Part 01. Dumb Ass
I was trying to figure out how to start this story, so I asked my wife for advice.
We were sitting on the back porch on a beautiful spring day in 2015, enjoying a couple of frosty beers with freshly squeezed limes.
“Why don’t you start with the greatest example of dumb-assery in your life,” Nicole said.
“Jesus, honey,” I said. “That doesn’t really narrow it down. I have so many examples to choose from. Which one did you have in mind?”
“That time when you turned fifty and you had a wife who was twenty-eight and four young children at home and yet you still refused to get a colonoscopy. And all because you didn’t — what did you say? — you didn’t want a stranger sticking something up your ass.”
She was right about that.
I didn’t get a colonoscopy when I was fifty, like we’re all supposed to do. I waited until I was sixty, and then all hell broke loose.
“You’ve done a lot of dumb-ass things,” she said. “But that was the worst.”
Six months before, I learned I had cancer. Even though I’d had a doom-and-gloom outlook all my life, it still shook me to hear those words: You have cancer.
When I told Nicole, her first reaction was to be pissed off. We didn’t say anything to the kids, but later that night, getting ready for bed, she unleashed on me. She’s always mad at me for something — for putting her stuff in the dryer that she wants line dried or for loading the dishwasher like a subway car at rush hour.
But now I’d really pissed her off by getting cancer.
I was used to her anger and steered clear of her the rest of the night, pretending I had some work to do down in my basement office.
By the next night, though, she decided to deal with it the way we deal with a lot of things: by making a joke of it.
We were fairly new to the Boston area, but she was a great mimic and picked up the characteristic vocal inflections right away. So she surprised me after work with her approximation of the Boston Southie accent.
“So yuh got th’ cancer, huh?” she said when she met me at the train station. “The fuck’s up with that?”
So every time we talked about it, it was “th’ cancer,” and we sounded like the supporting cast of The Departed. Sorry — The Depahted.
Let me back up a bit: this really started the year before when the desire to reproduce again came upon us.
When I was a teenager, I remember my ninth-grade health teacher — Dan Agley, University High School, Bloomington, Indiana — telling our class that one man could produce enough sperm to repopulate the world. I must’ve taken it to heart, because I have seven children.
Not a typo. Seven. Obviously, Mr. Agley was a great influence on my life.
After child number seven, young Charley McKeen, was born in 2005, Nicole decided maybe it was time to snip my buds. Nearly a decade later, she regretted that decision.
By that time, she was a practicing midwife. She wanted to have the kind of home-birth experience she now offered women. To do that, she needed my balls to be in good working order.
We talked about it as being in some vague part of the future. Then she left for Davao City in the Philippines for a three-month residency birthing babies there. It was her first time out of the country and she was dropped into a Third World existence she’d never seen before. On her daily walk to the birthing clinic, she saw families cooking meals over open pits in vacant lots. Once she told one of her about-to-birth mamas to take a medicine home and put it in the fridge. When the woman left, Nicole’s supervisor told her, “She doesn’t have a fridge. None of them do.”
So this all made her think about the meaning of life and procreation and all of that heavy-duty stuff. And any thought along those lines led, with startling precision, to my non-functioning testicles.
We couldn’t often talk because of lousy cell service, but one night she managed to get through.
“I think it’s time to do it,” she said. “While I’m gone, go see a doctor about getting your vasectomy reversed.”
“Really?” Procreation would require having sex, of course — always a great inducement for me to do something. (If only she’d tried that with the laundry and the dishwasher.)
And so I went to see a urologist. And thus began the sequence of events that led to the discovery of stage-three cancer in my rectum, the price I paid for not letting people touch my ass.