That summer was Jack’s last baseball season, so it was especially sweet that his team, the Dodgers, won the town pennant.
He and Travis were on the team together — Jack at third, Travis as pitcher and catcher (though not at the same time). Jack would age off at the end of the season, and Charley would join the team the next year. We were becoming a Dodger household, so I treated myself to a fitted wool Dodgers cap to wear and show silent and steady support while I sat in the stands.
I’d never assisted in coaching any of the boys’ teams. I didn’t think I had time, but that year I was shamed by John Froio, the Dodgers coach.
Froio was Christian Corwin’s partner in a surgical practice associated with South Shore Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Center. So on a typical day during the season, he was at the hospital doing surgery at seven in the morning, worked all day and was at the town fields by 6 pm to lead the boys through practice.
Other than cancer, what excuse did I have?
In earlier seasons, I had been a bleacher rat and foul-line pacer, rarely sitting, prowling each side of the ballfield to get a better look at the action.
I’d spend whole days at the town ballfield. When the boys had been on three separate teams, during our first years in Cohasset, I once spent nine hours at the field. With practices, pre-game practices and games, it took a lot of time to ride the pine in the bleachers.
But that summer I was stationery, resplendent in my Dodger-blue hat but otherwise a mute and motionless presence in the stands.
I offered encouragement to the boys but one time my ‘encouragement’ went too far. Travis popped up and as the third baseman on the other team angled under the ball a sound — in my recollection, something like a screamed great googly moogly — emanated from my throat.
John Froio and Scott Henry, the assistant coach, told me I couldn’t do that. The coach from the other team got in my face too. I guess that’s the sort of thing we did in my generation. Most of the other dads were 15-20 years younger and that stuff wasn’t cool — and hadn’t been for a couple of decades.
Fortunately, I was not banned by the town baseball association.
It was a joyous day when the Dodgers won the pennant. After the game, the boys climbed the fence around the adjacent town pool and jumped in fully clothed. For a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds, that was the high point of life.
I don’t think my being an older dad was necessarily a source of embarrassment for the boys. They might’ve liked me to be out there hitting pop-ups in practice, but I was always there, watching, telling them they were doing great. I don’t think my having cancer embarrassed them either.
Odd. It had seemed to me that everyone had cancer. Then, when I was diagnosed, I realized that I was kind of alone. Lots of people don’t know what to say when they learn you have cancer. You make them uncomfortable. Maybe you are an unpleasant reminder of mortality. Some people stay away. Some people come closer.
The boys’s friends treated me the same. Travis’s pal Frankie would always say, “How are you feeling today, Mr. McKeen?” It sounds very Eddie Haskell, but Frankie doesn’t have a whiff of Eddie on him.
So my illness didn’t embarrass the boys and I think they thought being a little older made me a more interesting dad. I think they were fascinated by the mysterious and ancient life I’d had before they came along, including Sarah, Graham and Mary, their older siblings. The little boys seemed to regard the older kids as somewhat mythic.
Graham had been generous with the boys, giving them some of his old baseball cards, video-game systems and other ephemera of youth. Jack, in particular, developed a love for first-generatsion Nintendo and Sega games. When he got an original Atari system, it was as if he’d found the grail. He developed a peculiar fascination with VHS tapes and found a VCR at a Goodwill Store.
Jack, I said, we’re trying to forget that was ever a format. Nevertheless, he persisted. I began referring to his bedroom as the Museum of Obsolete Technology.
I was easing myself back into work, which meant that I followed more relaxed summer hours. I was there to chauffeur the boys to the ballfield for impromptu practices or take them to friend’s houses. I was out and working again, but I was also the part-time stay-at-home dad I’d been for the first six months of the year.
That was a time of passage for us — Nicole, Savannah, the boys, me and my bag.
The bag was with me through it all — standing on the town common, as each prom couple was introduced to a round of applause. Savannah and her date, Andy, and some of their friends congregated in our driveway for some pre-game pictures. She was beautiful and too cool for school, of course, wearing shades.
When I met Savannah, she was four, and hiding under the kitchen table. It was my first date with Nicole, which was just to be an evening of wine and music at her house. I’d heard so much about Savannah, though, that meeting her was as important to me as any ‘date.’
Nicole greeted me at the door and I presented her with a bottle of Cabernet.
“Where is she?” I asked.
Then I heard the chirp of a puppy. I stepped into the house, looking for the source of the sound. And there she was, under the table, so proud of herself for finding a great hiding place. She barked a couple more times, then giggled.
So I fell in love twice that evening. At the end of the night, Nicole played “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison, and it was.
Now that little girl with the Selma Diamond voice was dressed in a white robe, crossing the stage at the South Shore Music Circus. I wanted her to go to school nearby, but she was intent on going back to Florida. So I sensed when she was walking across the stage she was walking away.
And there was another graduation. Nicole graduated from her three-year midwifery program at the school in Maine. Her schooling had meant a lot of time away from home and a lot of time spent as an apprentice in a midwifery practice. But she had become great friends with her classmates and four of them shared a cabin in Bridgton, Maine, when they were in residence at the school. The graduation became a wonderful weekend in the woods for the whole family. Nicole’s father and aunt came for the ceremony.
And I was there — me and my shadow. The bag.
The two of us did everything together. We took visiting daughter Mary on a drive up to the Kennedy Library but had to come home when the bag began to leak.
It leaked a couple more times on the train, but we made it home without my fellow passengers noticing.
Sometimes, there was no place for us to sit on the train and it was difficult to stand because the gravity caused a strain on the bag, and I felt that the adhesive would give loose and we’d have a Rorschach of waste all over the floor of the train car.
I wasn’t dressing like Chaplin’s little tramp, but I wore loose-fitting pants — larger than they needed to be, even for a man of my controversial girth. So my friend was pretty much hidden beneath the tent of trouser. Plus, I wore my summer uniform — usually a Hawaiian shirt billowing like a flag — giving a second layer of covering to my little buddy.
I didn’t care about making a fashion statement. As long as I could keep my friend a secret from the world at large — as long as I could keep him on a need-to-know basis — I’d be content.
As summer closed, I felt bold enough for the two of us to take the boys on day trips to baseball games or to the movies. I’d gotten confident enough with my pal that Corwin suggested I speak to the ostomy patient support group. That made me feel that I had broken the back of this particular beast.
Savannah went off to school in Florida and Nicole drove her South, setting her up in her apartment. Then, since she was still in the process of establishing her midwifery practice, Nicole left Massachusetts again almost as soon as she returned from Florida. She signed up for a two-week residencey at a clinic in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania.
I had a subdued and somewhat lonely birthday that year. I was turning 61. That’s the sort of age that might’ve normally caused me to wax morose. It’s never the on-the-decade age that upsets me; it’s the next year. Turning 30 had been fine; turning 31 bummed had me out. Same thing with 40 and 41, 50 and 51.
But I was so happy to be alive that 61 didn’t depress me. My doctors said I was doing well, even if I didn’t feel all that well.
I was still here. The only thing worse than turning 61, I figured, was not turning 61.
The big kids, all away from home — Sarah, Graham, Mary and now Savannah — all called. My brother called. My sister called and they got my mother on the phone.
“When are you coming to see me?” she asked.
“Soon, Mom,” I said, “very soon.” And this time I wasn’t lying. I would probably be able to travel again before Thanksgiving.
Nicole was at her residency and didn’t call. Still exhausted from the grind of cancer care, I went to bed early. I was under the covers by 8 o’clock.
Travis’s 12th birthday was two days later and I was responsible for his big party.
I left work early that Friday to get Trav and select members of his posse after school.
We began with a football game on the town common on a beautiiful September afternoon.
Pizza, cake and adolescent-boy hilarity followed, capped by an up-on-the-fourth-floor sleepover in the guest room. (In case you’re wondering, ‘adolescent-boy hilarity’ means lots of fart jokes.)
The party was for Travis, but it gave me a residual lift.
Soon, it was time for my second round of chemotherapy. These were afternoon-long sessions that ran for six weeks, every Monday.
This time there was no 24-7 pump to wear, just sessions in the chair in the infusion suite. Neither was there any accompanying radiation down in the basement.
The major upside: those marvelous chicken-salad sandwiches.
These were easier sessions, as we began a downhill slide. I’d say goodbye to my friend, Mr. Bag, soon. I’d gotten used to him and his idiosyncrasies.
I was serenely independent and content before we met;
Surely I could always be that way again and yet
I’ve grown accustomed to his feel; accustomed to his smell;
Accustomed to my bag
(I grew up with musical comedy and those melodies still float through my skull.)
The fall semester had begun but I’d given myself a schedule that allowed for my afternoons in the chemo suite.
At the end of summer, my colleagues began dropping by my office one by one and all complimented me — lied is more like it — telling me that I looked well.
I most decidedly did not look well. I was as overweight as ever and drained from life with my little adhesived pal. But it was sweet of everyone to say something nice. I felt that I looked a decade older, a tired, bloated and battered carcass, all that remained of a once-healthy young body.
What had I done with the vessel that had been my gift, that had been entrusted to my care? Had I ever taken care of myself or appreciated what I had been given? My whole life, it seemed, was devoted to bearing down the road to ruin and degradation. .
Still, I was alive. So there was that.
The second sessions of chemo were not as difficult as the first round because they were controlled treatments, not constant, and not partnered with radiation.
I was on another part of the floor, a separate infusion suite. My fellow patients were somewhat blasé about this round. Chemotherapy had lost its novelty.
When I’d get up to hit the snacks in the kitchen area, I’d glance over to the other part of the infusion suite, where I’d been in residence six months before. The patients there shuffled around, mouths slightly agape, still dazed from their initial diagnosis.
I felt like a veteran watching new recruits loading onto a troop transport. Be patient, I thought. You don’t see it yet, but the end is in sight. I just got a good look at it.
The treatments still rendered me exhausted and I escaped to sleep as often as possible. I worked shorter days and went to the office just four days a week, but I did work.
One of the great pleasures of returning to work was being back with Mary Chapman, our department administrator, whose office adjoined mine. She had kept things together during my absence and had been having a rough time on her own.
Not long after my return, she took her vacation — a beer tour of Europe with her parents. Good God, that sounded like fun. She brought me purloined coasters from most of the bars they visited. This is the kind of thoughtful gift I really appreciate.
Not long after she returned but before the fall semester began, she stood in my door one morning, tears in her eyes, to tell me that she was leaving for another job.
It’s hard to hold onto talented young people. Mary had just earned her master’s degree in gastronomy and was now accepting a job across the river in the Peoples Republic of Cambridge, working with two things she loved — beer and cheese.
She cried, I think, because she thought she was letting me down. I think I cried because I was so happy for her.
Mary took it upon herself to find her replacement and was able to lure one of our master’s graduates, Sarah Kess, away from her role as research assistant to my prolific colleague, Mitchell Zuckoff. Mitch is what we like to call a book-writing motherfucker. I think he published another book just since I started writing this episode.
Mary wanted to help with the royal succession and said she’d take Sarah out for coffee and feel her out about the job.
I’d known Sarah as a student. She was smart as hell but also mysterious and inscrutable. I recalled her sitting silently in class — this was five years before — and sensed she did not approve of me.
As Mary left to meet Sarah at Starbucks, I said, “Be sure to ask her if she’d be offended if she hears me use the fuck-word.” That had been my litmus test with Mary and Lisa Bassett, her predecessor: I swear to myself the way other people hum ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ It’s what I do.
“Well,” I said, when Mary got back from coffee. “What’s the word?”
“She says your swearing is one of the most endearing things about you.”
If I’ve done nothing else at Boston University, I’ve hired three great young women — Lisa Bassett, Mary Chapman and Sarah Kess. They were all great colleagues and I grew to enjoy working with all three of them.
So Mary crossed the river — I was sick for a few days and missed her departure — and Sarah took over and the office ran seamlessly and well, often without me.
When the chemotherapy ended, Corwin scheduled me for the big finale. He had removed my tumor in the spring, taking the lowest part of my lower intestine and using it to build a new rectum — what Jack liked to call my bionic butthole. For six months, it had lain dormant and healed. My ass was boarded up, gone fishing, closed for business.
That’s why we’d used the front-door exit, out through the sliced-up intestine and into the bag. This time, he’d reverse the process, stitch up the intestine, stuff that gooey thing back in my gut and sew it all up.
At this point, I was used to the bag. I still found it weird and certainly could never imagine going to the beach with one or getting jiggy with it. But I had to admit that it had its strong points. If you weren’t near a bathroom when you had to go, it didn’t matter. You could go whenever you wanted.
As I said earlier, you weren’t even aware when you were going. Sometimes there was a tickle in the stoma — a not unpleasant feeling — and when I’d check, I’d see that a lot had been going on.
Corwin had examined my southerly orifice and pronounced it ready for prime time. He said the time had come to reconnect me.
I was a little worried about what it was going to be like, using that thing again.
“It’s going to be weird for a while,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. You’re going to have to retrain your rectum.”
“It’s not like he ever paid any attention to me before.”
“This is going to be tough,” he said. “In a way, the toughest part of all of this is still ahead.”
He could see doubt cloud my face.
“But you’ll get through it,” he said. “Trust me — you’ll get through it.”
Silly me, thinking that I’d wake up in the hospital and things would be just like before. Now there was this new complication.
Have you ever tried to train a rectum? It’s not nearly as much fun as it sounds like, as I would soon learn.