Tag Archives: chemo

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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INTERMISSION: CHAPTER 18

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

—die—

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Cancer: the ultimate cock block.

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

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

 

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NODULES: CHAPTER 17

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

But now I’m back.

And so is the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just . . . sick.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence.

 

“Nodules? What is that? What is—”

 

“Sorry. Tumors.”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Probably.

 

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

 

Alone.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Drip-drip-drip.

822-821-820.

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

Drip-drip-drip.

809-808-807.

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

Alive or dead, I am a corpse.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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AGGRESSIVE ACCELERATION: CHAPTER 16

Here begins PART 3 of our journey.

It is a great and long chapter and a massive turning point in our tale.

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PART 3

“It’s the end of the word as we know it, and I feel . . . ”

-R.E.M.

 

Dr. Odegaard, the GP who had made my very first “there is definitely a lump” diagnosis some 30 days ago (yes, ALL OF THIS, has happened in one month) and had recommended me to Dr. Honda, my urologist, has now recommended an oncologist for me to meet with at White Memorial Hospital in downtown Los Angeles.

My wife and I enter the hospital and find that the main lobby is under construction and is being poorly partitioned. Dust and specks of insulation and dirt and cement and broken tile lie about and float in the air. It’s less hospital and more third-world-country-post-war-zone chic. I ask the receptionist where I should be, and she directs me to an elevator that looks as though it were designed and installed at the turn of the century and hasn’t had a maintenance check since. Upon exiting my floor I find red (blood/rust/chemical/vomit/paint??) stains on the carpet and water stains on the ceiling.

All hospitals are not created equal.

I enter the waiting room, and the very first thing I notice is that there are patients everywhere; all the chairs packed, people standing and sitting on the floor, nearly stepping on one another, two and three deep and I just keep thinking, “There are so many. So many sick people. There aren’t enough doctors here.” And while I focus on this weird ratio of patients to professionals, I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . .

An hour past my appointment time, I approach the window and ask for an ETA on my “reservation” and they tell me that they’re running about 90 minutes behind schedule. I ask if a doctor got sick and the receptionist says, “No,” and I ask, “Is this pretty standard?” and she sort of gives me a shy I’m-not-supposed-to-say-this type smile and it’s enough of an answer for me. I sit back in my chair and mumble angrily to myself and wish there were some sort of air freshener in this room because it’s starting to smell like body sweat.

Thirty minutes later, they call my name—“Mr. Brootbagk”—and lead me like a lamb to the slaughter (you know the feeling), and once I get into the doctor’s exam room I wait more and more and more, and it’s not the kind of waiting that one expects in a doctor’s office. It is the endless abyss of waiting where time stretches on indefinitely and seconds become hours and you wonder if the doctor is just enjoying a ham sandwich in the break room.

The door finally opens and someone enters. A young man. A doctor. He sits down and calls me the wrong name, I correct him, at which point he realizes he’s in the incorrect room. Leaves. We wait. A second doctor enters. Asks me two questions, and gets my name right. Excuses himself. We wait. We wait. We wait. A third doctor enters. He sits down and asks me what my name is and what I’m doing here. He has no folder, no information on us or my surgery or background. He’s just winging it off the cuff, I guess. He exits. He returns with our folder.

The doctor tells me that I have stage 2 cancer. He tells me they biopsied my testicle (put it in a blender and looked at the goop under a microscope). He tells me that there are two different kinds of cancer; there is nonseminoma and there is just plain old seminoma and that I have the first. I take a deep breath, relieved, because clearly, “non” is always better. He sighs and says, “Nonseminoma is actually the more aggressive of the two,” and now, every comedic deflection I have is being ground out of me and my lip begins to quiver and I still don’t understand why this is happening. He tells me, “Nonseminoma breaks down into four categories and you also have the most aggressive of the four.”

I say, “The most aggressive of the most aggressive . . . ” and he says, “Yes,” and my hand has turned purple and then white from Jade squeezing it and I look over and see that she has mascara and tears streaming down her cheeks and her eyes are red and her face is puffy and I feel like I’m going to pass out but manage to say, “So . . . what . . . does that . . . mean?” And I say this because . . . what else do you say? How else do you respond? Someone tells you that you have some of the most aggressive cancer on Earth and—

The doctor says, “I’d like to admit you today, right now. I’d like you to start chemotherapy,” and my breath catches in my throat because now I am a Cancer Patient. More visions of ghostly bald kids with hollow eyes shoot through my brain and images of me hiding somewhere in the crowd with my IV, pulling it sadly behind me. I ask the doctor, “But . . . my job. I work tomorr—” and before I’m even done with my sentence he’s shaking his head. “No. You’re not. You won’t work again until this is over,” and I say, “But I can work. I can make it work—they’re cool with my schedule,” and he says, “No. You won’t work. You won’t read. You won’t watch TV. I just want to be very transparent with you about this—I’ve seen this take men in the military down to . . . nothing,” and I just keep thinking, “Why is he telling me this? Why is he saying these things?” and me, grabbing at straws, trying to make ends meet, throwing myself at any possible outcome that doesn’t involve chemotherapy, say, “Dr. Honda—he says he wants to pull out my lymph nodes! Cut me open from gullet to groin and pluck pluck pluck! We can just do that!” because, in my head, surgery is not as serious as chemotherapy. Surgery is manageable and understandable and considerably more familiar ground but the doctor says, “No. It’s . . . . That’s not possible. The cancer is too aggressive and it’s moving fast. We have to just get you into chemotherapy as soon as possible and try to kill it—” (me) “—that way. It’s our best shot. Surgery will just delay it and, ultimately, you’ll still have to undergo chemo just to make sure.”

My wife is still crying and he says, “I’ll get the paperwork,” and I say, “No,” and the doctor says, “What’s that now?” and I say, “No. We’re not checking in here.”

And we rise up and we leave, pushing blindly through walls and walls and walls made of patients on standby.

In the car, we call Dr. Honda, our urologist who had suggested pulling out my lymph nodes, and we tell him about our experience at White Memorial. I tell him about the floors and the ceiling and the dust and the dirt and the waiting and the missing files and the three doctors and all the people just standing there and I say, “I can’t do that. I can’t leave my life in the hands of those people. I just . . . . If I have to do chemotherapy, fine, I have to do it but you make sure I have to do it and please, please, please, just put me somewhere else. I don’t trust them.”

We hang up the phone and it immediately rings with an unrecognized number. Curiosity wins out and my wife clicks it open while I drive. “Hello?” she says.

It’s the doctor from White Memorial.

“Please,” he says, “I can’t stress this enough. You must check in somewhere today. You must begin treatment today. Your disease is so aggressive—” (There’s that word again, like a mad dog or a cage fighter or an acid: aggressive.) “—it’s not something to mess around with. Just . . . please.” And then, “Why don’t you come back? I can be your oncologist.” At first he sounded like he was genuinely pleading my case and then it sounded like he was freshly employed, and needed the experience under his belt and so my wife tells him, in the politest way possible, that his hospital reminded us of any number of post-apocalyptic movies.

There’s a pause on the phone and the doctor speaks again, softer. He says, “I understand. Fine. But please, listen to me. Listen. Don’t mess around with this. I don’t care where you go, just . . . go. Go somewhere. Go there now and check in,” and my wife says, “Thank you,” and hangs up and neither of us says anything but we both recognize something so desperate in his voice that we each have to wonder just what it is we’re dealing with here.

We know it’s bad but . . . how bad? How aggressive?

Several days later, my wife and I are finally sitting in front of Dr. Honda and, yes, I know the last doctor said we needed to check in ASAP, but the truth is, there are channels one must go through and sometimes those channels are clogged by other patients that are not you and you must simply . . . wait.

And that’s Cancer: waiting. Waiting in doctor’s offices, waiting in exam rooms, waiting in waiting rooms slowly, waiting, dying, healing hopefully, but dying and fearing and waiting.

“Cancer markers,” Dr. Honda says and all I can picture is children with thick black markers coloring the walls of a classroom in living venom slime, the dark goo dripping down and running everywhere, growing and attaching to anything with DNA.

“Cancer markers are in your blood. They let us know how much cancer you have. A normal, healthy, cancer-free person would have zero.” I say, “OK,” because the math seems to make sense. He tells me that previous to my surgery they did a blood test and my cancer markers were at 32 and I say, “What?! Thirty-two out of what?! Is that high?!” And he says, “Higher than it should be. Mine is zero,” and I shrug because this, too, is sound logic.

He tells me that two days after surgery, my numbers hit 619 and my jaw drops to the floor and my teeth fall out and the doctor says, “Today you hit 900,” and now my breathing is shallow and my tongue is dry and everything is blurry and I don’t know if I’m crying or if my eyeballs are just dry or if I’m getting faint, but I do the quick math and realize that I now have roughly 30 times the amount of cancer I had a couple days ago when I still had a bawl. The doctor at the Ghetto Hospital’s voice suddenly rings through my head, and I hear all his desperation with new ears.

I hear that word.

Aggressive.

Dr. Honda says, “We need to check you in somewhere,” and, making a personal suggestion, he says a good friend of his is an oncologist at Arcadia Methodist. He says it’ll be a far drive but— And we don’t let him finish the thought. We love him so much that anything he says is Gospel. If he likes the doctor, we like the doctor. We take his word for it and make a bee-line for the place, site unseen.

An hour later, in the parking lot of the hospital, my wife snaps a photo of me standing in front of the monolithic building – a soft, four-story cube. I’m staring directly into the camera with the fullest beard I can grow, a large smile and a full, confident face. It’s the last time I’ll see that expression for some time. I’m sporting aviator sunglasses, hair, and hope but I’ll slowly lose all three of them before long.

WARNING: Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. This trip is about to get bumpy.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

We walk through the doors and immediately I see the clean, white, sterile, horrible hospital. Even the best hospitals are horrible and hideous and terrible. Even the cleanest and purest and friendliest are hateful places, filled with the sick and the dead and dying. The smell of cleaning supplies masking the stench of vomit hits my nose. The smell of rubbing alcohol and latex and linen mixes with powdered mashed potatoes and powdered scrambled eggs and powdered milk. All roads have led to here. This is the trajectory my entire life has been on, like a rocket aimed at the moon. Houston, we have contact.

I know that I have a long fight in front of me and, although I’m happy to be getting started, I do wish I were instead at home or at work or, really, anywhere. But instead I’m here, in this elevator . . . and now in this hallway . . . and now in this room that will be my home for the next eight days.

I undress, put on the gown, and set my personal belongings on a small shelf. On a table next to the bed, I place a novel I won’t open; my iPod, which I will barely turn on; and my journal, which has served as the skeleton and fact checker for this book; journals that I’m eternally thankful for because my brain is about to turn into something slightly softer than Jell-O, something slightly less formless than a raw egg. This is your brain—this is your brain on chemo.

The nurse enters with the IV and my knees lock and my heart speeds up and my forehead starts to sweat and she tells me to lie down. I don’t bother fighting it but I tell her how afraid I am and every time, every needle, it never gets easier, it just gets worse and worse and worse. My wife holds my hand and rubs the back of my palms with her thumb and my toes wiggle and I feel the metallic stick slide into my arm and fish around and I’m not breathing and then it’s done and she says I can release my fist. She applies some tape and tells me to relax and says that she’ll be back in a little bit and now it begins.

I look at the IV pole to my left and I am One of Them. I am a Cancer Patient.

My wife turns on a reality TV show and I try to write in my journal while not upsetting my IV in any fashion, so afraid that it’s going to get caught on something and yank out. The TV goes to commercial break just as a man enters the room and tells me they want to do a CAT scan on me and at this point I’m just a sack of potatoes, their puppet, to push around and wheel back and forth and poke and prod and maneuver in any way they see fit, so I say, “OK,” and my wife keeps watching a show where a family has eighteen kids and I can’t have any.

The giant Mechanical Donut is down in the basement of the hospital and the room is run by two guys who look like they drink lots of beer while consuming pharmaceuticals that they steal from work. They both have tattoos on their arms and long hair, and honestly, it’s kind of nice to talk to two people who aren’t “doctors” or “nurses” or “hospital staff” but just “dudes.” I ask them how long they’ve been working here and what they want to be doing long term and they ask me what I’ve got and what I’m doing and they’re pretty impressed with my weird story about cancer and they tell me about how they once gave David Hasselhoff a CAT scan.

The bed shifts and moves and pulls me into the donut and the same female robot from the first hospital (different donut) says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” I do and I turn my head to the left, trying to relax. On the wall is a motivational poster with a photo of a stream and the caption: IN THE BATTLE BETWEEN WATER AND THE ROCK, THE WATER WILL ALWAYS WIN. NOT BECAUSE OF STRENGTH, BUT BECAUSE OF PERSISTENCE. I look back at the ceiling and try to decide if I find this cheesy or poignant or both. The stoner guy says, “Here comes the dye,” and I feel like I just pissed my pants.

The David Hasselhoff guy wheels me back to my room and wishes me luck and I still think about him often. I wonder if he’s still working next to that Mechanical Donut and I wonder how many times he’s told his David Hasselhoff story and I wonder if he’s ever met David Hasselhoff again.

My wife asks me if everything went well and I sort of shrug and say, “I think I still have cancer but . . . the machine didn’t blow up whilst I was inside of it, if that’s what you’re asking,” and she says, “Good,” and then turns her attention back to the TV, where a sweaty woman is giving birth and screaming.

I pick up my cell phone, an old Motorola Razor (you know it’s badass because it’s named after a blade) and call my mom. She says, “Hi, sweetie! How is your daaaay!?” and again, I just want to reiterate that I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t planning on sleeping in a hospital tonight. It wasn’t marked on my calendar. So you can see the loaded question here. “Well, uh . . . ” I say, “I’m doing good. Sort of. I’m, uh, my cancer is back,” and there’s silence on the phone and then quiet crying. I say, “I’m in the hospital right now,” and panic is setting in with her, “Are you OK? What’s wrong?” and I say, “I’m, uh, I’m getting chemotherapy,” and there’s more quiet crying and I hear my dad in the background ask what’s wrong and he takes the phone and he says, “Hello?” and I say, “It’s me,” and he says, “Oh. What’s wrong?” and I say, “Nothing’s wrong, I mean . . . yeah. I’m in the hospital. I’m getting chemotherapy. My cancer is back—or—it never left, I guess. They didn’t get it all. I’ll be here for a while— I’ll be here for a week. About eight days,” and my dad says, “We’re coming out.”

A few hours later an old man enters my room pushing a cart that smells like cafeteria food. He places a tray on my bedside table and says, “Bon appetit!” and then vanishes. Because I haven’t eaten since previous to my appointment with Dr. Honda, my stomach is grumbling and I don’t care what’s under that plate cover, it’s going in mouth and down my throat. I lift up the warm lid and there is absolutely no amount of money that would sway me into placing that food on my tongue. The menu would probably call it “meatloaf” but I would call it “gunk at back of fridge mashed into patty formation.” The fact that it’s swimming in powdered gravy doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that the powdered gravy is the consistency of snot. I ask Jade if she wants any and she says, “Uh, no, thank you,” and then I say, “I dare you to take a bite of this meatloaf,” and she says, “No,” and I say, “No, seriously. What would it take for you to take a bite of this meatloaf?” and she says, “A one-hour back rub,” and I say, “OK. Fine,” because I really want to see her gag. She looks at the plate and then, reconsidering, “I can’t do it.”

I put the lid back on the tray and scoot the entire table toward the door where the smell is least offensive while my wife leaves to purchase us Panda Express.

She’s gone for about forty-five minutes while I just sit in the room, alone, reflecting, and I will soon find out that this is one of the biggest problems with cancer. When you can’t do anything, all you can do is dwell on yourself, your problem, your condition.

It’s not so bad right now and my attitude is pretty good and I’m certain it’s just going to be like getting the flu and that doctor didn’t know what he was talking about when he said that it would shut me down. I’m not a robot.

People walk by in the hallway and there is a general background noise happening out there—talking and footsteps and intercoms and beeping. And so I get up and shut the door and turn on the TV but can’t find anything to watch so I put in my earphones and think of Ben (Folds) and wonder what he’s doing right now—some guy somewhere that has no idea where I am, what I’m doing. He’s playing a show, punching his piano, and signing autographs and here I am, remembering him while I drown out everything else.

I open my eyes and Jade is standing in the room, staring at me, a big white bag of fast food in her hands. She says, “Dinner bell,” and I sit up while she sits at the foot of the bed. She pulls over the coffee table, which is now empty—I assume someone came in and took the “food” while my eyes were closed—and we eat dinner, we watch TV, we talk, and we wonder when The Chemotherapy will begin.

Eight o’clock rolls around and still no drugs so I hit my buzzer and a nurse enters who has a very sweet face and I ask her when I’ll be starting my “thing” and she tells me, “Tomorrow, in the morning,” and I smile and nod my head and am not sure if this is good news or bad news or indifferent news. The nurse leaves and Jade snuggles up next to me. There is a cot in the room but we don’t use it. That night the two of us just crush our bodies together in a platonic, nonsexual, but still really desperately needy way and sleep in very broken segments, two kids that are stupid and lost and scared.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

In the morning, the old man serves us “eggs” and “bacon” and “toast” but the only thing either of us consumes is the “fruit.” Neither of us are big breakfast eaters nor fans of food that tastes like someone’s vinegar-soaked jock strap.

There’s another reality show on TV and I think this one might be about wedding disasters and the victims therein. Sigh, tragedy. My wife is locked on, saying, “What! Shut . . . up . . . What?” and then the nurse who gave me my IV yesterday is back but she’s wearing a full hazmat suit over her regular nurse get-up and she has on a face mask and gloves and she carries a dark bag that’s covered in plastic.

I ask, “What is . . . that?” but I already know the answer. She says, “This is bleomycin; it’s the first of four medicines you’ll be receiving today.”

Medicine. Boy, we’re really throwing that word around, aren’t we? I imagine that in the future, people will say, “Can you believe they used to give patients chemo??? They poisoned them to cure them—how savage! Luckily, the scientists have found the cure for cancer in oil. Too bad we used it all driving our SUVs with only one person in the car and now the polar bears are all dead because of global warming! Hip-hip-hooray! The future really is a brighter place. But only because the atmosphere has finally dissolved and the sun is now shining directly onto our reddened, burnt skin! Yay for technology! Yay!

I unconsciously slide away from the IV pole, trying to put distance between us and I say, “Why is it in two bags?” and the nurse says, “So if it leaks it doesn’t spill,” and I say, “And why are you dressed like that?” and she says, “So in case it spills it doesn’t get on my skin,” and I say, “And where is that going?” and she says, “Into your IV,” and I swallow hard.

She hangs the bag upside down and allows gravity to do what it does best. She plugs a tube into one of my ports and turns a small dial with her thumb. I watch the liquid drip-drip-drop from the bag and race toward my arm and I hold my breath. Here it comes. Here it is. And I say, in a strained voice, “Will this hurt?” and the nurse says, “No,” but I don’t believe her. The clear liquid enters my body and she’s right. I don’t feel anything.

Drip-drip-drip.

She tells me she’ll be back in about two hours and then leaves. Jade turns from the TV and sits down next to me on the bed and we both watch each little drop race down into my body and my wife says, “Each drop is you getting better. We’ll be OK.”

Drip-drip-drip.

 

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. . . AND I’M DROWNING SLOWLY: CHAPTER 15

 

Welcome back.

This is a story about this one time that I had cancer. NBD.

If you’d like to start from the very tippy-top of the story, click here.

If you’re all up to speed, please continue on!

cancer_title_15

 

It’s pretty difficult for my wife and I to find common ground in terms of musical taste. At the top of this list that is only two bands long is Ben Folds Five, a group that gained popularity in the ’90s for their song “Brick.” She’s a brick and I’m drowning slow-ly / She’s a brick and I’m something something. That’s the song you would know. Even if you don’t know the band, that’s a song you’ve heard.

So, as you do when a band you like comes to town, you begrudgingly purchase well over-priced tickets, and you wait. The show was to be celebratory. We heard about it while we were still in the throes of chaos with the testicular cancer—back at the very beginning—and thought to ourselves, “This will be a treat. This will be our special gift for coming out the other side. Everyone should have a special gift for losing their only remaining testicle.”

But then, like a certain pesky cat in a catchy nursery rhyme, the cancer came back the very next day. Thought he was a goner, but the cancer came back.

Now everything had a thundercloud looming over it. I was looking at everything through shit-colored glasses. I still ate food, but I did it with cancer. I still read books, but I did it with cancer. I still masturbated, but I did it with cancer watching me, always on my mind, always ruining the mood I was trying to set in the bathroom with all the candles and incense and whale music. I still went to work, but I did it with cancer.

My boss walks in the room and asks me something about zombies, and I skip the conversation and say, “I still have cancer,” and he sits down and is looking at me like I’m the handicapped puppy again and he says, “That’s . . . . OK . . . . So . . . ” and I say, “I’m seeing an oncologist in a week or so. They’re, I don’t know. They’re talking about chemotherapy,” and he sucks in air really quickly through his teeth and clicks his pen a couple times and says, “Really?” like maybe I misheard them.

I say, “Yes,” and he’s very accommodating, but I suspect that it might be because, as a manager, he’s never been in this position before. I tell him, “I plan to keep working or whatever, so, I mean, I’ll do whatever I can. I’m not quitting my job—I’m just . . . I don’t know. I might need to take off for doctor’s appointments sometimes but I can make up the lost time on nights or weekends and I’m OK with that,” and he says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK. Good. Yes, whatever you need. Whatever you need, you just do it and your job is here and we’ll work with you however you need and we’ll just take it one day at a time,” and then silence.

And then he says, “Sucks.”

And then he leaves.

And then it’s the day of the Ben Folds Five concert, and I sort of am not feeling like going out to a concert because everything depresses me. The truth is, I really wish I just had a big fat joint right now, some weed to just pack and pack and pack into the biggest bowl I can find, but there’s nothing in my house and there hasn’t been since I ran out right after Las Vegas. Ever since this cancer thing started, I’ve become hyper aware of my health and my body and I’m just trying to be as clean as possible. But still. It would be nice. Maybe instead of going out we could just lie on the couch . . . .

No.

I sit up quickly and say, “Let’s go,” and my wife says, “Are you sure? We really—we really don’t have to. Let’s not go if it’s just for me—I’d rather—I don’t know. We can just lie on the couch. We can even shut the lights off. We can even shut our eyes. We can just be depressed,” and I consider her offer but then say, “No. It can’t win,” and that’s a very obvious and heroic movie line thing to say but it feels very true. It was destroying me, inside and out, and I was letting it take something as wonderful as my love of music away. I think there is nothing quite like a live performance in all of the world and I was allowing cancer to rob me of it.

I slam the keys into the ignition, and I drive at top speeds across Los Angeles, and I say to hell with it, and I park in valet and I drop the extra dough because tonight is my special gift. It is mine and it doesn’t belong to Cancer. I am going to stand at the front of the crowd. I’m going to push my way to the very front, and I’m going to scream every lyric I know and probably just go, “Daahh-gaah-hmm,” to the parts I don’t, but I’m going to do it with the veracity of a real live person who isn’t dying, except . . . when we go into the theater we realize that it’s not that kind of concert. We realize this venue only supports stadium seating. And we realize that we’re in the balcony. In the back row. Against the wall. This is nosebleed. This is air-traffic control.

Ben is a little speck on the stage, and I can sort of make out his piano, and we’re already pretty late since we were debating the show to begin with, and I have to wonder if we’ve missed some of our favorite songs. Another fantastic stroke of luck; another feather in the hat; another golden egg.

Sitting in the small chair, I try to cross my legs and feel the stitches in my abdomen stretch and pull, and I get comfortable again and this concert is so boring. He’s just . . . playing the piano and . . . I mean, I guess that’s what he does, that’s what I paid for technically but . . . . I sit back and shut my eyes and try to imagine I’m just listening to the CD while I lie on my couch at home.

While I’m trying to find my Zen place, a knee bumps mine, and I open my eyes to find some girl, probably about my age, is trying to sit down in the cramped quarters to my right. She’s got on a black mini-skirt and a white tank top and a tattoo of both a snake and an eagle on her arm, but she doesn’t look like the type of girl who should have either a snake or an eagle tattooed on her arm. Her black hair bobs under her chin, and she’s really made up to be out on some hot date. I look past her and see that some dude—I mean, that is really the best way to describe this guy—is tagging along behind her, bumping into everyone in the row, trying to get to his seat. He doesn’t apologize or say excuse me, he’s just straight from the trailer court to the concert, and he’s really big like he used to work out but not so much anymore. Like he used to love the gym but now he loves pot.

They both sit down next to me, and I sigh and smile and try to be polite, and she asks me, “Are we late?” and I look at the stage and see the band performing on it and say, “Uh . . . I think so,” and she laughs and says, “Whatev! You mind if I smoke?” and I say, “I . . . don’t care,” and she pulls out this joint and just lights it up, right there. Sitting inside a theater, in a chair, surrounded by people who are not smoking or drinking and are sort of just fuds, she lights up and starts getting high. She passes the joint to her boyfriend, and the smell is so good. I just close my eyes and imagine lying on my couch, listening to the Ben Folds Five CD and smoking a joint. Boy, that would just feel great right now. I’ve got a friend that used to say, “Weed makes a good thing great and a bad thing . . . not so bad!” and then he would inhale and stare at me with eyes on fire and give me that stupid cheese-out grin and cough.

Jade leans over and says, “Are those people . . . smoking weed . . . in here?” and I laugh and I say, “Yeah, I guess,” and it really is pretty funny. The theater we’re in seems pretty hobnobby and the crowd seems very straight-laced and sort of on the older side and very subdued and this girl and her dude-guy are just getting baked. They are experiencing total freedom.

Ben finishes another song just as The Girl and The Dude finish their joint. I watch her out of the corner of my eye—she is infinitely more entertaining than the show—as she delicately crushes the end out between two wet fingers and then stomps on the cherry, crushing it into the glossy cement floor. She opens a little coin purse, pulls out a baggie and places the roach inside, closes the baggie, closes the coin purse, closes her purse majora and sits back and starts to sort of dance in her chair, feeling the groove, I suppose, and I wish I were feeling the groove, as well.

Ben is doing his best. He’s playing the piano with his elbows, and he’s banging on the keys with his fists, and he’s actually reaching inside the piano and is just pulling on the strings in there and, probably if I were closer to the stage and had less on my mind, this would be pretty cool.

The Girl suddenly turns to me and leans in and sort of whisper-shouts in my ear, “Oh, hey! I’m so sorry! I’m so selfish! I didn’t give you any! Do you wanna smoke?” and I don’t even hesitate. My heart doesn’t beat twice before I answer. I don’t let that logical part of my brain speak. I don’t think about health or clean eating. I just think about stress and release and celebration and just blurt out, “Yes. Yes. Please.”

Total freedom.

She pulls out her purse, and she pulls out a second baggie that’s packed to the gills with weed and she pulls out some zigzags and begins to roll a brand-new joint, and I just keep thinking about how the cannabis community is filled with some of the most generous people I have ever met.

Jade leans over and asks, “What did she say?” and I say, “She asked me if I wanted to get high,” and Jade says, “Oh,” assuming that the conversation ended there.

The Girl dumps a row of smelly grass onto the paper and then another row and sort of mashes it down and then sprinkles a bit on top of that just for good measure. This chick is going to get us baked, I think to myself as she lights it herself and then hands it to me.

I lean in and, not sure exactly what the proper etiquette for a stranger handing you free drugs at a concert is, I just whisper-shout, “Thank you!” and then I put the joint to my lips and pull and inhale and out of the corner of my eye Jade is just staring at me, and I turn to her and she says, “What is this?” and I say, “I’m getting fucking high tonight, baby,” and I hand her the joint and she stares at it, and I know exactly what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, Fuck it. Let’s make lemonade! She pinches the joint and takes a hit and shrugs and passes it back to me, and I try to pass it back to the owner, the four of us sharing, and The Girl leans into me and says, “No, no. That’s yours!” and I’m looking at this Cheech and Chong sized white paper bratwurst in my hand and I’m like, “You got it.”

Ben is playing beautifully and his stage performance is extravagant and his showmanship and the light show—the light show!—everything about this show is fantastic, down to the beautiful, blessed seats that are so high. Yellow skulls, stretched and distorted, are being projected onto the billowing curtains, eternally being pulled up, up, up, onto, into the ceiling. White spotlights pan the audience, and lasers of various colors and sizes blast sharp beams out, penetrating and cutting through the darkness. The music builds and builds and builds and, even though I’m staring at skulls floating in front of my eyes, I’m not thinking of death and I’m not thinking of dying and I’m certainly not thinking of cancer. Everything is just good and great and wonderful!

I pull the joint up to my lips, and Ben slams his fists into the keys, making jarring notes that are fitting for the cacophonistic end of the song, and I start thinking about aliens watching us—everyone sitting in the dark, staring at a single person on a stage, all of us chanting the same words in perfect rhythm like a prayer. I can’t get over this thought, this Outside Earth Perspective I’ve got going on, and I think I might be projecting some weird things so I try to just focus back on the music as it begins to crescendo. I inhale and feel myself get lifted a little higher. As I begin to slowly blow the smoke out in one great big billowing cloud of silver fog, Ben hits the keys with both hands as hard as he can and Every. Single. Light in the theater flares on in time to the music and I have to notice that I am just surrounded by a purple haze and I am the only one in the place encircled by this mist and it’s so tangible and palpable that an image of Pig Pen from Charlie Brown actually pops into my head.

A man in front of me in a brown suit, short black hair flattened and gelled against his head, turns around and gives me the stank eye and, yes, I am busted. There’s no denying this. I am that guy right now. His wife or girlfriend or whoever she is, turns around, along with several other members of their party, and I just smile because there’s nothing else I can do.

The arena goes dark again, and I’m grateful because I was feeling pretty naked and exposed. The Girl and The Dude next to me stand up and exit the way they came, taking all of their belongings with them right in the middle of one of the songs, and I wonder just what sort of adventures they’re going to get into tonight when, suddenly, they reach the main aisle and, instead of exiting the theater, the two of them just begin to dance. Crazy Person Dancing. Stripper dancing. Grinding and shaking, arms above head, ecstasy induced, hallucinogenic, mind-fry dancing.

Total Freedom.

Total Freedom that is horrifying me right now because the consequences of my decisions suddenly seem very real and paralyzing. I have just taken drugs from a stranger at a rock concert.

I stare at The Girl and The Dude and just keep thinking, What did I just smoke? What did I just smoke? What was in the weed? What else was in the weed? Do I feel all messed up? Am I high? Am I just weed high or am I, like, going to start freaking out pretty soon?

I’ve never done anything “beyond” marijuana and so I am on the edge of my seat, trying to hyper analyze and over analyze and scrutinize every feeling I’m experiencing and SHIT! What if those people in front of me are cops?! What am I doing smoking weed in a public place around a bunch of people in suits? What kind of a dipshit am I? This wasn’t very responsible! SHIT! That girl is dancing on the floor! She’s on her knees dancing and she doesn’t know what she’s doing or where she’s at and I bet she’s hallucinating and pretty soon I’m going to be hallucinating and I’m going to be dancing in the aisle, and so I lean over to Jade and go, “I don’t know what I just smoked. What are they doing?” and Jade shrugs and says, “I only took a couple hits. Did you . . . ” and then she realizes that the entire submarine sandwich joint has been consumed by me because I have no stop button and just keep smoking and smoking until it’s gone.

I squeeze the armrests of the chair and try to will myself to relax.

The Girl and The Dude disappear and the concert is over and Jade and I stand up and rush out of the theater. On the sidewalk there is a black man in a hospital gown with a handmade sign asking for money. I walk past him and pretend he doesn’t exist. The two of us walk into a Denny’s because it’s 1 o’clock ante meridiem and we’re coming down and have the munchies. We both order pancakes, and as I’m watching the Hospital-Gowned Homeless Man out the window, I see two cops walk past him and then I have the exact same thought anyone who’s ever been high and has seen cops thinks, which is, Crap! Cops!

Now I give them the stank eye, even though they can’t see me, and try to will them to pass the building. But they don’t. They enter the restaurant, and I’m sure that someone at the theater has given them my description and they’re looking for me and so I just focus on my pancakes. Fork in left hand and knife in right hand and just—wait—you’re right handed, switch the fork and knife—no, wait, it was right—you had it right—just cut slow—what . . . is this how a human cuts pancakes? Do I look like a human?

We finish our dinner-breakfast, walk back to our car, and just as we open our doors, we hear a woman scream. We look over the balcony of the parking garage and see Ben or Ben Folds or Ben-Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is has emerged from the venue and twenty-some 20-somethings all shake pieces of paper and digital cameras and cell phones at him, and he slowly approaches each person, individually. I clear my throat and bark, “HEY!” and everyone suddenly stops what they’re doing and looks toward me, including Ben. I shout, “Great show!” and he waves.

Jade and I get back in the car, drive home, and lie on the couch. She puts his CD on, and I think about the possibility of a medicinal marijuana card.

 

*****     *****     *****      *****     *****

As always, thank you so much for reading! Next week we begin PART 3, which kicks  off with AGGRESSIVE ACCELERATION: CHAPTER 16.

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THE BLACK TENDRILS: CHAPTER 14

This is a book about cancer, released one chapter at a time, one week at a time. If this is your first ride at the pony show, click here to start from the beginning.

If not, continue scroll. Dark times lie ahead, Harry.

 

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Cancer surgery is not like having your tonsils or your appendix or your pancreas removed. Cancer is not something you can point your finger at and say, “It is here and this is the problem and this is the solution and now you can go home.” Cancer is more like, “It’s here-ish, and if we do this it should hopefully fix most of the problem, but we really won’t know until we do it. Let’s just eat the cow one bite at a time, shall we?”

So, after my surgery wherein I was miraculously cured thanks to the advancements of modern medicine, my urologist, Dr. Honda, asked for a follow-up visit to see how I was doing and to see my scar and to do some blood work and the process goes on and on, and like a leaf in a river stream, I’m stuck in it, and I just float along, going wherever the current points, and right now the current has pointed me to a chair behind an oak desk. On the other side of the desk sits Dr. Honda, a man who I’ve come to love in a very strange way, having played such a large part in saving my life. I feel very close to him, and I find his presence comforting. It is this man who has completely eradicated the cancer from my body. It is this man who has removed the looming venomous poison from my person. And it’s this man who is now telling me that the cancer is still there. That it isn’t gone. That they didn’t get it all. That it has spread to my lymph nodes. And it’s me staring at this man and saying, “A lynf-what? And how many do I have? And what does that mean?” and I feel like it’s one of those days where everything keeps going wrong, where you can’t find your shoes and then you break your laces and then your car is out of gas and then you find out your cancer is back.

More images of sick kids with black sunken eyes pass through my mind, images of cardboard cutouts at cash registers in cheap restaurants. “Donate a quarter to Alex, and you could save him from leukemia.” Only instead of Alex, it’s me. And there are no quarters. Because some bastard probably stole them. Because that’s the kind of luck I’m having.

“How many lymph nodes? Well, the human body has about 700.” I mouth the number silently to myself and try to compare that to my one single testicle. Listen, I’m no math whiz but I know that 700 problems is worse than one.

Dr. Honda says, “The lymph nodes, they, they move things around. They connect your body. They’re—the easiest way to explain it is—they’re a transit system. Like a subway.”

And I say, “And can cancer ride on this subway?” and he adjusts his glasses but never breaks eye contact with me. He says, “Yes, it can.”

Jade squeezes my hand with the ferocity of a vice grip and my fingers are just wet noodles, both my arms dangling limply at my sides, my head cocked one way, and just who does this guy think he is, telling me I have cancer when I just had my poisonous tumor removed—removed with the cancer? I traded my nut for safety and health, and I paid the price! But, like all things with cancer, it doesn’t care about you. Because it is you. Slowly eating itself like the snake with its own ass in its mouth. Sorry, buddy. Bottoms up. The Black Tendrils stretch through my body, and I feel their presence inside me, throbbing, somewhere, everywhere, poison.

I say, “What do we do? How do we . . . stop it . . . from spreading?” and he says, “I’d like to remove them,” and I say, “Them? Them what? Them the cancers?” and he says, “No, the lymph nodes. I want to remove them. We would open you from your collar bone to your groin and pull them each out individually,” and I say, “But . . . there are 700. Don’t I . . . need them?” and he says, “You will have a weakened immune system, yes.”

“ . . . And a pretty sweet scar,” I mumble.

He tells me he’s scheduling us an appointment with an oncologist, and I say, “Is that someone who’s on call all the time?” and my wife let’s out one of those weird pig noises people make when they’re crying really, really hard but then something makes them laugh. She says, “It’s not funny,” and I say, “I know. This is serious,” and she says, “No. Your joke. It’s not funny. It’s really, really, bad.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

That’s it for this week. Thanks again for reading. This day was a very difficult one when it happened. This was getting hit with the bus. This was the stark realization that it was out of our hands – it was all out of our hands – and we were just along for the ride.

Next week we’re talking about the time I took drugs from a stranger.

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There’s still plenty of bad news to hear.

 

 

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SURGERY: CHAPTER 13

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ . . . Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

I never see either of them again.

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

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

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

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

This is it.

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

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

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

Other side.

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

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

Why do I taste pennies?

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

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

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

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

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

My eyes shift back to the right.

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

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

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

Gee, thanks. You shouldn’t have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s like a jock strap with no cup.

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

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

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

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

I have no baby.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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TRY, TRY AGAIN: CHAPTER 10

 

Like many people, my wife and I have always wanted kids. The problem, however, with having kids is that you actually have to have them. You actually have to say to yourself, “Today is the day that I’m going to try to have a kid. Today is the day that I’m going to throw all protection to the wind and go for it. It’s a big decision that no one should make lightly or while under the influence of alcohol, hard drugs or cancer.

 

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My wife asks me, “Do you want to have kids?”

And I say, “Of course.”

And she says, “When?”

And I say, “When I’m done dying.”

She considers this answer and then tries a new angle, “I’ve been thinking . . . ” and I know her sentence isn’t over so I just wait. “I’ve been thinking that maybe we should . . . try now.”

I look at my watch even though I’m not wearing one. I push the hair out of my eyes, even though I don’t have any. I cough into my hand even though there’s nothing in my throat and I say, “Now now or now later?” and she says, “My clock says now now would be the best time.” She says, “What if . . . what if we just get pregnant now? Naturally? And we can do that together and experience that together and just . . . . ”

It’s the first time I realize how much she loves me. Cancer isn’t just affecting me. It’s affecting her. And not just in the way that proximity calls for, either. If she wants to be with me, stay married to me, and still have kids, she’s going to have to go through the very invasive process of in vitro fertilization, which, for her, is going to consist of so much more than spunking into a cup: hormones, shots, surgeries, egg retrievals. While I get to look at porno in a room by myself, she has to be probed by a group of strangers.

I stand up and give her a hug and look her in the eyes and try to make the moment seem like something I saw in a movie but it’s simply not because we both know the reality. We both know that I’m dying. Or could die. Or might die. Or might survive. We both know that we know nothing. We both know that this is all we know. Each other. Doctors and medicines and surgeries are about to invade our lives and this is all we can control. Each other. Right now.

I say, “OK,” and I’m certain.

And then we’re in the bedroom and there is so much pressure on me to perform that it is a complete failure, and I should go to summer school or read the CliffsNotes on sex or SOMETHING. It’s so bad that I have to apologize and stop. All I can think about is a ticking clock, and I don’t know if that clock is my life or her cycle, and I can just feel my tumor throbbing, and I just keep having an image of spraying out black venom, octopus ink instead of white semen. I know that’s disgusting and I apologize but it’s all I can think about.

I never share the image with Jade.

A few hours later we try again and the next day we try again and the next afternoon and the next night and the next day and again and again and again and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and why are my hands so sweaty?

It’s midnight and Jade tells me she wants to buy a pregnancy test. She tells me she thinks she might be pregnant and . . . I’m so excited. We’re so excited. This is it—that ray of hope, of sunshine, of light in the dark storm. Something that is ours. We drive to the local drug store and buy a pee test and a Diet Coke.

She chugs it like a frat boy and whizzes on the stick. We wait for the longest seven minutes of our lives. We stand in the bathroom, staring at the test, waiting for the blue line to appear or not appear or is it a plus sign or why do they make these things so hard to read?

Something starts to come through . . . and it looks like she’s pregnant!! We’re squeezing hands but not saying anything and then . . . the weird symbol fades and we let go of each other and stare at the blank stick and shake it a bit and try to read the directions again: 1. Pee on stick. 2. Wait. Check and check.

We try again and the same thing happens. We ultimately decide that maybe she’s pregnant (YAY!) but not pregnant enough (understandable). So we just keep having as much sex as we can and peeing on sticks every couple days, and ultimately, she isn’t pregnant, and I have to start cryobanking my semen in three days and that’s it. Game over. We won’t be getting pregnant The Old-Fashioned Way. If we want it, we’ll have to pay $12,000 for it. If we want it, we’ll have to find a clinic and hire a doctor and go through procedures and hope and pray and leave it in the hands of others. Anger rises up in both of us. That anger that shouts, “It’s not fair!” and it isn’t. But it doesn’t care. Whatever “it” is.

It’s not fair that every drunk jackass can accidentally impregnate his girlfriend and it’s not fair that people are throwing their babies away and having abortions and leaving them behind dumpsters and flushing them down toilets and I know one guy who has 22 kids with 14 different women, and I want to approach him and stick a knife in his throat for hogging all the good karma.

All I want doesn’t matter.

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This week we’re dealing with pregnancy the old fashion way. Next week we’re going to be dealing with it in a very different capacity so be sure to come back NEXT MONDAY to read about SPERM BANKING.

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