Part 08. Magic Wand
Not a good night. I’m a bad sleeper anyway — I suffer from sleep apnea, yet another deficiency — and it’s rare that I get any quality rest in a hospital without the aid of powerful narcotics.
In the morning, the clerisy of South Shore physicians paraded through my room, asking questions and looking at my ass. Two of them donned plastic gloves to go spelunking in my subterranean cavern.
Finally, the last doctor to see me, a Doctor Edwards of the hospital staff, told me something that fed my skewed and self-denying view of the world.
“Hell,” he said. “Maybe it’s just a big-ol’ hemorrhoid.”
Perhaps he sensed my Indiana origins, and the big-ol’ modifier was his attempt to establish country-boy rapport.
Yeah, Buddy. I didn’t say that, but I felt it.
“We need to get you a colonoscopy.” Gitchu.
I wilted. Again: total strangers continually wanted to shove things up my ass. Hands, fingers, medical instruments, toasters, bicycle pumps . . . .
“Actually,” I said, hoping to buy time. “I’m scheduled for one next week.”
“Where?” the doc asked, brightening.
“South Shore Gastroenterology.”
“Well, go ahead with that and then we’ll see where we stand next week. I’ll start the paperwork to get you out of here.” He jotted something on his clipboard. “Got big plans for tomorrow?”
“Yeah. My grown daughter and her boyfriend are coming up from the city,” I said. “It’d suck to have Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital cafeteria.”
Or would it? When I was a little boy and Dad was hospital commander at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, we all dressed up and went to the hospital for holiday meals because Dad thought he should be there for the staff with shifts on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He’d carve the turkey for a hundred or more. That’s why hospitals and their medicinal smells don’t irritate me. They remind me of those splendid afternoons.
But I was eager to get out of this hospital, since Sarah and David, her boyfriend, were due to arrive that evening. All I cared about was making my nuclear green-bean casserole for the holiday dinner. My ass and its secretions was not a subject of dinnertime discussion.
Nicole had told Sarah that their visit might need to be postponed because there was a chance I’d still be in the hospital. But when I was released, Nicole gave them the high sign and Sarah and David took the Amtrak up from Manhattan.
Sarah was concerned, but I downplayed my health issues, because I didn’t want to worry the little ones, and so we had an embargo on any discussions of my ass. It was a subdued but standard Thanksgiving: a festival of gluttony followed by days fecund with gastronomical regret.
The following Thursday, the big day arrived for ass exploration. As instructed, I’d gone to Walgreens and purchased three ten-ounce bottles of magnesium citrate. Friends who’d had colonoscopies told me the prep was the worst part, that drinking this stuff was like gargling with diarrhea. I saw that the stuff came in a few flavors, so I asked the pharmacist for advice.
“Stay away from fruit-flavors,” Mrs. Wong said. “They try to cover up the taste, but it only makes it worse. Stick with clear.”
There were a lot of instructions. A few days before the procedure, I had to cut back on some medications, and stop eating things like nuts, popcorn, sunflower seeds, corn — stuff that wasn’t part of my regular diet anyway.
Then the day before the tunnel job, I had to be on a clear-liquid diet: no real food at all, just coffee (no creamer), popsicles, broth, that kind of stuff.
Then the main event: At 4 pm the day before, I ingested my first bottle of magnesium citrate. This tart, soul-less beverage was unpleasant, but not the liquefied sewage I’d expected. It tasted like overly fermented lemonade.
Prepared for the worst, I chugged it, downing the whole bottle before its taste had a chance to register with my buds and brain. Two hours later, I was instructed to chug Bottle Number Two. Within ninety minutes, I was in residence on the toilet. I imagined I would be up all night and encouraged Nicole to sleep in the guest room. She took her pillows and left without further negotiation.
I didn’t get up any more than usual. By morning, when I had to drink the third bottle, I was used to the stuff. I wouldn’t order it off the menu at Shakey’s Pizza, but it wasn’t bad. My friends who’d told me the stuff tasted terrible were gutless weenies.
Savannah drove me, bringing Slaughterhouse-Five (that nearly perfect book!) to read while they probed me. The paperwork from the clinic informed me I would be sedated and the staff would refuse to do the procedure if I didn’t have someone to drive me home.
The waiting room was packed. All kinds of people were there to have their asses explored. The patients looked old to me. I may be sixty, I may look like I’m sixty, but inside I am still a nineteen-year-old gee whizzer, filled with innocent wonder for most everything I see. I looked at the others in the waiting room, a collection of codgers.
It reminded me of when my mother moved into what we euphemistically call an “assisted-living facility” back in Indiana. She was eighty-nine. “Why are you sticking me in with all of these old people?” she asked my brother.
I also had a book — Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman, a fine debut novel — but I was too aflutter to concentrate on the book. I watched the other patients and the office staff and figured out the pattern: they took us in groups of six. In curtained-off areas, patients stripped, slipped on johnnies, then waited in their cubbyholes on their gurneys. One by one, they were rolled down to the ass-exploration chamber.
“Mr. McKeen?” I was summoned to the sliding window at the front desk.
“That’s me,” I said, bending down to speak through the small opening. Why the bullet-proof glass, I wondered. Do people become enraged after getting probed?
“I didn’t notice this when you checked in,” the receptionist said, “but your appointment is tomorrow.” Pause. “You’ve come a day early.”
The Aunt Edna in me was at first relieved — another opportunity for avoidance.
“So,” I asked. “Do I need to go home and drink that stuff again today?
“Oh, no,” she poo-pooed, waving away my silliness. “You’re ready to go. We’ll find a time to squeeze you in. I just wanted to apologize for the longer wait.”
“What was that about?” Savannah asked when I sat down.
“I came a day early,” I said. “So this is going to take longer than we thought.” I shrugged. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, I’m out of class for this, so I don’t care,” she said, turning back to her book. “Take all day.”
As far as Savannah was concerned, this ass-check was a geezer routine. She had no idea I was sick, so she was placid as flan.
My turn finally came. I was led to my cubbyhole, bid to strip, put on the hardly-adequate johnny and laid on the gurney to wait. After I was done waiting, I waited some more. Since I was there on the wrong day, I didn’t mind being the last with the bathwater, so to speak. Besides, I was an artist of avoidance, so even a few minutes seemed like a governor’s midnight reprieve.
Finally my turn came and a nurse’s aide wheeled me into the chamber of horrors, with a brief stop at central command, so she could tell the desk nurse what kind of sub to order her for lunch. Then she rolled me into the butt bunker.
“Hello.” The muffled voice came from behind a surgical mask. “I’m Doctor Martinez.”
Though his face was largely covered, I could see he was smiling.
Between the mask and his surgical cap, I could also see he was young, probably around the same age as my oldest son, maybe early thirties. He had a trace of a Spanish accent.
“I’m Kenzie,” said his nurse. From what little I could see of her I could tell she had beautiful green eyes. Soon, I thought, those eyes would be fixed on a most unattractive part of my body.
“Listen,” I said. “I drank all that stuff I was supposed to drink, but I’m not sure it got everything.”
“I’m sure it’ll be all right,” Kenzie said, soothing me like a little boy.
“I just, you know, want to apologize in advance if I — in case I mess up this most excellent gurney,” I said. “I’d be so embarrassed.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kenzie said. “We’ve seen it all.”
That’s the last thing I heard, then I was out.
It’s not anesthetic. Apparently, patients aren’t really knocked out during the procedure, but they think they are because when they become fully conscious they realize they can’t remember anything.
When I awoke, I was on the opposite side of the large suite, with prep and recovery areas for about twenty patients. They did big volume at South Shore Gastroenterology. I was curtained-off and alone, listening to murmured conversations from the other cubbyholes. I heard a rush of excitement when the sandwiches arrived and I realized suddenly I was hungry for real food.
A few minutes later, the curtain parted and a young nurse, still chewing, looked in at me. “Oh,” she said. “You are awake.”
“Was I out a long time?”
She swallowed. “Little bit longer than usual.” She carried a phone, an old-fashioned cordless, circa 1988, the approximate size of a Ford Focus. “Doctor Martinez wants to talk to you. When this rings, answer it.” She set it down on my belly.
Why he didn’t just walk over from the excavation suite, I couldn’t understand. I was pondering this, still trying to eavesdrop on other conversations when the contraption rang.
“Mr. McKeen? This is Doctor Martinez. I’m between patients over here. You can go when the staff dismisses you but I needed to tell you something.” His voice was slightly muffled; must still be wearing his mask.
“Yes?” I closed my eyes.
“I was unable to fully perform the procedure.” There was a long pause. To fill the silence, I grunted assent. “There was — is — a mass. As your, your primary reported. The instrument I use — it could not go through, uh, into your colon. That’s not good. It usually means that there is a tumor.” Another pause, another grunt from me. “And that generally, not always, but generally, indicates, uh . . . cancer.”
I let that steep, like tea.
“We need to study the images I got from my attempt at your exam. There’s a small camera, a microscopic camera, at the end of this instrument I use.”
“Like a magic wand?”
I could hear a smile, even under his mask. “Yes, a magic wand. When I’m done with today’s patients, I will look and call you back — probably not until tomorrow, I’m afraid. I want to study the pictures I got. If it is serious, if it is what I think it might be, we will move fast and get you in to see a specialist.”
“Do you understand what I’ve told you? I know you’re groggy now and this might not be sinking in. We can talk again tomorrow. On the phone. I will call.”
And so I went home and waited until the kids were upstairs and I was doing the dishes. Nicole had been asking me about what the doctor had said and though she has the persistence of bacteria, I’d managed to put her off.
But now we were alone. She was sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of pinot noir.
“He found a mass,” I said. “He said it might be a tumor.” I cleared my throat. “Cancer.”
“Might be? What does that mean?”
“You know everything I know. Patients were lined up asshole-to-bellybutton and he was so busy he had to call me. From across the building. He was so busy he couldn’t even come see me from across the exam suite.”
“So what did he tell you?”
“Just what I said — a mass, possibly a tumor.” Pause. “Maybe….” Another pause. “Cancer.”
Her eyes hardened. For two years, she’d helped nurse her mother through lung cancer and brain cancer. In March, eight months before, she’d flown with her mother and aunt to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. They were hoping for more aggressive therapy and that was the initial meeting.
Afterward, Nicole flew home, and her mother and aunt flew to Key West, their hometown, to celebrate her mother’s birthday. Near the end of the flight, her mother coughed severely, her carotid artery burst, and she died just as her plane touched down. She arrived home, her body carried off the plane on a stretcher.
Nicole learned this while driving home from the airport. She called me immediately, but I was in Indiana. It was my mother’s ninety-second birthday and I had just flown in to surprise her when I got the call.
When I told my mother, she cried. “It should have been me,” she said. “Nicole’s mother is so young.”
A couple days later, we assembled in Key West for the funeral.
Nicole was destroyed. Now there was another cancer in her life.
“You should have listened to me,” she said. “You should have gotten that goddam test ten years ago.” She picked up her glass of wine and went upstairs. I heard our bedroom door close.