Part 19. Chemosabe
It didn’t take long to heal. After I removed the gauze patch, I found that I could fondle the port-a-cath (yep, that’s the generic name for these things) through my skin. It was a protuberance, like an errant nipple in my upper chest, just below my collarbone. The incision was tiny. Christian Corwin was the cat burglar of surgeons — he could be in and out before you knew it, and you could never tell he was there.
As part of the procedure, I got a souvenir fancy pants laminated card for my wallet, one that proclaimed that I was the proud possessor of a port-a-cath. Maybe that was in case I passed out and emergency workers needed to know this shit so they wouldn’t do something that might make me explode. That would be gooey.
When it was deemed okay to use this groovy new entry point for my body, I had my first chemotherapy appointment.
I’d come to like the idea of the port-a-cath. I’d always been one of those people on whom techs had trouble finding a vein. I often tried donating blood, but would leave those sessions with bandages and bruises all over my arm. Maybe I was so fat that my veins were hard to reach.
Often, the techs would draw the blood through the veins on top of my hand. They were certainly more prominent, but still I was left with blue and purple patches.
So the port-a-cath was perfect, a one-stop blood-draw center.
It was also the entry point for my poison.
I wore a different uniform on my chemotherapy days. I needed a buttoned-up shirt, so the port could be accessed without me completely disrobing. So, I reverted to the loose flannel shirts of my youth, the sort of garb that came back into style during the Kurt Cobain years.
Each chemo day started the same: a check of vitals, a blood draw, and then down the hall to the chemo suite. There was a central nurses’ station surrounded by about 20 treatment bays, separated only by curtains. Each bay had its own television, a comfortable recliner and all kinds of stuff on the walls — mostly blood-pressure cuffs, oxygen hookups and other gizmos.
I knew there’d be a lot of waiting and a lot of down time. I live in fear of being trapped somewhere without something to read, so I’d decided that Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry would be my Monday all-day-thumbsucker chemo book. It was a big motherfucker, an early entry in the Lonesome Dove saga and supremely entertaining, like most of McMurtry’s books.
Lots of sitting and waiting while being hooked up to shit in the chemotherapy suite. That’s not a picture of me that way. I’ve never been comfortable with that shade of polish.
These were long days of mostly solitude — since I came to my treatments alone — but these were with regular and steady appearances by my primary chemo nurse, John Christopher. He was a friendly, thoughtful and considerate guy, who didn’t engage in meaningless can’t-stand-dead-air conversations (as barbers are wont to do), but peppered me with sincere questions about who I was and what I did. If he was going to help save my life, maybe he wanted to know something about me.
I told him how boring it was not to work.
“Keeping busy,” he said, pausing to reflect. “It’s an important part of your care.”
Unlike me, this man put thought into everything he said.
“I’m going to be writing a book,” I said. “It’s something I can do kind of at my own pace, since I don’t know what this chemo stuff will do to me.”
So naturally, he asked about the nature of the book. For years, I’d been carrying around an idea for a book on the incestuous and inter-connected world of rock’n’roll in Los Angeles in the 1960s. It was the time of the hippie peace, love ’n’ flowers ethos, ripe for exploitation by the wrong kinds of people, Charles Manson being an example of such.
John listened carefully, then suggested the name of a good friend of his — a roommate during his Los Angeles days — who’d written a book about the business side of rock’n’roll. It became a key source.
This is why I love serendipity. You can only find stuff like this when you’re not looking for it.
Our main business was cancer, not writing about music, but we spent most of that first day getting to know each other.
Doctor Freter had created an oncology cocktail of sorts — different blends of chemicals to inject non-stop into my suffering carcass. After checking my port, to make sure all was well, John introduced me to my chemo pump. The chemicals were contained in a pouch that was further contained in a hard-plastic shell. It reminded me of one-half of a walkie talkie set from Radio Shack, circa 1967. In short, sleek it wasn’t.
The pump was hooked up to the port-a-cath, the connection held in place under a bandage with a plastic window. I watched John insert the needle into the port-a-cath, skin stretched taut over the submerged opening of the catheter. Didn’t hurt at all when he punctured my tightly-stretched skin.
I sat there for a while, absorbing the many colors of the chemicals. The pump would keep the chemicals flowing into my body twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until I would return to the chemo suite for a new dose of poison.
While I was in my reclining seat, soaking up the stuff, lots of volunteers came by to talk to me.
There was a nutritionist. She delivered the same bad news — that I had to maintain my weight — but she counseled me on better things to eat.
A eucharistic minister came by — they’d gotten the word that I was Catholic — and she prayed with me.
A social worker came by to ask me how things were going at home. I told her about the four little ones and how we were trying to keep them from being frightened.
“We talk about cancer a lot,” I told her. “Mostly, that’s so they won’t be scared. I try to use it to motivate them. I’ll say, ‘Are you going to take out the garbage or are you going to make your cancerous old dad do it?’ It’s working, for the most part. I’ve never seen them so motivated before.”
She laughed. “That’s good, and it’s good that you are so open in talking about it. But make sure you are serious when they need you to be serious. They’re probably worried.”
And I thought of Jack, coming into the bedroom and crossing over to me and my side of the bed, tears in his eyes.
“I will,” I said.
And then came the best hospital volunteer: the Sandwich Woman. She came by with a cart and her visit was the highlight of every trip to the chemotherapy suite. The chicken-salad sandwiches there were so good that it almost made it worth it to get cancer.
Then again, maybe not.
The chemotherapy pump itself fit into a plastic-windowed pocket that was held in place by a belt. I could wear this contraption however the dictates of fashion suggested.
I could belt it high, around my chest, but felt more comfortable, no doubt because of my reading material, another classic McMurtry Western novel, wearing it around my hips, like a holster.
I could wear it under my battle-armament sweat pants or on the outside, covered by my floppy flannel shirt. The fashion choices were endless. The point was, John said, that people didn’t need to know that I was being treated.
I thought I wouldn’t mind it if people saw it. Maybe they’d ask what it was, or figure it out, and maybe think that people in cancer treatment could live semi-normal lives and not be locked away somewhere. I decided to wear it as a holster in my one-man mission to normalize ass-cancer care.
John showed me how to test the pump, how to change batteries — which he did not see as being needed before I saw him the next week — and how else to live now that I was walking around as Billy the Kid, holster low on the hip. He gave me his card and printed his cell number on the opposite side.
“Lots of adjustments this week,” he said. “You’ve never been in cancer treatment before, so we expect lots of questions. Any questions or issues, you call me. Any general questions . . . you know, things that you might think are more urgent, call that number on the front. That’ll get you here, to the person on duty.”
He felt I was ready, so he released me. “Good luck working on your book,” he said. “I want to hear about your progress next week.”
I adopted my best Jay Silverheels voice: “Thank you, Chemosabe.” Remarkably, he got my stupid joke.
So I went home, still early enough that the kids weren’t home from school. It was just me. I gathered some appropriate rock’n’roll books from my basement office and lugged them up to my bedroom, intent on following through on my idea of writing a book while I was in cancer treatment.
I dumped about six or eight books on the bed, found a yellow legal pad and pen, and opened up the laptop. I got under the covers, as if in a fortress behind the books. Pretty soon, I fell asleep.