Tag Archives: religion

ALAN: CHAPTER 28

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Perfect.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

_JBP6854

 

 

 

 

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CHRISTMAS EVE: CHAPTER 27

 

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If the fifth floor of the hospital was a kind of relative paradise for chemo in-patients—big rooms, big beds, remote controls, specialty nurses—then the second floor was one step above a skid row methadone clinic.

 

A red-haired nurse who’s seen better days leads us out of the elevator and down a narrow hallway with, I kid you not, a flickering fluorescent light. The tiles in the hallway are cracked and breaking, green and white checkered, garbage cans are over flowing and puddles of water seem to be leaking out from the cracks in the walls. We pass a clock and I see that it’s just breaking 2:15 a.m. and is officially Christmas Eve.

 

My eyelids are getting heavy and my legs are feeling even heavier. I’m running on fumes, and when they lead me into the dark room, no one even bothers turning on a light. I lie down in bed, my wife covers me up, says something about coming back later, my eyes flicker, and she’s gone.

 

I wake up forty-five minutes later, lean over the side of the bed and puke into the garbage can, unsure of where the bathroom is. The cable connecting me to my IV, which they gave me in the E.R., cramps up and starts beeping. Nobody comes. I press the CALL button on my receiver but nobody comes. I press it again… and again . . . and again . . . but nobody comes. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP.

 

The thought of bubbles traveling down the tube into my veins doesn’t bother me so much as the actual noise of the blips. Each tone acts like an arrow through my skull. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP. It holds open my eyelids, slides a metal plate under my eyeball, shoves down, pops it out, disconnects my optic nerve with a hacksaw, and jams a white hot screwdriver into my brain.

 

I reach out into the darkness and push the machine as far away as I can, 3 or 4 feet. I push the CALL button again . . . and again . . . and again. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen minutes pass. Twenty minutes pass. I look around and see a phone just out of my reach but don’t know whom I’d actually ring.

 

Suddenly, in the hallway, I hear footsteps approaching. A shadow begins to grace my narrow vision through the doorframe. Finally. Finally. Finally.

 

A nurse with dark skin and purple scrubs approaches . . . and continues on . . . heading somewhere else. I cough into my hand and shout, “HEY! EXCUSE ME! UH . . . MISS?!” The footsteps stop and I hear the soles of her shoes turn on the tile before they begin to grow louder again. She turns into the room and, seeming unsure, says, “Hi, how are you?” and I say, “This machine, it’s . . . I don’t know what’s—” gag— “wrong with it and—” gag— “can I get some nausea medication? I’m—” gag— “I have cancer and I—” gag— “sorry . . . I just need something for my stomach and I don’t think this call button works,” and the nurse says, “I’ll see what I can do about the medication. Your call button should work fine. I’ll get you some ice chips,” and she turns to leave just as I lose control of my stomach and vomit more blood into the trashcan.

 

Twenty minutes later a man enters and takes my blood. I puke again. I roll onto my side. I mash my face into the pillow. I turn on my other side. I can’t sleep. The sloshing sickness in my stomach is listlessly rolling through my entire body. My brain feels like it’s bleeding. My toenails hurt. My bones hurt. I try to sleep but am wide awake, alone, cold. Where is my medicine? I start to gag again and my stomach feels like someone is twisting a knife into it. I slam my thumb into the CALL button three times in a row before shouting, “HELLO?!” Nothing.

 

Another man enters and says he needs to take my blood. I tell him someone was just here forty minutes ago. He says he doesn’t know about that even though I show him the Band-Aid and the hole. He takes blood from my other arm. I tell him I need a nurse and he says he’ll fetch someone. Twenty minutes later the nurse shows back up. It’s 3-something-a.m. at this point and I feel as though I’m about to begin hallucinating with exhaustion. I ask about my nausea medicine and she says that she spoke to the pharmacy and they said I’d need a doctor’s prescription first.

 

This is how hospitals work. You have stage 4 cancer. You’re skin and bones. You’re a grown man who weighs 130 pounds. You’ve been admitted to the E.R. for vomiting up blood. You have a track record of various ailments and, at 3:30 in the morning, nobody will give you medicine to stop you from throwing up more blood because the doctor, who is asleep, can’t sign off on a form.

 

The nurse, in all of her wisdom, brings me enough aspirin to tame a mild headache. This is tantamount to trying to fix the World Trade Center with Elmer’s Glue. I would kick her in the teeth if only I had the energy. She tells me she’s trying to get a hold of the physician and I say, “Isn’t he asleep?” and she says, “Yes but . . . uh . . . we’re trying to reach him . . . ” and I say, “OK . . . please hurry.” The nausea is growing in me like a weed, choking out my life and energy, taking over all my thoughts.

 

The Useless Nurse leaves and the machine starts to beep again and the first man enters and takes my blood again, claiming that he didn’t get enough vials for all the tests. I tell him that a second man was already here and that he should have quite enough between the two of them and he tells me he doesn’t know of a second man. He pokes me in my arm, takes more vials and leaves, fetching the nurse. She returns, adjusts the machine and says that there’s still no word from the doctor.

 

It’s 4:30. I sit up in bed and stare at my feet, thinking about how I’m not even halfway through this process yet. Wondering if this is how death looks. Wondering if these will be my final memories. Not this moment exactly . . . but a collection of moments just like it—hospitals, nurses, beeping, cleaning solution, needles, blood, vomit, and stiff hospital sheets, crunchy with starch and dried urine. I puke again and the blood seems to be retreating, being replaced by yellow bile. That’s a good sign, I think to myself. I lie back down, place my forearm over my face, and try to force myself to cry. It sounds lame but sometimes a good cry is all you need.

 

Instead of crying, I puke again. My stomach is a war zone filled with corpses.

 

I stand up and make my way to the dark bathroom, the fluid from the IV bag washing through me and cleansing my kidneys from all the poison I’ve taken in. I am a junkie, drugs coursing through my veins, ruining my life.

 

I pee, crawl back into bed, and watch the sky start to turn gray. The clock reads 5:45 and I still haven’t slept. Still no word from the pharmacy. Still no aspirin or ice chips. This place is getting a bad Yelp review fer sher.

 

At 6:15, the second man enters my room again and says he needs to draw my blood. He says they had enough blood but forgot to do one test. Beaten, broken, destroyed, I say nothing. I just stick out my thrice-stabbed arms and let him take as much as he wants. I turn on my side, pull my knees to my chest and wonder where my wife is, where my mother is, where Sue is.

 

I press the call button. Nothing.

 

At 7 a.m. the Useless Nurse shows up with more Aspirin. I swallow it and puke it up. She says she’s still waiting to hear from the doctor. I don’t say anything. She leaves.

 

At 8:50 my wife shows up and I am so happy and hopeless and helpless that I finally do cry. I am so alone without her. I tell her everything and she says, “What? WHAT? WHAT?” and when the first man enters to take my blood a fourth time because someone just called in one more test, Jade says, “No. You’re not taking his blood. Get out. Get out of here,” and the man says, “But we—”and Jade says, “That’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Leave.” And the man turns and walks away.

 

The Useless Nurse enters, and before she can speak, Jade says, “He needs his nausea medication,” and the nurse says, “I know, he—” and Jade says, “No. You don’t know. He’s in here because he’s puking up blood and you give him, sorry, aspirin? ASPIRIN? Where did you go to school? His call button doesn’t work? Where are we? What is this place? You think ice chips are going to help him? He can’t eat. Did you call the doctor?” and the nurse says, “I . . . left him a message . . . ” and Jade says, “Where’s the pharmacy? I’ll go talk to them,” and, twenty minutes later, my wife, not an employee of the medical field, returns with good news. She says that someone will bring me a bag right away—not a pill, but a bag of medication so I can’t throw it up.

 

At 10:15 a.m. we ask if we can go and we’re told that the doctor wants to see us first. At 11:30, we ask where the doctor is and they say he’s making his rounds but will definitely be here before noon. At 12:45 we ask how much longer he’ll be, and they say he’s on his lunch break but will absolutely probably be here directly after that at some point. At 1:15 Jade leaves to get herself lunch. At 2:30, he still hasn’t shown up but somebody tells us that he’s on the fifth floor. At 3:45 people stop showing up to our room. At 4:15, there is still no sign of anyone. At 5:15, a male nurse walks by in the hallway and my wife grabs him and says, “Where is Dr. Manfred?” and the nurse says, “He should be here shortly,” and Jade says, “Can we leave whenever we want?” and the nurse says, “Yes . . . I mean . . . we can’t force you to stay but   . . . a doctor should see you,” and Jade says, “You have 15 minutes to bring him here or we’re walking out this door.” At 5:30 Dr. Manfred shows up sporting an arm cast and says to me, “How you feeling?” I say, “Good.” He says, “Throwing up blood?” I say, “No. Not since last night.” He says, “Good. Call us if anything changes. You may leave.”

 

This is how hospitals work. Well-oiled machines of idiocy.

 

 

 

 

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ROUND 2: CHAPTER 25

 

ABOVE: (LEFT) ROUND 1 (RIGHT) ROUND 2

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

 

I am a side effect.

 

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

 

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

 

Today I start over.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nothing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We have take off.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And I say, “Yes! Great!”

 

And she says, “You poop OK?”

 

And I say, “Far as I know!”

 

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

 

And I say, “No. Just reading a book,”

 

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

 

And I say, “OK.”

 

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

 

And she says, “You want to sit down?”

 

And I say, “Can I stand?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It is heartbreaking.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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UP IN THE CLOUDS: CHAPTER 24

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The first thing I do when I get home is fire up YouTube to figure out how to use a vaporizer since it didn’t come with any proper instructions. A fourteen-year-old with a lisp tells me that it’s essentially a large hot plate that slowly heats up the plant versus doing a straight burn with the chemicals in the butane lighter. Again, “cleaner.”

 

I slowly open the childproof cap and stare down at my beautiful green bulbs with orange strands flecked upon them like glitter. I pull one out and place it in the grinder, turning the plant to dust. I pour the remains in the bowl, flip the switch on the device, and wait for optimum heat.

 

Meanwhile, my mother sits next to me, watching, staring, observing, obvious that she’s fascinated by not only the process, but the plant itself. I hand her the pill bottle and say, “Smell.” She lifts it to her nose and says, “It’s sweet.”

 

I bring the tube from the vaporizer to my mouth, feeling like the caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and pull. The first silver strands weave their way up the plastic lining until they’re in my mouth and in my throat and in my lungs and I’m lifting off my feet and I’m smiling and I shut my eyes and everything is so good right now.

 

I think of all the times I’ve smoked pot with my sister, sitting on her kitchen floor trying to use every magnet letter on the fridge to spell words, phrases like, CREEP GUY CAN’T DANCE and AARON WILL EAT FARTS. We’re smoking and listening to No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” and playing Hogan’s Alley on her Nintendo. We’re eating fudge. We’re talking about being young and growing up and being very overly philosophical about the minutia of life and I open my eyes and my mom is sitting next to me and I say, “I love you, Mom,” and it’s such a stupid thing to say in that moment because of what’s happening but I feel it so strongly and so truly and I just want her to know that I appreciate everything she’s doing for us and sacrificing for us to be here and she leans in and gives me a hug and I say, “Thank you. Thank you. I love you,” and then I stand up and just start snapping my fingers and bobbing my head. My wife enters the room and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “I don’t know, I just—I just feel so good. I need to dance. I need to dance! And if you don’t dance then you’re no friend of mine.”

 

Instead of dancing, my wife just stares at me and itches her nose. I say, “It just feels so good to be alive, doesn’t it?! It feels so good! The three of us here, doing this together—doing life together! Oh, man. Mom, you should move to Los Angeles. You should live here forever! We could turn our garage into a little house. You wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch—we could build a little bathroom out there. How great would that be? How great?”

 

There’s no music playing but I’m sliding back and forth on the cheap tile floor in my socks. I turn around and try to moonwalk but it just looks like when everyone tries to moonwalk; just me walking backward, sliding the soles of my feet across a dirty floor.

 

I open up the cabinet and pour myself a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and eat the entire thing. I open a drawer and pull out a Butterfinger—the size you’d get in a Halloween handout—and eat two. I drink a glass of water and sit down on a bar stool at the island in my kitchen. I turn to my wife and tell her some stupid joke that both begins and ends with, “So a baby seal walks into a club . . . ” and then I laugh and my mom is shaking her head and smiling and saying, “Oh, John Lowell. My high little boy,” and I suddenly remember that I am high and that my mother is here and then there is a flood of information that drowns my brain in a heartbeat. I remember that I’m sick, that I have Cancer, that I’m only on the first round. I remember that I’m sterile. I remember that I might die.

 

I remember.

 

And it hits me like a bullet in the dick. I say, “Jade . . . ” and she says, “Yes, dear?” and I say, “I have . . . cancer . . . ” and tears well up in my eyes and she says, “Oh, geez, here we go.” A salty tear runs down my cheek and I stick another Butterfinger in my mouth.

 

My mom makes pasta for dinner but I’m too full to eat, a sensation that has become quite foreign to me. Regardless, I sit at the table with my family instead of in My Yellow Chair and I have a discussion about faith and God and disease and purpose.

 

Now. Stop. Everybody put the brakes on. I don’t know how to make a foot note in Word – I’m fancy like that – but would like to interject a side bar that is both, for me, equal parts ridiculous and necessary. Please bear with me for just one moment.

 

I was 26 when this cancer thing happened to me. I am 35 today. What? Yes. And in those 9 years God and I have developed a very strange kind of relationship. We’re kind of like two kids that were dating in high school and thought they were going to get married and live happily ever after but then at the last moment one of us decided that the other one wasn’t real and so that kind of threw everything about our relationship out of whack. You know how it goes. We don’t really talk like we used to but I think about the old guy often and wonder what our world would have looked like if we’d stuck it out. But that is a story for another story.

 

There are some things coming up in this tale that felt true at the time and felt real at the time and how I personally align those two opposing world-view experiences is neither here nor there. This is not a story about religion and theology. That said, spirituality played a large part in my experience and so it must be included and it must be told and it must be represented as it was experienced at the time.

 

Disclaimer over. Please continue.

 

There is something about being on the very edge of life that forces you to walk directly up to the cliff and look over it. So maybe it’s chemo-brain or maybe it’s the sharp focus of death or maybe it’s the evacuation of everyday routine like jobs and chores, but my world feels like it’s falling apart—legitimately pulling away at the seams, the fabric of reality between this world and the next beginning to unravel.

 

I begin to feel a deep sense of calm connectedness to the world around me and to (what I would call at that time) God – a benevolent being. It’s hard to validate emotional and spiritual experiences to other people because there is simply something inside every individual that happens and I can’t make it more real than that.

 

For me, it was all real. It was experience. It was truth.

 

Every Sunday, regardless of how poor my health was, my wife, mother, and I would go to church. The music at the beginning of service would throttle my ears and penetrate my bones and make me feel as though my face were going to split open and snakes were going to poor out but it was a necessary evil to endure. Being there felt right and good and warm. There was a tangible hope that I could sink into.

 

Once the service was over, they would invite anyone who wanted prayer to come to the front. Strangers would place their hands on my shoulders and pray so fervently that I was certain their words were somehow more tangible than my own.

 

Once, during a particularly rough week when I was too tired to walk, my wife led a small group of individuals to the back where I was slouched in half, breathing deeply and wheezing. Four people I’d never met circled around me, this thing that looked like a pile of dirty laundry.

 

Among them was a tall red-headed woman whose regular Texan accent suddenly slipped sideways, mid-prayer, into a language I’d never heard as she began to speak in tongues. I’m not going to get into the theology of this and I’m neither going to validate nor excuse the practice. From the mundane to the bizarre, these are the events that occurred.

 

The tall red head, suddenly breaking back into English, speaks a single, penetrating phrase. She says, without knowledge of our infertility, “I see babies . . . lots and lots of babies . . . ” and then it’s all over.

 

So now, here at dinner, blitzed out of my gourd and talking to my mother about Christmas traditions and how Pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christianity, it is I who suggests creating chain links out of construction paper and draping them from the ceiling.

 

We created 147 loops, one for every day I had left in chemo, and on each loop we wrote a Bible verse and every night we’d tear one down and read it together. It was these evenings that I looked forward to the most—just sitting and thinking about one specific hopeful thought, allowing my weak and warbled brain to slowly digest it.

 

This chain would become my visual reference for the rest of my journey. If everything went according to plan, I could see the end.

 

And I could see that The End was still a ridiculously long way away.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

People ask me if I’m mad at God for giving me Cancer and I say that I don’t believe He gave me Cancer any more than I think He gave me the flu or my buddy Ben the herpes.

 

Sorry, Ben. If you don’t want to get your new shoes dirty, you shouldn’t jump into a muddy hole.

 

We all have consequences for our actions, and even outside of cause and effect, I believe that we sometimes just draw wild cards. Perhaps this thing was happening to me because of personal decisions I had made—smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fast food, using microwaves—or maybe it was because of decisions my parents had made by not removing my distended testicle, or maybe it was family history and it was just an unavoidable fate that rested in my genes (my jeans), or maybe it was just my lucky day. I’d never really won any big raffles before and I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

 

In any event, it didn’t matter where it came from or who was to blame. It just mattered that I got through it, however possible. And for me, that meant clinging to God with everything my fried little brain and frail little body could muster.

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300: CHAPTER 19

 

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I wake up outside, my back sore from the wrought iron chair I’ve fallen asleep in. My mother has been insisting that I need to get more vitamin D and so I keep heading to the back yard and passing out. This is before I had a smart phone – back when my flip phone was still the rage. No fun games while I sit around. There is only staring into the distance and contemplating the mundane.

I shuffle back inside, sit back in my yellow chair and think about time passing, oceans turning to deserts, rocks turning to sand, babies turning to men turning to dust.

On a bored whim I decide to write my boss to tell him what’s been happening to me and how thankful I am that he’s saving my job until I get back. He responds and says that someone is filling in for me temporarily and that I should “get well soon,” a sentiment that I always find painfully cheap and obvious.

Oh, you’re sick? Get well soon. Don’t stay sick! The sooner you can get back to health, the better! That’s what I always say! Look! I’ve even had it inscribed onto this delightful commemorative Mylar balloon!

In any event, the part about my job being there raises my spirits. Our money is sinking fast and we’re going to need some serious dough when we come out the other side of this made-for-TV original movie. The nest egg I’d set aside to make my feature film has become our landing pad, our safety net, our buffer. It’s the only thing separating us from total and complete bankruptcy. The money is not going into camera rentals and crew; it’s going into food and rent and electricity. It is our life source and umbilical cord to survival.

A few days later, my dad leaves to head back to South Dakota and his job and real life. He gives me that awkward side hug again and then goes to bed saying, “I’m leaving around four in the morning so I probably won’t see you again.” He disappears around the corner and I wonder if he thinks about how heavy those words sound.

He and my mother had had a previous conversation a few nights prior wherein they’d discussed her staying with us, operating as third eyes and extra hands; helping, supporting, cooking, cleaning, anything, everything; watching me while Jade went to work, entertaining Jade while I slept. She helps keep sanity, helps us keep a link to the outside world. We both welcome the idea with open arms and for six months my mother left her husband, her own mother, her brothers and sisters. My family is very close and my mother has her helping hands in a lot of pies back home and for half a year she left everyone. She quit her job and stopped her life to come sit by Jade and me and suffer with us.

Let this be a true example of a mother’s love. She gave everything she had.

She takes up residence in our guest bedroom and it’s the first piece of good news we’ve had in some time. Her presence is an absolute godsend because, I don’t care how old you are, there is something inherently primitive and wonderful about having your mother around. Mothers are, after all, the original chicken soup for the soul.

So on those days when I just feel like I am the world’s last unicorn and am shedding a tear of sorrow for my lost species, she is there to make me feel just a little bit better. Fly, unicorn, fly.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

It’s either a Monday or a Thursday and it’s either 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. The sun rises and sets and the clock spins and resets and day and night keep changing places like characters in a David Lynch film. Without a job or any regular routine, time becomes irrelevant. I sit in my chair, glossy eyed, and listen to my mother and wife talk about dogs and work and God and recipes and marriage and cotton, the fabric of our lives.

I lean forward and stand up on legs that feel atrophied after only a couple weeks of inactivity and wobble into the guest bedroom and collapse onto the bed.

I bury my face in a pillow, shut my eyes and pray for a miraculous healing. But nothing happens. I’m still sick.

I fall asleep and an undisclosed amount of time passes wherein I wake, cramped and sweaty, vomit, fall back to sleep, kick off the blankets, find I’m chilled, vomit, roll over, wish I were dead, regret my weakness, and then fall back to sleep.

When I wake, I find a short, curly hair stuck in my mouth and, for once, I don’t gag from the chemo. An image of my father’s naked body crosses my mind, his thick shoulders pressed into this very mattress, his back hair dropping off him and resting dormant until I vacuum them into my gaping face hole.

I am eating my father’s back hair.

Gag.

Quicker than I’ve moved in weeks, I sit up and see that my pillow is covered in them; easily twenty hairs populate the upper mattress area and I make a note to ask my mom if Dad sheds often.

I sit up and place my feet firmly on the floor—as firmly as I’m able to—and stare at myself in the full-length closet mirror. I’m still me but . . . a little thinner. It’s only been two weeks but, like a newborn with an eating disorder, I only consume very delicate portions, unable to hold anything down. The bags that I always carry with me under my eyes are suddenly starting to look a little darker, a little heavier, less like bags and more like luggage for a long cross-country road trip. I sigh and rub my chin and when I look at my hand, my stomach leaps into my throat.

My palm is covered in hundreds of short, tight hairs. Hairs that look exactly like the ones on the mattress. My hair. My beard. It’s falling out. In large chunks.

I reach up, grab a handful of beard in my hand, and gently pull. Like a ten-year-old on a greased up Slip ’N Slide, my hair slides out of my follicles and away from my face. No tug, no pluck, no tension. Yanking grass from the Earth would put up a better fight. My hair had, for all intents and purposes, suddenly just given up.

I shout for Jade, and when she enters the room, I hold out my hand and she says, “What . . . . Oh . . . . ” We both stare at my hand in silence for a moment, both of us thinking about bald kids coughing blood into Kleenexes.

“My hair is falling out,” I say and my wife nods and her eyes well up a little. “Do you want to . . . shave it?” and I nod.

It takes less than three days for my eyebrows, armpit, and pubic hair to follow suit. I look, in short, like one of those hairless Egyptian cats but with less sex appeal.

The next day is dreary and overcast as we drive into my bi-weekly oncology checkup. Sitting in the cold office, Dr. Yen asks me a series of inquiries, listens to my heart, takes my blood and asks if I have any questions.

I say, “I’m always cold.”

She says, “That’s normal.”

I say, “Will this go away?”

She says, “Probably not.”

I say, “Ever?”

She says, “Never.”

I say, “I feel like shit.”

She says, “That’s normal.”

I say, “Will this go away?”

She says, “Someday. I told you. Mack Truck.”

My wife says, “He’s really depressed.”

The doctor says, “I have a pill for that.”

My blood count comes back from the lab and the results are grim; my red count is too low, which essentially amounts to me being filled to the brim with bad blood. Imagine putting gas in your car that’s been cut with water. Or perhaps an even more accurate analogy would be to say, “Imagine putting water in your body that’s been cut with gasoline.”

On the oncologist’s command, we drive straight from her office to the hospital for a platelet transfusion. My white blood count is too low, as well, leaving my body weak and defenseless, able to be killed (very literally) by a common cold. Every sneeze is a bullet.

The nurse who comes in to give me my IV is a middle-aged Asian woman who, when questioned, claims she is The Best EYE-VEE-Giver this hospital has and that I am lucky to have her. This immediately puts my mind at ease.

She sticks the 2-inch needle into my forearm and I slam my eyes closed like iron-blast doors and wiggle my toes and imagine I’m in Norway and then she lets go of me and I say, “That was fast,” but she says, “I couldn’t find a vein,” and when I open my eyes she’s still holding the needle in her hand.

I rest my head back on the pillow and she begins tapping around my bicep. “There we go. There’s a good one,” she says and I close my eyes again as the silver thread sneaks under my skin and sniffs around for its— “Oops—OK—I just blew your vein. I’m really sorry. One more time.”

I turn my head aside and fight back a scream of terror as the knife gets thrust into my forearm a third time at an awkward angle and is taped down. “Bingo!” she shouts, and I jokingly/seriously say, “The best, huh?” and she says, “Well, the best intern.”

She exits, and I sigh while my mother and wife play Yahtzee. Moments later, the intern returns with a bag of milky glue and hangs it from my IV pole. Then, like a crazy straw being set into the world’s grossest milkshake, she inserts my IV tube into the bag and the cummy sludge gloops and glops down into my veins . . . for 12 hours.

I watch the drizzling cream leak into me and wonder who it belonged to—a starving college student, a man on the brink of poverty, an immigrant, some Good Samaritan who makes monthly donations? From their body to mine, they don’t know it, but they’re helping me, saving me, pulling me out of the red and into the black. I’m still sick. I’m still hopeless. I’m still depressed. I still want to stick my head in the microwave. But . . . sitting up in bed, I do suddenly feel a small surge of energy idly pulsing through me. It’s not a forest fire. But it is a spark.

The nurse comes back with an update on my HCG levels, those cancer markers that had sky rocketed from 300 to 900. Today, she tells me that they’ve dropped back to 300.

Three hundred.

The cancer is dying. It’s fighting, but it’s dying. And it is here that I shut my eyes and see that spark flicker and grow a little brighter. I’m going to win. I’m going to choke you to death, you son of a bitch. You’re going to pull me down to the swamps of disease and despair and I’ll follow along until you’re neck deep in whatever primordial muck you’ve come from and then, at the last moment, I’ll pull the trigger and cut you free and you’ll sink away back into those vile depths.

I open my eyes and watch a television show about a man who gets a face transplant after being mauled by a bear.

I have no real problems.

 

 

 

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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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. . . 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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BABY BLOCKS: CHAPTER 11

 

Another double whammy this week on the chapter front. We’ll start out with BABY BLOCKS: CHAPTER 11, which will mostly round out our cryo-banking experience (as far as it’s detailed here) followed closely by TIME OFF: CHAPTER 12, which is a shorty and doesn’t really work as a stand alone.

If you’re new to what we’re doing here, I’m releasing my book Cancer? But I’m a Virgo one chapter a week All. Year. Long. This week is chapter 11 and 12 but it’s not too late to catch up! To start reading from the very beginning, just click here!

cancer_title_11

 

Three hundred million: That is both the amount of money Forrest Gump made theatrically, as well as the average number of human sperm per serving, according to Wikipedia.

Fifty-six: the yearly average number of people on the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, bowling league, as well as the number of healthy sperm in my semen analysis, according to Dr. Chaplips, whom I currently have on the phone.

I ask him what the chances are of me getting my wife pregnant. I hear him lick his lips and, judging by the crackling noise coming through the line, I assume he still hasn’t solved his oral issue. “Aaahh,” he says. “Almost impossible. Very unlikely.” I say, “One thousand to one?” and he pauses before saying, “Probably higher.”

“Higher? Like what? What are my chances of a standard human pregnancy?” I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. I don’t know why I’m asking these questions. It’s already too late to do anything about it because the cryobank suggests that I abstain from myself for three days previous to each deposit. I just feel this desire to know how defective I am. If I were a term paper, what grade would I receive?

“Probably more around one hundred thousand to one.”

I take a couple small breaths and ever the Dumb and Dumber enthusiast, say, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” He’s clearly never seen the movie because he just says, “No. I’m not.” I thank him and hang up. I tell my wife the great news. “Babe,” I say, “We never, ever, ever have to use condoms again! Don’t you get it? I’m as sterile as a crayon! A potato has more potential for reproduction than I do! This is fantastic! This—this sucks . . . . ”

 

Inside I can feel the growth, the landmass, the intruder, the Cancer, growing larger and larger on my testicle. Every moment of every day I am reminded of it. Every moment of every day, I have a constant throbbing pain. Every day it grows and grows and grows. What was once a tiny pea is now a lima bean. It’s getting bigger. It’s stretching out. It’s making itself at home. And still I can do nothing. If I want to bank what little functioning sperm I have, there is nothing to do but wait. If I want children, I must gamble with my life. True Russian roulette.

The pain grows and the doctor prescribes me Vicodin, which I begin to pop like Tic Tacs or cashews or addictive prescription drugs. The pain grows more and I pop more Vicodin and the pain grows more and I pop more Vicodin and the pain grows more and I wait and wait and wait to bank. The banking will take a month. The banking will take thirty days. Cancer will take full advantage of me in that time, feeding itself and fueling itself off me.

The waiting gives me anxiety, and I neurotically touch My Lump, the way people will continue to play with a hangnail or tongue the sore spot in their mouth. My body wants it out, and I’m forcing it to stay in. My body hates me, and I am sorry.

Call me selfish. Call me crazy. Call me reckless. But I’ll have my children.

Even if it kills me.

Fast forward a couple blurry days, and I’m taking the Olympic Boulevard exit off the 405 freeway at 8 a.m. I’ve got my first appointment scheduled with the sperm bank this morning and am very excited to open a savings account with them.

The building is tucked away and is fairly understated, causing me to drive around the block a couple times before I find it. The parking lot only holds about eleven cars and most of the spaces are empty. On the front door is an intercom switch. I hit the button and wait. Someone buzzes me in.

Hidden buildings, hi-tech locks, espionage! This is getting dead sexy, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to know that the chicks involved are going to be hot. I open the door and put on my “cool face,” expecting to see some smoking bombshell blonde in a short nurse’s skirt. In my head, she looks just like the girl on the cover of Blink 182’s Enema of the State album. Those clowns at the semen analysis place don’t know shit about shit, making me rub one out in a dentist chair. These people here are professionals. I have no doubt about that. Professionals. Hot Nurses. Hot Nurse Professionals.

blink-182-enema-of-the-state

(ABOVE: THE DREAM.)

 

I cup my hand over my mouth, smell my breath, and walk into a reception area containing only six chairs. An older gentleman who arrived before me lowers his newspaper and glances at me through Coke-bottle glasses. We make eye contact and both immediately think, You’re here to jack off! and then, JINX! 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!

He lifts his paper back up, and I turn my attention to the Hot Nurse Station where I come face to face with Bill Cosby and Mimi from The Drew Carey Show. The first sits behind an ancient IBM whose white plastic sheen has turned the color of eggnog, while Mimi digs through towering filing cabinets twice her height.

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(ABOVE: THE REALITY)

 

Now it should be noted that these two people are not actual Bill Cosby and not actual Mimi from The Drew Carey Show but individuals who look so incredibly similar that they could be hired to work at a children’s birthday party as cheap duplicates.

One final word on their characters: I will describe the first person as both “Bill Cosby” and then as “she” but trust me when I say that both of these descriptors are not only accurate, they are also absolutely necessary.

Bill Cosby says, “License, please,” and I slide my ID over the counter. Without looking up, she says, “Is this your current address?” and I say, “No. I didn’t drive that far.” She looks at me sideways, and I say, “It’s a South Dakota license.”

She glances back at it and laughs far harder than is deemed even remotely necessary for what can only be considered a subpar joke. She then repeats her folly to her coworker, Mimi, in a fit of giggles. Mimi says, “What? You’re laughing too hard. I can’t understand,” and so Bill repeats it again, the poor joke becoming less and less funny with every turn.

“Riiiiiight . . . . Buzz him in,” Mimi commands and Bill Cosby opens a door, ushering me to The Back. He/she hands me a small cup—sort of the ATM deposit envelope, if you will—and then says, “Choose any door on your right.” I examine each of them in turn and discover that they all look identical save for room 4, which has been decorated with wallpaper adorned with silhouettes of naked women.

I choose the room I’m standing in front of. I figure it’s the closest to reception and therefore probably the least used. Only a true pervert would choose this room, so close to other people. Only a true sicko would choose—I stop analyzing my choice.

Bill Cosby hands me a disc. I look at it: an adult DVD artfully titled Bangin’ at the Cabo Cabana. I say, “Thank you,” and he/she turns and walks away.

I enter the room and shut the door. Lock the door. This is not what I expected on the drive over. It’s a 4 x 4 closet with a 7” flat screen television and a stack of hardcore, full penetration, tit-squishing, spread-’em-wide, take-no-prisoners, anything goes, pornographic magazines.

I flip through a couple, and the pages are genuinely stuck together, crusty with usage. The classic joke isn’t that funny when you find your fingers running over a stranger’s dried semen. I drop the magazines and pop in the DVD. At this point, I’m still not certain if I’m going to watch it to the end. I’m not sure how I feel about this, making children like this. “Son, I remember the day I ejaculated you. I was in a closet by myself, watching a Puerto Rican girl get sandwiched by a couple of brothers who kept high-fiving.”

Curiosity being what it is, I hit play and turn the volume down. There is a pair of headphones connected to the television but I have no desire to touch them, let alone put them on my head. I wait. And then it begins. The most horrific thing I could imagine begins. From the sky, eight individual baby blocks drop until they’re in the middle of the screen. On each block is a letter and, all of them together spell out the name of the production company, which I won’t name here, a production company that, obviously, specializes in making porno strictly for sperm banks.

Everything really has been thought of. Half of me is disgusted and half of me applauds their ingenuity and sense of entrepreneurial pioneering. Actually, half and half is an unfair ratio. I’ll call it a 90/10 split, respectively.

And then, just like that, without any set up or story, without someone entering a room or taking off their clothes, without any dialogue or foreplay, from frame numero uno, Bangin’ at the Cabo Cabana immediately earns its title.

I reach up and hit stop. The screen goes black again. Much like the girl in the video, I feel as though I’ve gotten my fill of Hector (my name for the male actor), and I’m really concerned that if I watch the video to the end, the guy, rather than choosing to go with the “traditional” adult ending, will just decide to neatly collect his “product” in a little plastic vial and then set it on a nearby counter and frankly, if that happens, I believe I would just go limper than a spaghetti noodle in a bubble bath.

Mimi and Bill Cosby stop outside my door to chat about a party this weekend, some kind of dinner date. Mimi has a bad cough, full of phlegm. Bill Cosby does most of the talking and laughing. I double check to make sure the door is locked.

I’m so ashamed to be here. Not that I’m ashamed that I have cancer or that I’m sterile. I’m just feeling these very powerful emotions of human shame about masturbating. I can only equate it to pooping in the woods. You know it’s OK. You know everyone that you’re with is doing it and it’s totally normal but you’re just afraid someone is going to come around the corner and catch you in your most exposed state.

Snap out of it, Brookbank! I yell at myself. You’re paying them to be here! Now pull out that dick, and get yer whack on!

I do. And with the help of those sticky-paged magazines and the blonde cop with the nightstick on p. 27, it takes considerably less time then the dentist’s reclining chair experience did. I’m not really going to get into the logistics of the deposit itself, but I will say this: Even after my final visit, I’m still not completely certain what the best way to get the “money” from my “wallet” into the “envelope” is.

Once the deed is done, I screw the yellow lid on and it’s only then that I realize that they’ve never told me what to do with it. At the semen analysis place there was a Mr. Ed style half-door that I opened and placed the jar into to be gathered up by a faceless technician in the next room. I search the walls. Nothing.

I put my pants back on (yes, I felt the strange need to remove them completely, as the only thing that could make this a bit more awkward is dried cum gracing the cover of my jeans), unlock the door and slowly, slowly open it. I don’t want to alert anyone that I’m done. More shame. Shame. Shameful Shaming Shame!

Should I leave my cum basket behind? Should I take it with me? Which is the least horrendous situation: the one where I abandon it in the room and a stranger finds it, or the one where I’m caught in the hallway trouncing around with a porno snack pack?

After weighing the pros and cons endlessly, I decide to plant the plastic container into my palm and sort of twist my hand backward so that no approaching person will see what I’m carrying. I walk through a small labyrinth of narrow hallways up to another counter with more bulletproof glass, and I stop to wonder how many times sperm banks have been robbed. I set my collection of human sperm down on the counter and ring a bell. DING! ATTENTION EVERYONE IN THE GENERAL VICINITY! THIS YOUNG MAN HAS JUST COMPLETED HIS JACK OFF! CONGRATULATIONS, SIR!

I turn to leave and almost make it back to the exit when a small Asian woman who looks like Michelle Kwan wearing a baggy blue hazmat suit (helmet and all) pops her head out from the sliding glass door and says in a Darth Vadery voice, “Excuse me . . . sir . . . . ” All these dots are where Darth is doing his heavy breathing. “I need to ask you . . . a few questions . . . . ”

I come back over to Darth Kwan and, with my canned specimen resting next to her writing hand, she says, “How long . . . have you been . . . absent . . . ?” and I just assume she means abstinent.

She says, “Did you get it all . . . in the cup?”

I want to tell her that most of it went on the floor because of their stupid little cup technology. I want to tell her it’s on the TV and all over the magazines and on the headphones. I want to tell her that someone needs to go in there with some baby wipes and give every object in that room a cursory once-over.

But I don’t. Instead I just nod and say, “Yes, ma’am. It was a clean escape.”

At the front desk they charge me a hundred bucks and I say, “A hundred bucks? But I did all the work!” and ol’ Bill Cosby certainly thought THAT one was funny. And I don’t blame him/her.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

 

cancer_title_12 

I’ve been banking “successfully” for several weeks now. Every Monday and Thursday, I come into work feeling like a completely twisted weirdo. My producer asks me how my morning is, and I turn to him, a guy I call Cookie Dave, and say, “Cookie Dave, this morning I jacked off into a cup inside of a commercial business. If I’m being totally honest with you, the last couple weeks have been pretty strange.” He hands me a small napkin with a cookie in it and asks if I’d like it. “Thank you.” Peanut butter. My favorite.

He asks me how the whole “cancer thing” is going, and I say, “They’re going to cut out my ball in a few days. They’re going to just . . . cut it out completely,” and he says, “Ouch,” and takes another bite.

“Yes,” I say. “Ouch,” I repeat. Cookie Dave tells me to call him when I’m done with my edit, and he exits just as my boss walks into my bay and begins telling me about some zombie movie he recently saw. I try to listen, but his words all run together into a sonic blur. He says, “Dead,” he says, “Blood,” he says, “Tumor,” and I say, “What?” and he says, “TWO MORE! They’re making two more sequels!” and I say, “I have cancer,” and he sits down on my couch and says, “What?”

I try to explain it in the most succinct way possible. “I felt a lump on my nuts . . . . I went to the doctor . . . . I have cancer.”

“Uh . . . uh . . . ” he stammers. This speech pattern and the blank looks and the blind stares and the hopeless get-well-soon phrases are something to which I’ll shortly become accustomed. He looks at me like I’m a puppy that’s had its hind legs blown off and now rolls around in one of those sort of cute, sort of depressing doggy wheelchairs. “Well . . . uh . . . that sucks.” “Yes,” I say. “It does suck. I have surgery in a couple days and they’re going to try to remove it. I need some time off,” and he says, “Yes! Yes! Absolutely! Anything you need! Any time off you need, you take it!” And then, again, “That sucks, man. That really . . . sucks.”

The room is silent, and I feel my tumor throbbing, calling out to me, begging for attention. I sniff and rub my nose, not crying, just trying to make noise to break the horrible silence. He says, “Wow,” and I say, “This zombie movie . . . . It’s good?” and he says, “They run!

The throbbing continues and the black venom stretches out slowly into my body while I do nothing but wait.

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Next week is pretty monumental as we are going to be covering SURGERY: CHAPTER 13, wherein the tumor and the testicle will be attacked by strangers wielding blades and laser beams. So if that appeals to you (why would it not?), then you’re in for a real treat.

 

 

 

 

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TRY, TRY AGAIN: CHAPTER 10

 

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

 

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

And I say, “Of course.”

And she says, “When?”

And I say, “When I’m done dying.”

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

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

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

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

I say, “OK,” and I’m certain.

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

I never share the image with Jade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I want doesn’t matter.

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

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

 

 

 

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