Tag Archives: humor

The Ultimate Conspiracy

Something horrible has happened to me.

I was raised in the Catholic church. The Catholic church is what the religious community would call fundamentalist. What the H-E-C-K is that?

Let’s go GOOOOOOOOGLE it!

The All-Seeing-All-Knowing-Great-and-Powerful voice of the Internet defines a fundamentalist as a person who believes in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture in a religion.

Yeah, that was me. Certain ideas that come along with fundamentalism are:

  1. Creationism. The Earth was created in a literal six days.
  2. There was a literal Adam and Eve, real people in a real garden.
  3. Noah put two of each animal onto an ark.

The facts of the story are the facts of the story and the facts of the story are literal.

When I was in high school, in ninth grade, I have a very powerful memory of sitting in my Biology classroom while my teacher, a hulking football coach with the body of a line-backer, explained what evolution was.

Any questions? he asked.

No hands go up except mine. The truth is, I don’t have a question. I have a statement and I’m about to drop a Knowledge Bomb on this entire class. Get ready for this treat.

“Johnny?” he calls on me and I can almost hear in his voice that he doesn’t expect much to roll out of my mouth. Why would he? I fail nearly every class I’m in and spend every single Saturday in detention. I had a track record of being a brilliant rock-star and I’m about to back it up even further.

“Mr. Bailey. Today is April 1st. Happy Evolutionist Day.”

What a joker I was. What a cocky, thoughtless, sub-human, unconscious animal I was. A chimpanzee wearing Vans and a crucifix around my neck. A WWJD bracelet adorning my wrist.

He cocks a beefy eyebrow at me. My extremely clever joke has gone over his great gorilla head, it seems. I try to speak on his level.

“Today is April 1st. Today is April Fools Day. Happy Evolutionist Day.” Because only a fool could believe in evolution.

Everyone sitting in my class was being fed some laughable story about evolution from this brain-washed academic messenger. Goodness. His tale about man from monkey (not to mention amoeba) was insanely laughable. It was crazy. It was koo-koo-bananas.

Mr. Bailey takes a deep breath. “Please enlighten us, Mr. Brookbank.”

“God created us. God made us.” I recite.

“When?”

“Recently. About six or seven thousand years ago.”

“How do you know?”

“The Bible told me so.”

“And the Bible was written by?”

“God. Man. Man inspired by God.”

He tries another angle but I block him. “John. Do you believe that Noah put all those animals on the ark?” “Yes.” “Two of each?” “Yes.” “How did he feed them?”

Shit. I hadn’t thought about this. Thankfully, I had an answer for things I hadn’t thought about. “God made it okay. God can do anything.” Ah, yes. That’s a clever one. The Wild Card. The Get-Out-Of-Jail free card. Works every time.

The rest of the class is mostly disengaged, happy that they’ve escaped talk of DNA and the process of natural selection for at least a short amount of time.

“If Adam and Eve were the first humans, wouldn’t their children be bred by incest?”

Dang it. He’s caught me off guard again. It’s okay, though. I’ve got an answer for it.

“God made it okay. God can do anything.” Wild card!

“So God is okay with incest?”

“No. Incest is an abomination but it was okay then.” I kind of start to panic. I blurt out my red button phase that rockets me into the untouchable zone. “God is mysterious and his powers are not understood by man.”

The conversation ultimately ends with me raising an eyebrow and balking at his idiocy. I walked out of the class, absolutely shocked and appalled that such a person would be allowed to teach the youth. What a complete moron.

I was so proud of myself when this happened. I had stood up for my personal beliefs. I had bravely confronted psychological evil in the world. I knew my ideas were different but I was okay with being the black sheep. I did it for Jesus. I couldn’t stand down and let these guys get the best of my homie. He had died for me. The least I could do is get his back in Biology 101. How would I ever be a Warrior for Christ in The Real World if I couldn’t even verbally defend my faith within the confines of a classroom?

You want to get in shape? Create a habit of going to the gym. You want a clean house? Create a habit of cleaning your house. You want to be confident? Create a habit of telling yourself that you’re confident. You want to hold a belief, any belief, create a habit of telling it to yourself every single day.

I think, therefore I am.

You want to be a fundamentalist, go to a church where they reinforce that idea. Have your family and friends reinforce the idea. And if you’re born into it, even better. You don’t ever have to think that maybe there is another option. When I was a kid, I was so thankful that my parents had raised me in the one single correct religion. Thank God! Literally.

What would have happened to me, I often thought to myself, if I had been born in some filthy country where they worshipped Allah? My uncle was a Muslim and I think he might be going to Hell. His kids too. And probably his wife. Which was a shame because I kind of liked them. If I had been born into that land, amongst those people, I would have had to go out, find Jesus on my own, leave my native faith, commit to Christ and then be saved. That seemed like a lot of work and also that country and the people seemed kind of dirty and so I was really thankful to be where I was. They were hell-bound blasphemers who believed in a silly invisible God that told them what was right and wrong. And they prayed to him, hahahahaha. Idiots.

April 1st was also Happy Muslim Day, it would seem.

I thought to myself, Thank God that I was born into the greatest place on earth. Thank God I was born into the correct religion. Thank God…..”

….that I didn’t have to think for myself.

Thank God that I had been raised to be thoughtless. Thank God I had been raised to disavow the use of my own human logic in favor of a faceless and fact-less belief system that told me everything I thought was right and everything everyone else thought was wrong.

Thy ego is starving. Let us feed it with self-righteousness. YUUUUUUUMMY. It is bitter with ignorance but sweet with self-satisfaction.

I was so right, in fact, that I didn’t even have to read a book to know I was right. I didn’t need to read the biology books because they were full of lies. Science was always trying to “explain everything” and that we should just trust in God more.

Carbon dating was a joke because, didn’t my teacher know, that someone in my church told me that scientists somewhere had carbon dated a living turtle and the results said it was 10,000 years old? But the reality was that there was no study. It was just a guy at my church.

It was just a willfully ignorant, brain-dead drone repeating mindless drivel that the other lemmings had been mumbling to themselves. And I digested it and I repeated it. And it felt good to be right.

But then something interesting happened to me later in life. It was life-changing. It, quite literally, quite fundamentally, rocked my entire world.

I read a book.

Nothing in particular. I just read a book.

looked at what was presented and for the first time in my life I realized that I only believed what I believed because I had been told to not look at the other side. Stand by your faith. Be strong. There is no value to their opinions. You have the truth. You have the answer. You don’t even need to consider another side. And when you are tempted to look and consider, just remember that The Dark One is tempting you. Come back to safety, my little sheep.

But when I looked, when I read, when I ingested, when I saw, when I thought, when I took the bite of the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge, my eyes and my mind opened and I saw.

I Saw.

I saw that the idea of the world being created in seven thousand years was not only preposterous but one that was borderline absolutely insane. And I don’t use that lightly. I use it like mental ward, asylum, existing outside of reality insane.

It was Insane what I had believed for the past TWENTY-FIVE YEARS. That is a fucking long time to be, by any standard, super-stupid.

And then… The Internet. We were no longer living in caves. We were no longer illiterate. We were no longer sourcing our facts from distant philosophers and great thinkers. We didn’t even have to go to the library to get a book anymore. We didn’t even have to get it from our teachers. The Internet – it was a portal into the purest knowledge and it sits inside of our back pocket. With a few quick key-strokes, you could have a nearly unending supply of information from any and all sides of any and all topics.

There are two kinds of people, in my opinion, that are allowed to be Creationists. The first are the elderly. Many of them don’t have access to the internet. Bad eyes. Tired. Etc. The other group are children who can’t read.

Everyone in between those two groups no longer has any excuse for not taking the time to properly educate themselves on their own biological history. Pure ignorance is no longer acceptable with Time Warner. The internet has taken every single other reasonable option completely off the table. If you don’t know, you aren’t looking.

Reminds me of my kids. “I can’t find my shoes!

“Then you aren’t looking. They’re sitting right by the door.”

“Oh.”

There is an amazing amount of anger and contempt that exists inside of me for having ever been told that all of this – our world – was made recently. It infuriates me that I was encouraged to be ignorant. It upsets me – truly – that I was taught such wild and inconceivable tales.

I like to tell myself that it was different for me when I was younger. The Internet was picking up but wasn’t nearly as ingrained in our daily lives as it is today. Today, I tell myself, if you believe the world was created less than ten thousand years ago, you are committing the greatest sin of all.

You are choosing to intentionally remain willfully ignorant in the face of facts and endless amounts of evidence.

Carbon dating doesn’t work because–

Because you don’t understand it. That’s why. And you don’t understand it because you refuse to try to understand it. And that’s just lazy.

In the age of YouTube, you can learn about how carbon dating works in a four minute video.

Today I sit down and I look at two options and I say to myself…

OPTION 1

Slowly, slowly, slowly, over the course of great amounts of time, life developed on this planet, growing from a small force, to a Force to be Reckoned with. We see this drama of life play out over and over again with plants, animals and even the cycles of the seasons. It is repeatable and predictable.

OPTION 2

God farted everything out in six days and humanity in one. Nothing like this has ever happened before or since. No one was there. No one saw it. There is no evidence of it except for a book with no author. A glove that doesn’t fit.

 

Now, if I’m sitting in a courtroom and I have to decide which of these I’m choosing…. I mean, Option 2 feels like a story a kid would write. It feels objectively silly when you stack it against the other and A//B them like that.

It is laughable (but also horrifying) to think there are people (adults) who select OPTION B. Who are these people? What makes them select something that is so entirely and clearly wrong? You can have a vacation on the beautiful beaches of Hawaii or we can send you to Guantanamo Bay, where you will be tortured for weeks on end! The choice is yours!

I don’t know, Bob…. OPTION….B?

Here’s another multiple choice, this one a little closer to reality.

OPTION A

Particles in the clouds create electric charge, build up and cause lightening.

OPTION B

God is throwing lightening bolts.

One of them has facts and things we can observe and read about and replicate. One of them is a fortune cookie that was written by people before people knew what science was. It’s crazy how easy this test is. It’s crazy how many people fail.

It is tremendously disturbing to me when I have conversations with people who are Fundamental Creationists and I realize that they vote.

Individuals – and quite a large group of them – who are unable to review information from both sides and make a rational decision on their own are able to vote and craft the voice of our country. It is terrifying to me. They aren’t listening to themselves. They aren’t reading. So how do they decide? They just wait for someone to tell them what to do, where to stand, how to think. In the game of chess, these are called Pawns and they are disposable because there are so many of them. In real life we call these Pawns soldiers and we send them to die for some purpose. I think it has to do with protecting our fence or our oil or our God – or is it our freedom? I can’t keep up with it.

 

More than bashing on the population base of Creationists (which I’m also doing because it really does deeply upset me at my core level), I am writing to say that I am so thankful that I have been broken from the bondage of faith. Faith is the enemy of intelligence. And lack of intelligence is the enemy of Man. And Willful Ignorance is Evil Incarnate.

The question that was posed to me during a church class echoes back through my mind. Why does science have to try and EXPLAIN everything?

Today I understand that the answer is not the problem. That is just a crazy-stupid question. CRAZY stupid.

Because if we lived in a world where we didn’t try to explain things, we wouldn’t progress, we would still be living in caves yelling at Kronk to just put down that fucking wheel. Listen, Kronk! If God wanted us to have fire, he would have given it to us! Quit dabbling in The Dark Arts!

 

In 2018, Fundamentalism is not fun. But it is mental. Like crazy. Like fucking bonkers. Like the chicken from Moana seeing the wall but just walking directly into it over and over again.

Evidence of the wall does not matter. Keep marching. Keep marching. Keep marching. Evidence does not matter. Evidence not matter. Evidence does not matter. I am right. I am right. I am right. I sleep at night. God loves me. Amen.

I hope I’ve adequately offended you enough to at least go YouTube something. SOMETHING. Challenge your beliefs. Challenge yourself. Open yourself to the idea that you actually may be stupid like I was, marching around publicly proclaiming how under-developed my brain was.

Larger than 9-11. Larger than Area-51. Larger than Crop Circles. The idea that millions and millions and millions of people believe, without evidence, that the Earth is 7,000 years young is The Ultimate Conspiracy Theory. At that point you might as well believe that the Earth is flat and that the Sun commits to doing large circles around us.

Open the trap-door. Look into the darkness. Then jump down into it.

What if I’ve spent my whole life believing a lie?

No! Your brain immediately shrieks in response. It’s too insane to even consider. The Dark One again, tempting you with knowledge.

Better to be what God desires me to be – an ostrich with my head shoved down into the sand, listening to the gentle hum of my own heartbeat, ensuring me that I and I alone, am saved.

I think back on my Biology Classroom Experience and I shutter with embarrassment. How much patience that teacher had with me, I’ll perhaps never know. How much empathy he had for me, I’ll never know either but I look back at myself and I look out at people I know who still believe these things and it feels like my heart breaks for them. I’m so sad that they live such shallow, unsaturated, lives with boring belief systems that shrink down the magnanimous beauty of our ever-expanding universe into a novelty trinket that can be contained in four words and be mindlessly repeated by any child old enough to mimic.

God can do anything.

You could probably even teach it to a parrot.

God can do anything.

Including make a race of apes that know how to pull a trigger but not read, it seems.

God can do anything.

Including encouraging you to believe an enormous story with zero evidence. Heads up, that happens anywhere else in life and you would be called a raving lunatic.

Water does not come out of my sink through the pipes. I turn on my God-faucet and Jesus juice pours out. It looks like it comes from the pipes. But it doesn’t. It comes from the … Jesus Juice place….

Are you a raving lunatic?

Perhaps.

I was. Shrieking outlandish and incoherent thoughts in my biology class. There was no reason to learn.

I already knew everything.

What a sad, pathetic little creature I was. So wrapped up in my own absolute certainty that I left no room for exploration.

I am so thankful for the internet and books and knowledge and science and academics and philosophers and people who think and inspire us all to think and to lead mentally active life-styles. I am so thankful that I live in a world wherein I am not just allowed but encouraged, to learn and expand my intellectual horizons.

I’m going to wrap this up with my own personal beliefs, which are an opinion and which, like the rest of this post, is probably pretty offensive.

If you take your children to church, but don’t watch BBC Planet Earth with them, you are doing our society a great disservice. You are harming mankind by intentionally closing malleable minds off from information that would make them Greater Than. You are intentionally stunting their growth and handicapping their ability to problem solve and use critical thinking skills.

But my faith is important to me!

Well, ignorance is bliss. And you look very blissful.

Very blissful.

Also, you can teach your child about love and forgiveness and compassion without teaching them about impossible magic that fucks with their heads and leaves them with a gap between imagination and reality for the rest of their lives.

I shudder, thinking to myself again that these people with wildly low IQs not only vote, but own guns.

In the most ironic tone I can muster, I end with, God help us.

And if God can’t, Science help us.

albert-einstein-god

 

 

 

 

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EPILOGUE

PART 5

“Woo-Hoo!”

-Blur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With twins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

And here is the beautiful lady herself.

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

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

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

Your spirit is beautiful.

Thank you for standing next to me.

-Johnny

 

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

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

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

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

I say, “OK, go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I say, “Any of your AIDS blood?”

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

And I say, “Cold move.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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TONGUE: CHAPTER 36

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grasping at control.

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

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

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

I shut my eyes and nap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life has a very funny way of changing us.

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

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

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

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

My wife says, “Are you all—”

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

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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SOLAR ECLIPSE: CHAPTER 31

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad news comes, don’t you worry

Even when it lands

Good news will work its way to all them plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow is Round 3.

 

 

 

 

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LOCKJAW: CHAPTER 30

 

It is an easy life to wake up every morning and to hate our jobs. It is an easy life to piss and moan while we drive to work. It is an easy life to hate our bosses and to begrudgingly accomplish a list of tasks set out before us. It is an easy life to be put upon, allowing the world and circumstances and fate to blow us this way or that way and to kick the ground and say, “If only my luck would change.”

It’s easy to be a victim.

Whether it’s a bad marriage or a job that is uninspiring or a disease that catches us off guard, it’s easy to slouch down, shut our eyes, and feel sorry for ourselves.

It is also very amazing how quickly our perspective will shift and change once these horrible responsibilities that have been “placed on our shoulders” are suddenly gone and missing. How desperately we would eat the scraps from the table we were previously dining at.

Sitting in My Yellow Chair, I think to myself that I would do near anything to have my job back. To have any job back. I would go back to the video store I worked at as a senior in high school, I would go back to the coffee shop I worked at as a junior, I would go back to the sandwich shop I worked at as a sophomore. Paperboy, garbage man, toll-booth attendant, just let me live. Let me stand in the sunshine and talk to someone. Let my cares be menial and pointless and let me eat turkey sandwiches for lunch. Let me leave at five and drive home in bumper to bumper traffic and give me my thoughts—reasonable, logical thoughts. Let me think of my wife as the woman I married and love dearly; let her be the object of my affection and desire and let me not see her as my caretaker any longer. Let me grow old and come to take care of my mother. Don’t let my mother stand by idly and watch me die, cradling her son in her arms as I shrivel away, fading further and further into The Black.

Give me Life. Give me Freedom. Give me Adventure. I want to sail. I want to scuba dive. I want to scream. I want to skydive. I want to camp, hike, and swim. I want to travel in an RV. I want to visit Nicaragua and Ireland. I want to live in the woods. I want to fire a gun. I want to make a movie. I want to write a book. I want to have a family, grow old, and die with no regrets. I want to learn to play guitar, cook, and perform sleight of hand magic tricks. I want to stand up in front of a large group of people and say, “THIS is my story. THIS is what happened to me. THIS is how I got through it.” I want to donate my time to something, someone, anyone. I want to donate my money to something, someone, anyone. I want to make a difference. I want to talk to a child with cancer and say, “You’re going to be OK.” I want to alter and inspire those around me. I want to effect change. When I die, I don’t want to say, “I wish I . . . . ” Instead I want to say, “I did all.” If I saw it, I took it. Life is a fruit tree and everything is waiting to be picked and gobbled up. Some fruit is higher than others but, with the proper motivation to climb, all is attainable.

All is attainable.

More than anything, though, when I come out the other side of this disease, and you believe me, mark my words, I will—when I come out the other side, I am going to be a different person. Baptized by fire, existence will not look down on me but I will look down on existence, and I will conquer it and I will own it and I will eat everything it has to offer.

When I can walk, I will run. When I can think, I will write. When I can move, I will create, accomplish, execute.

Until then . . . until then, I will sit here and I will hibernate and I will simply try to inspire myself.

Cancer has a very vicious duality to it. The one side, the first side, the more prominent side, is very sad and dark and depressing. It’s very aggressive. It has sharp teeth and it bites and it (literally) kills you and (figuratively) those around you. It attacks your mind, body and spirit. It chips away at you piece by piece and makes you hate yourself and your life and your existence. But then, there, on the obverse side, is the stranger side of Cancer; the bit that people rarely speak about and the bit that the public rarely sees. Cancer is inspiring and life changing. It will clear your mind. The world comes into focus. The path becomes clear; the path of movement and forward momentum; the plan of attack.

My mother looks at me and says, “What are you thinking about?” and I look up and say, “I just want to live,” and she says, “I know . . . you will,” and I say, “No . . . I mean . . . when this is over. I want to go—” I reach up and touch my jaw. Something feels Wrong. Off. Stiff.

I place my thumb under my jawbone and apply pressure and I rub my cheek and I try to open my mouth but suddenly my teeth are clamping down on each other with the tenacity of a bear trap and my mom says, “What are you doing?” and between pursed lips I say, “I . . . can’t open my mouth.”

And so, how do you respond to that? Someone has a seizure, call 911. Someone is turning yellow, put them in the sun. Your heart hurts? You’re probably having a heart attack. Your face is going limp? You’re the victim of a stroke. These are obvious decisions but . . . I just can’t open my mouth. My mom says, “Does it hurt?” and I say, “Uh . . . no,” and then we both sit in silence trying to figure out what to do in the least dramatic scene of all time.

I wave my mom over and lift up my hands and she grabs me and I stand up and I say, “Let’s go for a walk,” and, instead of going outside, we just manipulate ourselves in a great big circle around and around and around the inside of my house. I make seven laps before I’m completely winded and need to take a break.

In the kitchen I lean heavily on the counter, stick my fingers between my teeth, and try to pry my mouth open. It’s a scene directly out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Jade enters and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “I can’t open my mouth,” and Jade says, “Why?” and I say, “I don’t know. I think I have lockjaw,” and Jade says, “Right . . . ” and I say, “Look at me! My jaw . . . is locked! I cannot open it! I have no key! How much more evidence do you need?!” and she steps forward and examines my face and says, “Hmmm. We could take you to the doctor?” and I say, “NO! No more doctors! No more IVs! No more hospital beds until I have to go back for the chemo. We’re figuring this out on our own. Who do we know? Can we Ask Jeeves?” and all of my words are coming out in chunky gusts and gasps.

My mom says, “Your aunt used to be a nurse,” and I say, “Yes! Absolutely! That’s right. Get her on the phone. Let’s solve this mystery!” and now my teeth are biting so hard into each other that it actually is starting to hurt and I’m getting so tired from standing up that I decide to go lie down on the couch, burying my face deep down into the crevices of the pillows.

I hear the phone click and my mom says, “Drink milk,” and I say, “And then what?” and she says, “I don’t know. I guess that’s it. Something about . . . blood and . . . I don’t know.”

Jade raises an eyebrow and shrugs and says, “You should probably get more calcium in your diet anyway,” and I say, “But of course,” and she pours me a tiny glass and I drink half of it, gag, drink the other half and sit down. Jade brings me another glass and I sip on it before, slowly, like oil on the Tin Woodman in Oz, my joints begin to loosen and I can stretch my jaw and talk again.

Cancer is, if nothing else, a very tragic adventure unlike any other that I’ve been on. Like a haunted house, it keeps you on your toes and it keeps you guessing and it makes you roll with the punches. Seizure! Swerve, block. Blood transfusion! Uppercut! Heart cancer, lung cancer! Pop-bang! “And now here comes his signature move: Lockjaw!”

Of all the things Cancer is, boring is not one of them.

I shut my eyes and wonder what tomorrow will bring.

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ALAN: CHAPTER 28

 

_JBP6669

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Perfect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

_JBP6854

 

 

 

 

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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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TAKE CONTROL: CHAPTER 26

 

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You know that feeling when you’ve got the flu and your stomach is just rolling around in your guts? That feeling where the back of your throat feels sensitive? That feeling where you just shut your eyes and cover your mouth and try to take some slow and easy breaths, telling yourself, “Just relax. Don’t puke . . . ” but no matter what you say you know that you’re going to eventually lose it and you’re going to have to make a mad dash for the bathroom and hopefully, hopefully, hopefully you’re lucky enough to actually make it to the toilet before your lunch bursts from your cheeks like a fire hose?

 

That feeling? You know the one. That’s how chemo makes you feel all day long.

 

Somebody says, “You need to eat something! Want a bite of salmon?” and you just shake your head and wish they’d stop talking about fish.

 

You know that feeling when you haven’t eaten anything all day and you’re so hungry that you’re actually considering feasting on really weird foods that you typically wouldn’t touch? You’re like, “Oh, if I only had a cheese-covered pretzel right now! If I only had a meatball sandwich with black olives and mayonnaise! If I only had a taco pizza that was folded in half into the shape of an actual taco . . . . ”

 

That feeling when you’re just starving and ravenous and you don’t want to eat, you simply want to consume . . . . That’s how chemo makes you feel all day long. Because you can’t eat. Because you throw everything up. So you’re constantly starving.

 

Two feelings that exist on completely opposite ends of the spectrum come together in your body and cause the perfect storm. It’s loving and hating someone. It’s giggling and crying. It’s jumping and falling.

 

This is chemotherapy’s intermission Round 2.

 

I’m sitting back in My Yellow Chair wishing that the doctors would just put me in a drug induced coma for the next few months, loss of time be damned.

 

One of our friends comes over. It’s easier to meet us at our house, on a level playing field, than it is in my hospital room, which is truly one floor above a morgue. She’s pregnant and stays for dinner. My wife and mother talk to her about the baby and her boyfriend and their life and their plans and their names and how excited they all are. Meanwhile, I sit in My Yellow Chair, eyes closed, breathing slowly and willing myself to not puke in front of our guest.

 

For dinner, I gorge myself on 12 grains of rice and half a baby carrot.

 

I slowly stand up, casually excusing myself. My wife and mother both rise, “Do you need help? Are you OK?” but I wave them off, smile and mumble, “Just fine.” (Breathe deeply). “Be right—” (breathe deeply) “back . . . ” and then I disappear around the corner, into the bathroom, and shut the door behind me.

 

I drop to my knees, grab the toilet seat, stick my face six inches above the water and puke, once, twice, three times. I lie my face on the cold porcelain and try to remember a time before this; when my biggest concern was being punctual for work. I heave again and more stomach bile rises up in my throat. I hate what I’ve become. This is not who I am. I’m supposed to be sitting at that table, telling jokes and making people laugh and I’m supposed to have my legs crossed with one arm thrown tightly around my wife but instead I’m a dying animal, hunched over the toilet with my face stuffed into a receptacle for human waste.

 

My lips are dry and my throat is parched, an ancient tube filled with desert sand. All I want is water to pour down onto me, into me, through me. I want to feel the cold refreshing waves rush over my tongue and down my gullet, filling my belly with icy relief until I can hear the liquid sloshing inside of me. But I know that if I drink, if I swallow, if I even open my mouth, I’ll be sick. I know that any water I drink comes back up and I know that the process is painful. I know what I want and I know that I can’t have it and then I’m trying to stand up, clutching the edge of the sink. I’m pulling myself up, saying, “To hell with the pain,” and my weak knees are shaking and I punch the faucet and the water is pouring down and I know it’s going to hurt so bad but I just need something to ease my constant thirst and then I thrust my face under the falling water and chills run down my spine and I’m taking in huge gulps, barely stopping to breathe. I gasp and shut my eyes and drink more and my stomach is expanding and stretching and crying out for me to stop but the water tastes so good and I want to scream and cry and I want to drink more and so I do. It’s rushing down my cheeks, down my chin, soaking the collar of my shirt and I’m swallowing and coughing and swallowing again and I know I’m about to regret this.

 

I lie my head on the counter and just listen to the water run out of the faucet and down the drain, the sound one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever heard. My hand fumbles around and finds the handle, brings it down and everything is silent. My legs give out and I drop back to the ground, palms down. I breathe heavy, trying to relive the immediate relief of the cold water but only feeling the hurt coming on and my gorge rising. My stomach is crying out in pain and I don’t care. This is the price I pay.

 

I throw myself at the toilet and a fountain of water bursts from my mouth with such force that I’m sure my cheeks are gyrating under the sheer magnitude. Every splash, every drop, every ounce comes rushing out and I feel it all—the perfect negative of all the goodness I’d previously ingested.

 

I tip over sideways and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. Someone knocks on the door and Jade asks if I’m all right. I mumble something and she goes away.

 

My stomach starts to cramp and I roll over, facedown, curling into a tight ball on the floor. I turn my head and see dust bunnies under the sink. So many dust bunnies. They’re reproducing. I rest my face against the frigid tile floor and try to push the chill through the rest of my body, which suddenly feels on fire.

 

Breathe . . . slowly . . . gag . . . breathe . . . slowly . . . gag . . . gag . . . . I sit up, bend over the toilet again and vomit up more creamy acid that, instead of being yellow, is pink in color. My stomach contracts and I vomit again. Bile that is not pink but red. My stomach contracts and I vomit again. Bile that is not red but crimson. Bile that is not bile but blood.

 

I stare at the pink droplets branching out in the water like a family tree and wonder where it’s coming from, why it’s coming from my mouth, my stomach, ulcers . . . definitely could be. Definitely could be caused from stress. Could the lining of my stomach be torn from vomiting so much? So harshly? Makes sense. It could definitely be that. Could it be stomach cancer? Giant tumors growing in my belly, eating away at my innards, making me rot from the inside out? No. It most definitely couldn’t be that. It’s most definitely not that thing. It’s probably one of the first two that I mentioned . . . the, uh . . . the ulcers or the ripped stomach lining. I decide to just let that be what it is and assume that my body will simply repair itself in the following days.

 

Do I want to go see a doctor about this? Absolutely not. Do I think that I probably should? Logic is a wild beast when dealing with matters of the heart. One can make oneself believe nearly anything if the event calls for it. Persuasion, to an audience of yourself, is astoundingly simple. I say, “Of course you don’t want to go to a doctor . . . because there is no need. They would make much to do about nothing and you have, if nothing else, this under control.

 

I have this under control.

 

This thing, this thing that belongs to me, this bit of knowledge, is mine and mine alone and it is something that I can hold in my hand and look at and decide what will become of it. When I’m in a hospital bed being wheeled up and down hallways and shoved into machines and having drugs pumped into me and having my lungs tested and my vitals taken and my blood drawn, it’s all out of control. Nothing is mine; not even I am mine. But this . . . this is mine.

 

What has become of me? How did I get here? This is me understanding that I have lost total control. This is me bent over a toilet filled with my blood. This is me, completely helpless to my inner maladies and my outer surroundings.

 

This is what Cancer looks like.

 

In the other room, I hear our friend packing up to leave and someone knocks on the door again and Jade says, “Angie is leaving, do you want to come out and say goodbye?” and I just say, “Uh . . . I . . . can’t,” and Jade says, “I’ll give her your best,” before I hear her footsteps disappearing down the hall.

 

I puke again and, looking down into the toilet, I realize that there is so much blood resting in the bowl that if I had stumbled upon this horrific scene unknowingly, I would assume that one of those I-didn’t-know-I-was-pregnant girls had decided to drop calf in my house.

 

A few hours later, another friend, Jake, arrives just to say hi. My mother opens the door and says, “My . . . you look just like Jason Bateman,” and, truly, Jake does. I say, “Teen Wolf 2,” and Jake, probably too stoned to function, just smiles at me, having not seen me for quite some months. The change that has taken place in my face has been gradual, sneaking up on me the way holiday weight does; but to Jake, who last saw me fifty pounds heavier, is visibly shocked at my physical appearance. He stares at me and says, “There are two black holes where your eyes should be.” I nod and pat the couch. He sits down and my mom begins asking questions about Jason Bateman’s recent resurgence into the public’s eye. She talks about his career in the ’80s and about his sister, “His sister, what was her name? She was on Family Ties, I believe. Sarah? Samantha? Jennifer? Jennifer Bateman?” and then she turns to Jake and asks, “What is her name?” and she says it with such genuine interest that I think she must have forgotten that this is not Jason Bateman nor is this fellow in any real relation to Jason Bateman, nor does he have any idea who Jason Bateman is outside of his roles on Arrested Development and, of course, the aforementioned Teen Wolf 2.

 

My mother says, “He got arrested? For what?” and I say, “No, it’s . . . a show . . . . It’s . . . ” and she says, “On TV?” and I say, “Yes. A show . . . on TV,” and she says, “Is his sister on it, too?” and I say, “I . . .don’t think so,” and she says, “Was this back in the ’80s?” and I say, “Yes . . . it was in the ’80s. He and his sister Samantha Bateman starred in it,” and she says, “Huh . . . I’ll have to check this out on IMBD Database dot com,” and I say, “I-M-D . . . nevermind.”

 

And then Jake leaves and then I throw up more blood and something inside of me says that maybe I shouldn’t be hiding this and so I casually wobble into the dining room, supporting myself against walls and counters like a wino on a bender, sit down next to Jade and say, “Jade?” and she says, “Oh, geez. What? What is it now? What have you done? What is happening?” and I say, “Wh-what? Wh-what do you mean?” but my inflections are all wrong so I sound really guilty.

 

I say, “I just threw up,” and she says, “What’s new?” and I say, “It was bloody . . . I mean . . . . It was blood. I just threw up blood. From my mouth.”

 

Jade stares at me but says nothing. She slowly sets down her pencil and slides her Sudoku puzzle away from her. She stands up and walks to the closet while I say, “I think it’s fine. I think it’s just a stomach—” gag “thing and it’ll probably—” gag, “take care of itself but—” gag, “I just wanted you to—” gag, “know.”

 

Jade slips on a coat and I say, “You going to the store? You going to pick up some Pepto-Bismol? You mind grabbing a Butterfinger while you’re there?” and she says, “We’re going to the hospital. To the E.R. Now,” and I say, “Hey, uh, wait now. What’s that?” and she says, “You’re vomiting up blood. BLOOD. You’re throwing up blood. Do you look at that scenario and think that’s normal?” and I say, “Well . . . ” and she says, “SHUT UP. You’ve got cancer of the almost everything and now you’re throwing up blood. I’m not taking chances. You’re,” and I try to interject but she says, “NO. Whatever you’re going to say. No. Just put on your sweater and your jacket and your hoodie and your overcoat and your scarf and your hat and your mittens and let’s go,” and like a scolded puppy, I stick my tail between my legs and do as I’m told.

 

On the way to the hospital, my mother sits shotgun while I sit in the backseat thinking that everything is out of my control. Stupid secret. Should have just kept it all to myself. Should have just let my stupid stomach heal all on its own. Two or three days, I bet that’s all I’d need.

 

We pull into the parking lot and I manage to walk into the E.R. by myself. A young male nurse approaches and leads us into the back, sets me on a table and tells me that a doctor will be with us shortly.

 

Various people come through this long and narrow room that we’ve been put in—more of a hallway with beds, curtains, and various machines than an actual room. I lie down on the thin bed and breathe slowly, not wanting to vomit again because it hurts so badly. The contractions rack my body with pain and cramping and my skin breaks out in sweat and then chills and I can feel the stress and strain all the way down in my toes.

 

I shut my eyes and think about how I wouldn’t even be here if I’d just kept my big, dumb mouth shut and not said a damned word. Jade says, “Are you OK?” and I say, “No,” a black mood rising up inside me that’s very ugly. I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to hear what some stupid doctor has to say and I don’t want another IV and I don’t want to be lying on this cold, hard excuse for a bed and I don’t want to be around all these sick people with my already compromised immune system and I don’t want to keep throwing up and I don’t want to wait one more minute for this incompetent physician to walk through the curtain because this is the EMERGENCY ROOM AND JUST WHAT IS THE HOLD UP?!

 

Sometimes being mad at something is the only control you have. More often than not it’s the wrong thing to do, but like a secret that’s been told, once it’s out there, it can never come back.

 

I tap my foot on the ground and Jade says, “Relax,” and I say, “I shouldn’t even—we shouldn’t even be here. This is a waste of time and money. Time and money!” and Jade says, “Relax,” and, “Smile,” and she takes another photo of me.

 

I say, “How do I look?” and she says, “Really horrible,” and I say, “Then you probably got my good side.” The curtain shifts around and a young doctor who appears to be too young to be a doctor enters and sits down and says, “OK, so what are we dealing with here today?” and I say nothing because I already know how this works. I sit here and play the garden gnome role—silent and stupid looking—while my wife dishes all the details. She says, “He has this and that and he’s sick with this and that and we’ve been here and there and they’ve told us this and that and here’s this paperwork and these cards and this information and then a few hours ago he started throwing up blood,” and the doctor looks at me and says, “How much?” and Jade looks at me and my mom looks at me and I say, “Just a little,” and Jade says, “How much?” and I say, “I don’t know, like . . . a quarter size every time I puke,” and the doctor says, “And how often do you vomit?” and I say, “All the time,” and he says, “And what color is it?” and I say, “The blood . . . is red . . . ” and I cross my legs and my arms. Take. THAT!

 

Doogie Howser presses the tips of his fingers together just below his nose before saying, “OK. We’re going to need to do a rectal exam,” and both of my eyebrows rise into the air and I don’t need to hear one more word because I am stepping into this situation and taking control. THIS will not be taken away from me. My butthole is MINE. I say, “No, we won’t,” and now it is the doctor’s turn to raise his eyebrows and lower his hands and he is clearly not used to a patient in the E.R. telling him what will and will not be done. He says, “Excuse me?” and I say, “We won’t be doing a rectal anything,” and Jade says, “John . . . ” and I firmly say, “No.

 

Jade sees that this has gone beyond basic stubbornness into the realm of the untamable and so turns to the doctor and says, “What is it for? The rectal exam?” and the doctor says, “We need to see what color the blood is, if it’s pink or red or black. If it’s black, it’s very bad,” and I say, “It’s red. Bright. Red,” and the doctor says, “We need to do a test to see what color the blood is. The rectal exam gives us the closest—” and I say, “It’s bright red. It’s not black. You cut your finger. Blood comes out. It looks like that,” and the doctor, ignoring me, says, “It’s really just a quick procedure,” and I say, “Are you listening to me?” and the doctor says, “It’s very brief, just a quick culture and—” I say, “I’m going to be sick, hand me—” gag— “something. Quick,” and the doctor grabs a kidney shaped bedpan and hands it to Jade who hands it to me. I lift it up to my mouth and puke up a sizable chunk of red blood, stand up, walk over to the doctor, hold it under his face and say, “Is that a good specimen?”

 

The doctor looks at me and says, “That’s red blood. You probably just tore your stomach from vomiting too hard. I doubt it’s ulcers but we’ll give you some medicine anyway. I’d like to keep you overnight just to make sure. Is that OK?” and I say, “No,” and Jade says, “John . . . ” and, this just being stubbornness now and not actual decisiveness, I say, “Fine.”

 

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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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