“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Whether the Statue of Liberty’s salutation has ever accurately reflected America’s attitude towards the stranger is debatable; however, as a description of the insides of an oncologist’s waiting room it’s a damn-on dead ringer. Previously accustomed only to the PG blandness of my general practitioner’s office or my children’s trippy, panda-themed pediatrician’s office, I was wholly unprepared for:
- The sheer size of the oncologist’s waiting room- so large I half expected to hear a fuzzy intercom announce bus departures from the other side of thick, yellowed plexiglass.
- How thick and tangible was the sense of hopelessness that hung in the air.
- The diversity embodied by that palpable despair. Sitting along the walls were couples the approximate age of Ali and me, old white-haired geezers, folks in their 50’s, healthy-looking women, obese men, alienesque pale, balding and rail-thin chemo patients and fucking kids.
Man, the fucking kids. I counted 7 of them. School-aged kids during the school day.
Weighting Room seemed a better spelling given the gravity I could feel in my feet as I soon as I stepped inside.
The wall scheme, as if avoiding false promises, was mauve. No color. No toys or play structures for the children.
And, a medical office first for me, no magazines. Not a one.
Their collective absence stood out like an indictment or a more bracing diagnosis than even the doctor could muster.
‘You’re not getting away anywhere with the time you’ve got left’ screamed the bare space where Conde Nast might’ve lay in a different waiting room.
The bare space on the end table next to my chair taunted me: ‘Who are you kidding? You don’t need 25 Sex Tips from Cosmopolitan. Those days are gone- you’re a goner.’
Speaking of sex, my final oncological consult on Friday just before I was to begin my aggressive chemo protocol (read: dire) was not the occasion I had expected to have a conversation about my swimmers.
Sure enough no sooner was I weighed and vital signed than my oncologist knocked on the door, entered the exam room and with the subtlety of someone who is either a life-long bachelor or a non-English major immediately began by asking me:
‘So, you two have children, yes?’
‘Uh, yeah, we have two. Two boys.’
‘I see,’ he said, ‘and do you plan to have more?’
Looking blankly at each other- ‘I dunno. I mean we’ve talked about the possibility, maybe but…’
‘Because if you do want to have more children, you’ll have to make a donation this morning before you start treatment.’
‘Uh, a donation?’
‘Yes, a sperm donation’ he said as though itemizing my taxes.
I don’t know why…I’ve been married to Ali for almost 14 years and we dated since we were 15 years old, but I still found this an intensely awkward conversation to be having in front of her…not to mention the nurse sitting at the computer.
And, as I’m wont to do in embarrassing situations, I resorted to deflective, juvenile humor albeit a classic Woody Allen line from Annie Hall:
‘Look, doc,’ I said, ‘I’ve got nothing against masturbation; its sex with someone with I love.’
The nurse at the computer, the nurse who happened to be wearing a 14.5 inch bleeding Christ crucifix around her neck looked at me with disgust and at Ali with someone like pity.
‘Anyway doc,’ I said, ‘you should’ve brought this up before you let the surgeon cut a giant incision across my waist because (even if you’ve got Cindy Crawford dressed in a nurse’s costume in the next room- I thought to myself) things are still as dormant down there as Omaha on a Saturday night, if you know what I mean.’
Whether he did or didn’t know what I meant he didn’t say, adding only this turd of a caveat:
‘Your protocol probably won’t render you impotent but it will leave you infertile.’
‘Probably?’ I gulped.
I suppose sex and death have been inextricably linked since Genesis 1. I suppose it was ever thus; nonetheless, just as I wasn’t expecting to begin my final oncological consult with talk of ejaculatory donations, the transition out of that subject was even more jarring.
There was another knock at the door, and my other oncologist entered the room. His first name is Ivan and his last name ends in -vich. The closet approximation I can get to the rest of his surname is to say it leaves no consonant behind. Indeed if there are still WMD’s to be found, they’re probably hidden in Dr. Ivan’s labyrinthine last name.
Dr. Ivan is tall and thin and Serbian scary, the land from which he hails. His thin round glasses look party issue. His hair is mussed in the way of someone committed to the cause.
And Dr. Ivan’s accent is such that it’s easy to picture him wearing a drab, olive uniform, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and standing behind one-way glass while a lieutenant conducts an ‘interrogation.’
In short, he’s everything a scared shitless, cancer-stricken bastard like me could want in an oncologist on the front line.
Describing the next 150 days or so of my regimen, Dr. Ivan opted for martial vocabulary and large St. Crispin’s Day type hand gestures.
‘My first drug,’ he said with a smack of his hands, ‘would OBLITERATE the bulky tumors all over my body.’
‘The other drugs would DEVASTATE THE ENEMY CELLS MULTIPLYING IN BLOOD’ he whispered like it was a sneak attack on unsuspecting Kosovars and then, rising off his stool, promised the cumulative effect would be to FORCE MY BONE MARROW INTO COMPLETE SURRENDER.’
If Dr. Ivan seems like the kind of medical professional you’d come across in the pages of an X-Men comic book, he merely stands in and continues a long line in the study of oncology.
After all, the practice of chemotherapy itself owes its origins to the use of mustard gas in World War I.
Not only was mustard gas a nasty little way to debilitate your enemy, it was also discovered to be an effective suppressor of blood production. Skip ahead to WWII, after a German air raid on the Italian village of Bari several hundred people were inadvertently exposed to mustard gas the Allies had been storing there to be used on the Germans. Oh happy fault- the survivors were all found to have abnormally low white blood counts. Thus is the beginning of another chapter in the supposedly value-neutral discipline of medical science.
All of which is just to say I can’t be accused of hyperbole when I say I’m now a duly admitted patient at a medical hospital (modernity’s last true cathedral) where doctors and nurses can legally assault me with German-derivated chemical weapons.
The trench warfare history of chemo-‘therapy’ such as it is, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how my first dosage went down.
After pre-scans of my body and pre-hydrations and pre-medications on Friday evening, around 1:30 AM I was started on my first 6 hour IV drip of Rituxan, a poison normally considered safe only for MCL patients who are ‘young and fit.’
‘Young and fit’ minus the, you know, Stage 4 cancer all over my body.
Not knowing what to anticipate, I lay there in bed, clutching the sheets in the quiet. Nothing.
I was fine. I couldn’t feel or notice a thing.
By 2 AM I’m smiling in the dark. At myself. Thinking Paul Simon’s got it all wrong. The darkness isn’t silent; it’s filled with sound of my awesomeness.
Who are these sissies, I wondered, who complained about how hard chemo was on the body?
I’m like the Charles Bronson of chemo, I (literally) thought to myself.
I’m like Jewels from the lymphoma outtakes of Pulp Fiction. I’m a mushroom cloud laying motherfucker.
I’m like the Taken 1,2 and 3 Liam Neeson of chemo-‘weaponry;’ I have a very particular set of skills and kicking cancer’s ass is it.
I seriously thought to myself.
And then- BAM.
At 3AM, 90 minutes in
With no warning at all, 0-60 in 1 second flat
My whole body started to convulse, violently, head to toe, shaking my bed and every machine attached to it, splitting open my stomach incision and making my insides feel like they were now my outsides.
It was like an epileptic seizure, but one that started not in my brain but in this dry-ice cold deep down inside my bone marrow.
It’s 3AM, chemo battle #1, and what does Liam Neeson do?
That’s right, he shouts- not really shouts because the words won’t really come out of his quaking mouth- gurgles for his mommy, who’s snoring on the pull-out bed in his room.
My mom fetched the nurse who, upon entering, blithely responded with: ‘Oh yes, that’s one of the reactions to the Rituxan’ as she started layering a dozen warmed blankets on me to zero effect.
And I was thinking: ‘Reaction? This isn’t like hives from bad Cabernet or a rash from a bug bite.’
Except actually I wasn’t thinking. At all. I couldn’t think past the pain the convulsions had erupted all over me. I couldn’t have made heads or tails of a Two and a Half Men episode or a Sarah Palin speech so bone-wracking was the pain. It was blinding, consuming. A first for me.
It lasted about an hour.
And if you had offered me in any of those sixty minutes any thing to make it stop, to take it away, to turn back time- to any of my worst pre-cancer moments- then damn the torpedoes I would’ve taken you up on it.
That’s not true.
I love my life. I cherish my wife. And I’m gunning to see my little guys grow up.
I would’ve stuck it out for them no matter what you offered me.
Brass tacks confession time:
If you told me the next 150 days would be exactly like that hour and if you could promise me to make it all go away, then I wouldn’t say yes because of the reasons immediately cited above.
I wouldn’t say yes…I don’t think.
But I’d be tempted. And that means I could say yes.
Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and 3 temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.
The Synoptic Evangelists tell the story with such Hollywood haste the net effect is to turn Jesus of Nazareth into Doogie Howser, a spiritual prodigy who doesn’t struggle or grasp or scratch his head over the best way forward. But not only is such convictional clarity NOT TEMPTATION, it dilutes Jesus into someone less than fully human. It makes Jesus not as human as you or me.
I know the Gospels say Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert and I believe it.
I just think those temptations came to Jesus in exactly the same sorts of unseen, uncertain, ambiguous- human- ways they come to us.
I mean, it’s a no brainer if you’re posed questions by a guy with horns and a pitchfork. The right answers are obvious, that’s not temptation.
Which is to say, I take it as an article of faith that it was a real, live possibility for Jesus to have answered otherwise when the tempter proffered his questions in the desert. Just take another look, the brevity of the stories aside, Jesus spends 40 days tackling just 3 queries. That’s a baker’s dozen days per temptation. There’s more to the story than the story.
We tend to think of faith as something unchanging, immoveable, we can turn to when times get tough or tempting. ‘He is our Rock’ the praise song repeats ad nauseum. Faith is our North Star, our inner compass, our firm foundation.
But I don’t think so, not so much anymore.
I think Jesus, if he’s at least as human as you or me, then one of the things he takes on in the incarnation is the uncertainty of life. The sheer contingency of life, not knowing what will drop with the next shoe, what crappy news is a day away or what will be the best way to deal with it.
If Jesus is truly incarnate then his humanity is shot through with the very contingency that so often makes our lives seem like a crapshoot.
And that means faith isn’t like a rock or a firm, immoveable foundation.
It means faith is change.
Faith is change because it’s faith lived alongside the life God gives you.
Faith is change because it’s dependent upon the (contingent) life in which it is lived.
And in the same way that love and marriage and children and a career changes you- and thus your faith- so
can does pain and dread and fear and despair and temptation change you.
And thus your faith.
For what makes temptation in the face of faith real is the real possibility of losing the faith you had.
If there’s a silver lining in this (and I’m into looking for silver linings these days) it’s that faith is strongest where the possibility of losing it is greatest.
And if that makes me a less impressive Christian, I at least like to think it might make me a more trustworthy pastor.
One day down.
149 or so more to go.
Not that I’m counting but that’s nearly 4x longer than Jesus was stuck in his own wilderness.
(Jason, pre-hair loss)