Part 35. Goodbye to All That
“My second cycle of chemo isn’t working,” Molly said. “So this is good-bye.”
“I’m sorry,” Sunderson said, feeling paralyzed.
“Do you believe in the afterlife?”
“I haven’t figured it out. I guess I’m not very religious.”
“I don’t think anyone has. Someone said, I forgot who, that if nothing happens we won’t know it. I’ll miss flowers, birds, and lemonade.”
Jim Harrison, The Great Leader (Grove Press, 2011)
“Life’s a journey and it’s always most interesting when you’re not sure where you’re going.”
George Stevens, American filmmaker
“Life is hard, and sad, but that’s why we have humor. It’s the best medicine and the best conversation starter. Laughing and crying is almost the same thing at times. And we need a little of both.”
Mary Grace McKeen, Note to her father, July 2, 2015
It was time to say farewell to the bag and its foul contents, which sometimes resembled jellied gravy. Just when I was finally used to it, it was being taken away.
That Al Pacino line from The Godfather, Part III had become one of the defining sentences of my life. We watched the Godfather films every year, usually accompanied by the old-country recipe for pasta that Nicole has passed on to the next generation. They boys called it ancestor spaghetti.
I always try to work lines from the films into daily conversation and, unfortunately, I came to the perfect moment in my life to use Al’s great line:
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Just when I thought I figured out my new life with my bionic butthole, I got pulled back into the miasma of bowel anarchy. It was as if my gut was saying to me: “You think you’re in charge? Oh really? Hold my beer!”
So as it had been with the bag, so would it be with the new wild and free — and untrained — rectum.
And for it to happen on this day, of all days.
I’d been looking forward to the day so much. I planned to spend most of my office time preparing my next two lectures and then slag off mid-afternoon to see Rosey, one of my best friends from Florida, who was taking a leaf-peeping vacation in New England with his wife, Peg. This was their day in Boston and we’d planned to get together to hoist a few.
“Rosey” was shorthand for Jon Roosenraad (his name is a vowel movement; he’s of Dutch ancestry), and he was the man who hired me at the University of Florida. Since moving to Massachusetts, people often asked me what I missed most about Florida. They expected me to say the beach or the warmth or palm trees or something, but it was really just Rosey and Jean and Mike and Margo and a few other friends I missed.
So this day had been circled on my calendar.
Things had been going okay down south the last couple of days. I would get sudden urges and rush to the bathroom, expecting a dam burst, only to find another significant round of flatulence. When I did go, it was tough to come by and not nearly as voluminous as in those days of bowel movements past.
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING
Detailed descriptions of excrement are imminent. It’s going to get gooey. …………………
I came in on the train from Cohasset. I had a short layover at South Station, then would switch to the Worcester train. The second stop — at Fenway Park — was a block and a half from my office. Easy trip.
I felt a gastric tickle during my South Station layover, the kind that usually served as prelude to flatulence. Just to be safe, I headed toward the too-small bathroom that never has enough empty stalls. Luckily I claimed a seat just as the tickle turned into a round-house punch to the gut.
Unfortunately, as I began this urgent bowel movement — much more forceful than anything I’d had since my reconnection — I found I had no control of my new man-made rectum. I tried to hold it in, but I had no strength down there and a squib ended up in the seat of my boxers.
I finished, cleaned myself up, and did the best job I could cleaning my pants. It wasn’t the sort of cleaning we’d get from All-Tempa Cheer, but I thought it was something I could live with.
Sad to say, it wasn’t as if things like this hadn’t happened before in my pre-surgery days.
They called the Worcester train. Having washed thoroughly — as if scrubbing in for surgery — I stepped into CVS, grabbed a bag of peanut-butter-filled pretzel nuggets, and ambled toward the train.
“You shouldn’t have!”
It was Wally, one of my favorite conductors. Friendly dude. I offered him the bag.
“Naw, I was just kiddin’,” he said.
“I don’t think I want them after all,” I said. “Eyes bigger than the stomach.”
He waved his hand toward the bag. “Naw, I’m full, but thanks.”
And then, a few yards past Wally on my way to the car for the people getting off at Yawkey Station, it hit.
I grimaced and tried to hold it in. No amount of tightening or flexing helped. I immediately turned back to the station.
Wally was startled to see me about face, and he could tell from my pained expression that something was wrong.
“Just … a … health … issue ….”
It was all I could get out, though I thought about saying, “As a matter of fact, I am in the process of shitting my pants.”
“Do you need me to call someone?” he asked.
“No,” I managed to gasp, still trying to hold it in. Now I knew what it was like to guard the door at Walmart on Black Friday; there was no way to hold it back. “Changing travel plans.”
I figured running would make it worse and I still tried — largely in vain — to flex the recently manufactured bionic sphincter muscle and hold everything in.
If something can go wrong, it will. Cliches, God damn them. They become so because they are true.
When I returned to the entrance of South Station’s barely adequate men’s room, Satan had posted a sign on an easel blocking my entry: “Restrooms temporary closed. Please use the bathroom on the mezzanine level about the food court.”
To add insult to injury, I had passed the mezzanine. So now, still dealing with a loosening in the gut, I had to walk through the food court to the cloistered upstairs bathroom. The main bathroom was inadequate. This one — with just one urinal and one toilet — was a joke. Luckily. I was able to claim the seat.
Despite the constantly changing personnel outside my stall — and there must have been a dozen urinators during my time in my porcelain sanctuary — I stayed on the toilet for fifteen minutes.
I wasn’t stalling in the stall. It was just that I had a fecal apocalypse to deal with. That made me very unpopular with the mass of urinators standing asshole-to-bellybutton in front of the one trough in the men’s room. Everyone is in a hurry in South Station. For a dozen guys to have to share one urinal was outrageous.
Who’s that asshole in the stall? The fuck’s up with him?
First of all, it was different. It was a looser texture and more orange in color. A significant amount now rested in the seat of my JC Penney boxers, an extremely comfortable pair that I now knew were now beyond salvation.
With the shuffle of pisser’s feat and a steady rumble of unspoken but palpable resentment that some asshole was hogging the stall, I disrobed from the waist down. It was as if an army of rodents and mythical beasts had escaped my colon and slid down my leg.
. . . . . . . . . .
[Two young parents, Ira and Ginny, discuss their infant’s excretions.]
“Did our little angel have a bowel movement this afternoon?”
“Still hard? Like oatmeal, or more like a banana?”
“Well, less like thick cream soup than yesterday. More like scrambled eggs. Only brown.”
“No, caramel colored, rather than chocolate.”
“Did she have to strain?”
“Some. But not like yesterday.”
“Sounds pretty good,” says he, aficionado of feces.
Lisa Alther, Kinflicks (Knopf, 1975)
. . . . . . . . . .
Fortunately, toilet paper was in good supply in my stall. I set my underwear aside, folding it up to contain the mass of waste. Then I did my best with the toilet paper to make my blue jeans presentable. Though it was November, I was sweating. I had to remove my sport coat and I stood there in the stall, naked from the waist down, using massive amounts of toilet paper, trying to clean out the mess inside my jeans. (Thank God, nothing had leaked through.)
Meanwhile, I estimated from the volume of grumbling, there were about fourteen pissed-off commuters lined up at the urinal, wondering what kind of filthy animal was monopolizing the only toilet.
When I finished my work, I slipped on the jeans and considered what would happen if I had another accident while going commando. I did my best to slip out of the stall without making eye contact with the pissed-off horde. I held my befouled boxers against my side, behind my haversack. After a cursory hand wash, I slipped from the room alive, dumped my boxers in a food-court trash can and took off for the CVS Pharmacy in the station. Alas, the store did not sell underwear. I did, however, buy a travel-pak of baby wipes, stuck them in my haversack, and set off for Macy’s.
But here’s how deranged I am: I am in crisis, having just had a horrifying bowel experience, fearing that another explosion might be imminent. I quickly find the men’s department at Macy’s but don’t buy the boxer shorts because of the price. But really — $39 for one pair of shorts?
After a quick stop in the Macy’s men’s room to check things and see if I need further cleaning, I head back to the outside world, walking toward Boston Common.
Down a side street I see a Marshall’s, the Taj Mahal of the cheapskate. Three Calvin Klein boxers for $19 — now that’s more like it. (Still, wish there was a Penneys or a Target at Downtown Crossing.)
I check out and make it to the visitor center at the Common, where there is a restroom. The workers at the tourist center don’t give the stinkeye to drop-in bathroom users, knowing how hard it is to find a place to pee downtown. I quickly rip into the underwear package and put on two pair of boxers.
I grab the subway at the Park Street Station on the Common and the whole ride to Boston University, there’s a mantra in my head: I think I can I think I can.
I make it to my office, quickly breeze past Sarah and close my door — something I never do. I sit down on my couch to catch my breath. I had texted Rosey that I had to cancel because of “medical issues.” Now I text back. Turns out I can make it after all. Were he and Peg still free? Sure thing, he said, and we set a meeting time.
I sat in my office, thoroughly demoralized and disgusted with myself. I’d made it there, having lost some clothes and bought others, and at some point I’d have to make the commute home. I felt like a prisoner and I feared what would happen — if I’d have another accident and embarrass myself in the office.
Sarah was out there at her desk, on the other side of the wall. Did she sense what horrible things had happened to me?
I had about an hour until I was to meet Jon and Peg, so I tried to do some work. But I kept thinking about what I’d done that morning and how ashamed I was.
I opened the door and addressed Sarah. “This is a wasted day. I’m going to drink beer with an old friend.”
“I thought you said this was a wasted day,” she said. “It does not sound that way to me.”
I met Jon and Peg down at the Pour House, across from the convention center. My stomach was calmed and the beer was cold. We had a lot of catching up to do. I’d spent twenty-four years of home football Saturdays with these two. Rosey and I had worked together all that time. We’d gone to a few concerts together — tailgating for the Rolling Stones and getting front-row seats for Bob Dylan and Santana. (I remember driving back from that show at two o’clock in the morning and looking to the back seat, where Rosey sat like a big, slumbering rabbit.)
We talked children, grandchildren (in their case) and the joys of retirement and traveling the world with the person you’d lived with for three-quarters of your life.
Rosey still taught part-time in retirement, which meant he had all of the pleasure and none of the drudgery of academic life.
But one thing I learned that day: other people had been through what I’d gone through. Jon and Peg knew all about it and just to know that other people understood. They were compassionate. Maybe I would not just be seen as an object of revulsion and disgust.
We spent a couple of hours at the bar, then said goodbye. I made it from the bar to the train station, then on the train, then home.
God was with me. I made it home. Further intestinal agonies awaited and horrifying things occurred that night. But I was home.
I had to face this as an alcoholic would — one day at a time.