Tag Archives: humour

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Perfect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

_JBP6854

 

 

 

 

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CHRISTMAS EVE: CHAPTER 27

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I press the call button. Nothing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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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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UP IN THE CLOUDS: CHAPTER 24

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The first thing I do when I get home is fire up YouTube to figure out how to use a vaporizer since it didn’t come with any proper instructions. A fourteen-year-old with a lisp tells me that it’s essentially a large hot plate that slowly heats up the plant versus doing a straight burn with the chemicals in the butane lighter. Again, “cleaner.”

 

I slowly open the childproof cap and stare down at my beautiful green bulbs with orange strands flecked upon them like glitter. I pull one out and place it in the grinder, turning the plant to dust. I pour the remains in the bowl, flip the switch on the device, and wait for optimum heat.

 

Meanwhile, my mother sits next to me, watching, staring, observing, obvious that she’s fascinated by not only the process, but the plant itself. I hand her the pill bottle and say, “Smell.” She lifts it to her nose and says, “It’s sweet.”

 

I bring the tube from the vaporizer to my mouth, feeling like the caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and pull. The first silver strands weave their way up the plastic lining until they’re in my mouth and in my throat and in my lungs and I’m lifting off my feet and I’m smiling and I shut my eyes and everything is so good right now.

 

I think of all the times I’ve smoked pot with my sister, sitting on her kitchen floor trying to use every magnet letter on the fridge to spell words, phrases like, CREEP GUY CAN’T DANCE and AARON WILL EAT FARTS. We’re smoking and listening to No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” and playing Hogan’s Alley on her Nintendo. We’re eating fudge. We’re talking about being young and growing up and being very overly philosophical about the minutia of life and I open my eyes and my mom is sitting next to me and I say, “I love you, Mom,” and it’s such a stupid thing to say in that moment because of what’s happening but I feel it so strongly and so truly and I just want her to know that I appreciate everything she’s doing for us and sacrificing for us to be here and she leans in and gives me a hug and I say, “Thank you. Thank you. I love you,” and then I stand up and just start snapping my fingers and bobbing my head. My wife enters the room and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “I don’t know, I just—I just feel so good. I need to dance. I need to dance! And if you don’t dance then you’re no friend of mine.”

 

Instead of dancing, my wife just stares at me and itches her nose. I say, “It just feels so good to be alive, doesn’t it?! It feels so good! The three of us here, doing this together—doing life together! Oh, man. Mom, you should move to Los Angeles. You should live here forever! We could turn our garage into a little house. You wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch—we could build a little bathroom out there. How great would that be? How great?”

 

There’s no music playing but I’m sliding back and forth on the cheap tile floor in my socks. I turn around and try to moonwalk but it just looks like when everyone tries to moonwalk; just me walking backward, sliding the soles of my feet across a dirty floor.

 

I open up the cabinet and pour myself a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and eat the entire thing. I open a drawer and pull out a Butterfinger—the size you’d get in a Halloween handout—and eat two. I drink a glass of water and sit down on a bar stool at the island in my kitchen. I turn to my wife and tell her some stupid joke that both begins and ends with, “So a baby seal walks into a club . . . ” and then I laugh and my mom is shaking her head and smiling and saying, “Oh, John Lowell. My high little boy,” and I suddenly remember that I am high and that my mother is here and then there is a flood of information that drowns my brain in a heartbeat. I remember that I’m sick, that I have Cancer, that I’m only on the first round. I remember that I’m sterile. I remember that I might die.

 

I remember.

 

And it hits me like a bullet in the dick. I say, “Jade . . . ” and she says, “Yes, dear?” and I say, “I have . . . cancer . . . ” and tears well up in my eyes and she says, “Oh, geez, here we go.” A salty tear runs down my cheek and I stick another Butterfinger in my mouth.

 

My mom makes pasta for dinner but I’m too full to eat, a sensation that has become quite foreign to me. Regardless, I sit at the table with my family instead of in My Yellow Chair and I have a discussion about faith and God and disease and purpose.

 

Now. Stop. Everybody put the brakes on. I don’t know how to make a foot note in Word – I’m fancy like that – but would like to interject a side bar that is both, for me, equal parts ridiculous and necessary. Please bear with me for just one moment.

 

I was 26 when this cancer thing happened to me. I am 35 today. What? Yes. And in those 9 years God and I have developed a very strange kind of relationship. We’re kind of like two kids that were dating in high school and thought they were going to get married and live happily ever after but then at the last moment one of us decided that the other one wasn’t real and so that kind of threw everything about our relationship out of whack. You know how it goes. We don’t really talk like we used to but I think about the old guy often and wonder what our world would have looked like if we’d stuck it out. But that is a story for another story.

 

There are some things coming up in this tale that felt true at the time and felt real at the time and how I personally align those two opposing world-view experiences is neither here nor there. This is not a story about religion and theology. That said, spirituality played a large part in my experience and so it must be included and it must be told and it must be represented as it was experienced at the time.

 

Disclaimer over. Please continue.

 

There is something about being on the very edge of life that forces you to walk directly up to the cliff and look over it. So maybe it’s chemo-brain or maybe it’s the sharp focus of death or maybe it’s the evacuation of everyday routine like jobs and chores, but my world feels like it’s falling apart—legitimately pulling away at the seams, the fabric of reality between this world and the next beginning to unravel.

 

I begin to feel a deep sense of calm connectedness to the world around me and to (what I would call at that time) God – a benevolent being. It’s hard to validate emotional and spiritual experiences to other people because there is simply something inside every individual that happens and I can’t make it more real than that.

 

For me, it was all real. It was experience. It was truth.

 

Every Sunday, regardless of how poor my health was, my wife, mother, and I would go to church. The music at the beginning of service would throttle my ears and penetrate my bones and make me feel as though my face were going to split open and snakes were going to poor out but it was a necessary evil to endure. Being there felt right and good and warm. There was a tangible hope that I could sink into.

 

Once the service was over, they would invite anyone who wanted prayer to come to the front. Strangers would place their hands on my shoulders and pray so fervently that I was certain their words were somehow more tangible than my own.

 

Once, during a particularly rough week when I was too tired to walk, my wife led a small group of individuals to the back where I was slouched in half, breathing deeply and wheezing. Four people I’d never met circled around me, this thing that looked like a pile of dirty laundry.

 

Among them was a tall red-headed woman whose regular Texan accent suddenly slipped sideways, mid-prayer, into a language I’d never heard as she began to speak in tongues. I’m not going to get into the theology of this and I’m neither going to validate nor excuse the practice. From the mundane to the bizarre, these are the events that occurred.

 

The tall red head, suddenly breaking back into English, speaks a single, penetrating phrase. She says, without knowledge of our infertility, “I see babies . . . lots and lots of babies . . . ” and then it’s all over.

 

So now, here at dinner, blitzed out of my gourd and talking to my mother about Christmas traditions and how Pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christianity, it is I who suggests creating chain links out of construction paper and draping them from the ceiling.

 

We created 147 loops, one for every day I had left in chemo, and on each loop we wrote a Bible verse and every night we’d tear one down and read it together. It was these evenings that I looked forward to the most—just sitting and thinking about one specific hopeful thought, allowing my weak and warbled brain to slowly digest it.

 

This chain would become my visual reference for the rest of my journey. If everything went according to plan, I could see the end.

 

And I could see that The End was still a ridiculously long way away.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

People ask me if I’m mad at God for giving me Cancer and I say that I don’t believe He gave me Cancer any more than I think He gave me the flu or my buddy Ben the herpes.

 

Sorry, Ben. If you don’t want to get your new shoes dirty, you shouldn’t jump into a muddy hole.

 

We all have consequences for our actions, and even outside of cause and effect, I believe that we sometimes just draw wild cards. Perhaps this thing was happening to me because of personal decisions I had made—smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fast food, using microwaves—or maybe it was because of decisions my parents had made by not removing my distended testicle, or maybe it was family history and it was just an unavoidable fate that rested in my genes (my jeans), or maybe it was just my lucky day. I’d never really won any big raffles before and I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

 

In any event, it didn’t matter where it came from or who was to blame. It just mattered that I got through it, however possible. And for me, that meant clinging to God with everything my fried little brain and frail little body could muster.

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YODA’S CANDY: CHAPTER 23

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From Hollywood, we drive straight back to the Valley while Jade looks up available dispensaries in our neighborhood. Now that I’ve got the license, I have to go to the store. And, lo and behold, the herbal supplement business is ah-booming. Jade sticks her phone in front of my face and I see roughly sixty green (coincidence?) dots on the map, making dispensaries in the Valley the only business with more locations than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.

 

We pull into one down the street from our house that shares a strip-mall parking lot with a thrift store, a Mexican restaurant, and a Laundromat. Jade and I walk in together while my mother waits in the car. Sitting in the corner is a sleeping cop and inside of a bulletproof cage is a young Hispanic kid with a wiry mustache. He says, “Yo,” and asks for my papers. I slide my license and ID through the grate and he tells me to take a seat. He says there are only two people allowed in the back at once.

 

We sit down and I begin to peruse a copy of High Times, wondering what I’ll discover in the back room of this place. Will there be some mega drug kingpin sitting behind a smoky desk, playing poker and making deals? No. That’s ridiculous. I brush the image from my mind. I stare at the cop and wonder how I get his job. He burps and adjusts his hat, sits up, sees me staring at him and nods.

 

The back door emits an electronic beep and opens. A kid in a Bob Marley shirt walks out, sees the cop, smiles, and exits. In my head I hear him thinking, “Fuck dah po-lice!” They call my name and my wife and I both stand up. The person at the door quickly says, “She stays,” and I say, “I—uh—OK.” Jade sits back down and I enter a place like I have never dreamed of.

 

At the back of the room there is a two-tiered glass case that runs 20 feet long, the kind you’d see in a gun store. It’s built for displaying goods but always means the same: “We want you to look, but not touch. Please ask for assistance. Please do not lean on glass. Thank you.”

 

I say, “Double-ewe . . . oh . . . double-ewe . . . ” and approach the cabinet. Running side by side on both layers for the entire twenty feet are gallon jugs of weed, each jar proclaiming its particular strain: Cotton Candy, Train Wreck, Buddha’s Lightning, White Devil. No two alike.

 

A big man, bulky and firm, with earlobe length hair the texture of grease, smiles and raises his hand, and in a Russian accent says, “What ails ya, brother?!” He speaks cleaner than Galina but the hard edges of his mother country are still heard on his T’s and D’s.

 

I say, “I have, uh, cancer,” and he puts his hands down on the counter and raises his eyebrows and says, verbatim, “A real patient!” He signals me close and whispers, “Listen, between you and me, we knock off twenty percent for sick people.”

 

A second door swings open and in walks a squatter, more froggy looking version of Moe from The Three Stooges. He lifts up a black garbage bag filled with marijuana, opens it up, buries his face inside of it and inhales as deeply as he can before shouting, “I LOVE WEED!” in a raspy voice.

 

I look down at the counter and say, “This is pretty, uh, intense. How do I know what to get?” and he says, “Well . . . do you want to, like, have some energy and go mow the lawn or do you want to just become glued to your couch and forget the world exists?”

 

My true and honest answer is, “Both! Both! I desperately want both! Let me mow my lawn and forget that the world exists.”

 

I end up buying an eighth of each, a grinder and a vaporizer. He packs each strain into its own bright green prescription bottle (complete with child safety lid), knocks off the 20 percent cancer-kid discount and says, “See you soon and be well. When you come back, you tell me how those treat you. They’re gonna be your best buds,” and I imagine this is a tag line he uses on everyone although it feels personal and private between us.

 

I exit the door back to the waiting room and hold up my brown bag to signal Jade that it’s time to ride. As I walk past the cop with my pockets stuffed with weed, I can’t help but think, “Fuck dah po-lice!”

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300: CHAPTER 19

 

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I wake up outside, my back sore from the wrought iron chair I’ve fallen asleep in. My mother has been insisting that I need to get more vitamin D and so I keep heading to the back yard and passing out. This is before I had a smart phone – back when my flip phone was still the rage. No fun games while I sit around. There is only staring into the distance and contemplating the mundane.

I shuffle back inside, sit back in my yellow chair and think about time passing, oceans turning to deserts, rocks turning to sand, babies turning to men turning to dust.

On a bored whim I decide to write my boss to tell him what’s been happening to me and how thankful I am that he’s saving my job until I get back. He responds and says that someone is filling in for me temporarily and that I should “get well soon,” a sentiment that I always find painfully cheap and obvious.

Oh, you’re sick? Get well soon. Don’t stay sick! The sooner you can get back to health, the better! That’s what I always say! Look! I’ve even had it inscribed onto this delightful commemorative Mylar balloon!

In any event, the part about my job being there raises my spirits. Our money is sinking fast and we’re going to need some serious dough when we come out the other side of this made-for-TV original movie. The nest egg I’d set aside to make my feature film has become our landing pad, our safety net, our buffer. It’s the only thing separating us from total and complete bankruptcy. The money is not going into camera rentals and crew; it’s going into food and rent and electricity. It is our life source and umbilical cord to survival.

A few days later, my dad leaves to head back to South Dakota and his job and real life. He gives me that awkward side hug again and then goes to bed saying, “I’m leaving around four in the morning so I probably won’t see you again.” He disappears around the corner and I wonder if he thinks about how heavy those words sound.

He and my mother had had a previous conversation a few nights prior wherein they’d discussed her staying with us, operating as third eyes and extra hands; helping, supporting, cooking, cleaning, anything, everything; watching me while Jade went to work, entertaining Jade while I slept. She helps keep sanity, helps us keep a link to the outside world. We both welcome the idea with open arms and for six months my mother left her husband, her own mother, her brothers and sisters. My family is very close and my mother has her helping hands in a lot of pies back home and for half a year she left everyone. She quit her job and stopped her life to come sit by Jade and me and suffer with us.

Let this be a true example of a mother’s love. She gave everything she had.

She takes up residence in our guest bedroom and it’s the first piece of good news we’ve had in some time. Her presence is an absolute godsend because, I don’t care how old you are, there is something inherently primitive and wonderful about having your mother around. Mothers are, after all, the original chicken soup for the soul.

So on those days when I just feel like I am the world’s last unicorn and am shedding a tear of sorrow for my lost species, she is there to make me feel just a little bit better. Fly, unicorn, fly.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

It’s either a Monday or a Thursday and it’s either 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. The sun rises and sets and the clock spins and resets and day and night keep changing places like characters in a David Lynch film. Without a job or any regular routine, time becomes irrelevant. I sit in my chair, glossy eyed, and listen to my mother and wife talk about dogs and work and God and recipes and marriage and cotton, the fabric of our lives.

I lean forward and stand up on legs that feel atrophied after only a couple weeks of inactivity and wobble into the guest bedroom and collapse onto the bed.

I bury my face in a pillow, shut my eyes and pray for a miraculous healing. But nothing happens. I’m still sick.

I fall asleep and an undisclosed amount of time passes wherein I wake, cramped and sweaty, vomit, fall back to sleep, kick off the blankets, find I’m chilled, vomit, roll over, wish I were dead, regret my weakness, and then fall back to sleep.

When I wake, I find a short, curly hair stuck in my mouth and, for once, I don’t gag from the chemo. An image of my father’s naked body crosses my mind, his thick shoulders pressed into this very mattress, his back hair dropping off him and resting dormant until I vacuum them into my gaping face hole.

I am eating my father’s back hair.

Gag.

Quicker than I’ve moved in weeks, I sit up and see that my pillow is covered in them; easily twenty hairs populate the upper mattress area and I make a note to ask my mom if Dad sheds often.

I sit up and place my feet firmly on the floor—as firmly as I’m able to—and stare at myself in the full-length closet mirror. I’m still me but . . . a little thinner. It’s only been two weeks but, like a newborn with an eating disorder, I only consume very delicate portions, unable to hold anything down. The bags that I always carry with me under my eyes are suddenly starting to look a little darker, a little heavier, less like bags and more like luggage for a long cross-country road trip. I sigh and rub my chin and when I look at my hand, my stomach leaps into my throat.

My palm is covered in hundreds of short, tight hairs. Hairs that look exactly like the ones on the mattress. My hair. My beard. It’s falling out. In large chunks.

I reach up, grab a handful of beard in my hand, and gently pull. Like a ten-year-old on a greased up Slip ’N Slide, my hair slides out of my follicles and away from my face. No tug, no pluck, no tension. Yanking grass from the Earth would put up a better fight. My hair had, for all intents and purposes, suddenly just given up.

I shout for Jade, and when she enters the room, I hold out my hand and she says, “What . . . . Oh . . . . ” We both stare at my hand in silence for a moment, both of us thinking about bald kids coughing blood into Kleenexes.

“My hair is falling out,” I say and my wife nods and her eyes well up a little. “Do you want to . . . shave it?” and I nod.

It takes less than three days for my eyebrows, armpit, and pubic hair to follow suit. I look, in short, like one of those hairless Egyptian cats but with less sex appeal.

The next day is dreary and overcast as we drive into my bi-weekly oncology checkup. Sitting in the cold office, Dr. Yen asks me a series of inquiries, listens to my heart, takes my blood and asks if I have any questions.

I say, “I’m always cold.”

She says, “That’s normal.”

I say, “Will this go away?”

She says, “Probably not.”

I say, “Ever?”

She says, “Never.”

I say, “I feel like shit.”

She says, “That’s normal.”

I say, “Will this go away?”

She says, “Someday. I told you. Mack Truck.”

My wife says, “He’s really depressed.”

The doctor says, “I have a pill for that.”

My blood count comes back from the lab and the results are grim; my red count is too low, which essentially amounts to me being filled to the brim with bad blood. Imagine putting gas in your car that’s been cut with water. Or perhaps an even more accurate analogy would be to say, “Imagine putting water in your body that’s been cut with gasoline.”

On the oncologist’s command, we drive straight from her office to the hospital for a platelet transfusion. My white blood count is too low, as well, leaving my body weak and defenseless, able to be killed (very literally) by a common cold. Every sneeze is a bullet.

The nurse who comes in to give me my IV is a middle-aged Asian woman who, when questioned, claims she is The Best EYE-VEE-Giver this hospital has and that I am lucky to have her. This immediately puts my mind at ease.

She sticks the 2-inch needle into my forearm and I slam my eyes closed like iron-blast doors and wiggle my toes and imagine I’m in Norway and then she lets go of me and I say, “That was fast,” but she says, “I couldn’t find a vein,” and when I open my eyes she’s still holding the needle in her hand.

I rest my head back on the pillow and she begins tapping around my bicep. “There we go. There’s a good one,” she says and I close my eyes again as the silver thread sneaks under my skin and sniffs around for its— “Oops—OK—I just blew your vein. I’m really sorry. One more time.”

I turn my head aside and fight back a scream of terror as the knife gets thrust into my forearm a third time at an awkward angle and is taped down. “Bingo!” she shouts, and I jokingly/seriously say, “The best, huh?” and she says, “Well, the best intern.”

She exits, and I sigh while my mother and wife play Yahtzee. Moments later, the intern returns with a bag of milky glue and hangs it from my IV pole. Then, like a crazy straw being set into the world’s grossest milkshake, she inserts my IV tube into the bag and the cummy sludge gloops and glops down into my veins . . . for 12 hours.

I watch the drizzling cream leak into me and wonder who it belonged to—a starving college student, a man on the brink of poverty, an immigrant, some Good Samaritan who makes monthly donations? From their body to mine, they don’t know it, but they’re helping me, saving me, pulling me out of the red and into the black. I’m still sick. I’m still hopeless. I’m still depressed. I still want to stick my head in the microwave. But . . . sitting up in bed, I do suddenly feel a small surge of energy idly pulsing through me. It’s not a forest fire. But it is a spark.

The nurse comes back with an update on my HCG levels, those cancer markers that had sky rocketed from 300 to 900. Today, she tells me that they’ve dropped back to 300.

Three hundred.

The cancer is dying. It’s fighting, but it’s dying. And it is here that I shut my eyes and see that spark flicker and grow a little brighter. I’m going to win. I’m going to choke you to death, you son of a bitch. You’re going to pull me down to the swamps of disease and despair and I’ll follow along until you’re neck deep in whatever primordial muck you’ve come from and then, at the last moment, I’ll pull the trigger and cut you free and you’ll sink away back into those vile depths.

I open my eyes and watch a television show about a man who gets a face transplant after being mauled by a bear.

I have no real problems.

 

 

 

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INTERMISSION: CHAPTER 18

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

—die—

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Cancer: the ultimate cock block.

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

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

 

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NODULES: CHAPTER 17

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

But now I’m back.

And so is the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just . . . sick.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence.

 

“Nodules? What is that? What is—”

 

“Sorry. Tumors.”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Probably.

 

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

 

Alone.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Drip-drip-drip.

822-821-820.

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

Drip-drip-drip.

809-808-807.

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

Alive or dead, I am a corpse.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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