Ash Wednesday: 2/18/15
The day before I left the hospital, per my oncologist’s orders, I had a dual lumen port installed in my chest, just opposite my heart. It’s a device, an accessory if you will, into which the poison will flow when I return in two days for my first bout of chemotherapy.
An orderly named Nathaniel wheeled me down from my room to a unit whose name I missed in the wincing, DUI-like jingle-jangle that was Nathaniel hitting every bump, corner, laundry bin and stray wheel chair along the way.
In his defense, he was distracted.
Nathaniel was Ethiopian, which I could tell from his complexion and his accent. He was, he told me freely and for no apparent reason, an Orthodox Christian, which led to my ill-advised confession to being a man of the cloth.
As soon as Nathaniel found out I was a ‘priest’ (which happened just as we passed my nurse’s station), he ceased looking at the route ahead of the $35,000 bed to which I was chained by way of compression socks and IV needle and instead he zeroed his attention on my ‘sense of peace here in the hospital.’
Is how he put it.
‘It must be wonderful,’ he rhapsodized, ‘feeling the Holy Spirit overshadow you.’
Is this guy serious? I thought to myself. Or is it the morphine?
But what I said was:
‘I don’t know Nathaniel. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she wound up an unwed, teenage mother. I’m not so sure I need any overshadowing on top of the- you know- scary, stage-serious blood cancer.’
But Nathaniel wasn’t listening to me. At all. He was too excited about having a genuine Christian talisman in his presence, albeit one- according to the nurses- with strong vital signs and alive for at least a little while longer.
‘With the Holy Spirit, I imagine you feel no pain, no pain at all’ Nathaniel said beatifically, just as he bumped the side of my bed against the elevator door, sending what felt like a 9.0 fart engulfed in flames through my recently incised insides.
Once delivered to my pre-op bay, I waited while several nurses stopped by my bed to reassure me how I would ‘experience no pain’ while they sunk what looked like a diaphragm with purple spermatozoa into my chest and attached it my jugular.
‘You’re not going to knock me out?’ I asked in disbelief.
‘We’ll administer a mild sedative. You won’t feel a thing’ the last nurse promised.
‘Really? How many of them do you have in your chest?’ I asked.
Huffing at the pain- in- the- ass-impossibility that was patient 5421, she walked away only to return a few minutes later to explain how if my chest port ever got infected then it would be A) excruciatingly painful, B) ‘compromise my treatment’ and C) ‘quite possibly kill’ immune-deficient me.
‘Kick ass’ I said like Maverick about to take-off.
They wheeled me into a room that had a basementy, 12 Monkeys feel to it where the nurse pitilessly instructed me to climb onto the operating table, which in my sutured, doped-up state was like asking John Goodman to scale a pommel horse.
Holding my bowels with my left hand and trying to cover my bare behind with my right, I attempted a ‘maneuver’ that felt (and probably looked) like a full-body dry heave.
I wound up splayed down over my knees on top of my face with my hairy, recently sponged-bathed butt sticking up in the air.
Seeing my futility, they picked me up and moved me the way lifeguarding students handle accident dummies.
They laid me out on the table, wrapped a sort of inflatable mattress around my circumference and positioned my head across my left shoulder- so I couldn’t be a witness to the carnage to come, I suspected. Informing me they’d just administered a mild sedative, someone, who I couldn’t see but who smelled of Axe Body Spray took to shaving my chest.
‘Sigh’ I sighed.
I’d already had one shave job that week.
‘Say,’ I said, ‘If I gave you $50 cash would you just go ahead and give me a full body wax?’
‘Not during working hours’ Axe Body Spray replied creepily. When he finished his hasty man-scaping, a bracing sensation struck me.
‘Is that…? rubbing alcohol?’ I asked, feeling the liquid ignite all over me- especially around my nipples-before dripping down my sides.
‘Yes’ he said ‘
‘Lovely’ I said, ‘For a second there I forgot about the bone-crunching pain in my gut.’
Like I said, I’d already gotten one half-assed shave job before my intestinal surgery.
Thanks to Axe Body Spray, from my Twig and Berries to my Adam’s Apple, the only hair on my upper body now resides on top of my shoulders.
And my hands.
Seriously, my top half now looks like the love child of Justin Bieber and Samwise Gamgee; actually, given my weight loss, I look more like the bastard child produced by a Kiera Knightley affair with a short-order cook from a Greek Diner.
Like I said, lovely.
Not to worry though. While doing some online cancer research, I inadvertently discovered that they actually make pubic hair wigs for chemo patients.
No joke, they’re called ‘merkins,’ made from real or artificial hair, and come in snap-on and velcro varieties. But that- after I throw up in my mouth- is an essay for another day.
As the drowsiness set on me, the nurse asked: ‘What kind of music do you like?’
‘Oh, just about anything’ I lied to avoid conversation.
‘Bluegrass?’ she asked.
‘Actually, yeah, I like bluegrass a lot’ I responded.
‘Hmm, not me,’ she said before turning it to what I could tell was one of those sackless, soft pop stations that purport to play ‘the best songs from the ’80’s.’
Sure enough, Tears for Fears were just finishing up wanting to rule the world when the Belinda Carlisle song ‘Heaven on Earth’ kicked on.
Just as I was going lights out to the world, I considered that if Belinda’s right, if heaven is a place on earth, then (in addition to Cleveland and Walt Disney World) it’s anywhere but here. Near me.
I woke up without realizing I’d been asleep. ‘Everything okay?’ I asked, not even sure if they’d begun.
‘Sure,’ the nurse said, ‘you didn’t move at all, except when you bounced your hips a little to ‘Raspberry Beret.’
I blinked my eyes awake and felt the dull ache in my baby bottom chest, just opposite my heart. I turned my head and saw the wires with input heads on the end dangling down my torso.
When I showed the chest port to my boys later that evening, they both immediately compared it to Tony Stark’s arc reactor. It’s not a bad analogy. The arc reactor, after all, not only powers Tony Stark’s Ironman suit but it keeps Tony’s body from slowly poisoning itself.
It’s a sound analogy, but really the chest port resembles auxiliary audio cables coming out of my breast.
The effect of which is to make me look like a piece of stereo equipment.
As though if you stuck an antennae up my bum in the AM and plugged me into a speaker, I could play All Things Considered for you. Or, I keep thinking, music.
If you plugged me in to your car stereo or your surround sound system, what music would MP3 me play?
What soundtrack for the movie Jason has Cancer is recorded there just across from my heart?
I imagine the cuts from my pre-diagnosis days would include something like REM’s ‘Shining, Happy People’ or maybe something from Astral Weeks and Miles’ Birth of the Cool album. You know, the kind of music you’d sample for the theme ‘blissful ignorance’ and postured cool.
When I expressed my first fart after surgery, the sign they’d put Humpty’s insides back together again, I probably would’ve played ‘I’m So Excited.’ And when I dropped my first post-op deuce a couple of days ago, MP3 me probably would’ve blasted Handel’s Hallelujah chorus or maybe Elton’s ‘Rocket Man’ or, since we’re talking crap, anything by Coldplay.
The night Ali climbed into the hospital bed with me, damning my leaky bile tube and laying right on top of it, and wiped the night sweat off of me and held me until the nurse made her get out, the night we learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma.
It’s cheesy but if you’d plugged me in that night I would’ve played Phil Collins’ power ballad ‘Against All Odds.’
Over and over.
With me as Jeff Bridges in the music video, and cancer as James Woods, and Ali as whoeverthatactressis.
Ever since the evening my GI doc called after my CAT Scan and asked if I was sitting down, there have been plenty of singles like Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ and Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ rattling around inside me. Except, when I’m with my kids. No matter how shitty I might feel or how depressed I get, the soundtrack for when my boys enter the room would probably be the Shins or the Decembrists, something fun and airy and lackadaisical enough to hint at the possibility of happy endings.
And since I belong to a church, one of my tracks is surely Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’
Most of the time, though, if you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I bet the music I’d play would include plenty of tracks from the Cure or Morrissey or the National, you know, the kind of music that makes you want to pull the shades and drink by yourself all day, munching on rat poison while you watch a Full House marathon- mostly because I fear- FEAR– that if you plugged my breast into your Bose, you’d discover that I come with a hidden, bonus track. One that wasn’t listed when you bought the album but has been there the whole time nonetheless and can’t be deleted.
Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’
If you plugged me in and never pressed pause, I fear you’d eventually end on a cut like Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’
The funny thing about fear when you’re a Christian (especially a pastor) is how other Christians treat fear like its anathema.
Verboten. More cancerous than cancer, like its a tumor that threatens the Body of Christ.
To be afraid, to pay attention to the prognosis, to weigh the odds and fear where you’ll end- all of of it, many unwittingly imply, is the opposite of faith.
After all, if you trust God then you shouldn’t fear what tomorrow will bring. Let go and let God. Give it over to the Lord. Trust Jesus. Everything happens for a reason. He never gives you more than you can handle. Have faith that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Whatever happens, He has a plan. Have faith, not fear.
Christians get it honest, I suppose, this fear vs. faith way of thinking.
‘Don’t be afraid’ is perhaps the most common refrain in the testaments. Yahweh, his angel Gabriel, Jesus himself are constantly telling people not to fear.
And the other night in the hospital when I couldn’t sleep and was flipping channels on the TV, a bouffant preacher hawking a bible study curriculum on the Trinity Broadcasting Network reminded me how the New Testament letter from John says that fear is the opposite of faith and that perfect love (for the Lord) casts out all fear.
From where I sit in the cancer chair, that’s horse shit, even if it is in the bible.
And, I’m not even sure it’s true.
I mean, sure, it’s true if what John means is that love, as in Love; as in Jesus, casts out all fear. It’s true if what John’s really after is that faith, as in Jesus’ Faith, is the opposite of (our) fear. And maybe it’s true if what John has in mind is action, causation; that is, provoking faith and love in someone is the opposite of provoking fear in someone.
But otherwise, the notion, hawked by that TV preacher and so many other well-meaning Christians, that the presence of fear equals the absence of love is total rubbish.
If there’s one thing stage serious cancer does, it’s inject an ample dose of clarity into your life.
Here’s what my dosage has revealed: I’m afraid because I love.
I’m not afraid for myself, for what the treatment or the cancer will do to me. I’m not afraid of the pain or discomfort. I figure if I can live for a month with a 10×10 inch tumor obstructing my poop chute, I can handle chemo and bone marrow transplants.
I’m not afraid for me. I’m afraid because I love.
I fear what this cancer will do to my boys, to their happiness and joy and innocence and faith.
And while we’re on the subject of faith, I fear what it will do to my congregation’s faith to see one of their pastor’s handed such a huge crap-flavored lollipop. Speaking of church, I’m afraid of the stress this places on my colleagues, who got left holding the bag with literally a day’s notice. I’m afraid
if when I return to work, it’ll be as a shell of my former (without peer) self.
I’m afraid of the burden and grief this will bring my friends and family; I actually visualize seeing it in their eyes.
I’m afraid of the toll this will take on my wife, having to attend to the ‘…in sickness and in health…’ part of her vows earlier than expected. I fear losing not our marriage or our family but the one- the freaking perfect one- we’ve built and enjoyed with our kids. In the back of my mind, I even fear practicalities like what this will cost, and therefore what will it cost us in terms of the dreams and goals we previously harbored.
I’m riddled with fear and for St. John or a hair-sprayed TV preacher or well-meaning well-wishers to suggest that means I lack faith or love seems to me completely tone deaf.
If I didn’t have so much and so many I love, I wouldn’t give a damn and I could take this shit sandwich stoically. But because I do, there’s no way around it. I’m afraid. And if that somehow puts me at odds with Jesus, well then I guess we’ll have to sort it out when I meet him, which I hope is later rather than sooner.
If you plugged MP3 me into a surround sound, you know what track you wouldn’t hear playing from somewhere just west of my heart?
You’d never hear Neil Young’s single ‘Hey, Hey, My, My.’
You’d never hear it because of that line from the chorus, where Neil sings:
‘Its better to burn out/than to fade away…’
My wife won’t have it. She’s determined we’ll grow old and gray and fade away together; in the meantime, I’ll have to ignore the Johns and the TV preachers and just trust that if the people in my life are worth Jesus redeeming then they’re worth my fears too.