Like the time I accidentally saw my Italian great-grandma, who possessed a steel-worker’s mustache, naked, as much as I’d rather not, I can still recall one late morning when I was lifeguarding at my neighborhood pool.
At a quarter to some hour, teenage-me blew my whistle long and low to clear the pool for break. Climbing down off my stand, I noticed a girl, maybe 10 years old, bouncing and splashing around in the middle of the pool, evidently without any urgency or intention of exiting.
A relatively new Christian, I decided to be patient and kind just like I’d read St. Paul suggest in my NIV Study Bible, but after testing the PH level of the water, I noticed that the little girl was still bouncing around the pool nowhere near a ladder or the steps.
Feeling the Jesus already irritated out of me, I marched the circumference of the deck to the point nearest her and then slowly, with no little drama, placed two exasperated hands on the waistband of my red lifeguard suit.
‘Hey, you, little girl. I’m talkin’ to you’ I said with clipped Travis Bickle affect. ‘I said: CLEAR THE POOL. It’s break time.’
‘I know’ she responded as though the fact that she knew was the most obvious thing in the world.
‘You know, huh? Well then…’ I said, my lifeguard voice now a far cry from 1 Corinthians 13, ‘why are you still in the pool? What are you? Blind or something?’
‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘I am blind.’
I’m a big believer in odds, and the odds of this happening to me just didn’t seem possible.
‘What?’ I said.
‘I am blind’ she said again without contempt.
Ugh. Gut punch.
‘Shit’ screamed the red I could feel rapidly spreading across my face and through my eyes.
Her lack of malice made me feel all the more awful, so much so I said nothing.
Just to populate the scene for you:
Sitting within earshot of this exchange were 5 Stiffler’s Moms from church tanning themselves in too tiny two pieces, their Liz Claiborne sunglasses now perched on top of their foreheads so they could stare at me and, I assumed in a second, report back to the congregation.
Even then I’d correctly intuited that insensitivity to disability is a graver transgression in the United Methodist Church than any out and out heresy such as, say, not believing in Jesus.
Meanwhile, no more than 12 inches behind me, 6 of my closest friends sat around an umbrellaed picnic table. One of those six I hoped soon to make my girlfriend, a wager I now assumed was about as likely as, well, asking a random girl if she was blind and hitting on ‘Yes’ in reply.
I’d have rather had my swimsuit go slack and suddenly fall around my ankles, exposing my johnson and nether hair for all to see. Even now my cheeks (the other ones) get flushed whenever I think back to noisy gong Jason asking that little girl blind girl if she was blind or something.
What would that other something be, I wonder?
Eventually, in a tone of voice shamed low, I guided her to the ladder where she said ‘Thank you’ and I did not- I should confess- say ‘I’m sorry.’ It was an eternity that last not much more than a few minutes. Still it was one of those awkward-in-the-bowels, nothing can ever undo it moments where everyone within earshot wishes they could hide or die or flux capacitor it back an hour.
Picture me as that blind girl, and you have some idea of what it’s like when people find out that I have cancer.
While I’ve remained fairly sequestered since I learned I have a rare blood cancer, I’ve still suffered plenty of those uncomfortable, shit-on-your-shoes moments.
The awkward, cringe-inducing moments usually begin thusly:
‘How are you?’
‘Really? You look…thinner? Have you lost weight?’
‘Umm…yeah…maybe a bit…well…the thing is…I have cancer.’
The pregnant pause that follows as reliably as the Earth revolves around the Sun usually gives birth to one or more cliches lying dormant at the mind’s ready:
‘You’re young and healthy. You’ll beat it” better than 3/4 of everybody assures me. Whether they’re attempting to convince me or themselves varies to the person.
‘Healthy except for the tumors squatting all over my body’ I always reply, sometimes silently.
Some respond to the pregnant pause by delivering up, either as an article of faith or something gleaned from 1st or 2nd or usually 3rd hand experience: ‘Well, I believe in the power of prayer.’
Many try to turn the foreboding cloud of cancer inside out by pointing vaguely to the silver lining of ‘advances in medicine and science.’
Some intend either the former, faith, or the latter, science, when they promise me in palliative tones that ‘miracles DO happen’ as though the prognosis I’d prefer to hear is how my full recovery is about likely as feeding an entire hospital with just 6 pieces of Wonder Bread and 2 filets of poorly breaded Tilapia.
I can tell from their faces and from what they toss back at me:
Hitting people unawares with the C-word is like learning that you’ve just been making sarcastic blindness cracks at a little blind girl.
Nearly everyone stammers and then moves to tell me which Dr. Oz imprimatured books I should read or which cancer-fighting foods I should purchase at Whole Foods for $5 grand a pound.
Those less burdened by propriety or self-conscience immediately ask how often I’m throwing up or, I kid you not, ‘getting it up.’ Still others suggest cancer-themed movies I should watch like Michael Keaton’s forgotten film My Life or Bette Midler’s wish-we-could-forget-it Beaches.
Just yesterday a door-to-door salesmen from Capitol Meats, upon hearing I had cancer (Yes, I was playing the cancer card to avoid buying a gross of ground beef), said: ‘Damn, man…fuck that sucks.’
And then he added: ‘You should watch that movie…what’s it called…’ and then he started to snap his fingers to jog his memory, ‘Ordinary People…yeah, that’s a damn good movie.’
‘It is a good one’ I said, ‘but I’m pretty sure it’s not a cancer movie.’
‘Nah, man,’ the meat man maintained, ‘dude definitely dies of cancer in it.’
Okay, so not every conversation goes down like the blind girl in the pool, but once I’ve blind-sided people with the C-word and they recover enough to respond with the typical cliches, recommendations or curiosities, they then usually ask me:
And once I tell them Lymphoma, Mantle Cell Lymphoma, unless I’m speaking to a doctor or a nurse, that marks the end of their oncological knowledge; so, inevitably they steer the conversation to the biographical.
‘My _____________ (mother/father/aunt/uncle/coworker/neighbor/cousin…) had lymphoma’ they’ll say as though we’re discussing fellow frat brothers from faraway chapters.
‘Really?’ I’ll feign interest, ‘How did_____________ do with their treatment?’
‘Oh…umm…he/she did…’ and then 9/10 times their voice will trail off in such a way you’re led to only one conclusion.
‘That’s just awesome’ I’ll think to myself.
Before you accuse me of hyperbole:
The Friday before my surgery, the Friday after the night I learned cancer was the most likely culprit behind my troubles, my mom and I sat at the indoor pool watching my boys at swim practice when she breaks our own kind of pregnant pause:
‘You know…my uncle (as in, my Grandma’s flesh and blood brother) had lymphoma too.’
‘What? Really?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know that; I guess I should have checked the cancer box under ‘Family History’ along with ‘Heart Disease’ and ‘Mental Illness.’
‘What happened to him?’ I asked after she didn’t laugh.
‘Oh’ she said, brainstorming how to change the subject. ‘Umm…uhh…errr…yeah, he died.’
‘Great, just great’ I said.
She went on: ‘But he lived a long time…at least until his mid-40’s.’
And then I thought: ‘Mid-40’s?! Mid-40’s!? Geez, mom, that’s some cold shit.’
It’s no hyperbole.
When I spoke to the suit in the United Methodist Pension Office about my medical leave, he told me in a way that defied his bean-counting countenance:
‘I’m sorry to hear about your…uh…situation. I had a college roommate who died of lymphoma.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear that’ I said, suddenly wondering who was supposed to be comforting whom.
‘Yeah, he was such a great guy’ and just then I thought our connection had gone before I realized he was sniffling into the phone. Just before he started weeping.
Likewise did it go with the insurance rep who called to audit my care plan. My lymphoma, though a rarer breed, apparently put her mind to her own mother’s losing bid against blood cancer. You see, not only does the C word provoke people into unwittingly portending my death, it’s also (I’m also) a grim reminder to them of painful mournings of their own.
In other words, now that I have cancer, I rip the scabs off of people’s wounds.
For those without family or friends felled by blood cancer, a surprising number of people, upon hearing my news, turn for reference to America’s family of choice; i.e, celebrities.
‘Oh, did you know Jackie Onassis died of lymphoma?’ the checkout guy told me yesterday.
‘Really? Before I was worried but now that I know Jackie O died of it I think…what’s the big deal?’ I thought to myself before stretching a fake smile across my face and nodding solemnly.
‘I mean, thank God I have blood cancer and not some peasant disease like COPD’ I kept thinking to myself as I punched my debit number into the screen.
Seriously, Jackie O is what the
lifeguard checkout guy hit me with when I blind-sided him with the C-word. I can only imagine how many times people with testicular cancer have to hear about Lance Armstrong or how often lepers with dementia have to hear about Senator Ted Cruz.
Like James Greer in Wonder Boys memorizing celebrity suicides, thanks to the offhand comments with which people meet the C-word, I now know that Charles Lindberg, Gene Autry and Joey Ramone of the Ramones all died of the very affliction now doing its damnedest to kill me.
There’s something about the word CANCER that throws a wrench into most people’s mental gears.
Just yesterday when I told that same Capitol Meats salesman that I was no longer working, that I was going on disability (because, yes, I was playing the cancer card to get rid of him and his sales pitch) he immediately responded by telling me:
‘Yeah, one of my cousins on my Mama’s side is retarded. He’s real sweet though. You can hardly tell he’s a retard.’
I just nodded along and smiled, which probably only confirmed for him that I too was as disabled as his sweet cousin- which, fortunately, in his mind probably disqualified me from making such a hefty purchase of boneless steaks and pork chops.
There’s something about the C-word that messes with people’s heads. Some people see CANCER as a 2 syllabled body bag, one that’s already zipped up to around my chest port. To their minds, the C-word gives off an air of the inexorable that permits them to confess secrets they’d never reveal otherwise. You know the stuff normally reserved for eulogies:
‘You were my first crush.’
‘I never told you what your friendship meant to me.’
‘I thought you were a real dick in high school but I’m sending you positive energy now.’
‘I thought you were the worst preacher I’d ever heard for about 4 years but now I think you’re awesome.’
One person, upon hearing the news via the social media grapevine, sent me a copy of that poem, ‘Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep,’ verses not only which I loathe but have only ever heard intoned- against my better judgment- at FUNERALS.
Of all the various and sundry responses the news of my stage serious cancer has elicited, by far the most common responses are:
‘It’s time to do battle.’
‘Kick cancer’s ass.’
From their shoes, I think it’s exactly the right thing to say. It sure as shit beats telling me that Bob Ross died of lymphoma (too).
After all, ‘kick cancer’s ass’ isn’t burdened with any pray-it-away piety or false promises, and it puts the onus on me while positioning the speaker as being behind me, in my corner, rooting for me in the fight of/for my life.
‘Yeah, kick cancer’s ass’ I sometimes nod my head in response.
But here’s the real difficulty:
The ‘it’ in ‘Fight it, Jason’ is Jason.
The ‘it’ is me.
The cancerous cells are mine, only doing something differently (and far more efficiently) than my healthy ones. The chromosomes inverting themselves way down deep in my marrow, which is what gives me Mantle Cell Lymphoma- those are my chromosomes. They’re as much me as my eyes or my fingerprints or the corner of my lips that produces my smile. The tumors riddling my insides- they’re attached to my spleen and my stomach and my lungs and God knows what else, and it’s my lymphatic system that so conveniently delivers those tumorous cells to the rest of my body and possibly my brain (one of the unique perks of Mantle Cell).
What I only realize now that I have cancer is that a PET scan is very different than a battle map. There is no enemy massing outside on the borders of the Republic of Jason’s Body. The masses are in me, a part of me even. Even if I could shrink myself down like Martin Short in Inner Space to go fight ‘it’ in my GI system, I’d just as quickly discover that ‘it’ is also very much me.
Which means, of course, that the only way to kick cancer’s ass is to kick my own.
Normally this time of year, I’m giving up meat or booze or Facebook, but this Lent, though I’ve not chosen it, I’m doing something even more Christ-like, in a way. I’m forsaking myself.
Don’t applaud me. It’s out of necessity not any piety. It’s just the way chemo works.
The only way to kill the cancer in me is to let the doctors get as damn close as they can to killing me.
I’m learning that there’s an inherent passivity to cancer no matter how proactive and intentional I might want to be against it.
For much of the balance of 2015 I’m literally a prisoner of my own body. On a cellular level my body echoes St. Paul: ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.’
This is precisely why poor bastards with cancer like me so desperately need others- especially doctors and nurses- because no sane person, no matter how sick or scared, would ever willingly do this to themselves. This regimen of chemo-poison.
I appreciate the sentiment behind ‘Kick cancer’s ass’ but already I’ve learned:
The language of fighting doesn’t really work for cancer.
It’s too active; in fact, I don’t believe the active voice really works at all for cancer.
I don’t believe the active voice works for cancer in the same way the active voice doesn’t work for God.
I remember one homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.
However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:
‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject?’
Contrary to all the Strunk and White rules, when it comes to our speech about God the passive voice is most often the best, for it alone conveys the necessity of our trust and dependence upon God.
The active voice makes it sounds like we actually have our shit together.
And just need God to show up sometimes.
But the passive voice better than the active confesses ‘You can do, God, what we cannot.’
The passive voice admits more clearly that when it comes to things that matter, like sin and marriage and parenthood and friendship and truth-telling and compassion and cancer, most often-
my enemy is myself.
The passive voice better points out that in much of life, but particularly with cancer, the path forward looks not like active ass-kicking at all but instead something in between resignation and resistance because that’s the space where God goes.
All of which is to say, as much as I’d like to ‘fight it’ or ‘kick cancer’s ass’ my only real hope is that God will be in me, setting things right, just as scripture promises God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.
Speaking of Christ, by far the best response the news of my cancer has prompted was a JPEG of that charlatan preacher Joel Osteen along with the header ‘Imagine this is cancer when you’re kicking it’s ass.’
The JPEG response still trades on the fight metaphor and about the last thing I want to imagine is Joel Osteen inside me. I doubt his teeth would even fit inside my (now) 28 inch waist and his hair gel would likely spike my cholesterol.
I’ve scored many a point from the pulpit and I’m responsible for much clickbait at Joel O’s expense. No, this isn’t going to be an ‘I was all wrong’ epiphany but an ‘I was so right all along’ double-down.
What I mean is-
You only need to have cancer for about a day before you realize how impoverished is Joel Osteen’s power- of- positive- thinking active voice faith, his genie-in-a lamp-god who will reliably answer any prayer you’re bold enough to proffer.
One of the things you learn when you have cancer, along with how to read your latest lab work, is that only the crucified God, who has shared your fear and suffering and made your pain his own, only the crucified God can help.