—more of a hallway with beds, curtains, and various machines than an actual room. I lie down on the thin bed and breathe slowly, not wanting to vomit again because it hurts so badly. The contractions rack my body with pain and cramping and my skin breaks out in sweat and then chills and I can feel the stress and strain all the way down in my toes.

 

I shut my eyes and think about how I wouldn’t even be here if I’d just kept my big, dumb mouth shut and not said a damned word. Jade says, “Are you OK?” and I say, “No,” a black mood rising up inside me that’s very ugly. I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to hear what some stupid doctor has to say and I don’t want another IV and I don’t want to be lying on this cold, hard excuse for a bed and I don’t want to be around all these sick people with my already compromised immune system and I don’t want to keep throwing up and I don’t want to wait one more minute for this incompetent physician to walk through the curtain because this is the EMERGENCY ROOM AND JUST WHAT IS THE HOLD UP?!

 

Sometimes being mad at something is the only control you have. More often than not it’s the wrong thing to do, but like a secret that’s been told, once it’s out there, it can never come back.

 

I tap my foot on the ground and Jade says, “Relax,” and I say, “I shouldn’t even—we shouldn’t even be here. This is a waste of time and money. Time and money!” and Jade says, “Relax,” and, “Smile,” and she takes another photo of me.

 

I say, “How do I look?” and she says, “Really horrible,” and I say, “Then you probably got my good side.” The curtain shifts around and a young doctor who appears to be too young to be a doctor enters and sits down and says, “OK, so what are we dealing with here today?” and I say nothing because I already know how this works. I sit here and play the garden gnome role—silent and stupid looking—while my wife dishes all the details. She says, “He has this and that and he’s sick with this and that and we’ve been here and there and they’ve told us this and that and here’s this paperwork and these cards and this information and then a few hours ago he started throwing up blood,” and the doctor looks at me and says, “How much?” and Jade looks at me and my mom looks at me and I say, “Just a little,” and Jade says, “How much?” and I say, “I don’t know, like . . . a quarter size every time I puke,” and the doctor says, “And how often do you vomit?” and I say, “All the time,” and he says, “And what color is it?” and I say, “The blood . . . is red . . . ” and I cross my legs and my arms. Take. THAT!

 

Doogie Howser presses the tips of his fingers together just below his nose before saying, “OK. We’re going to need to do a rectal exam,” and both of my eyebrows rise into the air and I don’t need to hear one more word because I am stepping into this situation and taking control. THIS will not be taken away from me. My butthole is MINE. I say, “No, we won’t,” and now it is the doctor’s turn to raise his eyebrows and lower his hands and he is clearly not used to a patient in the E.R. telling him what will and will not be done. He says, “Excuse me?” and I say, “We won’t be doing a rectal anything,” and Jade says, “John . . . ” and I firmly say, “No.

 

Jade sees that this has gone beyond basic stubbornness into the realm of the untamable and so turns to the doctor and says, “What is it for? The rectal exam?” and the doctor says, “We need to see what color the blood is, if it’s pink or red or black. If it’s black, it’s very bad,” and I say, “It’s red. Bright. Red,” and the doctor says, “We need to do a test to see what color the blood is. The rectal exam gives us the closest—” and I say, “It’s bright red. It’s not black. You cut your finger. Blood comes out. It looks like that,” and the doctor, ignoring me, says, “It’s really just a quick procedure,” and I say, “Are you listening to me?” and the doctor says, “It’s very brief, just a quick culture and—” I say, “I’m going to be sick, hand me—” gag— “something. Quick,” and the doctor grabs a kidney shaped bedpan and hands it to Jade who hands it to me. I lift it up to my mouth and puke up a sizable chunk of red blood, stand up, walk over to the doctor, hold it under his face and say, “Is that a good specimen?”

 

The doctor looks at me and says, “That’s red blood. You probably just tore your stomach from vomiting too hard. I doubt it’s ulcers but we’ll give you some medicine anyway. I’d like to keep you overnight just to make sure. Is that OK?” and I say, “No,” and Jade says, “John . . . ” and, this just being stubbornness now and not actual decisiveness, I say, “Fine.”

 

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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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UP IN THE CLOUDS: CHAPTER 24

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The first thing I do when I get home is fire up YouTube to figure out how to use a vaporizer since it didn’t come with any proper instructions. A fourteen-year-old with a lisp tells me that it’s essentially a large hot plate that slowly heats up the plant versus doing a straight burn with the chemicals in the butane lighter. Again, “cleaner.”

 

I slowly open the childproof cap and stare down at my beautiful green bulbs with orange strands flecked upon them like glitter. I pull one out and place it in the grinder, turning the plant to dust. I pour the remains in the bowl, flip the switch on the device, and wait for optimum heat.

 

Meanwhile, my mother sits next to me, watching, staring, observing, obvious that she’s fascinated by not only the process, but the plant itself. I hand her the pill bottle and say, “Smell.” She lifts it to her nose and says, “It’s sweet.”

 

I bring the tube from the vaporizer to my mouth, feeling like the caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and pull. The first silver strands weave their way up the plastic lining until they’re in my mouth and in my throat and in my lungs and I’m lifting off my feet and I’m smiling and I shut my eyes and everything is so good right now.

 

I think of all the times I’ve smoked pot with my sister, sitting on her kitchen floor trying to use every magnet letter on the fridge to spell words, phrases like, CREEP GUY CAN’T DANCE and AARON WILL EAT FARTS. We’re smoking and listening to No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” and playing Hogan’s Alley on her Nintendo. We’re eating fudge. We’re talking about being young and growing up and being very overly philosophical about the minutia of life and I open my eyes and my mom is sitting next to me and I say, “I love you, Mom,” and it’s such a stupid thing to say in that moment because of what’s happening but I feel it so strongly and so truly and I just want her to know that I appreciate everything she’s doing for us and sacrificing for us to be here and she leans in and gives me a hug and I say, “Thank you. Thank you. I love you,” and then I stand up and just start snapping my fingers and bobbing my head. My wife enters the room and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “I don’t know, I just—I just feel so good. I need to dance. I need to dance! And if you don’t dance then you’re no friend of mine.”

 

Instead of dancing, my wife just stares at me and itches her nose. I say, “It just feels so good to be alive, doesn’t it?! It feels so good! The three of us here, doing this together—doing life together! Oh, man. Mom, you should move to Los Angeles. You should live here forever! We could turn our garage into a little house. You wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch—we could build a little bathroom out there. How great would that be? How great?”

 

There’s no music playing but I’m sliding back and forth on the cheap tile floor in my socks. I turn around and try to moonwalk but it just looks like when everyone tries to moonwalk; just me walking backward, sliding the soles of my feet across a dirty floor.

 

I open up the cabinet and pour myself a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and eat the entire thing. I open a drawer and pull out a Butterfinger—the size you’d get in a Halloween handout—and eat two. I drink a glass of water and sit down on a bar stool at the island in my kitchen. I turn to my wife and tell her some stupid joke that both begins and ends with, “So a baby seal walks into a club . . . ” and then I laugh and my mom is shaking her head and smiling and saying, “Oh, John Lowell. My high little boy,” and I suddenly remember that I am high and that my mother is here and then there is a flood of information that drowns my brain in a heartbeat. I remember that I’m sick, that I have Cancer, that I’m only on the first round. I remember that I’m sterile. I remember that I might die.

 

I remember.

 

And it hits me like a bullet in the dick. I say, “Jade . . . ” and she says, “Yes, dear?” and I say, “I have . . . cancer . . . ” and tears well up in my eyes and she says, “Oh, geez, here we go.” A salty tear runs down my cheek and I stick another Butterfinger in my mouth.

 

My mom makes pasta for dinner but I’m too full to eat, a sensation that has become quite foreign to me. Regardless, I sit at the table with my family instead of in My Yellow Chair and I have a discussion about faith and God and disease and purpose.

 

Now. Stop. Everybody put the brakes on. I don’t know how to make a foot note in Word – I’m fancy like that – but would like to interject a side bar that is both, for me, equal parts ridiculous and necessary. Please bear with me for just one moment.

 

I was 26 when this cancer thing happened to me. I am 35 today. What? Yes. And in those 9 years God and I have developed a very strange kind of relationship. We’re kind of like two kids that were dating in high school and thought they were going to get married and live happily ever after but then at the last moment one of us decided that the other one wasn’t real and so that kind of threw everything about our relationship out of whack. You know how it goes. We don’t really talk like we used to but I think about the old guy often and wonder what our world would have looked like if we’d stuck it out. But that is a story for another story.

 

There are some things coming up in this tale that felt true at the time and felt real at the time and how I personally align those two opposing world-view experiences is neither here nor there. This is not a story about religion and theology. That said, spirituality played a large part in my experience and so it must be included and it must be told and it must be represented as it was experienced at the time.

 

Disclaimer over. Please continue.

 

There is something about being on the very edge of life that forces you to walk directly up to the cliff and look over it. So maybe it’s chemo-brain or maybe it’s the sharp focus of death or maybe it’s the evacuation of everyday routine like jobs and chores, but my world feels like it’s falling apart—legitimately pulling away at the seams, the fabric of reality between this world and the next beginning to unravel.

 

I begin to feel a deep sense of calm connectedness to the world around me and to (what I would call at that time) God – a benevolent being. It’s hard to validate emotional and spiritual experiences to other people because there is simply something inside every individual that happens and I can’t make it more real than that.

 

For me, it was all real. It was experience. It was truth.

 

Every Sunday, regardless of how poor my health was, my wife, mother, and I would go to church. The music at the beginning of service would throttle my ears and penetrate my bones and make me feel as though my face were going to split open and snakes were going to poor out but it was a necessary evil to endure. Being there felt right and good and warm. There was a tangible hope that I could sink into.

 

Once the service was over, they would invite anyone who wanted prayer to come to the front. Strangers would place their hands on my shoulders and pray so fervently that I was certain their words were somehow more tangible than my own.

 

Once, during a particularly rough week when I was too tired to walk, my wife led a small group of individuals to the back where I was slouched in half, breathing deeply and wheezing. Four people I’d never met circled around me, this thing that looked like a pile of dirty laundry.

 

Among them was a tall red-headed woman whose regular Texan accent suddenly slipped sideways, mid-prayer, into a language I’d never heard as she began to speak in tongues. I’m not going to get into the theology of this and I’m neither going to validate nor excuse the practice. From the mundane to the bizarre, these are the events that occurred.

 

The tall red head, suddenly breaking back into English, speaks a single, penetrating phrase. She says, without knowledge of our infertility, “I see babies . . . lots and lots of babies . . . ” and then it’s all over.

 

So now, here at dinner, blitzed out of my gourd and talking to my mother about Christmas traditions and how Pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christianity, it is I who suggests creating chain links out of construction paper and draping them from the ceiling.

 

We created 147 loops, one for every day I had left in chemo, and on each loop we wrote a Bible verse and every night we’d tear one down and read it together. It was these evenings that I looked forward to the most—just sitting and thinking about one specific hopeful thought, allowing my weak and warbled brain to slowly digest it.

 

This chain would become my visual reference for the rest of my journey. If everything went according to plan, I could see the end.

 

And I could see that The End was still a ridiculously long way away.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

People ask me if I’m mad at God for giving me Cancer and I say that I don’t believe He gave me Cancer any more than I think He gave me the flu or my buddy Ben the herpes.

 

Sorry, Ben. If you don’t want to get your new shoes dirty, you shouldn’t jump into a muddy hole.

 

We all have consequences for our actions, and even outside of cause and effect, I believe that we sometimes just draw wild cards. Perhaps this thing was happening to me because of personal decisions I had made—smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fast food, using microwaves—or maybe it was because of decisions my parents had made by not removing my distended testicle, or maybe it was family history and it was just an unavoidable fate that rested in my genes (my jeans), or maybe it was just my lucky day. I’d never really won any big raffles before and I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

 

In any event, it didn’t matter where it came from or who was to blame. It just mattered that I got through it, however possible. And for me, that meant clinging to God with everything my fried little brain and frail little body could muster.

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YODA’S CANDY: CHAPTER 23

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From Hollywood, we drive straight back to the Valley while Jade looks up available dispensaries in our neighborhood. Now that I’ve got the license, I have to go to the store. And, lo and behold, the herbal supplement business is ah-booming. Jade sticks her phone in front of my face and I see roughly sixty green (coincidence?) dots on the map, making dispensaries in the Valley the only business with more locations than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.

 

We pull into one down the street from our house that shares a strip-mall parking lot with a thrift store, a Mexican restaurant, and a Laundromat. Jade and I walk in together while my mother waits in the car. Sitting in the corner is a sleeping cop and inside of a bulletproof cage is a young Hispanic kid with a wiry mustache. He says, “Yo,” and asks for my papers. I slide my license and ID through the grate and he tells me to take a seat. He says there are only two people allowed in the back at once.

 

We sit down and I begin to peruse a copy of High Times, wondering what I’ll discover in the back room of this place. Will there be some mega drug kingpin sitting behind a smoky desk, playing poker and making deals? No. That’s ridiculous. I brush the image from my mind. I stare at the cop and wonder how I get his job. He burps and adjusts his hat, sits up, sees me staring at him and nods.

 

The back door emits an electronic beep and opens. A kid in a Bob Marley shirt walks out, sees the cop, smiles, and exits. In my head I hear him thinking, “Fuck dah po-lice!” They call my name and my wife and I both stand up. The person at the door quickly says, “She stays,” and I say, “I—uh—OK.” Jade sits back down and I enter a place like I have never dreamed of.

 

At the back of the room there is a two-tiered glass case that runs 20 feet long, the kind you’d see in a gun store. It’s built for displaying goods but always means the same: “We want you to look, but not touch. Please ask for assistance. Please do not lean on glass. Thank you.”

 

I say, “Double-ewe . . . oh . . . double-ewe . . . ” and approach the cabinet. Running side by side on both layers for the entire twenty feet are gallon jugs of weed, each jar proclaiming its particular strain: Cotton Candy, Train Wreck, Buddha’s Lightning, White Devil. No two alike.

 

A big man, bulky and firm, with earlobe length hair the texture of grease, smiles and raises his hand, and in a Russian accent says, “What ails ya, brother?!” He speaks cleaner than Galina but the hard edges of his mother country are still heard on his T’s and D’s.

 

I say, “I have, uh, cancer,” and he puts his hands down on the counter and raises his eyebrows and says, verbatim, “A real patient!” He signals me close and whispers, “Listen, between you and me, we knock off twenty percent for sick people.”

 

A second door swings open and in walks a squatter, more froggy looking version of Moe from The Three Stooges. He lifts up a black garbage bag filled with marijuana, opens it up, buries his face inside of it and inhales as deeply as he can before shouting, “I LOVE WEED!” in a raspy voice.

 

I look down at the counter and say, “This is pretty, uh, intense. How do I know what to get?” and he says, “Well . . . do you want to, like, have some energy and go mow the lawn or do you want to just become glued to your couch and forget the world exists?”

 

My true and honest answer is, “Both! Both! I desperately want both! Let me mow my lawn and forget that the world exists.”

 

I end up buying an eighth of each, a grinder and a vaporizer. He packs each strain into its own bright green prescription bottle (complete with child safety lid), knocks off the 20 percent cancer-kid discount and says, “See you soon and be well. When you come back, you tell me how those treat you. They’re gonna be your best buds,” and I imagine this is a tag line he uses on everyone although it feels personal and private between us.

 

I exit the door back to the waiting room and hold up my brown bag to signal Jade that it’s time to ride. As I walk past the cop with my pockets stuffed with weed, I can’t help but think, “Fuck dah po-lice!”

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THE RUSSIAN CLOWN: CHAPTER 22

 

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The next day. The 101 Freeway. The Highland exit. My mom drives over a bump in the road and says, “There. That bump. That’s when you turned into a little ball. She drives a bit farther, narrating her tale for me. “So I came down here and I couldn’t find anything, I mean, where do they expect you to pull off?” and I scan the horizon, trying to find the trees that I saw. She points at a bus stop and says, “There. That’s where I parked.” I look across the street and see the small grove running parallel with the Hollywood Bowl.

 

“So crazy,” I say and my mom says, “I know.” She is talking about the seizure while I’m staring at a man standing on the corner condemning people to hell dressed in an Elmo costume.

 

We end up deep in the heart of Hollywood, a maze of busy streets and traffic lights to which no freeway leads. Like David Bowie’s labyrinth, there are no true shortcuts.

 

We pull up outside of an unmarked brick building and make our way to the second floor. Inside, everything is from the ’70s—the wallpaper, the art, the doorknobs—but not in that good way that is intentional. I enter a small office clad with crusty shag carpet and worn wool couches. “I have an appointment,” I say to the young receptionist. She asks me to sign in and have a seat. I pick up a copy of Lava Lamp Monthly and flip through the pages. Two other patients, both young males, are seated with me, both of their eyes so red it looks as if they’ve just left their mothers’ funerals.

Both try to casually eyeball me, a twenty-six-year-old bookended by his mother and wife. They glance at me out of the corners of their rose-colored eyes and must think I’m a complete mess, a ghost in clothes, a dead man walking. A heavy oak door opens and someone calls the first boy’s name from the revealed darkness. He enters and disappears into shadows, the door slowly swinging closed on its own accord and then ominously clicking shut behind him. I turn back to my magazine and read about the history of lava lamps. Invented by Edward Craven Walker in 1948, began mass production in 1963, originally named the Astro Globe. A few minutes later, the boy exits, staring at a small card. He pockets it and leaves. The second boy’s name is called and it’s second verse, same as the first. I have just enough time to read about how the largest lava lamp in the world is 4 feet tall and contains 10 gallons of super-secret-lava-formula before the door opens and the second boy exits. I watch him leave and am just amazed at the speed and efficiency of this doctor’s office, which, seeing how quickly everything is progressing, really shouldn’t be allowed to call these four walls a waiting room.

 

My name is called—Brukbag—and I tell my posse to stand down cuz I’m goin’ alone into the shadows. I find what happens next to be so absurd that it borders on satire.

 

I enter an ominously dark office, lit only by the slightly cracked blinds. An oddly shaped silhouette sits behind the desk and a scruff voice says, “Cum een, cum een.” I take this as Come in and close the door softly behind me. The figure signals for me, with a bony hand, to sit, and as I do, my eyes adjust and I see what can only be described as a Russian clown impersonating a doctor.

 

This woman has chunky blonde hair that’s been pulled into two ponytails, each spitting off either side of her head. She wears wire-rimmed glasses that magnify her eyes into enormous green watermelons and her make-up looks as though a blind person with Parkinson’s applied it. The lipstick smears off the lips and into that unnamed area between mouth and nose, smudging and smearing in large circles a red color so intense that it’s nearly neon pink. Her cheeks are flushed with blush, making her look chronically embarrassed. Emerald green circles surround her eyes the color of, well, emeralds, the glasses magnifying her pores, turning molehills into mountains. Her eyebrows are unplucked pubic bushes above her ocular orbs. Her name is Galina.

 

Sitting at a dinner once, speaking with an eye doctor about graduation statistics, he leaned in close to me and says, “Do you know what they call the medical student who graduates very last in his class?” Stumped at his riddle, I shrugged, and he said, “Doctor,” and then chuckled to himself.

 

For anyone not versed in the legalities of this protocol, here’s how it shakes down. Galina acts as the gatekeeper. It is her job, as a doctor, to examine each patient and decide if they are in need of a medical marijuana license. If she approves of your disease, you pay her your $100, get an ACCEPTED stamp and walk out the door with a license. You then go to a second location (a dispensary) to purchase your medicinal herbal supplements. Scanning her desk, I can’t help but notice that there is no REJECTED stamp next to her envelope filled with money.

 

I sit down and she says, “What . . . eez rong?” I flop a manila envelope puking with doctor’s reports onto her desk and say, “Well . . . I have cancer . . . ” and she lights up like a Christmas tree. Someone with a sickness! A real sickness! Finally! I can use THIS! And she pulls the stethoscope – I’m not kidding – off her neck and, with a bit too much zest, pops out of her chair and signals me to a couch that looks like it belongs in Freud’s office.

 

I lie down and she, nervous as a virgin, says, “I must . . . exameen yoo.” She shoves the ear pieces into her head and places the circular plate against my chest. “Breeth . . . yes . . . agein . . . . ”

 

I take a deep breath and think to myself, “This should be good.” I let it out and she taps a little hammer on my knee, testing my reflexes. I say, “Do the legs still work, doc?” and she says, “They seem to bee fine.”

 

She sits back behind her desk and says, “Doo yoo dreenk tap water?” and I say, “Yes,” and she says, “Thees . . . Thees ees the problem. There is sometheeng called alkaline in tap water. You must not dreenk it. You pay me three hundreed dollers and I will give you filter. Very good,” and I say, “I think the problem might be the cancer on my heart . . . and lungs . . . and the lymphoma . . . and the chemo I’m getting. I can’t eat,” and she says, “Yes, yes, but . . . thees will help. Three hundreed dollers. Plus one hundreed for medical lizence—four hundreed, very cheep. You be well in I say, one, maybe too munths.”

 

I nod and say, “I sort of don’t have a job right now so that seems a little steep,” and she says, “Two hundreed for Alkaline filter, one hundreed for mari-wona lizence. You cannot find this deel anywhere else,” and I say, “I believe that’s true. However, I am going to have to politely decline,” and she sighs and signs the license and hands it over to me. “Yoo come back, you change your mind.”

 

I shake her hand and leave.

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PRESIDENT BUSH: CHAPTER 21

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When I wake up, the first thing I notice is a group of trees in the distance, far away and small. Maybe pines? The second thing I notice are innumerable cars racing back and forth between myself and the trees. The third thing I notice is a man I’ve never seen before hovering over me in a blue suit. He’s holding my shoulder and telling me to relax.

 

I breathe slowly and deliberately and try to look around. Standing on the sidewalk is my mother, her eyes red and glassy, her hands shaking; another, slightly heavier man, stands next to the first, also wearing a blue suit—no, not a suit. A uniform. I turn my head and see a red truck—an ambulance. Paramedics.

 

The man with his hand on my shoulder tells me to take it easy and to have a seat and I see for the first time that the heavy man has a wheelchair. I get out of the car—Whose car is this?—and sit in the wheelchair—How did I get here?—and the heavy man kicks a switch and the wheelchair reclines and the feet kick out and, just like that, I’m on a stretcher.

 

I have no idea where I am or why. I have no idea where I was going or where I was coming from or what happened to me in between the two and it isn’t until this very moment that I remember that I don’t remember anything. My past is abyss; just blank space that rolls into the horizon.

 

The men push me into the back of the ambulance and I say, “What’s—I’m sorry—what’s happening?” and the main paramedic, crawling in behind me says, “You had a grand mal seizure, and your mom called 911. Can you tell me what year it is?” and I say, “2001,” and he says, “OK, it’s 2008, Johnny,” and I cock my head to the side feeling as though I’ve had nearly a decade of time stolen away from me. Where have I been? What was lost? And he says, “Can you tell me who the president is?” and I say, “Bush—President George Bush,” and the paramedic says nothing, so I say, “Am I right?” and he says, “The President is Barack Obama,” and I shut my eyes. What is happening to my brain? Don’t take my brain! Don’t take my brain! It’s all I have! My nuts are gone, my health is gone, my HAIR is gone! Leave my brain!

 

He says, “Do you know where you live?” and I stare at the paramedic . . . and then I look out the back doors . . . and I hold my breath, feeling like if I just buy some time I can find the answer. If I just have a moment to rummage around in my memory banks I can pull it up and then they’ll know that I’m not as sick as they think; this was all just a mistake. I know it’s there, the information, somewhere. I sigh and say, “Somewhere . . . in the Valley . . . ” and he says, “Do you know who your wife is?” and I say with complete confidence, “Jade Brookbank. My wife’s name is Jade Brookbank.”

 

It’s the only thing I can remember.

 

The doors swing shut behind me and I find myself in a claustrophobic steel box, the paramedic leaning over me. I shut my eyes and just can’t believe this is happening. Everything is getting worse.

 

The paramedic turns and comes back with an oxygen mask that he tries to place over my mouth but I brush him away and say, “No—no oxygen,” and he says, “It’s OK, just relax,” and tries to put it over my mouth again. There’s some light in the back of my brain, some glimmer of a memory; I hear a doctor saying, “The bleomycin will effect your lungs—you can’t have pure oxygen—it will damage the lining. You can’t scuba dive, you can’t have oxygen masks,” and so I brush it away again. The paramedic raises an eyebrow at me and I say, “I can’t have it—it’ll hurt me,” and he says, “Everything is OK, just—“ and he tries to put it on one more time but then, behind him, The Mother Bear comes to the rescue of her cub.

 

“STOP!” and the paramedic looks over and she says, “He can’t have it,” and the paramedic slowly puts down the mask and says, “Oh, uh, ok . . . . ”

 

He gives me an IV while I have a panic attack, seat belts me in/straps me to a slab, takes a seat, and says to the driver, “Hit it,” while spinning his finger in the air.

 

The driver/heavy paramedic twists the key, flips a switch, and punches the gas. The cherries flash on, the sirens wail, and I feel the ambulance drop off the curb and then blow 70 miles an hour down the freeway.

 

We’re at the Burbank hospital in a matter of minutes. The paramedics wheel me inside and leave me in a hallway, pressed against a wall on my gurney, alone. I stare at the ceiling, feeling out of place, while various patients and visitors walk past me; I’m a sideshow or a misplaced trinket. Where is my wife? Where is my mother?

 

I wonder if she’s gotten lost somewhere in the city, unable to find her way out of the rat’s nest that is Hollywood, and then time bends and refracts and they’re both suddenly at my side. My mother, she wraps her trembling fingers around my skeletal hand and kisses me and says, “You scared your ol’ mama, little man,” and I realize then that it’s how she still sees me—just her little boy who she raised from birth, now lying in front of her, looking like the recently dead rather than the slowly dying, my weight dropping, my eyes sinking, my cheeks going sallow and pale. She sees a little boy on a tricycle with white hair, straight as straw. She sees a little boy on his first day of school, crying and afraid. She sees the little boy who used to sneak into his mother and father’s bedroom at night and sleep on the floor at the foot of the bed. No matter how old I become, she will forever see me stuck in time and now Cancer is poisoning that child and those memories for her.

 

She tells me that we were chatting on the freeway, taking the exit, taking the bend and then my head hit my knees and I curled into a tight ball and began to growl.

 

I say, “What?” and she says, “At first I thought you were just being John Lowell and trying to be funny but then you didn’t stop and you started leaning into me,” and I say, “What?” and she says, “I just put my arm out and tried to hold you back—you had your seat belt on but . . . I came off that exit and there was no shoulder and nowhere to pull off, I didn’t know what to do. As soon as I saw a sidewalk I just pulled onto it and stopped.”

 

“You drove on the sidewalk?” and she says, “I didn’t drive on it. I parked on it—and I was terrified. John, I don’t know where I am. I just started praying to God for help—you were—I don’t even know—and I don’t know where I was and—I called 911 and they asked where I was and I couldn’t see any street signs and I couldn’t remember the name of the exit we just took and then . . . a little family of angels showed up,” and I say, “A whole family?” and she says, “A mini-van pulled up behind me and a man and a woman got out and approached me and asked if I was all right. I told them what I could and then the man took the phone from me and spoke to the dispatcher . . . and then they waited with me until the ambulance arrived. One of them held your hand while the other one held your head. They were my little angels that Jesus sent.”

 

I say, “Well. At least I wasn’t driving,” and my mother says, “John Lowell. Yes, at least. I swear.”

 

A nurse pushes me into a side room, closes the curtain around us, and says a doctor will be with us shortly. The doctor enters and says something about my absent seizures or petite mal seizures; the little space outs that I have. He says they’re caused when one little part of my brain misfires. Petite, little.

 

But he says that, depending on a number of factors (lack of sleep and not taking the prescribed dosage of medication among them) that one misfire can signal a second can signal a third and so on and so forth until it grabs an entire section of my brain, effectively causing a grand mal seizure. Grand, big.

 

He tells us this should be an isolated incident and then my wife says, “He has cancer,” and the doctor says, “Cancer?” and he flips through his papers, “What kind of cancer?” and my wife says, “Stage 4. It started with testicular and then turned to lymphoma and now it’s in his heart and lungs,” and the doctor tries to sell it but he fails. You can see the muscles in his face tighten and his eyes narrow ever so slightly; he’s in a spaghetti western standoff and he doesn’t want to trigger any alarm from the opposition.

 

He doesn’t say the words but he might as well have shouted them in my ear.

 

Brain Cancer.

 

He coughs into his hand and says, “OK, well, we’ll just do a CAT scan—very typical for all first-time patients—make sure everything is clear and then—I’ll send someone in right now,” and then he disappears behind the curtain like a magician after a show.

 

None of us says a word. My wife holds my left hand and my mother holds my right hand and I shut my eyes and try to picture the tumors that are now probably resting directly behind them, throbbing and rotting away at me.

 

When I first started dating my wife in high school, her cousin, a seventeen-year-old football player, was fighting a losing battle with brain cancer. The first time I met him he was sitting on a couch, covered in blankets, his eyes nearly closed. His mother said, “Nate, this is Johnny,” and I, eighteen at the time and only one year older than this kid, held my hand in the air and said, “Hi.” I remember Nate lifting his hand up until it was level with his heart, not even having the strength to tilt the fingers toward the ceiling. They just pointed straight toward me like a salute.

 

The next time I saw Nate was at his wake.

 

A male nurse pushes my gurney down to the basement; they stick me inside The Mechanical Donut, push the dye in, make me feel like I’ve pissed and shit myself, and then wheel me back upstairs and into my room where my mother and wife look as sick as I do.

 

Two hours.

 

We wait two hours for the test results to come back with no word from a doctor or nurse or anyone outside of the curtain. There is nothing in our room but the three of us. We talk, speculate, avoid the elephant tumor in the room and wait, all of us silently saying prayers in the back our of minds until finally we are all praying out loud together with words that couldn’t possibly contain more faith or desperation. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. I can’t take it. Please let the tests come back negative. Please, God. Not my brain. Leave me my brain! And visceral images of me not being cognitive or conscious come to me. An image of me sitting on a couch, covered in blankets, too tired to raise my hand. Me in a coffin, my wife standing over me, weeping. My mother standing over me, weeping. Me, dead. Images of my wife getting married again and me being a story her new husband is told. Me, existing only in photographs and anecdotes and popular paperback book form.

 

The doctor enters and hands me a piece of paper. I turn it around and see a black and white scan of my brain. Printed across it in large black letters, all caps, is the word NEGATIVE and I choke and say, “Negative—that’s good, right? That’s good? Do I have brain cancer? What does this mean?!” and the doctor says, “You do not have brain cancer,” and I just weep in a way that has never overtaken me before or since.

 

Both my hands are squeezed until my fingers are white and numb and crushed with wonderful pain that I can feel for another day that is mine.

 

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