Tag Archives: hospital

SOLAR ECLIPSE: CHAPTER 31

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad news comes, don’t you worry

Even when it lands

Good news will work its way to all them plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow is Round 3.

 

 

 

 

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ALAN: CHAPTER 28

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Perfect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

_JBP6854

 

 

 

 

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CHRISTMAS EVE: CHAPTER 27

 

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If the fifth floor of the hospital was a kind of relative paradise for chemo in-patients—big rooms, big beds, remote controls, specialty nurses—then the second floor was one step above a skid row methadone clinic.

 

A red-haired nurse who’s seen better days leads us out of the elevator and down a narrow hallway with, I kid you not, a flickering fluorescent light. The tiles in the hallway are cracked and breaking, green and white checkered, garbage cans are over flowing and puddles of water seem to be leaking out from the cracks in the walls. We pass a clock and I see that it’s just breaking 2:15 a.m. and is officially Christmas Eve.

 

My eyelids are getting heavy and my legs are feeling even heavier. I’m running on fumes, and when they lead me into the dark room, no one even bothers turning on a light. I lie down in bed, my wife covers me up, says something about coming back later, my eyes flicker, and she’s gone.

 

I wake up forty-five minutes later, lean over the side of the bed and puke into the garbage can, unsure of where the bathroom is. The cable connecting me to my IV, which they gave me in the E.R., cramps up and starts beeping. Nobody comes. I press the CALL button on my receiver but nobody comes. I press it again… and again . . . and again . . . but nobody comes. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP.

 

The thought of bubbles traveling down the tube into my veins doesn’t bother me so much as the actual noise of the blips. Each tone acts like an arrow through my skull. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP. It holds open my eyelids, slides a metal plate under my eyeball, shoves down, pops it out, disconnects my optic nerve with a hacksaw, and jams a white hot screwdriver into my brain.

 

I reach out into the darkness and push the machine as far away as I can, 3 or 4 feet. I push the CALL button again . . . and again . . . and again. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen minutes pass. Twenty minutes pass. I look around and see a phone just out of my reach but don’t know whom I’d actually ring.

 

Suddenly, in the hallway, I hear footsteps approaching. A shadow begins to grace my narrow vision through the doorframe. Finally. Finally. Finally.

 

A nurse with dark skin and purple scrubs approaches . . . and continues on . . . heading somewhere else. I cough into my hand and shout, “HEY! EXCUSE ME! UH . . . MISS?!” The footsteps stop and I hear the soles of her shoes turn on the tile before they begin to grow louder again. She turns into the room and, seeming unsure, says, “Hi, how are you?” and I say, “This machine, it’s . . . I don’t know what’s—” gag— “wrong with it and—” gag— “can I get some nausea medication? I’m—” gag— “I have cancer and I—” gag— “sorry . . . I just need something for my stomach and I don’t think this call button works,” and the nurse says, “I’ll see what I can do about the medication. Your call button should work fine. I’ll get you some ice chips,” and she turns to leave just as I lose control of my stomach and vomit more blood into the trashcan.

 

Twenty minutes later a man enters and takes my blood. I puke again. I roll onto my side. I mash my face into the pillow. I turn on my other side. I can’t sleep. The sloshing sickness in my stomach is listlessly rolling through my entire body. My brain feels like it’s bleeding. My toenails hurt. My bones hurt. I try to sleep but am wide awake, alone, cold. Where is my medicine? I start to gag again and my stomach feels like someone is twisting a knife into it. I slam my thumb into the CALL button three times in a row before shouting, “HELLO?!” Nothing.

 

Another man enters and says he needs to take my blood. I tell him someone was just here forty minutes ago. He says he doesn’t know about that even though I show him the Band-Aid and the hole. He takes blood from my other arm. I tell him I need a nurse and he says he’ll fetch someone. Twenty minutes later the nurse shows back up. It’s 3-something-a.m. at this point and I feel as though I’m about to begin hallucinating with exhaustion. I ask about my nausea medicine and she says that she spoke to the pharmacy and they said I’d need a doctor’s prescription first.

 

This is how hospitals work. You have stage 4 cancer. You’re skin and bones. You’re a grown man who weighs 130 pounds. You’ve been admitted to the E.R. for vomiting up blood. You have a track record of various ailments and, at 3:30 in the morning, nobody will give you medicine to stop you from throwing up more blood because the doctor, who is asleep, can’t sign off on a form.

 

The nurse, in all of her wisdom, brings me enough aspirin to tame a mild headache. This is tantamount to trying to fix the World Trade Center with Elmer’s Glue. I would kick her in the teeth if only I had the energy. She tells me she’s trying to get a hold of the physician and I say, “Isn’t he asleep?” and she says, “Yes but . . . uh . . . we’re trying to reach him . . . ” and I say, “OK . . . please hurry.” The nausea is growing in me like a weed, choking out my life and energy, taking over all my thoughts.

 

The Useless Nurse leaves and the machine starts to beep again and the first man enters and takes my blood again, claiming that he didn’t get enough vials for all the tests. I tell him that a second man was already here and that he should have quite enough between the two of them and he tells me he doesn’t know of a second man. He pokes me in my arm, takes more vials and leaves, fetching the nurse. She returns, adjusts the machine and says that there’s still no word from the doctor.

 

It’s 4:30. I sit up in bed and stare at my feet, thinking about how I’m not even halfway through this process yet. Wondering if this is how death looks. Wondering if these will be my final memories. Not this moment exactly . . . but a collection of moments just like it—hospitals, nurses, beeping, cleaning solution, needles, blood, vomit, and stiff hospital sheets, crunchy with starch and dried urine. I puke again and the blood seems to be retreating, being replaced by yellow bile. That’s a good sign, I think to myself. I lie back down, place my forearm over my face, and try to force myself to cry. It sounds lame but sometimes a good cry is all you need.

 

Instead of crying, I puke again. My stomach is a war zone filled with corpses.

 

I stand up and make my way to the dark bathroom, the fluid from the IV bag washing through me and cleansing my kidneys from all the poison I’ve taken in. I am a junkie, drugs coursing through my veins, ruining my life.

 

I pee, crawl back into bed, and watch the sky start to turn gray. The clock reads 5:45 and I still haven’t slept. Still no word from the pharmacy. Still no aspirin or ice chips. This place is getting a bad Yelp review fer sher.

 

At 6:15, the second man enters my room again and says he needs to draw my blood. He says they had enough blood but forgot to do one test. Beaten, broken, destroyed, I say nothing. I just stick out my thrice-stabbed arms and let him take as much as he wants. I turn on my side, pull my knees to my chest and wonder where my wife is, where my mother is, where Sue is.

 

I press the call button. Nothing.

 

At 7 a.m. the Useless Nurse shows up with more Aspirin. I swallow it and puke it up. She says she’s still waiting to hear from the doctor. I don’t say anything. She leaves.

 

At 8:50 my wife shows up and I am so happy and hopeless and helpless that I finally do cry. I am so alone without her. I tell her everything and she says, “What? WHAT? WHAT?” and when the first man enters to take my blood a fourth time because someone just called in one more test, Jade says, “No. You’re not taking his blood. Get out. Get out of here,” and the man says, “But we—”and Jade says, “That’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Leave.” And the man turns and walks away.

 

The Useless Nurse enters, and before she can speak, Jade says, “He needs his nausea medication,” and the nurse says, “I know, he—” and Jade says, “No. You don’t know. He’s in here because he’s puking up blood and you give him, sorry, aspirin? ASPIRIN? Where did you go to school? His call button doesn’t work? Where are we? What is this place? You think ice chips are going to help him? He can’t eat. Did you call the doctor?” and the nurse says, “I . . . left him a message . . . ” and Jade says, “Where’s the pharmacy? I’ll go talk to them,” and, twenty minutes later, my wife, not an employee of the medical field, returns with good news. She says that someone will bring me a bag right away—not a pill, but a bag of medication so I can’t throw it up.

 

At 10:15 a.m. we ask if we can go and we’re told that the doctor wants to see us first. At 11:30, we ask where the doctor is and they say he’s making his rounds but will definitely be here before noon. At 12:45 we ask how much longer he’ll be, and they say he’s on his lunch break but will absolutely probably be here directly after that at some point. At 1:15 Jade leaves to get herself lunch. At 2:30, he still hasn’t shown up but somebody tells us that he’s on the fifth floor. At 3:45 people stop showing up to our room. At 4:15, there is still no sign of anyone. At 5:15, a male nurse walks by in the hallway and my wife grabs him and says, “Where is Dr. Manfred?” and the nurse says, “He should be here shortly,” and Jade says, “Can we leave whenever we want?” and the nurse says, “Yes . . . I mean . . . we can’t force you to stay but   . . . a doctor should see you,” and Jade says, “You have 15 minutes to bring him here or we’re walking out this door.” At 5:30 Dr. Manfred shows up sporting an arm cast and says to me, “How you feeling?” I say, “Good.” He says, “Throwing up blood?” I say, “No. Not since last night.” He says, “Good. Call us if anything changes. You may leave.”

 

This is how hospitals work. Well-oiled machines of idiocy.

 

 

 

 

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ROUND 2: CHAPTER 25

 

ABOVE: (LEFT) ROUND 1 (RIGHT) ROUND 2

There is a stop sign posted half a block from my house that, circa 10 days ago, I could barely walk to. With my mother holding me around the waist, the two of us feebly hobble down the sidewalk in order for me to get some of that Vitamin D and “exercise” that everyone seems to think is so important. By the time I touch the pole I am so winded and utterly exhausted that I’m ready to sleep. And I apologize for the redundancy, but I just really want to stress that I just walked 300 feet with the assistance of my mother and am now ready for a nap.

 

I am a side effect.

 

But that was ten days ago. Today I’m walking through a grocery store at 11 a.m. I’m still leaning a little heavily on the cart for support, but we’ve been meandering for fifteen minutes and I bet I’ve walked at least two thousand feet. Maybe even three thousand!

 

I can eat here and there without the assistance of the vaporizer and I can walk and I can exist in a world without vomiting because the chemo is slowly draining from my system and everything is getting better and sounds don’t make my stomach churn and I’m starting to live again and . . . today I go back in for Round 2.

 

Today I start over.

 

There is a strange elation and excitement that fills my body and mind and maybe it’s just hopeful naiveté but I am excited to go back in.

 

I’ve been receiving letters in the mail and phone calls and emails and messages via social media from various people—friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family, and even strangers who say they’ve been reading my blog and watching my story unfold and looking at the pictures my wife has been posting and they’re just . . . amazed . . . at our fantastic attitudes.

 

“You’re able to laugh at the whole thing!” they say and I, with tears streaming down my cheeks and quaking hands, think, Har-har-har.

 

But the letters and text messages keep coming. “My niece has cancer and I told her your story and sent her to your blog,” and, “My son had cancer and God bless you,” and, “Your story is so inspiring. You put my life into focus,” and I sit in my chair reading these and feeling like a fake because of all my talk about death.

Last week I was in a state of true fear about my approaching second round. I couldn’t dream of willingly going back and allowing them to do this to me, setting me back to square one. The needles, the poison, the nurses, the dark bags of chemicals dripping into me, the smells, the puking, the pain, the hunger, the fear, the fear, the fear and, most especially, The Unknown.

 

It’s truly not the impending death that destroys you but the utter hopelessness of life, your energy being sapped and drained from your body until you feel like the last brittle leaf hanging onto a tree in an autumn storm.

 

Even chewing your food becomes a chore and a challenge because it takes too much of your scarce reserves. But, Johnny, you ask, why don’t you just get high all the time? If it helps your appetite and helps you sleep and gives you energy? Why aren’t you getting baked? Go green! And the answer to that, my little Doobie Brother, is because, while that little miracle drug works like a charm, it comes at a cost, an actual hard cost. I’m talking finances. And I can’t just go on a binge and burn through every green dollar I own. For the next six months I have to buy groceries and pay rent, not to mention the myriad of other expenses that occur on a regular basis: car insurance, health insurance, electricity, etc., etc. May I remind you that I’m not working ? We’re rolling in a car with three wheels that’s running on fumes and a prayer.

 

Watching our pennies disappear one by one, we call to inquire about government assistance but they tell us we don’t qualify because we “made too much money last year.” My wife says, “Yes, but last year my husband was healthy and had a good job. That makes sense. This year he has cancer and can barely walk and definitely can’t hold a job and we need to eat,” and the person on the phone says, “You will qualify next year,” and my wife, says, “That doesn’t make any sense,” and the person says, “We rate you off the previous year,” and my wife slams the phone onto the table.

 

I watch the clock tick tock away and think that every second I’m just a little closer to The End, whatever result it may be, life or death. However this fight turns out, we’re chugging full steam ahead.

 

Two hours till go time and I feel positive. I try to soak everything in because I know that my happy moments are limited and finite. I know that tomorrow morning I’m going to be lying in bed with my eyes slammed shut, feeling sorry for myself. I know that tomorrow there will be nothing but pain and hunger. Gotta get sick to get better.

 

So today, now, in this moment, I just soak it in, trying to take pictures of everything in my mind, storing it all away to look at later. How does the air smell? How do the birds sound? How does this food taste?

 

Chemo ruins everything. It manipulates your taste buds, turns your eyes to delicate glass orbs and your ears to amplifiers. Everything is blinding and gluttonous excessiveness. Every piece of stimuli feels like a flood hitting your brain and drowning it. It feels like everything is coming in but nothing is going out and your skull becomes crowded with blurring and buzzing. Chemo covers your brain in moss and turns all your memories and thoughts into fuzzy bubbles and television static. Life becomes a copy of a copy of a copy; details falling away, edges blurring, clarity collapsing.

 

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it (and yes, I read that on a poster in a doctor’s office). And, this Courage with a capital C that I have acquired quickly becomes courage all lowercased once we pull into the parking lot and I’m left staring at the monolithic hospital that will become my home for the next five days. I stare at it, my prison, trying to keep my composure steady, my attitude high.

 

My wife says, “Look here,” and I turn around and she snaps another photo of me entering the hospital. I look considerably thinner in this one; my beard gone, my cheeks a little deeper, my eyes red and dry around the sockets.

 

We enter the building and my courage sinks down and vanishes. I squeeze my hands into fists and think, I don’t want to be here I don’t want to be here I need to get out of here, but I keep walking, into the elevators, onto the fifth floor, down the hallway, into my private room, my spa, my cell.

 

I lay out all my personal accouterments (journal, pen, iPod, Bible) and sit on the bed. Jade finds the show about the family with all the kids and now I guess they’re having another one. I ask her to change it. The show about the man losing his face is on again and we decide to rewatch it.

 

The nurse enters with the IV while I stare at the TV, thinking about the wilderness and camping. She sticks me and walks away and that’s it. I’m now tied up to the stables like one of the horses in a sad western. Me and my pole, buddies for life.

 

Suddenly, the machine I’m connected to starts beeping and a small Asian nurse in her early fifties rushes in, presses a few buttons, and straightens out my tubes. She says, “Hello. My name is Sue. I will be your nurse for the next couple days. You are . . . Johnny.” I smile and wave my hand. She says, “How are you doing?” and I say, “Well, all things considered . . . ” and she says, “Yes. You have very bad cancer but we are going to fix you! You are young and strong and you have good blood and good veins and good attitude!” and my wife says, “Sometimes . . . ” and Sue laughs and she lights up the room and she says, “We no allow bad attitude here! You take it somewhere else! Here—only good attitude! Because we fix you! I be right back!”

 

And she turns to leave and I say to Jade, “I like her.” Sue returns with my first bag of chemotherapy and a small piece of chocolate, which she gives to me. “You feel well? You no have chemo for two weeks?” and I say, “Yes. That’s right,” and she says, “You eat this now before you get sick!”

 

I open the chocolate bar and she flips a switch and here . . . we . . . go . . . .

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

Hours later, I wake up all alone in the middle of the night. My room is dark and quiet save for the incessant beeping that is coming from my IV machine. I shift my body weight and examine it to see if there’s some giant red warning button I can push.

 

Nothing.

 

I navigate my hand down the side of the bed and find the CALL NURSE button. A few moments later, a pale chick who looks like she’s been working the nightshift for too long wanders in and asks what’s wrong. I tell her I don’t know. I tell her my IV thing is beeping. She hits a quick combination of buttons and everything goes silent. I ask, “Why does it do that?” and she says, “Means there are bubbles stuck in the tube,” and I say, “Bubbles? Won’t those kill me if they get in my veins?” and she says, “Yeah . . . . . they can,” and then she turns and leaves without saying anything else.

 

I lie in the dark and stare at the shut blinds, wishing I could see the stars but knowing that, even if they were open, LA’s blanket of smog would cloud them from my vision. I think about my wife and mother, both sound asleep in beds forty minutes away. My wife has to work in the morning so I’m flying solo tonight. We toyed with the idea of my mother staying behind but ultimately decided that the hospital bed just wasn’t big enough for the both of us, even with her curled up at the bottom like so many teacup Chihuahuas.

 

In the hallway I can hear various machines and hospital mechanics at work in the silent hours. Beep. Beep. Beep. A heart monitor. I hear a machine that sounds like it’s breathing for someone. Kerrrrr—inhale. Vhoooosh—exhale. Underneath is a man moaning, his wails creeping down the hallway like fog. It is the groaning of a man lost in delirium.

 

I shut my eyes for a moment and when I open them, an old man is standing in my room with a plastic briefcase. He pulls out a syringe and takes my blood. I shut my eyes and when I open them again, a young Latino gentleman is standing in my room emptying my trash can. I shut my eyes and when I open them again, a young African American woman is standing in my room with my breakfast. I tell her I’m not very—gag—hungry and would she please mind taking it away but leaving the orange juice, which I casually sip on.

 

I stare at the clock and watch its arms turn. I stare at the window and watch the shadow of the sun rise. I listen to footsteps in the hallway pass. I try to catch conversations but nothing sticks. I wonder who else is on this floor: old people, young people, someone I could talk to, relate to, converse with?

 

I hate the doctors telling me what I’ll feel, how I’ll feel, what to prepare for, what to expect. They only know because they’ve been told. They don’t know. They have no personal point of reference. This is one of the loneliest factors—surrounded by people, you feel alone in your experience.

 

My mother arrives; my wife arrives. I curl into a ball and shut my eyes. It’s happening again: never-ending motion sickness. I put my hands over my face and breathe deeply. Jade asks how I’m feeling, and instead of answering, I just shake my head, trying to fight back The Great and Hopeless Depression that is rising up inside of me, threatening to take over, The Voice that whispers inside my head, “Every day. Every day. Every day you’ll be sick. I’m never leaving you. You’re trapped here, stuck here, and every day those nurses are going to enter and keep filling you with Sickness, more and more, and just when you think it’s over, you’ll be back and you’ll do it again. You think today is bad? Think about tomorrow. Think about the next day. Think about next week and the week after that and the month after that and the month after that. This road you’re on is a long one, Johnny, and I’m going to ride your shit into the ground. You think today is bad? You have no idea. You have no idea what I’m going to do to you. You have no idea how long this will go,” and, because I no longer have any grasp on time and because my minutes stretch on for days, this really could be some relative millennia.

 

Anxiety begins to twist a knot in my guts as I try to understand the overwhelming process that lies before me and the pain I have to endure before this is all over. My mom asks if I’ve eaten breakfast and I shake my head again, hands still over eyes. My mom asks if I need to “medicate,” and it takes me a moment to grasp what she’s asking me. I nod my head and slowly sit up, the movements sending my equilibrium reeling. I can feel my brain sloshing around inside my skull like dirty water in a fish tank.

 

My mother sets a small suitcase on my bed and unzips it, pulls up the cover and begins digging through various articles of clothing, bathroom paraphernalia, and pill bottles, pulling them out one by one. Then I see it. Sitting at the very bottom of the suitcase is my vaporizer. I chuckle thinking about my mom smuggling, what basically amounts to a very fancy pipe and soft drugs into a hospital for me to smoke. Do I want to “medicate”? It’s the closest thing my mom will ever say to, “Honey, do you want to get baked?”

 

But, I suppose this is what it’s for. This is how we should be treating it. If medicinal marijuana is to be used and respected as an actual drug and if it actually wants to shake it’s street stigma, then perhaps I should be medicating and not getting high.

 

Jade helps me stand up and leads me into the bathroom. I lean against the wall and slouch to the floor. My mother hands me the vaporizer and, while I try to find a proper place to set it, she plugs it into a nearby socket. My wife hands me a small box that contains various strains of medication, as well as my grinder.

 

My mother turns to leave and my wife holds her hand out to me and says, “Here. I made this for you.” I reach out and take a toilet paper roll stuffed with scented dryer sheets. She says, “It’s a filter . . . to hide the smell.” I say, “You’re Bill Nye!” and she says, “You’re Tommy Chong.” I smile and she shuts the door.

 

The bathroom is silent save for the quiet murmur of the television creeping under the door. I open a pill bottle, select a “pill,” grind it up, place it in the bowl, heat it up, and pull.

 

We have take off.

 

The anxiety in my stomach loosens, loosens, loosens, disappears. I begin tapping my finger to some Beatles song that pops into my head. My depression vanishes. I hold the homemade filter to my mouth and blow through it. Everything smells like Mountain Spring Grass.

 

I pick up a comedy book about ninjas called Real Ultimate Power written by a man posing as a child named Robert Hamburger. To this day, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, stoned or sober. I laugh so hard my sides hurt. I laugh so hard that I cough. I laugh so hard, I can’t breathe.

 

In the other room, I hear a nurse enter. Sue. I hear my wife say that I’m in the bathroom. I hear the nurse ask if I’m having a bowel movement. I hear Jade lie and say, “Yes.” I hear the nurse say she’ll be back.

 

Jade knocks on the door and says, “Hurry up in there, White Snoop Dogg! They’re looking for you!” and I say, “I’ll be here for five days. They’ll find me,” and I laugh and take another hit and then I say, “Just relax, White Marge Simpson.”

 

Robert Hamburger talks about how he saw a ninja cut off a man’s head once just for dropping a spoon in a restaurant and then I stare at an illustration of a samurai for 15 minutes. The artistry of the drawing is astounding.

 

In the other room, I hear Sue return and ask where I am. I hear Jade say that I’m still in the bathroom. I hear Sue ask if I’m constipated. I hear my mother say something about, “Just being a man, taking his time.” I hear Sue say she’ll be back. I hear Sue leave. I hear Jade bang on the door, louder this time and far more aggressively. She says, “Hey, Jerry Garcia. Get your ass out here! You’ve been taking a shit for 35 minutes, and it’s starting to look suspicious.”

 

“OK, OK,” I mumble and slowly clean all my paraphernalia up, tucking it behind the shower curtain. I crawl to the toilet, using it to brace myself while standing up and then slowly walk out of the bathroom with the biggest, dopiest expression my face can muster. As I open the door, I try to hide it, not wanting my mom to think I’m . . . what? Wait . . . high . . . ? She knows. There’s no reason to hide it. Is this OK? What is happening? I think I’ve done something wrong.

 

My mom says, “Take your time,” and my wife says, “You know how uncomfortable it is to lie to them? They’re freaking out because they think you’re constipated. You do that again and I’m telling them you need an enema.”

 

Just as she finishes her thought, Sue walks back in with her cart and says, “Johnny! You are here! You are all right?”

 

And I say, “Yes! Great!”

 

And she says, “You poop OK?”

 

And I say, “Far as I know!”

 

And she says, “You in bathroom long time. You no strain?”

 

And I say, “No. Just reading a book,”

 

And she says, “OK. You tell me you constipated. I get you more pills,”

 

And I say, “OK.”

 

She tells me she needs to take my vitals and I say, “Cool,”

 

And she says, “You want to sit down?”

 

And I say, “Can I stand?”

 

And she says, “You . . . can . . . if you have the energy,”

 

And I snap my fingers and say, “Sweetheart, you better believe it.”

 

She sticks a thermometer in my mouth and I say, “How’s it look?”

 

And she says, “You’re alive. That’s good,”

 

And I say, “No doubt. Hey, thanks for giving it to me orally. The guy last night gave me an anal exam and it was really painful.” Jade says, “JOHN,” and my mom says, “Ew,” and Sue says, “What was his name?” and I say, “I don’t know but he just kept breathing really heavily in my ear.”

 

Sue wraps a cuff around my bicep to take my blood pressure and I casually glance around, overly aware that my heart seems to be beating weirdly slow. Buh-dunce . . . buh-dunce . . . beating to the rhythm of a Pink Floyd song. She presses a button and I feel the band tightening on my skin, squeezing it like a really weak boa constrictor and then slowly, slowly, releasing. Sue looks at the digital read out and says, “Huh,” and I say, “What?” and she says, “Your blood pressure is a little low,” and I laugh and my wife quickly interjects with another half-cooked lie. “Yeah, it’s always a little low. He’s just a very chill fellow, he-he . . . ” and Sue says, “Hmm . . . ” and I shrug and say, “Sue, listen. Listen. I feel good. I feel great. You wanna see me try to moonwalk?” and she says, “Nope. I’ll be back later. You strong. Good attitude.”

 

Over the course of the next few days, Sue becomes a fourth member of our group, sitting on the end of my bed and hanging out to chat after she takes my vitals. She hangs around my room even when she’s off duty and pokes in before going home just to make sure the night nurse has everything under control.

 

In the mornings she brings me muffins, and even though I can’t eat them, I am grateful for the simple gesture. In the afternoon, she comes to me and says, “Nurses have big feast downstairs. Pot luck. I bring you food,” and then, sure enough, forty minutes later she shows up with nothing less than eight plates of home-cooked goodies ranging from pastas to banana bread to casseroles to desserts hailing from various homelands; Germany and Holland and Spain.

 

She tells us about her past life—where she grew up, what her parents did, how long she’s lived in Arcadia. She tells us she loves to cook and says she’ll bring us some “real Korean food” after catching us eating Panda Express for the third day in a row. Twenty-four hours later, she appears with a menagerie of hot plates and store-bought chocolates that the four of us share in a communal setting.

 

Cancer is a very lonely disease to have because most people you know simply fade into the background. It’s a disease that makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do or what to say or how to respond or what to bring you. Nobody is showing up to sign your cast and I believe it’s just too depressing to come visit your friend or family member while they slowly turn into dried fruit. Here you are, stuck in a bed, a needle shoved in your arm, looking like a pretty accurate living depiction of a mummified Egyptian Pharaoh, which is to say, decrepit and dusty. Your friends enter and they see you as you are, not as you were, and they see you trapped here in this hospital, in your cute little nightgown and they know you’ll lie here for six days and they feel bad for leaving. They feel like they have to stay or they’re abandoning you. They feel guilty going back to their lives while their friend molds and becomes one with the hospital bed in holy union. It’s easier . . . to just not show up. Things are safer at a distance.

 

And for the person with cancer—for me, for you, for your cousin or aunt, for the person sitting in the chair or the bed, for the person getting the chemo drip-dropped into their veins like a toxic tributary—this act is beyond infuriating.

 

It is heartbreaking.

 

During the Apollo 8 missions, astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders would lose contact with Earth for forty-five minutes as they disappeared behind the far side of the moon during each of their ten orbits. Some may say it’s the loneliest anyone has ever been, being completely out of touch with your own species.

 

The radios were dead. Contact was dead. The three of them were in complete and utter isolation, blocked off from the entire human race. Granted, Earth was still there and Earth still carried on and the Earth people still went to work and smiled and laughed but somewhere in the darkness, three men sailed quietly and desperately through the solitude just hoping to come out the other side, hoping to reestablish contact, hoping to, eventually, be integrated back into humanity after they’d viewed it from such a new and exhilarating perspective.

 

Ideally, I don’t have to spell out my analogy for you because I think it’s fairly spot on. Also, P.S.: In my parallel, I am Frank Borman because he is straight up dreamy. My mother and wife can fight over the other two in our made-up, playtime scenario.

 

Your family members who you’ve grown up with and your friends who you’ve shared your life with, people who would stand up with you in a fight, back down against cancer. Nearly everyone leaves you alone, fragmented, isolated, and blocked off from the world. People stop calling. People stop writing. People stop coming by. Even before you’re gone, you don’t exist. You’re the dead and dying dog at the shelter. You’re the starving kid in Africa. You’re the homeless family on the street, and you are easier to ignore.

 

Your sickness, your issue, your thing you’re going through is so bizarre and weird and awful and outside the realm of possible imaginings that people just slowly vanish into the crowd, and while you sit alone, grasping at any hope, you think about them and you wonder what they’re doing and you wonder why they’re not calling or writing or coming by. You wonder what you possibly could have meant to them. It saddens you, it angers you, and it breaks you. It makes you feel like an old and forgotten toy left out in the rain.

 

And I say this not as a self-pitying statement (although I am aware that it is how it sounds), I say this as a warning. If someone you know has cancer and if you’ve made yourself scarce, you have abandoned a person of your tribe during his or her greatest need.

 

I get it. It’s hard to be involved. It’s hard to step up to the plate and put someone else’s needs before our own. It’s hard to be selfless, and it doesn’t come natural to any of us. We’re humans and we want things to be easy, but we’re humans and we’re in this together. And maybe the awful truth of cancer wouldn’t feel so foreign to us if we all stepped onto the altar and looked into the coffin; if we all took a chance and said, “I’m here for you because you need me to be.” When you watch from a distance, everything is filtered through the lens of a camera. It’s difficult to get your hands dirty when you just paid for a manicure.

 

But Sue . . . Sue was born to have dirty hands. Her short-cut nails spoke of a baker who had her fingers in many pies. She cared with the true compassion of a parent. She wasn’t merely doing a job. She was living her life and making sure it was worth something.

 

I think about Sue often, and though I’ve never written her a letter, I’ve sat down to do it on several occasions but am always stopped by some voice asking if she would remember me, another Face in the Crowd. She had a significant impact, not only on my cancer journey and experience, but also on my healing process and my point of view on life. How can I be more like Sue? How can I help those around me? How can I give what I have—my heart and soul and identity—how can I pour that into something to show someone love and compassion?

 

There are people that try to make the world a better place. Budda. Jesus. Bono. Sue. We are all capable if we try.

 

 

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ABOVE: Me on my last day (in the hospital, not on Earth, even though it does look that way). Sue on far left.

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

 

Welcome back.

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

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

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

cancer_title_15

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he says, “Sucks.”

And then he leaves.

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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TRY, TRY AGAIN: CHAPTER 10

 

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

 

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

And I say, “Of course.”

And she says, “When?”

And I say, “When I’m done dying.”

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

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

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

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

I say, “OK,” and I’m certain.

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

I never share the image with Jade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I want doesn’t matter.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

And if you haven’t already followed this blog. PLEASE DO!

 

 

 

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DR. CHAPLIPS: CHAPTER 9

Cancer Monday. Another chapter. If you’re caught up, keep reading. If you’re new – welcome! We’re reading one chapter a week from my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo? A dark comedy that chronicles the absolutely hilarious time I had cancer. And, of course, when I say “hilarious”, I actually mean that I’ve never been more depressed in my entire life. But potato / potahto, am I right? No. I’m wrong. Nobody says potahto. Nobody.

If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here!

This chapter is, for me, so far, the most exposing. This is the beginning of our IVF cycle. The doctor’s are gearing up to take my single remaining testicle and so we’ll need to do some sperm banking if we want to have kids.

In case you’ve ever wondered what that world looks like. Gaze your eyes upon . . .

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Another doctor’s office. Another Georgia O’Keeffe painting. The sun beats in through a west-facing window, and I think the AC must be broken. My wife holds my hand. Am I sweaty? Is she clammy? I can’t tell. The thumb of my free hand rubs the denim of my jeans. I try to concentrate on the fabric to pass the time until—

The door opens and a man in a knee-length lab coat enters. He sits down across from us and the very first thing I take in about him (after the lab coat) is that his lips are incredibly chappy. Not just Chapstick chappy but I’ve-been-lost-in-the-desert-for-two- weeks-was-rescued-and-came-right-to-work chappy. White, dead skin juts at all angles like shards of milky, broken glass. His little pink tongue keeps darting out and licking them like a weasel gathering eggs, and I’m fairly confident that he’s simply eating the dusty flakes.

Oh my goodness, I can’t stop staring. It’s like a woman with her cleavage exposed. I want to look you in the eyes. I genuinely do. But your tig ol’ bitties are boring directly into my soul.

He shakes my hand, and I make a note to wash it the first chance I get. He welcomes us to the clinic. He explains to us what The Process will look like.

IVF.

In vitro fertilization.

Or . . . How To Make Babies With Science. Petri dishes, egg retrievals, frozen sperm. That sort of thing.

 

“The first step,” he says, “is to do a semen analysis. We need to see where your numbers are,” and I look at Jade and then back at his incredibly disgusting lips. I say, “Uh . . . OK. What does that . . . entail?” and he explains that I simply have to masturbate into a cup. Simply right now. Simply in public. It’s all very simple.

I cough into my hand but quickly pull it back, realizing that’s the one I shook his with and now most likely contains some sort of lip contagion. I look at my wife and I look at my feet and I look at the Georgia O’Keeffe vagina painting and I say to the doctor in the most, “Liiiiiiiiisten,” type of way possible, “I, uh . . . actually. I actually just, uh . . . masturbated . . . this morning and I’m not sure . . . I’m not sure I’m going to be able to really, frankly, hammer another one out today,” and he says, “You’ll be fine,” and my wife says, “You’ll be fine,” and the doctor says, “She can help,” and my exit strategies have all been blocked off. These two perverts are going to force me at gunpoint to tug my leather tether.

He escorts us into another, larger room, filled with worker bees buzzing around with papers and folders. The three of us approach a desk together and the doctor tells the young woman sitting in her swivel chair that I need a semen analysis done and she is just so very, very, professional. She just says, “OK,” and he says, “It might be slightly lower than usual because he just masturbated this morning,” and no one even acknowledges how bizarre this statement is. What a strange place this must be to work! I just look down at my hands. My dirty, dirty, masturbating hands.

The doctor shakes my hand (gross) and tells me, “Good luck,” and he walks away, probably to eat an aloe vera plant.

The woman behind the desk hands me a cup and says, “Back through that door on the right. No lubrication. No spit,” and she looks directly at my wife and I say, “Oh . . . Ooooooh . . . . ”

 

We walk through the appropriate door and find ourselves in a room roughly the size of a hotel conference hall. Everything is white. Everything is sterile. The fluorescents buzz in the ceiling. On the walls: Georgia O’Keeffe.

Of course.

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ABOVE: Georgia O’Keefe paintings of flowers and / or vaginas.

Sitting next to the door is a small table cluttered with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions. Motivation. In the center of the room is a chair that can only be described as something you would get a root canal in. It’s black, leather, and constantly at a slight recline. I sit in it and assume that this specific posture has been scientifically proven to help nervous men climax in public places.

“How do we . . . ” I begin to say and my wife laughs at the sudden and absolute absurdity of our lives. She says, “I don’t know!” as she unzips my pants and gives, what can only be considered, her best. As long as that little power ring is on her third finger, I know that she is my sidekick through everything.

I stare at the ceiling, at the fluorescent lights. Everything is so bright. To my left are Venetian blinds leading outside where I can see passersby meandering to and fro. I look at the door 25 feet away from me and ask Jade if it’s locked. She says yes and continues with her medical chore. Tug-yank-jerk.

The lights buzz. The receptionists chat. Phones ring. People pass by. My tumor throbs. I ask Jade to stop and she says, “Why? Are you close?” and I say, “No. I think my dick skin is starting to look like that doctor’s lips,” and she laughs and says, “Oh, my gosh! I couldn’t stop staring! They were so flakey! Did he just come from the desert?” and then I laugh and she squeezes into the chair with me.

 

We kiss and try to be cute and romantic but then I say, “I’m telling you . . . this morning . . . ” and Jade says, “NO!” like it’s a personal challenge to milk venom from the snake. She goes back to town, and I bite my bottom lip but not in that sexy way that girls do it but more in that way where I’m trying to focus through the pain. Where is my power animal? I picture a lamb screaming.

I shut my eyes and imagine any number of perverse sexual acts but they all end with my dick being shoved into a meat grinder and lit on fire.

Finally, in a mode of complete desperation, I grab the wheel in one hand and her tit in the other. I put my mind into Zen mode and focus on success and focus on success and focus on suck sex.

I’ll skip the rest of the details but suffice it to say that this tale ends with me spraying a pathetic amount of jizz into a plastic cup. There is no clean way to say that. Romance of the twenty-first century, baby.

Covered in sweat and shame, we exit the room and approach the receptionist from earlier.

She knows. Oh, she knows.

“Everything go OK?” she asks, and I tell her that a little mood lighting could go a long way. She smiles and hands me a receipt. She asks me to sign and I say, “You need the ol’ John Hancock, huh?” and she laughs and the woman next to her laughs and a guy a couple yards away laughs and suddenly everything is all right. We’re all humans and we all know how awkward this is and we all try our best to be professional.

I sign my name and limp away.

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MECHANICAL DONUT: CHAPTER 7

 

Hey, baby! Whether you’re here because you like the comedy or the train wreck, it’s Cancer Monday! And this week is a double whammy because you’re getting chapters 7 and 8 together! Oh, my goodness. What a deal.

So. If you’re all caught up and want to continue reading, please do! If you’re new here. WELCOME. This is a story about when I had cancer. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes there is just fierce ambivalence to the force of life. Click here to jump to the beginning and start reading this tale of wonderful woe from the very top.

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For the past few days, I’ve been drinking a radioactive concoction called barium and trust me, there is neither anything berry or yum about it. Seventy-two hours ago, a small yellow package showed up at my front door postmarked from the hospital, asking that I mix this powder with water and drink deeply. How to describe it? So many competing tastes and textures. If I were being polite, I would say it has the consistency of semen swimming in powdered eggs (powdered lumps included) and tastes of Elmer’s glue with just a hint of mint.

So no, it’s not terrible but it is bad enough to make me plug my nose and gag while I try to chug it as quickly as possible lest flies mistake it for what it smells like and begin to lay eggs in it.

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The chemical drink, I’m told, causes my insides to “light up” and reveal any inconsistencies with a “normal, healthy human,” which, as far as I can tell, I am not. I’m not exactly sure what this procedure will be, but I assume they have some kind of machine that will take pictures of my insides; some kind of giant X-ray. I’m imagining lying on a bed and smiling; it’s school photos all over again. THEN I’m imagining going across the street to Denny’s because I saw that they’re featuring their seasonal pumpkin pancakes right now, and I feel like I deserve a little comfort food.

A male nurse with black hair and a soul patch approaches me with a gown and says, “OK, Mr. Brookbank, we’re going to get you in and out with your CAT scan. First, we’ll have you put this gown on and then we’ll get you all hooked up with your IV and blah blah blah.” Everything else he says turns into static. My eyes shift to my wife, who grimaces. I say, “Uh . . . OK . . . OK. Do you . . . do you have a restroom I can change in and, uh . . . have a panic attack?” and the male nurse with the soul patch says, “Yes, absolutely. Right this way.”

Inside the bathroom I change into the knee length, butt-revealing gown and stare at myself in the mirror; blue eyes filled with fear, wispy beard standing on end, skin the color of bad eggs. I don’t give myself a pep talk. I don’t say anything. I just stare at my reflection and try to imagine what it feels like to not be afraid of needles.

“Everyone is afraid of needles,” my wife says and I respond with, “No. Nobody likes needles. Not everyone is afraid of them. I don’t like the cold. I’m not afraid of it. You don’t like onions. You’re not afraid of them. My fear is deeply psychological and . . . it’s very . . . you wouldn’t understand. They’re pointy and silver and . . . They’re just so fucking pointy and silver!”

The Internet tells me the complex is called trypanophobia, an illness so foul that they actually had to give it a name no one could pronounce.

Soul Patch calls my name and escorts me into The Room. The door shuts and clicks behind me. In the middle of the floor is a giant Mechanical Donut, 6-and-a-half-feet high with a bed that rolls in and out of its delicious center. Next to the circular, steel pastry is a robotic arm that has a bag filled with clear liquid dangling from its “hand.” It is this clear liquid, I understand without being told, that will be shot into my veins to assist and activate the barium.

I ask Soul Patch how long he’s been doing this and he says, “Coupla’ years,” and I say, “I mean IVs. How long? Are you good at it?” and he says, “Oh. Yeah. Couple years. I’m good.”

Yeah, right. Your voice has the confidence of an eighth grader buying beer. Intern! Intern! Intern! And for the first time I find myself intentionally trying to focus on the pulsating lump of my lump, trying to distract myself from the needle.

I ask him what the CAT scan is for, and he noncommittally answers, “Oh, you’re a new patient, and we just like to do preliminary work on everyone prior to surgery,” and I say, “But specifically my pelvis, abdomen, and lungs?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah . . . sort of everywhere, but yeah. There, mostly,” and I think, “Shame on you, kid. You’re not old enough to buy beer and that is a fake ID.” I think, “I know what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see if it’s spread anywhere. You’re looking to see if it’s growing. You want to know what to do if the surgery doesn’t work or if you’re too late.”

Soul Patch tells me to lie back and I do, reluctantly. He tells me to hold out my arm and I do, reluctantly. He holds my wrist and starts to slap around my forearm with two fingers. “How,” he asks, “are your veins?” and I tell him I don’t know. He asks if I’ve drunk any water recently and I say, “A little,” and he says, “Uh, OK. This is usually a bit easier if you’ve been drinking water but we’ll see what we can—” slap, slap—“do . . . . ”

My eyes are the size of dinner saucers, and my hands curl into fists of fear. I want to scream for Jade to bring me water, water, WATER!!! A cup, a glass, a gallon, a hose, anything. We’ll see what we can do??!! What does that mean?? I imagine him sliding the needle under my skin and into my vein, missing and probing, fishing, hooking, sticking, stabbing, wiggling, my wrinkled and hibernating vein exploding over and over, blood leaking out and running all over the floor. In my mind, Soul Patch keeps saying, “Oops, oops, sorry, again, once more, my bad,” until I finally just pass out.

“There ya go.” I look down, and it’s done. He tells me to lie back and keep my arm with the silvery, pointy needle sticking in it above my head. “Keep it pointed at the ceiling,” and I say, “The needle—is the needle still in my arm?” and he says, “Uh . . . no. It’s just a small rubber hose,” and I say, “Can I bend my arm without getting poked?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah. I’ll be in this room over here and I’ll give you directions over the intercom.” I try to bend my arm and feel a little poke. Intern! Or maybe it was just the tape pulling at a hair. I don’t know. But I bet that needle is still in there. In my arm. In my vein.

Soul Patch’s voice comes over the intercom, and I turn my head to the left. He’s in a booth that looks like it’s being protected from radiation caused by nuclear fallout. I have to pause and wonder what sort of danger my body is currently in, what sort of rays I am about to endure. I try to remember what it was that The Fantastic Four were hit with when my train of thought is interrupted.

“Remember to keep your arm up—at the ceiling—like you have a question.” The only question I have is, When will this be over?

I have no idea how unanswerable that actually is.

The tech, from his bomb shelter, says, “And here comes the dye.” I watch the fluid come down the bag, through the tube, and into my arm, and then I’m pretty certain that I have legitimately shit my pants. Everything from my abdomen to my thighs is steaming hot.

The intercom comes back on. Soul Patch says, “The dye may cause you to feel like you’ve . . . wet . . . your pants,” and I shut my eyes and take a deep breath, trying not to focus on the warmth in my pelvis.

The bed jerks and slides into the donut. I open my eyes and read a sign taped to the top of the donut hole: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE LASER. A female robot voice comes through the donut, The Bakery God, and says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” And I do. And I shut my eyes. And I pray. Not to the bakery god, but to That Faceless And Eternal Being. I do not blame you. I do not understand. Help me.

“You. May. Breathe.” The robot says and the bed pulls me out of the donut sanctuary. “Doing OK?” Soul Patch asks, and I say, “Yeah,” but in my head I think, Not so great . . . . Did I shit my pants?

The bed jerks forward again and the robot tells me, “Hold. Your. Breath.”

What hangs in the balance of this test? What will these results reveal? The thought of this being the beginning of something bigger crosses my mind, and I try to push it away. For me, surgery is the end. There is a definitive period afterward, and I go home and go back to work and that’s it but . . . .

What if . . . .

What if the cancer has spread? Lungs? Stomach? Liver? Is this possible? Yes. Yes, it’s all definitely possible. But is it probable? I pause, trying to be logical and not emotional and yes, I realize, it is probable.

“You. May. Breathe.”

Will I die in six months? Could I die in six months? I could die in six months. If it has spread, what are my chances for survival? The Internet tells me that, depending on what kind of cancer I have, it could be anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent survival rate, which is basically like saying, “Maybe you’ll die. Maybe you won’t,” and then shrugging unapologetically.

“Hold. Your. Breath.”

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Like all good hospitals, ours made us wait the entire weekend before giving us the (maybe) life-changing results of our test. Over those three days, every stomachache turned into stomach cancer, every pain in my finger exploded into bone cancer, every headache transformed into brain cancer. By the time they called back late Monday afternoon, I had diagnosed myself as a tumor wearing clothes.

“What are my results? My, uh, my test results?” and the lady on the phone says, “I’m not allowed to give out that information, sir,” and I say, “I know. I know you’re not. But it’s OK. It’s me, er, my body. It’s my body. It’s not a secret to me,” and she says, “I just really can’t, and actually, I just don’t have access to the information. The doctor would, however, like to speak with you.”

Outside, thunder claps and lightening strikes and the camera zooms dramatically into my face and I hear the soundtrack of my life play dun-DUN-DUUUUUUN!!!

I take a half-day off work the next day and drive back to Arcadia to visit with Dr. Honda, the friendly neighborhood urologist. When I arrive, all the receptionists know me by name and smile and welcome me in and everything is just too friendly. Jade and I sit down and she picks up the same copy of Better Homes she’d been reading previously and opens up to the page she had habitually dog-eared.

A woman calls my name and both my wife and I stand up. I start walking forward while Jade casually slides the magazine into her purse. The receptionist leads us back through a narrow corridor crowded by old people with various urinating issues. We take a seat in the room where I was told I had cancer and Jade says, “Is this where he told you?”

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Where were you sitting?”

And I say, “Here.”

And she says, “And was he right here?”

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Did you cry?”

And I say, “No. I said, ‘Rats.’”

She glances suspiciously around before sliding out her hot copy of Better Homes just before Dr. Honda knock-knock-enters. Jade shoves the magazine back in her purse like she’s just been caught trying to purchase extra-tiny condoms. The doctor shakes my hand, and I introduce him to my wife. He smiles and says, “Nice to meet you,” and takes a seat.

To his right he sets down a regular manila envelope with my name scratched onto the tab. Inside that envelope, I think, is everything. My future is just out of my reach.

He makes small talk with me and asks how my job is going, and I answer in short but courteous statements. He finally says, “Welp!” and grabs the folder and opens it on his lap and here comes The News.

“You have,” and he slides his finger down the page, turns it, examines the second page, “stage one cancer.”

I drop to my knees and tear my shirt and wail and scream and curse the Earth and the doctor says, “That’s . . . uh . . .that’s the kind we already knew you had,” and I immediately sit back on the paper-covered table and compose myself and say, “That’s great!”

Dr. Honda says, “It hasn’t spread. We’ll do the surgery and that should be it.”

YES!” We are going to (literally) cut this villain off at the pass and bury it alive. Goodnight, dickwad!

“Just out of curiosity,” I ask, “How high do the stages go?” and the doctor says, “Four. They go to four.”

 

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If you’re reading this with us weekly, thank you. The above chapters were such a bizarre place for us. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety. What is going to happen is a good question but what IS happening is maybe the better one.

Next week we’re going to get into sexy finances. That’s right, sweetheart. Chapter nine is about sperm banking. World’s most awkward excerpt below . . .

 

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The woman behind the desk hands me a cup and says, “Back through that door on the right. No lubrication. No spit,” and she looks directly at my wife and I say, “Oh . . . Ooooooh . . . .

We walk through the appropriate door and find ourselves in a room roughly the size of a hotel conference hall. Everything is white. Everything is sterile. The fluorescents buzz in the ceiling. On the walls: Georgia O’Keeffe.

Of course.

Sitting next to the door is a small table cluttered with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions. Motivation. In the center of the room is a chair that can only be described as something you would get a root canal in. It’s black, leather, and constantly at a slight recline. I sit in it and assume that this specific posture has been scientifically proven to help nervous men climax in public places.

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PARENTS: CHAPTER 6

 

Welcome back for Cancer Monday. Every week we’re releasing a chapter from my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, which chronicles that one time I had cancer at 26, until the very bittersweet end.

If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here.

Otherwise, let’s press forward and read together about what it was like to call my parental units to inform them about my tumor.

 

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Over the last few weeks I’ve left my parents in the dark because I didn’t want to put them through unnecessary Cancer worry, especially if the problem were going to simply solve itself. Which it didn’t. So now I have to work on The Big Reveal. And remember, as any good salesman will tell you, presentation is everything.

Jade pulls into a Walgreen’s parking lot to buy a Diet Coke and we sit on the sidewalk and call her mom. “It’s a lump. It’s cancer. They’re taking it, yes.” My mother-in-law asks to speak to me. She asks me how I’m doing. She asks me how I’m feeling. I tell her that it’s no big deal. I tell her that absolute very worst-case scenario is that I have to get a little chemotherapy, just some needle and I’ll feel like I’ve got the flu for a bit. I’ll get better. Whatever.

She says, “Wow.” She says, “You’re brave.” She says, “Stay strong.”

The truth is, I’m not brave. I’m being forced kicking and screaming through this scenario. I don’t want to be here, and I never would have volunteered. I don’t deserve this.

Deserve. That’s an awfully big word that gets thrown around a lot. Maybe I do deserve it. I try to examine my life from a higher perspective. I’ve lied, cheated, and stolen; said hurtful things to people intentionally; torn people down verbally with complete purpose; and talked shit about my friends and family behind their backs. Maybe I do deserve this.

We drive home and I take a seat in my backyard on our patio furniture. I lean back in the chair and let the sun, one of the only absolute constants in our lives, hit my face, warm me, comfort me.

A man walks through my alley pushing a shopping cart and shouting, “Tamale! Tamale! Tamale con queso!” and I think about him and all my neighbors and how, as far as I know, none of them have cancer. Just me. Just all of a sudden. Nobody knows about my balls. Nobody anywhere knows or cares about anything right now.

My mom wanders around her home 1,500 miles away, feeding her dogs, her healthy children somewhere in the back of her head. My dad fixes a computer, thoughts of gigabytes and RAM clouding his brain, the world a dull fuzz outside of his peripheral.

Everything is about to change for them. They are about to become Parents Of A Child With Cancer.

I pick up the phone and call my mom first. I let it ring six times before I hang up. I set the phone down and stare at it, wondering if maybe she’ll call right back. I stand up and start pacing, rubbing my thumb along the inside of my pinky, a nervous tick I have.

I pick up the phone again and try my dad. It rings twice before he answers in a distracted, gruffly voice. “This is Mike,” he says. “Hey, Daaaaaad. It’s me.” I sort of let the word play out like that because I have no idea how to get into this conversation, how to ease into it; I didn’t plan an opening act or monologue. “How’s it going?” I ask, and he begins to tell me about computer problems that I don’t and probably won’t ever understand. I listen, but only to be polite because I didn’t call to hear what he’s been up to. I didn’t call for any polite reason. I called with one intent and I’m just waiting for my selfish turn to speak.

“What’s new with you?” he asks. And there’s my window.

“Well,” I say, struggling for the words, hoping that they would find me if I just started talking but . . . no. I throw eloquence and pacing to the wind and just say, “I have cancer.”

There’s a long pause on the other end like he’s waiting for the punch line. The great joke this is bound to be. It doesn’t come. Trust me, I’m still waiting myself.

He says, “Oh . . . kay . . . . Did you tell your mom?” and I say, “No,” and he says, “You better let me tell her,” and I quickly say, “NO! No . . . I’d rather tell her myself,” and he says, “Oh . . . kay . . . . ” and I quickly fill in the blanks with, “There’s a good chance I’ll survive. I just . . . I have cancer . . . . ” There’s more silence. Loads of it. Then he says, “Your mom just got home. Why don’t you call her?” And I do.

Yellow, John Boy! How ya’ doin’?” My mother is forever the chipper woman, her syllables bouncing up and down playfully. I feel bad that I have to destroy this. I say, “I’m doing good. I’m doing OK. Did Dad talk to you?” and she, with a hint of suspicion, says, “Nooo-ooooh. What’s going on?”

I take a deep breath and shut my eyes. In my head I think, I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to tell you this. I wish I could just keep it from you and spare you and not drag you into it. I wish I didn’t have to damage you with this information, and I’m sorry for the pain I’m about to cause you. I feel sick to my stomach.

“I have cancer.”

Another long silence. I’ll get used to these. Like an old computer reading a large file, people need a chunk of time to process a sizable piece of information like that.

There are no tears. She doesn’t cry. Everything about this interaction is atypical. I tell her I should survive and she says, “OK.” I tell her I’ll keep her posted on everything and then, as she’s telling me goodbye, I hear her voice crack and I realize that she is first and foremost in shock, and second, trying to keep a straight face for my sake. I tell her goodbye and the moment I slam the phone closed I begin to cry, vicious sobs that wrench my body.

Moments later my phone rings, and I assume it’s my mom calling back, but no. It’s my brother-in-law, Jarod. I cover my eyes with the palm of my hand and wipe down, pushing the tears away. I look up at the sky, and I think about how there are people out there with real problems. People starving. People dying. Currently dying of cancer. Lung cancer. Heart cancer. Brain cancer. Get it together. I answer the phone, trying to sound cool but coming off like a mop. “Hey . . . . ”

Jarod, three years my senior, says, “Heeeey. So I just heard about . . . . How are you doing?” and this is the one person I’ve spoken to so far who I don’t want to cry in front of. This is my brother-in-law and the person I just want to shrug it off with and give an, “Eh, you know,” but for some reason, I can’t hold it back. Everything comes out. Everything I didn’t tell my mom. Everything I didn’t tell my dad. Everything I didn’t tell my mother-in-law. Everything I didn’t tell my wife. It comes out now.

Everything overflows.

I’m so afraid. I’m so fucking afraid. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t . . . I don’t fucking deserve this and . . . it’s so fucked up. I can’t have kids— I’m like some fucking . . . sterile . . . . I can’t fucking have kids! And they’re going to cut my nut off. I’m so afraid that I’m going to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” And then I just cry into the phone and it feels so great and so terrible and Jarod says the absolute wisest thing he can.

Nothing.

He simply listens.

 

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Next week we’re talking about The Mechanical Donut. Excerpt below . . .

 

What hangs in the balance of this test? What will these results reveal? The thought of this being the beginning of something bigger crosses my mind, and I try to push it away. For me, surgery is the end. There is a definitive period afterward, and I go home and go back to work and that’s it but . . . .

What if . . . .

What if the cancer has spread? Lungs? Stomach? Liver? Is this possible? Yes. Yes, it’s all definitely possible. But is it probable? I pause, trying to be logical and not emotional and yes, I realize, it is probable.

Will I die in six months? Could I die in six months? I could die in six months. If it has spread, what are my chances for survival? The Internet tells me that, depending on what kind of cancer I have, it could be anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent survival rate, which is basically like saying, “Maybe you’ll die. Maybe you won’t,” and then shrugging unapologetically.

 

 

 

 

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THE DESERT: CHAPTER 1

Welcome back! This week we’re looking at Chapter 1 from my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo. If you’d like to start from the top, click here! Otherwise, we’ll see you at the bottom of the page! Let’s go.

PART 1

“Insert pithy yet poignant quote here that signifies the beginning of a long but life-changing journey.”

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It’s 5:45 a.m., and the sky is just beginning to lighten, turning from black, to shades of gray, to purple, to orange, same as a bruise. The sun just begins to peek over the mountains directly in front of me, and it’s one of the most beautiful and serene things I’ve ever seen.

I stare directly into the glowing orb and watch it rise, rise, rise, until it’s a blazing white-hot inferno too bright to look at. I roll my window down and the warm desert wind hits me in the face. After driving straight through a chilly night, it’s the perfect temperature. I crank the stereo; Zack de la Rocha’s latest band, One Day as a Lion, has just released its first five-track EP, and it has been my soundtrack from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for the past several hours.

The wind blows in my ears so I turn the music up louder. I turn the music up louder. I turn the music up louder. It’s at maximum volume and I am simply screaming alongside the lyrics, shaking my head and pounding the steering wheel. Whenever a car approaches, I quickly compose myself, pretending to just be a regular guy driving a regular family-friendly car on a regular freeway. As soon as I’m sure the car is out of sight, I resume my full-body-dry-heave inspired dance moves. Remember, dance like no one is watching . . . unless someone actually is. I am Axl Rose. I am Anthony Kiedis. I am Andrew W.K.

I slowly push my foot toward the floor and watch as the speedometer begins its sluggish ascent up the numeric Mount Everest built into my dashboard—75 . . . 80 . . . 90 mph . . . . I lock it in and cruise, watching cactus and dirt blur past me on the left and right. There is a certain freedom in the desert, a dirty voice that calls out to let everything go . . . a voice that is Reckless Abandon.

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At this time of morning, there are almost no cars on the highway so, like a horny high school boy, I begin to nudge a little further, just to see what’ll happen: 95 . . . 96 . . . 97 . . . 98 . . . . I’ve never pushed this or any other car to 100 mph, and being this close makes me want to just stick it in and slam it down.

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I take a deep breath, hold it, and juice the pedal. The gage immediately leaps like someone has jammed a cattle prod into the base of its skull . . . 99 . . . 100 . . . 105 . . . 110 . . . 115. At 120 mph I scream out the window at the top of my lungs.

I am twenty-five. It’s one month before my birthday, and I am invincible.

Nothing can touch me.

Nothing.

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Short chapter this week but please stick around! We’ve got a little set-up to do before we dig into the really bloody, painful, tragic stuff – you know, all the really delightful things!

Next Monday we’ll be experiencing Chapter 2: The Orange and The Sock where we’ll talk about my penis. It’s going to be really uncomfortable and I hope to see you there!

Hit that follow button in the bottom right corner so you don’t miss it!

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