Part 18. Everybody Was Ass-Cancer Fighting
How often we hear of someone battling cancer:
Mildred is fighting cancer.
Bushrod has cancer in a head lock.
Emmylou is kicking the living shit out of cancer’s ass.
I know that’s the common cancer nomenclature. If we’re talking about friends or loved ones, it makes us feel better to picture them engaged in mortal combat. We want to think of them putting up a fight and not taking this shit lying down.
But I didn’t feel that I was fighting. I felt like a passive participant.
Nevertheless, on the day I began my treatment, I dressed as if for war. My uniform was a sweatsuit — navy blue drawstring pants, a red Boston University sweatshirt. I wore a pair of old Merrill slip-ons (fine shoes, disfigured by the duties of fatherhood) and stepped into them, crushing the heels so they served more as glorified bedroom slippers.
It’s not my usual attire. I’ll never make GQ, but I always thought sweatpants were low rent. I’d generally wear slacks to work and jeans on weekends and every now and then — wind and weather permitting — I’d venture out into the world in cargo shorts. I know cargo shorts have been discredited of late in popular culture, but what other manner of clothing allows for simultaneous hands-free transport of wallet, keys and beer bottle?
As I got dressed for the first day of my cancer war, I looked in the mirror and thought of an old episode of “Seinfeld.” George Costanza shows up at Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment wearing attire too casual for Jerry’s tastes. “You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants?” Jerry asks George. “You’re saying, ‘I give up.’”
George Constanza has given up, but not me.
I looked at that guy in the mirror — overweight, unshaven, uncomfortable in the sloppy clothing — and thought: I give up.
But I resolved: I wasn’t giving up. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to die. There would be time for that later. Plus, it would piss off the kids if I checked out early.
I needed to follow through with this plan from Team Asshole and see how long it took me. In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, I had to ride this strange torpedo out to the end.
And so it was time to begin. I awoke that Monday, put on the sweat clothes, brushed my teeth and headed off to a new life of wonder and mystery.
I got in my car, the old Chrysler Sebring convertible my mother gave me when my brother took away her keys. It was early January in Massachusetts, certainly not convertible weather, and there was a constant fissure of cold air when I drove because the window did not entirely mesh with the ragtop.
My first appointment was at eight o’clock, so I was on the road before all of the kids left for school. There was no ceremony, nothing to mark the occasion. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. The only difference was that Dad was at the kitchen counter during breakfast.
Jack and Charley are notorious sleepyheads. Travis was the only one to serve as a fully functioning pre-adolescent at that time of day. There were misplaced backpacks, a dearth of matched socks and a non-stop shoveling of oatmeal. My unfamiliar presence was not deemed worthy of comment, and I was fine with that. I wanted the boys to see my treatment as something necessary and even ordinary.
Daddy’s not scared. Why should I be scared?
On a regular workday, I was usually out the door and on commuter rail early, a blur of backpack and necktie. Often, I was gone before anyone else woke. But now I was differently attired — in my cancer uniform, off to start my new job: trying to stay alive.
Between our home and the cancer center, stretched a twenty-minute, winding drive through the picturesque village of Hingham.
On the way, I listen to sports talk radio, “The Dennis and Callahan Show” on WEEI, as the hosts and their hot-headed sidekick discuss the minutiae of New England Patriots and modern politics. It’s the kind of show that just likes to stir the shit. The sidekick had been suspended for comments about sideline reporter Erin Andrews, whom he called a “gutless bitch” and said if she “weighed 15 pounds more she would be a waitress.” He outraged listeners and was told to apologize. He botched his mea culpa, so he was suspended.
I figured listening to this show too much would render me so stupid that I would die. But my cancer diagnosis apparently rendered me fearless. Listening to the nabobs on the show became my declaration of my will to live. I talked back to the radio — yelled at it was more like it — as a way to harness my energy and steel myself. All the way through Hingham, I denounced the caveman politics of the hosts.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited Hingham during her husband’s presidency and pronounced it the prettiest Main Street in America. Mrs. Roosevelt, let me assure you, nothing has changed. Main Street is wide and the homes are old, restored rambling bastards that go on and on and on. Every century, home owners made additions, whether needed or not.
The town was established in 1633 and some of the houses on Main Street date from that time. Hingham abuts one of the busiest highways heading into Boston and so when I cross over that highway bridge, I’m in Weymouth, a funkier town with good pizza joints, prolific and friendly spawts bars and the concentration of medical campuses.
The Dana Farber Cancer Center is across the street from South Shore Hospital. It’s a short walk between the buildings, and they share a parking garage. I’d already developed a nodding friendship with the garage attendant through my flurry of pre-Christmas appointments. We were about to become buddies.
There was nothing else around the hospital and cancer center. Nobody was parking in the garage and running into Stop & Shop or Walgreens. Still, no matter how cold it was, I had to roll down my window, he had to slide open the glass on the booth, and I had to state my business. Protocol.
“I have an appointment,” I’d say, and he’d smile a big toothy and press the button that raised the gate.
In graduate school, I read about the motion studies of Max Weber and so I’ve always been concerned with economy of movement. So I’d routinely go up the ramp to the third floor of the garage — bypassing assloads of parking spaces for patients — to be able to take the covered pedestrian bridge over to the cancer center. I didn’t want to go downstairs and outside into the cold if I didn’t have to. The bridge brought me in on the level of the Breast Cancer and Multi-Specialty clinics, Doctor Corwin’s home. It saved a lot of steps, a veteran move of which Max Weber would approve. “Ja, Ja,” I could hear him saying.
But my business was on the top floor and in the basement.
My chemotherapy was continuous and I rebooted weekly — every Monday in the top-floor oncology suite.
Radiation was daily at eight in the morning and I settled into what became a surprisingly comfortable routine.
I got my radiation downstairs. There were male-and-female dressing rooms for those who did not wear their cotton armament to the cancer center. Next to the dressing room was a small co-ed waiting room with coffee and Lorna Doone cookies. I’d usually wolf down six of these shortbread delights while I waited — I needed to maintain my weight, remember. I never waited more than five minutes before someone would come get me.
Occasionally, I’d overlap with another cancer patient. Lots of prostate guys, a couple testicular guys, a smattering of other asshole guys. Some came from as far away as Plymouth, an hour down the busy highway, and just about all of the other patients came with a spouse or a child to serve as a minder.
The techs were all young, all female, all extraordinarily friendly. They knew what was wrong with me and what they had to do. I don’t know that they could tell how embarrassed and humiliated I was — and that was just because I was wearing sweatpants. Having to have these lovely young women lay me out on the table and expose me to the world sent me into a Mariana Trench of mortification.
Those tattoos came in handy. Jenna, the young woman who was often the Fetcher of Patients, led me into the radiation room. I laid down on the table, underneath a huge, bulbous apparatus, much as it had been in the other suite the first day, when the tattoos were lasered onto my fat ass (and side). Then came the adjustments.
It often took ten to fifteen minutes to get my diseased body lined up with the monstrous ray gun. As I lay there, Suzanne or Rebecca — different techs each time, but generally two drawn from the regular crew of five on duty — would pull up my sweatshirt, then pull down my sweatpants.
I lived in fear of what might happen. For those of you without a penis: you might not realize how unpredictable those wascally wabbits can be. Even after six decades with the same penis, I can’t claim to have learned how to completely control his behavior. Each day, as the techs tugged down my pants, they went so far as to expose the top part of Mister Happy, with the waistband — theoretically, at least — holding him in place. This meant that my belly and my hirsute portions were out there for all to see. Once I was positioned, the gigantic ray gun was aimed at me, lining up with my tattoos and to the naked eye, it looked like it was aimed at the naughty bits.
During the adjustments, I kept wondering: If it’s my ass that’s sick, why don’t they turn me over?
Lying on my stomach, butt pointed toward heaven, would be less embarrassing. Yet the radiation would — as would the surgery — come in through the front door to get to the back porch.
I’d spent my whole overweight life trying to cover this part of my body, nipples to nob, that was now exposed. And now here it was open for all to see, to be blasted with what was, to me, the power from a thousand suns. This wide band of flesh was now my personal war zone.
The techs worked in teams. One would move the beached whale on the table while the others, in the radiation-control booth, would talk back on the squawk box: “A leetle bit to the left. Little more. Lift up” — this part directed to me, to move my ass — “OK, a little more, a little more ….”
Twenty minutes sometimes, this horizontal dance of adjustment. The crew was determined to get it right.
These women were also the ones who administered the gentle ass-chewings if my weight fluctuated at all.
A little bit more, a little bit more. Now, down just a smidge . . . .
“Okay,” I’d finally hear from the booth. “Don’t move.”
The tech charged with adjusting my flesh left. Everyone ran for cover. No one wanted to be exposed to this radiation.
Except for me, of course. Killing me was saving me.
I’d lie there, listening to the cold, hollow hum of the machine as it blasted my stuff. They kept rock’n’roll radio at a murmur. The actual treatments were kind of short — most of my time in the radiation suite was spent in preparation — but even so, I was sometimes so relaxed I could consider a catnap.
When the daily treatment was over, I experienced the pleasure of again covering my bulk. One of the techs would help me up off the table, as if I were a feeble old man. The whole crew gathered round and congratulated me on a successful round of radiation.
They did this every day. They were radiation technicians but they were really in the spirit-building business. At the end of each session they made me feel as if I’d run a four-minute mile.
I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t battling shit. I was just lying on a table, getting pounded with this deadly radiation.
Then they’d walk me out the way I’d come in, encouraging me to eat more Lorna Doones. Got to maintain that body weight, after all.
That’s what it was like that first day. That’s what it was like every day for those two months.
I drew great comfort from the young women in the radiation suite. I think they sensed my embarrassment and humiliation and perhaps even my fear. They kept me from feeling embarrassed and stupid.
It was only one assault in the war on cancer. The other offensive was run from the penthouse, up in the oncology suite. That was where chemotherapy and fabulous chicken-salad sandwiches awaited.
The radiation was like the attack on Anzio beach. The chemotherapy was a more wide-ranging assault, like Operation Overlord. My own personal D-Day was four flights up.