I was a normal boy, so I spent much of my childhood frightened.
A lot of that fear was self-inflicted. I was in love with being scared.
When I was seven or eight and we were stationed in Nebraska, I used to stay up late Fridays to watch “The Twilight Zone” and afterward run down the street barefoot with the nightly televised monster on my childhood heels.
Growing up on a military base had its advantages. Admission to the movie theater was 15 cents for a kid, and they changed films every other night. I saw a lot of great movies from the front row — where I still like to sit today. I love to be overwhelmed and was therefore enveloped by Dr Strangelove, Hard Day’s Night and Lawrence of Arabia, with its wall-to-wall sand.
It’s still a family motto today: “See it on the big screen.”
I saw a lot of horror films too, including stuff from Hammer Studios in Great Britain, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The Gorgon, a film about Medusa, cost me a lot of sleep. I thought nothing could be worse than turning to stone.
Boys just like scary stuff. As we get older, we like to take our dates to horror films so they’ll have to hold us close when they get frightened.
But Nicole never had an interest in suspense films or the supernatural. She didn’t like stories about demonic possession and asked me not to watch them, even if she wasn’t around. Her late grandmother had said that when you allow evil into your house — even in the form of a film — it never leaves. So no showings of The Exorcist or The Omen for us.
She was convinced that there were ghosts. In fact, her grandmother — who died about a year before I met Nicole — seemed to be a presence in our lives. When Jack was little, we’d put him to bed but hear him talking in his room upstairs. When we went up to ask who he was talking to, he said, ‘Grandma Bettye.’ One night, her picture fell off the table and onto the floor. A sign, Nicole thought.
Her fear of the supernatural amused me and sometimes I pushed a little too far.
We tried to practice a light-hearted approach to cancer around the house, so one night, as we were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, I told her of my post-mortem plans.
“When I die,” I said, “I am going to haunt the fuck out of you. I’m going to do your laundry and I’m going to do it all wrong. I’ll put your jeans in the dryer on high heat.” She was already visibly agitated, but I continued: “And I’ll still fuck with the dishwasher, packing it all crazy and shit.”
“Don’t say that!” she said, and smacked me on the arm. “That’s not funny.” Then she went upstairs.
What I’d meant as a joke was not amusing in the slightest to her. When she turned and left the room I thought, So much for the notion of my spirit being the breeze brushing nigh her cheek.
That shit wouldn’t be happening.
To make sure I didn’t haunt her, she was probably going to drive a stake through my heart at the funeral. (I think she really hated the way I did laundry, but I couldn’t live with piles of dirty clothes everywhere.)
But haunting had been much on my mind. Ever since I’d gotten my diagnosis, I’d been thinking about that entity with whom I had negotiated for my life back in Santa Fe all those years before. Whatever that spirit was, what happened that cold afternoon made me wonder if there was an existence beyond the present and whether I would be able to still see this world from the next.
My greatest fear was about the little boys. The rest of the children were grown — or nearly so — but Jack, Travis and Charley had a lot of childhood in front of them and it might be convenient to have a father around. I wondered: if I was gone, could I still see them grow? Could I be their unseen conscience, trying to help them do the right thing? Would my spirit be the breath on their cheek, the whisper in their mind?
We all make mistakes and want to help our children from repeating them. That’s a parent’s job description, isn’t it, boiled down to its tightest language.
They were overwhelming, these three, and could easily with their energy and fire swamp a single parent. Would I still be able to help in my absence?
I was a parent for life. But I was greedy and wanted to be a parent after life.
. . . . . . . . . . .
“I’ve got to ask you something,” I said. I was sitting on an exam table at the cancer center, during a checkup with Christian Corwin, my cancer doctor.
“Fire away,” he said.
“I’ve been dying to know — who thought this up? I mean, I used to work with a guy whose dad invented the pre-frontal lobotomy. That’s a cool thing on your resume. Who invented this operation — and what’s it called?”
“It’s called a low anterior resection,” he said, and began to explain the process in some detail. Times like these are when he most reminded me of my father and brother — both surgeons and masterful storytellers.
I was lucky I got the lower anterior resection, he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I have a fear of heights.”
He laughed. No, he said. It’s just that there is a main operation for rectal cancer and what he’d done to me was a variation on that theme — like when John Coltrane takes off on ‘My Favorite Things.’ Suddenly a Sound of Music ditty takes on a whole new creative life. (That’s why I love jazz in general and Coltrane in particular.)
The main operation — called an abdominoperineal resection — was a little more permanent, shall we say. It resulted in a colostomy and a sentence of bag-for-life. Mine was an ilieostomy, which meant there was presumably light at the end of the bag tunnel.
“Chances are,” Corwin said, “this LAR” — I love all these acronyms — “should fix you up just fine. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s six or eight months and then you’re done. No more bag. You’re not looking at wearing it every day for the rest of your life.”
A relief, that, though I was getting to the point where I felt I had a better handle on life with the bag, thanks mostly to the patience of Eileen, my home-visit nurse.
“But still,” I said — in awe of what he had done to my body and how the procedure seemed to be working, with a little bit of messiness now and then — “who thought this shit up?”
His face took on a funny-you-should-ask-that look. “You know, this surgery — or an early form of it — is mentioned in the Bible.”
“I’ll be damned,” I said.
Then he told me that there had been a similar procedure in Ancient Rome, though it did not involve a bag.
Early surgeons could tell something was wrong — even if they had not invented the word tumor yet — and so they dug the offensive growth out of a guy’s ass. While it healed, they’d poke a hole in the stomach and pull out some gooey intestine, slicing it open for the waste to exit.
I pictured the instrument for these ancient surgeries being something like a crude ice pick — though I doubt the ice pick had been invented then — and that the same tool was used for the asshole surgery as well as for the stomach poking.
Immediately I had two concerns:
After digging around in the patient’s asshole with that tool, did they think to wash it off?
Was there any anesthetic other than wine handy? (It was Rome, after all — home of the orgies. There had to be some wine.)
Whenever I felt the slightest twinge of self pity, I thought of those long ago patients who had ass cancer in ancient times and figured they had it about a zillion times worse.
“So, since there were no ostomy bags then,” I asked Corwin, “What did they do?”
He smirked and made the international hand symbol for “the shit just spewed out on the ancient streets.”
I imagined that picture. They never showed anything like that in those sword-and-sandal movies I used to watch as a kid.
He had other patients, so Corwin couldn’t give me the tick-tock of ass-cancer-surgery history, but I did learn that the first thing that resembled a modern colostomy had been performed in the early 1700s.
A guy named Vincenz Czerny invented (or, more accurately, re-imagined) the operation in the 1880s. He was a German surgeon who’d pioneered cancer surgeries in several areas. In addition to figuring out what to do with patients with ass cancer, he was known as an early adopter of a lot of techniques in gynecological surgery.
Each generation of surgeons made improvements on the procedure and by the 1930s, the ostomy bag had been invented. Thus began a long period of refinement and improvement on the bag.
As awful as I thought the bag was, when I learned about what they had been like just twenty or thirty years ago, I began to count my blessings. The bags I used were the result of nearly a hundred years of refinements.
I could tell Corwin loved talking about what he did and was well versed in medical history. But those other patients needed him and so we had to cut the talk short.
I was a history major. I loved this stuff.
“It’s too bad we had to meet under these circumstances,” he said. “It might’ve been nice to meet over a beer.”
. . . . . . . . . .
Tom Fiedler, my dean, had gently coaxed me back to work at the end of my medical leave. My hesitation wasn’t because of any desire not to work. I’ve always taken pleasure in my job. But I was afraid what it would be like, outside the doors of my house, and what horrors awaited me and my ostomy bag.
I confessed these fears to Tom, worried about what my happen if I had an accident during my commuter rail ride into the city or — even worse — on a packed subway car at rush hour in the bowels (!) of Boston.
“Would you like us to investigate setting you up with Uber?”
I was impressed by the university’s concern and generosity, but I suddenly decided I was being a little cowardly.
“That’s a nice offer,” I said. “But I’m not sure I could even get an Uber down here.” I live on the South Shore of Boston Harbor, land of waterfront mansions and high school parking lots full of Mercedes. It was not exactly an Uber kind of place. “Let me give the commuter rail a try.”
And so I did.
I made it to work, where my administrator Mary Chapman welcomed me with a fuck-you cancer sign strung over my bookshelves. It was summer session and the faculty members were largely dispersed, so I could ease myself back into the job. The building manager knew I was a little wookety, so he had a couch moved into my office for rest, in case I was overcome.
I got through the first day, and then the second and before long, I’d made it through a four-day week.
I traveled with a messenger bag I’d picked up at the Army surplus store down by Boston Common. It had all my supplies: bags, powder, rubbing alcohol, wipes, gloves and plastic bags in which to store and tie up the used ostomy bags until I could deposit them in an industrial-strength garbage can.
It went well, until it didn’t.
Mary was working — our offices adjoin — and so I told her I was going to lie down for a bit and closed my door, something I’d never done before my illness.
Once in my ocean-blue cave, I spread out all of my materials and prepared to make a bag change.
These operations had gone okay until then, but this day, while detaching the bag, it slipped through my fingers and the contents — and by ‘contents,’ I mean ‘shit’ — spilled over my pants and onto the couch.
Oh Jesus, I thought. This is pretty fucking awful.
Indeed. Imagine the worst thing that could happen in this kind of situation.
This was worse.