Part 39. Don’t Fuck Up
I’m never bored when I’m alone. It probably sounds arrogant to say that, but that’s not how I mean it. After years (decades, we’re talking) of trying to nurture and balance the delicate psyches of adult partners, of staggering to the fits and starts of the emotional steerage of others, shifting decks of emotion — after all that, it was glorious and liberating to be alone.
I missed the boys, gone on weekdays, but just four minutes away at their mother’s new home. She made waffles every morning, they said. She had made the transition as easy for them as possible, and they seemed truly happy. Now they had time with her and time with me. I think we both became better parents, though now apart.
My house was a comfortable baby boomer situation-comedy home. It could’ve been B-roll on ‘Leave it t Beaver.’
It was at first large and lonesome during the week, a nuclear power plant that had suddenly been shut down. It was beyond large. In the absence of my three sons, it was cavernous. Sometimes in the evenings, I felt like Charles Foster Kane staggering around the empty halls of Xanadu.
But then Friday afternoons came and the boys descended on me like a Mongol horde. Until Monday, it was like a junior-varsity frat house — baseball, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, music at top volume. Times like those, the house was not big enough.
Then I’d get them to school on Monday and silence descended.
Being single again was at first a challenge. I’d made so much space in my life for others, so that now I had a void in need of filling. Thus began the home makeover, turning the house into my hobby. It was a statement of my life and being. The boys and I turned living in the house into sport.
I had a great optimism and sense of renewal — the change to control my environment, to turn something once shared into something personal — paralleled the way I felt about my body. I had another chance with my body. It had been battered, beaten, shot through with chemicals, cut upon and pulverized. And it still worked. I decided to try to honor this carcass and repay the gods who kept me alive. The best way to do that, I figured, was to stay alive.
I remember something Corwin said to me. I’ll paraphrase perhaps voicing his thoughts with a crudeness he would not use.
We just took care of this cancer. You’ve got another chance, so don’t fuck it up.
Words to that effect.
I’d gone from being averse to doctors to having checkups every other week or so. After months of injecting Lovonox in the belly to prevent blood clotting — pretending I was a junkie — I noticed that my stomach was becoming like granite. I’m not talking rock-hard abs. When I looked down, it looked as if I’d swallowed a softball and was unable to pass it.
During a checkup with Corwin, I pointed him toward my disgusting belly. “What the hell is this?” I asked. “It’s like all of those shots to prevent a clot built a king-hell bastard of a blood clot.”
“This isn’t good,” he said, moving the softball-like object around. “I think we may be responsible for hernia here.”
Fortunately, Corwin’s away-from-the-hospital practice — still affiliated with Dana Farber / Brigham and Women’s Hospital and South Shore Hospital — included a partner whose speciality included hernia and gastric surgery. This affable dude (really, all of these docs were talk-show ready) was Neil Ghushe (say it goo-shay), and he quickly gave me a once over and set a date for surgery. I’d finished the cancer treatment right before Christmas and by March, I was scheduled for another surgery.
I liked these guys a lot — Corwin, Ghushe and Froio, the boys’ baseball coach. I wished my father was alive to talk to them. He’d been dead forty years and I could only imagine how he would have been fascinated by the change in surgery in those years. Ghushe in particular, measured his success by how little he disrupted the body. He was a minimalist. He did things with small incisions, cameras and monitors to guide his work.
This was my fourth hernia operation. I had one at six months old, another at twenty (as you will recall, done by my father’s friend Ambrose Estes), another at forty (done by my brother) and now this one at sixty. The recovery this time was remarkably fast and within a couple of weeks, summer had begun. I took the boys on one of our road trips in our new minivan — a woman-repellant vehicle, according to my recently-moved-out wife.
We worked our way to the Great American Midwest by visiting ballparks — the Indians in Cleveland, the Dragons in Dayton (we love minor-league games), the Reds in Cincinnati and the Bats in Louisville. We also toured the Louisville Slugger factory.
But the main event awaited in Bloomington, Indiana, my hometown. As if I needed to be reminded of the reasons for living, I was there to meet my first granddaughter, Mabel. She was born in May to my son Graham and his wife Mandi. I’d devoured all of the pictures they texted me, but this would be my first time seeing her.
She was a beautiful, cheerful little girl and my youngest son, Charley, instantly took to unclehood. We spent a week savoring this beautiful new baby and anticipating the next arrival. Daughter Sarah was due to deliver in November.
We spent that week staying at my brother’s big farmhouse outside of town. It was the week of the Republican Convention and we watched the creepy staging of the Trump coronation ceremony. My brother and his wife were — are — lifelong Republicans, but they watched little of the convention coverage, often going to bed early, and without comment.
But it was during that visit that yet another health problem reared its head — so to speak. As I looked down while urinating I saw something that looked like cabernet leaving my body, splashing into the toilet.
Two years before, I would have been terrified. Two years before, I’d have the “Ride of the Valkyries” on heavy rotation as I faced this urinary apocalypse.
But I didn’t panic. I knew what this was. It was time to return to Clifford Gluck, the Steely Dan-loving urologist who’d started me down this ramp toward a total-body makeover.
I steadily pissed wine, but I did not panic. We made the long drive back to Boston and once there, I predicted a Donald Trump victory. I had gathered data from yard signs and barns painted with his name and the Make America Great Again slogan.
Back at work, I made my prediction to my colleague Sarah Kess.
“He’s going to win,” I said. “I feel it.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “There’s no way.”
“I don’t want to be right,” I said. “But I’m worried. You’re going to have to talk me down.”
It was that way into the first few weeks of the fall. No matter what atrocity of human dignity or language Trump committed, he seemed to bounce back. When it happened — the election victory — it was Sarah who quickly put together a day-after support group / consciousness raising for the students — particularly the female students and minority students who found Trump’s election a hostile act.
And that fall, I also had three more surgeries on my kidneys. Doctor Gluck remembered me, of course, and figured he could do the minimally invasive thing to take care of the stones left in my kidney. When I went into a day hospital for that surgery — Nicole provided her to-and-from shuttle services — I awoke from the procedure to the news that the stones had been fruitful and had multiplied since he’d last stuck his camera up my wazoo. There was no problem, he said, but he was going to be maximally invasive.
So it was back to the knife and the big hospital. Doctor Gluck had further cleaning up to do in my bladder, but I was an old hand at this. He stuck cameras up Mister Happy and I didn’t squirm or squawk. Considering all of the stuff I’d been through, what was the big deal about someone sticking something up the Ol’ Mississippi.
I got to be a familiar face around the Corwin and Ghushe office and as that year ended, we realized that I had developed another hernia — but it was on the other side. Ghushe looked at it, pondered what he could do to keep these things from recurring.
We talked about other general health issues. Nicole had always told me I snored like a motherfucker — that was her primary reason, she claimed, for exiling me to the guest room. I knew I had sleep apnea and used a C-Pap machine, but I despised it and it kept me up nights.
Then there was the knee sitch. For years, my knees had felt as if John Henry himself was driving a railroad spike through my knee cap. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I was overweight.
And now another goddamn hernia.
And so we began to discuss what would become my tenth surgery in eighteen months. The cancer surgery had been life-saving. This one would be life-changing.