Tag Archives: love

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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ROUND 2: CHAPTER 25

 

ABOVE: (LEFT) ROUND 1 (RIGHT) ROUND 2

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

 

I am a side effect.

 

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

 

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

 

Today I start over.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

 

Nothing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We have take off.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And I say, “Yes! Great!”

 

And she says, “You poop OK?”

 

And I say, “Far as I know!”

 

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

 

And I say, “No. Just reading a book,”

 

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

 

And I say, “OK.”

 

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

 

And she says, “You want to sit down?”

 

And I say, “Can I stand?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It is heartbreaking.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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AGGRESSIVE ACCELERATION: CHAPTER 16

Here begins PART 3 of our journey.

It is a great and long chapter and a massive turning point in our tale.

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PART 3

“It’s the end of the word as we know it, and I feel . . . ”

-R.E.M.

 

Dr. Odegaard, the GP who had made my very first “there is definitely a lump” diagnosis some 30 days ago (yes, ALL OF THIS, has happened in one month) and had recommended me to Dr. Honda, my urologist, has now recommended an oncologist for me to meet with at White Memorial Hospital in downtown Los Angeles.

My wife and I enter the hospital and find that the main lobby is under construction and is being poorly partitioned. Dust and specks of insulation and dirt and cement and broken tile lie about and float in the air. It’s less hospital and more third-world-country-post-war-zone chic. I ask the receptionist where I should be, and she directs me to an elevator that looks as though it were designed and installed at the turn of the century and hasn’t had a maintenance check since. Upon exiting my floor I find red (blood/rust/chemical/vomit/paint??) stains on the carpet and water stains on the ceiling.

All hospitals are not created equal.

I enter the waiting room, and the very first thing I notice is that there are patients everywhere; all the chairs packed, people standing and sitting on the floor, nearly stepping on one another, two and three deep and I just keep thinking, “There are so many. So many sick people. There aren’t enough doctors here.” And while I focus on this weird ratio of patients to professionals, I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . .

An hour past my appointment time, I approach the window and ask for an ETA on my “reservation” and they tell me that they’re running about 90 minutes behind schedule. I ask if a doctor got sick and the receptionist says, “No,” and I ask, “Is this pretty standard?” and she sort of gives me a shy I’m-not-supposed-to-say-this type smile and it’s enough of an answer for me. I sit back in my chair and mumble angrily to myself and wish there were some sort of air freshener in this room because it’s starting to smell like body sweat.

Thirty minutes later, they call my name—“Mr. Brootbagk”—and lead me like a lamb to the slaughter (you know the feeling), and once I get into the doctor’s exam room I wait more and more and more, and it’s not the kind of waiting that one expects in a doctor’s office. It is the endless abyss of waiting where time stretches on indefinitely and seconds become hours and you wonder if the doctor is just enjoying a ham sandwich in the break room.

The door finally opens and someone enters. A young man. A doctor. He sits down and calls me the wrong name, I correct him, at which point he realizes he’s in the incorrect room. Leaves. We wait. A second doctor enters. Asks me two questions, and gets my name right. Excuses himself. We wait. We wait. We wait. A third doctor enters. He sits down and asks me what my name is and what I’m doing here. He has no folder, no information on us or my surgery or background. He’s just winging it off the cuff, I guess. He exits. He returns with our folder.

The doctor tells me that I have stage 2 cancer. He tells me they biopsied my testicle (put it in a blender and looked at the goop under a microscope). He tells me that there are two different kinds of cancer; there is nonseminoma and there is just plain old seminoma and that I have the first. I take a deep breath, relieved, because clearly, “non” is always better. He sighs and says, “Nonseminoma is actually the more aggressive of the two,” and now, every comedic deflection I have is being ground out of me and my lip begins to quiver and I still don’t understand why this is happening. He tells me, “Nonseminoma breaks down into four categories and you also have the most aggressive of the four.”

I say, “The most aggressive of the most aggressive . . . ” and he says, “Yes,” and my hand has turned purple and then white from Jade squeezing it and I look over and see that she has mascara and tears streaming down her cheeks and her eyes are red and her face is puffy and I feel like I’m going to pass out but manage to say, “So . . . what . . . does that . . . mean?” And I say this because . . . what else do you say? How else do you respond? Someone tells you that you have some of the most aggressive cancer on Earth and—

The doctor says, “I’d like to admit you today, right now. I’d like you to start chemotherapy,” and my breath catches in my throat because now I am a Cancer Patient. More visions of ghostly bald kids with hollow eyes shoot through my brain and images of me hiding somewhere in the crowd with my IV, pulling it sadly behind me. I ask the doctor, “But . . . my job. I work tomorr—” and before I’m even done with my sentence he’s shaking his head. “No. You’re not. You won’t work again until this is over,” and I say, “But I can work. I can make it work—they’re cool with my schedule,” and he says, “No. You won’t work. You won’t read. You won’t watch TV. I just want to be very transparent with you about this—I’ve seen this take men in the military down to . . . nothing,” and I just keep thinking, “Why is he telling me this? Why is he saying these things?” and me, grabbing at straws, trying to make ends meet, throwing myself at any possible outcome that doesn’t involve chemotherapy, say, “Dr. Honda—he says he wants to pull out my lymph nodes! Cut me open from gullet to groin and pluck pluck pluck! We can just do that!” because, in my head, surgery is not as serious as chemotherapy. Surgery is manageable and understandable and considerably more familiar ground but the doctor says, “No. It’s . . . . That’s not possible. The cancer is too aggressive and it’s moving fast. We have to just get you into chemotherapy as soon as possible and try to kill it—” (me) “—that way. It’s our best shot. Surgery will just delay it and, ultimately, you’ll still have to undergo chemo just to make sure.”

My wife is still crying and he says, “I’ll get the paperwork,” and I say, “No,” and the doctor says, “What’s that now?” and I say, “No. We’re not checking in here.”

And we rise up and we leave, pushing blindly through walls and walls and walls made of patients on standby.

In the car, we call Dr. Honda, our urologist who had suggested pulling out my lymph nodes, and we tell him about our experience at White Memorial. I tell him about the floors and the ceiling and the dust and the dirt and the waiting and the missing files and the three doctors and all the people just standing there and I say, “I can’t do that. I can’t leave my life in the hands of those people. I just . . . . If I have to do chemotherapy, fine, I have to do it but you make sure I have to do it and please, please, please, just put me somewhere else. I don’t trust them.”

We hang up the phone and it immediately rings with an unrecognized number. Curiosity wins out and my wife clicks it open while I drive. “Hello?” she says.

It’s the doctor from White Memorial.

“Please,” he says, “I can’t stress this enough. You must check in somewhere today. You must begin treatment today. Your disease is so aggressive—” (There’s that word again, like a mad dog or a cage fighter or an acid: aggressive.) “—it’s not something to mess around with. Just . . . please.” And then, “Why don’t you come back? I can be your oncologist.” At first he sounded like he was genuinely pleading my case and then it sounded like he was freshly employed, and needed the experience under his belt and so my wife tells him, in the politest way possible, that his hospital reminded us of any number of post-apocalyptic movies.

There’s a pause on the phone and the doctor speaks again, softer. He says, “I understand. Fine. But please, listen to me. Listen. Don’t mess around with this. I don’t care where you go, just . . . go. Go somewhere. Go there now and check in,” and my wife says, “Thank you,” and hangs up and neither of us says anything but we both recognize something so desperate in his voice that we each have to wonder just what it is we’re dealing with here.

We know it’s bad but . . . how bad? How aggressive?

Several days later, my wife and I are finally sitting in front of Dr. Honda and, yes, I know the last doctor said we needed to check in ASAP, but the truth is, there are channels one must go through and sometimes those channels are clogged by other patients that are not you and you must simply . . . wait.

And that’s Cancer: waiting. Waiting in doctor’s offices, waiting in exam rooms, waiting in waiting rooms slowly, waiting, dying, healing hopefully, but dying and fearing and waiting.

“Cancer markers,” Dr. Honda says and all I can picture is children with thick black markers coloring the walls of a classroom in living venom slime, the dark goo dripping down and running everywhere, growing and attaching to anything with DNA.

“Cancer markers are in your blood. They let us know how much cancer you have. A normal, healthy, cancer-free person would have zero.” I say, “OK,” because the math seems to make sense. He tells me that previous to my surgery they did a blood test and my cancer markers were at 32 and I say, “What?! Thirty-two out of what?! Is that high?!” And he says, “Higher than it should be. Mine is zero,” and I shrug because this, too, is sound logic.

He tells me that two days after surgery, my numbers hit 619 and my jaw drops to the floor and my teeth fall out and the doctor says, “Today you hit 900,” and now my breathing is shallow and my tongue is dry and everything is blurry and I don’t know if I’m crying or if my eyeballs are just dry or if I’m getting faint, but I do the quick math and realize that I now have roughly 30 times the amount of cancer I had a couple days ago when I still had a bawl. The doctor at the Ghetto Hospital’s voice suddenly rings through my head, and I hear all his desperation with new ears.

I hear that word.

Aggressive.

Dr. Honda says, “We need to check you in somewhere,” and, making a personal suggestion, he says a good friend of his is an oncologist at Arcadia Methodist. He says it’ll be a far drive but— And we don’t let him finish the thought. We love him so much that anything he says is Gospel. If he likes the doctor, we like the doctor. We take his word for it and make a bee-line for the place, site unseen.

An hour later, in the parking lot of the hospital, my wife snaps a photo of me standing in front of the monolithic building – a soft, four-story cube. I’m staring directly into the camera with the fullest beard I can grow, a large smile and a full, confident face. It’s the last time I’ll see that expression for some time. I’m sporting aviator sunglasses, hair, and hope but I’ll slowly lose all three of them before long.

WARNING: Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. This trip is about to get bumpy.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

We walk through the doors and immediately I see the clean, white, sterile, horrible hospital. Even the best hospitals are horrible and hideous and terrible. Even the cleanest and purest and friendliest are hateful places, filled with the sick and the dead and dying. The smell of cleaning supplies masking the stench of vomit hits my nose. The smell of rubbing alcohol and latex and linen mixes with powdered mashed potatoes and powdered scrambled eggs and powdered milk. All roads have led to here. This is the trajectory my entire life has been on, like a rocket aimed at the moon. Houston, we have contact.

I know that I have a long fight in front of me and, although I’m happy to be getting started, I do wish I were instead at home or at work or, really, anywhere. But instead I’m here, in this elevator . . . and now in this hallway . . . and now in this room that will be my home for the next eight days.

I undress, put on the gown, and set my personal belongings on a small shelf. On a table next to the bed, I place a novel I won’t open; my iPod, which I will barely turn on; and my journal, which has served as the skeleton and fact checker for this book; journals that I’m eternally thankful for because my brain is about to turn into something slightly softer than Jell-O, something slightly less formless than a raw egg. This is your brain—this is your brain on chemo.

The nurse enters with the IV and my knees lock and my heart speeds up and my forehead starts to sweat and she tells me to lie down. I don’t bother fighting it but I tell her how afraid I am and every time, every needle, it never gets easier, it just gets worse and worse and worse. My wife holds my hand and rubs the back of my palms with her thumb and my toes wiggle and I feel the metallic stick slide into my arm and fish around and I’m not breathing and then it’s done and she says I can release my fist. She applies some tape and tells me to relax and says that she’ll be back in a little bit and now it begins.

I look at the IV pole to my left and I am One of Them. I am a Cancer Patient.

My wife turns on a reality TV show and I try to write in my journal while not upsetting my IV in any fashion, so afraid that it’s going to get caught on something and yank out. The TV goes to commercial break just as a man enters the room and tells me they want to do a CAT scan on me and at this point I’m just a sack of potatoes, their puppet, to push around and wheel back and forth and poke and prod and maneuver in any way they see fit, so I say, “OK,” and my wife keeps watching a show where a family has eighteen kids and I can’t have any.

The giant Mechanical Donut is down in the basement of the hospital and the room is run by two guys who look like they drink lots of beer while consuming pharmaceuticals that they steal from work. They both have tattoos on their arms and long hair, and honestly, it’s kind of nice to talk to two people who aren’t “doctors” or “nurses” or “hospital staff” but just “dudes.” I ask them how long they’ve been working here and what they want to be doing long term and they ask me what I’ve got and what I’m doing and they’re pretty impressed with my weird story about cancer and they tell me about how they once gave David Hasselhoff a CAT scan.

The bed shifts and moves and pulls me into the donut and the same female robot from the first hospital (different donut) says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” I do and I turn my head to the left, trying to relax. On the wall is a motivational poster with a photo of a stream and the caption: IN THE BATTLE BETWEEN WATER AND THE ROCK, THE WATER WILL ALWAYS WIN. NOT BECAUSE OF STRENGTH, BUT BECAUSE OF PERSISTENCE. I look back at the ceiling and try to decide if I find this cheesy or poignant or both. The stoner guy says, “Here comes the dye,” and I feel like I just pissed my pants.

The David Hasselhoff guy wheels me back to my room and wishes me luck and I still think about him often. I wonder if he’s still working next to that Mechanical Donut and I wonder how many times he’s told his David Hasselhoff story and I wonder if he’s ever met David Hasselhoff again.

My wife asks me if everything went well and I sort of shrug and say, “I think I still have cancer but . . . the machine didn’t blow up whilst I was inside of it, if that’s what you’re asking,” and she says, “Good,” and then turns her attention back to the TV, where a sweaty woman is giving birth and screaming.

I pick up my cell phone, an old Motorola Razor (you know it’s badass because it’s named after a blade) and call my mom. She says, “Hi, sweetie! How is your daaaay!?” and again, I just want to reiterate that I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t planning on sleeping in a hospital tonight. It wasn’t marked on my calendar. So you can see the loaded question here. “Well, uh . . . ” I say, “I’m doing good. Sort of. I’m, uh, my cancer is back,” and there’s silence on the phone and then quiet crying. I say, “I’m in the hospital right now,” and panic is setting in with her, “Are you OK? What’s wrong?” and I say, “I’m, uh, I’m getting chemotherapy,” and there’s more quiet crying and I hear my dad in the background ask what’s wrong and he takes the phone and he says, “Hello?” and I say, “It’s me,” and he says, “Oh. What’s wrong?” and I say, “Nothing’s wrong, I mean . . . yeah. I’m in the hospital. I’m getting chemotherapy. My cancer is back—or—it never left, I guess. They didn’t get it all. I’ll be here for a while— I’ll be here for a week. About eight days,” and my dad says, “We’re coming out.”

A few hours later an old man enters my room pushing a cart that smells like cafeteria food. He places a tray on my bedside table and says, “Bon appetit!” and then vanishes. Because I haven’t eaten since previous to my appointment with Dr. Honda, my stomach is grumbling and I don’t care what’s under that plate cover, it’s going in mouth and down my throat. I lift up the warm lid and there is absolutely no amount of money that would sway me into placing that food on my tongue. The menu would probably call it “meatloaf” but I would call it “gunk at back of fridge mashed into patty formation.” The fact that it’s swimming in powdered gravy doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that the powdered gravy is the consistency of snot. I ask Jade if she wants any and she says, “Uh, no, thank you,” and then I say, “I dare you to take a bite of this meatloaf,” and she says, “No,” and I say, “No, seriously. What would it take for you to take a bite of this meatloaf?” and she says, “A one-hour back rub,” and I say, “OK. Fine,” because I really want to see her gag. She looks at the plate and then, reconsidering, “I can’t do it.”

I put the lid back on the tray and scoot the entire table toward the door where the smell is least offensive while my wife leaves to purchase us Panda Express.

She’s gone for about forty-five minutes while I just sit in the room, alone, reflecting, and I will soon find out that this is one of the biggest problems with cancer. When you can’t do anything, all you can do is dwell on yourself, your problem, your condition.

It’s not so bad right now and my attitude is pretty good and I’m certain it’s just going to be like getting the flu and that doctor didn’t know what he was talking about when he said that it would shut me down. I’m not a robot.

People walk by in the hallway and there is a general background noise happening out there—talking and footsteps and intercoms and beeping. And so I get up and shut the door and turn on the TV but can’t find anything to watch so I put in my earphones and think of Ben (Folds) and wonder what he’s doing right now—some guy somewhere that has no idea where I am, what I’m doing. He’s playing a show, punching his piano, and signing autographs and here I am, remembering him while I drown out everything else.

I open my eyes and Jade is standing in the room, staring at me, a big white bag of fast food in her hands. She says, “Dinner bell,” and I sit up while she sits at the foot of the bed. She pulls over the coffee table, which is now empty—I assume someone came in and took the “food” while my eyes were closed—and we eat dinner, we watch TV, we talk, and we wonder when The Chemotherapy will begin.

Eight o’clock rolls around and still no drugs so I hit my buzzer and a nurse enters who has a very sweet face and I ask her when I’ll be starting my “thing” and she tells me, “Tomorrow, in the morning,” and I smile and nod my head and am not sure if this is good news or bad news or indifferent news. The nurse leaves and Jade snuggles up next to me. There is a cot in the room but we don’t use it. That night the two of us just crush our bodies together in a platonic, nonsexual, but still really desperately needy way and sleep in very broken segments, two kids that are stupid and lost and scared.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

In the morning, the old man serves us “eggs” and “bacon” and “toast” but the only thing either of us consumes is the “fruit.” Neither of us are big breakfast eaters nor fans of food that tastes like someone’s vinegar-soaked jock strap.

There’s another reality show on TV and I think this one might be about wedding disasters and the victims therein. Sigh, tragedy. My wife is locked on, saying, “What! Shut . . . up . . . What?” and then the nurse who gave me my IV yesterday is back but she’s wearing a full hazmat suit over her regular nurse get-up and she has on a face mask and gloves and she carries a dark bag that’s covered in plastic.

I ask, “What is . . . that?” but I already know the answer. She says, “This is bleomycin; it’s the first of four medicines you’ll be receiving today.”

Medicine. Boy, we’re really throwing that word around, aren’t we? I imagine that in the future, people will say, “Can you believe they used to give patients chemo??? They poisoned them to cure them—how savage! Luckily, the scientists have found the cure for cancer in oil. Too bad we used it all driving our SUVs with only one person in the car and now the polar bears are all dead because of global warming! Hip-hip-hooray! The future really is a brighter place. But only because the atmosphere has finally dissolved and the sun is now shining directly onto our reddened, burnt skin! Yay for technology! Yay!

I unconsciously slide away from the IV pole, trying to put distance between us and I say, “Why is it in two bags?” and the nurse says, “So if it leaks it doesn’t spill,” and I say, “And why are you dressed like that?” and she says, “So in case it spills it doesn’t get on my skin,” and I say, “And where is that going?” and she says, “Into your IV,” and I swallow hard.

She hangs the bag upside down and allows gravity to do what it does best. She plugs a tube into one of my ports and turns a small dial with her thumb. I watch the liquid drip-drip-drop from the bag and race toward my arm and I hold my breath. Here it comes. Here it is. And I say, in a strained voice, “Will this hurt?” and the nurse says, “No,” but I don’t believe her. The clear liquid enters my body and she’s right. I don’t feel anything.

Drip-drip-drip.

She tells me she’ll be back in about two hours and then leaves. Jade turns from the TV and sits down next to me on the bed and we both watch each little drop race down into my body and my wife says, “Each drop is you getting better. We’ll be OK.”

Drip-drip-drip.

 

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SURGERY: CHAPTER 13

 

 

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We drive to the hospital on a Friday morning for my out-patient surgery. I always assumed that, when the time finally came, I would be considerably more depressed or mournful. But instead, there is a freedom that is both liberating and intoxicating in the air. I’m just happy that this will soon be over. Today.

Take my nut. Just save my life. Take the poison before it spreads.

As I sit in the waiting room, no thoughts of hormone supplements cross my mind. The word eunuch never enters my brain. The only thing I can think about right now, the only impending doom I can imagine, the enormous, inevitable snowball that’s rushing toward the small village that is my psyche, is the thought of the IV.

But, thankfully, I tell myself, it’s the last one for a long, long time. “Just get through this one and you’re good. You’re gold. You can do it.”

On the television in the waiting room is a talk show where the special guest is a young musician speaking about coffee enemas. I stand up and turn the TV off just as a nurse calls my name.

My testicle leaps nervously into my stomach and it feels like it’s trying to give me one last hug. I say, “I hate goodbyes,” but it won’t let go.

The nurse leads my wife and I into a cream-colored room and instructs me to put on The Gown. When I come out of the bathroom, dressed for surgery, she’s ready to stick me with the IV and for some reason I feel like this is The Line. I feel as though, at any point before the IV, I was free to turn around and run away and lead a life anyway I chose, but the IV . . . . It represents a kind of umbilical cord to the hospital. Like red vests at Wal-Mart—they make it very easy to differentiate between who belongs here and who doesn’t.

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I tell the nurse that I’m afraid of needles and she just laughs and I lean forward and say, “No, listen. I’m afraid. Do you have a numbing shot? I’ve heard that such a thing exists.” And she says, “A shot before the shot?” and I say, “ . . . Yes,” and she says,

“ . . . Sure.”

The nurse excuses herself to get the pre-numbing needle and returns with a freaking golden retriever! Bedside manner, ladies and gentlemen. The extra mile.

I say, “What the H-E-C-K is this!?” and the nurse says, “This is Samantha. She’s our therapy dog. We let children pet her before they get shots—I mean patients—we let all patients of every age pet her before they get shots.”

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I say, “I see,” and stare into Samantha’s eyes while I lie back. They’re a beautiful brown, almost golden color, and I hand my arm to The Extra Mile Nurse and Samantha pants and smells my right hand and The Extra Mile nurse taps my left forearm. Samantha says, “Don’t worry, kid, everything is going to be all right because I love you just for being you,” and I say to The Extra Mile Nurse, “Don’t forget the numbing needle,” and she says, “Of course,” and I feel a poke and I look deep down into Samantha’s eyes while I hold my breath and I wonder how many hundreds and thousands of children this dog has been loved by, how many eyes have stared directly into hers. I wonder where she sleeps at night and how she’s treated.

“All done,” The Extra Mile Nurse says and I say, “I only felt one poke,” and she says, “I know; the numbing shot worked!” and I look over on the table and only see the remains of a single syringe.

The Extra Mile Nurse turns to leave and pats her leg and takes Samantha with her, and I feel my hand run down her head, down her back, down her tail, and she’s gone.

I never see either of them again.

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Later, another, younger nurse comes in and tells me that she’s here to give me a “cocktail.” She says it will help take the edge off and make me a little sleepy. I ask her where she was twenty minutes ago.

She plugs a bag into my IV and I . . . take . . . a nap . . . .

Minutes or hours or days have passed. I wake up, and I’m still in the same room. I feel my crotch. My testicle is still there. My tumor is still there. For a true moment, I was hoping they had pulled a quick one on me and had it all done with.

The Young Nurse comes back in, tells me that it’s time to go, and takes me away. Two more nurses meet her in the hallway and the three of them navigate me through wide, bright, green corridors. I watch the overhead lights wash over me and try to remember every movie I’ve ever seen that uses that shot. I listen to the wheel on my gurney squeak.

This is it.

They push me around a corner, and I sit up and look over my shoulder and wave to my wife. She waves back and shouts, “Good luck! I love you! I love you!” and then I’m all alone, surrounded by scrubs.

They push me through a set of double doors and into a large room that smells like rubbing alcohol. Two women help me slide from my bed onto another bed. No—this isn’t a bed. This is an operating table. I’m on The Slab.

I lie back and stare at the ceiling, where a gigantic light on a rotating arm hangs above me. A pretty young lady with red hair leans down over me and says, “Are you comfortable?” and I adjust my shoulders and say, “Yes,” and she says, “Good.” She says, “I’m going to inject you with something. Is that all right?” and I say, “Is this—is this the stuff that’s going to put me down?” and she laughs as her thumb slowly pushes on the plunger, and there is an explosion in my chest that rises into my mouth that tastes like copper. I lick my lips and say, “See you on the—”

Other side.

When I wake up moments later I find myself sick and wanting to vomit. An oxygen mask covers my face. I try to sit up and look around because I have this feeling of complete nakedness. Not of nudeness, not the sensation of being unclothed, but of being exposed and out of place. I can only equate it to the feeling I get when I suddenly find myself walking through the young teen’s bra section at Target. What—how did I get here? I hope no one sees me—where’s the exit? Run! No, don’t run, you’ll look suspicious. Walk slowly—no, not that slowly, you’ll look like you’re perusing. Just keep moving.

I look to my right and see a row of hospital gurneys that are all empty and I suddenly feel a sense of impending doom, like I’m the next and final victim in some mad science experiment.

Why do I taste pennies?

My throat hurts fiercely. I bring up my hand to rub my trachea and see that there’s a tube taped to my forearm. Oh, yeah. Everything hits me in a quick wave: Cancer. Hospital. Testicle. I remember why I’m here, what I’m doing. I lie down and hold back my gag reflex. The only thing worse than being in the bra section at Target is puking there.

Suddenly, a nurse is standing above me but I don’t remember what she looks like or how old she was. She asks how I’m doing, and I tell her that it feels like I’m burping up pennies. She laughs and asks if she can touch my beard. I have to pause and reflect if she’s having a bad day and needs a therapy dog like Samantha to help her through it. I willingly tilt up my chin and she runs her fingers through my face pubes.

She tells me that she thinks I might be Amish—a remark I get often thanks to the pattern in which my beard naturally grows; two long side burns into a neck beard thing I call The Hanging Tomato Plant. Hair simply refuses to grow on my cheeks or upper lip.

I tell her I’m not Amish, as far as I know, but secretly wish I were, which is true. I tell her my throat really is sore and she tells me it’s because they stuck a tube down it and I ask if they used a hammer to get the job done.

I shift my eyes to the left and have a quick daydream. I suddenly see my naked, flaccid body on a slab. I see a tube shoved down my throat. I see eight people standing around me, cutting me, sucking my blood into machines, moving my penis and pulling my testicle out through a hole in my abdomen; a male C-section. I see the tumor, a big black pulsating alien brain connected to veins leading back into my cavity. I see them cauterize the wound. I see scissors and sutures. And I see this nurse, standing next to me, holding my penis up with a gloved hand to keep it out of the way of danger.

My eyes shift back to the right.

After what The Faceless Nurse deemed an acceptable length of time, someone wheels me downstairs to a second recovery room where they prop me into a recliner that I swear was the softest chair I’d ever, ever been in.

A new nurse, a chubby blonde woman in her late fifties, gives me some crackers and apple juice, and I’m certain she was probably a kindergarten teacher at some point and is just role-playing with me.

I tell her I feel sick, hoping to get some kind of high-powered-hospital-quality medicine that is going to take away these waves of nausea, but instead, she brings me a bed pan shaped liked an old man’s kidney.

Gee, thanks. You shouldn’t have.

She takes one step back and I puke three times; acidy strings of yellow and white saliva get stuck in my beard. The Teacher Nurse says, “Are you Amish?” and I wipe my chin on my sleeve and hand her the kidney. She says, “You should probably just keep that.”

Over her shoulder, I see my wife enter the room and, thank you, thank you, thank you, I’m no longer alone. I’m no longer scared or afraid. It’s just her and me and that’s it. She says, “Gross! You puked! In front of everyone!” and I laugh.

She hands me a real life cactus that has been decorated with construction paper flowers and adorned with various Game Boy cartridges. At my heart, I am a stupid little vomiting boy.

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I say, “Thank you. This is very nice. I’m going to puke again,” and she says, “OK,” and takes the flowers from me. I grab the defiled bedpan and hold the rank and frothy mixture up to my mouth. I heave once, twice, and then puke doesn’t come up but instead some kind of salty cracker concoction. When I look up I see both my wife and The Teacher Nurse staring at me. I look to my left and see another older nurse that I hadn’t registered before watching me, as well. Where were these people coming from? Did they hear there was going to be a show? I politely ask them all why they’re staring at me and each of them, in turn, looks down at their feet.

I stare back into my bedpan and can feel all three sets of eyes slowly rise up, waiting, watching, anticipating me, each of them so excited to watch me erupt. “Oh, yes,” they are surely thinking, “Here he goes—his breathing is getting heavy! This is going to be amazing!”

Nothing comes out and there is a collective sigh. Sorry to disappoint. I tell The Teacher Nurse that I have to go to the bathroom and she says, “Number one or number two?” and then I’m positive that I’m stuck in some weird role-play with her. I say, “Uh, I just sort of have to pee,” and she says, “OK, that’s number one. Let me help you up, sweetie.”

I hobble across the floor with a 4-foot, 2-inch, fifty-something year old woman “supporting” me. Her perfume is pungent. She opens a door, and I mumble my thanks before shutting it and opening my robe and this is the first time that I realize I’m wearing some kind of—I don’t really know the best way to describe it—a nut-sack diaper, I guess.

It’s like a jock strap with no cup.

Scrotal

I exit the bathroom and excitedly ask the nurse if I get to keep my new accessory and she says, with an air of English dignity, “It’s called a scrotal support. And yes, it’s yours to keep.” The best gift a boy could ask for. I say, “It’s perfect. You’re so sweet. You shouldn’t have.”

The Teacher Nurse helps me back to my chair where I find a doctor handing a folder to my wife. He says, “I don’t know what you’re going to do with them, but we took ’em,” and Jade smiles and says, “Thanks,” and the doctor says, “From what I could tell, we got it in time and it hasn’t spread.” My heart leaps in my chest. It’s over. “But,” the Doctor Guy continues, “check in with your urologist next week. I’m sure he’s going to want to follow up with you.”

Sure, sure, whatever. I. Am. Healed! Hallelujah! I hear a chorus of angels playing the mambo. I want to dance with them but my scrotal support is simply too constricting.

A nurse pulls out my IV and wheels me to the hospital exit. My wife pulls up in the car, and I feel like a woman having just been released from childbirth. Except I have no baby.

I have no baby.

And my balls are . . . completely gone . . . every chance of children I have rests on the shoulders of others.

Jade honks the horn, and I saunter over to the car and crawl into the passenger seat. She hands me the manila folder and says, “One last surprise.” I open the file and find three digital photos that have been printed out on high gloss paper, each one more gruesome than the last.

She says, “I figured that little bastard has given you so many problems in the last month you’d at least want to see his face.”

Inside are three pictures of my bloody testicle sitting on a blue rag with a small gray tumor stuck to its side. We go home, frame one, and put it on a shelf in our living room.

Jade says, “We made it. We survived cancer.”

 

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Well, that’s the very end of the story. Thanks for reading!

Just kidding. There’s still an awful lot of shit heading right towards this fan.

Tune back in next Monday for THE BLACK TENDRILS: CHAPTER 14 as Cancer reaches out from the grave.

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TRY, TRY AGAIN: CHAPTER 10

 

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

 

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

And I say, “Of course.”

And she says, “When?”

And I say, “When I’m done dying.”

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

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

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

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

I say, “OK,” and I’m certain.

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

I never share the image with Jade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I want doesn’t matter.

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

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

 

 

 

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MECHANICAL DONUT: CHAPTER 7

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no idea how unanswerable that actually is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if . . . .

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

“You. May. Breathe.”

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

“Hold. Your. Breath.”

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

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

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

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

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

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Where were you sitting?”

And I say, “Here.”

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

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Did you cry?”

And I say, “No. I said, ‘Rats.’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Of course.

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

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Click FOLLOW or SUBSCRIBE or whatever the button below says to get updates with new chapters!

 

 

 

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PLAGUED BY PLAGUES: CHAPTER 3

 

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

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

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

 

See you all at the bottom of the slide!

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could work. This could definitely work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. A what?”

“A speculum.”

“What’s a speculum?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate her.

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

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

It’ll heal itself.

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

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

But we very soon will.

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

 

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

JB.

 

FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4: EXCERPT

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

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

 

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The Orange and the Sock: Chapter 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

I have only one testicle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One what, honey?”

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

“Ball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This does not happen.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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THE DESERT: CHAPTER 1

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

PART 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing can touch me.

Nothing.

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

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

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

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(The Father of) The Mother of Dragons

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My friend Jack and I are standing in my front yard talking about The Big W’s – Weather, Work and Wives – when Quinn runs up and slams into my legs, a big smile painted across her face. I assume that she probably wants to tell me about a bug she saw, a rock she found or a bird she heard – these are the ecstatic ramblings of children long before the boring gray fuzz of adulthood has tainted their world view.

Jack bends at the waist and slaps his hands onto the tops of his knees and, in a sing-song voice says, “Why, hello there, princess!” Quinn looks up at him with a furrowed brow then looks over at me and I can hear her thoughts, Why is this guy talking to me like I’m a baby animal?

How are you doing, Princess?”

“I’m, uh, fine?” and she says it like a question.

“You are beautiful, Princess! You are just beautiful, aren’t you?”

I cringe at the buttery compliments.

Quinn looks up at me. “Dad?”

“Yes?”

“Are, uh, princesses… uh, real?”

“Yes.”

“Like… on this planet?”

“Yes.”

“And they’re alive right now?”

“Yes.”

These are the three qualifiers Quinn uses in order to distinguish when and where a thing took place. She understands that things could have existed BEFORE now but exist no longer – like dinosaurs – or that things could exist outside of this country – like things in Africa – or that things could exist outside of this planet – like the sun and the moon. What she’s really asking is, “How accessible are these things to my reach?” How accessible are princesses to me? That’s the real question.

Can I be one?

Jack answers for me. “Of course they’re real! There’s one standing in front of me right now! A pretty princess! That’s you!” I cringe again. The last thing I want is my daughters to associate with characters who get trapped in towers, are afraid of spiders, and constantly require some form of assistance.

That is no one to make into a role model.

These ideas of “princess” are not inherent from birth. These ideas are fed into our daughters. We show them the pictures. We show them the movies. We glamourize the idea and the lifestyle. They are magical and beautiful and they don’t have bad hair and they never wet the bed and they don’t have to have jobs or work and everything is wonderful and their lives are perfect and how does it always end for a princess?

Happily Ever After.

And in all fairness, why would you not want that? I’m half tempted to throw a dress on myself and march around a castle while tethered to the sexual whims of some hunky prince in order to forego a few of the greater responsibilities of my standard adult life. Don’t judge.

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We may not intentionally give our children this idea that they should actually dream to be a princess (I would never!). We may not intentionally feed this lie to them (They’re just movies!). We may not intentionally form them to believe this (Do you want to be a princess for your birthday?) but there are lessons in repetition and our culture helps shape that which we are.

It shapes girls through childhood with fun movies. It shapes ladies through their teen years, which we then couple with beauty magazines. It shapes women through adulthood, which we then couple with pornography. And they take all this baggage into the work force, which we then couple with an antiquated and slowly dying cultural idea that men work and women stay home and then we wonder why women make, across the board, slightly less in the workforce.

Perhaps we’ve spent decades telling girls that they deserve slightly less. Perhaps we’ve spent decades convincing ourselves that they deserve slightly less.

And maybe we all, on some level, believe it… even if we say we don’t. Perhaps there is a part of us all that still believes they are the fairer sex.

How do we know if we believe this? Well, if a man tells you that his wife works full time and he is a stay-at-home dad, what is your first, internal, gut, emotional reaction?

Your very first reaction is probably, like mine. “Wow, that is a-typical. I wonder what that’s like?”

I have full acceptance of it – no judgment – but there is this part of me that acknowledges that it is somehow out of the realm of what we typically understand to be true.

And herein lies the problem. Because we, as individuals or as an entire culture, can simultaneously acknowledge that it is okay and “progressive” for a woman to work and a man to stay home while also understanding that part of us finds it to be outside the norm.

And so if you also think it to be outside the norm, it is because you believe (or have been told to believe) that, like me, women have a specific place and men have a specific place. If your first thought is “That is unique,” then you too are trapped in this way of thinking even though you don’t think you’re trapped in a way of thinking.

Culture has also made you and I, as men, believe certain things without our knowing that we believe them.

Scary.

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Perhaps we re-educate our daughters on what it means to be a woman. Perhaps we re-educate our girls on what it means to be a princess.

Perhaps we put Jack’s princess to rest.

Or better yet, perhaps we kill her completely. Perhaps we just let her starve to death in the tower as a lesson for not having the get-up-and-go to rescue herself. Rapunzel, you had hair. You could have crawled down yourself. Cinderella, you could have left. There was NOTHING tying you to that house. Those people hated you. Ariel, you doctored your birth form and gave up your entire world for a guy you just met simply on the hope of Happily Ever After.

These. Are. The. Lessons.

Settle for less.

Wait for help.

Change who you are.

And if you make twenty cents an hour less than men doing the same job, maybe that’s just your place. After all, that’s what we’ve taught you.

Perhaps feminism wouldn’t have to exist if we raised our daughters believing they were bad asses from the very beginning. Perhaps our daughters would never ask, “Am I good enough?” if we stopped telling them stories that highlight all the reasons why women aren’t good enough / pretty enough / strong enough.

Perhaps we start telling them stories about women that are leaders instead of women that wait for leaders.

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Quinn looks up at me, a revelation dawning across her face, “Dad, am I a princess? Is this true?” Jack has planted the seed.

And now I must garden.

“Well, let’s see… do you have a crown?” “No.” “Do you have a scepter?” “No.” “Do you have a castle?” “Uh, no.” “Do you own any lands? Is your mother a queen? Do you have servants? Do you settle disputes amongst your countrymen?”

“Uh, no. I don’t do those things.”

“Then you probably aren’t a princess.”

Jack says, “Why would you tell her that?” and I say, “The same reason I tell her that she is not God nor an earthworm.”

“Dad? Is, uh, Cinderella a princess?”

“Yes, she is.”

And in that moment I see the light in her eye. I see the draw of The Princess. I see that my daughter wants it because, at her core, I think most little girls do. And that’s okay too. But how do we separate all the terrible trash from the good stuff? How do we tell them that it’s okay to be a princess and it’s okay to be pretty and it’s okay to dance and fall in love but… there is more. That is not all. The princess you know is an incomplete story. Because she is an incomplete character.

She is flat and brainless and you are not.

In her question I see an entire culture of beauty pressures and weight problems and negative encouragement and impossible goals and cosmetic surgery and feminism and macho bullshit swirling in a tornado, trying to rear its head, trying to sneak into Quinn’s ears and her head and her psyche, trying to poison the vision of who she is. Trying to mold her (and I mean “mold” both in the sense of “forming shape” and also as “an organism that slowly eats away and decays”).

Maybe that voice in our culture is impossible to stop. Maybe it’s a hopeless battle and all of the body image shit that bathes and berates our females is impossible to hide from.

But maybe not.

Maybe we just need to alter the messaging a bit.

I squat down onto one knee, proposing an idea.

“Quinn, you know what? Princesses are real. There are princesses on this planet right now. On this Earth. And you know who the best one is?”

“Uh, Cinderella?”

Me, “Nope.”

“GREAT GUESS, PRINCESS!” That’s Jack.

“The greatest princess of them all is a woman just like you named Daenerys Stormborn. And she is the Mother of Dragons.”

“DRAGONS!? SHE HAS DRAGONS!?”

“Oh, yes. Three of them.”

Jack, “I don’t think you can tell her that.”

Me, “You think I should stick to Cinderella and her transforming pumpkin-carriage as the barometer for reality?”

Jack shifts his eyes, “Uh, what?”

“THREE DRAGONS!?” that’s Quinn in full excitement.

“Yeah. And you know what else? She flies around on them.”

“WHAT!?”

“And they breathe fire.”

WHAAAAAT!? FROM THEIR MOUTHS?!

“Bingo.”

Can I see a picture?!”

I pull out my phone and, thanks to Google and the wonderful CG team at HBO, I show her a picture of a very real looking Daenerys riding a very real looking dragon that is breathing very real looking fire.

“OH. MY. GOODNESS.”

“Can I tell you something else? She is a very. Powerful. Warrior. She is strong and she is brave and she stands up for people that are weak and she stands up for people that don’t have a voice. She is a hero. What do you think about that?”

“THAT IS REALLY KEWWWL!”

“Yes, it is. I agree. Now then, what do you think? Would you rather be Cinderella with her glass slippers going to the dance or Daenerys Stormborn with her dragons, breathing fire and battling the wicked?”

“I want to be Dan Harris!”

“I thought so. Remember, being pretty is nice. But being smart, brave and kind – being a leader – this is who you are. This is what’s really inside of you. Capiche?”

Capiche!

Quinn smiles and runs away. I stand up and smile at Jack, “Sugar and spice and everything nice only goes so far. Sometimes you’ve gotta pour a little whiskey in the soda if you want it to bite back.” Jack smiles in a way that makes me think he does not agree.

And that too is okay.

I acknowledge that someday Quinn will grow up and will most likely seek a spouse. And when she does, I want her to choose someone that she wants to be with. Someone that accentuates her happiness and helps to highlight her charm.

Our culture has a loud voice. And that voice tells us that spouses complete us. The voice tells us that our spouse is our other half.

But I say no.

I say we are complete people before we meet one another. A person does not complete another person. A person adds their brew to the mix. They bring their own ingredients and they help create a spicier dish but they do not complete the recipe.

Marriage does not complete you anymore than having children completes you anymore than having the proper job completes you anymore than having the right pair of pants completes you.

You are you.

You are you regardless of who you’re with.

Quinn doesn’t need someone to complete her. She can choose to be with someone because she loves being with them. Because their company is delightful. Because they find happiness in the other’s presence. Not because they will give her Happily Ever After.

Quinn comes running back, wrapping her arms around my leg.

“Daddy?”

I place my hand on her forehead. “Yes, Breaker of Chains?” Quinn squints at me. “Uh, those dragons… are they real?”

Ah, I knew that one was going to come around.

Sometimes, as a parent, it is our job to build up our children and raise them to be the best version of themselves that we believe they can be. Sometimes it’s our job to protect them from all the flying bullshit in the world – at least for as long as we can. Sometimes it’s our job to remind them to think for themselves and to question the status quo. Sometimes it’s our job to tell them the very hard truths of life.

And sometimes.

Sometimes.

It is our job to lie.

“Yes. The dragons are real. They are the last three in the world. And Daenerys has them and she flies around on them, fighting evil. And you, Quinn. You can fight evil as well.”

“I’M GOING TO!” and she turns and runs off into the yard, where I hear Rory and Bryce laughing.

Sometimes lying is good.

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