Tag Archives: mother

TWO FRIENDS, part 1 & 2: CHAPTER 38

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PART 1: ROB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am broken.

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

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

 

PART 2: LUCY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how I met Lucy for the second time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BING.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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INTERMISSION: CHAPTER 18

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

—die—

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Cancer: the ultimate cock block.

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

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

 

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NODULES: CHAPTER 17

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

But now I’m back.

And so is the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just . . . sick.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence.

 

“Nodules? What is that? What is—”

 

“Sorry. Tumors.”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Probably.

 

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

 

Alone.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Drip-drip-drip.

822-821-820.

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

Drip-drip-drip.

809-808-807.

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

Alive or dead, I am a corpse.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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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.

cancer_title_16

 

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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. . . AND I’M DROWNING SLOWLY: CHAPTER 15

 

Welcome back.

This is a story about this one time that I had cancer. NBD.

If you’d like to start from the very tippy-top of the story, click here.

If you’re all up to speed, please continue on!

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It’s pretty difficult for my wife and I to find common ground in terms of musical taste. At the top of this list that is only two bands long is Ben Folds Five, a group that gained popularity in the ’90s for their song “Brick.” She’s a brick and I’m drowning slow-ly / She’s a brick and I’m something something. That’s the song you would know. Even if you don’t know the band, that’s a song you’ve heard.

So, as you do when a band you like comes to town, you begrudgingly purchase well over-priced tickets, and you wait. The show was to be celebratory. We heard about it while we were still in the throes of chaos with the testicular cancer—back at the very beginning—and thought to ourselves, “This will be a treat. This will be our special gift for coming out the other side. Everyone should have a special gift for losing their only remaining testicle.”

But then, like a certain pesky cat in a catchy nursery rhyme, the cancer came back the very next day. Thought he was a goner, but the cancer came back.

Now everything had a thundercloud looming over it. I was looking at everything through shit-colored glasses. I still ate food, but I did it with cancer. I still read books, but I did it with cancer. I still masturbated, but I did it with cancer watching me, always on my mind, always ruining the mood I was trying to set in the bathroom with all the candles and incense and whale music. I still went to work, but I did it with cancer.

My boss walks in the room and asks me something about zombies, and I skip the conversation and say, “I still have cancer,” and he sits down and is looking at me like I’m the handicapped puppy again and he says, “That’s . . . . OK . . . . So . . . ” and I say, “I’m seeing an oncologist in a week or so. They’re, I don’t know. They’re talking about chemotherapy,” and he sucks in air really quickly through his teeth and clicks his pen a couple times and says, “Really?” like maybe I misheard them.

I say, “Yes,” and he’s very accommodating, but I suspect that it might be because, as a manager, he’s never been in this position before. I tell him, “I plan to keep working or whatever, so, I mean, I’ll do whatever I can. I’m not quitting my job—I’m just . . . I don’t know. I might need to take off for doctor’s appointments sometimes but I can make up the lost time on nights or weekends and I’m OK with that,” and he says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK. Good. Yes, whatever you need. Whatever you need, you just do it and your job is here and we’ll work with you however you need and we’ll just take it one day at a time,” and then silence.

And then he says, “Sucks.”

And then he leaves.

And then it’s the day of the Ben Folds Five concert, and I sort of am not feeling like going out to a concert because everything depresses me. The truth is, I really wish I just had a big fat joint right now, some weed to just pack and pack and pack into the biggest bowl I can find, but there’s nothing in my house and there hasn’t been since I ran out right after Las Vegas. Ever since this cancer thing started, I’ve become hyper aware of my health and my body and I’m just trying to be as clean as possible. But still. It would be nice. Maybe instead of going out we could just lie on the couch . . . .

No.

I sit up quickly and say, “Let’s go,” and my wife says, “Are you sure? We really—we really don’t have to. Let’s not go if it’s just for me—I’d rather—I don’t know. We can just lie on the couch. We can even shut the lights off. We can even shut our eyes. We can just be depressed,” and I consider her offer but then say, “No. It can’t win,” and that’s a very obvious and heroic movie line thing to say but it feels very true. It was destroying me, inside and out, and I was letting it take something as wonderful as my love of music away. I think there is nothing quite like a live performance in all of the world and I was allowing cancer to rob me of it.

I slam the keys into the ignition, and I drive at top speeds across Los Angeles, and I say to hell with it, and I park in valet and I drop the extra dough because tonight is my special gift. It is mine and it doesn’t belong to Cancer. I am going to stand at the front of the crowd. I’m going to push my way to the very front, and I’m going to scream every lyric I know and probably just go, “Daahh-gaah-hmm,” to the parts I don’t, but I’m going to do it with the veracity of a real live person who isn’t dying, except . . . when we go into the theater we realize that it’s not that kind of concert. We realize this venue only supports stadium seating. And we realize that we’re in the balcony. In the back row. Against the wall. This is nosebleed. This is air-traffic control.

Ben is a little speck on the stage, and I can sort of make out his piano, and we’re already pretty late since we were debating the show to begin with, and I have to wonder if we’ve missed some of our favorite songs. Another fantastic stroke of luck; another feather in the hat; another golden egg.

Sitting in the small chair, I try to cross my legs and feel the stitches in my abdomen stretch and pull, and I get comfortable again and this concert is so boring. He’s just . . . playing the piano and . . . I mean, I guess that’s what he does, that’s what I paid for technically but . . . . I sit back and shut my eyes and try to imagine I’m just listening to the CD while I lie on my couch at home.

While I’m trying to find my Zen place, a knee bumps mine, and I open my eyes to find some girl, probably about my age, is trying to sit down in the cramped quarters to my right. She’s got on a black mini-skirt and a white tank top and a tattoo of both a snake and an eagle on her arm, but she doesn’t look like the type of girl who should have either a snake or an eagle tattooed on her arm. Her black hair bobs under her chin, and she’s really made up to be out on some hot date. I look past her and see that some dude—I mean, that is really the best way to describe this guy—is tagging along behind her, bumping into everyone in the row, trying to get to his seat. He doesn’t apologize or say excuse me, he’s just straight from the trailer court to the concert, and he’s really big like he used to work out but not so much anymore. Like he used to love the gym but now he loves pot.

They both sit down next to me, and I sigh and smile and try to be polite, and she asks me, “Are we late?” and I look at the stage and see the band performing on it and say, “Uh . . . I think so,” and she laughs and says, “Whatev! You mind if I smoke?” and I say, “I . . . don’t care,” and she pulls out this joint and just lights it up, right there. Sitting inside a theater, in a chair, surrounded by people who are not smoking or drinking and are sort of just fuds, she lights up and starts getting high. She passes the joint to her boyfriend, and the smell is so good. I just close my eyes and imagine lying on my couch, listening to the Ben Folds Five CD and smoking a joint. Boy, that would just feel great right now. I’ve got a friend that used to say, “Weed makes a good thing great and a bad thing . . . not so bad!” and then he would inhale and stare at me with eyes on fire and give me that stupid cheese-out grin and cough.

Jade leans over and says, “Are those people . . . smoking weed . . . in here?” and I laugh and I say, “Yeah, I guess,” and it really is pretty funny. The theater we’re in seems pretty hobnobby and the crowd seems very straight-laced and sort of on the older side and very subdued and this girl and her dude-guy are just getting baked. They are experiencing total freedom.

Ben finishes another song just as The Girl and The Dude finish their joint. I watch her out of the corner of my eye—she is infinitely more entertaining than the show—as she delicately crushes the end out between two wet fingers and then stomps on the cherry, crushing it into the glossy cement floor. She opens a little coin purse, pulls out a baggie and places the roach inside, closes the baggie, closes the coin purse, closes her purse majora and sits back and starts to sort of dance in her chair, feeling the groove, I suppose, and I wish I were feeling the groove, as well.

Ben is doing his best. He’s playing the piano with his elbows, and he’s banging on the keys with his fists, and he’s actually reaching inside the piano and is just pulling on the strings in there and, probably if I were closer to the stage and had less on my mind, this would be pretty cool.

The Girl suddenly turns to me and leans in and sort of whisper-shouts in my ear, “Oh, hey! I’m so sorry! I’m so selfish! I didn’t give you any! Do you wanna smoke?” and I don’t even hesitate. My heart doesn’t beat twice before I answer. I don’t let that logical part of my brain speak. I don’t think about health or clean eating. I just think about stress and release and celebration and just blurt out, “Yes. Yes. Please.”

Total freedom.

She pulls out her purse, and she pulls out a second baggie that’s packed to the gills with weed and she pulls out some zigzags and begins to roll a brand-new joint, and I just keep thinking about how the cannabis community is filled with some of the most generous people I have ever met.

Jade leans over and asks, “What did she say?” and I say, “She asked me if I wanted to get high,” and Jade says, “Oh,” assuming that the conversation ended there.

The Girl dumps a row of smelly grass onto the paper and then another row and sort of mashes it down and then sprinkles a bit on top of that just for good measure. This chick is going to get us baked, I think to myself as she lights it herself and then hands it to me.

I lean in and, not sure exactly what the proper etiquette for a stranger handing you free drugs at a concert is, I just whisper-shout, “Thank you!” and then I put the joint to my lips and pull and inhale and out of the corner of my eye Jade is just staring at me, and I turn to her and she says, “What is this?” and I say, “I’m getting fucking high tonight, baby,” and I hand her the joint and she stares at it, and I know exactly what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, Fuck it. Let’s make lemonade! She pinches the joint and takes a hit and shrugs and passes it back to me, and I try to pass it back to the owner, the four of us sharing, and The Girl leans into me and says, “No, no. That’s yours!” and I’m looking at this Cheech and Chong sized white paper bratwurst in my hand and I’m like, “You got it.”

Ben is playing beautifully and his stage performance is extravagant and his showmanship and the light show—the light show!—everything about this show is fantastic, down to the beautiful, blessed seats that are so high. Yellow skulls, stretched and distorted, are being projected onto the billowing curtains, eternally being pulled up, up, up, onto, into the ceiling. White spotlights pan the audience, and lasers of various colors and sizes blast sharp beams out, penetrating and cutting through the darkness. The music builds and builds and builds and, even though I’m staring at skulls floating in front of my eyes, I’m not thinking of death and I’m not thinking of dying and I’m certainly not thinking of cancer. Everything is just good and great and wonderful!

I pull the joint up to my lips, and Ben slams his fists into the keys, making jarring notes that are fitting for the cacophonistic end of the song, and I start thinking about aliens watching us—everyone sitting in the dark, staring at a single person on a stage, all of us chanting the same words in perfect rhythm like a prayer. I can’t get over this thought, this Outside Earth Perspective I’ve got going on, and I think I might be projecting some weird things so I try to just focus back on the music as it begins to crescendo. I inhale and feel myself get lifted a little higher. As I begin to slowly blow the smoke out in one great big billowing cloud of silver fog, Ben hits the keys with both hands as hard as he can and Every. Single. Light in the theater flares on in time to the music and I have to notice that I am just surrounded by a purple haze and I am the only one in the place encircled by this mist and it’s so tangible and palpable that an image of Pig Pen from Charlie Brown actually pops into my head.

A man in front of me in a brown suit, short black hair flattened and gelled against his head, turns around and gives me the stank eye and, yes, I am busted. There’s no denying this. I am that guy right now. His wife or girlfriend or whoever she is, turns around, along with several other members of their party, and I just smile because there’s nothing else I can do.

The arena goes dark again, and I’m grateful because I was feeling pretty naked and exposed. The Girl and The Dude next to me stand up and exit the way they came, taking all of their belongings with them right in the middle of one of the songs, and I wonder just what sort of adventures they’re going to get into tonight when, suddenly, they reach the main aisle and, instead of exiting the theater, the two of them just begin to dance. Crazy Person Dancing. Stripper dancing. Grinding and shaking, arms above head, ecstasy induced, hallucinogenic, mind-fry dancing.

Total Freedom.

Total Freedom that is horrifying me right now because the consequences of my decisions suddenly seem very real and paralyzing. I have just taken drugs from a stranger at a rock concert.

I stare at The Girl and The Dude and just keep thinking, What did I just smoke? What did I just smoke? What was in the weed? What else was in the weed? Do I feel all messed up? Am I high? Am I just weed high or am I, like, going to start freaking out pretty soon?

I’ve never done anything “beyond” marijuana and so I am on the edge of my seat, trying to hyper analyze and over analyze and scrutinize every feeling I’m experiencing and SHIT! What if those people in front of me are cops?! What am I doing smoking weed in a public place around a bunch of people in suits? What kind of a dipshit am I? This wasn’t very responsible! SHIT! That girl is dancing on the floor! She’s on her knees dancing and she doesn’t know what she’s doing or where she’s at and I bet she’s hallucinating and pretty soon I’m going to be hallucinating and I’m going to be dancing in the aisle, and so I lean over to Jade and go, “I don’t know what I just smoked. What are they doing?” and Jade shrugs and says, “I only took a couple hits. Did you . . . ” and then she realizes that the entire submarine sandwich joint has been consumed by me because I have no stop button and just keep smoking and smoking until it’s gone.

I squeeze the armrests of the chair and try to will myself to relax.

The Girl and The Dude disappear and the concert is over and Jade and I stand up and rush out of the theater. On the sidewalk there is a black man in a hospital gown with a handmade sign asking for money. I walk past him and pretend he doesn’t exist. The two of us walk into a Denny’s because it’s 1 o’clock ante meridiem and we’re coming down and have the munchies. We both order pancakes, and as I’m watching the Hospital-Gowned Homeless Man out the window, I see two cops walk past him and then I have the exact same thought anyone who’s ever been high and has seen cops thinks, which is, Crap! Cops!

Now I give them the stank eye, even though they can’t see me, and try to will them to pass the building. But they don’t. They enter the restaurant, and I’m sure that someone at the theater has given them my description and they’re looking for me and so I just focus on my pancakes. Fork in left hand and knife in right hand and just—wait—you’re right handed, switch the fork and knife—no, wait, it was right—you had it right—just cut slow—what . . . is this how a human cuts pancakes? Do I look like a human?

We finish our dinner-breakfast, walk back to our car, and just as we open our doors, we hear a woman scream. We look over the balcony of the parking garage and see Ben or Ben Folds or Ben-Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is has emerged from the venue and twenty-some 20-somethings all shake pieces of paper and digital cameras and cell phones at him, and he slowly approaches each person, individually. I clear my throat and bark, “HEY!” and everyone suddenly stops what they’re doing and looks toward me, including Ben. I shout, “Great show!” and he waves.

Jade and I get back in the car, drive home, and lie on the couch. She puts his CD on, and I think about the possibility of a medicinal marijuana card.

 

*****     *****     *****      *****     *****

As always, thank you so much for reading! Next week we begin PART 3, which kicks  off with AGGRESSIVE ACCELERATION: CHAPTER 16.

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THE BLACK TENDRILS: CHAPTER 14

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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

Hit follow to stay up to date.

There’s still plenty of bad news to hear.

 

 

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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.

flowers

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.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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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DR. CHAPLIPS: CHAPTER 9

Cancer Monday. Another chapter. If you’re caught up, keep reading. If you’re new – welcome! We’re reading one chapter a week from my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo? A dark comedy that chronicles the absolutely hilarious time I had cancer. And, of course, when I say “hilarious”, I actually mean that I’ve never been more depressed in my entire life. But potato / potahto, am I right? No. I’m wrong. Nobody says potahto. Nobody.

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

This chapter is, for me, so far, the most exposing. This is the beginning of our IVF cycle. The doctor’s are gearing up to take my single remaining testicle and so we’ll need to do some sperm banking if we want to have kids.

In case you’ve ever wondered what that world looks like. Gaze your eyes upon . . .

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Another doctor’s office. Another Georgia O’Keeffe painting. The sun beats in through a west-facing window, and I think the AC must be broken. My wife holds my hand. Am I sweaty? Is she clammy? I can’t tell. The thumb of my free hand rubs the denim of my jeans. I try to concentrate on the fabric to pass the time until—

The door opens and a man in a knee-length lab coat enters. He sits down across from us and the very first thing I take in about him (after the lab coat) is that his lips are incredibly chappy. Not just Chapstick chappy but I’ve-been-lost-in-the-desert-for-two- weeks-was-rescued-and-came-right-to-work chappy. White, dead skin juts at all angles like shards of milky, broken glass. His little pink tongue keeps darting out and licking them like a weasel gathering eggs, and I’m fairly confident that he’s simply eating the dusty flakes.

Oh my goodness, I can’t stop staring. It’s like a woman with her cleavage exposed. I want to look you in the eyes. I genuinely do. But your tig ol’ bitties are boring directly into my soul.

He shakes my hand, and I make a note to wash it the first chance I get. He welcomes us to the clinic. He explains to us what The Process will look like.

IVF.

In vitro fertilization.

Or . . . How To Make Babies With Science. Petri dishes, egg retrievals, frozen sperm. That sort of thing.

 

“The first step,” he says, “is to do a semen analysis. We need to see where your numbers are,” and I look at Jade and then back at his incredibly disgusting lips. I say, “Uh . . . OK. What does that . . . entail?” and he explains that I simply have to masturbate into a cup. Simply right now. Simply in public. It’s all very simple.

I cough into my hand but quickly pull it back, realizing that’s the one I shook his with and now most likely contains some sort of lip contagion. I look at my wife and I look at my feet and I look at the Georgia O’Keeffe vagina painting and I say to the doctor in the most, “Liiiiiiiiisten,” type of way possible, “I, uh . . . actually. I actually just, uh . . . masturbated . . . this morning and I’m not sure . . . I’m not sure I’m going to be able to really, frankly, hammer another one out today,” and he says, “You’ll be fine,” and my wife says, “You’ll be fine,” and the doctor says, “She can help,” and my exit strategies have all been blocked off. These two perverts are going to force me at gunpoint to tug my leather tether.

He escorts us into another, larger room, filled with worker bees buzzing around with papers and folders. The three of us approach a desk together and the doctor tells the young woman sitting in her swivel chair that I need a semen analysis done and she is just so very, very, professional. She just says, “OK,” and he says, “It might be slightly lower than usual because he just masturbated this morning,” and no one even acknowledges how bizarre this statement is. What a strange place this must be to work! I just look down at my hands. My dirty, dirty, masturbating hands.

The doctor shakes my hand (gross) and tells me, “Good luck,” and he walks away, probably to eat an aloe vera plant.

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.

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ABOVE: Georgia O’Keefe paintings of flowers and / or vaginas.

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.

“How do we . . . ” I begin to say and my wife laughs at the sudden and absolute absurdity of our lives. She says, “I don’t know!” as she unzips my pants and gives, what can only be considered, her best. As long as that little power ring is on her third finger, I know that she is my sidekick through everything.

I stare at the ceiling, at the fluorescent lights. Everything is so bright. To my left are Venetian blinds leading outside where I can see passersby meandering to and fro. I look at the door 25 feet away from me and ask Jade if it’s locked. She says yes and continues with her medical chore. Tug-yank-jerk.

The lights buzz. The receptionists chat. Phones ring. People pass by. My tumor throbs. I ask Jade to stop and she says, “Why? Are you close?” and I say, “No. I think my dick skin is starting to look like that doctor’s lips,” and she laughs and says, “Oh, my gosh! I couldn’t stop staring! They were so flakey! Did he just come from the desert?” and then I laugh and she squeezes into the chair with me.

 

We kiss and try to be cute and romantic but then I say, “I’m telling you . . . this morning . . . ” and Jade says, “NO!” like it’s a personal challenge to milk venom from the snake. She goes back to town, and I bite my bottom lip but not in that sexy way that girls do it but more in that way where I’m trying to focus through the pain. Where is my power animal? I picture a lamb screaming.

I shut my eyes and imagine any number of perverse sexual acts but they all end with my dick being shoved into a meat grinder and lit on fire.

Finally, in a mode of complete desperation, I grab the wheel in one hand and her tit in the other. I put my mind into Zen mode and focus on success and focus on success and focus on suck sex.

I’ll skip the rest of the details but suffice it to say that this tale ends with me spraying a pathetic amount of jizz into a plastic cup. There is no clean way to say that. Romance of the twenty-first century, baby.

Covered in sweat and shame, we exit the room and approach the receptionist from earlier.

She knows. Oh, she knows.

“Everything go OK?” she asks, and I tell her that a little mood lighting could go a long way. She smiles and hands me a receipt. She asks me to sign and I say, “You need the ol’ John Hancock, huh?” and she laughs and the woman next to her laughs and a guy a couple yards away laughs and suddenly everything is all right. We’re all humans and we all know how awkward this is and we all try our best to be professional.

I sign my name and limp away.

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PARENTS: CHAPTER 6

 

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

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

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

 

cancer_title_page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have cancer.”

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

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

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

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

Everything overflows.

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

Nothing.

He simply listens.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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

 

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

What if . . . .

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

 

cancer_title_page_3

 

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.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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.”

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

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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