An Existential Slap
You’d suspect that after all of this, that the last hurdle would be easy. That’s what I told her.
“Babygirl, after all that, the surgery, the radiation, the swelling, the aches, this Anastrozole should be a piece of cake.”
“You may be right. Let’s see what we can find.”
Barb grabs her I-pad and petitions the God of Google; since he/she knows all, sees all, and there are charts and they have more than one pill that does the trick. It looks like variations on a theme. If one doesn’t work, you try another. It’s an easy to read chart. It’s easy on your eyes and easy on your brain too, with numbers and words in neat little boxes and not one of them look too foreboding or threatening.
What the chart leaves out is a story in itself, but we don’t know that yet.
“We can do this,” I stated, and sprinted to the closet.
“And, after all, it’s only one little pill a day,” she smiles back.
When I appeared again, I was sporting my Mr. Can Do tee-shirt, the one Barb got for me at the La Jolla Playhouse.
We were there to see Hershey Felder and one of his one-man shows, doing Irving Berlin. When it was over, we walked hand in hand through the parking lot. It had sprinkled while we were inside. The black pavement, and the eucalyptus trunks, smooth and slick, reflected sodium vapor lights. Warm tones ran like honey down their sides. Rain is a blessing on the California coast this far south. Like our night at the La Jolla Playhouse, we never get enough of it.
People learn to thirst in Southern California. For water, for love, for recognition, for solitude, for acceptance, they thirst. They make the best of what they’ve got in the meantime and they’re good at celebrating the moment with a significant other as long as it’s a short moment so they can get back to their phones.
For the rest of their moments, for the future, they covet, they thirst. They have their heads too far up their own *ss*s to smell the coffee brewing. It takes a life-threatening moment to make them slow down and smell the roses.
You can’t do it from the freeway.
This is their plaintive song.
If you are the desert
I’ll be the sea.
If you ever hunger
Hunger for me.
Whatever you ask for
That’s what I’ll be.
Tomorrow we pick up the pills at the pharmacy.
For almost three weeks it’s smooth sailing. But then the wind picks up, and it’s subtle, but it’s a red flag. It’s a red flag small enough to fit on a cupcake, but it’s there. We should have noticed it earlier.
“You know, Totsky, my eyes seem dry lately, and I feel tired all the time.”
“You’re still healing. You have to recuperate.”
“I guess I can get back in bed and read. Hand me that copy of Becoming Myself. How do you like it so far?”
“I’ve gotten to the point where Irvin just met his future wife. But I want to finish Orwell’s dishwashing episodes first. Down and Out in Both Paris and London, you know.”
After a few minutes of reading Barb looks up and says. “My eyes feel swollen and they’re so dry!”
She calls a nurse on the phone. It’s a side effect and we have eye drops to put in. Now she can’t read even if she wants to. And it isn’t just her eyes.
“What’s the temperature? I’m feeling a bit cold.”
This is what Sir Edmund Hillary was rumored to have said at the foot of Everest to Tensing Norgay. Norgay, like me, knew he had troubles.
“Babygirl, it’s set at 72. It feels alright to me.”
“Then bring me my mother’s comfy fuzzy blanket in the closet.”
“Can Do.” Since the cancer, we call me Mister Can Do. I have a “special” T-shirt that says “Mr. Can Do.” When you say “Special” you have to screw your mouth up like Trump and look as stupid as possible. Now you get the idea.
We stole the idea from Hall and Oates. I Can’t Go For That. No Can Do.”
Music rules my life. I say to you unbelievers, “So what?”
Now back to the story.
I wrap her up like Boris Karloff, drop two drops of Blink®Tears in her eyes, and hand her Yalom.
After twenty minutes she’s shivering.
“Turn it up to 76,” she suggests, in the way Napoleon suggested, “Let’s take Moscow.”
I knew something was up.
By the time Chris Mathews came on, the room was 76, and that isn’t so bad if you’re watching a Tarzan movie or something. But by then we’re on Facebook looking at piks Johnny O took of Ironwood today and it’s snowing. It’s Christmas-card-quality when it snows in Ironwood Michigan and looks like Currier and Ives.
“Honey, it’s getting pretty warm in here,” I say as diplomatically as possible, sounding as neutral as possible, like I don’t really mind sweating my way through the night like Maugham in the tropics or something. Like I like feeling like malaria.
“Never mind,” she scowls back, “Get me the electric blanket. And turn it on high.”
I try to set it on medium when she isn’t looking, but it’s No Can Do. Barb catches me and tries to bite my head off, but I duck and she misses…for now. But I have a feeling this is only the beginning of something ugly.
So I set it on high.
Then another aspect of the Anastrozole Beast began to raise its head.
“It’s my eyes again,” she tells me.
It’s the end of the day and the late news is over. The lamps on each night stand are brass shell casings from World War You Didn’t Know When. At the tops they narrowed and were fluted like Buddhist temples. Like the ones you see in Anna and the King of Siam. God only know where she got them.
She’s got her head on a pillow and is reading the latest copy of The Week. I’m doing the same, and reading an old copy of The New Yorker I found in the bathroom.
You know how reading is, like roughage for your brain.
But even these two ancient war-like towers of light and the latest mag didn’t help.
“My eyes are dry and swollen shut too! I can’t read!”
“Yes,” and her eyes take on hurt and her eyebrows hold it tight. Mouth goes down on the corners.
“On the page or on the screen or what?”
“Both,” she whimpers, and bursts into tears.
“Wait a minute, Babygirl, let me go get the Blink.”
“I’ll never be able to walk again,” she said, and pulled a Kleenex of the box, “and never be able to see again,” and pulled out another, “and never be able to read again either.”
“Look up and I’ll squeeze a couple of drops in,” I replied, like an Ophthalmologist or whatever you call the official eye-guy. There’s something about their signs that remind me of the cover of Gatsby.
In they drop. One, two.
In seconds she feels better.
“Never mind,” she says, like Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live. Once soothed, a woman can change her mind.
On and off and between all of these side-effects, another monster is taking a chew off her sleep.
On some nights my fashionable woman, (she hates it when I refer to her as fashionable, since fashion is based on appearances and beauty runs fathoms deeper than that) goes to bed feeling normal for a change. Like a raven-haired Goldilocks, not too hot, not too cold. It’s a Saturday night after the run to Solana Beach and Barb’s hair is perfect. I mean to say Werewolf of London Perfect. The color is perfecto beyond belief and each and every highlight is in place and solid gold. She makes me keep my hands off. It’s the movie-star thing, kiss but don’t touch the special effects, like lipstick.
Somewhere in the night something happens and she wakes up wet! Like her half of the bed has suffered a monsoon. She has to get up and change her nighty.
When we wake up Barb is gone and some woman, who looks like a fair-skinned Tobriand Islander, is there beside me in a soaking wet Mumu, like Dorothy Lamour in Hurricane. It’s Barb, and her hair has gone Polynesian, makeshift, kinda bambooi, with a mind of its own.
There’s another problem too. Barb’s blowing up like a balloon monkey. I keep thinking it’s the wide-angle lens, because my eyes don’t see it, but after a while she notices too. It’s gradual, but it’s there.
And it looks like the time frame is blowing up too. The talk now is of taking the pill for ten years, not five.
At this point I begin to really appreciate Barb’s attitude about this.
I watched her suffer daily from one side effect to another, and there were over a dozen, yet she still carried on. It made me consider how much pain I might be able to bear on a daily basis if it meant living longer. How far does one go in these matters, when trading pain for longevity?
The thing is, it isn’t a matter of how far one goes. If you have any kind of family, and considering families are not always born under the same roof, you’re not alone, you’re not considering for just one. That’s why she’s put up with it so far, for her family. To be in their future, to give them some love and direction. Just the thought of that has given her strength so far. We all need her and she knows it.
When we first met I told her she was worthy, meaning worthy of my love. Now that worthiness has grown tenfold.
In the end we decide she’s had enough. What’s the point of a percent of living longer if the quality of your life is tanked? Her dcotor agrees and instructs Barb to lay off the processed foods, white flour, especially sugar, and exercise regularly. A conscientious diet is just as good as the hormone blocker. And no pill to take either!
Three weeks later and she’s on the mend. But then there’s an examination and they notice some liquid. A mammogram and X-ray are ordered.
In the meantime, while you’re waiting, it’s back to the Cancer boards, skewed to the gills with horror stories, and the sad thing is, they’re all true. You read them and wince in pain, saying, “Ooo! Ouch, Oh my God, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”
You pray nothing can go that wrong with you, but it’s one of those things you’ll never know until it’s too late. This notion tints your rose-colored glasses blue.
Three days later.
For the mammogram I get to watch. It isn’t easy, kinda like watching boxing and wincing with every punch. Barb sidles up to the machine, so close it can compress her breast. They do and it hurts. Then they twist the machine and squeeze her boob in the other direction until it hurts that way too.
“Take little breaths,” they tell her. Isn’t that the ***t they tell you when you’re having a baby?
Later, they have to take one more because she moved. This time they give me a lead suit, and it’s heavy and black and ill-fitting. I don’t like it, but it’s better than getting f***** by some x-rays that don’t even know you.
After the mammogram proves negative, “You’re fine. You’re good.”
Copious tears of joy fall down.
Then it’s a dash to the ER to find out about the pain in Barb’s foot. It’s crowded and I drop her off. By the time I park and get to the ER the triage nurse is walking out singing, “Barbara?” like a bellboy at the Waldorf.
“I can’t stand,” the patient yells back, and identifies herself by her malady. They wheel us into an examination room and lift Barb onto a gurney, both feet up on pillows, waiting for the X-ray tech to arrive. Barb taps on her I-pad while I look around. With a metallic swish they pull a curtain shut and exit stage right.
On the other side of the curtain, down the sterile corridor of sick rooms, you hear mumbled voices, but after some time they grow silent. Then you notice a pinging, a metallic pinging, like sonar in one of those old submarine movies, the ones you and your mom would watch on a Sunday afternoon, like Destination Tokyo or Run Silent Run Deep. Now it’s Das Boot. You wonder what the pinging is, and where it’s coming from. You consider the surroundings and go crazy with suspense. It’s close in here, and only a thin curtain is stretched between you and someone’s pain.
The pinging is urgent; the pinging is more rapid, like pain shooting up her leg. And to be honest I know Curt Jergins isn’t our captain and we’re not in a U boat and Clark Gable isn’t going to depth-charge us, and we’re not being depth-charged like in Das Boot, and I know at first I exaggerated the pinging and all, but now that I’ve been listening to it closely, now that the voices and moaning are quiet, I can hear it even better, and goddamn it, it does sound real and the ping is getting more incessant and more rapid and I am scanning every wall for my life-jacket and breathing apparatus.
There are the green oxygen tanks fastened to the wall and on the stainless steel sinks are stacks of Caviwipes piled on packages of blue Sensitive Silk® XL with SmartGuard® gloves, next to two You Have No Idea What They Are® machines. Chromium stands with hooks for hands and five chrome wheels crawl by festooned with care-fusion panels and pumps and clear plastic I Don’t Know What tubes.
My seat is claustrophobed between Barb’s gurney and the wall, and the rest of the room is either oxygen tanks and chrome and diving apparatus or equipment, and there isn’t a window in sight. TV screen, computer and keyboard are nailed to the deck. These I recognize. Stericycle Sharps Management System I don’t. There’s a machine behind us that says Phillips. Hey, I know Phillips. They make lightbulbs. But this isn’t a lightbulb.
It’s big and it’s says BIOHAZARD in red letters, and is so complex you don’t have any idea what it does with all the plastic tubes and wires and sensors and gizmos, and whatever it is, and whatever it does, you don’t want it hooked up to you.
Suddenly, it occurs to me what the underlying similarity between a cancer patient and the crew of a submarine under attack is.
It’s the threat of imminent death.
No matter how fast or long you sail away, your fate is always just on the horizon. It’s fuzzy, like in a fog, and you can’t make it out. So you’re always a little lost. You pray one of these days it will lift. The days of sunshine you have while waiting are a gift from heaven.
In the grand sweep of things, the air seems sweeter than before the episode. Minutes are more precious. You’ve survived the attack. You’ve learned the preciousness of life. And now, because of the cancer, not in spite of the cancer, you’re going to be thriver, not just a survivor.