“The sun is gone, but I have a light.”
I’m lying in my living room, completely healed, cancer free, and asking myself, “Is this remission?” because I still feel naked and exposed and vulnerable. I still feel sick and there’s still a bucket resting on the floor next to me.
I’ve been home for one day, and even with the good news, great news, fantastic news, it’s the worst day yet. I’m still bearing the weight of five months of chemotherapy and my mind and body are just as atrophied as ever and the world around me is still too much and too intense to comprehend. Everything is still flooding. I am still drowning in poison. The battle is no longer me versus cancer. It’s now me versus chemo. I’m a contestant on the world’s worst episode of Fear Factor. Joe Rogan says, “Can he take one more round of chemotherapy!?” and my competitors are all trying to slam me and say things like, “He looks like that skeleton in biology classrooms!” and, “He ain’t got game!” and, “Bitch needs to go hoooome,” and I wish so badly that I could just walk off this really terrible game show and simply give up.
Outside of my house, crawling down the street at a slug’s pace, I can hear the ice-cream man and his filthy truck slithering toward all the kiddies. His speaker and stereo have been broken the entire time we’ve lived in this house so his music always sounds like a predatory warning more than a cheerful welcome. He’s the ice-cream man in a Wes Craven film. I hear his music and always picture him smoking rolled cigarettes, yellow teeth, yellow eyes, totally emaciated, some junkie pushing dairy.
The “music” gets louder and louder, the speaker scratching and popping, hissing and whining, the tune slowing down and speeding up, the music bending like a warped record. It’s elevator music leading to Dante’s inferno.
I shut my eyes and tell myself that he’ll be gone in a moment. I tell myself to just hang on, to just breathe, to just pray, to just focus on something, anything. I put a pillow over my head but I can still hear the noise, the sound, boring into my brain, into the center of me, into my veins, my soul. It’s pushing me against the wall and cracking me open and breaking me and I can’t get away from it and it’s not going to make me puke but it is going to destroy me if he stops and then he does stop. He stops right outside my house, right outside my window, and the tune plays over and over and over and over and over again, looping on loops on loops, breaking and bending, warping and warbling, slowing and speeding. No children are approaching the van. The siren wails and screams, and then it does break me and I wish I could explain this to you better than I am but I also hope you never understand. I wish I could reach into your brain and into your stomach and squeeze your nuts until you cough up blood and twist the knife so you know what it feels like, how the music makes me feel, how the chemo makes me feel, how the poison makes me feel, how the medicine makes me feel, because it’s not an ice-cream truck, it’s an Ice-Cream Truck and it’s like one of those horrible ones from Maximum Overdrive or one of the Decepticons and I know it has ultimate intelligence and it knows that I’m in here and its sole purpose and intention is to do only one thing and that one thing is to seek and destroy.
And then the missile, the A-Bomb, the C-chord, the broken and beaten tune sniffs me out and finds me and I am done. I break down and I weep uncontrollably, and it’s not because I’m sad and it’s not because I’m sick and it’s not because I’m depressed but it’s because of the Ice-Cream Truck and that music and it hurts so bad in such a foreign way and I am drowning.
Someone touches my shoulder and I pull the blanket down and pull the pillow off my head and pull my hood back and take off my hat and open my eyes and Jade is standing there and she says, “Are you—oh . . . . Are you crying?” and I say, “The . . . ice-cream truck! It’s trying to kill me!” and she says, “Are you high?” and I say, “No,” and she says, “Do you want to be?” and I roll off the couch and caterpillar myself into the kitchen. Jade carries my cocoon behind me and wraps me back up in My Yellow Chair.
My wife sets the machine down in front of me and I begin to examine the plastic tube while my mother grinds the plant like an apothecary. Where it was once translucent and clean, it’s now become discolored with muck the shade of infected urine. Whether that’s from the plant or the burn, I’m not certain, but I have to stop and wonder if my throat looks like an organic replica.
I mindlessly rub my Adam’s apple and intentionally cough up something deep down. Unwilling to swallow it I spit it into my puke bucket.
Something grotesque wafts under my nose and I turn my face away. Some repugnant scent; something bitter and acrid; something . . . I lift my arm . . . it’s me. I turn my head and look in the mirror and I am truly one mottled beard away from looking like a wilderness person.
My wife says, “John?” and I say, “Huh? Yes?” and she says, “What’s wrong?” and I say, “I . . . need a bath,” and she says, “A bath?” and I say, “Yeah . . . I smell like shit,” and she stands up and walks out of the room and I hear the bathtub turn on and I hear the octaves of aqua slowly rise and she comes back and holds out her hand and I stand up and she supports me into the bathroom where steam rises out of the small pool.
She shuts the door behind me and she unzips my coat and pulls it off my shoulders and lets it fall to the ground, revealing my true size. She pulls my hat off, revealing my smooth skull. She pulls my shirt off, revealing my ribs and emaciated arms. She unbuckles my belt and pulls off my pants, revealing my hairless legs and finally, she pulls off my underwear, revealing my scar. I take one step onto the scale and she says, “Don’t . . . ” and I say, “Wait . . . ” and I see that I am 130 pounds completely stark naked. I am the same weight as a large dog, a Great Dane. I am the same weight as a high-school girl.
I look at myself in the mirror and I suddenly see me. Not the way I have seen myself, which is in such minute changes that I haven’t seen change but I suddenly see myself as I was and now as I am, two people at once. I see a stranger. I see a disease. I see struggle and I see . . . Survival.
I see Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard covered in blood and bruises, broken glass stuck in his feet. I see Bruce Campbell at the end of Army of Darkness, covered in filth and pelted by evil. I see Bruce Springsteen.
I am The Boss.
I turn and step off the scale and Jade holds my geriatric elbow as I step into the steaming water and lower my smelly body into the scented fragrance and perfumes and soaps and steams and I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “You’re welcome,” and then she picks up a washcloth and dips it in the water and begins to scrub my back and my chest and my legs and here I am, I realize, at my weakest and my most vulnerable. So far, anyway.
She points to my bicep, or, at the very least, the place on my arm where my bicep should be and says, “What is this?” I look down and see dark brown striations running underneath my skin that look like tiger scratches or stretch marks. I exhale and say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention those. The chemo is burning my skin from the inside.”
So small is this on the full scale of weirdness that it doesn’t even warrant further conversation from either of us.
She runs the washcloth over the marks (which don’t wash off), over my head and over my face and the water runs down my chin and I think that five months ago I was a pothead driving to Las Vegas, screaming on the freeway and singing at the top of my lungs, watching the sun rise, the biggest concern in my life a job that I didn’t enjoy.
Like a car accident, it all happened so fast and spun out of control so quickly; it all came out of nowhere and suddenly I was thrust over the steering wheel and I was crashing through the windshield and falling and falling and falling until my wife is giving me a sponge bath because I can’t do it myself. An ice-cream truck reduces me to tears. I don’t recognize myself.
Water trickles off my chin and I try to look into the future. I try to gaze five months down the road. Chemotherapy will be done, remission will have begun, my mom will have gone home, I will have gone back to work and . . . it all seems like an intangible impossibility. None of it seems likely or possible or even probable.
I say, “Do you think this will end?” and Jade says, “Soon,” and I say, “It seems weird, doesn’t it? Going back to normal,” and Jade says, “Things will never be normal again,” and I nod and grunt and she scrubs my knees and my feet and I say, “We’ll never be the same, will we?” and she says, “No,” and then, “I hope not,” and I grunt again, glad that she is having her own revelations.
She says, “I want to travel more,” and I say, “I want to camp more,” and she says, “I want a family,” and I say, “Me too,” and then everything is silent except for the dripping water until I say, “One drip at a time,” and she says, “Yeah . . . we did it . . . one drip at a time. Only a few bags left,” and I shudder to think that it’s over but we’re not done. My tears mix with the water running down my face and the thought of another round is so unbearable that I have to push it from my mind and focus on the victory at hand.
She pushes her forehead against my ear and whispers, “I love you,” and I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “For what?” and I say, “Everything. For staying. For helping. For just . . . the doctors, the files, the organizing, the appointments, the medicines, the charts, the insurance, the fights with the hospital, with the nurses, with the doctors, with me. Thank you for just . . . everything. I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here. I really don’t. I’m so thankful for you and I hope I never have to be on your end. I hope you never have to be on my end. I hope this is it and you’ve just been . . . incredible. I love you,” and when I look over she has tears running down her face and so I say, “Hey! We’re both crying!” and she says, “You’re—” sob, “not crying . . . ” and I say, “No!” Sob! “I am! I was just hiding my tears in the water! It was total espionage because I didn’t—” sob, “want you to know it!” and then she says, “You’re an idiot,” and I say, “I—” sob, “know,” and then she hands me a towel and I walk out of the bathroom smelling less like sulfur and more like a Starbucks winter-themed drink—pumpkin latte or cinnamon mochaccino.