Asshole: A Memoir

Part 12. Team Asshole

After my session with Doctor Corwin, I had to meet a few other members of the “team.” 

I know: calling it a team sounds cheesy, but let’s see how you feel once you hear those three little words. When someone tells you you have cancer, you’ll want the goddamned Third Armored Division on your side. (Or at least the 1927 Yankees.) 

Trust me, you’ll want a fucking team

At Dana Farber, they made me feel like I was the most important patient in the joint. I suspect they make all the patients feel the same way. I never felt that I was in the usual assembly-line approach to medicine I’d seen in so many other places. The receptionist, the cashier at the snack bar, the guy at the parking-garage kiosk and the office staff in oncology that checks in patients — it’s like they’ve all gone through some kind of hyper-sensitivity training. I know it’s corny as shit, but it felt as if everyone in the place was rooting for me. And for all the others. 

So I had several meetings with the staff at Dana Farber Cancer Center before the chemotherapy hijinks would begin. They were insistent that I know what the fuck would be going on before we got started with the treatment. 

Doctor Freighter, as it turned out, was Freter, as in Rolf Freter, M.D. He was the oncologist and Dana Farber poster boy. When I met him, I recognized him from the pictures hanging up around the building — posed shots of Freter with patients, everyone yukking it up as if having a cancer diagnosis was nearly as hilarious as a Sarah Silverman HBO special. 

During our first meeting, I discovered that he did trend toward the jovial end of the scale. He could have had a great career in radio with his warm, basso profundo voice. I’d done a little reading about his background (impressive!) and saw that one of his specialties was pediatric oncology. Jesus — it’s bad enough to have cancer at sixty. Imagine hearing those three little words when you’re a kid. 

It reminded me of Bruce Pearson, the doomed young catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly, the great baseball novel by Mark Harris. Bruce is a young ballplayer from the Georgia woods and he’s just gotten a death sentence from the Mayo Clinic. He doesn’t muse about it or whine or feel sorry for himself. He just says, matter of factly, “I been handed a shit deal.” 

Me too, Bruce. I been handed a shit deal but I think I’m lucky to have these Dana Farber players on my fucking team. 

Freter was an oncologist but probably saw himself as being in the reassurance business. Our first meeting wasn’t a getting-to-know-you Rodgers & Hammerstein lovefest like the meeting with Corwin, but Freter took time to explain to us — Nicole came along to the first meeting — what would be happening. He presented a successful eradication of cancer as the certain outcome. 

I liked his power-of-positive-thinking approach. 

“But we’ll never be done,” Freter said, with a big smile — probably the same smile he used on the kiddie patients. “This is the beginning of a life-long relationship. When we knock out this cancer” — and here he leaned forward and rested his palm on my kneecap — “and we will” — dramatic pause for emphasis; removal of hand — “you’ll still have to come see us. Every year. For. The. Rest. Of. Your. Life.” He smiled the indulgent kiddie-patient smile. “You’ll get sick of us. But we need to make sure we keep you alive.” 

Freter was the oncologist who’d be supervising my chemotherapy. It’s funny — we’ve just been diagnosed with an often-fatal disease, but we all have the same question: about our fucking hair. 

He smiled indulgently when I asked the question. “It’s unlikely,” he said. “The chemotherapy and the radiation won’t be aimed at your head. But, of course, we can’t guarantee the hair on your head won’t be affected.” 

“It’s one of the few things I have going for me,” I explained. “I’ve got these great, wavy locks. It’s about the only thing women seem to like about me. They want to take off their shoes and run barefoot through it. Plus, I think if my big melon was naked, it’d look pretty weird.” 

Nicole leaned in. “He’s got such a big damn head.” 

Doctor Freter smiled the kiddie-patient smile. “We’ll see what happens, but I think you’ll be in the clear.” 

I was spending so much time at Dana Farber that I felt that I’d moved in. Freter and the main treatment rooms for chemotherapy were on the top floor. Doctor Corwin and the Multi-Specialty and Breast Cancer Clinics were on the next-floor down. 

To meet the next team members, I went to the basement. Bruce Borgelt was my radiation oncologist. He and his assistant, a nurse named Candace Pugsley, met with me to explain their part in the mission to save my asshole. Doctor Borgelt told me that one of the first things we’d need to do was tattoo me. 

“Cool,” I said. “I always wanted a ‘Scotland Forever’ tattoo, like Sean Connery.” 

“I’m afraid it won’t be anything quite so glamorous,” he said. He looked like Uncle Joe from “Petticoat Junction” but deadpanned with the skill of Steven Wright. 

I’d get tattooed in four spots around my gut, so the radiation technicians could line up the zapper to shoot me in the same place everyday. 

“Oh, so like calibration,” I said. From working as a night editor at newspapers, I knew the importance of calibration in printing. 

“Very much so,” he said, with a W.C. Fields-like delivery. “It’s important to us that you maintain your weight. If you lose weight, then it throws off the calibration and the radiation won’t work.” 

My face fell. “‘Maintain my weight’?” I drooped. “I was kind of hoping I’d lose weight.” 

Borgelt nodded. “I’m afraid we can’t do that. We’ll be watching your weight. Any more than a pound or two either direction will throw us off. 

I sighed. “Jesus, Doc, what the hell good is it to have cancer if I can’t waste away?” 

“Let’s get you well,” Doctor Borgelt said, “then you can think about losing weight.” 

Of course, there were a lot of other members of the team. I’d end up spending a lot of time with Candice Pugsley, who checked in with me weekly. She took me around the radiation suite and introduced me to the women who would be aiming their fierce tools of radiation at my ass daily. 

Christmas was approaching and I was scheduled for my first procedure — an operation to implant in my upper chest the catheter that would administer my chemotherapy — the first week of January. 

So far, I’d been able to keep everything secret. But Savannah was getting suspicious. 

She was the first one home from school every afternoon, so she brought in the mail. Dana Farber had something for me daily. They sent informational brochures, news of fund-raising campaigns, and insurance paperwork. As soon as I got home, I’d grab the letters off the kitchen counter and squirrel them away, but one day, when I came home from work, she slapped a Dana Farber letter down on the counter and said, “What’s going on?” 

I despise lying. There’s a set of house rules on the refrigerator that I post for the kids. One of the big ones is “No matter what the consequence, always tell the truth.” 

Keeping a secret, sometimes, is like lying. But now I was going to fudge on my own rule. 

“They just want money,” I shrugged. “You know, Dana Farber runs the Jimmy Fund and stuff. They’re just looking for donations.” 

Savannah stared back at me and I could tell she wasn’t buying it, but she let it go. 

I slipped the envelope into my back pocket and went upstairs to read it. Fortunately for my eternal soul — since I believe lying earns you a spot on Satan’s knee — it was indeed an appeal for money. 

Next: Part 13. My Mother