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ALAN: CHAPTER 28

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Perfect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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INTERMISSION: CHAPTER 18

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

—die—

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Cancer: the ultimate cock block.

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

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

 

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NODULES: CHAPTER 17

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

But now I’m back.

And so is the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just . . . sick.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence.

 

“Nodules? What is that? What is—”

 

“Sorry. Tumors.”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Probably.

 

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

 

Alone.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Drip-drip-drip.

822-821-820.

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

Drip-drip-drip.

809-808-807.

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

Alive or dead, I am a corpse.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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

 

Welcome back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he says, “Sucks.”

And then he leaves.

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hit that subscribe button to get email notifications of when new chapters are released!

 

 

 

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BABY BLOCKS: CHAPTER 11

 

Another double whammy this week on the chapter front. We’ll start out with BABY BLOCKS: CHAPTER 11, which will mostly round out our cryo-banking experience (as far as it’s detailed here) followed closely by TIME OFF: CHAPTER 12, which is a shorty and doesn’t really work as a stand alone.

If you’re new to what we’re doing here, I’m releasing my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo one chapter a week All. Year. Long. This week is chapter 11 and 12 but it’s not too late to catch up! To start reading from the very beginning, just click here!

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Three hundred million: That is both the amount of money Forrest Gump made theatrically, as well as the average number of human sperm per serving, according to Wikipedia.

Fifty-six: the yearly average number of people on the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, bowling league, as well as the number of healthy sperm in my semen analysis, according to Dr. Chaplips, whom I currently have on the phone.

I ask him what the chances are of me getting my wife pregnant. I hear him lick his lips and, judging by the crackling noise coming through the line, I assume he still hasn’t solved his oral issue. “Aaahh,” he says. “Almost impossible. Very unlikely.” I say, “One thousand to one?” and he pauses before saying, “Probably higher.”

“Higher? Like what? What are my chances of a standard human pregnancy?” I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. I don’t know why I’m asking these questions. It’s already too late to do anything about it because the cryobank suggests that I abstain from myself for three days previous to each deposit. I just feel this desire to know how defective I am. If I were a term paper, what grade would I receive?

“Probably more around one hundred thousand to one.”

I take a couple small breaths and ever the Dumb and Dumber enthusiast, say, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” He’s clearly never seen the movie because he just says, “No. I’m not.” I thank him and hang up. I tell my wife the great news. “Babe,” I say, “We never, ever, ever have to use condoms again! Don’t you get it? I’m as sterile as a crayon! A potato has more potential for reproduction than I do! This is fantastic! This—this sucks . . . . ”

 

Inside I can feel the growth, the landmass, the intruder, the Cancer, growing larger and larger on my testicle. Every moment of every day I am reminded of it. Every moment of every day, I have a constant throbbing pain. Every day it grows and grows and grows. What was once a tiny pea is now a lima bean. It’s getting bigger. It’s stretching out. It’s making itself at home. And still I can do nothing. If I want to bank what little functioning sperm I have, there is nothing to do but wait. If I want children, I must gamble with my life. True Russian roulette.

The pain grows and the doctor prescribes me Vicodin, which I begin to pop like Tic Tacs or cashews or addictive prescription drugs. The pain grows more and I pop more Vicodin and the pain grows more and I pop more Vicodin and the pain grows more and I wait and wait and wait to bank. The banking will take a month. The banking will take thirty days. Cancer will take full advantage of me in that time, feeding itself and fueling itself off me.

The waiting gives me anxiety, and I neurotically touch My Lump, the way people will continue to play with a hangnail or tongue the sore spot in their mouth. My body wants it out, and I’m forcing it to stay in. My body hates me, and I am sorry.

Call me selfish. Call me crazy. Call me reckless. But I’ll have my children.

Even if it kills me.

Fast forward a couple blurry days, and I’m taking the Olympic Boulevard exit off the 405 freeway at 8 a.m. I’ve got my first appointment scheduled with the sperm bank this morning and am very excited to open a savings account with them.

The building is tucked away and is fairly understated, causing me to drive around the block a couple times before I find it. The parking lot only holds about eleven cars and most of the spaces are empty. On the front door is an intercom switch. I hit the button and wait. Someone buzzes me in.

Hidden buildings, hi-tech locks, espionage! This is getting dead sexy, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to know that the chicks involved are going to be hot. I open the door and put on my “cool face,” expecting to see some smoking bombshell blonde in a short nurse’s skirt. In my head, she looks just like the girl on the cover of Blink 182’s Enema of the State album. Those clowns at the semen analysis place don’t know shit about shit, making me rub one out in a dentist chair. These people here are professionals. I have no doubt about that. Professionals. Hot Nurses. Hot Nurse Professionals.

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(ABOVE: THE DREAM.)

 

I cup my hand over my mouth, smell my breath, and walk into a reception area containing only six chairs. An older gentleman who arrived before me lowers his newspaper and glances at me through Coke-bottle glasses. We make eye contact and both immediately think, You’re here to jack off! and then, JINX! 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!

He lifts his paper back up, and I turn my attention to the Hot Nurse Station where I come face to face with Bill Cosby and Mimi from The Drew Carey Show. The first sits behind an ancient IBM whose white plastic sheen has turned the color of eggnog, while Mimi digs through towering filing cabinets twice her height.

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(ABOVE: THE REALITY)

 

Now it should be noted that these two people are not actual Bill Cosby and not actual Mimi from The Drew Carey Show but individuals who look so incredibly similar that they could be hired to work at a children’s birthday party as cheap duplicates.

One final word on their characters: I will describe the first person as both “Bill Cosby” and then as “she” but trust me when I say that both of these descriptors are not only accurate, they are also absolutely necessary.

Bill Cosby says, “License, please,” and I slide my ID over the counter. Without looking up, she says, “Is this your current address?” and I say, “No. I didn’t drive that far.” She looks at me sideways, and I say, “It’s a South Dakota license.”

She glances back at it and laughs far harder than is deemed even remotely necessary for what can only be considered a subpar joke. She then repeats her folly to her coworker, Mimi, in a fit of giggles. Mimi says, “What? You’re laughing too hard. I can’t understand,” and so Bill repeats it again, the poor joke becoming less and less funny with every turn.

“Riiiiiight . . . . Buzz him in,” Mimi commands and Bill Cosby opens a door, ushering me to The Back. He/she hands me a small cup—sort of the ATM deposit envelope, if you will—and then says, “Choose any door on your right.” I examine each of them in turn and discover that they all look identical save for room 4, which has been decorated with wallpaper adorned with silhouettes of naked women.

I choose the room I’m standing in front of. I figure it’s the closest to reception and therefore probably the least used. Only a true pervert would choose this room, so close to other people. Only a true sicko would choose—I stop analyzing my choice.

Bill Cosby hands me a disc. I look at it: an adult DVD artfully titled Bangin’ at the Cabo Cabana. I say, “Thank you,” and he/she turns and walks away.

I enter the room and shut the door. Lock the door. This is not what I expected on the drive over. It’s a 4 x 4 closet with a 7” flat screen television and a stack of hardcore, full penetration, tit-squishing, spread-’em-wide, take-no-prisoners, anything goes, pornographic magazines.

I flip through a couple, and the pages are genuinely stuck together, crusty with usage. The classic joke isn’t that funny when you find your fingers running over a stranger’s dried semen. I drop the magazines and pop in the DVD. At this point, I’m still not certain if I’m going to watch it to the end. I’m not sure how I feel about this, making children like this. “Son, I remember the day I ejaculated you. I was in a closet by myself, watching a Puerto Rican girl get sandwiched by a couple of brothers who kept high-fiving.”

Curiosity being what it is, I hit play and turn the volume down. There is a pair of headphones connected to the television but I have no desire to touch them, let alone put them on my head. I wait. And then it begins. The most horrific thing I could imagine begins. From the sky, eight individual baby blocks drop until they’re in the middle of the screen. On each block is a letter and, all of them together spell out the name of the production company, which I won’t name here, a production company that, obviously, specializes in making porno strictly for sperm banks.

Everything really has been thought of. Half of me is disgusted and half of me applauds their ingenuity and sense of entrepreneurial pioneering. Actually, half and half is an unfair ratio. I’ll call it a 90/10 split, respectively.

And then, just like that, without any set up or story, without someone entering a room or taking off their clothes, without any dialogue or foreplay, from frame numero uno, Bangin’ at the Cabo Cabana immediately earns its title.

I reach up and hit stop. The screen goes black again. Much like the girl in the video, I feel as though I’ve gotten my fill of Hector (my name for the male actor), and I’m really concerned that if I watch the video to the end, the guy, rather than choosing to go with the “traditional” adult ending, will just decide to neatly collect his “product” in a little plastic vial and then set it on a nearby counter and frankly, if that happens, I believe I would just go limper than a spaghetti noodle in a bubble bath.

Mimi and Bill Cosby stop outside my door to chat about a party this weekend, some kind of dinner date. Mimi has a bad cough, full of phlegm. Bill Cosby does most of the talking and laughing. I double check to make sure the door is locked.

I’m so ashamed to be here. Not that I’m ashamed that I have cancer or that I’m sterile. I’m just feeling these very powerful emotions of human shame about masturbating. I can only equate it to pooping in the woods. You know it’s OK. You know everyone that you’re with is doing it and it’s totally normal but you’re just afraid someone is going to come around the corner and catch you in your most exposed state.

Snap out of it, Brookbank! I yell at myself. You’re paying them to be here! Now pull out that dick, and get yer whack on!

I do. And with the help of those sticky-paged magazines and the blonde cop with the nightstick on p. 27, it takes considerably less time then the dentist’s reclining chair experience did. I’m not really going to get into the logistics of the deposit itself, but I will say this: Even after my final visit, I’m still not completely certain what the best way to get the “money” from my “wallet” into the “envelope” is.

Once the deed is done, I screw the yellow lid on and it’s only then that I realize that they’ve never told me what to do with it. At the semen analysis place there was a Mr. Ed style half-door that I opened and placed the jar into to be gathered up by a faceless technician in the next room. I search the walls. Nothing.

I put my pants back on (yes, I felt the strange need to remove them completely, as the only thing that could make this a bit more awkward is dried cum gracing the cover of my jeans), unlock the door and slowly, slowly open it. I don’t want to alert anyone that I’m done. More shame. Shame. Shameful Shaming Shame!

Should I leave my cum basket behind? Should I take it with me? Which is the least horrendous situation: the one where I abandon it in the room and a stranger finds it, or the one where I’m caught in the hallway trouncing around with a porno snack pack?

After weighing the pros and cons endlessly, I decide to plant the plastic container into my palm and sort of twist my hand backward so that no approaching person will see what I’m carrying. I walk through a small labyrinth of narrow hallways up to another counter with more bulletproof glass, and I stop to wonder how many times sperm banks have been robbed. I set my collection of human sperm down on the counter and ring a bell. DING! ATTENTION EVERYONE IN THE GENERAL VICINITY! THIS YOUNG MAN HAS JUST COMPLETED HIS JACK OFF! CONGRATULATIONS, SIR!

I turn to leave and almost make it back to the exit when a small Asian woman who looks like Michelle Kwan wearing a baggy blue hazmat suit (helmet and all) pops her head out from the sliding glass door and says in a Darth Vadery voice, “Excuse me . . . sir . . . . ” All these dots are where Darth is doing his heavy breathing. “I need to ask you . . . a few questions . . . . ”

I come back over to Darth Kwan and, with my canned specimen resting next to her writing hand, she says, “How long . . . have you been . . . absent . . . ?” and I just assume she means abstinent.

She says, “Did you get it all . . . in the cup?”

I want to tell her that most of it went on the floor because of their stupid little cup technology. I want to tell her it’s on the TV and all over the magazines and on the headphones. I want to tell her that someone needs to go in there with some baby wipes and give every object in that room a cursory once-over.

But I don’t. Instead I just nod and say, “Yes, ma’am. It was a clean escape.”

At the front desk they charge me a hundred bucks and I say, “A hundred bucks? But I did all the work!” and ol’ Bill Cosby certainly thought THAT one was funny. And I don’t blame him/her.

 

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I’ve been banking “successfully” for several weeks now. Every Monday and Thursday, I come into work feeling like a completely twisted weirdo. My producer asks me how my morning is, and I turn to him, a guy I call Cookie Dave, and say, “Cookie Dave, this morning I jacked off into a cup inside of a commercial business. If I’m being totally honest with you, the last couple weeks have been pretty strange.” He hands me a small napkin with a cookie in it and asks if I’d like it. “Thank you.” Peanut butter. My favorite.

He asks me how the whole “cancer thing” is going, and I say, “They’re going to cut out my ball in a few days. They’re going to just . . . cut it out completely,” and he says, “Ouch,” and takes another bite.

“Yes,” I say. “Ouch,” I repeat. Cookie Dave tells me to call him when I’m done with my edit, and he exits just as my boss walks into my bay and begins telling me about some zombie movie he recently saw. I try to listen, but his words all run together into a sonic blur. He says, “Dead,” he says, “Blood,” he says, “Tumor,” and I say, “What?” and he says, “TWO MORE! They’re making two more sequels!” and I say, “I have cancer,” and he sits down on my couch and says, “What?”

I try to explain it in the most succinct way possible. “I felt a lump on my nuts . . . . I went to the doctor . . . . I have cancer.”

“Uh . . . uh . . . ” he stammers. This speech pattern and the blank looks and the blind stares and the hopeless get-well-soon phrases are something to which I’ll shortly become accustomed. He looks at me like I’m a puppy that’s had its hind legs blown off and now rolls around in one of those sort of cute, sort of depressing doggy wheelchairs. “Well . . . uh . . . that sucks.” “Yes,” I say. “It does suck. I have surgery in a couple days and they’re going to try to remove it. I need some time off,” and he says, “Yes! Yes! Absolutely! Anything you need! Any time off you need, you take it!” And then, again, “That sucks, man. That really . . . sucks.”

The room is silent, and I feel my tumor throbbing, calling out to me, begging for attention. I sniff and rub my nose, not crying, just trying to make noise to break the horrible silence. He says, “Wow,” and I say, “This zombie movie . . . . It’s good?” and he says, “They run!

The throbbing continues and the black venom stretches out slowly into my body while I do nothing but wait.

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Next week is pretty monumental as we are going to be covering SURGERY: CHAPTER 13, wherein the tumor and the testicle will be attacked by strangers wielding blades and laser beams. So if that appeals to you (why would it not?), then you’re in for a real treat.

 

 

 

 

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FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4

Welcome back for week four of the serial novel Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, where we explore my experience with cancer, chemotherapy, sex, drugs, comedy and death. If you’re just tuning in, click here to start from the beginning.

We’ve spent the last three weeks introducing our main character – our hero, if you will. And, uh, that’s me, in case you were wondering. I’m very charming.

But what is a good hero without a really strong nemesis? A hero is nothing without a proper enemy. And so here we stand, awaiting our villains arrival. Quiet now.

He’s close.

Hands inside the cart everyone. This is where it gets ugly.

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I pull into my driveway around 11:30 p.m. I’ve spent the last two days in Vegas smoking enough pot to transform my brain into one of those slimy slug-souls from The Little Mermaid. The house is mostly dark save for a small desk lamp radiating a warm glow in the front window. Like the jingle of that popular hotel, my wife has left a light on for me. The trip back from Las Vegas was mostly uneventful (outside of me having to shit off my front bumper but that story is neither here nor there); the trip driving west always lacks any of the magic of the possibility that crackles in the air when heading toward the Electric City. I haven’t slept more than a few scattered hours in two days and I can feel it.

When I finally open my front door, I immediately feel the warm welcome that is Home. My wife has an aura about her that allows her to take the mundane and turn it into the extraordinary. Our house is no longer wood and dry wall. It is flesh and bone and personality. It is living and breathing and welcoming. She chooses color palettes and purchases knick knacks; the bar-style dining-room table, the weird collection of antique cameras on top of the shelves in the kitchen, the vintage teacher’s desk in the living room, the furniture, the mirrors, the finds, the little treasures. I try to imagine what I would have done to this house if I’d lived here alone, if we’d never gotten married.

I’m seeing white walls. I’m seeing a stained couch. I’m seeing pizza boxes. Maybe I’m a little heavier? Maybe I sleep on a pile of wood chips in the corner? An old blanket tangled around my ankle?

I sit down on my couch and I close my eyes, letting images of the weekend roll through my imagination: Caesar’s Palace, The Venetian, the games, the walking, the laughing, the people, the servers dressed like Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson and Madonna. I chuckle to myself, having proudly taken that right of passage into Manhood that is Las Vegas. I’m 26 and at the top of the world.

Finally settled in, I pull out my pipe and stash of weed. The smoke fills my lungs and I quickly begin to disconnect from the world. So I lost $400? So what?! What’s money? It’s just paper. It’s just representative of something. Take my money, take my job. I’d rather move into the woods, anyway. Lose myself in the trees, get out of the city. I hate the city—the smog, the traffic, the cement. I want clear blue skies and trees and rivers and rocks and animals and stars.

I have to pee.

I stand up and walk to the bathroom, down the dark hallway, bumping into the doorframe. I flip on a light and there, sitting in the corner, is the toilet. It’s all come to this. My whole life has come to this toilet. Every step I’ve ever taken has led me right here. The first part of The Journey that is my life is about to end. Every choice, every waking moment has brought me here, to this bathroom, in this house, in this room, at this time, in this mental condition.

I reach down and fumble with my zipper, pulling it south. I reach inside my jeans and think briefly about my one testicle—its existence a constant reminder of the missing twin—and I start to pee. I stare at the red wall in front of me, thinking, Bright red paint. That’s a bold choice for my wife to go with. But she did it. I wonder what people think when they’re standing here fondling their nut sacks and peeing?

I look down and realize that I am, indeed, fondling my nut sack. This is a simple truth of the world; men just sometimes absent-mindedly grab handfuls of themselves and we bumble around blindly. It’s like a security blanket. It’s platonic. It’s like petting a dog.

Mid-pee, mid-stream, mid-relief, my left hand feels something that does not belong. A foreign object on my body, a second tongue, a third nipple, a fourth knuckle—it’s not right, not normal, not standard. It’s the size of a pea and rests casually on my single remaining testicle.

And this is the moment where my life breaks in two. I don’t know it yet but this is the moment of impact. Nothing will ever be as it was. Nothing will ever be the same.

Imagine with me . . . try to set aside all of your individual predispositions and personality traits. Listen to the stories I’ve told you about myself, pick up my luggage, my emotional baggage, my history of illness (both real and imagined) and touch my genitals with me. Imitate me. Channel me. Possess me. Feel the lump on your singular ball.

Also, you are pretty high right now.

I turn the pea over and over in my hand like a pebble, examining it, touching it, feeling it, becoming familiar with it. No. I can’t become familiar with it. I know that immediately. We will never be friends. The hypochondriac begins whispering in my ear. He knows what it is. He, the great soothsayer of sickness knows what is happening right now. Whatever it is (you know what it is) I know that I hate it. Whatever it is (you know, just say it), I’m sure it will all go away soon. Just avert your eyes and breathe and (CANCER!) it will all be over soon.

Cancer . . . .

A woman tells me that she’s pregnant. She tells me that it’s crazy and exciting and wonderful. She tells me that she knew she was pregnant before the test results. She tells me that she just knew . . . and right now . . . I need no more explanation than that. I understand completely.

Cancer . . . .

I zip it back into my pants and stare at the red wall and think, “ . . . . . . . . . . . . ” and then I walk out of the bathroom, down the long hallway, and into my bedroom, where my wife is asleep. I wonder how she’ll take the news. Will she cry? Weep? Fall into a great depression? Will we cling to one another for mutual comfort, swearing fealty to each other? Swearing that we’ll get through this, don’t worry, no matter what, etc., etc., etc.? I try to summon images of Hollywood movies into my mind; how have I seen this done? How did Mandy Moore break the news in A Walk to Remember?

Jade opens her eyes and says, “You’re back. How was Vegas?” and I say, “Good,” and I say, “There’s something on my . . . . ” and it’s weird but I am six years old again, and I’m talking to my mom about my bawl, and I don’t want to say it.

“What time is it?” she asks in a gravelly voice. “Late,” I answer tenderly, quietly, wanting to keep things as calm as possible for the storm that is about to erupt. “It’s around midnight.” She asks me if I’m coming to bed.

I sit down and run my hands through her hair, the words in my throat, on my tongue, my lips. I say, “I felt something on my testicle. It’s a lump. I think . . . I think I have . . . cancer.”

There is a pause. She looks at me and blinks, once, twice, and I know some great emotion is on the precipice of bursting inside of her. She shuts her eyes, takes a breath and says, “You are such a hypochondriac. You have cancer now? Please.” And she clicks off the bed lamp, leaving me in the literal, figurative, and metaphysical dark.

I am furious (scared). I am angry (confused). I am full of questions, and I want (need) answers. An idea hits me, and I do that thing that no one should ever, ever, ever do when they think they have cancer growing on their nuts and are super super high at the same time.

I get on the Internet and do a Google search for “Hard balls on balls” and the first option is a gay pornographic website starring body builders. I try again. “Infected nuts,” and this time it’s something about oak trees being poisoned. I try again, “How to check for testicular cancer” and the first hit says, “How to check for testicular cancer.” Bingo.

Article after article after article pops up, an encyclopedia of penial knowledge at my shaft tip all for me to soak in and fear by myself in this paranoid state. “This most certainly will be a night I will never forget,” I think to myself as one hand scrolls the text around the monitor and the other pinches that little peapod on my privates.

The first article says, “Take a warm bath, loosen up, pinch your nuts like this. Does the tumor feel like a little rock? Is it the size of a pea? Does it lack feeling? Then it’s probably cancer.”

Red flag, red flag, red flag. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Tumor, tumor, tumor. That’s the first time I’d seen that word as it related to me. I was looking at the word tumor, and I was touching something in my body that may or may not have been (I know it is) a tumor a tumor a cancerous tumor inside of my body I have cancer tumors cancer tumors cancer tumors.

Maybe it’s just a fluke, this article. Maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, believing what I want to believe, y’know? I want to know that what Jade is saying is correct. I’m a hypochondriac, and none of it is real. I click on another article but it says the same thing. Article three and four are likewise. By article eleven, my hope is not simply beginning to break, it is broken.

I. Just. Know.

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So that’s it. That’s it for this week. And I know what you’re thinking. “Wow, that’s some really bad news – getting a little tumor like that.” Yeah, it is. But, trust me when I say that this is only the beginning and if the story stopped here, it would barely be a story at all. Over the course of the next few weeks we are going to systematically break Johnny down until the only thing that’s left of him is a hollow little shell, filled with anxiety and hopelessness.

We are going to destroy him.

But we’ll do it together and it will hopefully be a lot of fun to watch.

So, next week be sure to come back for Birthday Present: Chapter 5 with excerpt below . . .

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She looks at me and, with her complete confidence in my health asks, “Well, what did he say?” and, without missing a beat, I respond, “I have a tumor.”

She takes one more step before collapsing onto a parking block and begins weeping. This is when the reality all hits me, and I weep as well.

 

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PLAGUED BY PLAGUES: CHAPTER 3

 

Welcome back for Chapter 3, which is the final chapter before everything starts to slide out of control. Take a deep breath with me and enjoy this last bite. Chew slowly. It’s going to be a full year before we come out the other side together. Next Monday we’re going to receive some very bad news.

But we’re not supposed to know about that yet, are we?

If you’re new, click HERE to go to the beginning. As you can see, we’re only 3 chapters in (and they’re very, very short!) so jump in with us and read a chapter a week all year long as we explore what it looks like to have dick cancer at 26.

 

See you all at the bottom of the slide!

 

 

 

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Eczema. Ring worms. Food poisoning. Poison poisoning. West Nile. Airborne toxins. Flu, cold, constipation, diarrhea. I have suffered from it all, both real and imaginary. My wife points an accusing finger at me and says, “You’re a hypochondriac!” and I casually walk into the other room, get online, and look up the disease to see if I am actually exhibiting symptoms.

 

Illnesses are my passion and I collect them like stickers in a book. In elementary school, I had ulcers. In junior high, insomnia. In high school, I became convinced that I had acquired early onset Alzheimer’s because I couldn’t remember any of the mathematical equations that help you solve endless rows of meaningless problems. It seemed to come so easily to everyone else. . . .

Years later, a friend will tell me that his son can’t seem to get a grasp on numeric sequences. More than just a few in a row and “Poof,” he says, “they’re gone.” He tells me the disease is called dyscalculia and it simply sounds too similar to Dracula for me to pass up. I’m positive I have it. I wear it on my sleeve, displaying the fact proudly. I won’t let my handicap hold me back. I won’t box it up in some closet. Plus, I’ve always been a bit more of a words guy and less of a digits person anyway so I feel like there is something strangely poetic in my illness, my disease, my burden.

My wife says, “You don’t have dyscalculia. You’re just an idiot.” I look up the term idiot on Web MD betting that she’s right but no results return. Further research is required.

 

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My stomach rolls over, and I vomit into a toilet, beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. My knees are raw from kneeling on the bathroom tiles. My wife circles the door frame, blocking the light shining dramatically on my face and says, uncaringly, “You’re going to be late for work.”

“I can’t go to work! Look at me! I’m sick!” I plead, desperately trying to make her understand. It’s not cancer, not yet (this is still years and years earlier), but it’s definitely something.

“You’re not sick.” I puke again just to reinforce my point and then elaborately throw myself onto the bathroom floor, the back of my hand pressed against my sort-of-hot forehead. Not sick? Not sick? Has she heard of the norovirus?! Because I have it on good account (my friend’s friend is pre-med) that it’s making rounds this year. A couple people died in Missouri. Didn’t my wife hear about this? Doesn’t she watch the news on Comedy Central? Doesn’t she read The Onion?

She tells me that I don’t have the norovirus. She tells me that I have the moron virus and then she laughs at her own dumb little joke while I just dry heave twice in a row. I tell her to look away. I tell her that the norovirus is really taking its toll on me when suddenly my chest is racked with a pinching suffocation. It feels like someone is pulling the membrane off my lungs every time I inhale. Jade raises an eyebrow and says, “Pleurisy again?”

I just hold up a hand for her to “be silent” while I bare my cross. She says, “Oh, geeeeez.” After the pain passes I explain that, “I have pleurisy,” and she says, “I know you think you do,” and I say, “It’s an inflammation of the lining on the lungs,” and she says, “You’ve told me the definition,” and I say, “My mom has it too,” and my wife says, “I’m sure she believes she does.”

Is there nothing I can do to convince her of my various conditions? Is it my fault I have an immune system that is susceptible to such attacks? Someday, I tell myself, someday I’ll get something and she’ll believe me.

Jade says, “Are you day dreaming about your illnesses?” and I say, “Huh? What?” and she says, “Wishing someone would believe that your fake thing was real?” and I say, “My fake thing is real. Remember The Blood Shit Incident?”

Jade says, “I remember The Blood Shit Incident. I wonder if you remember it.” I say, “Of course I remember it. I was there. I wrote it.” And she says, “Every piece of good fiction needs an author.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

I’m sitting on the toilet in my mom’s house and I’m staring at a piece of toilet paper covered in brown and red. I’m shitting blood. It’s been happening for a couple days. Not a lot. Just a little. Just a few drops. Just enough to fill a vile. Or two.

I’m nineteen and I try to weigh my options—the possibilities, the probabilities, the causes, the outcomes. “Why would my ass be bleeding?” I ask myself. “I don’t stick things up it. I swear.”

Who do I approach? Who do I ask for advice? Not my dad. Definitely not my mother; I don’t want to see the sequel to The Nut Sack Situation. No, I’ll handle this one myself. How to proceed, how to proceed. The Internet? Too traceable. The search engines all have a way of remembering things I type in, and I’m no good with PCs. I don’t understand how to clear the cash or eat the cookies or whatever. The library? Absolutely not. The idea of checking out a book about anal fissures will certainly get me on some Pervert of the Week list.

Finally, after meditating on the rhythmic drip-drip-drip, the answer comes to me clearly, like a comet in the night sky. It is a moment of what some may call divine clarity. It is so simple I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

I will simply ignore the problem and hope it fixes itself.

I am a human body! I get scratches and cuts all the time and what happens? Blood clotting, scabbing . . . something . . . something else, science, etc., and there you have it, back to normal! My inner ass cavern will be the same! I just need to leave it be and give it some time to heal. I’ll eat soft foods. I’ll push very, very gently. Or maybe not at all. I’ll practice Zen meditation and just let the fecal matter slither from my rectum like a snake shedding skin.

This could work. This could definitely work.

Two weeks later, I’m still shitting blood. It’s not slowing down. What was I thinking?! Scabs?! Inside my ass?! What if there are ruptures and the blood ruptures are being infected by feces? Don’t people die when their shit and blood begin to mix?

My stomach hurts. My head hurts. IT’S HAPPENING!

Could I bring this to my girlfriend? Could I ask Jade about this? Yeah! She’s really smart. A grade-A student through and through, she was studying to become a neonatologist and you know anyone with the suffix -ologist in their job title is legit.

She knows things I don’t know. She understands things about blood and bile and positrons and neutrons and Klingons and she pretty much just knows everything! She’ll know . . . she’ll know. But how do I breach the topic? This is touchy stuff, and it’s important not to make it weird. Then the answer comes to me clearly, like a comet in the night sky. It is a moment of what some may call divine clarity. It is so simple I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. The words come to me with such smooth precision it is as though a greater entity is speaking directly through me.

We’re sitting at the table, alone, at my house, eating jam-covered waffles. She smiles at me and I say, “I’ve been shitting blood for three weeks now. What do you suppose this—“ she drops her fork, but I finish my thought anyway, “—could mean?”

Coming from a world where it took eight years to get my missing testicle examined by a doctor, I was made strangely uncomfortable by the speed at which Jade scheduled an appointment for me later that same day. Neither of us knew it then, me nineteen, she just turning eighteen, but we were being given a small glimpse into our future, more than a decade away: The Caretaker and The Ass Bleeder.

I love her. I am nineteen and I know this. I love her for all of the fantastic things she is, says, and does, but I love her because I can tell her that I’m shitting blood and she is willing to get her hands (figuratively) dirty to solve it. She’s had commitment from day one. She’s a barnacle. She’s not letting go.

The next day, sitting again in the stagnant, falsely fresh smelling waiting room of my local clinic, I find myself staring at those same Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and wondering, “Where do they come from? Who is Georgia O’Keeffe? Why do all hospitals and clinics insist on using her work?”

I lean over to Jade and I ask (since she knows everything), “What do you think they’ll do? Do you think I’ll just get some pills or cream?” and Jade answers, “He’s probably going to take a speculum—” and I cut her off.

“Sorry. A what?”

“A speculum.”

“What’s a speculum?”

“Oh, it’s like this thing they put in your vagina and they turn this crank and it opens you up so they can get a really good view. They’ll probably do that to your ass.”

My face goes white. My blood turns to ice. She knows everything.

I say to her, “They’ve done this to you?” and she says, “Yeah. Couple times,” and I say, “And you think they’re going to—are you messing with me?” and she says, “No. They’re checking to see if you have blood fissures. They need to look. So they need to spread.”

I stand up. I am done. I will go with Plan B: The Scabbing Over Plan. But Jade grabs my hand before I can run and tells me to sit down. I think she’s going to say she’s just joking but instead she says, “Bleeding from your butt can mean colon cancer and men eighteen and up need to be getting checked regularly.”[*]

I say, “But the speculum . . . ?” and she finishes with, “Oh yeah, they’re shoving that thing way up there and parting you like the Red Sea.”

I stand up and begin heading toward the door when the nurse calls me, “Johnny . . . Buh . . . rookbag?” Every eye in the room lands on me, the guy standing up, looking like a deer in headlights. The nurse speaks softly, over the shuffle of papers and various weekly literature, “Right this way.”

Before disappearing into the halls, I turn back and take one last look at Jade who is sitting in her chair, a gossip magazine on her lap, spreading her hands open, miming a speculum.

I hate her.

But not the kind of hate that means I’m going to burn her house down. I mean the kind where you know they know better and they’re making you do something that’s necessary even though you don’t want to.

Inside the doctor’s office there is no cancer, there are no fissures or ruptures and there is, thankfully, no speculum. There is only a man with a rubber glove, a bunch of lube and a strange eagerness to examine me. In the end he gives me some pills and some cream and says to eat soft foods and to not press so hard. He tells me that the human body is an amazing thing and that I’ll be just fine.

It’ll heal itself.

I shrug and shake my head and walk back to the lobby, where I eyebrow beat Jade to death. We hold hands and walk out into the sunlight while Fate sits back and laughs, waiting eagerly for us to return on this path sooner rather than later. It watches our backs as we fade out with the glossy luster of blissful ignorance protecting us like armor.

We are still young, only nineteen. And neither of us have ever been struck with the harsh reality of true tragedy. We just don’t know anything yet.

But we very soon will.

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[*] Fact. So if you find the dirty death star dripping darkness, dash to the doc and have your derriere dissected.

 

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Alright, guys. Listen. That’s it for now. Next week is FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4. And this is when the walls all begin to crumble. I’ve included a little excerpt below if you’d like to peak at it.

JB.

 

FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4: EXCERPT

My left hand feels something that does not belong. A foreign object on my body, a second tongue, a third nipple, a fourth knuckle—it’s not right, not normal, not standard. It’s the size of a pea and rests casually on my single remaining testicle.

And this is the moment where my life breaks in two. I don’t know it yet but this is the moment of impact. Nothing will ever be as it was. Nothing will ever be the same.

 

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THE CAVE: Getting lost in the darkness of a failing marriage

“You’ve been married for eleven years?” someone asks me.

“Yeah. Eleven years. It’s a long time. We’ve been together for fifteen.”

What? Did you get married when you were twelve? How old are you? You’ve been married fifteen years? What’s that like?”

I suspect that they anticipate me to tell them that marriage is beautiful and wonderful and that I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.

But I don’t.

Instead I tell them the truth.

“What’s it like? It’s, uh… Marriage is like this dark cave. And when you get married you both go into the cave together. You take hands and you step into the darkness. That’s the unknown – this new part of life. You walk next to each other for a while and then one day your hands get sweaty and so you let go of each other but it’s all good because you can still hear them next to you. You’re still talking and you know that they’re there. It’s dark. It’s black. But you know they’re next to you.

And then one day you’ve talked about everything and so you get kind of quiet and you decide that just spending time in one another’s company is enough. And so you just keep walking in the dark, next to each other, in silence. And it’s okay because you know that they’re still there. You can still hear their footsteps.

And then one day you ask them a question. And you get no response. And you realize that they are gone. You realize that you’ve gotten separated. You’ve drifted apart. And you are alone. And somewhere, they are alone as well.

You call out to them. You shout their name and you get no response. And so you go looking for them because you know that they’re there… somewhere. You know that somewhere in this cave they’re wandering around. They’re doing their thing and you’re doing yours.

You call for them and in the distance you hear them. And you keep shouting and you keep calling and you keep walking and you try to get back to them.

And you hope that you find them.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Some people are walking in the cave and they’re like, ‘I’m done walking in the dark with you.’ And those people turn around and they walk back towards the light. Sometimes they walk back towards the light and out of the cave together. And sometimes they do it alone.

And sometimes that’s okay.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

One day you wake up and you’re thinking, ‘This is not the person that I married. This is not the person that was standing next to me at the altar.’ And, if you’re self-aware enough you may realize that you are also not the same person that was standing at the altar and that your spouse is experiencing you in an entirely new way.

You’ve both changed. You’re both completely different people. And then you wonder if you can keep making it work. Because those other versions could do it… but you’re not sure these new versions are a fit.

How do you put together a puzzle when the pieces keep changing shape?

Now drop kids into the mix. Oh, shit. Things are getting complicated.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

You have a dream of having a career. A specific career. And so you educate yourself in that field. Maybe you go to college. Maybe you go to a tech school. Maybe you read books and watch YouTube videos. However you prepare for it, it is, at its core, a preparation. An education of self.

So then you get that job and then the industry changes – new technologies or practices emerge. So your boss sends you to receive additional training. You learn new ways to process information. You learn new techniques. The career field changes and so you must adjust.

So we apply hours and weeks and sometimes even years and sometimes even decades of preparation to a job (say hello, doctors!) and yet, when we discuss marriage, when we prepare to live with another person full time and make life changing decisions with them… we… do… nothing…

The church that married Jade and I encouraged us to take three 30-minute classes.

90 minutes of training for the task at hand is not enough.

I’ve been married for just over a decade and the training I’ve received on-the-job has not been nearly enough.

But marriage is not like a job. You just get thrown in first day with no idea what you’re doing and nobody encourages serious training. Nobody tells you to re-educate yourselves after five years or ten years. Nobody tells you that your marriage career is going to change and you’re going to have to make it work or get fired. And if you suggest education – if you suggest marriage counseling you get this taboo sense that something is wrong with you.

You know that feeling I’m talking about. That unspoken weirdness that everyone thinks but does not speak. This idea that is perpetrated in our culture that marriage counseling is for the weak and broken and… my personal favorite…

If you have to go to marriage counseling you weren’t meant to be.

Because if you have to ask for help it is because you are stupid. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that everyone else knows how to do this? Don’t you know that it comes easily and naturally to everyone else? Marriage is simple and straight-forward and if you need advice it is because the pieces do not work together and there is no hope anyways. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that it’s better to live miserable little lives than it is to seek counsel? Don’t you know that?

What if we applied that logic to other areas of our lives? Son, if you need to ask a question in class, you probably just aren’t smart enough to begin with.

If you need to look at the recipe for how to make chili, you probably weren’t made for chili. Sorry. It’s delicious but you don’t get any. Shoo-shoo, Oliver Twist.

Listen. Seeking education does not make you stupid or wrong. Seeking education makes you self-aware. Education and intellect craft a stronger individual, crafts a stronger family, crafts a stronger culture, crafts a stronger world.

Do not allow the uninformed to inform your thinking.

Do not be engaged and dissuaded by a society that has a 50% failure rate in marriage.

Set your own rules. Live by your own standards.

Education is not a swear word.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

I’m broken.

That’s a fact.

I’ve got a bunch of baggage that I carry around with me everywhere I go. I’ve got baggage about my family. I’ve got baggage about my parents. I’ve got baggage about my faith. I’ve got baggage about my body. I’ve got baggage about my personality. I’ve got baggage about my grades and my IQ and my creative abilities. I’ve got pride issues. I’ve got insecurity issues.

And my wife gets to adopt them.

And I get to adopt all of her bullshit.

And then we have to figure that stuff out together.

We say things we don’t mean. We do things we know we shouldn’t. We raise our voices and we walk away from conversations and sometimes we hurt each other with nothing more than our intent.

Thank GOD people have not heard some of the stuff I’ve said to my wife in the heat of an argument. Shit has come out of my mouth that I think about today and cringe. I have said things to her for no other reason than to hurt her. And that speaks to who I am (or hopefully was) as a person, at my core. At the time I would have said it was her fault. It’s her fault for being a specific way and I was just bringing it all to light and if it hurt her it’s because it was true.

These are the words and thoughts of someone that is selfish and arrogant.

The vows tell us that we’re going to be together through sickness and health, for better or worse but what they don’t tell us is that it’s sometimes going to feel like you’re dragging along a dead marriage, fighting uphill to make it work. They don’t tell you that there will be periods of time – not just days and weeks but entire months – that drag on through the gray drizzle of time and you’ll wonder just what is wrong with your spouse because it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s never you. It’s always them. Making mistakes.

“I’m trying. You’re not.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Getting married is like a light to all of your shortcomings as a human being. Your spouse will illuminate all the problem areas. It’s painful and it’s terrible and it hurts to look at yourself and see all the flaws. And it’s just so much easier to turn your face to one side and not look at that pile of problems that create you, as a person, and it’s so much easier to deflect blame to the other.

It is so much easier to look at someone’s shortcomings and it is so much easier to nurture resentment for a million little things and a handful of big things.

It is so much easier to judge others.

And it is simple to judge our spouse.

And so you choose.

Those three thirty minute classes didn’t prepare us for cancer at 26. They didn’t prepare us for lay-offs. They didn’t prepare us for invitro-fertilization. They didn’t prepare us for twins. They didn’t prepare us for a miscarriage. They didn’t prepare us for the day-in-day-out minutia of life and they didn’t prepare us for the fact that Jade likes things done a certain way and I like things done a certain way and those ways typically are not the same but are, more often than not, quite opposite.

Those classes didn’t prepare us for anything.

I wish I could say that everyday Jade and I choose to hang onto each other in the darkness of the cave but the reality is that we don’t.

Sometimes we are cold and calculating.

And sometimes we are terrible.

And cruel.

But we try.

We choose.

We choose to continue to stumble blindly through the dark, seeking each other.

And sometimes we choose to talk about walking back into the light. Sometimes we talk about what a divorce looks like.

And sometimes we have fun together and we find each other and we remember why we do this. We remember why the search is worth it.

We remember that we love each other and that our family is amazing and that we’re very lucky and it is only our own selfish shortcomings that are destroying us and we realize that if we can choose to be better people, we can choose to be the best for each other.

And when our spouse shines a light on our problem areas – our selfishness, our arrogance, our pride – we can choose to get angry that someone noticed our darkness… or we can thank them for being close enough to us to point out our flaws. And then we fix them together.

“But, man…” I conclude. “Marriage is really hard.”

The guy across the table looks at me. I notice he doesn’t have a ring on his hand. I wonder if he’s thinking about proposing.

“But it’s also amazing. Marriage is beautiful and wonderful and I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.”

 

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First World Problems

Sometimes too many words are just too many words so I’m going to keep this one short.

While visiting Nicaragua I heard a man say, “If you can fix it with money, it’s not really a problem… if you can’t fix it with money, then it’s a problem.”

Really simple words that have stuck with me for the last six months and have given me a simple clarity to most of my everyday issues.  I hope you can take a moment to meditate on that phrase and then go have a GREAT WEEK!  See you next Monday!

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/101108613″>First World Problems</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user3183899″>John Brookbank</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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Bedtime Stories: Chapter 1

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Every night before going to bed my children ask me to read them a book. Sometimes it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, sometimes it’s “Curious George”, sometimes it’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, but as of late I’ve become bored with reading and reading and reading the same stories over and over and over again and so I’ve decided to write new stories for them.  We gather on their bed or on the couch and I say, “What is tonight’s story about?” and they give a simple suggestion… and so it begins…

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

I’m sitting on my couch, my oldest daughter on my left and my son on my right.  Both of them are curled up in their favorite blankies, both of them staring at me with wide eyes and big smiles.  I say, “Once Upon a Time… there was a Little Boy and a Little Girl and they were brother and sister.  And one day, they were walking along a street when they noticed that they were passing a very old house that nobody lived in.  Nobody lived there.  It was completely empty–

(Sometimes you have to hammer a point home because they’re so young).

–but, even though it was completely and totally empty and no one lived there, they heard….” and this is where I look at them because they help me tell the story.  It’s kind of like a choose your own adventure for them that I make up as I go.

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I look at Quinn and I say, “What did they hear?” and she whispers, “I don’t know…” and so I look at Rory and I say, “What did they hear?” and he says, “They hear a ghost… and a ghost says, “ooooooo-oooo-ooooOOOO!“” and I say, “Actually, what they heard was………..RAAAAR!!” AND I SHOUT AND LUNGE TOWARDS QUINN AND SHE SHOVES HERSELF BACK INTO THE COUCH AND PULLS THE BLANKET UP OVER HER HEAD AND SAYS, “Don’t do that!  You scared me!”

“And so the Little Boy and the Little Girl were afraid and so they ran home to their Mommy and Daddy… but the next day they were walking past the house again and…. what did they hear?” and Rory says, “A ghost!  And a ghost says, “ooooo-ooooo-ooooOOOO!” and I say, “RAAAAR!” and I lunge at Rory and he drops his blanket to the floor and his eyes well up a little and he says, “You scared me, Daddy,” and then his little bottom lip begins to quiver and I feel pretty bad…

I continue, “So the Little Boy and the Little Girl were scared and so they ran home to their Mommy and Daddy but the next day they were walking past the empty house again and what did they hear?” and Rory says, “They… heard…. ghosts….. and a ghost says, “Ooooo-ooo-oooOOO!” and I say, “They heard a noise that sounded like this, “Ooooo-ooo-oooOOOOO!” and the Little Boy and the Little Girl turned towards the empty, abandoned house and they started walking up the sidewalk, towards the front door.  Click-clack-click-clack went their feet up the sidewalk and reeeeeee-reeeeeee went the squeaky front steps and then knock-knock-knock went their tiny little fists on the door and then eeeeeeeeeeeee went the door as it swung open and inside the house… what did they see?

And Rory, in fully obsessed form says, “A GHOST!” and I say, “They saw a white sheet floating in the middle of the room… and then another… and then another… and then another and then do you know how many ghosts they saw?” and Quinn says, “Eight” but my story was much bigger than that so I bent her choice a little with my own and I say, “100.  They saw 100 ghosts floating around and dancing because they were having a Ghost Party.”

It’s at this point that I make a beat that sounds like a cross between ghost noises and dub-step music just to add to the general ambience.

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And then–

RAAAR!” I SHOUT and both kids jump and Quinn covers her face and Rory says, “What is it?!” and I say, “It’s a monster and it’s coming down the stairs!  It’s coming to the ghost party!” and then in my scratchy monster voice I say, “I’m a monster that lives upstairs and everyone is afraid of me because of the way I talk and RAAAAR – I’m just so alone and lonely and I don’t have any friends.  There’s a party happening down here in my own house and no one invited me and now my feelings are hurt.”

And then I turn to Rory, stare him in the eyes and say, “Will you be my friend, Little Boy?” and Rory say, “I will be your friend.  Yes, I will be your friend, Monster,” and I say, “That is very nice.  Can I have a hug?” and then Rory comes in close and hugs me and says, “I love this Monster,” and I say, “I love you too, Little Boy.”

I turn to my daughter and I say, “Little Girl, will you be my friend?” and Quinn stares me dead in the eyes and says, “No.  No, I don’t want to be your friend,” but Rory quickly interjects and says, “Be our friend!  Be friends with us!” but Quinn holds her ground, “No… I don’t want to…”

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And the story continues, “So the Little Girl left the house and she shut the squeaky door behind her and she stepped down the wooden steps and she walked down the sidewalk and she went all the way back home to her Mommy and Daddy and–”

“But… where is the Little Boy?” asks Quinn.

“Oh, he stayed in the house with the monster and became the one hundred and first ghost of the party.”

The children both look at me and so I say, “The… End.”

Rory says, “That Ghost Party is fun,” and Quinn says, “Does the Little Girl see her brother again?” and I say, “No.  He stayed in the house to play with the monster and he never came out,” and Quinn asks, “Does the Little Girl see her Mommy and Daddy again?” and I say, “Yes.  She goes home and she lives with them for a very long time,” and then Quinn says, “What do her Mommy and Daddy do?” and I say, “They just work regular nine to five jobs,” and Quinn says, “Oh.  Ok.”

 

The End.

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