Tag Archives: life

The Ultimate Conspiracy

Something horrible has happened to me.

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

Let’s go GOOOOOOOOGLE it!

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

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

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

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

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

Any questions? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?”

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

“How do you know?”

“The Bible told me so.”

“And the Bible was written by?”

“God. Man. Man inspired by God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So God is okay with incest?”

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

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

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

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

I think, therefore I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read a book.

Nothing in particular. I just read a book.

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

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

I Saw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

Carbon dating doesn’t work because–

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

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

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

OPTION 1

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

OPTION 2

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

 

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

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

I don’t know, Bob…. OPTION….B?

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

OPTION A

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

OPTION B

God is throwing lightening bolts.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God can do anything.

You could probably even teach it to a parrot.

God can do anything.

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

God can do anything.

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

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

Are you a raving lunatic?

Perhaps.

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

I already knew everything.

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

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

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

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

But my faith is important to me!

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

Very blissful.

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

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

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

And if God can’t, Science help us.

albert-einstein-god

 

 

 

 

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EPILOGUE

PART 5

“Woo-Hoo!”

-Blur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With twins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

And here is the beautiful lady herself.

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

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

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

Your spirit is beautiful.

Thank you for standing next to me.

-Johnny

 

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THE FINAL DAY | CHAPTER 40

I wake up in a dark room. I am seven years old. I look out the window and there is snow covering the ground. It’s fresh. Strange ice patterns have crawled up the glass panels, trying to creep into my home, into my house. I run to the bed next to mine and shake my sister awake. She snorts and sits up, pushing me away. I stand back and say nothing. I just watch her. And then I see the realization dawn on her face. She knows. She’s been waiting. And now it’s here. It’s finally here.

The two of us bound down the stairs together, two at a time, nearly tripping over each other’s feet. We each grab the banister and rocket ourselves into the living room where we lay our eyes upon one of the sweetest things an American child will ever see:

A Christmas tree pregnant with gifts.

Oh . . . try to remember, try to remember. The full tree, the red globes. The lights. The stockings. The presents. I am seven and this is my currency. These are my diamonds. There are so many boxes of so many shapes and sizes in so many varying brands and designs of wrapping paper. Where to start?!

The night before was torture; lying awake in bed, in the dark, staring at the ceiling. You must sleep! I tell myself. Shut your eyes! But my desperation for what tomorrow brings is too great. I lie in bed until exhaustion overpowers me and, like a robot, my body simply shuts down.

I tentatively reach out and touch the first present, the second present. What’s in the big box? A Super Nintendo? A go-kart? A time machine?! I begin to tear and shred; paper is raining down upon my sister and me as we are swallowed up into a complete endorphin high. Neither of us can hear the other squealing with glee.

All is good. All is happy. Everything is perfect.

This is not a story meant to pluck your heartstrings in a way that says, “Ah, but the seven-year-old did not know what awaited him in twenty years.” This story has a bigger purpose than mere parallel emotional trite.

There is a magic in Christmas morning for children. It is something we have all felt and experienced but have lost having grown up. Certainly, Christmas is still fun and warm and inviting as adults but there is something unique about the quality in the air as a child that, once gone, can never be recaptured.

But here and now I tell you that, as a twenty-six-year-old man, lying in my bed on the fifth floor of the Arcadia Methodist Hospital on January 15, 2009, I feel like a seven-year-old on Christmas morning. That magic was back.

My time, my journey, my experience, my nightmare was finally coming to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was not only in sight. It was here. Today. From my initial diagnosis to the final drip-drop of chemotherapy, my grand total was 163 days under the gun—3,912 hours of fire-refining damage control.

I wish I could tell you that there was one single moment where I simply crossed a line or walked out the door and then it was over with a bang, finished like a race. But that’s not the case.

This is how Cancer ends.

Not with a bang but a whimper.

A nurse enters, and looking at my final chemo bag, unceremoniously states, “All done.”

I shut my eyes and I pull in breath and I sob in happiness for the first time since my brain cancer came back negative. After so much distress and tragedy and bad news piled on top of us, here it is. Tears roll down my cheeks and onto my pillow and my wife squeezes my hand and my mother squeezes my other hand and the three of us have made it through alive.

We. Have. Survived.

The nurse pulls out my IV for the last time, and just like that, I am free. While I’d love to tell you that it ends there, it doesn’t. Because the reality is I’m still very sick. I still have gasoline and particles of nuclear fusion soaring through my veins and it will be weeks before they’re out and it will be months before I feel like an actual living human again. Who knows how long it will take for my eyebrows to come back . . . .

Sue leads my entire nursing staff into the room, six of them total. It is this group of complete strangers that have made me feel as much at home as I possibly could have over the course of the last six months. They’ve given of their time and energy to help me keep my attitude highest when it wanted to live in the depths of oblivion. They were my cheerleaders, my team, my friends, my family in a time when I needed all of those things. These people went above and beyond their duty to bring me safely to The Other Side. They guided me back across the river Styx.

Sue sets a chocolate cake in front of me and says, “For when you get appetite back.” The cake is the most delicious and unappetizing thing I’ve ever seen and it turns my stomach but I value the personal token of friendship deeply.

I remember the first hospital we’d visited where they’d forgotten my paperwork and I try to imagine what six months under the care of The Careless would have been like. I shudder.

I stand up slowly and individually hug each of them, staining the shoulders of their smocks with my tears. I embrace Sue last, our special mother-nurse and I whisper, “Thank you,” in her ear. Her body is small and frail and I realize that I currently have the same physical build.

She says, “Mike will take you outside. Sit down,” and she signals to a wheelchair. The Wheelchair. The Final Wheelchair. Mike steps behind me, grabs the handles and pushes me into the hallway where my wife snaps a photo of me with the group of them. It will become something that I cherish deeply.

Mike begins to push me forward, and Sue says, “See you later,” and I turn around and say to her, “Sue, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea but . . . I hope I never see you again.” She smiles and laughs and says, “Yes . . . . Yes, I hope I never see you again either. Be healthy. Be well!” and then she turns and disappears into another room, with another patient, to change another life.

Mike pushes me to the front door where my mother is waiting for me with the car. I stand up, turn, and shake Mike’s hand. He’s always been a man of very few words and so he just says, “Good luck,” and I say, “Thank you for everything.”

I turn and walk out of the hospital and into the light.

 

 

 

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FINAL ROUND: CHAPTER 39

 

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At this point I believe that there is nothing that can be said that hasn’t already been said before. You, reader, are just as familiar with the routine as I am. Even though this is the last round and the celebratory party hats should, at the very least, be brought out and dusted off, I can’t help but feel a strange mourning and lingering.

Even though my mother keeps saying, “This is it, this is it! That’s the last time we’ll drive through those gates. That’s the last time we’ll enter these doors. That’s the last time you’ll check in. That’s your last IV. How does it feel?” I can’t help but think that this is not The Last. This is just Another. This is just Another Stop that takes me on and on and on. I’m so mentally broken and physically destroyed that the idea of getting off this ride makes no sense to me. I’m so brainwashed by procedure and routine that the idea of the Long Spoken of and Prophesized, Great and Powerful END could not really be here.

Over the last few weeks I’ve developed a sore throat that stings like rug burn, a side effect I blame fully on the vaporizer. And so, having recently become so conscious of the health of my body, I’ve decided to give up smoking weed completely in lieu of my own well-being. I don’t want any more drugs in my system. I want them all gone and out of me. Everything.

The nausea has been stronger than usual but I fight through it (as though I have a choice), spending days with my eyes closed while focusing on my breathing. Time has lost all relevancy and the clock is just a geographical readout that happens to tell me where the sun is in the sky. I feel every second and am given the chance to stare at it and mull it over, dissect it, assess it, pass it on, examine the next one.

I try to imagine everything that I’ve missed—the six months of the world that has been existing without me—and I realize in a very sobering way that I do not matter. I am very insignificant in, not only the greater scheme of things, but in the most absolute minutia of life. I am replaceable, interchangeable and forgotten.

No matter what I do or what happens to me, the world will continue to spin, the glaciers will continue to melt, and Coca-Cola will still have bubbles.

I am not invincible.

But I can do anything and there is no longer anything to fear.

 

 

 

 

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TWO FRIENDS, part 1 & 2: CHAPTER 38

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PART 1: ROB

 During the summer between my eighth- and ninth-grade years, I ended up meeting a boy my same age named Rob who lived across town from me. He is a mental fixture in my childhood and was a very important part of my adolescence, and although I wrack my brain over and over, I can’t seem to recall how the two of us first met. Presently, as a thirty-year-old man, this makes me very sad as I know that things I hold dear to me are beginning to slowly evaporate while I’m not looking.

His parents had divorced long before I knew him, and he was mostly left alone throughout the day during summer break. His mom’s small house became our kingdom; its four walls were ours. We could crank the stereo and listen to our music as loud as we wanted. It was that summer that Rob introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, and rock and roll.

He would date a girl, I would date a girl, we’d break up with them and date each other’s ex-girlfriends; once we even made out with the same girl at the same time, both of us feeling her up while awkwardly trying to avoid each other’s hands. That encounter finally ended with the three of us all giving a collective, “This is weird, yeah?” and then driving to Burger King for lunch.

A few years later, Rob and I began to change and grow apart (as people do). He began spending countless hours at the library (pre Internet) researching Buddhism and Hinduism and various forms of monkhood. He claimed to spend hours each day in his room meditating on nothing but clearing his mind and disconnecting from the world.

We’d spend endless hours bickering wildly over the existence and nature of God, me with all of my “hard facts” he was ignorantly overlooking. I would point and condemn, using fear as a weapon. It makes me grimace to remember the things I’d say; the way I’d try to shove a very specific brand of American Christianity down his throat like a horse pill. “Just take two of these and you’ll be fine!”

Religion was a drug to me. It lifted me up and made me feel good and certain and right. I couldn’t get enough – I mean, who doesn’t want to feel absolute certainty in the unknown? Certainty gives us a sense of superiority. And superiority damages relationships. And eventually, as most drugs do, it devoured me and alienated my friend. It’s funny how religion – a supposedly cosmic belief system based in love, unity and the divine – can separate and isolate human beings so harshly if we allow it to.

Years passed and Rob and I grew further and further apart, only seeing each other randomly in the high-school parking lots. We became involved with different groups of friends but still nodded silently to each other when we passed by happenstance in the halls.

Then, sometime during our junior year, I heard from a mutual friend that he had suddenly taken a bus to California. It wasn’t until years and years later that the two of us would meet again, this time at his new home, a Hare Krishna community in Santa Monica he’d been living in since he left South Dakota. We were different people—both of us half a country away from our hometown, both of us half a decade older, me a bit balder from genetics, he with a purposefully shaved head save for a sprout of hair in the back. I wear a T-shirt and ripped jeans, he an orange robe.

We’ve both matured as men and are able to discuss our cosmic curiosities in a more social manner, taking the time to learn from one another rather than attempting merely to teach and talk. He asks me to stay for lunch and we walk through a veritable buffet of vegetarian Indian cuisine and he purchases my meal for me. We say grace together and dig in, reminiscing about people we once knew.

He tells me that he had discovered this temple during one of his various faith studies, contacted them, and they’d sent him an invite along with the bus fare. At seventeen years old he had packed a single bag, got on the Greyhound, and never returned.

Once I was diagnosed with cancer, he and his new wife were one of the very first and very few to come visit us in the hospital. Then, six months later, toward the end of my treatment, he invited my family to his temple for a small lunch. It could not have come at a better time as I was truly feeling as though I needed to unload a minivan of emotional baggage. There were dark things happening deep down in my soul and they were going to come out; Pandora’s box was going to crack open. I was feeling very bad things and I needed to say them. I needed to get them into the air around me and I needed someone I trusted to hit them all like Whack-A-Moles when they appeared.

Looking back, I hope to God that these emotions were simply my renegade hormones speaking; my lack of AndroGel and imbalance of testosterone. But even today, years later, I can’t say with any absolute clarity. I can’t say for certain that I wasn’t on the brink of something darker.

Rob, who was now going by the name of Haladhara, and I sat down at a small table while, at my request, our wives and my mother sat down separately. We both say our customary blessing and then I thank him for buying me lunch yet again. He says, “Dude . . . dude . . . c’mon. It’s the least I can do.”

I look at my large plate with my meager portions and remember the last time I ate here—I had heaping stacks of food. He asks, “How is everything? How are you doing?” and I reach out and pick up a biscuit that might be made out of potatoes and spinach and I take a bite. I say, “I’m not very good, man. I’m not doing very good,” and my voice cracks on that last word and he says, “What’s wrong?”

I look around the restaurant and see people seated at different tables. My initial fear when we walked in the door had been that I would throw up and make a scene. My new fear is that I was about to start crying uncontrollably with an audience.

I say, “I’m . . . so . . . I don’t know. Just inside. Everything feels all weird. It feels all sick,” and he says, “But it’s gone, yeah? It’s all—you’re out of it?” and I say, “The cancer is gone . . . but the cancer—it’s never been the problem. It’s the chemo. The chemotherapy is the monster, and I’ve got one round left. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I have it in me,” and Rob, or Haladhara, puts down his food and puts his fingertips together and just listens to me talk. I ramble.

“It hurts so much. I can’t walk. I can’t talk. I’m . . . pain . . . everything is fuzzy. The ice-cream truck made me cry. Jade is giving me baths. I can’t take care of myself. Can’t walk. Can barely think, talk . . . . I can’t eat. I don’t know. If I had to do this again, I can’t say, I can’t say, I don’t know that I wouldn’t just . . . kill myself. I don’t think I can do it again.”

These are the darkest words I’ve ever spoken and I consider this moment to be my darkest hour. I glance around the small room and find that no one is looking at me but everyone is paying attention. I try to stifle my gasps but I have no control over anything. I put my face into my hands and try to hold back visceral wails that seem to be clawing their way out of my very soul. Thinking these monstrous and loathing thoughts is evil and poisonous toxicity—thinking about suicide. Speaking the words out loud feels so much more tangible and dangerous. It feels as though I’m speaking some kind of taboo truth into them that I hate, bringing it to life or somehow birthing it into our world. I don’t want to say it, don’t want to admit it but I want to get in front of the problem, get it into the air, out in the open; murder it before it murders me.

I am broken.

Rob reaches across the table and puts his hand on mine and says, “You’re going to be all right. You’re so strong. Everything you’re going through is difficult. But you will get through it. You are inspiring.”

This moment between two people. This compassion. This empathy. This kindness. This is what God looks like.

 

PART 2: LUCY

At some point in the early 2000s, my brother-in-law, Jarod, moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he began work as a bartender while attending college. It was at this bar he met a girl and fellow employee named Lucy.

The two hit it off well enough, and when Jarod discovered that she was moving to Los Angeles, he volunteered to connect her with my wife and myself.

So one extremely windy day, we all met at a Starbucks and drank overpriced burnt coffee and chatted about our plans to “take over this town.” She was one of the nicest people I’d ever met; she wore a constant smile, made well-timed jokes, and laughed when expected. All that aside, we were living in different parts of the city, and the three of us were simply too preoccupied with other things to navigate a new and strange friendship.

It would be years before either Jade or I saw her again.

Fast forward several tax seasons until I’d finally found myself working as the lead editor at a start-up post-production company in Studio City. The owner, an enormously tall Dutchman named Radu, had a weakness for cheeses, Entourage, and loose women. He had a constant interest in “The Dakotas,” a cowboy land filled with bars, gunfights, and no electricity that I had apparently somehow escaped, presumably on the back of a wild stallion.

He’d wander around the office, ducking through doorways, moving from edit bay to edit bay proclaiming, “Rah-DO-IT!” if he agreed with something you were creating.

A year into my job there, he decided to bring on our very first assistant editor; a young lady named Amber who had just finished college up north and was now trying to get her foot into some steady work.

One Wednesday, Radu called a meeting (which usually just entailed Amber and I sitting at a table in the front lobby while he showed us his favorite moments from Entourage and splurged on exotic cheeses) to tell us about a new client we had coming in; some foreign documentary that needed editing. “I know neither of you speaks Spanish—hell, Brookbank barely speaks English—but we’re going to just Rah-do-it. You got it?” Honestly, he was like a character out of a TV show.

I reach out for a piece of cheese, and he slaps my hand away. “This ain’t no soup kitchen! You pay for that cheese? Were you born in a barn, Dakota? You probably were born in a barn—go buy your own Velveeta cheddar slices, whatever. This is good cheese. Fine, here’s one piece, just to try. Savor it because you’ll probably not get anymore again. How much you think this cheese platter cost? Forty bucks.”

I say, “This cheese tastes like a jock strap,” and Radu says, “You have the etiquette of a possum. Shut your mouth when you eat, you rat bastard. Now, listen, the client is Such and Such—” except he actually names the client and doesn’t say such and such and Amber says, “Such and Such on Miracle Mile?” and Radu says, “Yes; you know them?” and Amber says, “Yeah, my best friend Lucy works there—we graduated from Bozeman together,” and I say, “You went to Bozeman? Lucy who?” and Amber says, “Lucy Such and Such!” and I say, “Black hair? Thin? Laughs when she’s supposed to?” and Amber says, “Yes!” and I say, “My brother-in-law is Jarod. Do you know him?” and she says, “I know Jarod!” and Radu says, “I ain’t got time for this. I’m going to take a shit. Nobody touch my cheese,” and then he leaves the room.

This is how I met Lucy for the second time.

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There are people that you meet from time to time and you can just tell that karma is out to get them, or is, at the very least, lying dormant and waiting for the perfect time to strike. Then there are people who, conversely, you meet and you just think that even their dandruff should be considered good luck powder in most circles.

Lucy was one of these latter. Although, it should be stated that she does not, so far as I am aware, have dandruff. When you meet her, you immediately think to yourself, “You’re a wonderful person. You’re happy and you know what happiness is and I can simply tell that you are a good friend with a trustworthy personality.”

Over the course of the following years, Lucy and my wife and myself all keep up, fighting through the weirdness that is LA friendships in order to get together for the odd and random dinner. Our friendship matures and Lucy ultimately becomes a close friend of both my wife and myself.

Then, one day, years later, I’m sitting in My Yellow Chair with my blanket when my phone rings and it’s Lucy and she’s asking if she can come over to visit. Of course, we say and when my wife shouts, “Come in!” a few hours later, Lucy hobbles into my living room wearing a full blown please-sign-here leg cast.

After the initial, “What-the-what?!” and “Is that fer real?!” questions out of the way, she regales us with her tale of woe.

Two nights ago, she says, she was coming home with her roommate. It was about 11 p.m. and she had to park about a block away from her house. “It’s a good neighborhood though so not a big deal.”

She and her roommate exit the car, begin the track back up the block and—someone punches her in the back of the head, knocking her 110-pound frame to the ground. She rolls over in time to see two young men begin to stomp, literally stomp on her leg until it is cracked and broken, only stopping when porch lights begin to turn on from her wretched screaming. The two boys take her purse and disappeared into the darkness while her roommate fumbles with 911.

I say, “They . . . stomped . . . on your leg . . . until it snapped?” and she says, “Yes, with their feet. They just jumped up and down on it. They shattered my leg. And, yes, I’m moving to New York City.”

There is silence between us when my wife says, “New York? Isn’t that dangerous?” and Lucy says, “I don’t know. Probably. Maybe. Certain neighborhoods. I just can’t—every day I think they’ll be there. Every day, no matter where I am, I’m afraid they’ll be there. If I’m in a parking garage at nine p.m. or a Target parking lot at eleven a.m. I think they’re following me—I mean, I know they’re not following me, but I’m waiting for them to come back. I was mugged and I’m afraid it’s going to happen again. I’m afraid of them returning. Do you know what I mean?”

I look at her and I say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I know what it’s like to have them return again and again and again. Mine doesn’t come in the form of two cowardly men; mine comes in the form of bad news over and over and over. Testicular cancer, surgery, heart cancer, lung cancer, grand mal seizure, fainting, puking, RLS, blood vomiting, insomnia, constipation, atrophy, platelets, blood transfusions, lockjaw.

The process has a way of getting under your skin, into your soul and making you not trust The Good News. Cancer wasn’t done with me; it was going to come and find me in some parking lot and finish the job. Lately I’d just been spending my days waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I say, “New York will be awesome. Be safe,” and Lucy leaves for her new life where she will find success in producing. I love Lucy’s story because it shows that goodness and opportunity can come from anywhere. Two bottom feeders break your leg, steal your purse, and re-route your train for New York where you find more happiness and success than you ever had in Los Angeles. It’s a high price to pay, but the even higher price is a life lived in mediocrity.

Feeling suddenly inspired to make moves and to get out there and to feel the hustle that I heard Lucy talking about, I decide to e-mail my boss. I’ve been in correspondence with him over the last few months, and he, to his great credit, has been nothing short of compassionate. When I had to leave he said, “Go, take as much time as you want. Whatever you need. We’ll work with you,” and for an employee, that inspires comfort and safety. In an industry where everyone is flaky, it was a breath of fresh air; while dealing with a disease that was unpredictable, it was wonderful to have predictability. It was nice to know that, at the end, my job was there.

I’d hit him up every three to four weeks just to touch base and say hi, let him know I was still alive. He writes back with, “No problem! Just beat that cancer! Quit worrying about the job! It’s here! It’s yours! Just get better! Good luck!”

So it is upon this day that I write him one final time to give him the good news, “My cancer is gone and it looks like I’m going to wander the Earth for a few more years after all. I should be able to return in about six weeks and I just want to say thank you so much for keeping it open for me.”

Our medical bills were now into the hundreds of thousands and we needed a financial Band-Aid soon. This job was the only rope I could see that would pull us to safety.

I send the e-mail and I hear the whoosh indicating that the digital file is flying through cyber space and I imagine Phil’s e-mail giving him a little bing notification. I imagine him reading it and smiling and feeling warm and fuzzy that he is such a huge part in helping me to gather the shattered pieces of my life and glue them back together. He can sleep easy tonight knowing that he and he alone was the boat that sailed my job through the storm. He was the captain at sea while I was in the infirmary. I stare at my blank computer monitor and I think, “I hope he knows how much that means to me. I hope I was articulate enough.”

BING.

I receive an email. From Phil. Wonderful! I quickly open it up, excited for the warm words of encouragement from o captain, my captain. I smile and begin to read, paraphrased as, “Johnny. I’m so glad to hear you’re better. Unfortunately, I gave your job away two weeks after you left and didn’t have the heart to tell you. I’ll put out a couple feelers. Be well. Phil.”

I reach over and sip my hot tea, fold my hands and purse my lips as I try to decide what my emotional response should be to this terse letter.

I look toward the door and, nodding, I see our collection of footwear. It appears the other shoe has finally fallen.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

I say, “OK, go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I say, “Any of your AIDS blood?”

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

And I say, “Cold move.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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ROUND 3: CHAPTER 32

 

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I’m sitting in the backseat of our Pontiac Vibe in the parking lot of the Arcadia Methodist hospital. My breaths are coming in quick staccato bursts, my heart threatening to beat right through my rib cage. My mother is sitting in the passenger seat saying, “Just relax. We’re in no rush . . . just calm down,” and my wife is saying nothing, knowing that there is nothing to say. She sits in the driver’s seat biting her nails and checking her Facebook, knowing that I just need to process these emotions myself.

I throw myself back onto the seat and say, “I’m not going. I can’t go back in there! I . . . . Please, GOD, don’t make me go back in,” and then I’m curling my knees into my chest and covering my eyes with the bend of my elbow and just begging for a miraculous healing because I am terrified of chemotherapy.

It is burning and damaging and destructive. It is fire and earthquakes and hurricanes. I am a witch being led to the pyre again and again and again. I’m walking over hot coals, walking into the pain willingly, tirelessly, for the third time. It was easier when I didn’t know. It was scarier when I didn’t know but it was easier. The unknown was untouched territory that I slowly felt through in the dark, finding the rhythms of my sickness, the pulse of my body, the schedule of my Sub Life.

Now I know. Now I’m aware. I see the guillotine and the hangman’s noose. I see myself curled over and hurling up blood in less than 24 hours. I see my bones feeling like glass. I see my stomach churning and rolling as paint thinner is pumped into me. The fire is lit and everyone is chanting, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon . . . round three,” and I say, “It’s not even the end! It’s not even the end . . . ” and images of doing this entire thing one more time keep flashing through my head and I’m so scared and I’m so alone and I don’t want to get out of the car. I just want to die, to die, to be struck dead. I am Prometheus and my liver is eaten and renewed and eaten and renewed and eaten and it doesn’t end, it never ends. God, if you won’t heal me, kill me! I am begging for a miracle, either of fantastic goodness or diabolical madness, anything that will deviate me from my current course of action.

I can taste the saline they pump through my veins to flush my IV. I can smell the cleaning supplies. I can hear that beeping IV ringing in my ear, stabbing my brain. I can hear that machine in the hall breathing for the man who is either still alive or very dead. I can feel the needles resting in my arms, and my eyes are glass and my ears are bleeding and everything stinks, physically stinks of rot and death and body odor.

Jade shuts her phone off and says, “Johnny,” and I say, “Hhhhh,” and she says, “We need to go inside now,” and I stand up and hold her hand and she takes another picture of me outside of the hospital, paper thin and red eyed and then we’re walking inside and you already know how this plays out.

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SOLAR ECLIPSE: CHAPTER 31

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad news comes, don’t you worry

Even when it lands

Good news will work its way to all them plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow is Round 3.

 

 

 

 

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LOCKJAW: CHAPTER 30

 

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

It’s easy to be a victim.

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

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

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

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

All is attainable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shut my eyes and wonder what tomorrow will bring.

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ALAN: CHAPTER 28

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Perfect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

_JBP6854

 

 

 

 

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