Part 37. Stories We Could Tell (But Won’t)
I’ve told a lot of stories. Some of them were painful. Some were embarrassing. But I have to tell them. A friend once called me a “compulsive communicator.”
I’ve been writing about bad times in my southerly orifice. That’s not pretty.
But there is a point to this exercise: to describe what it’s like to have cancer and go through treatment.
My particular cancer is perhaps the most embarrassing of the myriad varieties. It’s certainly one we don’t want to talk about with friends and are generally too shy to discuss with our doctors.
Remember Aunt Edna? She died of embarrassment, you will recall, because she didn’t want to talk about her bleeding ass with anyone, not even her doctor. Then she croaked. End of public-service advertisement.
So I’m here to encourage you not to be embarrassed and for God’s sake get checked and take care of yourself.
I tell my story because I want you to know that even a guy like me — with a terms-and-conditions list of hang-ups — still came forward, got over his embarrassments and insecurities, got diagnosed and got treated.
And there’s still more fun ahead. Stay tuned — I have five more surgeries yet to describe.
I also want to talk about what it’s like to go through this alone. Even if you’re married, even if you fall asleep nightly to the rise-and-fall of breath one pillow over, even then, you might find that you are alone.
I also want to eventually talk about the one thing over which we have control: our attitude. Whether dealing with cancer or dealing with a dying marriage, attitude is everything.
I’ve written about a lot of embarrassing things, but this is the only chapter I’ve dreaded writing. No one wants to talk about the failure of their marriage. It is tangential to my cancer story, so I will not go into any details about its end.
I will, however — mostly to reinforce the importance of attitude for cancer patients, turn to my pal Jeff for his succinct summary of the slings and arrows of that six-week period.
This is what he said to his wife, Christina:
“So he has cancer. Then his mother dies. Then his wife leaves him.” Then Jeff paused with the skillful timing of a Catskill comedian. “That’s harsh.”
It felt that way, and then it didn’t.
It was a lot to absorb within the space of a couple weeks. But I will pass over some details here. I’ve started and stopped writing this part of the story many times. I tried to nuance it, with a pronoun-only approach that skirted details, but it rendered the story a cypher.
So let us detail only those elements that affect this saga of cancer, recovery and rebirth.
She stood there, at the end of the bed where I lay in my guest-room exile, and said she wanted a separation.
The first thing out of my mouth was, “I’m not moving.” I could not, in my condition, imagine moving. Just contemplating a move gave me a hernia.
She nodded and understood. A few days later, she began apartment hunting.
And that was that. Within a week, she’d found a place. She didn’t move in immediately. It was the lower half of a duplex near the social center for our town’s children — the ice-cream parlor. I admired her choice of lodging because it was good for the boys. It was walking distance to what we wryly call the “downtown” of tiny Cohasset — the Village, with a convenience store, Mr. Hajj’s service station, French Memories bakery and an inordinate number of real-estate offices. For some reason, the young teens of Cohasset dig hanging out around the convenience store and the small adjacent park.
The Village is the part of Cohasset people see in the movies — The Witches of Eastwick with Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon was filmed here, as was Houseguest with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. (They filmed parts of The Finest Hours here too, just not in the Village.) The Village and the Town Common are the parts of Cohasset that most look like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
She showed me the place and though it was a mite small, there was still a bedroom for every boy. They’d love the locale and the fact that they were just down the hill from s school. It was a cozy neighborhood and they were just one block from the rumbling commuter rail, but these things were generally all positive.
She began accumulating furniture from Ikea. She assembled it during the day when the boys were in school or would go over there at night, after I’d come home from work.
No unkind words, no emotional autopsies. We agreed to share the boys in a nearly 50-50 split of their time. They’d be with her during the week, with me on the weekends — generous weekends, too: Friday afternoon until I got them to school on Monday.
The kids were in the dark, until they weren’t. We broke the news right before Valentine’s Day. Details spared since they are innocent bystanders here, but within a week, she had moved to the apartment and we began living separate lives, sharing the boys. We both felt immensely proud of them — that much we still had in common.
I was slowly, if not steadily, working my way back from my disasters down south. If you think it’s tough to train a puppy to pee outside, trying retraining a rectum. And not just any rectum — your own. I can only imagine the difficulties inherent in training someone else’s rectum.
Trust me, it ain’t no day at the beach — and I’m only a half mile from the shore myself.
There were a couple of other horrific disasters. My friends Jeff and Jose continued to try to get me out of the house, even when I’d gone back to work on a four-day-a-week schedule. They wanted me to continue to be a social animal, even though the aftermath of ass surgery rendered me nervous-as-hell when I was more than a yardstick away from a toilet.
One Friday in the fall, about a month after the reconnect surgery, we went to see the excellent film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning series on serial child abuse by some Catholic priests. I’d met some of the Globies portrayed in the film and couldn’t wait to see the movie.
As was our common practice, Jeff and Jose sat at the back of the theater and I sat up front. Old habits — especially movie-viewing habits born in youth — are hard to break. I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia front row center when I was a kid and I love to be overwhelmed by film.
I ended up missing half of the movie and losing another fine pair of tartan boxers. I was in the men’s room during Mark Ruffalo’s dramatic speech about public apathy, dealing with a ten-flush disaster that ruined my clothing. It’s a good thing I was sitting alone, so no one had to be near me after that mess.
After the film, I made apologies to Jeff and Jose and quickly parted. The jeans were salvageable after several washings, but the boxers were a lost cause, abandoned in the men’s room of Patriot Cinemas. (I’ve watched Spotlight several times since. I give it thirty-seven thumbs up.)
Then came one of those nights when I couldn’t interest the boys in anything except macaroni and cheese. I’ve always found this to be the dullest of meals, though — given the time — I make a bad-ass variation. But this night, after a draining day at work, I got home and the boys were hungry. I couldn’t muster the energy for foie gras or Beef Wellington. So, yes, I made Velveeta Deluxe Shells and Cheese. (Please do not call the office of child-protective services. I believe the statute of limitations has run out anyway.)
I didn’t have the energy to make something separate for myself, for I loathe macaroni and cheese. I sat down with the boys to suffer through a globby meal of cheese product on cardboard pasta. I decided that my dinner might be more palatable if I swathed it in Louisiana Red Dot. I have long been a fan of hot sauces and love Mexican food, especially when it causes beads of sweat to appear on my forehead mid-meal.
But no more. The hot sauce fetish was forever rendered part of my old-rectum days, for the reaction was nearly immediate, while washing dishes. The boys had gone back upstairs — supposedly to do homework — and I felt a sudden tugging in the Deep South.
Allow me to describe the geography of my house. There’s an open kitchen with a large chopping-block of an island. The refrigerator and the sink are perpendicular. It’s not a huge kitchen, but two adults can navigate the space and perform tasks.
So, I was standing at the island, assembling the dirty dishes for washing. The refrigerator was at my right. Then the tugging. Then . . . Great Mother of Conjugating Christ!
The downstairs bathroom was just around the corner from the refrigerator. A small, short hallway connected the kitchen with the L-shaped hallway leading to the laundry and guest bathroom.
Here: I just measured the distance. Eleven normal steps from dirty-dish assembly point at the kitchen counter to the door of the bathroom. You’d think this wouldn’t be a problem and you’d be wrong — horribly, damnably wrong. I didn’t make it. Halfway down the hall — I estimate at step five — the dam burst. Rodents, water fowl and strange mythical beasts poured forth from the new and poorly trained rectum. It was as if the soft-serve machine at a demented carnival had gone berserk, created a foul flood of waste that bore down all before it. It would have terrified even Stephen King.
I persevered and made it to the bathroom but left a trail that Hansel and Gretel would have considered a grievous insult to their deductive reasoning.
Luckily, the boys were all upstairs. I cleaned up this rotten mess. Even though no one else saw it, I steeped in humiliation.
My doctor, Christian Corwin, had never been through this as a patient, but after years of performing these surgeries and following up with patients, he knew the menu of offerings before me.
This happened to Patient A, this happened to patient P-squared and this happened to Patient Q-prime.
He knew it all and had prepared me for more eventualities. There would be a lot of trial and error. The retraining applied not just to my rectum, but to my palette. I needed to learn what I could eat and what I could not eat. Suddenly, fiber became important, making me feel instantly geriatric. Putting a dose of fiber in my coffee would keep me on the tightrope between geologic constipation and River Ganges diarrhea.
There was going to be a lot of trial and error, he counseled. A lot.
Fuck! It was the ‘error’ part that scared me. Corwin insisted that I keep him informed and text him if I had problems or questions. The way he saw it, his work was never done. Just because the surgery was over didn’t mean that he washed his hands of me. (And if he had been around me on macaroni night, he would have washed his hands a lot.)
I could not become a recluse. I had to work. I had to live. I had boys to care for. And you can’t really live much when you think you need to be a yardstick away from a biffy at all times.