Part 27. Talking Shit
Let’s talk shit.
It’s not a pleasant subject and certainly outside the conversational realm of polite company. But acts of excretion are common to us all. Even splendid and beautiful women like Gal Gadot, Rosario Dawson and Emma Watson commit this despicable act. If they’re lucky and well-fibered, they do so once a day, precisely at 7:24 am. If they don’t do it, they’re dead. So for us all.
Agreed: it’s not something we want to talk about. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that we make it central to our conversations.
“Hey, Phil. How was your shit today?’
“A little loose, Merle.’
“Mine was solid, like a block of concrete. It was work to get it out, Brother.”
“Mine was like the River Ganges sluicing through my bowels.”
I don’t want to hear that shit. But not talking about it is what nearly got me killed. I was passing blood and goo. I should have spoken up about it earlier. Talking about shit is low-rent. And it’s rude.
Some people venture into excrement conversation now and then. One of my children, who will remain unidentified, used to call me up in the morning and say, without preamble, “Dad, I just took the greatest shit.”
And there’s another guy I used to work with, who will also remain unidentified. He is a prominent intellectual and leader of a conservative think tank. Many years ago, before he was distinguished, he used to tell me about his many acts of public intercourse on the Yale campus when he was a student there. But after describing one such encounter in the stacks of the Yale library, he said, “But a good shit is better than a good fuck anytime.”
I disagree, but the relative merits of sexual congress and expulsion of waste will be debated at another time.
We’re talking shit because as I move forward in this narrative, I must detail the horrible adventures I had for those six months, when I carried around a bag o’ shit. (Or shite, for my Irish friends.)
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING
Descriptions of excrement, bags of excrement, and explosions of bags of excrement ahead. Ye who are squeamish, keep a mop bucket handy.
When we commit this foul but vital act, we are usually aware beforehand when it’s appropriate to find the proper place to commit the deed. I refer, of course, to a toilet. This could mean trouble. Sometimes after glorious and spicy food, we cannot find the toilet fast enough.
Sometimes, even those without ass cancer find themselves too late to the party, having a slight accident before coming to a full parade rest on the toilet.
But now, my asshole was shut down — boarded up, with a detour sign posted across the cheeks. I’m being figurative, of course. But my ass was dead to me. Nothing was going on there. There was no flatulence. To hear my children tell it, that was a golden age. No gas escaped my sphincter for six months. This was a time of legend, something akin to a non-methane Camelot.
I still made waste, though, and it had to be dealt with. All of the action moved to the front.
Sometimes the angry red nipple tickled.
Here’s the weirdest part of it all: I could never tell when I was delivering waste into the ostomy bag. Sometimes I felt a slight — and not unpleasant — tickle in my angry red nipple beneath the bag. But I felt nothing and heard nothing. (Certainly nothing like the deep rumbling of bass notes we’ve all heard from adjacent stalls in train-station bathrooms.)
I could never tell when I was going. I’d steal a moment to put my hands down my loose-fitting pants (or pajama bottoms) and discover that the bag I had installed just an hour before was full.
I’d look at it, and the bag was bloated like a greedy tick.
That meant I had to change the bag and that, my friend, was a pain in the ass. Except it was a pain on the other side of my body from the ass.
I had to lie down on the bed and prepare the next bag before dealing with the present bag. So I tried to cut the opening, the thing that would encase the angry red nipple, into the proper shape. Sometimes, I’d follow a template I’d created. Other times, I just eye-balled it.
I’d remove the old bag, and the adhesive stretched my skin as I pulled it away. My skin was red and irritated and sometimes I needed to do without a bag. I’d lie naked on my bed, on a spare sheet I put over the bedspread, in case of accidents. I’d lie there and let the thing air out.
It was an odd thing — that nipple. It looked somewhat natural, like some growth or maybe a rambunctious mole.
But then it would erupt.
I remember summers when I was a child. We’d go to my father’s hometown, a little village in northern Ohio. It was like stepping back a few decades, to a time of soda fountains, fireflies captured in jars and long evenings on the front porch, talking to passersby about weather and politics. These visits often corresponded with the Fourth of July, so we got sparkers, small firecrackers and snakes to celebrate in the front yard while Grandma and Grandpa watched.
The snakes were always fascinating to me. They were little black buttons, smaller than a dime but thick as a cookie. We put them on the sidewalk and lit them with a match. They shot upward in a spiraling death dance, extended to eight inches on occasion. They were called snakes, I suppose, because they looked like cobras dancing from a basket.
So when I lay in bed, atop my splatter sheet, I’d let the angry nipple breathe and revel in — for one brief, shining moment — the joy of nudity. Then, like the snakes back on the Ohio sidewalks, a jet of waste would dance out of my body and land on my belly, straddling the nipple. Disgusting though it was, it was also fascinating to watch. My buffet of supplies on my end table included a roll of paper towels that made cleanup easier.
Sometimes, I’d lie there in my naked state for an hour, dealing with cleanup on an as-needed basis. I’d do anything to avoid having to attach a bag to my belly.
The nurses had promised that I’d get the knack of it, even though in all of our hospital tutorials, I failed miserably.
Since coming home, I’d had only one entirely successful attachment. Most of the time, I wouldn’t get good adhesion and there would be leakage.
On my second day home from the hospital, fearful that I would screw up, I asked Nicole for help. Remember: though we were married, we were shy about bodies, so there I was — naked as a jaybird, with just a towel covering Mister Happy. I asked her to help me attach a new ‘appliance,’ as they called it. I thought maybe that because of my angle I wasn’t getting a good seal between bag and skin. I thought coming at it from a more objective angle, she’d get a good seal.
But just as she removed the old bag and was about to attach a new one, my nipple erupted. She did her best to cover her feelings, but I could tell she felt revulsion. And I understood.
So I vowed to do it by myself. As promised, an ostomy nurse showed up and told me I was doing it all wrong, that the hospital nurses had taught me techniques that were bound to cause trouble. Here, do it my way, was her message.
The next night, my third night home from the hospital, I sensed that I would have difficulty. I excused myself from the marital bed — with no objection from Nicole — and took my splatter sheet and laptop down the hall to Savannah’s room. It was spring break so she was visiting family in Key West. I laid out on the bed and stayed up late, watching Netflix.
I managed to fall asleep but woke in the middle of the night to find that the bag had burst and that my midsection was covered with my foul waste.
I lay there for a while in that state. The eruption had stopped but my body and the loathsome bag were covered in revolting residue.
And I thought: Is this it? Is this the lowest point of my life? Can you conceive of ever being more miserable than this?
At that point, I don’t think I could imagine anything more humiliating and vile.
After what had happened the day before, I couldn’t summon Nicole to help. Plus, it was three in the morning. So I lay there, rock-bottom depressed, awash in my own waste. I did nothing. I just lay there and observed the occasional and small eruptions. I had used up all of the paper towels and couldn’t properly clean myself. I couldn’t get up without spilling my mess onto the floor. I had to wait for morning, for Nicole — or some other member of the household — to awake, to bring me paper towels.
It was humiliating, and that was a low point. Whether it will stand as the low point of my life remains to be seen.
But I did get better at attaching the bag. By the time of my checkup with Doctor Corwin, a week after my release, I felt that I was exponentially better at attaching and managing the bag, even if I had not yet broken the back of the beast. I still had occasional leakage.
I felt that I had done my best work attaching the bag when I laid down on the table in the Multi-specialty Clinic at Dana Farber Cancer Center. Corwin loosened my pants and pulled away the adhesive attachment for the bag. Part of me was irritated. I had achieved bag-attaching perfection and he had removed it, mostly so he could admire his work.
“Looks great,” he said. My body chose that moment to spew forth and he helped clean me up, but he was unskilled at the complicated mechanics of affixing ostomy bags.
He asked how the home-visit nurses were doing.
“Jesus,” I said. “I can’t imagine that being my job, like your specialty. Helping people with their . . . .”
“Poop,” he finished. “Yep, those nurses’re pretty special people.”
Everyt hing appeared to be in order, so Corwin sent me home to continue my life as a Brother of the Bag. Nicole and I felt pretty good about things, so we went to Target on the way home, mostly just to browse.
I thought I might be human again. Then, when we got home, I tried to get out of the car.
I’d begun to feel a smidge wookety in Target. The axis of my world took a slight spin off course, which I put down to general exhaustion. The week in the hospital was the opposite of relaxation and being home had also been difficult, what with the bag drama and bed-hopping.
But then we got home and I had to get out of the car. I did not know how difficult that was going to be.
Nicole had driven — I was not yet cleared to do so because of my supply of painkillers. We parked in the driveway, not the garage. I don’t recall why, because we garaged the cars routinely.
But not this day. I put my right foot down on the pavement and then Nicole was standing over me, talking into a phone.
I had lost time. Perhaps only two or three minutes, but still: my brain left my body.
I took inventory and discovered that my head was wedged against the open car door.
I heard Nicole describing my behavior to someone. I learned later that it was Corwin. Corwin, magnificent doctor that he was, had given us both his cell number and encouraged us to call or text with any questions.
I lay there for a moment with my neck in this awkward position, my chin shoved deep into my chest.
“I’m all right,” I said, though I have always been a terrible liar. Clearly I was not.
Nicole’s conversation was a series of nods and the occasional sounds of assent. She was obviously getting instructions.
I tried to move, mostly to get my neck out of its awkward position. To my extreme surprise, I could not move. I tried wiggling fingers and toes, to no avail.
Eventually, Nicole hung up and told me Corwin advised that I go to bed and get some rest. Maybe the Target run had been too much for a guy just a week out of the hospital.
That was a relief. I was afraid he was going to instruct me to come back to the cancer center.
I laid there in the driveway for ten minutes or so, crying, waiting, hoping (to borrow a phrase from Buddy Holly) that feeling would return, that my head would stop spinning and that my eyes would focus.
I eventually began to feel and Nicole pulled me into a sitting position. A few minutes later, with her help, I stood. I looked up and saw Charley looking out the window of the family room, watching the drama in the Driveway. He looked frightened.
I went inside and managed to climb the steps and spread out on my bed, with my splatter sheet. I changed my bag and felt clean.
I laid down and turned on a movie. The head-spin had stopped and I seemed okay. Nothing weird. I focused on the movie, some drama from the mid-fifties if memory serves.
The film ended and I got up to go downstairs. As I rounded the bed, I came to a dead stop. The head spin was back. I suddenly felt that all of the earth’s gravitational powers had concentrated on the northern side of the master bedroom on the second floor of my home in Cohasset, Massachusetts.
I looked down and saw the hardwood floor. I want to stand I want to stand, I thought. But I could see the floor approaching me and there was nothing I could do. Everything gave way — my legs and my will and my body slammed into the floor and I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed again.
I later learned that I had had a seizure.
Something was wrong. After a week in the hospital, I was terrified of going back. I’d never had a bad experience in a hospital and had grown up around them, loving the sounds and smells.
But I couldn’t go back. I was pretty sure it would kill me.
But that afternoon Nicole drove me back to the hospital. Corwin insisted. I passed on the idea of going by ambulance because it would scare the kids and was too expensive. So I was back in the shotgun seat of Nicole’s Volvo.
So: Within a couple of hours of getting my all-clear from Doctor Corwin, I was back in my backless robe, spread out again in a hospital bed, wishing for all the world that I could just die.
And maybe that was the low point of my life.