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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.”

 

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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.

 

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

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PLAGUED BY PLAGUES: CHAPTER 3

 

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

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

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

 

See you all at the bottom of the slide!

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could work. This could definitely work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. A what?”

“A speculum.”

“What’s a speculum?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate her.

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

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

It’ll heal itself.

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

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

But we very soon will.

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

 

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

JB.

 

FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4: EXCERPT

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

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

 

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The Orange and the Sock: Chapter 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

I have only one testicle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One what, honey?”

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

“Ball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This does not happen.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Cancer? But I’m a Virgo.

Alright, folks! This is it.

A few years back, I had cancer. Spoiler alert, I lived. A couple years after coming out the other side of the dark tunnel that is doctors, drugs and disease, I wrote everything down and compiled it into what is sitting before you now – the prologue to, what most of us today would call, a “book”.

I’d like to be able to release a new chapter every week for the duration of the novel so, if you’ll stay with me, together we can relive this treacherous, life-altering, reality bending experience together over the next 42 weeks. Yeah, that’s a serious commitment but if you’re down, I’m down.

Actually, even if you’re not down, I will probably just blindly and stubbornly press on on because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want here. My house, my rules, baby!

However, on the off chance that you are into it, please click the follow button in the bottom right corner and we’ll slowly mosey down this little rosy road together.

Let’s begin.

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It’s my twenty-sixth birthday and I’m standing in front of a rotund Indian man with my pants around my ankles, my wiener hanging limply between us like a sad-faced emoticon. He gently pats the paper-covered exam table with his meaty hand and in his thick accent says, “Please sit up here.”

I pull myself onto the table, no easy feat with my pants bunched on top of my sneakers and my hands cupped neatly around my genitals for the sake of modesty. The ultrasound technician takes a seat on a low stool next to me, pinches my noodle between his thumb and forefinger and says, “Hold this, but don’t pull on it.” First, this is everything nightmares are made of. Second, I can’t help but stop to wonder what kinds of patients typically find themselves in this room. Men who, when confronted with a white-robed stranger, posters of bisected colons, and the aroma of cleaning supplies, are suddenly thrown into such an erotic frenzy that they simply must begin to “pull on it.”

I lie back and hear the sound of two rubber gloves being stretched and adjusted over as many large hands, the latex squeaking against itself. The noise sends a shiver up my spine, and the sterile smell in the air turns my stomach.

I just want this over. I just want an answer.

The Indian Man says, “I’m going to apply the jelly now,” and I’m thankful for the heads up because, lying here today, I have no idea what to expect anymore. Things have been spiraling quickly out of control for about a month. There are too many questions cropping up without near enough answers. My life has become a really terrible episode of LOST, except there are no polar bears or time travel or bad CG smoke monsters . . . .

He begins to gently rub the cold gel on my nut sack when, making a desperate stab at comedy, I nervously blurt out, “Hey, man, you’ve got the best seat in the house!” I say it as a joke. I say it to lighten the mood. I say it because I’m afraid I’m going to die, and I need to laugh.

The Indian Man completely disregards my comment and instead pulls out an ultrasound gun that he places against the taut skin of my scrotum (the room feels like a brisk 64 degrees and my body is adjusting accordingly). As he snaps several high-contrast black and white photos of my testicle, I shut my eyes and pretend that I am somewhere else; in the parking lot, at work, at home, in outer space. I attempt to force myself to have an out-of-body experience. I want to step away and come back when this is all over and hopefully “all over” is in just a few moments and not several months or years from now.

I open my eyes and see, on the ceiling directly above me, a little sign that reads, I’D RATHER BE FISHING. I begin to count the dots in the tiles, one hundred, one thousand, one million little pinholes above me, and I place my mind inside each one. The Indian Man takes his time and is very thorough in, what is for him, a routine scanning procedure. For me it is everything.

The silence is palpable. I can feel it in every pore of my body. I can sense the electric buzz from the machine where, as I glance over, I can actually see my testicle for the first time in my life. It just rests there like an enormous black and white egg filled with hope and desperation and anxiety and sperm. The quiet resting too heavy on my shoulders, I break it with, “Is it a boy or a girl?”

The Indian Man doesn’t smile at the joke. Instead, he simply states, “It’s a tumor.”

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That’s it!

Next week let’s meet up right here again for CHAPTER 1: THE DESERT. And if you think you might miss it, hit that follow button in the bottom right corner and we’ll speak soon!

 

 

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