Part 04. Aunt Edna
I went to the weird-kid school in my hometown. There was Bloomington High School, and then there was us. We were the experimental school attached to Indiana University. Our team name was the Guinea Pigs.
By the time I came along as a high school freshman in 1968, we had become Univees, which I wasn’t sure was much of an improvement on Guinea Pigs. As a matter of fact, I don’t know what a Univee is.
The university built us a campus on the edge of its own, with several sixties supersonic space-age buildings in odd geometric shapes and super-cool silver roofs. It was sort of like attending a small college on Mars, and it was where all the cool kids chose to go. There’s a world class music school at Indiana, so we had a lot of kids who were jazz heads, and children of folklorists and sociologists and metaphysicians. Somehow, they let me in even though my family had no university connection.
I was always socially awkward, especially so around these long-haired hippie intellectual spawn, so I kept my own counsel, rushing through lunch or skipping it entirely to spend that hour in the library, with that vision of loveliness, Pamela Brown.
All these decades later, when I pull out my old yearbooks and look at pictures of our assistant librarian, I still get a rush. She was a beautiful woman, truly kind and decent, even to squirming adolescent boys left infatuated in her musky wake. She was a goddess.
She knew I was a serious reader and she fed my habit. She even gave me the beautiful Library Week poster for 1969, a breathtaking Peter Max painting titled “Be All You Can Be. Read.” It still hangs in my home.
In order to spend as much time as possible in Miss Brown’s presence, I spent my lunch periods flopped into one of the chairs by the periodicals shelf, busying myself with magazines. I absorbed an awful lot of useless information from LIFE, LOOK, Time, Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post, and I studied every page thoroughly, occasionally lowering the magazine to behold the life-affirming beauty of Miss Brown.
The Saturday Evening Post carried a one-column ad down the side of a page headlined “Aunt Edna Died of Embarrassment.” The illustration was a schoolmarm-ish woman in cat’s-eye glasses, grimacing, looking terribly uncomfortable. The point of the text was that Aunt Edna had a problem with her ass but she was too embarrassed to talk about it. And then she died, because she never got herself checked. Signed, American Cancer Society.
All these years later — oh, Miss Brown, do you remember me? — I realized that I was Aunt Edna.
This whole time when Nicole was in the Philippines and we’re talking procreation and a guy’s fly-fishing in my bladder, something very weird was happening to me and my ass. I was bleeding, but I didn’t tell anyone. It was too embarrassing.
That was a lonely time. Nicole was gone. Of my four at-home children, only two were actually at home that summer. Savannah was in Key West with extended family. Jack was eleven then, and in a special therapeutic boarding school. To Jack, it was prison. It was about twenty miles from our house, so while he was serving his sentence, I’d go see him a couple of times a week and bring him home on weekends. I left work early a lot of days, just so I could see him and take him out for queso. (By the way, he ended up going to a day school close to home and flowered in a caring environment of smaller classrooms.)
The two little guys — Travis, then ten, and Charley, then nine — were at home with our summer au pair from Spain. She was painfully shy and not fluent in English, but she took the boys to the pool every day, and so they were usually sun-tuckered by the time I got home.
So I was alone a lot. I spent a lot of time in the car, with my thoughts, and public radio. Nicole gone, Savannah gone, the little guys in bed early and my son kept in a place that was to him a prison.
On top of all of this, I was bleeding.
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING
In order to talk frankly about my cancer, I’ll be discussing bodily functions in detail. These are things I’d rather not talk about, but the whole point of this story is that in order to better take care of ourselves, we need to be totally honest and forthright about our bodies, without shame or embarrassment.
We need the straight poop, in other words.
I never knew what I was going to get. Sometimes, I’d look down into the toilet and see what you might normally expect to see in that situation. But most of the time — five or six times a day — I’d see a clear fluid, like an oil slick on the water, surrounded by explosions of blood. Lots of blood.
A normal person would have gone to see a doctor. But hey — Nice to meet you, I’m Aunt Edna. I told no one, not even my brother the surgeon or my sister the nurse. Here I was, the non-medical child, and I was treating myself with Vaseline Petroleum Jelly and Preparation H.
That greasy kid stuff didn’t help at all. Hemorrhoids, I figured. That’s it! Those were comical. People joked about them. I don’t need no stinkin’ doctor. I’m on it.
Then I heard about Chrohn’s Disease and figured that was what I had. I’ve had a few students over the years who would bashfully hand me doctor’s letters about their Chrohn’s Disease, so they could get ‘special accommodations’ — generally more time, in a private place, to take tests.
When I heard about Chrohn’s, the sudden, uncontrollable stuff, I figured, Hey, that sounds like me.
But the bleeding and the oil slicks got progressively worse over the summer. I began having uncontrollable urges at work, several times a day. The faculty men’s room is only a dozen steps from my office door, but some days I’d barely get in a stall and get my pants down.
What was coming out of me? It looked like that ubiquitous Purell Hand Sanitizer we have in every Boston University classroom. I’d never had anything like that emanate from my ass before. This goo was often, but not always, accompanied by blood.
I didn’t want to know if something was wrong. I had convinced myself it was a king-hell bastard of a hemorrhoid, nothing more.
But then I began to stagger and sometimes nearly fall when I stood up. Climbing steps up from the train platform drained me. I spent those last weeks of summer in a haze of fatigue and pain. The blood and the sludge continued to appear. There was no end to the stuff.
In early September, I was back in Indiana for my eldest son’s wedding. The after-party was at the bar where Graham met Mandi. It was a diagonal across the courthouse square from the Marriott, where I was staying.
After an hour at the party, I began to make excuses about an early flight the next day, but the reality was serious stomach pain. I left the bar and began speed-walking back to the hotel. I was a hundred yards from the door when the levee broke and blood and goo and excrement came screaming down my pants leg.
Somehow, I managed to get through the lobby and into my room without being detected. I spent an hour over the bathroom sink, trying to surreptitiously wash my clothes.
But did I tell anyone? Fuck no. Aunt Edna. Damn glad to meet you.
Of course, I mentioned none of this to Doctor Gluck, the urologist. By October, we were booked into Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, just south of Boston, for the bladder surgery. The good doctor was going to take care of that big-ass stone.
Nicole was back from the Philippines, sitting by me in the ready room.
A nurse came by for at the requisite pre-op chat, told me what to expect and asked if I had any questions.
“Will I be catheterized?” I asked. Visions of a garden hose danced in my head.
“Can you do me a favor and do that once I’m knocked out?”
She smiled. “That’s the way we do it.”
Of course, the real pain would be afterward, when every urination would sting like alcohol on an open wound.
Then the anesthetist came by, nodded at me and began looking through my chart.
“Your blood work: what’s up with this?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Your blood counts are low — your hemoglobin and your hemocrit.”
“What are they?” Nicole asked. As a midwife, she’s all over this stuff.
“Your hemocrit is 8 and your hemoglobin is 32.” The numbers meant nothing to me, but Nicole knew immediately that they were bad. I must’ve looked like a shovelhead to the doc.
“Those are really low,” he said, as if speaking to a dim-bulb child. “Dangerously low. Have you lost a lot of blood? Have you been bleeding?”
“Well, I have had some rectal bleeding,” I said, in a Mona Lisa of understatement. I was still embarrassed to speak of such things in front of Nicole. “But only occasionally,” I added quickly.
I prided myself on my honesty, but when it came to talking about my health, I was a master of deceit.
The anesthetist studied the chart a while longer, then said, “You need to see your primary about that. Something’s wrong. Promise me you’ll make an appointment.”
“Will do,” I assured him, knowing full well I would not.
The surgery went well and the asteroid was destroyed. It was in-and-out-in-one-day surgery, so I went home with the catheter and urine bag attached to my leg. I was supposed to come back the next day to have the catheter removed but when Doctor Gluck learned Nicole was a midwife, he asked if she’d like to do it. She enthusiastically agreed because, as my wife, she enjoyed causing me pain.
The next day, she pulled it out with little caution and much dispatch.
“Jesus God!” I yelled, but then it was over. I couldn’t believe that huge thing had been upriver inside me. And there was a bonus: it didn’t hurt to urinate, so there was no singing.
But my rectal bleeding and clear discharge continued. I didn’t do anything about it, despite Nicole gently nudging me now and then to go see a doctor.
“And did you ever get a colonoscopy? No, you didn’t. Remember I asked you to do that while I was in the Philippines, but no, you didn’t.”
“I will, I promise.” Bullshit: I was the master of it in all of its non-Euclidean variations.
I soon found myself getting dizzy at work. I’d close my office door and lie down on the dreary institutional carpet, trying to regain strength. The stairway up from the train platform became unendurable. And the bleeding continued. Massive amounts of blood.
Finally I admitted it to myself: this ain’t no hemorrhoid.
I called my primary — primary care physician, of course — and got an appointment for that afternoon. I did something I rarely did: I went home early from work. I had an epiphany: It was time to take care of myself.
Nicole was surprised to see me home mid-afternoon. I thought she’d be happy that I was going to see the doctor, but she seemed a little irritated by my sudden concern.
“Because I can’t live like this anymore.”
When I’d moved to Massachusetts, I made a major life change. Looking back, it’s odd I made this choice, considering my general shyness around women and my hesitancy to have people poke, prod and touch me. For the first time in my life, I selected a female physician as my primary.
On many levels, it made sense. Probably the closest and most meaningful friendships in my life were with women. These were platonic and had never been sexual. But I’d always been able to be more open and honest with women and they were good listeners, and much more compassionate than men. (One of my female friends complimented me by referring to me as “my best girlfriend.”) I had gone through several male doctors who were robot-like in their questions and responses during exams.
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING
Examples of extreme male bonding ahead.
Women are often too compassionate. They develop strong and exhausting friendships. Because they are such good listeners, they invest a lot of time and emotional energy into their friendships. They don’t just have to care; they have to act like they care. It’s debilitating.
With men, it’s different. Here is a facsimile of a conversation between two close male friends:
“Hey, Fucknose. What’s up?”
“Well, if it isn’t the Dickless Wonder. How’s it hanging?”
“Dragging in the dirt.”
“Yeah, that’s what your wife said. Do your job, man. I’m tired from hanging out with your woman all night just because you can’t get it up.”
“Eat me, you worthless piece of shit. You know what I like about you?”
“Not a goddam thing.”
This passes for deep affection in many male circles. We can care — and care deeply — about our friends, but it’s generally unspoken in place of ribald and insulting ripostes.
So when it came to medical care, I began in midlife to gravitate toward female physicians. If it wasn’t for one of them and her insistence that I learn to take better care of myself, I might not have realized I had cancer.