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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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THE BLACK TENDRILS: CHAPTER 14

This is a book about cancer, released one chapter at a time, one week at a time. If this is your first ride at the pony show, click here to start from the beginning.

If not, continue scroll. Dark times lie ahead, Harry.

 

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Cancer surgery is not like having your tonsils or your appendix or your pancreas removed. Cancer is not something you can point your finger at and say, “It is here and this is the problem and this is the solution and now you can go home.” Cancer is more like, “It’s here-ish, and if we do this it should hopefully fix most of the problem, but we really won’t know until we do it. Let’s just eat the cow one bite at a time, shall we?”

So, after my surgery wherein I was miraculously cured thanks to the advancements of modern medicine, my urologist, Dr. Honda, asked for a follow-up visit to see how I was doing and to see my scar and to do some blood work and the process goes on and on, and like a leaf in a river stream, I’m stuck in it, and I just float along, going wherever the current points, and right now the current has pointed me to a chair behind an oak desk. On the other side of the desk sits Dr. Honda, a man who I’ve come to love in a very strange way, having played such a large part in saving my life. I feel very close to him, and I find his presence comforting. It is this man who has completely eradicated the cancer from my body. It is this man who has removed the looming venomous poison from my person. And it’s this man who is now telling me that the cancer is still there. That it isn’t gone. That they didn’t get it all. That it has spread to my lymph nodes. And it’s me staring at this man and saying, “A lynf-what? And how many do I have? And what does that mean?” and I feel like it’s one of those days where everything keeps going wrong, where you can’t find your shoes and then you break your laces and then your car is out of gas and then you find out your cancer is back.

More images of sick kids with black sunken eyes pass through my mind, images of cardboard cutouts at cash registers in cheap restaurants. “Donate a quarter to Alex, and you could save him from leukemia.” Only instead of Alex, it’s me. And there are no quarters. Because some bastard probably stole them. Because that’s the kind of luck I’m having.

“How many lymph nodes? Well, the human body has about 700.” I mouth the number silently to myself and try to compare that to my one single testicle. Listen, I’m no math whiz but I know that 700 problems is worse than one.

Dr. Honda says, “The lymph nodes, they, they move things around. They connect your body. They’re—the easiest way to explain it is—they’re a transit system. Like a subway.”

And I say, “And can cancer ride on this subway?” and he adjusts his glasses but never breaks eye contact with me. He says, “Yes, it can.”

Jade squeezes my hand with the ferocity of a vice grip and my fingers are just wet noodles, both my arms dangling limply at my sides, my head cocked one way, and just who does this guy think he is, telling me I have cancer when I just had my poisonous tumor removed—removed with the cancer? I traded my nut for safety and health, and I paid the price! But, like all things with cancer, it doesn’t care about you. Because it is you. Slowly eating itself like the snake with its own ass in its mouth. Sorry, buddy. Bottoms up. The Black Tendrils stretch through my body, and I feel their presence inside me, throbbing, somewhere, everywhere, poison.

I say, “What do we do? How do we . . . stop it . . . from spreading?” and he says, “I’d like to remove them,” and I say, “Them? Them what? Them the cancers?” and he says, “No, the lymph nodes. I want to remove them. We would open you from your collar bone to your groin and pull them each out individually,” and I say, “But . . . there are 700. Don’t I . . . need them?” and he says, “You will have a weakened immune system, yes.”

“ . . . And a pretty sweet scar,” I mumble.

He tells me he’s scheduling us an appointment with an oncologist, and I say, “Is that someone who’s on call all the time?” and my wife let’s out one of those weird pig noises people make when they’re crying really, really hard but then something makes them laugh. She says, “It’s not funny,” and I say, “I know. This is serious,” and she says, “No. Your joke. It’s not funny. It’s really, really, bad.”

 

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That’s it for this week. Thanks again for reading. This day was a very difficult one when it happened. This was getting hit with the bus. This was the stark realization that it was out of our hands – it was all out of our hands – and we were just along for the ride.

Next week we’re talking about the time I took drugs from a stranger.

Hit follow to stay up to date.

There’s still plenty of bad news to hear.

 

 

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MECHANICAL DONUT: CHAPTER 7

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no idea how unanswerable that actually is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if . . . .

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

“You. May. Breathe.”

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

“Hold. Your. Breath.”

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

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

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

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

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

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Where were you sitting?”

And I say, “Here.”

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

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Did you cry?”

And I say, “No. I said, ‘Rats.’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Of course.

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

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PARENTS: CHAPTER 6

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have cancer.”

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

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

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

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

Everything overflows.

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

Nothing.

He simply listens.

 

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

 

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

What if . . . .

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

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

 

 

 

 

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BIRTHDAY PRESENT: CHAPTER 5

Welcome back to the on-going serial auto-biography Cancer? But I’m a Virgo. We’re blasting out chapter 5 today after a late start this week. If you haven’t had a chance to jump in yet, it’s not too late! Just click here to start from the beginning! C’mon! You know that one of your resolutions was to read more books this year.

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PART 2

“What is to give light, must endure burning.”

-Viktor E. Frankl . . . whoever he is

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I’m sitting in a waiting room somewhere in Pasadena, staring at a magazine that is listing the 100 most influential people of the year. Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and Bill Gates are all in attendance. I do a quick scan but don’t see any glossy celebrity snapshots of Jesus.

The waiting room is empty. The couch I’m sitting on is leather and cold. I touch it with my finger and wonder if the cow that this skin belonged to had a nice personality. I touch my tumor by squeezing it between my thighs. It’s still there. Maybe this doctor will simply give me some pills, and I can wipe all the sweat off my brow.

The woman behind the bulletproof glass calls my name, and I walk through a locked door. They weigh me, measure me, etc., etc. The nurse leaves, and I’m sitting alone in the Examination Room. The walls are covered in pictures that children have drawn in crayons, all with personalized messages addressed to a man named Dr. Odegaard.

“Thanks for fixing my arm,” wrote James, 7, with a drawing of himself in a cast, standing in front of a tree. The drawing is so bad I have to wonder if he had to create it with his lesser-used hand.

“You’re the best. Thank you for the Band-Aids,” wrote Tiffany, 6, who decided to draw birds flying over a rainbow.

I try to imagine what my drawing would look like. There would be a picture of a smiling rooster. Above it, in bubble typeface, it would read, “Thanks for saving my dick. I owe you one.” –Johnny, 26.

The doctor enters and asks me a few questions. First the preliminary stuff because it’s my first visit to see him, followed by the more intimate inquiries. “What seems to be the problem?” And, “Describe the lump.” And, “Which testicle is it on?” And this is where I sort of mumble something about a trick question. Mumble something about my uni-testicle. Mumble some off-colored joke that he doesn’t laugh at. He asks me to pull my pants down, and I ask him if the door is locked. He tells me that no one will come in, and I comply.

He snaps on a rubber glove and fondles me in a professional manner. He hums and grunts a couple times, makes the sort of noise you might make after seeing a two-headed turtle—not absolute shock but more of an idle fascination.

He tells me to pull my pants up and that he definitely feels something. He tells me that he’s recommending me to a good friend of his, a urologist (penis doctor; see also dick doc) named Dr. Honda. It’s the 11th of September, and it will be six more days with this thing growing inside of me before I get any real answers.

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On September 17, 2008, I turned 26 years old. My wife and I spent it indoors, she having made me a cake and purchased me a few books. The day was regular enough, the cake was regular enough, the weather was regular enough and, as far as birthdays go, it would forever be branded in my brain as the most irregular day I had ever experienced.

We arrive at Dr. Honda’s office, a nice brick building in Arcadia, just after noon. My wife and I sit down in the lobby and she immediately picks up a Better Homes magazine and begins scouring it for ideas to, presumably, make our home . . . better.

Everyone in the room with us is old. Really old. Nursing-home old. They’re so old, that they each have some kind of caretaker visiting the facility with them. I try to imagine the day, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, when I’ll be too weak to take care of myself. The day, thousands of years from now when I can’t bathe myself any longer. The day when I eat more pills than food. Millions of years away.

My wife turns to me and says, “What do you think he’s going to say?” and I say, “You know what I think,” and she just laughs and shrugs. She still thinks it’s a cyst or an ingrown hair or an extraterrestrial’s tracking device, all things that are more realistic possibilities than that cancer-thing-that-other-people-get-and-it-never-happens-to-you disease.

They call my name, and I walk back through the door, alone. Every step I take, I am closer to understanding what this thing is. Closer to knowing that it’s either cancer (which I know it is) or an alien GPS system (which it probably isn’t but in many ways would be easier to deal with).

I jump up on that bed-table-thing with the giant roll of single-ply toilet paper covering it and glance around the room. There are no children’s drawings. Instead there are just diagrams of penises and vaginas that go on and on, wall to wall. Dongs that have been split in half lengthwise to show me what the inside looks like. Uteruses and ovaries that resemble cow heads. Black arrows pointing to the dangly bits, informing me what is in my pants. A part of me wants to examine them closer, wants to read all the scientific jargon, but the other, louder side of me doesn’t want to get caught staring at a drawing of a 16-inch schlong.

The door creaks, and Dr. Honda enters the room. He’s a slim Asian man with a mustache and a big smile. He immediately makes me feel welcome and, as I will come to shortly learn, this is not a professional trait of all doctors. He has bedside manner, a characteristic and skill that cannot be taught.

He shakes my hand and introduces himself. He asks me a few questions about life, what do I do, am I married, do I have kids, where am I from, and then my pants are suddenly at my ankles yet again and I’m Porky-Piggin’ it, naked from the waist down.

As he’s squeezing my GPS tracking system with a rubber-gloved hand, I hear footsteps fast approaching in the hallway and quickly ask if the door is locked. He says they’ll knock first. Yeah, I think, But I’m sure it’ll be that knock-knock-open that people are so wont to do.

“My ultrasound guy is here today. I’m gonna have him check you out.” I ask if I can pull up my pants.

You’ve read all this before. You know what happens. I know what happens. The story is inevitable.

I have Cancer.

That thing that makes people go bald and look sick and thin and tired. That thing that sucks the life out of individuals and kills kids and evaporates old folks. That thing I hear about on TV and in movies and sometimes in books. It’s me. It’s on me. It’s in me. Growing. Slowly.

I picture it looking like the black goo that Venom is made out of in the popular Spider-Man films; it’s not quite a gel but it’s not quite a liquid. It’s just a mess of sticky tar that attaches and grows and builds and pulls and destroys until it has encompassed your very being and turned you into someone else. No more Peter Parker. No more Eddie Brock.

Venom.

Cancer.

I’m staring at the ceiling, cold jelly on my testicle. Now I know. Now I know that I was right. Everything I thought I knew was correct. My gut was dead on. Dead. On.

Dead.

Without looking at the Indian man who’s given me my diagnosis, I ask, “Can I pull my pants up?” and he says, “Yes.”

Pamphlets are spread out in front of me. Every single person on every single cover is happier than the last. Everyone is so happy. They’re all so happy about their Cancer . . . and . . . I am just . . . .

. . . .

Dr. Honda tells me that I have two options in regard to the tumor. My Tumor. First, there is a surgery wherein they will cut me open and split my remaining testicle in half, removing the bad stuff but leaving me fertile. I tell him that I cannot fathom anything that sounds more painful. I ask him what the second option is.

He succinctly states, “Full removal.”

I sigh and ask what the third option is. He stares back at me. Nobody says anything. After a moment he tells me that if they miss even one single cell during the nutcracker operation the cancer will simply return, and they’d have to perform a second surgery in order to take the remaining half. I assume this is supposed to make my decision easier.

I look at the ground. At my feet. At my pants. I tell him to take it all. He smiles, and it’s a very kind face looking back at me. You can tell that he doesn’t want to tell me these things. You can see his compassion, and I’m thankful for it.

He pokes the pamphlets and says, “You’re going to want to bank your sperm,” and I nod. I am going to be sterile. Unable to reproduce. There is something very damaging to me about this thought, and the memory of me lying in a hospital bed talking to a doctor when I am eight is at the forefront of my mind.

I shake his hand and walk out of his office. I walk down the hall. I walk back through the door and to my wife, surrounded by old people. She puts down her Better Homes magazine and stands up, smiles. We walk out of the office, down the steps and out the front door into the parking lot and the warm sunshine.

It has not crossed my mind how blissfully ignorant she currently is.

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

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

 

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Thank you so much for reading another chapter this week. Please click FOLLOW down below to stay up-to-date as we’re releasing one chapter a week until the very end!

Next Monday is PARENTS: Chapter 6.

 

 

 

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FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4

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

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

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

He’s close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to pee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, you are pretty high right now.

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

Cancer . . . .

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

Cancer . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Just. Know.

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

We are going to destroy him.

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

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

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

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

 

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PLAGUED BY PLAGUES: CHAPTER 3

 

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

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

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

 

See you all at the bottom of the slide!

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could work. This could definitely work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. A what?”

“A speculum.”

“What’s a speculum?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate her.

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

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

It’ll heal itself.

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

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

But we very soon will.

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

 

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

JB.

 

FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4: EXCERPT

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

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

 

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The Orange and the Sock: Chapter 2

 

Hello, boys and girls! Thanks for tuning back in for chapter 2 of the on-going series Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, a dark comedy about the time my body tried to kill itself. There’s romance, there’s sex and there’s drugs. It’s all coming, week by week, until the bitter end.

But before we get to that, I have to tell you a couple things that happened to me before. Way before. Years ago. Decades now, actually.

Today let me tell you a story about something that happened to me in elementary school. And it’s very important. Let me tell you a story about an orange and a sock.

Sit down. Curl up. And let’s get very, very, personal.

PS. To start from the very tippy-top of the prologue, click here.

 

 

 

 

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I am six years old, and I know that something is wrong with me. It’s something that stretches far beyond the reaches of the faux-fashionable brown mullet that frames my over-sized head, making me look like the Son of Frankenstein. The wrongness is not the cold sore on my mouth that has been emblazoned into so many family photos from that year. It is not my excessively bushy eyebrows that look like storm clouds.

The year is 1988, and the wrongness has always been. It isn’t something that came about or was discovered one day. It is something that I’ve simply grown horribly accustomed to, the way someone who lives next door to an airport may eventually drown out the jet engines with their own thoughts.

I have only one testicle.

Or rather, I have two. But the second is undescended, just chilling out in my six-year-old abdomen, afraid to come down into its hormone hammock. I know this is unnatural and wrong and I’ve thought about it every single day for as long as I’ve understood its wrongness. For as long as I’ve understood that boys have two and I have one, I have dwelt on its absence. For as long as I can remember, this has been my body.

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One day, after spending an inordinate amount of time contemplating my testicle, I decide to approach my mother about the issue.

I go upstairs to their bedroom where my mother is folding laundry. The question burns in my stomach and in my throat, and I don’t want to say it because, even though she is my mother . . . she is my mother . . . and I don’t want to talk to her about my privates.

“Mom?” I begin. She sets aside one of my dad’s brown military shirts, folds her hands in her lap and smiles with a welcoming air. This is her finest quality; she will give you everything she has, every ounce of attention, every piece of love she can muster. It belongs to you.

I lean in the doorway and fidget awkwardly. I look down at my sneakers. I look down at my zipper, guarding my dirty secret like a monster with a hundred teeth.

“Why . . . do I only . . . have one . . .?” and I can’t even bring myself to say that final word, afraid it will just hang awkwardly between us like a vampire.

“One what, honey?”

Today, there are hundreds of synonyms for it. Then, I knew only one and the word choked me. I stare down at the brown almost-shag-but-not-quite carpeting, dirty with white dog hair. I look up and begin fiddling mindlessly with the doorjamb, reaching out and running my finger over the wooden plank. I expel my breath and quickly cough the syllable out as nonchalantly as possible.

“Ball.”

My hands convulsively go toward my crotch, and I feel dirty and perverse having said the word in front of my mother. We often forget as adults that children know shame, true and terrible shame that dwarfs our own. Children lack the proper familiarity that they are not alone in their experiences. To them, the world is happening for the first time, and the world only exists in the bubble of their own realities.

As a man, you can accept who you are, and you can own it. Your flaws can become quirks that you wear proudly, if not a bit oddly. As a child, you are simply different from everyone else, and at six years old, I am extremely ashamed about my secret, and I want nothing more than to be Normal.

My mother tells me that my “ball” is up in my tummy and that it’s been that way since I was born. She tells me that the doctor says it will just come down one day, abracadabra. It’s simply going to appear again like a mysterious second uncle.

She tells me that, after the doctor found it, he never checked again, never followed up—that during all my infant appointments, it was never rectified. As a man, when I press her and ask, “Why didn’t you do something? Say something?” She says, “I eventually stopped changing your diapers and then . . . ” She shrugs sadly as the thought trails off.

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As a boy, I cry about it often and the tears add to my shame and eat away at me from the inside like a cancer. Eventually, after not just months of living like this but years, I finally bring the issue back to my mother’s attention.

When? When is my bawl coming back down?” and I say it just like that, bawl instead of ball. I really lay the emphasis on the inflection, spitting out the word like venom. I am eight years old now and I’ve never felt so much as a rumble from the mythical Loch Nut Monster.

Sometimes I try pushing on my abdomen, hoping to cause a miraculous healing. I imagine an “extra” testicle just suddenly slopping down and filling up my nut sack like an orange in an old sock and voila problem solved.

This does not happen.

As the year progresses, larger questions begin surfacing in my mind. The Big Questions. The Long-Distance Questions that perhaps no normal third grader has any reason to be thinking. But I am no Normal third grader. I am a child who spends endless hours meditating on his genitals and pressing on his abdomen, hoping to give birth to a testicle.

What happens when I get married? The thought drops in my lap like a cinder block. I’m going to have to tell a girl about my secret. This prospect is worse than anything I have ever imagined. I try to conjure up the conversation in my head. Would I tell her before we were wed? Would I tell her after we were married? Would I tell her on our wedding day so that we’ve already spent a bunch of money and our families were all there and she wouldn’t be able to run away? Yes, that’s the way I’ll do it. I’ll trap her!

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the . . . . A heaviness fills me, and something I had never considered strikes me like a slap on the face. Fertility. Potency. Mobility. These are not words that I understand, but they are words whose meanings I comprehend. Can a man create babies if he is lacking half of his equipment? I’m imagining a jet with one wing. I’m imagining a gun with no bullets. I’m imagining a dick with no bawls.

At a third-grade level, I fully understand the basic concept of where babies come from—insert Tab A into Slot B. But I don’t understand what happens when one of the key components has gone AWOL. I don’t understand the science behind it. Is one a positive charge and one a negative charge? Do you need them both to create some kind of high-powered, special juice? Is one the fluid and one the sperm?

My life is crumbling before it’s even begun, and my mental state is collapsing. I rush home after school and begin demanding action from my mother. “Where is my bawl?! I want it back! It’s mine! I want to see a doctor, and I want him to fix me.”

 

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This is the first time I’ve had any kind of physical done. I’d never been in any type of sport, so I’d never been required to go through the customary “Turn your head and cough” routine. I am terribly nervous as I sit in the waiting room, my hands sweating, my foot bouncing. This is the first time that anyone outside of my mother will know my secret, and this person will discover it by touching me. I am eight, and I am about to be fully exposed in front of a stranger in the most intimate fashion possible. As I wait, instead of reading a magazine, I just stare at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, an artist whose work I will become well acquainted with in roughly twenty years.

“Johnny . . . Broogbank?” People more often than not say my last name with a question mark and a randomly misplaced letter. My mother and I stand up, and in the back hall they measure me, weigh me, blood pressurize me, and escort me into a broom closet adorned with more Georgia O’Keeffe specials.

I stand up and begin to pace wildly while cracking my knuckles. My mother suggests that I relax because the doctor has “seen it all” and I care little and less because I have seen “almost nothing” and I’ve never had a grown man fondle my package before and I find the idea to be terribly off-putting, even at eight. Or rather, especially at eight.

There is a gentle knock at the door, and I immediately know that we have entered The Point of No Return. My stomach drops and all the butterflies inside of it take flight. He enters the room, a stethoscope around his neck, and his physical features immediately remind me of the pink Franken Berry cartoon character on the cereal box, enormous and hulking, thick in the shoulders, hairy hands, but a kind face with a gentle smile.

Dr. Franken Berry asks my mother and me a few questions in that friendly but sterile tone that most GPs have before tapping the table and telling me to “Pull down my pants and hop up here.” I fumble slowly with my belt and then, in sheer neurosis, I ask, “Underwear too?” and he replies in the affirmative.

And it’s in that next moment while bent in half, my hands clutching the waistband on my very tight, very white undies that I wonder why I asked my mother to come here with me.

Dr. Franken Berry feels around my abdomen and begins pressing and I almost tell him, “Don’t bother, I’ve been trying that technique for years,” but instead say nothing. He grabs my bawl and says, “Turn your head to the left . . . and cough. Turn your head to the right . . . ” and I see my mom sitting in the chair. She looks so sad. Her eyes are downcast and she fiddles with her fingernails. I am glad she’s here, and I am glad she’s looking away, supporting me quietly in my shame. “ . . . And cough.”

He tells us we need to do surgery to try and draw it down and I am joyous, celebratory even. I am going to be whole. I am going to have two testicles. Two bawls. Like an x-rated version of Pinocchio, I’m going to be a real boy.

I’m pulled out of school for the operation because I will be hospitalized for three days, the entirety of which are all very blurry to me. The tent-pole moments I will highlight are as follow.

I am all alone on a gurney in a hallway. A male nurse approaches me and says he’s going to give me an IV. I’ve never had one, and I am horrified. I see the size of the needle and my horror turns to terror. He rubs my arm and massages it and slaps it and then says, “All done.” The man was an artist and his craft so perfect and painless that, to this day, it is the IV that I rate all others by.

Inside the operating room, I count backward from ten and only get to nine before I black out from the anesthetic.

My next memory is laughing with my mom in the recovery room. Some commercial has come on that consists of a talking roll of toilet paper, and I believe I am able to recall this specific moment so vividly not because of the humor but because of the pain, which is intense and, very literally, sidesplitting. The surgeon has cut a three and a half inch gash on the right side of my groin, and I can hear it scream every time my muscles cinch up. What he did in there, I have no idea, but it feels like I’ve been stuffed full of hot thumbtacks. Laughing and crying, I ask my mom to turn off the television and to please stop imitating the talking toilet paper.

My next and final memory of the hospital is me asking my mom, “Did they do it?” and her simply saying, “No,” and I am so crushed that I weep in my bed. I am eight years old and the finality of it is the worst news I’ve ever had in my life. I will forever have only one testicle. One bawl. I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to listen. I just want to forget.

Perhaps this seems overdramatic, but to a young boy, fitting in is the world, and I’ve just been told that I will forever be different and not simply through the color of my hair or my height or my language but by the one thing that makes a boy a boy.

A doctor enters the room to check my incision. It is the first time I’ve seen my wound and the sight disgusts me. My skin on either side of the cut has been pinched together and folded over itself and then sutured through a number of times. It looks like someone has laid a thick string of flesh-colored, chewed up bubblegum across my skin and then threaded it with long spider legs. The smell is foul. It is yellow and blue and dripping fluids but the doctor says it looks fine, which I take as an extremely relative deduction.

He asks me if I have any questions and I do. It’s one that I have to know the answer to but am horrified to ask for fear of the truth, for fear of more bad news. I simply say, “Can I still have kids?”

The doctor looks at me and just chuckles and says, “Yeah. You can still have kids. Think of your second testicle like a spare tire. It’s just in case.”

Just in case, I think. Yeah. After all, what are the chances I’d lose my backup, as well?

The doctor leaves and my mother, at a failed attempt to make me feel better says something poetic like, “It was all shriveled up and dead so they had to pull it out. They said if we’d left it in there for another week it could have caused cancer.”

It is a phrase that I will revisit frequently in my life, wondering if something was left behind, lying dormant, waiting. . .

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We did it! We made it through! Together! And I’ll be honest, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little like Dumbledore taking Harry Potter into the pensieve to share with him my darkest memories.

And now it’s your turn to share! Please share this post. I want to get this thing published but we need it to spread its vile tendons out into the weird world of social media. Share, rinse and repeat. And click the follow button down at the bottom to get alerts when new chapters come out. Next Monday. And next Monday. And next Monday. And on and on. Until we’re done.

 

 

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Discovering Rainbows: When your children turn to memories

Sometimes, when we speak to children, specifically those under the age of 3, we find that there is something of a communication barrier.

Sometimes it’s because the words they use contain different meanings than the words we use. For example, when my children say “yesterday” they don’t mean “the day directly previous to today.” Instead they mean “any period of time that came before my last sleep.”

Dinosaurs were yesterday.

Sometimes Rory says that I’m being a bully. But he doesn’t mean “someone that pushes smaller people around” he means… well, he actually means exactly that but the heart of the matter is quite different. He doesn’t like being disciplined. So when I give him a time-out for hitting his sisters, I am, effectively, being a bully.

And then there are times where things are not understood because they are taken out of context.

One day I’m at a friend’s house and Rory turns to one of the girls there and says, “My dad says that we should eat blood.”

And then all eyes slowly shift towards me and I smile sheepishly and stupidly because, well, yes. Actually, as a matter of fact, I did say that.

But my context… was a little different.

Jade and I had recently visited Ireland where they have black pudding. Black pudding is made by taking animal blood, mixing it with oats and spices, forming them into patties and then frying them. Ultimately they look and taste a little like breakfast sausages. So I was telling the kids about this. I was telling them about the time daddy ate blood. And I was telling them that people do this. And I was telling them that they could do it as well.

So yes, I was telling them that they could eat blood.

Conversations and words are strange things because ultimately, words are just empty containers – empty cups – and each of us gets to choose what we’re going to fill them with. Knucklehead can be aggressive or endearing. It’s just an empty cup until I fill it with intent.

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Sometimes, however, we can’t understand children of that age because, well, we just literally can’t understand them. Their lips and tongues and brains aren’t quite functioning at full capacity yet. Their words sound mushy and drunk.

Like today when Bryce said, “Darezah aimbow in our-owse.”

I hear these words escape her mouth and they’re said with such conviction that I’m certain they mean something. Certainly she’s saying something. For Bryce it seems that she has full intent but no cup and her words, rather than being neatly contained, are just splashing all over the place.

And so we try to interpret.

“Darezah aimbow in our-owse.”

I’m sitting in a chair reading a book when she says this. I’m in the other room. There’s a wall separating us and my location in space has my back positioned to her. Ironically, you’ll just love this, my book is about finding happiness in the minutia of life. So it makes sense that, reading this book, I turn my head a quarter of an inch in my daughter’s direction and I say, “Oh, yeah. Neat. Okay,” and then go back to reading.

Rather than finding joy in my daughter, who is discovering and interacting with the exciting world around her – rather than connecting with a human, a child that came from me, no less – I choose to bury myself further in my own thoughts.

Because that’s what kind of person I am, I guess.

Because actions do speak louder than words.

Because even if we say, “I’m not like that,” our actions show us who we are. It’s so funny how, more often than not, our thoughts and our actions do not align. Our thoughts speak to ourselves (no one else can hear them) and our actions speak to others. So if we think one thing but do another, it creates a rift in our reality. We begin to think that we are someone that we are not. Or, worse yet, the world thinks we are one way while we think we are another.

There grows a haunting disconnect between that which we think we are and that which we actually are.

If I think I am the guy that gets up and engages with my children but when my children speak out to me, I pay them lip service in order to make them go away so that I can indulge in whatever it is I’m doing… who am I?

I give her just the absolute most minimal attention possible to hopefully satiate whatever want she has in this moment. Because I’m sure it’s nothing.

And then Bryce says, a little more enthusiastically, ““Darezah aimbow in our-owse.”

“Nice. Nice. Yes. Yes. That’s very wonderful, isn’t it?” Look! I’m paying attention to you, Bryce! I’m giving you words.

I am giving Bryce empty cups. My words are cups but I have filled them with no intent at all. She is asking to be fed with attention and I’m just pushing empty plates at her.

“Nice. Nice. Yes. Yes. That’s very wonderful, isn’t it?” Whatever, whatever. Please leave me be. I’m reading a book. You are a babbling child who is almost certainly making a mess out of chocolate cereal at my dining room table. What do I have to say to appease you?

Or… what do I have to say to silence you?

Or… best yet… what do I have to say to make you go away?

Because you are bothering me and I want to be left alone.

What are we really saying when we say the words we are saying.

Sometimes I don’t understand what my daughter says because she’s three.

Sometimes I’m thankful my daughter can’t fully understand what I’m saying because she’s only three. Thank you, Bryce, for not understanding that I’m pushing you off.

Daddy. Darezah aimbow in our-owse.”

Alright. So this problem is not going away. I’m actually going to have to engage. I shut my book and I set it down and I stand up and I walk around the corner and I see Bryce sitting at the table with, wouldn’t you know it, a mess of chocolate cereal in front of her. Wonderful. Guess whose cleaning that up?

“What is it, Little Ohm?” This is a character from a movie I saw once and for some reason I started administering the name to Bryce.

“Look. Darezah aimbow,” and she points. And I look. And I see nothing. I see nothing and I just think to myself, of course.

“What are you saying?”

“Darezah aimbow. Dare.”

“There’s a rainbow?”

“Yah.”

“In our house?”

“Yah.”

Where is this rainbow?”

“Dare.” She points. I still see nothing.

I sit down next to her at the table. I lower myself several feet. I squint. I lower myself further. I try to relax my eyes. Still nothing.

“Are you a freaking psychic medium?”

“Yah. Dare.”

I squat down lower. I bring my eyes to her level. I tilt my head like hers. And I follow her finger and I see… a rainbow.

In our house.

And it is a simple thing. But it is also a beautiful thing.

“There is a rainbow. Look at that.” I sit in silence and stare at the thing for a moment. “It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yah. Vewy pwetty.”

“Yes. It is vewy pwetty, isn’t it?” And then the two of us just sit and watch it. We just… enjoy it together. Like a piece of art in a gallery. We just sit and watch the rainbow, the silence periodically broken by the sound of dry, crunching cereal next to me.

“I wuv you, Daddy.”

It’s out of nowhere. Out of the blue. It has no greater purpose. No shadow intent. She isn’t trying to get something out of me. She isn’t trying to do anything. It is a cup that is filled with cold and refreshing water. The perfect amount. At the perfect time.

Where do I fit in this picture? How did I help create a being like this? They arrive here perfect and then we just start to slowly mess them up.

“May I have a hug, Bruce?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, Daddy.”

She puts down her spoon, delicately and intentionally balancing it inside the bowl, steps forward and hugs me. And she holds it. And she squeezes. And I can feel her smiling. When she pulls back she gives me a kiss on the cheek and says, “I love you, Daddy.”

Oh, it’s funny what a little perspective will do to your life. It’s funny that if we stop looking at things the way we see them and start looking at them the way someone else sees them, we actually get to experience life in a richer capacity.

If we open our ears and hearts to others, we get to see the world in a multitude of ways.

We can be both here and there. We can see things as adults. We can see things as children. And if we join together and sit down, we can somehow see the world as both. It’s like the 3-D glasses. You get to see through two lenses at once. And everything pops. Everything is brighter. More intense. More saturated.

I glance back at the rainbow and see that it’s fading – almost a gray color now. And I think about how fleeting all things are. The sun, nearly 100 thousand miles away, cast its light in just this way, to reflect just perfectly through that window, that someone built in that way. All of that coupled with my daughter standing in this room at this time (making a mess from her chocolate cereal), facing the proper direction as she was the exact height at this time of her life to see this miniature spectrum.

And she saw it in this tiny little window of time where it was available to her. Just a few moments in the late afternoon.

This special thing happened.

And then it was gone.

And we couldn’t get it back. So hopefully we enjoyed it.

“You want some cereal, Daddy?”

I nod. “Yes, please.” And she feeds me one small piece of chocolate cereal at a time. She drops a marshmallow on the floor, says, “Oops,” and then picks it up. It’s now covered in dust and hair. She balances it back on the spoon and says, “Here.”

I reach out, dust it off and bite.

The rainbow in our house is gone.

And then the cereal was gone.

And then Bryce left the table.

And then years passed.

And then Bryce left the house.

And then it was just me sitting in a chair with a book, remembering the time that I got to share a rainbow with her. Hoping that I enjoyed it.

Because this memory is all I have left.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t.

Instead I tell them the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

And you hope that you find them.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

And sometimes that’s okay.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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

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

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

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not allow the uninformed to inform your thinking.

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

Set your own rules. Live by your own standards.

Education is not a swear word.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

I’m broken.

That’s a fact.

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

And my wife gets to adopt them.

And I get to adopt all of her bullshit.

And then we have to figure that stuff out together.

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

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

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

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

“I’m trying. You’re not.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

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

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

It is so much easier to judge others.

And it is simple to judge our spouse.

And so you choose.

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

Those classes didn’t prepare us for anything.

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

Sometimes we are cold and calculating.

And sometimes we are terrible.

And cruel.

But we try.

We choose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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