Part 23. The Waiting (is the Hardest Part)
After my body had been battered by ghastly radiation and chemotherapy I began my long period of waiting.
There were no visible bruises or scars, but the radiation and the chemicals had launched a bombing raid inside me. I was a war zone, and before I could undergo the next step — the one that involved cutting me open — I had to rest and recover.
I imagined inside my body: the rubble of war with flowers writhing up between the battered streets.
I was still weak and napped a lot, but the winter gradually began to melt into memory and the boys took to the yard.
I could hear them from my bed. I put my chin on the windowsill and watched them in the yard beneath my bedroom. I was like a kid in the cheap seats at Fenway.
They knew I was there. I’d hear the crack of the bat, then Travis would look up at my window. “Did you see that, Dad? Did you see that?”
The side yard underneath my window was too narrow for a full diamond, but the boys — along with our neighbor, Ben — adapted. They got rubber mats for bases and made an oblong field, with a natural pitcher’s mound. Since we are a half-mile from the ocean, we have odd outcroppings of rock here and there throughout town. You never know where you’ll find a boulder the size of an Oldsmobile. Luckily, a small rock had long ago burst through the ground to a height of 10 inches, a pitcher’s mound made by God.
They took turns pitching and hitting, with Travis usually running the show. He was the most hardcore baseball player among the boys. Jack was least interested. Sometimes he played, sometimes he didn’t. When he didn’t, he’d come upstairs and get in bed with me. He started watching a lot of films with me on Turner Classic Movies, but didn’t care much for westerns and I was on a John Wayne – John Ford binge. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was manna for me, but not sustainable for Jack.
The boys playing baseball provided the constant soundtrack. I didn’t care if they drowned out the movie. The sound of their play was a sort of folk music for me.
Travis, Charley and Ben were at it on their field from the moment they got home from school until dark. Even when I was reading — as I often was, surrounded by Himalayas of books on my bed — I could hear the striking of the bat, the cheering, the eventual dispute of the ball-and-strike calls.
This was the waiting. I pictured the jackhammered streets inside me and imagined flowers working their way through the destruction, like a rose in Spanish Harlem:
It’s growing in the street
right up through the concrete
But soft and sweet
My ability to concentrate returned and I absorbed myself in writing my book about Los Angeles in the 1960s. I’d been gathering string on this book for decades. The central characters were the Beach Boys, whom I’d interviewed in the 1970s. I’d even ridden to a show sitting next to Dennis Wilson in his limo. I walked into the concert hall with him, and heard the deafening roar of the crowd as he hit the stage. It was as close as I’ll ever get to being a rock star.
I was weak, but I could lumber around the house in my bathrobe and even sit with the family and watch a television show all the way through without becoming disoriented. I fell in love with movies again. I won’t say that my razor-sharp focus returned because I’m not sure I ever had it, but I was able to hold a conversation, listen to music and go to movies.
I rarely left the house, but my friends Jeff and Joe would occasionally coax me out to the theater. They wanted to make sure I had some kind of non-cancer life.
Joe was a cancer survivor (prostate) and knew what it was like to wallow in sloth. Jeff, like many in Cohasset, was a veteran of the world of finance. Joe — whom I dubbed Jose because I didn’t have enough Hispanic friends since leaving Florida — had been both a firefighter and an attorney. His resume is one of the most unusual I’ve ever seen. He had a degree in English Literature from Colgate, where he’d met Jeff back in the early 1970s.
Jose had fascinating stories to tell from both fields, including a good story about the time as a fireman when he answered a call at Woody Allen’s apartment for a fire started when the filmmaker tried to cook a meal. The funny thing is both Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow were present. Jose said the three of them could barely speak; they laughed continually.
Both Jeff and Jose loved hearing about my book in progress and helped me focus on my storytelling and my assembly of the tale. I was away from my colleagues at Boston University, many of whom were also authors. It was a great support system, just a good atmosphere to be around. We were all each other’s cheerleaders. But I was on leave and felt distant from that world of mine. So Jeff and Jose stepped up as my dual sounding boards.
To get out of the house, and also to work on the book, I’d go to the Paul Pratt Memorial Library, about a half mile from my house. It was a wonderful little place with a delightful staff. They probably wondered what I was doing since I was, by appearances, an able-bodied man in the library in the middle of the day. Was I a bum? Was I homeless? Why was I not in the Financial District, like every other Cohasset man and woman?
The librarians couldn’t see the jackhammered rubble inside me. I’d smile and nod and camp out back by the periodicals and, despite my best efforts, occasionally fall asleep.
For six weeks, that was my life, as I waited for what came next.
I also went through a couple of full-body scans, including injections with something with the texture and temperature of Cream of Wheat. I imagined the warm, grainy cereal moving through my veins, pushing the blood out of the way.
It was a horrible sensation, but they needed that cereal — or dye, whatever it was — to fill my body before doing the scan. As it shot through me, I felt it burn and thought I would burst. I was on the verge of vomiting and needed the nurses in order to sit up.
But the scan gave Christian Corwin what he needed.
“The radiation worked,” he said. “Freter shrunk that tumor to half its size.”
I’d seen Doctor Freter the week before and he was bursting with pride over how well his chemicals had worked in combo with Doctor Borgelt’s radiation. The tumor was significantly smaller, he said.
“So, does that mean we can just leave it?”
Corwin laughed. “No, we still have to operate. It’s just going to be a whole lot easier now.”
And so I was put on his schedule.
I had no anxiety about the surgery. I’d had several operations over the years — I had my first hernia surgery when I was six months old. I had another at 20 and another at 40. And the carpal tunnel release and the vasectomy and the whole leg extravaganza. I was scarred head to toe.
I remembered my father. If someone ever used the term “routine surgery” — say for a hernia or a gall bladder — he became furious.
“There’s no such thing as ‘routine’ surgery,” he said. “Any time you go under anesthesia, you risk your life.”
When I had hernia surgery as a twenty-year-old, my father set me up with one of his best pals, a surgeon with the wonderful name Ambrose Estes. At that time, the names of all patients admitted to the hospital were printed in the newspaper. Once, Doctor Estes needed to have a hernia repair but did not want patients to know he was going into the hospital. He got the front office to admit him under the name ‘Francis X. Bushman.’ That was the name of the actor who played Messala in the silent film version of “Ben Hur.” Doctor Estes had the same wry sense of humor as my father.
But Dad put much more thought into selecting my anesthesiologist. He settled on Jerry Mitchell and, in fact, Dad and Doctor Estes rescheduled my operation to accommodate Doctor Mitchell’s schedule.
That was a long, long time ago in an operating room far, far away.