Tag Archives: chemo

EPILOGUE

PART 5

“Woo-Hoo!”

-Blur

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The Cancer was gone but—as far as I could tell—nothing had changed. When I got in the car, I still felt sick and we had to pull over twice on the way home for me to throw up. Upon arriving back at the house, I sat in My Yellow Chair and slept wearing my heavy green parka (with a smile on my face).

My wife set the celebratory chocolate cake on the counter with plans to stick it in the freezer, but while I was asleep and while Jade was in the shower and while my mother was outside, my dog pulled it down and ate two-thirds of it.

I never got to taste the cake that I suffered so much for, but my dog looked very happy and slept very well that night.

Slowly, over the course of the next few weeks, my appetite did begin to return and I found myself slowly eating more and more, slowly scooping larger and larger portions onto my place, slowly starting to say things like, “In-N-Out for dinner? Steak? Chicken sounds good,” although I refused to touch any type of alcohol, and for years afterward, was terrified to put anything in my body that wasn’t for purely nutritional value. In fact, I became so entirely hyperconscious of the state and condition of my food that I insisted we get rid of the microwave.

My wife approaches me one night and says that a friend of ours from high school who was now living in Oregon had given us an open invitation to visit her. We jointly decided that this was an ideal point to begin our If Not Now, When? Adventures.

My mother agreed to stay at our home for an additional week to watch our dogs and we hit the road. It was a beautiful and memorable journey up the coast. I look back at photos from that particular road trip and it amazes me to see that it literally looks like my wife was traveling with another man; someone who smiled and laughed but was emaciated and pale. While I was eating better, the weight simply wasn’t pouring back on. Even after gaining ten pounds I was still six feet tall and weighing in at a buck forty.

On our journey we began to talk about baby names and, when we got back, it was that conversation that finally led us to take the paternal plunge. After speaking with the fertility clinic, they informed us that we had eleven completely fertilized eggs that were frozen and ready to implant. I stare at the phone as a single phrase that I’d heard from a woman at church months and months ago echoes through my mind. “I see babies. Lots and lots of babies.”

In February 2010 we began the initial stages of in vitro fertilization and three months later we found out we were pregnant.

With twins.

The pregnancy and delivery were both textbook. Jade went full term and on January 6, 2011, Quinn Marie was born two minutes before her brother, Rory James.

Becoming a father and raising twins has been an adventure in its own right that could (and maybe will?) fill a book. My children are wild and savage and inquisitive beings. Their personalities could not be further apart and every day with them is living life in a full, bright spectrum of color.

Every single day with them has been completely insane in the best way possible, and I have Cancer to thank. Without Cancer I never would have banked. Without Cancer we never would have done IVF. Without Cancer we never would have implanted two eggs.

And now, knowing the life I have, knowing what Cancer brought me, I would roll through it all again if it meant being given the opportunity to raise the two of them together.

Just after the Twinkies turned two, we decided to revisit the fertility clinic and walk through the process again. This time, out of fear that we would become the parents of two sets of twins we only implanted a single egg, which stuck temporarily before we suffered a miscarriage several weeks later.

Tragedies cannot be compared and I can’t tell you that a miscarriage is worse than cancer is worse than my grandfather passing. They are not better or worse, they are simply different perspectives of loss. Each tragedy a unique experience that calls out to us and seems to embed itself in the very threads of our DNA, forcing us to carry it around for the rest of our time on the planet.

A few months later we tried a second time for a third child, again with only a single egg. The results came back positive and for the next nine months we held our baited breaths nervously until October 7, 2013, when Bryce Alison entered the universe.

And then, four years later, we went back for one more family upgrade. On Nov. 14, 2017 Beau Natalie arrived with ten fingers, ten toes, and an opinion about everything.

Every day I have on this Earth, with my wife, with my children, with my family, with myself, is an absolute gift and it’s something that I’ll never take for granted. Everything is beautiful and every day is an adventure. I have had the rare gift to glimpse death in the face, see what my life is worth to me, and then stand up from the table and walk away.

Thoughts of cancer follow me everywhere and the reminders are constant; every time I hear The Ice-Cream truck drive down the street, every time I see the reality show about the family with all the kids, every time I drive past the Wiltern in LA where we saw Ben Folds Five, every time I hear the music of Ben Folds Five, every time someone says the word Arcadia, every time someone mentions Las Vegas or Kings of Leon or the words saline solution or ninjas or George Harrison or the word flood. These things and many, many more are all instant triggers and not a day goes by that something doesn’t drop a red flag and send me back to It. And I’d have it no other way. My baggage is a constant reminder that every day is not a good day to die. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t my day to die. Because it just might be. Death opens its arms wide and simply pulls in what it can, like an enormous whale consuming krill.

Every day I hug my children. Every day I say “Yes” to opportunity. Every day I embrace the unknown. Everyday I contemplate and cast wonder at the magnificent and magical world around me, the good and the evil, all wrapped up together, living in all things around us, breathing, eating and existing in beautiful and marvelous complexity.

I look at my life—I look at what has come before cancer and I see all the things I wanted to do. When I was in high school I had hoped to someday buy a van and just head out, to drive without direction or purpose. I wanted to write things and create things and live a life that pushed my boundaries of experience and culture and . . . then I got a job that locked up my time and helped to strangle my ambitions.

I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I was looking down the barrel of a gun and pleading for my life and swearing that, yes, when I came through the other end, things would be different and I wouldn’t be so complacent about my life and I wouldn’t be bored or boring and I would do all the things that needed to be done and say the things that needed to be said and if I died with a list of regrets when I was ninety or eighty or seventy or thirty-five, that list would be incredibly short and pathetic and would contain only random and asinine things like “Eat a pizza from the inside out” because I planned to live the rest of my days chasing daily adventure.

I told myself that I would start a family. And I have. I told myself I would pursue directing. And I have. I’ve directed short films and music videos and have worked with musicians whose work inspires me and have gotten my work into film festivals and my music videos featured on Rolling Stone. I’ve started a production company and created commercial spots that air nationally on broadcast television. I chased that dream and I caught it. I told myself I would read Moby Dick. And I have. And it was the worst thing ever but I finished it and can say with utter confidence that you should never pick it up. I told myself I would read Grapes of Wrath. And I have. And it’s one of the best things ever and I can say with utter confidence that you should pick it up. I told myself I would start camping. And I have. I’ve taken my family on meandering, aimless, vacations in a minivan and I can finally high five that teenage version of myself.

I’ve written television pilots and recorded podcasts and learned to cook and had ’80s-themed parties and made new friends that have become my family and have started a blog and am learning to play the guitar and the ukulele and I play hide and seek at least once a week. I’ve started playing Frisbee golf and hiking and I just got a membership to a gun range where I have learned that I prefer a revolver to a pistol but my accuracy is superior with a rifle. I recently killed and cleaned my first fish and by the light of three headlamps, I gutted and cooked it with my bare hands before feeding it to my tribe. I flew to Nicaragua, slept at the base of a volcano, went zip lining, and helped a woman who was being mugged.

I read. Every day. Sometimes out loud with my wife. I write. Almost every day. I keep a journal but I almost never read it. I go to concerts and the theater and I say yes to any strange food that happens across my plate, which is how I ended up eating blood sausage and frog meat. I started a financial budget with my wife and we’ve done a pretty decent job of sticking to it. I love those around me every day because I almost lost each and every one of them.

My mantra has become Year of the Yes. Whenever someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done the answer is yes, yes, yes, always yes. I want to live strong and loud and uncomfortable. I want to find my boundaries and push past them and expand my culture and thoughts and experiences and love for all of humanity and the energy of life itself.

I never want to say that I am too old or too tired or too busy to go attempt something or to succeed at something or to fail at something. Too old and too tired and too busy are excuses invented by lazy people with no personal ambition. Age is relative. Time is relative. Even success is relative. But what we do with our time is not. Every move counts.

Life is too short to be stagnant and The End already comes too swiftly. When Death finally knocks on my front door, beckoning me home, I want to smile broadly, look at my to-do list and I want the last words I see to be, “Embrace Death. You did everything.”

 

 

And here is the beautiful lady herself.

Jade, thank you so much for standing by me through the most difficult time of my life. You are amazing and brave and kind and incredible and I can never pay you back.

I can never pay you back. And I hope that the opportunity to do so never arises.

Thank you for supporting me through this entire insane book. Thank you for continuing to support my wild ideas, dreams and goals over the last 15 years. We have gone to the ends of the earth together and I could not have done any of this alone.

Your spirit is beautiful.

Thank you for standing next to me.

-Johnny

 

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FINAL ROUND: CHAPTER 39

 

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At this point I believe that there is nothing that can be said that hasn’t already been said before. You, reader, are just as familiar with the routine as I am. Even though this is the last round and the celebratory party hats should, at the very least, be brought out and dusted off, I can’t help but feel a strange mourning and lingering.

Even though my mother keeps saying, “This is it, this is it! That’s the last time we’ll drive through those gates. That’s the last time we’ll enter these doors. That’s the last time you’ll check in. That’s your last IV. How does it feel?” I can’t help but think that this is not The Last. This is just Another. This is just Another Stop that takes me on and on and on. I’m so mentally broken and physically destroyed that the idea of getting off this ride makes no sense to me. I’m so brainwashed by procedure and routine that the idea of the Long Spoken of and Prophesized, Great and Powerful END could not really be here.

Over the last few weeks I’ve developed a sore throat that stings like rug burn, a side effect I blame fully on the vaporizer. And so, having recently become so conscious of the health of my body, I’ve decided to give up smoking weed completely in lieu of my own well-being. I don’t want any more drugs in my system. I want them all gone and out of me. Everything.

The nausea has been stronger than usual but I fight through it (as though I have a choice), spending days with my eyes closed while focusing on my breathing. Time has lost all relevancy and the clock is just a geographical readout that happens to tell me where the sun is in the sky. I feel every second and am given the chance to stare at it and mull it over, dissect it, assess it, pass it on, examine the next one.

I try to imagine everything that I’ve missed—the six months of the world that has been existing without me—and I realize in a very sobering way that I do not matter. I am very insignificant in, not only the greater scheme of things, but in the most absolute minutia of life. I am replaceable, interchangeable and forgotten.

No matter what I do or what happens to me, the world will continue to spin, the glaciers will continue to melt, and Coca-Cola will still have bubbles.

I am not invincible.

But I can do anything and there is no longer anything to fear.

 

 

 

 

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TWO FRIENDS, part 1 & 2: CHAPTER 38

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PART 1: ROB

 During the summer between my eighth- and ninth-grade years, I ended up meeting a boy my same age named Rob who lived across town from me. He is a mental fixture in my childhood and was a very important part of my adolescence, and although I wrack my brain over and over, I can’t seem to recall how the two of us first met. Presently, as a thirty-year-old man, this makes me very sad as I know that things I hold dear to me are beginning to slowly evaporate while I’m not looking.

His parents had divorced long before I knew him, and he was mostly left alone throughout the day during summer break. His mom’s small house became our kingdom; its four walls were ours. We could crank the stereo and listen to our music as loud as we wanted. It was that summer that Rob introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, and rock and roll.

He would date a girl, I would date a girl, we’d break up with them and date each other’s ex-girlfriends; once we even made out with the same girl at the same time, both of us feeling her up while awkwardly trying to avoid each other’s hands. That encounter finally ended with the three of us all giving a collective, “This is weird, yeah?” and then driving to Burger King for lunch.

A few years later, Rob and I began to change and grow apart (as people do). He began spending countless hours at the library (pre Internet) researching Buddhism and Hinduism and various forms of monkhood. He claimed to spend hours each day in his room meditating on nothing but clearing his mind and disconnecting from the world.

We’d spend endless hours bickering wildly over the existence and nature of God, me with all of my “hard facts” he was ignorantly overlooking. I would point and condemn, using fear as a weapon. It makes me grimace to remember the things I’d say; the way I’d try to shove a very specific brand of American Christianity down his throat like a horse pill. “Just take two of these and you’ll be fine!”

Religion was a drug to me. It lifted me up and made me feel good and certain and right. I couldn’t get enough – I mean, who doesn’t want to feel absolute certainty in the unknown? Certainty gives us a sense of superiority. And superiority damages relationships. And eventually, as most drugs do, it devoured me and alienated my friend. It’s funny how religion – a supposedly cosmic belief system based in love, unity and the divine – can separate and isolate human beings so harshly if we allow it to.

Years passed and Rob and I grew further and further apart, only seeing each other randomly in the high-school parking lots. We became involved with different groups of friends but still nodded silently to each other when we passed by happenstance in the halls.

Then, sometime during our junior year, I heard from a mutual friend that he had suddenly taken a bus to California. It wasn’t until years and years later that the two of us would meet again, this time at his new home, a Hare Krishna community in Santa Monica he’d been living in since he left South Dakota. We were different people—both of us half a country away from our hometown, both of us half a decade older, me a bit balder from genetics, he with a purposefully shaved head save for a sprout of hair in the back. I wear a T-shirt and ripped jeans, he an orange robe.

We’ve both matured as men and are able to discuss our cosmic curiosities in a more social manner, taking the time to learn from one another rather than attempting merely to teach and talk. He asks me to stay for lunch and we walk through a veritable buffet of vegetarian Indian cuisine and he purchases my meal for me. We say grace together and dig in, reminiscing about people we once knew.

He tells me that he had discovered this temple during one of his various faith studies, contacted them, and they’d sent him an invite along with the bus fare. At seventeen years old he had packed a single bag, got on the Greyhound, and never returned.

Once I was diagnosed with cancer, he and his new wife were one of the very first and very few to come visit us in the hospital. Then, six months later, toward the end of my treatment, he invited my family to his temple for a small lunch. It could not have come at a better time as I was truly feeling as though I needed to unload a minivan of emotional baggage. There were dark things happening deep down in my soul and they were going to come out; Pandora’s box was going to crack open. I was feeling very bad things and I needed to say them. I needed to get them into the air around me and I needed someone I trusted to hit them all like Whack-A-Moles when they appeared.

Looking back, I hope to God that these emotions were simply my renegade hormones speaking; my lack of AndroGel and imbalance of testosterone. But even today, years later, I can’t say with any absolute clarity. I can’t say for certain that I wasn’t on the brink of something darker.

Rob, who was now going by the name of Haladhara, and I sat down at a small table while, at my request, our wives and my mother sat down separately. We both say our customary blessing and then I thank him for buying me lunch yet again. He says, “Dude . . . dude . . . c’mon. It’s the least I can do.”

I look at my large plate with my meager portions and remember the last time I ate here—I had heaping stacks of food. He asks, “How is everything? How are you doing?” and I reach out and pick up a biscuit that might be made out of potatoes and spinach and I take a bite. I say, “I’m not very good, man. I’m not doing very good,” and my voice cracks on that last word and he says, “What’s wrong?”

I look around the restaurant and see people seated at different tables. My initial fear when we walked in the door had been that I would throw up and make a scene. My new fear is that I was about to start crying uncontrollably with an audience.

I say, “I’m . . . so . . . I don’t know. Just inside. Everything feels all weird. It feels all sick,” and he says, “But it’s gone, yeah? It’s all—you’re out of it?” and I say, “The cancer is gone . . . but the cancer—it’s never been the problem. It’s the chemo. The chemotherapy is the monster, and I’ve got one round left. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I have it in me,” and Rob, or Haladhara, puts down his food and puts his fingertips together and just listens to me talk. I ramble.

“It hurts so much. I can’t walk. I can’t talk. I’m . . . pain . . . everything is fuzzy. The ice-cream truck made me cry. Jade is giving me baths. I can’t take care of myself. Can’t walk. Can barely think, talk . . . . I can’t eat. I don’t know. If I had to do this again, I can’t say, I can’t say, I don’t know that I wouldn’t just . . . kill myself. I don’t think I can do it again.”

These are the darkest words I’ve ever spoken and I consider this moment to be my darkest hour. I glance around the small room and find that no one is looking at me but everyone is paying attention. I try to stifle my gasps but I have no control over anything. I put my face into my hands and try to hold back visceral wails that seem to be clawing their way out of my very soul. Thinking these monstrous and loathing thoughts is evil and poisonous toxicity—thinking about suicide. Speaking the words out loud feels so much more tangible and dangerous. It feels as though I’m speaking some kind of taboo truth into them that I hate, bringing it to life or somehow birthing it into our world. I don’t want to say it, don’t want to admit it but I want to get in front of the problem, get it into the air, out in the open; murder it before it murders me.

I am broken.

Rob reaches across the table and puts his hand on mine and says, “You’re going to be all right. You’re so strong. Everything you’re going through is difficult. But you will get through it. You are inspiring.”

This moment between two people. This compassion. This empathy. This kindness. This is what God looks like.

 

PART 2: LUCY

At some point in the early 2000s, my brother-in-law, Jarod, moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he began work as a bartender while attending college. It was at this bar he met a girl and fellow employee named Lucy.

The two hit it off well enough, and when Jarod discovered that she was moving to Los Angeles, he volunteered to connect her with my wife and myself.

So one extremely windy day, we all met at a Starbucks and drank overpriced burnt coffee and chatted about our plans to “take over this town.” She was one of the nicest people I’d ever met; she wore a constant smile, made well-timed jokes, and laughed when expected. All that aside, we were living in different parts of the city, and the three of us were simply too preoccupied with other things to navigate a new and strange friendship.

It would be years before either Jade or I saw her again.

Fast forward several tax seasons until I’d finally found myself working as the lead editor at a start-up post-production company in Studio City. The owner, an enormously tall Dutchman named Radu, had a weakness for cheeses, Entourage, and loose women. He had a constant interest in “The Dakotas,” a cowboy land filled with bars, gunfights, and no electricity that I had apparently somehow escaped, presumably on the back of a wild stallion.

He’d wander around the office, ducking through doorways, moving from edit bay to edit bay proclaiming, “Rah-DO-IT!” if he agreed with something you were creating.

A year into my job there, he decided to bring on our very first assistant editor; a young lady named Amber who had just finished college up north and was now trying to get her foot into some steady work.

One Wednesday, Radu called a meeting (which usually just entailed Amber and I sitting at a table in the front lobby while he showed us his favorite moments from Entourage and splurged on exotic cheeses) to tell us about a new client we had coming in; some foreign documentary that needed editing. “I know neither of you speaks Spanish—hell, Brookbank barely speaks English—but we’re going to just Rah-do-it. You got it?” Honestly, he was like a character out of a TV show.

I reach out for a piece of cheese, and he slaps my hand away. “This ain’t no soup kitchen! You pay for that cheese? Were you born in a barn, Dakota? You probably were born in a barn—go buy your own Velveeta cheddar slices, whatever. This is good cheese. Fine, here’s one piece, just to try. Savor it because you’ll probably not get anymore again. How much you think this cheese platter cost? Forty bucks.”

I say, “This cheese tastes like a jock strap,” and Radu says, “You have the etiquette of a possum. Shut your mouth when you eat, you rat bastard. Now, listen, the client is Such and Such—” except he actually names the client and doesn’t say such and such and Amber says, “Such and Such on Miracle Mile?” and Radu says, “Yes; you know them?” and Amber says, “Yeah, my best friend Lucy works there—we graduated from Bozeman together,” and I say, “You went to Bozeman? Lucy who?” and Amber says, “Lucy Such and Such!” and I say, “Black hair? Thin? Laughs when she’s supposed to?” and Amber says, “Yes!” and I say, “My brother-in-law is Jarod. Do you know him?” and she says, “I know Jarod!” and Radu says, “I ain’t got time for this. I’m going to take a shit. Nobody touch my cheese,” and then he leaves the room.

This is how I met Lucy for the second time.

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There are people that you meet from time to time and you can just tell that karma is out to get them, or is, at the very least, lying dormant and waiting for the perfect time to strike. Then there are people who, conversely, you meet and you just think that even their dandruff should be considered good luck powder in most circles.

Lucy was one of these latter. Although, it should be stated that she does not, so far as I am aware, have dandruff. When you meet her, you immediately think to yourself, “You’re a wonderful person. You’re happy and you know what happiness is and I can simply tell that you are a good friend with a trustworthy personality.”

Over the course of the following years, Lucy and my wife and myself all keep up, fighting through the weirdness that is LA friendships in order to get together for the odd and random dinner. Our friendship matures and Lucy ultimately becomes a close friend of both my wife and myself.

Then, one day, years later, I’m sitting in My Yellow Chair with my blanket when my phone rings and it’s Lucy and she’s asking if she can come over to visit. Of course, we say and when my wife shouts, “Come in!” a few hours later, Lucy hobbles into my living room wearing a full blown please-sign-here leg cast.

After the initial, “What-the-what?!” and “Is that fer real?!” questions out of the way, she regales us with her tale of woe.

Two nights ago, she says, she was coming home with her roommate. It was about 11 p.m. and she had to park about a block away from her house. “It’s a good neighborhood though so not a big deal.”

She and her roommate exit the car, begin the track back up the block and—someone punches her in the back of the head, knocking her 110-pound frame to the ground. She rolls over in time to see two young men begin to stomp, literally stomp on her leg until it is cracked and broken, only stopping when porch lights begin to turn on from her wretched screaming. The two boys take her purse and disappeared into the darkness while her roommate fumbles with 911.

I say, “They . . . stomped . . . on your leg . . . until it snapped?” and she says, “Yes, with their feet. They just jumped up and down on it. They shattered my leg. And, yes, I’m moving to New York City.”

There is silence between us when my wife says, “New York? Isn’t that dangerous?” and Lucy says, “I don’t know. Probably. Maybe. Certain neighborhoods. I just can’t—every day I think they’ll be there. Every day, no matter where I am, I’m afraid they’ll be there. If I’m in a parking garage at nine p.m. or a Target parking lot at eleven a.m. I think they’re following me—I mean, I know they’re not following me, but I’m waiting for them to come back. I was mugged and I’m afraid it’s going to happen again. I’m afraid of them returning. Do you know what I mean?”

I look at her and I say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I know what it’s like to have them return again and again and again. Mine doesn’t come in the form of two cowardly men; mine comes in the form of bad news over and over and over. Testicular cancer, surgery, heart cancer, lung cancer, grand mal seizure, fainting, puking, RLS, blood vomiting, insomnia, constipation, atrophy, platelets, blood transfusions, lockjaw.

The process has a way of getting under your skin, into your soul and making you not trust The Good News. Cancer wasn’t done with me; it was going to come and find me in some parking lot and finish the job. Lately I’d just been spending my days waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I say, “New York will be awesome. Be safe,” and Lucy leaves for her new life where she will find success in producing. I love Lucy’s story because it shows that goodness and opportunity can come from anywhere. Two bottom feeders break your leg, steal your purse, and re-route your train for New York where you find more happiness and success than you ever had in Los Angeles. It’s a high price to pay, but the even higher price is a life lived in mediocrity.

Feeling suddenly inspired to make moves and to get out there and to feel the hustle that I heard Lucy talking about, I decide to e-mail my boss. I’ve been in correspondence with him over the last few months, and he, to his great credit, has been nothing short of compassionate. When I had to leave he said, “Go, take as much time as you want. Whatever you need. We’ll work with you,” and for an employee, that inspires comfort and safety. In an industry where everyone is flaky, it was a breath of fresh air; while dealing with a disease that was unpredictable, it was wonderful to have predictability. It was nice to know that, at the end, my job was there.

I’d hit him up every three to four weeks just to touch base and say hi, let him know I was still alive. He writes back with, “No problem! Just beat that cancer! Quit worrying about the job! It’s here! It’s yours! Just get better! Good luck!”

So it is upon this day that I write him one final time to give him the good news, “My cancer is gone and it looks like I’m going to wander the Earth for a few more years after all. I should be able to return in about six weeks and I just want to say thank you so much for keeping it open for me.”

Our medical bills were now into the hundreds of thousands and we needed a financial Band-Aid soon. This job was the only rope I could see that would pull us to safety.

I send the e-mail and I hear the whoosh indicating that the digital file is flying through cyber space and I imagine Phil’s e-mail giving him a little bing notification. I imagine him reading it and smiling and feeling warm and fuzzy that he is such a huge part in helping me to gather the shattered pieces of my life and glue them back together. He can sleep easy tonight knowing that he and he alone was the boat that sailed my job through the storm. He was the captain at sea while I was in the infirmary. I stare at my blank computer monitor and I think, “I hope he knows how much that means to me. I hope I was articulate enough.”

BING.

I receive an email. From Phil. Wonderful! I quickly open it up, excited for the warm words of encouragement from o captain, my captain. I smile and begin to read, paraphrased as, “Johnny. I’m so glad to hear you’re better. Unfortunately, I gave your job away two weeks after you left and didn’t have the heart to tell you. I’ll put out a couple feelers. Be well. Phil.”

I reach over and sip my hot tea, fold my hands and purse my lips as I try to decide what my emotional response should be to this terse letter.

I look toward the door and, nodding, I see our collection of footwear. It appears the other shoe has finally fallen.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

I say, “OK, go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I say, “Any of your AIDS blood?”

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

And I say, “Cold move.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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TONGUE: CHAPTER 36

 

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When I open my eyes, moonlight is still shining through my windows and my wife’s breathing is still soft and rhythmic. I know I won’t get back to sleep so I just Imagine. When there is nothing to do, it’s all there is. When everything is gone outside, when your body has been reduced to rubble, when your emotions are running rampant and every thought clouds your brain with fog, all you can do is Imagine.

I focus in on one single thing, one detail, one moment, one idea and I circle around it, staring at it, examining it and dissecting it. The thought this morning is My Fourth Round. I try to Imagine what one level deeper will look like; I Imagine it as a deep sub-basement. A cellar. There aren’t many people here and those who shuffle around in the darkness are pale and sinewy. I Imagine a nurse in the not-too-distant future pulling an IV out of my arm and saying, “All right, you’re done,” and then I Imagine walking out of the hospital and entering into the sunlight and feeling alive and free and while I lie there in the darkness, in my True Reality, everything still seems far away and unattainable.

People say to me, “One more round! Just one more round! The light is at the end of the tunnel!” and I see the light but it doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer. I understand that time is passing but why does it have to happen in Matrix bullet time?

I push my blankets back and drape my legs over the edge of the bed. I need to pee. I stand up and take a deep breath and my wife turns over and says, “Are you OK?” She’s like a mother with a new baby, sensing every movement in the silence. I say, “Yeah. Just gotta pee, ” and I smile and she says, “Shout if you need something,” and I smile again, open the bedroom door and exit.

Walking through the darkened house, I hear a faint click-click-click of computer keys and round a corner where I find my dad sitting at our dining-room table doing work remotely on his laptop, a twice filled bowl of Cocoa Puffs next to him. He looks up and smiles but doesn’t say anything. I say, “Hi,” and, “What time is it?” and he says, “Seven a.m. my time. I’ve been up for two hours,” and I nod, and doing the simple math, figure it must be around 5 a.m. here. I pee and walk into the kitchen and he keeps typing without looking up.

I want to sit down at the table and speak to him and ask him what he’s doing or ask him how he’s doing or ask something, anything that will fill the silence in the kitchen. Click-click-click.

I open up the cabinets and the fridge, searching for food that I won’t eat; some repressed muscle memory pushing me on, not wanting to face the fact that I don’t fully know the man sitting in my dining room even though I’ve lived in the same house with him my entire life. I open up a cupboard filled with frying pans and just stare at them, trying to look busy. I say, “What are you working on?” and he says, “Building my website,” and I say, “Ah.” I pull out a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a bowl before putting them both away. I consider going back to the bedroom but the darkness in there is just too heavy and I know I’ll drown in it. I end up sitting down at the table and staring at the back of his laptop, at the glowing logo. I say, “What’s your website about?” and he says, “Cars I’m working on . . . building stuff.” Click-click-click.

I am dealing with complete anarchy in my personal life and pushing forward every single day, one step further, one step further, one step further and here I am, sitting at a table in an empty house with my biological father and I have no idea how to confront this situation. I have no idea what to say, what to do. I try to make a joke but neither of us laughs. I start to feel funny (strange, not haha) and just lie my head in my hands. He asks if I’m OK and I say, “Sometimes.”

My sister enters the room. My mother enters the room. My wife enters the room. Cereal is made. Oatmeal is made. Toast is made. Orange juice is poured. My sister sits down next to me and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “What am I doing-what? What do you mean?” and she says, “Your tongue is kind of a weird color,” and when I examine myself in the mirror I see that it is indeed the same shade as raw beef that’s been left in the sun for too long. My wife says, “Do we need to go to the hospital?” and I turn on her like a corner and say, “No, no, no. No hospitals. No emergency rooms. No nothing,” and my dad says, “If we need to take you to the hospital, you will go. I will overpower you. I can overpower you,” and I understand now, today, what he meant, but at the time it inflamed my emotions. Even though it sounds like a joke, he wasn’t messing around. He wasn’t being coy. He genuinely meant what he said. He would bear hug me and drag me kicking and screaming to the E.R. if it’s what my wife said I needed.

I turn on him next and say, with as much acidity as I can muster, “You touch me and I will fight you.” At first glance this looks like the eternal power struggle between father and son, a story as old as time, but on second glance it’s just my struggle. To control something. Anything. He raises an eyebrow and looks at Jade, who looks at me and so I say, “The E.R. is a waste of time. We’re going to show up, sit in a waiting room for two hours. They’re going to draw some blood and tell me to hydrate. I don’t need a replay of The Adventures of Blood Vomit. I don’t need Christmas Eve take two. I don’t need to stay another night there. What I need is to relax and take it easy. I did it your way last time and it was a total bust and now we’re doing it my way. This time it’s my turn.”

Grasping at control.

Jade never answers. Instead she just exhales deeply and turns away. My dad turns back to his laptop. My sister’s phone buzzes and she reads a text. I say, “Who’s that?” and she says, “None of yer bizzznus,” and I say, “Is it your boyfriend? Is it that guy I met? Is it Jes?” and she glances at my dad—click-click-click—and makes wide eyes at me that seem to say, Shut up! So I do. She texts something back and I say, “What did you just text him back? Was that Jes you were texting? That guy you were dating? The guy I met?” and she says, “I told you to shut up,” and then she walks outside.

I met Jes about a year previous and we’d only spoken on two separate occasions. He was a nice enough fellow but had recently, I guess, gotten involved in and charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and was going to be doing some prison time. No one was really sure which members of our family knew or did not know so my sister was very sensitive about the subject being broached at all. My extended family is full of strange secrets and double-crosses and so most things, regardless of how lacking in logic, are just taken with a grain of salt.

I stand up and move to My Yellow Chair before closing my eyes. I’ve been up for about two hours and it’s starting to make me feel strange, light headed. I say, “Church this morning?” and my mother says, “Yes,” and my wife says, “If you’re OK,” and my sister is outside, and my dad goes click-click-click.

I shut my eyes and nap.

When I wake up there is an electric movement in the air that says something is happening. Grab your things, c’mon, let’s go! It’s time! I slide my feet into a pair of old yellow sneakers and stand up. “I’m ready.”

My mother spruces her hair up. My wife spritzes herself with perfume. My sister changes shirts and jeans and shoes and then shirts again and then ties her hair back and then lets it down. I feel strange again but, since feeling strange has become a complete recurring theme in my life, I simply ignore it and soldier on.

We all gather by the front door and my mother says, “Mike, are you ready to go?” and my dad looks up from his computer and says, “Huh?” and my mother says, “To church? We’re leaving,” and he goes click-click-click . . . CLICK, and then shuts his laptop and we all walk out the door.

In the car I lay my head against the glass and feel the bumps in the road gyrate my skull and shake my brain. Next to me I can hear my sister click-click-clicking on her BlackBerry, every button a stapler to the temple. The problem with those phones is that even if you silence the “clicking sound” feature, those buttons are just built to click. Click-click-click! CLICK-CLICK-CLICK! CLLIIICCCKK!! Click-click-click.

I turn to my sister and say, “How is work?” and she starts to tell me about her job and about how she thinks her boss doesn’t like her and how she’s thinking about quitting and all the scandalous things that happen there and I nod politely and ask questions and in the front seat my dad says, “These billboards are all in Spanish. I can’t read Spanish. Wait, I think that one says something about the number three… and maybe something about a burrito.” I say, “That’s El Pollo Loco.”

My sister says, “So what are you going to do when you go back? Back to work? Are you going to have the same job or what?” and truly, truly, it’s a fear that has weighed on my heart since this first happened, since this all began. What next?

Will I be able to just jump back into my career, back into my job? Will I be able to sit in an edit bay for ten hours a day after knowing that death is imminent? Will I be able to commute an hour each way and wile away in a cube while my life escapes through me one moment at a time? I don’t know.

I don’t think so.

When I am released back into the world I want to break the social norms and destroy the constraints and I want to live by a set of guidelines that work for me because, quite frankly, the ones I’ve been using aren’t really blowing my hair back. I don’t think humans were meant to live like caged chickens and . . . .

. . . I begin to speak; to relay these thoughts to Theresa. I begin to pour my heart out, wearing my fear on my sleeve like a patch. I turn my head and glance back out the window but continue to talk. The words are coming easier and easier, the fears becoming easier to speak about. It feels good to get it off my chest and then, suddenly, my sister just blurts out, in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard, the word, “HOLA!”

That’s what she says. She says, “HOLA!” and she nearly shouts it, like she’s welcoming the Chilean soccer team back to their home country after winning a major victory. “HOLA!”

I turn my head to put this interruption into context and I see her . . . on her phone. It was on silent so I didn’t hear it ring. Apparently I had just been talking to myself. I look into the front seat and see my mom and dad both staring straight ahead in silence.

I am pouring out my heart to the world passing by. I say, “Are you kidding me?!” and my sister says, “What?” and I say, “I’m sitting here talking to you and—“ she just holds a finger up over her lips and says, “Shhh.”

How dare you shush me! My brain explodes in rage and indignation and I raise my fist in the air, but my sister merely mocks me. I whisper-shout, “You think the cancer kid can’t beat you up?! You think I can’t take you down?! Well, you’re probably right but I’m going to remember this! All of this! HOLA, indeed!” and then she puts her finger to her mouth and shushes me again, violently, truly wanting me to hush.

I say, “Who are you talking to?” and she mouths, “Shut up! Jes,” and I say, “Jes? Jes, your boyfriend? Jes, the guy you’re dating? Jes, the guy I met?” I pause and then say, “Give me the phone . . . . ”

Theresa glares at me, unsure how to accept this challenge. She knows we’d met before (twice) and she knows that we got along all right (twice) but she has no idea why it is I would want to talk to this man after having not seen him for close to a year.

She says, into the phone, “My brother . . . wants to talk to you . . . . I don’t know . . . . I don’t know . . . . Is that OK? OK.” And then she holds out the phone and I reach out for it but she pulls it away at the last minute, leaving me grasping at air. I say, “What?” and she just raises her fist in the air, mocking me again and says, “I’m serious.”

I push the mobile device to my ear and say, “Hello. Jes?” And he mumbles something, sounding unsure, unsure of our conversation, unsure of himself, unsure of everything. I say, “What’s going on?” and he says, “You know, not much, uh . . . . ”

We sit in silence for a moment and then I say, “So, you’re going away for a bit?” and he agrees and my sister slaps the palm of her hand against her face. I turn my head and look out the window and I say, “I just wanted to say that I think we’re both going through something very unusual and I hope that when we come out the other end we can be very different people. I hope these things change us for the better and uh . . . keep it together, man,” and he says, “Oh . . . uh . . . thanks. Thank you,” and I say, “See ya,” and hand the phone back to my sister who just stares at me for a moment before speaking into it and saying, “Hello . . . hi. Yeah . . . I don’t . . . know . . . . ”

Years later, the two of them will be married and I’ll stand up for them at their wedding, not simply because they asked me to but because I believe in their marriage. Prison will affect and change Jes in fantastic ways and when he comes out of the darkness, he will be a new man, ready to embrace life for himself. Today he’s one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know and I would put my personal reputation on the line for him at any turn.

Life has a very funny way of changing us.

We take the Highland exit and I mentally take note of the spot where I slipped into my grand mal seizure. I don’t know it then, but I’ll red flag it for the rest of my life. A mile up and I take another mental note of the spot where I woke up. I mark the trees, the light poles, the bus stop. I sigh and everything swims in front of me for a moment but then is gone. A few miles later we hang a right on Wilshire and pull into the parking lot of the church.

My family shuffles down the sidewalk, I leading the way for a change. I turn around, perhaps too quickly, and say, “Remember to silence your cell phones,” and everyone reaches into their pockets to do so. When I turn back around I feel something in the very furthest recess of my brain, a white mist. Then I feel something in my toes.

We enter the lobby and find ourselves standing in a throng of individuals. I’ve just walked a block and am feeling extremely exhausted . . . far more tired than I have any right to be, even in my present state. I think, “Something is not right. I need . . . to sit . . . down.”

I take two steps toward a support column in the center of the room and that white mist suddenly makes a lunging maneuver from the back of my brain and circles around to the front. The feeling in my toes shoots up my legs and into my thighs and everything is becoming a strange water-color painting.

My wife says, “Are you all—”

And then I feel my knees buckle and the weight of the world is on my shoulders—every screaming child, every warring nation, every lusting adult. Every prayer is being shoveled on top of me and I’m slowly drowning. God reaches down, grabs the room and spins it like a top (or perhaps a dreidel, depending on your religious orientation) and my right foot shoots out to establish my balance and my left foot shoots forward to counter.

Someone says something else and I’m trying to stand up but it’s all so heavy and spinning and then the words are just electrical motor engines and the darkness on my brain consumes my eyeballs and the world around me fades . . . to . . . black.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

When I open my eyes it takes a few moments for my reality to click on but when it does, it’s just like a light; everything is illuminated. I’m here, the church, the people, the embarrassment. Don’t be embarrassed! But I am, I’m lying on a floor in a room filled with strangers who are all staring at me. Drink this! A cup of water. Great. I would love to throw this up in front of you all when I’m nice and ready. Don’t stand up! Great, I’ll just hang out down here. Just lay down! No. Absolutely not. I will not look as though I’m taking a nap in the center of the floor. I understand what happened here was a little weird and everyone is a little freaked out but I don’t need to lie down. I am a grown-ass man.

I sit up cross-legged and say, “Jade, please help me up,” and my dad says, “Just hang on, John,” and I say, “Help me . . . up,” and they do because, unless they’re going to pin me down, I’m not lying here like Lieutenant Dan.

My sister says, “Whoa. Your tongue is . . . really white,” and I say, “What do you mean, white?” and the rest of the my family suddenly makes a noise like a vampire seeing a cross and even a couple of people standing next to me take a small step back. My wife snaps a photo on her phone and shows it to me.

Oh, I think, they meant white. Like paper. Or snow. Or a ghost. My tongue had been drained of all color and now it just looked like someone had shoved one of those weird albino dog turds between my lips.

I clap my hands together and say, “Well . . . so . . . to the hospital then?” and without any verbal agreement, we all just turn and start walking back to the car.

 

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MINOR DETAILS: CHAPTER 33

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In the hospital, over the course of the following week, I get sick, I sleep and I listen to people talk. Everything happens as I imagine/predicted/knew. The Cure consumes me and turns me into a writhing mop of hopelessness.

The back of my throat is sore and bleeding, completely unrelated to Cancer and chemo, just a side effect of having no immune system. My wisdom tooth on my right side begins to force its way through my gums, making my jaw line feel swollen. Every time I move my mouth, a needle gets shoved into the root of my tooth. I drink Anbesol by the liter, hoping to drown out the pain.

I sit in the bathroom, get high, blow it into our homemade prison filter, apply Anbesol and try to eat, but everything is just too out of control. The Cycle is in full force and nothing can slow it down. There are no breaks on this ride.

Marijuana and over-the-counter pain medication aside, I still have a tremendously sore throat that feels like it’s made up of aluminum foil. Eating has become this thing that I used to be able to do; I am a bird with clipped wings dreaming of flying.

Dietary calls me and asks if I’d like the chicken or fish and I know they both look like they’ve just been pulled out of a drain pipe so I say, “Could I just have six iced teas, please?” and the man says, “Excuse me?” and I say, “Iced tea. You have iced tea?” and he says, “Oh . . . yes,” and I say, “I don’t want any food. You may keep the food. But I would like six glasses of your iced tea. It’s very delicious,” and he says, “Uh, yes. Yes, OK . . . six . . . uh . . . iced teas. Anything else?” and I say, “Popsicles,” and he hangs up.

While we wait for lunch, my mother and I slowly walk downstairs, IV in tow, outside to the “garden area,” a small block of concrete with a fake tree in a wicker basket. We sit on a bench and let the sunshine touch our skin and I notice, even in the middle of the day, even in the daylight, everything is cast in blue. Everything is cold and sterile. Everything is prosthetic. Half a block away, standing by the street, I see a healthy-looking man smoking a cigarette. My heart breaks for him and my guts wrench in my stomach and I want to run to him and say, “Listen to me! Look at me! I have lung cancer! Put that thing down! You’re young! You’re beautiful! Go get married! Go buy a fast car! Go to a rock and roll show!” and I want to rip the cigarette out of his mouth and stomp on it and just wheeze at him.

Instead I just gag and my mom asks me if I want to head upstairs. From the garden to our room on the fifth floor, it’s an easy four-minute walk, moving at a nice casual pace; the kind of pace where you put your hands behind your back and whistle.

It takes us twenty-five minutes. If I moved any slower I’d start drifting backward through time. I take small shuttling steps like a slow-motion Geisha, one floor, one hall, one tile at a time. We reach the elevator and my mom presses the CALL button while I sit down on a nearby chair, trying to catch my breath for the second half of our epic quest, this adventure from the garden to the room that is nothing short of Frodo’s quest to Mordor; my will and fortitude, my stamina and strength being tested.

The elevator door slides opens and a mother walks out with a young boy, maybe eight or nine. He’s got straight blonde hair the color of notebook paper and dull brown eyes, his shirt sporting some superhero television icon of the week. He’s healthy. His mom is healthy. I see their visitor badges and know that they’re either on their way out or on their way to the gift shop to buy candy bars and dying flowers.

Suddenly, I have this moment of clarity and I am standing outside of time and space. I’m shot through a wormhole and I can see this kid who’s standing in front of me, barely old enough to be called a prepubescent. I see him growing up. I see him meeting a girl and falling in love. I see that the girl smokes and I see that he takes one of her cigarettes. I see them driving down the freeway. He smokes two back to back and his buzz turns to nausea. I see him turn 18 and I see him buy his first pack. I see his summer fling with Chesterfields, his love affair with Parliaments and his eventual marriage to Camel Lights. I see him standing outside of a hospital on a blue day, smoking a cigarette while some kid with cancer watches him from a hundred yards away, wishing there was something he could do to stop it, to show him, to intervene.

The kid walks past my mother, my pole, and myself and looks up at my skeletal face, my yellow skin and my dead eyes. I say, “Hey,” and he and his mother both stop and she turns and looks at me but I never break my gaze with the kid. I say, “I’ve got lung cancer because I smoked cigarettes. Don’t ever try them, no matter what, because you might end up here like me.”

And then I reach out and press the 5 button and the kid and the mom just stare at me as the door closes, both of them looking caught off guard, their mouths cracked ajar. To this day I don’t know if it was a good idea or not. I don’t know if it did anything or had any effect, but I hope it planted a seed.

Back in my room the six iced teas have already been delivered and are positioned perfectly 3×2 on a large plastic tray. I sit down on the bed, insert a straw, and pull a few drops into my mouth, tilt my head back and the plan is to let them trickle down my throat painlessly but my reflexes kick in at the last second and my Adam’s apple rises and falls and I’m forced to swallow and the pain sears the back of my throat like a cattle prod and I grimace and shut my eyes.

When I open them a man is standing in my room with a plastic briefcase and I know what he wants even before he asks but I don’t want to give it to him and I kick and scream and they restrain me with physical force and leather belts. They strap me to the bed and I try to bite them and I spit at them and curse. A large black man shoves his ass onto my face while a smaller white man grabs my wrist and commands my wife and mother to hold me down while he takes my blood. I scream and cry through the black man’s butt but it all comes out in noises that sound like a tuba. Grrr! Raaah! Blluuu! He jams the steel into my flesh and pulls out my blood and I bite the black man and he forces my head sideways and I try to bite his fingers and my wife is crying and screaming and my mother has mascara running down her face and she is wrenching her hands and they’ve both dropped to their knees, embarrassed at my less than civilized behavior and then the men are gone and I’m left panting, drooling, foaming at the mouth spitting out, “You don’t know me! You don’t know me! Don’t judge me! You ain’t been where I been! Walk in my shoes! Walk in myyyyyy shoes!”

Granted, this exchange is all allegory but will hopefully give you a greater glimpse into my psyche, a peek into my internal emotional breakdown, a preview to how I feel when those needles come out. The emotions tend to run high. Things become exaggerated . . . .

Days pass and nights pass and reality TV shows come and go and begin and end and nurses come and go and I get high and sober and I vomit and try to brush my teeth and vomit again. My wife and mother come and go, arriving in the morning and leaving in the evening. I stare at the ceiling and at the tiles and at the blank, black, dead television, and the television looks back into my blank, black, dead eyes. I turn it on and watch an episode of I Love Lucy with the sound completely muted. Even with no one talking I can tell where the jokes go, where the audience is supposed to laugh. I shut the television off, drink some water, gag twice, and fall asleep. I wake up and it’s morning. Another day passes. They take more blood, they bring more iced tea, I sit in the garden and try to fall asleep in the sun but can’t. My wife lies in bed with me and curls in close and whispers in my ear, “We’re halfway done. We’re over halfway done,” and the word we’re echoes back in my head on and on and on and I wonder what her personal journey has been like—stress, anxiety, depression. I know and understand, logically and emotionally, that the three of us (myself, my wife, and my mother), are all on this train together and the train is spinning out of control for each of us in very different ways. While I feel hopeless, they feel helpless, unable to change anything or make a difference; they’re forced to just sit down and watch.

Another night falls and another moon rises and there is a machine in the hall breathing for someone who I imagine is a man with stringy white hair and translucent skin, his hands covered in liver spots, his eyes milky clouds. Hufff . . . . Grrrr . . . . Huffff . . . . Grrrrr . . . .

I stare out the window into infinite space and pray, “God, I am so scared. I could really use some courage here. Please let me know that you’ve got my back.”

I exhale and shut my eyes, and like a popular flood, sleep overtakes me.

Hospitals are like sitcoms; if you spend enough time with one you just start to see the same characters over and over again; nurses, doctors, janitors, lab techs, nutritionists. They are the cast and I . . . I think I’m the audience but maybe I’m just another character. Probably I’d be the super sexy dying kid in room 502 that all the really hot nurses are into and all the older nurses wish were their son. My character would be really modest, as well. Modest and sexy. And funny.

And strong.

Channing Tatum would probably have to play me in the televised movie version. Channing Tatum or maybe The Rock.

On today’s episode there is a special-guest appearance by a new character. This is his only cameo, and I’ll never see him again. The man knocks and enters, pushing a small cart. He’s olive skinned, mid seventies, with tufts of white hair and deep lines set into his face like a cracked desert. I say, “Hello,” and he smiles at me and I can tell by the lines in his face that he smiles often.

He sets the tray on my table and says, “How are you today, young man?” and I say, “I’m as good as I can be today,” and he smiles and says, “That’s absolutely wonderful,” and then he turns around and leaves and I look at the clock and try to will it to move faster, hoping my mother and wife get here soon.

Hospitals are lonely places to be at with company. They’re like a sarcophagus when you’re alone.

I turn on the TV and immediately change my mind. I turn it off, turn my head, stare out the window. There’s a racetrack somewhere over there, the Santa Anita Park. Jade and her mother had once walked over there at my request to “put $25 on the horse with the funniest name.”

QuitYerBellyAchin cost me a pretty penny that day but I couldn’t complain without thinking about the irony the name and situation bore me.

Through the open window I watch all manners of cars drive to work during morning rush hour: silver Chevy Cavaliers and white Dodge Dynasties and red convertibles and blue Bonnevilles, and I desperately wish that I were sitting in any of those automobiles and I desperately wish I were driving to a job on the other side of the city and I wish I were zoning out to NPR, my body on autopilot, trying to get through the week instead of trying to get through the moment. I wish I were excited about lunch instead of fearing it.

It is at this moment that a great and fantastic revelation washes over me and life is suddenly so very clear. I’m standing at such great heights and I’m looking down at the world and I can see everything from a different perspective and I can see that we are all very tiny and desperate.

In that moment I realize that I can do anything. And in that moment I swear that when I get better, I will make wiser decisions and I will have a job that I love and I will only be driven by passion. I think to myself, “I never want to forget this. Burn it into your brain, into your soul. It’s easy to fall into routine. Keep it fresh. Stay sharp.”

I feel alive and free.

And then I grab one of the six iced teas, lift it to my lips, and as the icy-cold liquid freezes my teeth, I feel something drop onto my lap that had been stuck to the bottom of the Styrofoam cup. Looking down I see a small rectangle that is the same size and shape as a business card. It’s cream in color with a simple font on one side. There is no address guiding one to a further website or giving credit to any specific person or organization. It just says, “The Lord is Near to You.”

I don’t know what to make of that. I’m not saying it was a thing but I’m not not saying it was a thing. I’d spent collective weeks in the hospital previous to this moment and after this moment and I’d only ever seen this man this one time, directly on the coat tails of a prayer requesting a little pick-me-up juice from something bigger than me. What the “Bigger Than Me” thing is, I do not know. This is not meant to sway or convince anyone in relation to God or what that God may or may not. This is just me saying.

Several hours later my mother and wife arrive, both of them smelling like McDonald’s pancakes. I show them the card and they each take turns holding it and staring at it and turning it over in their hands. My mother even smells it before pulling out Yahtzee and rolling dice and shout-whispering, “Full house! Two of a kind! Straight!” while I try to stare through the ceiling, through reality, through this world and this dimension; while I relax my eyes and try to see God. I let my mind slowly wander and everything is beautiful.

Dr. Yen, my oncologist, enters my room and I smile and greet her and she says, “Hi, Johnny. How you doing?” and she pushes her glasses up on her nose with that finger and she scrunches her face up and says, “How’s mom and wife? Hospital food any good?” and I say, “They’re good. This, not so much,” and she says, “Yeah, I don’t blame you. Everyone’s on a budget and we gotta spend the good money on the medicine. It’s not a Hilton, you know? You know? It’s just not—but the medicine—trust me—that’s top of the line. It makes you feel sick, OK, you don’t feel good, am I right? But it’s getting the job done. If it’s making you sick, imagine what it’s doing to that cancer, OK?” and then she approaches me and pulls back the sheet and pulls up my gown and looks at my stitches where they removed my testicle and she says, “It’s healing nicely, OK,” and then she opens a manila envelope. I’ve learned that doctors and nurses only reference manila envelopes when they need to get the facts straight, when they’re about to deliver a bomb and they need to make sure the proper grenade is going to the proper person.

She scans her finger down something—a chart, numbers, information—and I shut my eyes and focus on the texture of the card in my hand and then she says words that I will never forget.

She says, “OK, it looks here like your cancer is gone,” and my mother drops the dice onto the floor and her hands go to her lips and someone squeezes my hand and I look down and see my wife and everything is moving in slow motion and the clock is making thundering TICK-TOCKS and my lips curl back and it’s the first time I’ve cried because I’ve been happy in a very long time because it’s the first time I’ve actually been happy in a very long time.

I choke out, “Thank you, thank you,” and she says, “Yes, uh, that’s it. It’s all gone but we’re going to, uh, we’re going to do one more round of chemo just to be safe, just to make sure. It’s 100% gone but we, uh, in this case we do want to beat a dead horse. The cancer is the dead horse, not you, even though you, uh, probably feel like one. Am I right? Am I right? You’re very much alive and will hopefully stay that way for a very long time,” and I lift my hand to my face and I wipe away tears and I nod and I say, “Yes. Thank you . . . ” and I squeeze the card in my hand until my knuckles turn white.

Dr. Yen leaves and the three of us just stare at one another, knowing that words can only spoil it.

 

 

 

 

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SOLAR ECLIPSE: CHAPTER 31

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad news comes, don’t you worry

Even when it lands

Good news will work its way to all them plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow is Round 3.

 

 

 

 

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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

 

_JBP6669

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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