Tag Archives: wife

ICE CREAM: CHAPTER 34

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PART 4

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

–Kurt Cobain

 

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

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

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

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

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

Me.

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

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

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

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

Brown.

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

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

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

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

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

I am The Boss.

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

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

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

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

Five months.

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

Five months.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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BIRTHDAY PRESENT: CHAPTER 5

Welcome back to the on-going serial auto-biography Cancer? But I’m a Virgo. We’re blasting out chapter 5 today after a late start this week. If you haven’t had a chance to jump in yet, it’s not too late! Just click here to start from the beginning! C’mon! You know that one of your resolutions was to read more books this year.

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PART 2

“What is to give light, must endure burning.”

-Viktor E. Frankl . . . whoever he is

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I’m sitting in a waiting room somewhere in Pasadena, staring at a magazine that is listing the 100 most influential people of the year. Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and Bill Gates are all in attendance. I do a quick scan but don’t see any glossy celebrity snapshots of Jesus.

The waiting room is empty. The couch I’m sitting on is leather and cold. I touch it with my finger and wonder if the cow that this skin belonged to had a nice personality. I touch my tumor by squeezing it between my thighs. It’s still there. Maybe this doctor will simply give me some pills, and I can wipe all the sweat off my brow.

The woman behind the bulletproof glass calls my name, and I walk through a locked door. They weigh me, measure me, etc., etc. The nurse leaves, and I’m sitting alone in the Examination Room. The walls are covered in pictures that children have drawn in crayons, all with personalized messages addressed to a man named Dr. Odegaard.

“Thanks for fixing my arm,” wrote James, 7, with a drawing of himself in a cast, standing in front of a tree. The drawing is so bad I have to wonder if he had to create it with his lesser-used hand.

“You’re the best. Thank you for the Band-Aids,” wrote Tiffany, 6, who decided to draw birds flying over a rainbow.

I try to imagine what my drawing would look like. There would be a picture of a smiling rooster. Above it, in bubble typeface, it would read, “Thanks for saving my dick. I owe you one.” –Johnny, 26.

The doctor enters and asks me a few questions. First the preliminary stuff because it’s my first visit to see him, followed by the more intimate inquiries. “What seems to be the problem?” And, “Describe the lump.” And, “Which testicle is it on?” And this is where I sort of mumble something about a trick question. Mumble something about my uni-testicle. Mumble some off-colored joke that he doesn’t laugh at. He asks me to pull my pants down, and I ask him if the door is locked. He tells me that no one will come in, and I comply.

He snaps on a rubber glove and fondles me in a professional manner. He hums and grunts a couple times, makes the sort of noise you might make after seeing a two-headed turtle—not absolute shock but more of an idle fascination.

He tells me to pull my pants up and that he definitely feels something. He tells me that he’s recommending me to a good friend of his, a urologist (penis doctor; see also dick doc) named Dr. Honda. It’s the 11th of September, and it will be six more days with this thing growing inside of me before I get any real answers.

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On September 17, 2008, I turned 26 years old. My wife and I spent it indoors, she having made me a cake and purchased me a few books. The day was regular enough, the cake was regular enough, the weather was regular enough and, as far as birthdays go, it would forever be branded in my brain as the most irregular day I had ever experienced.

We arrive at Dr. Honda’s office, a nice brick building in Arcadia, just after noon. My wife and I sit down in the lobby and she immediately picks up a Better Homes magazine and begins scouring it for ideas to, presumably, make our home . . . better.

Everyone in the room with us is old. Really old. Nursing-home old. They’re so old, that they each have some kind of caretaker visiting the facility with them. I try to imagine the day, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, when I’ll be too weak to take care of myself. The day, thousands of years from now when I can’t bathe myself any longer. The day when I eat more pills than food. Millions of years away.

My wife turns to me and says, “What do you think he’s going to say?” and I say, “You know what I think,” and she just laughs and shrugs. She still thinks it’s a cyst or an ingrown hair or an extraterrestrial’s tracking device, all things that are more realistic possibilities than that cancer-thing-that-other-people-get-and-it-never-happens-to-you disease.

They call my name, and I walk back through the door, alone. Every step I take, I am closer to understanding what this thing is. Closer to knowing that it’s either cancer (which I know it is) or an alien GPS system (which it probably isn’t but in many ways would be easier to deal with).

I jump up on that bed-table-thing with the giant roll of single-ply toilet paper covering it and glance around the room. There are no children’s drawings. Instead there are just diagrams of penises and vaginas that go on and on, wall to wall. Dongs that have been split in half lengthwise to show me what the inside looks like. Uteruses and ovaries that resemble cow heads. Black arrows pointing to the dangly bits, informing me what is in my pants. A part of me wants to examine them closer, wants to read all the scientific jargon, but the other, louder side of me doesn’t want to get caught staring at a drawing of a 16-inch schlong.

The door creaks, and Dr. Honda enters the room. He’s a slim Asian man with a mustache and a big smile. He immediately makes me feel welcome and, as I will come to shortly learn, this is not a professional trait of all doctors. He has bedside manner, a characteristic and skill that cannot be taught.

He shakes my hand and introduces himself. He asks me a few questions about life, what do I do, am I married, do I have kids, where am I from, and then my pants are suddenly at my ankles yet again and I’m Porky-Piggin’ it, naked from the waist down.

As he’s squeezing my GPS tracking system with a rubber-gloved hand, I hear footsteps fast approaching in the hallway and quickly ask if the door is locked. He says they’ll knock first. Yeah, I think, But I’m sure it’ll be that knock-knock-open that people are so wont to do.

“My ultrasound guy is here today. I’m gonna have him check you out.” I ask if I can pull up my pants.

You’ve read all this before. You know what happens. I know what happens. The story is inevitable.

I have Cancer.

That thing that makes people go bald and look sick and thin and tired. That thing that sucks the life out of individuals and kills kids and evaporates old folks. That thing I hear about on TV and in movies and sometimes in books. It’s me. It’s on me. It’s in me. Growing. Slowly.

I picture it looking like the black goo that Venom is made out of in the popular Spider-Man films; it’s not quite a gel but it’s not quite a liquid. It’s just a mess of sticky tar that attaches and grows and builds and pulls and destroys until it has encompassed your very being and turned you into someone else. No more Peter Parker. No more Eddie Brock.

Venom.

Cancer.

I’m staring at the ceiling, cold jelly on my testicle. Now I know. Now I know that I was right. Everything I thought I knew was correct. My gut was dead on. Dead. On.

Dead.

Without looking at the Indian man who’s given me my diagnosis, I ask, “Can I pull my pants up?” and he says, “Yes.”

Pamphlets are spread out in front of me. Every single person on every single cover is happier than the last. Everyone is so happy. They’re all so happy about their Cancer . . . and . . . I am just . . . .

. . . .

Dr. Honda tells me that I have two options in regard to the tumor. My Tumor. First, there is a surgery wherein they will cut me open and split my remaining testicle in half, removing the bad stuff but leaving me fertile. I tell him that I cannot fathom anything that sounds more painful. I ask him what the second option is.

He succinctly states, “Full removal.”

I sigh and ask what the third option is. He stares back at me. Nobody says anything. After a moment he tells me that if they miss even one single cell during the nutcracker operation the cancer will simply return, and they’d have to perform a second surgery in order to take the remaining half. I assume this is supposed to make my decision easier.

I look at the ground. At my feet. At my pants. I tell him to take it all. He smiles, and it’s a very kind face looking back at me. You can tell that he doesn’t want to tell me these things. You can see his compassion, and I’m thankful for it.

He pokes the pamphlets and says, “You’re going to want to bank your sperm,” and I nod. I am going to be sterile. Unable to reproduce. There is something very damaging to me about this thought, and the memory of me lying in a hospital bed talking to a doctor when I am eight is at the forefront of my mind.

I shake his hand and walk out of his office. I walk down the hall. I walk back through the door and to my wife, surrounded by old people. She puts down her Better Homes magazine and stands up, smiles. We walk out of the office, down the steps and out the front door into the parking lot and the warm sunshine.

It has not crossed my mind how blissfully ignorant she currently is.

She looks at me and, with her complete confidence with the ingrown hair theory asks, “Well, what did he say?” and, without missing a beat, I respond, “I have a tumor.”

She takes one more step before collapsing onto a parking block and begins weeping. This is when the reality all hits me, and I weep as well.

 

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Thank you so much for reading another chapter this week. Please click FOLLOW down below to stay up-to-date as we’re releasing one chapter a week until the very end!

Next Monday is PARENTS: Chapter 6.

 

 

 

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FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4

Welcome back for week four of the serial novel Cancer? But I’m a Virgo, where we explore my experience with cancer, chemotherapy, sex, drugs, comedy and death. If you’re just tuning in, click here to start from the beginning.

We’ve spent the last three weeks introducing our main character – our hero, if you will. And, uh, that’s me, in case you were wondering. I’m very charming.

But what is a good hero without a really strong nemesis? A hero is nothing without a proper enemy. And so here we stand, awaiting our villains arrival. Quiet now.

He’s close.

Hands inside the cart everyone. This is where it gets ugly.

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I pull into my driveway around 11:30 p.m. I’ve spent the last two days in Vegas smoking enough pot to transform my brain into one of those slimy slug-souls from The Little Mermaid. The house is mostly dark save for a small desk lamp radiating a warm glow in the front window. Like the jingle of that popular hotel, my wife has left a light on for me. The trip back from Las Vegas was mostly uneventful (outside of me having to shit off my front bumper but that story is neither here nor there); the trip driving west always lacks any of the magic of the possibility that crackles in the air when heading toward the Electric City. I haven’t slept more than a few scattered hours in two days and I can feel it.

When I finally open my front door, I immediately feel the warm welcome that is Home. My wife has an aura about her that allows her to take the mundane and turn it into the extraordinary. Our house is no longer wood and dry wall. It is flesh and bone and personality. It is living and breathing and welcoming. She chooses color palettes and purchases knick knacks; the bar-style dining-room table, the weird collection of antique cameras on top of the shelves in the kitchen, the vintage teacher’s desk in the living room, the furniture, the mirrors, the finds, the little treasures. I try to imagine what I would have done to this house if I’d lived here alone, if we’d never gotten married.

I’m seeing white walls. I’m seeing a stained couch. I’m seeing pizza boxes. Maybe I’m a little heavier? Maybe I sleep on a pile of wood chips in the corner? An old blanket tangled around my ankle?

I sit down on my couch and I close my eyes, letting images of the weekend roll through my imagination: Caesar’s Palace, The Venetian, the games, the walking, the laughing, the people, the servers dressed like Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson and Madonna. I chuckle to myself, having proudly taken that right of passage into Manhood that is Las Vegas. I’m 26 and at the top of the world.

Finally settled in, I pull out my pipe and stash of weed. The smoke fills my lungs and I quickly begin to disconnect from the world. So I lost $400? So what?! What’s money? It’s just paper. It’s just representative of something. Take my money, take my job. I’d rather move into the woods, anyway. Lose myself in the trees, get out of the city. I hate the city—the smog, the traffic, the cement. I want clear blue skies and trees and rivers and rocks and animals and stars.

I have to pee.

I stand up and walk to the bathroom, down the dark hallway, bumping into the doorframe. I flip on a light and there, sitting in the corner, is the toilet. It’s all come to this. My whole life has come to this toilet. Every step I’ve ever taken has led me right here. The first part of The Journey that is my life is about to end. Every choice, every waking moment has brought me here, to this bathroom, in this house, in this room, at this time, in this mental condition.

I reach down and fumble with my zipper, pulling it south. I reach inside my jeans and think briefly about my one testicle—its existence a constant reminder of the missing twin—and I start to pee. I stare at the red wall in front of me, thinking, Bright red paint. That’s a bold choice for my wife to go with. But she did it. I wonder what people think when they’re standing here fondling their nut sacks and peeing?

I look down and realize that I am, indeed, fondling my nut sack. This is a simple truth of the world; men just sometimes absent-mindedly grab handfuls of themselves and we bumble around blindly. It’s like a security blanket. It’s platonic. It’s like petting a dog.

Mid-pee, mid-stream, mid-relief, 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.

Imagine with me . . . try to set aside all of your individual predispositions and personality traits. Listen to the stories I’ve told you about myself, pick up my luggage, my emotional baggage, my history of illness (both real and imagined) and touch my genitals with me. Imitate me. Channel me. Possess me. Feel the lump on your singular ball.

Also, you are pretty high right now.

I turn the pea over and over in my hand like a pebble, examining it, touching it, feeling it, becoming familiar with it. No. I can’t become familiar with it. I know that immediately. We will never be friends. The hypochondriac begins whispering in my ear. He knows what it is. He, the great soothsayer of sickness knows what is happening right now. Whatever it is (you know what it is) I know that I hate it. Whatever it is (you know, just say it), I’m sure it will all go away soon. Just avert your eyes and breathe and (CANCER!) it will all be over soon.

Cancer . . . .

A woman tells me that she’s pregnant. She tells me that it’s crazy and exciting and wonderful. She tells me that she knew she was pregnant before the test results. She tells me that she just knew . . . and right now . . . I need no more explanation than that. I understand completely.

Cancer . . . .

I zip it back into my pants and stare at the red wall and think, “ . . . . . . . . . . . . ” and then I walk out of the bathroom, down the long hallway, and into my bedroom, where my wife is asleep. I wonder how she’ll take the news. Will she cry? Weep? Fall into a great depression? Will we cling to one another for mutual comfort, swearing fealty to each other? Swearing that we’ll get through this, don’t worry, no matter what, etc., etc., etc.? I try to summon images of Hollywood movies into my mind; how have I seen this done? How did Mandy Moore break the news in A Walk to Remember?

Jade opens her eyes and says, “You’re back. How was Vegas?” and I say, “Good,” and I say, “There’s something on my . . . . ” and it’s weird but I am six years old again, and I’m talking to my mom about my bawl, and I don’t want to say it.

“What time is it?” she asks in a gravelly voice. “Late,” I answer tenderly, quietly, wanting to keep things as calm as possible for the storm that is about to erupt. “It’s around midnight.” She asks me if I’m coming to bed.

I sit down and run my hands through her hair, the words in my throat, on my tongue, my lips. I say, “I felt something on my testicle. It’s a lump. I think . . . I think I have . . . cancer.”

There is a pause. She looks at me and blinks, once, twice, and I know some great emotion is on the precipice of bursting inside of her. She shuts her eyes, takes a breath and says, “You are such a hypochondriac. You have cancer now? Please.” And she clicks off the bed lamp, leaving me in the literal, figurative, and metaphysical dark.

I am furious (scared). I am angry (confused). I am full of questions, and I want (need) answers. An idea hits me, and I do that thing that no one should ever, ever, ever do when they think they have cancer growing on their nuts and are super super high at the same time.

I get on the Internet and do a Google search for “Hard balls on balls” and the first option is a gay pornographic website starring body builders. I try again. “Infected nuts,” and this time it’s something about oak trees being poisoned. I try again, “How to check for testicular cancer” and the first hit says, “How to check for testicular cancer.” Bingo.

Article after article after article pops up, an encyclopedia of penial knowledge at my shaft tip all for me to soak in and fear by myself in this paranoid state. “This most certainly will be a night I will never forget,” I think to myself as one hand scrolls the text around the monitor and the other pinches that little peapod on my privates.

The first article says, “Take a warm bath, loosen up, pinch your nuts like this. Does the tumor feel like a little rock? Is it the size of a pea? Does it lack feeling? Then it’s probably cancer.”

Red flag, red flag, red flag. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Tumor, tumor, tumor. That’s the first time I’d seen that word as it related to me. I was looking at the word tumor, and I was touching something in my body that may or may not have been (I know it is) a tumor a tumor a cancerous tumor inside of my body I have cancer tumors cancer tumors cancer tumors.

Maybe it’s just a fluke, this article. Maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, believing what I want to believe, y’know? I want to know that what Jade is saying is correct. I’m a hypochondriac, and none of it is real. I click on another article but it says the same thing. Article three and four are likewise. By article eleven, my hope is not simply beginning to break, it is broken.

I. Just. Know.

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So that’s it. That’s it for this week. And I know what you’re thinking. “Wow, that’s some really bad news – getting a little tumor like that.” Yeah, it is. But, trust me when I say that this is only the beginning and if the story stopped here, it would barely be a story at all. Over the course of the next few weeks we are going to systematically break Johnny down until the only thing that’s left of him is a hollow little shell, filled with anxiety and hopelessness.

We are going to destroy him.

But we’ll do it together and it will hopefully be a lot of fun to watch.

So, next week be sure to come back for Birthday Present: Chapter 5 with excerpt below . . .

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She looks at me and, with her complete confidence in my health asks, “Well, what did he say?” and, without missing a beat, I respond, “I have a tumor.”

She takes one more step before collapsing onto a parking block and begins weeping. This is when the reality all hits me, and I weep as well.

 

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THE DESERT: CHAPTER 1

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

PART 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing can touch me.

Nothing.

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***   ***   ***   ***   ***

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

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

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

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THE CAVE: Getting lost in the darkness of a failing marriage

“You’ve been married for eleven years?” someone asks me.

“Yeah. Eleven years. It’s a long time. We’ve been together for fifteen.”

What? Did you get married when you were twelve? How old are you? You’ve been married fifteen years? What’s that like?”

I suspect that they anticipate me to tell them that marriage is beautiful and wonderful and that I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.

But I don’t.

Instead I tell them the truth.

“What’s it like? It’s, uh… Marriage is like this dark cave. And when you get married you both go into the cave together. You take hands and you step into the darkness. That’s the unknown – this new part of life. You walk next to each other for a while and then one day your hands get sweaty and so you let go of each other but it’s all good because you can still hear them next to you. You’re still talking and you know that they’re there. It’s dark. It’s black. But you know they’re next to you.

And then one day you’ve talked about everything and so you get kind of quiet and you decide that just spending time in one another’s company is enough. And so you just keep walking in the dark, next to each other, in silence. And it’s okay because you know that they’re still there. You can still hear their footsteps.

And then one day you ask them a question. And you get no response. And you realize that they are gone. You realize that you’ve gotten separated. You’ve drifted apart. And you are alone. And somewhere, they are alone as well.

You call out to them. You shout their name and you get no response. And so you go looking for them because you know that they’re there… somewhere. You know that somewhere in this cave they’re wandering around. They’re doing their thing and you’re doing yours.

You call for them and in the distance you hear them. And you keep shouting and you keep calling and you keep walking and you try to get back to them.

And you hope that you find them.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Some people are walking in the cave and they’re like, ‘I’m done walking in the dark with you.’ And those people turn around and they walk back towards the light. Sometimes they walk back towards the light and out of the cave together. And sometimes they do it alone.

And sometimes that’s okay.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

One day you wake up and you’re thinking, ‘This is not the person that I married. This is not the person that was standing next to me at the altar.’ And, if you’re self-aware enough you may realize that you are also not the same person that was standing at the altar and that your spouse is experiencing you in an entirely new way.

You’ve both changed. You’re both completely different people. And then you wonder if you can keep making it work. Because those other versions could do it… but you’re not sure these new versions are a fit.

How do you put together a puzzle when the pieces keep changing shape?

Now drop kids into the mix. Oh, shit. Things are getting complicated.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

You have a dream of having a career. A specific career. And so you educate yourself in that field. Maybe you go to college. Maybe you go to a tech school. Maybe you read books and watch YouTube videos. However you prepare for it, it is, at its core, a preparation. An education of self.

So then you get that job and then the industry changes – new technologies or practices emerge. So your boss sends you to receive additional training. You learn new ways to process information. You learn new techniques. The career field changes and so you must adjust.

So we apply hours and weeks and sometimes even years and sometimes even decades of preparation to a job (say hello, doctors!) and yet, when we discuss marriage, when we prepare to live with another person full time and make life changing decisions with them… we… do… nothing…

The church that married Jade and I encouraged us to take three 30-minute classes.

90 minutes of training for the task at hand is not enough.

I’ve been married for just over a decade and the training I’ve received on-the-job has not been nearly enough.

But marriage is not like a job. You just get thrown in first day with no idea what you’re doing and nobody encourages serious training. Nobody tells you to re-educate yourselves after five years or ten years. Nobody tells you that your marriage career is going to change and you’re going to have to make it work or get fired. And if you suggest education – if you suggest marriage counseling you get this taboo sense that something is wrong with you.

You know that feeling I’m talking about. That unspoken weirdness that everyone thinks but does not speak. This idea that is perpetrated in our culture that marriage counseling is for the weak and broken and… my personal favorite…

If you have to go to marriage counseling you weren’t meant to be.

Because if you have to ask for help it is because you are stupid. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that everyone else knows how to do this? Don’t you know that it comes easily and naturally to everyone else? Marriage is simple and straight-forward and if you need advice it is because the pieces do not work together and there is no hope anyways. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that it’s better to live miserable little lives than it is to seek counsel? Don’t you know that?

What if we applied that logic to other areas of our lives? Son, if you need to ask a question in class, you probably just aren’t smart enough to begin with.

If you need to look at the recipe for how to make chili, you probably weren’t made for chili. Sorry. It’s delicious but you don’t get any. Shoo-shoo, Oliver Twist.

Listen. Seeking education does not make you stupid or wrong. Seeking education makes you self-aware. Education and intellect craft a stronger individual, crafts a stronger family, crafts a stronger culture, crafts a stronger world.

Do not allow the uninformed to inform your thinking.

Do not be engaged and dissuaded by a society that has a 50% failure rate in marriage.

Set your own rules. Live by your own standards.

Education is not a swear word.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

I’m broken.

That’s a fact.

I’ve got a bunch of baggage that I carry around with me everywhere I go. I’ve got baggage about my family. I’ve got baggage about my parents. I’ve got baggage about my faith. I’ve got baggage about my body. I’ve got baggage about my personality. I’ve got baggage about my grades and my IQ and my creative abilities. I’ve got pride issues. I’ve got insecurity issues.

And my wife gets to adopt them.

And I get to adopt all of her bullshit.

And then we have to figure that stuff out together.

We say things we don’t mean. We do things we know we shouldn’t. We raise our voices and we walk away from conversations and sometimes we hurt each other with nothing more than our intent.

Thank GOD people have not heard some of the stuff I’ve said to my wife in the heat of an argument. Shit has come out of my mouth that I think about today and cringe. I have said things to her for no other reason than to hurt her. And that speaks to who I am (or hopefully was) as a person, at my core. At the time I would have said it was her fault. It’s her fault for being a specific way and I was just bringing it all to light and if it hurt her it’s because it was true.

These are the words and thoughts of someone that is selfish and arrogant.

The vows tell us that we’re going to be together through sickness and health, for better or worse but what they don’t tell us is that it’s sometimes going to feel like you’re dragging along a dead marriage, fighting uphill to make it work. They don’t tell you that there will be periods of time – not just days and weeks but entire months – that drag on through the gray drizzle of time and you’ll wonder just what is wrong with your spouse because it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s never you. It’s always them. Making mistakes.

“I’m trying. You’re not.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Getting married is like a light to all of your shortcomings as a human being. Your spouse will illuminate all the problem areas. It’s painful and it’s terrible and it hurts to look at yourself and see all the flaws. And it’s just so much easier to turn your face to one side and not look at that pile of problems that create you, as a person, and it’s so much easier to deflect blame to the other.

It is so much easier to look at someone’s shortcomings and it is so much easier to nurture resentment for a million little things and a handful of big things.

It is so much easier to judge others.

And it is simple to judge our spouse.

And so you choose.

Those three thirty minute classes didn’t prepare us for cancer at 26. They didn’t prepare us for lay-offs. They didn’t prepare us for invitro-fertilization. They didn’t prepare us for twins. They didn’t prepare us for a miscarriage. They didn’t prepare us for the day-in-day-out minutia of life and they didn’t prepare us for the fact that Jade likes things done a certain way and I like things done a certain way and those ways typically are not the same but are, more often than not, quite opposite.

Those classes didn’t prepare us for anything.

I wish I could say that everyday Jade and I choose to hang onto each other in the darkness of the cave but the reality is that we don’t.

Sometimes we are cold and calculating.

And sometimes we are terrible.

And cruel.

But we try.

We choose.

We choose to continue to stumble blindly through the dark, seeking each other.

And sometimes we choose to talk about walking back into the light. Sometimes we talk about what a divorce looks like.

And sometimes we have fun together and we find each other and we remember why we do this. We remember why the search is worth it.

We remember that we love each other and that our family is amazing and that we’re very lucky and it is only our own selfish shortcomings that are destroying us and we realize that if we can choose to be better people, we can choose to be the best for each other.

And when our spouse shines a light on our problem areas – our selfishness, our arrogance, our pride – we can choose to get angry that someone noticed our darkness… or we can thank them for being close enough to us to point out our flaws. And then we fix them together.

“But, man…” I conclude. “Marriage is really hard.”

The guy across the table looks at me. I notice he doesn’t have a ring on his hand. I wonder if he’s thinking about proposing.

“But it’s also amazing. Marriage is beautiful and wonderful and I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.”

 

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Talking to Strangers: Gary

I’m standing in my kitchen preparing to feed my dog when I suddenly hear an intense, gut-wrenching wail emanate from outside.  The pitch and tone of this noise is so off balance, so absurdly wild that it’s hard to equate it to anything that is “everyday” without bastardizing and perverting it first.  It is whale music if said whale lived on the land and had first consumed a large quantity of oxycontin; sort of a very slow motion ooo-waaaahhh

It is a sound so haunting and unearthly that I assume whatever creature is making it is probably either in the throws of its death rattle or a raging frenzy fueled by pure blood lust.  It is the sound of a cat dying while giving birth.  it is the sound of a real life tree frog so amped up on Monster energy drinks that it’s genuinely trying to sing something by Limp Bizkit.  It is the sound of eternal despair.  Standing at my window, an image from The Princess Bride pops into my mind wherein the main character screams and his friend mentions that it reminds him of The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

This is The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

I set the dog’s food on the counter and approach my side door, peering out, past my driveway and over the tall hedge that separates my family from The Neighbors – the nameless entities that exist within such close proximity to me without actually affecting or intruding upon my bubble of influence.

There in his driveway is The Man, walking by himself, shoulders slouched, head down, feet dragging.  He walks down the concrete path, turns at the sidewalk and heads towards the grocery store; his body shaking and wrenching and racking with sobs.  I am compelled to immediately leave my house and grip him and ask, “What’s wrong?” because he looks to be in so much emotional pain that my heart, as a human, is hurting just watching him… but it feels strange to me and the task feels like a true challenge that I’m not sure I can take on.  I want to call out to him but I don’t know his name.  After seven years of living next to this man and his wife… I don’t know their names.  This fault is a personal short coming of my own and says more about me than it does about them.

I watch him disappear out of sight and then the opportunity is gone…

A physical description of the pair would look something like this…

The guy is tall and slim with uniquely distorted facial features.  He looks to be in his late 50s / early 60s.  Huge eyes behind bigger glasses; long scraggly hair that cascades down his skeletal face but the crown of his head is hopelessly bald; jutting chin with small mouth; thin arms, big hands; long legs that take tiny steps; he’s an odd pairing at every angle and, every time I’ve overheard him speak while sitting outside, I can’t help but imagine Goofy, that famous Disney character, after having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better half of a century.  His voice is bubbly and cartoonish while still maintaining a throaty quality, unexpectantly hitting the highest-highs and lowest-lows seemingly at random.

His wife is short and plump with long black hair and a featureless face.  I have probably glanced at her sideways 300 times and… I’m not even certain that I could pick her out of a line-up.  This, however, is not a short coming of her face.  This is a short coming of myself and my own awareness.

Everywhere the two go, they go together; always and forever the two are a pair.  In all the years that I’ve lived in this house, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of them one without the other.  And this is why, on this particular day, I knew something was up.  Something was strange.  Something was wrong.  Something somewhere was not right…

On this day, disappearing from my sight, the man was walking alone.

The next day my sister, her husband, my niece and my wife are all packing into our cars, rushing out of the house; we have hot plans to hit the zoo in about 25 minutes and we’ve got free tickets if we can be there by one o’clock.  A friend of ours is doing us a favor by meeting us there to get us in even though it’s during her children’s nap time and so she’ll have the kids in tow and it’s just, y’know, it’s rude to keep people waiting.  Time is ticking and the kids aren’t listening and they won’t get in their car seats and the sun is beating down on me and dangit I’ve forgotten my phone inside so I run back into the house to grab it.  When I walk out, the first thing I see is my sister and her family sitting inside their car, waiting for me.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  The second thing I see is that my wife has successfully buckled in my children and is now sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The whole show – hurry, hurry – is on my – hurry, hurry – back.

The third and final thing I see is my skinny, nameless neighbor standing in his driveway staring at me through the hedge, his eyes peering out between broken shrubbery.  I nod but he doesn’t move.  I step off my porch and say, “Hey,” but he doesn’t respond.  Just those eyes… watching me, staring at me, unblinking, vacant.  I open my gate and begin to walk down my driveway, wondering if this guy is in some kind of drug induced hallucination (because he strikes me as the type who has them once in a while) and I’m trying to debate just how weird this is about to get…

He sidles a few steps to his left to a vantage point wherein I can see him a bit better.  He stares at me and cocks his head and I say, “Hi, there.  How are you doing today?” and he says, in that haunting, helium-high voice, in a tone that suggests he’s done nothing worse than burn the meatloaf, “Well, today I am not doing very well,” fiddles with his hands, looks at his knuckles, looks up at me with direct, piercing eye contact, “You see… my wife died yesterday,” and immediately I am hyper aware of my surroundings.  My sister is watching me.  My brother-in-law is watching me.  My wife is watching me.  This man is watching me.  I do not know his name.  I do not know his wife’s name.  He has been my neighbor for seven years and I do not know their names.  I want to hug this man and give him some comforting words but, first and foremost, I don’t believe there are any words that will help him without simply minimizing his tragedy.  Secondly, there is a hedge separating us.  I pick up a leaf and begin tearing it apart.  I say, “Your… what!?  What happened?” and then immediately wonder if that’s a socially acceptable thing to ask.

How does one respond appropriately?

Why is this man telling me this?  Who am I to him?

And then I realize that, outside of his wife, I am perhaps the closest thing to a human in his life.  I don’t talk to him but when I see him I lift up my hand in recognition.  When we run into each other at the grocery store down the street I nod, I smile.  I say hi.  I do nothing.  I don’t do enough.  But I wonder if I’ve somehow done more than anyone else.  I wonder if most people turn their backs on this guy with his unique features and strange voice and ratty clothes.  I wonder if I, even in my state of absolute minimal contact, am The Guy Next Door for him; a familiar face.

Someone.

My phone in my pocket is on silent but it buzzes.  The Family is wondering what I’m doing; chatting up Mr. Tall Glass of Water when we gotta be hitting the street.  They can’t hear anything.  They don’t know.  They just see Johnny having a quiet conversation with The Neighbor.

I am acutely aware of their waiting and watching.

He gathers himself up and says, “Well… we used to live in Denver.  When we moved to Los Angeles several years back, she developed asthma.  Two days ago she caught a cold.  Night before last it got worse.  I told her that we’d take her into the hospital in the morning if she was still ill.  Yesterday morning we woke up and she was having troubles breathing.  She sat up and I said I’d get her some tea.  When I got back to our bedroom she… she had died.  I tried giving her CPR.  I tried like hell.  I called the paramedics.  This was at 7:45 in the ay-em.  They came and tried to revive her.  They really did try their best.  They took her away and pronounced her dead at Kaiser at 8:16 but… that’s not true.  She was dead at 7:45.  She died here.  In our bed.”

And then he stares at the hedge and picks up a crisp leaf of his own and begins to destroy it, bit by bit.  I don’t say, “Are you alright?” because I’m sure he’s not.  I don’t say, “How are you doing?” because I’m sure he’s not doing well at all.  I don’t say, “Do you need anything?” because I think he just wants to talk to someone and have someone, anyone, listen to him.  I think the words don’t matter as much as the physical presence of a human, leaning in, nodding, making eye contact.  I think he’s a lonely man who was living with a lonely wife and they both took care of stray cats and now…

I look at him and hear his voice and realize that the sound I heard earlier were his true wails of grief; a man sobbing with unexpected loss and inconsolable grief.  It truly was The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

He says, “We always thought I’d die first.  I’ve had Stage 4 cancer for 15 years.  I’m 57.  We talked about what she’d do when I died but we never… we never talked about this… she was only 46.  She was healthy…”

The phone in my pocket buzzes and I’m certain it’s my family again, asking me what gives.  I ignore it and instead say, “I had cancer… I had Stage 4 cancer…” and he says, “You and me… we are both miracles,” and I nod because the idea makes me feel like there is magic living inside of me, as though I somehow cheated death and now everyday is a bonus I wasn’t supposed to receive.

He says, “I don’t want to keep you,” and I say, “Don’t – you’re not…” and, while I am always physically uncomfortable making people wait I just… this is obviously too important to walk away from.  He sees I mean it and I’m not leaving until he’s done talking and so he opens a floodgate and begins drowning me in a very personal history about how he used to be addicted to oxycontin but now he only strictly consumes methadone (which he “pack rats away”).  He tells me horror stories about oxycontin and about his struggle with drug addiction and how he couldn’t let it go.  He calls it a Merry-Go-Round from Hell that I couldn’t get off of

He shrugs, done with his story.  Done talking.  Done, maybe, with everything.  I stick out my hand and say, “I’ve lived next to you for so many years but we’ve never met.”  He grabs my hand tightly, in a firm man-handshake that I would not expect from his physical frame, and says, “I’m Gary,” and I say, “I’m Johnny.  What is your wife’s name?” and then a thought runs through my mind that tells me I should have said, “What was your wife’s name,” but I don’t bother correcting my macabre grammar.

He says, “Veronica,” and I say, “Beautiful.”  I say, “Gary, I don’t know what you’re going through but let me know if there’s anything I can do…” and he says, “There is nothing you can do for me.  I see your kids.  Hug them.  Enjoy every day.  Because it will be taken away…”

And then he turns and walks up the driveway.

Two days later I see him returning yet again from the grocery store (alone) with a bag of cat food while I’m sitting on my front porch.  I raise my hand in the air and shout, “Hi, Gary!” and he stops in his tracks, stares at me for a quick moment before averting his eyes, mumbling something under his breath and disappearing out of my sight.

Another two days pass and, as I’m pulling into my driveway I see a couple of Jehova Witnesses walking up to Gary’s house, towards his front door.  They knock but there is no answer so they turn and try their luck elsewhere.

Another 48 hours have slipped by and still I’ve neither seen nor heard any sign of life from The Tall Man that Lives Over the Hedge.

It’s now been five days since I’ve seen him and I’m beginning to wonder at what point I realistically need to walk over there and knock on his door because, honestly, all I can think about is his large stockpile of methadone.

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Talking to Strangers: Norma

The 405 freeway splits through Los Angeles like a bad scar, leading from The Valley, over the hill and into The City, finally ending somewhere further south.  It’s a terrible freeway and a horrible commute if you’re forced to take it; five lanes of 24 hour traffic jams.  You see that bumper sticker in front of you?  Get ready to read it 900 times.  The 15 mile drive I take on the 405 takes me just over an hour – two if it’s raining.  My gas pedal becomes obsolete and I do nothing but ride the break.  People always say, “Stay off the freeway if you’re driving a motorcycle!” and I always respond with, “Uh… the freeway at rush hour is probably the safest place you can be.  It’s a parking lot.”

The trick is this… well, there are a couple tricks.  The first is to not drive during rush hour, the second is to drive on the shoulder of the road, where it’s illegal, the third is to buy a helicopter but the fourth and most realistic option is to slap a baby in your back seat and take the car pool lane.

So my wife, she’s got an appointment on “the other side of the hill” and does just that; she snatches up Baby Bryce, buckles her into the mini-van and she’s suddenly gone and I have two kids with me and I’m so tired because I was up until 4am the previous night / morning working on a pet project and long gone are the days when I can sleep in until noon and so I decide to just turn on The Gumby Movie and lie down on the couch and shut my eyes but even that won’t work because Quinn is standing in front of me shouting, “DADDY, DON’T SLEEP!  YOU CAN’T SLEEP!  IT’S MORNING!” and she’s right… It is morning… and I can’t sleep… when a three year old is screaming into my eyeballs.

I sit up and rub my face and say, “You want breakfast?” and Quinn says, “I want cereal!” and Rory jumps, completely naked, from a chair, with his fists held in the air, nails a perfect landing and shouts, “I WANT…… TOAST!” and I say, “Let’s get dressed.  Let’s go get pancakes,” and they both say, “Pancakes?  PANCAKES!  OH-KAY!” and then we’re walking down the street together and then three blocks later we’re at a restaurant called The Hungry Fox – a place who’s tagline is “Happiness You Can Eat” – and then we’re sitting at a table and I’m ordering pancakes with Cool Whip and sausage and scrambled eggs and hash browns and coffee and orange juice and water and it’s just one meal and, yes, thank you, Waitress, I would like three plates.

Being Tuesday morning, the restaurant is nearly empty.  Quinn and Rory hop out of the booth and run a few aisles over to a fish tank to peruse its inhabitants.  “There’s a fish!  There’s his house!  There’s water!  There’s a rock!”  Everything is a majestic discovery.

The waitress, a woman sporting a simple name tag that says, “HUNGRY FOX” and then, beneath that, “NORMA” approaches my table wearing a large smile and carrying our food.  I’ve been coming to this diner for a while and, while all of the employees seem to be of an Asian persuasion with choppy English, Norma looks as though she’s entering her late 50s and is from somewhere in South America, deeper than Mexico.  Her English isn’t perfect but it’s close enough that it makes no difference.

She sets our pancakes on the table and my children scream, PAAAANCAAAAKES!” and come running.  Luckily, I’ve had the foresight to seat myself in the deepest, darkest corner of the restaurant, back in a place where we’ll be the least concern and bother to any of the other patrons.  Rory jumps into my lap and I say, “Don’t run in here,” and Norma says, “Let them run!  They are children!” and to Quinn I say, “Don’t scream in here,” and Norma says, “Let them scream!  They are children!” and then she pours me more coffee and Rory points at the Cool Whip and says, “I.  Don’t.  WANT.  THAT!” and I say, “Uh… that’s delicious and you DO want it.  Trust me,” but he persists and Norma says, “I will take it off for you,” and she picks up a fork, ready to scrape it away,” when I stop her and say, “It’s, uh, it’s okay.  I got it.”

Rory lifts up the fork I’ve used to scrape the Cool Whip off the pancake and he says, “I.  Want.  A.  NEW.  FORK!” and I say, “Hey… listen,” and Norma says, “Here you go, little one!  Brand new fork!” and then Rory, seeing that this woman is the weakest link, he says, “I.  WANT….” but I cut him short and twist his little body towards me and grab his cheeks and say, “You need to be less demanding.  Here’s some syrup.  Eat your pancakes,” and he sits down, picks up his fork and begins to eat.  He says, “This is good,” and I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “You’re welcome, Daddy.”

Norma refills the two sips of coffee I’ve taken and says, “Children, they are so wonderful.  I have four.  They are grown up now; the youngest is 24.  I am a grandma.  Four grandchildren,” and I ask her a few questions about her kids and I expect her to say, “Enjoy them… because they grow up so fast,” which is the Go-To Answer for all parents but instead she prophetically says, “Someday you will be an old man and you will be sitting in your house and your children will be gathered around you and their children will be gathered around them and they will all be looking at you and you will see your whole family and you will be so proud.”

The image in my mind is magnificent and I know that what she’s saying is true.  I’m by no means excited to get old but when I do finally crawl into that aged room, I want to make sure it’s furnished with all the things I’ve built over the past several decades.

She sets the coffee pot down on the table and, with very few words from me, continues speaking.

“I was married very young.  I was 22 and my husband was 17.  We were in love but… he has not always been faithful.  He has, well, floundered, I guess.  Listen, I’m no goodie-two-shoe and I been around but, he was around… he was always very good to his family, to his children.  He always made sure we were taken care of,” and I nod, not sure how to respond to her confession of infidelity.  She continues, “You wanna be happy in this life?  You gotta make the choice.  You can’t change someone.  You just say, I love you and I want to be with you and that is that.  I told him, you did what you did, I love you, I will stay.  And we’re still together.  So many people they get divorced.  Don’t get divorced.  It is such a yucky thing but… listen…”

And this is the part of the conversation that really stuck with me through the day; this is the part of the conversation that has had countless books written for countless audiences; this is the part of the conversation that affects every married or to-be-married person reading this.  Tune in.  Perk up those ears.  Here it comes.

She says, “People get married and they love each other.  They have a very beautiful marriage and they have kids and the kids are very beautiful and the parents love the kids and then five, ten, twenty years pass and the kids move away and now you live in a house with this person you don’t know.  You knew them twenty years ago but you’ve been living for your kids.  Now you have nothing in common,” and I nod, thinking of all my writing about kids and all Jade’s photos of our kids and all of our family time and how, specifically, beautiful I think it is and then she says, “Love your children.  Love your family.  It is wonderful.  But love your wife.  Otherwise you might be 45 years old and suddenly you’ve got divorce papers because neither of you know what you’re doing with each other anymore.”

This story from Norma really affected me and I want to throw it out into the masses and hope that it hits some of you the way it hit me.  I hope it rattles some of you the way it rattled me.  I hope that we never forget our spouses.  I hope we always prioritize them.  It’s very scary to think that safety in marriage is just an illusion.  I believe it’s when we think we’ve entered into that Safety Zone that things get careless and dangerous.  That’s when we stop paying attention.  That’s when things leave Co-Pilot and enter Auto-Pilot.

What can I do to prioritize my wife and my marriage and make sure that I don’t forget about them?  Or, more selfishly, what can I do to make sure my wife doesn’t forget about me?

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KID COUNTDOWN: DAY 1

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Lying in bed last night, Jade and I staring at her belly, we watched The Baby shift and move under her skin.  With only two days to go we’re in The Zone wherein her belly most resembles something out of a cheap sci-fi movie.  Her guts shift and move, maneuver with liquid ease.  The right side is solid with ridges and divots; running my palm over her stomach feels like she’s swallowed a handful of oddly shaped rocks.

In the other room Quinn screams.  I ignore it because… well, this is what Quinn does sometimes.  She doesn’t necessarily want or need anything… except to see if one of us will appear at her whim.  When Jade and I still owned Kaidance (our large Rhodesian Ridgeback for any first time readers) we could hear her bark and know what she wanted or needed.  If there was someone in our yard, coming through our gate, she had a very aggressive, violent sound.  If she wanted to go outside or eat, she had a very high-pitched yip.  If she was happy that we’d returned from a long day out, she would just have this very middle of the road bark, neither aggressive nor naggish.

Don’t be fooled.  Infants and toddlers are no different than your run of the mill domestic canine.  When they cry, they tell you exactly what they need and you either give it to them or you don’t.  And sometimes, in my opinion, what they need, is to be ignored.  If I go running in there in the middle of some fit they’re having, the only thing I’ve taught them is that if they cry long enough and loud enough that it is I, and not they, that will finally break.  No, thank you.  This is MY house!

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Now, I can already hear the rustling in the seats and the hands going up and the objections being raised.  Listen.  I’m by no means suggesting you fully ignore your child.  Children are small creatures who need our help to survive but… I’m just saying that we, as adults, should just make sure that they need our help before we go in and smother them in it.  Baby bird needs to learn to fly on its own.

In fact, even as I write this, Rory sleeps while Quinn sits in their room saying, “Dad!  Moo!  Dad!  Dad!  Dad!  Moooooooo!” and I can’t tell if she’s hoping to genuinely garner my attention or if she’s mocking my weight, hoping to lure me in with insults.  In any event she does not need me and if I ran to my children at the first fart they made, I’d spend all day chasing smoke.

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Quinn and Rory have been sleeping through the night since they were six months old and we have people approach us on a regular basis and say, “You guys are so blessed to have kids that were born such good sleepers,” and we just smile and nod but let me say this now…  These two kids showed up at my front door with a predisposition for screaming and full moon parties.  In fact, for the first few months we owned them, we were sure they were at least partly feral (and in most regards, they were).  Children are wild animals – I say this with complete sincerity.  They run on instinct alone and it is our job to train them, not the other way around.

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The Belly twitches and adjusts itself, sending ripples and waves over the surface.  I lean down and place my face on her stomach and kiss her taut skin.  I hum a song; just random notes that I think sound soothing.  I place my finger in her belly button and say, “BEEEEEP,” and something hits me on the cheek.  A fist?  A hand?  A foot?  An elbow?  A buttocks?  I have no idea.  The Baby just slapped me across the face with a tiny brick and Jade says, “You just got slapped!” and Iaughs.

Quinn screams again, louder, same tone.  I roll over onto my back and ask Jade if she thinks it’s a boy or a girl.  She says, “I don’t know.”  Quinn screams one more time and then nothing, silence.  A moment later I hear her little feet march back to bed, I hear springs squeak under her weight and then, truly, silence.

I say, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it just had completely jet black hair?  Just totally left field from The Children of the Damned?”  Jade nods and The Baby shifts again.  I say, “AH!  I’m so flipping excited!  I just want to cut you open and take a look!” and she says, “Uh… don’t, though.”

She says, “Are you going to watch the C-Section?” and I say, “I hope so!  I want to!”  I say, “Let’s put a smile on that belly!”  Jade says, “Are you ready for this?” and I say, “It doesn’t matter, does it?”

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I pick up a book and Jade tinkers on the laptop for a bit and my eyes start to get drowsy, heavy, sleepy.  The words on the page start to blend together and I read and reread and reread the same paragraph two, three, four times.  Just get to the end of the chapter, I say to myself.  One… more… page…

Everything goes dark and then Quinn is screaming.  Screaming.  Not crying.  Her voice is in full tilt wailing, red faced, most likely.  The world comes back into focus and the blurry edges turn crisp and everything is sharp.  I hop out of bed, certain that someone has finally actually broken into my house to steal my children.  I open the bedroom door and jog down the hallway, reach out to push open the door and…

…Quinn is lying in bed, chest down, holding her head up and howling (again, picture a feral wolf) while Rory is dead asleep.  I stand in the doorway and say, “What are you doing?  What’s wrong?” and she says, “My leg!  My leg is stuck!  Dad!” and I imagine a coyote in a bear trap sounding not dissimilar.  I swing open the gate, saunter over to the bed and, assuming she’s somehow entangled her foot in the iron bars, I give her a tug but… no, she doesn’t move.  She truly is stuck.  Rory, still sprawled out on the bed, doesn’t even stir when I jostle the mattress getting up and down.

I lean back, grab the head board and pull once, hard.  The bed slides across the floor a few inches, scraping along the fake wood, and I reach down, grab her by the waistband on the back of her PJs and lift her into the air, free of danger.  I say, “Are you okay?” and she says, “Yeah,” and I say, “Good.  I love you.  Go to bed.”

Rory still sleeps.  Neither of them make another noise until morning.

I go back into our bedroom and lie down next to Jade.  I put my hand on her tummy and say, more to the baby than to my wife, “You see that?  Take note.  You’re next, little fella.”

I kiss the baby and go to sleep, thinking about the restless nights that await me later this week with midnight feedings.

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