Tag Archives: relationship

ICE CREAM: CHAPTER 34

2448_1098935758122_8717_n

 

PART 4

“The sun is gone, but I have a light.”

–Kurt Cobain

 

I’m lying in my living room, completely healed, cancer free, and asking myself, “Is this remission?” because I still feel naked and exposed and vulnerable. I still feel sick and there’s still a bucket resting on the floor next to me.

I’ve been home for one day, and even with the good news, great news, fantastic news, it’s the worst day yet. I’m still bearing the weight of five months of chemotherapy and my mind and body are just as atrophied as ever and the world around me is still too much and too intense to comprehend. Everything is still flooding. I am still drowning in poison. The battle is no longer me versus cancer. It’s now me versus chemo. I’m a contestant on the world’s worst episode of Fear Factor. Joe Rogan says, “Can he take one more round of chemotherapy!?” and my competitors are all trying to slam me and say things like, “He looks like that skeleton in biology classrooms!” and, “He ain’t got game!” and, “Bitch needs to go hoooome,” and I wish so badly that I could just walk off this really terrible game show and simply give up.

Outside of my house, crawling down the street at a slug’s pace, I can hear the ice-cream man and his filthy truck slithering toward all the kiddies. His speaker and stereo have been broken the entire time we’ve lived in this house so his music always sounds like a predatory warning more than a cheerful welcome. He’s the ice-cream man in a Wes Craven film. I hear his music and always picture him smoking rolled cigarettes, yellow teeth, yellow eyes, totally emaciated, some junkie pushing dairy.

The “music” gets louder and louder, the speaker scratching and popping, hissing and whining, the tune slowing down and speeding up, the music bending like a warped record. It’s elevator music leading to Dante’s inferno.

I shut my eyes and tell myself that he’ll be gone in a moment. I tell myself to just hang on, to just breathe, to just pray, to just focus on something, anything. I put a pillow over my head but I can still hear the noise, the sound, boring into my brain, into the center of me, into my veins, my soul. It’s pushing me against the wall and cracking me open and breaking me and I can’t get away from it and it’s not going to make me puke but it is going to destroy me if he stops and then he does stop. He stops right outside my house, right outside my window, and the tune plays over and over and over and over and over again, looping on loops on loops, breaking and bending, warping and warbling, slowing and speeding. No children are approaching the van. The siren wails and screams, and then it does break me and I wish I could explain this to you better than I am but I also hope you never understand. I wish I could reach into your brain and into your stomach and squeeze your nuts until you cough up blood and twist the knife so you know what it feels like, how the music makes me feel, how the chemo makes me feel, how the poison makes me feel, how the medicine makes me feel, because it’s not an ice-cream truck, it’s an Ice-Cream Truck and it’s like one of those horrible ones from Maximum Overdrive or one of the Decepticons and I know it has ultimate intelligence and it knows that I’m in here and its sole purpose and intention is to do only one thing and that one thing is to seek and destroy.

Me.

And then the missile, the A-Bomb, the C-chord, the broken and beaten tune sniffs me out and finds me and I am done. I break down and I weep uncontrollably, and it’s not because I’m sad and it’s not because I’m sick and it’s not because I’m depressed but it’s because of the Ice-Cream Truck and that music and it hurts so bad in such a foreign way and I am drowning.

Someone touches my shoulder and I pull the blanket down and pull the pillow off my head and pull my hood back and take off my hat and open my eyes and Jade is standing there and she says, “Are you—oh . . . . Are you crying?” and I say, “The . . . ice-cream truck! It’s trying to kill me!” and she says, “Are you high?” and I say, “No,” and she says, “Do you want to be?” and I roll off the couch and caterpillar myself into the kitchen. Jade carries my cocoon behind me and wraps me back up in My Yellow Chair.

My wife sets the machine down in front of me and I begin to examine the plastic tube while my mother grinds the plant like an apothecary. Where it was once translucent and clean, it’s now become discolored with muck the shade of infected urine. Whether that’s from the plant or the burn, I’m not certain, but I have to stop and wonder if my throat looks like an organic replica.

I mindlessly rub my Adam’s apple and intentionally cough up something deep down. Unwilling to swallow it I spit it into my puke bucket.

Brown.

Something grotesque wafts under my nose and I turn my face away. Some repugnant scent; something bitter and acrid; something . . . I lift my arm . . . it’s me. I turn my head and look in the mirror and I am truly one mottled beard away from looking like a wilderness person.

My wife says, “John?” and I say, “Huh? Yes?” and she says, “What’s wrong?” and I say, “I . . . need a bath,” and she says, “A bath?” and I say, “Yeah . . . I smell like shit,” and she stands up and walks out of the room and I hear the bathtub turn on and I hear the octaves of aqua slowly rise and she comes back and holds out her hand and I stand up and she supports me into the bathroom where steam rises out of the small pool.

She shuts the door behind me and she unzips my coat and pulls it off my shoulders and lets it fall to the ground, revealing my true size. She pulls my hat off, revealing my smooth skull. She pulls my shirt off, revealing my ribs and emaciated arms. She unbuckles my belt and pulls off my pants, revealing my hairless legs and finally, she pulls off my underwear, revealing my scar. I take one step onto the scale and she says, “Don’t . . . ” and I say, “Wait . . . ” and I see that I am 130 pounds completely stark naked. I am the same weight as a large dog, a Great Dane. I am the same weight as a high-school girl.

I look at myself in the mirror and I suddenly see me. Not the way I have seen myself, which is in such minute changes that I haven’t seen change but I suddenly see myself as I was and now as I am, two people at once. I see a stranger. I see a disease. I see struggle and I see . . . Survival.

I see Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard covered in blood and bruises, broken glass stuck in his feet. I see Bruce Campbell at the end of Army of Darkness, covered in filth and pelted by evil. I see Bruce Springsteen.

I am The Boss.

I turn and step off the scale and Jade holds my geriatric elbow as I step into the steaming water and lower my smelly body into the scented fragrance and perfumes and soaps and steams and I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “You’re welcome,” and then she picks up a washcloth and dips it in the water and begins to scrub my back and my chest and my legs and here I am, I realize, at my weakest and my most vulnerable. So far, anyway.

She points to my bicep, or, at the very least, the place on my arm where my bicep should be and says, “What is this?” I look down and see dark brown striations running underneath my skin that look like tiger scratches or stretch marks. I exhale and say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention those. The chemo is burning my skin from the inside.”

So small is this on the full scale of weirdness that it doesn’t even warrant further conversation from either of us.

She runs the washcloth over the marks (which don’t wash off), over my head and over my face and the water runs down my chin and I think that five months ago I was a pothead driving to Las Vegas, screaming on the freeway and singing at the top of my lungs, watching the sun rise, the biggest concern in my life a job that I didn’t enjoy.

Five months.

Like a car accident, it all happened so fast and spun out of control so quickly; it all came out of nowhere and suddenly I was thrust over the steering wheel and I was crashing through the windshield and falling and falling and falling until my wife is giving me a sponge bath because I can’t do it myself. An ice-cream truck reduces me to tears. I don’t recognize myself.

Five months.

Water trickles off my chin and I try to look into the future. I try to gaze five months down the road. Chemotherapy will be done, remission will have begun, my mom will have gone home, I will have gone back to work and . . . it all seems like an intangible impossibility. None of it seems likely or possible or even probable.

I say, “Do you think this will end?” and Jade says, “Soon,” and I say, “It seems weird, doesn’t it? Going back to normal,” and Jade says, “Things will never be normal again,” and I nod and grunt and she scrubs my knees and my feet and I say, “We’ll never be the same, will we?” and she says, “No,” and then, “I hope not,” and I grunt again, glad that she is having her own revelations.

She says, “I want to travel more,” and I say, “I want to camp more,” and she says, “I want a family,” and I say, “Me too,” and then everything is silent except for the dripping water until I say, “One drip at a time,” and she says, “Yeah . . . we did it . . . one drip at a time. Only a few bags left,” and I shudder to think that it’s over but we’re not done. My tears mix with the water running down my face and the thought of another round is so unbearable that I have to push it from my mind and focus on the victory at hand.

She pushes her forehead against my ear and whispers, “I love you,” and I say, “Thank you,” and she says, “For what?” and I say, “Everything. For staying. For helping. For just . . . the doctors, the files, the organizing, the appointments, the medicines, the charts, the insurance, the fights with the hospital, with the nurses, with the doctors, with me. Thank you for just . . . everything. I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here. I really don’t. I’m so thankful for you and I hope I never have to be on your end. I hope you never have to be on my end. I hope this is it and you’ve just been . . . incredible. I love you,” and when I look over she has tears running down her face and so I say, “Hey! We’re both crying!” and she says, “You’re—” sob, “not crying . . . ” and I say, “No!” Sob! “I am! I was just hiding my tears in the water! It was total espionage because I didn’t—” sob, “want you to know it!” and then she says, “You’re an idiot,” and I say, “I—” sob, “know,” and then she hands me a towel and I walk out of the bathroom smelling less like sulfur and more like a Starbucks winter-themed drink—pumpkin latte or cinnamon mochaccino.

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , ,

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.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Quenching Waters of Shame

 

Let me tell you about one of the most shameful moments I have ever experienced. Let me tell you about the awful time I wanted to disappear into nothingness because I was so humiliated by my thoughtless actions. Sometimes Truth is a venom and when it works its way into our hearts it hurts fiercely but it also helps if you let it. It can burn away all the fat of reality until we experience only the kernel of humanity that is left.

Let’s begin…

10273349_10209156818101885_4936465669027778211_o

The heat in Africa is like someone holding a blow dryer in your face on a July day. It’s like eating mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs in a Jacuzzi. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

 

When you get a bottle of water, you don’t sip it. You slam it. You slam it if it’s cold and freezes your throat. You slam it if it’s room temperature and feels like spit. There is no casual thirst here.

 

And now, standing in the dirt, covered by the shade of our van and wiping sweat from my face, I see Ryan, a Ugandan who’s tagging along with us, kill an entire bottle in no time flat. He wipes his mouth and says, “I know dis guy named Geronimo – he’s a big guy. Will take a whole bottle and just drop it right down his throat into his big belly.”

 

I lift the piss-warm water to my lips as my mind wanders back to America where a faucet gives me ice-cold water and I don’t have to worry about microbes giving me diarrhea and headaches. I say, “How fast you think you can slam that bottle?” Ryan shrugs and I pull the stopwatch up on my phone.

 

“GO.” Ryan kicks his head back and goes bottoms up. The clear liquid birdie-drops past his teeth and he doesn’t spill a drop. “Eight point five seconds. That’s insane.”

10644797_10209043329144919_3659142720125948374_n

He grabs a second bottle from our stash in the van and hands it to me. “Ready, Johnny?” I nod and watch his thumb hit the timer. I flip the bottle up, trying to imitate his method, but instead water jets up my nose and covers my shirt. I cough and water sprays out of my mouth. Ryan starts to laugh as I go into a choking fit. “Haha! Twelve seconds, Johnny! I win!”

 

No! I can do better! I can do –”

 

But my thought is cut short and the contest is forgotten forever as I realize where I’m standing, as I realize where I am and what I’m doing. “Maybe . . . we shouldn’t . . . do this . . .”

 

Staring at us is a small group of Ugandan children, twelve in all. Some of them are barefoot. Some of them wear shoes that are tied to their feet. One kid has a hole in his pants so big I can see his penis hanging out. Their shirts are either too big or too small for their bodies. Their skin is as dark as a plum and the dirt they are caked in is like a powder. One child has a herniated belly button the size of a kiwi. Their white eyes look at me. Look into me.

 

I’m not just in Uganda. I’m in the slums. I’m down here shooting promotional videos for an organization that houses abandoned babies, an organization that takes infants who have been left for dead inside of dumpsters and places them with new mothers. I’m down here representing them. And I’m down here representing America. And I’m down here representing humanity. And I’m supposed to be helping. I’m supposed to be in the dirt with these kids, giving them the tiniest shred of hope in their day. Earlier I was doing close-up magic—making a small coin disappear—and teaching them secret handshakes and they were chasing me around and hugging me and laughing and shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!”— an African term that means white traveler—and a humbling happiness came over me wherein I knew I could not help them all and I knew I could only help in this moment.

12792235_10209104066023116_6929054020331206724_o

I look at their houses and I see mud walls with tin roofs. I see a canal, an undeveloped sewage system, that is one foot wide filled with human waste running in front of their homes. I see someone from my team open up a bag of suckers and I hear 30 children scream with so much glee that at first I think someone is being murdered. The children run around waving their candy in the air and laughing. I watch a two-year-old drop his sucker in some kind of dark brown mud. I watch him pick it up, wipe it on his shirt, and stick it back in his mouth.

 

I watch the mothers look at me and I know what they are thinking. They know where I come from. They know what I have. They know what they never will. Their mats in the dirt are as good as it gets and are as good as it ever will get. There is a quiet hopelessness that my presence rubs their noses in.

 

A drunken man wanders down the street and begins shouting at us in Lugandan, the local language. I ask Ryan what he’s saying. “He doesn’t want us here. He thinks you’re going to take his picture and make money from it and he will get nothing.”

 

“Can you tell him that we’re going to take the images to raise money for the babies?”

 

Ryan says, “He doesn’t care. Those babies are not in this village. Uganda is a big place. We might help someone but we won’t help him.”

 

We can’t help everyone.

12794916_10209121153610295_47371609264207356_o

The man disappears and comes back holding an iron rod. He cranks the volume on his voice and begins waving it around. The man gets up in the face of a local girl and begins pointing at each of us wildly. Ryan translates for me, “Why are you helping them? They are white, and they don’t care about you! When they are done they will leave and forget about you and you will still be here, poor and broke!”

 

It’s easy to paint this man as the bad guy, but the truth is that he’s spent his entire life being treated like an animal as we all come from our homes and take pictures of him in his natural habitat. He feels exploited.

 

When he’s spoken his mind, he stumbles away.

 

In a place like this – where you have so much more than everyone else, where you’re the richest guy in the room and everyone knows it—it’s easy to start thinking of yourself as some kind of gracious Mother Teresa type. It’s easy to start believing that you’re sacrificing yourself for The Children. Vanity moves in fast.

 

“I’ve come from America to save you! Do not fear, simple African people, for I have brought you the best thing I can: myself!”

12806246_10209043340425201_1796150541417785414_n

I reach out and I take a child’s hand and I look into her eyes while I wonder how filthy those fingers are. How much human excrement is on them? I say, “How are you? What is your name?” while I scan her for any cuts that could infect me with HIV.

 

I’m down in it. For tonight only. And I am helping. But not this kid. Some kid somewhere will feel the effects of this video we’re making. It will raise awareness and it will raise money and that money will help some kid. But not this one. Not any of these. And the guy with the pipe is right. When I’m done here I am going to go back to America and you will still be here. And you will still be poor and broke.

 

But I won’t forget you. He’s wrong about that.

12804897_10209098764530769_3573624127880892545_n

The sun is dropping down, and this close to the equator it only takes 15 minutes to go dark. The kids chase after us, laughing and dancing, smiling and shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” as we walk to our van.

 

We get to the lot and I’m sweating. Ryan slides open the door and grabs a bottle of water, “I know dis guy named Geronimo—” And that’s how it all plays out.

 

How quickly we forget ourselves.

 

And now here I am, my eyes connecting with each one of the twelve kids. I think I know who they are and what they are. I believe that I am deep enough to understand the sorrows of their culture. And with clean water rushing down my chin and into the dirt, pooling in the dust at my feet, I realize that I am filled with more shit than the ditches in front of their homes.

 

I feel my heart break. Not for them. But for myself. I am baptized in shame. I swing my pack off and reach inside. Please, please let there be more. Please. My hand wraps around warm plastic and I pull out a bottle of water. I push through the crowd to the tallest child and say, “Are you the oldest?” and he nods. I hand him the bottle of water and I point to the crowd. “Share.”

 

Half the kids get a sip as it’s passed carefully between them, and then it’s gone and is discarded on the ground before they all look back at me. Nobody is multiplying fish and loaves here.

 

Our driver hollers. “Suns down. We gotta go.” And he means it. This is no place for a mzungu at night. I jump into the backseat and the kids all press their hands to the glass. “Mzungu! Please! They babble in their native tongue, shouting pleas at me.

 

I can’t help you.

12828445_10209167451407711_5819582291565281638_o

The engine fires up and the van shifts into drive. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” I press my hand against the glass and we start to move. I thrust my fist into my pocket. Where is it? Where is it? Hurry up! Hurry up, you fucking idiot! You fucking selfish idiot! The pocket is empty. I go for the other one—just a bunch of wrappers and lint. Where is it!? Where did I put it? There! My hand wraps around a single coin worth 100 shillings or about 3 U.S. pennies – the one I was making vanish with my close-up magic.

 

I swing open the door and reach out to the smallest kid, front and center. “Here! Here!” He holds out his hand and I drop the coin into his palm. His eyes turn into saucers. “Thank you, mzungu!” They all see the coin and they look at me and they start shouting, “Mzungu! Shilling! Mzungu!” They reach out for me, 12 dirty hands asking for my help, as the van speeds up.

 

I do them the courtesy of looking them all in the eyes as I slam the door in their faces.

 

I’m sorry. I can’t save you.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,