I wake up outside, my back sore from the wrought iron chair I’ve fallen asleep in. My mother has been insisting that I need to get more vitamin D and so I keep heading to the back yard and passing out. This is before I had a smart phone – back when my flip phone was still the rage. No fun games while I sit around. There is only staring into the distance and contemplating the mundane.
I shuffle back inside, sit back in my yellow chair and think about time passing, oceans turning to deserts, rocks turning to sand, babies turning to men turning to dust.
On a bored whim I decide to write my boss to tell him what’s been happening to me and how thankful I am that he’s saving my job until I get back. He responds and says that someone is filling in for me temporarily and that I should “get well soon,” a sentiment that I always find painfully cheap and obvious.
Oh, you’re sick? Get well soon. Don’t stay sick! The sooner you can get back to health, the better! That’s what I always say! Look! I’ve even had it inscribed onto this delightful commemorative Mylar balloon!
In any event, the part about my job being there raises my spirits. Our money is sinking fast and we’re going to need some serious dough when we come out the other side of this made-for-TV original movie. The nest egg I’d set aside to make my feature film has become our landing pad, our safety net, our buffer. It’s the only thing separating us from total and complete bankruptcy. The money is not going into camera rentals and crew; it’s going into food and rent and electricity. It is our life source and umbilical cord to survival.
A few days later, my dad leaves to head back to South Dakota and his job and real life. He gives me that awkward side hug again and then goes to bed saying, “I’m leaving around four in the morning so I probably won’t see you again.” He disappears around the corner and I wonder if he thinks about how heavy those words sound.
He and my mother had had a previous conversation a few nights prior wherein they’d discussed her staying with us, operating as third eyes and extra hands; helping, supporting, cooking, cleaning, anything, everything; watching me while Jade went to work, entertaining Jade while I slept. She helps keep sanity, helps us keep a link to the outside world. We both welcome the idea with open arms and for six months my mother left her husband, her own mother, her brothers and sisters. My family is very close and my mother has her helping hands in a lot of pies back home and for half a year she left everyone. She quit her job and stopped her life to come sit by Jade and me and suffer with us.
Let this be a true example of a mother’s love. She gave everything she had.
She takes up residence in our guest bedroom and it’s the first piece of good news we’ve had in some time. Her presence is an absolute godsend because, I don’t care how old you are, there is something inherently primitive and wonderful about having your mother around. Mothers are, after all, the original chicken soup for the soul.
So on those days when I just feel like I am the world’s last unicorn and am shedding a tear of sorrow for my lost species, she is there to make me feel just a little bit better. Fly, unicorn, fly.
*** *** *** *** ***
It’s either a Monday or a Thursday and it’s either 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. The sun rises and sets and the clock spins and resets and day and night keep changing places like characters in a David Lynch film. Without a job or any regular routine, time becomes irrelevant. I sit in my chair, glossy eyed, and listen to my mother and wife talk about dogs and work and God and recipes and marriage and cotton, the fabric of our lives.
I lean forward and stand up on legs that feel atrophied after only a couple weeks of inactivity and wobble into the guest bedroom and collapse onto the bed.
I bury my face in a pillow, shut my eyes and pray for a miraculous healing. But nothing happens. I’m still sick.
I fall asleep and an undisclosed amount of time passes wherein I wake, cramped and sweaty, vomit, fall back to sleep, kick off the blankets, find I’m chilled, vomit, roll over, wish I were dead, regret my weakness, and then fall back to sleep.
When I wake, I find a short, curly hair stuck in my mouth and, for once, I don’t gag from the chemo. An image of my father’s naked body crosses my mind, his thick shoulders pressed into this very mattress, his back hair dropping off him and resting dormant until I vacuum them into my gaping face hole.
I am eating my father’s back hair.
Quicker than I’ve moved in weeks, I sit up and see that my pillow is covered in them; easily twenty hairs populate the upper mattress area and I make a note to ask my mom if Dad sheds often.
I sit up and place my feet firmly on the floor—as firmly as I’m able to—and stare at myself in the full-length closet mirror. I’m still me but . . . a little thinner. It’s only been two weeks but, like a newborn with an eating disorder, I only consume very delicate portions, unable to hold anything down. The bags that I always carry with me under my eyes are suddenly starting to look a little darker, a little heavier, less like bags and more like luggage for a long cross-country road trip. I sigh and rub my chin and when I look at my hand, my stomach leaps into my throat.
My palm is covered in hundreds of short, tight hairs. Hairs that look exactly like the ones on the mattress. My hair. My beard. It’s falling out. In large chunks.
I reach up, grab a handful of beard in my hand, and gently pull. Like a ten-year-old on a greased up Slip ’N Slide, my hair slides out of my follicles and away from my face. No tug, no pluck, no tension. Yanking grass from the Earth would put up a better fight. My hair had, for all intents and purposes, suddenly just given up.
I shout for Jade, and when she enters the room, I hold out my hand and she says, “What . . . . Oh . . . . ” We both stare at my hand in silence for a moment, both of us thinking about bald kids coughing blood into Kleenexes.
“My hair is falling out,” I say and my wife nods and her eyes well up a little. “Do you want to . . . shave it?” and I nod.
It takes less than three days for my eyebrows, armpit, and pubic hair to follow suit. I look, in short, like one of those hairless Egyptian cats but with less sex appeal.
The next day is dreary and overcast as we drive into my bi-weekly oncology checkup. Sitting in the cold office, Dr. Yen asks me a series of inquiries, listens to my heart, takes my blood and asks if I have any questions.
I say, “I’m always cold.”
She says, “That’s normal.”
I say, “Will this go away?”
She says, “Probably not.”
I say, “Ever?”
She says, “Never.”
I say, “I feel like shit.”
She says, “That’s normal.”
I say, “Will this go away?”
She says, “Someday. I told you. Mack Truck.”
My wife says, “He’s really depressed.”
The doctor says, “I have a pill for that.”
My blood count comes back from the lab and the results are grim; my red count is too low, which essentially amounts to me being filled to the brim with bad blood. Imagine putting gas in your car that’s been cut with water. Or perhaps an even more accurate analogy would be to say, “Imagine putting water in your body that’s been cut with gasoline.”
On the oncologist’s command, we drive straight from her office to the hospital for a platelet transfusion. My white blood count is too low, as well, leaving my body weak and defenseless, able to be killed (very literally) by a common cold. Every sneeze is a bullet.
The nurse who comes in to give me my IV is a middle-aged Asian woman who, when questioned, claims she is The Best EYE-VEE-Giver this hospital has and that I am lucky to have her. This immediately puts my mind at ease.
She sticks the 2-inch needle into my forearm and I slam my eyes closed like iron-blast doors and wiggle my toes and imagine I’m in Norway and then she lets go of me and I say, “That was fast,” but she says, “I couldn’t find a vein,” and when I open my eyes she’s still holding the needle in her hand.
I rest my head back on the pillow and she begins tapping around my bicep. “There we go. There’s a good one,” she says and I close my eyes again as the silver thread sneaks under my skin and sniffs around for its— “Oops—OK—I just blew your vein. I’m really sorry. One more time.”
I turn my head aside and fight back a scream of terror as the knife gets thrust into my forearm a third time at an awkward angle and is taped down. “Bingo!” she shouts, and I jokingly/seriously say, “The best, huh?” and she says, “Well, the best intern.”
She exits, and I sigh while my mother and wife play Yahtzee. Moments later, the intern returns with a bag of milky glue and hangs it from my IV pole. Then, like a crazy straw being set into the world’s grossest milkshake, she inserts my IV tube into the bag and the cummy sludge gloops and glops down into my veins . . . for 12 hours.
I watch the drizzling cream leak into me and wonder who it belonged to—a starving college student, a man on the brink of poverty, an immigrant, some Good Samaritan who makes monthly donations? From their body to mine, they don’t know it, but they’re helping me, saving me, pulling me out of the red and into the black. I’m still sick. I’m still hopeless. I’m still depressed. I still want to stick my head in the microwave. But . . . sitting up in bed, I do suddenly feel a small surge of energy idly pulsing through me. It’s not a forest fire. But it is a spark.
The nurse comes back with an update on my HCG levels, those cancer markers that had sky rocketed from 300 to 900. Today, she tells me that they’ve dropped back to 300.
The cancer is dying. It’s fighting, but it’s dying. And it is here that I shut my eyes and see that spark flicker and grow a little brighter. I’m going to win. I’m going to choke you to death, you son of a bitch. You’re going to pull me down to the swamps of disease and despair and I’ll follow along until you’re neck deep in whatever primordial muck you’ve come from and then, at the last moment, I’ll pull the trigger and cut you free and you’ll sink away back into those vile depths.
I open my eyes and watch a television show about a man who gets a face transplant after being mauled by a bear.
I have no real problems.