Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Big C

I suppose the journey begins the same for everybody, quietly.   My journey began in the shower late at night when I reached down and there it was on my left testicle.  I put down the soap, paused and fingered it.  About the size of a chickpea, more or less.  Hard.  Maybe a part of the plumbing I had overlooked in a lifetime of more than average interest in that part of my body.   I checked the right one in the same spot, but no, nothing there.  This was unique.  I fingered it some more and felt my head filling with white light and buzz.

For my father the journey had begun quietly with tiredness and blistery bumps on the face.  My stepmom, a registered nurse, took him to the family doctor they’d known for years and he’s pronounced it as adult acne.  My stepmom said no.  She wanted blood tests.  She argued until she got them.  It was not acne.  It was Leukemia.  Ten years down the road it killed him.

I called Blue Cross Health Connection and spoke with one of the nurses on call.  Well sir, it’s probably nothing, but you should get it checked out.  Yes – like now.

A few days later I was in the office of my primary care doctor, a beautiful Filipino woman who had been doing my ritual prostate exams with a primly gloved and well-oiled finger for the last several years.  I explained my problem and removed my underwear and exposed myself.  I guess this is what it must be like for the ladies when they go to a handsome male gynecologist.  There was nothing erotic about showing her my junk, putting my fingertip on the offending spot and letting her handle my balls until she felt it too.  The naughty nurse is a universal male sexual fantasy, but not so sexy when you’re terrified. 

“It’s probably nothing, but we should schedule you a test.”

“But maybe- “

And so this is how you join the legions of the cursed.  Quietly.  Now.

They say cancer attacks one in three people these days.  I wonder if it was always like that, or if this is a new thing in the age of industrial food like products filled with mysterious additives microwaved in plastic trays made of petroleum products, cell phones, cosmic rays unopposed by depleted ozone layers, polluted air and the dreary parade of plagues and bugaboos reaching out to snatch at your 21st Century ass.  I was given the call and set up for an ultra sound but it would take a week to get in there.  I had to stew with my demons.

And where does jealousy begin?

On Sunday morning at my church, a Unitarian Church that saved my sanity if not my soul, they have a moment called “Joys and Sorrows” when members of the congregation are invited up to explain whatever good or bad event is hugely on their minds.  I almost never get up for this.  I’m an old school Minnesota  guy where men do not weep freely or dump their depressing shit on people who have their own troubles.  I sat in the pew, occasionally standing to sing, and thinking.  A lump.  In an embarrassing place.  I looked at the people around me and how I envied them.  I could look at each one and see how they were superior to me, in creative scope (a Unitarian Church in the Deep South is a rare and precious sanctuary for artists and atheists and the generally strange together) in happy old marriages, in bright young children starting out.  I envied the children as I looked at them with all their life ahead and myself conscious for the first time that mine could be closing down sooner or later.  It’s not our nature to think about death.  When you see children and their effervescence you feel like they’re immortal.  Their health, their energy, the endless future stretching in front them.  I wished I could be that age again and start over.  Why should this room of people be so happy and myself in trouble?

The couples around me, their open intimacy and affection.  I feel grief for myself, for I sense in these moments of discovered mortality, a hidden fear that such feelings have atrophied and shut down in me maybe forever.  And then I think – you’re so fucking dramatic.  You think this is a big deal.  Five Billion Chinese don’t give a shit.

And I argue – it is.  Yeah, it’s a big deal.  Every person in the room is more blessed than me.  I am so small.  Small in scope.  Small in heart.  Small in passion.  Finally petty.

“At this time in our service please come forward and we will receive the Joys and Sorrows.  Are there any anniversaries or birthdays?  Yes?  We light a candle for . . .”

A few people, some of them shyly happy, stand and I’m thinking of death.  And when we die, what?  What will it be?  I think there is a great collective consciousness beyond all this.  I believe this, not because of religion or faith, but because of what I observe in nature and especially plants and animals I know personally.  There is something out there, something common among all living things.  But it will be different from what we’ve been told.  Sitting here with these people I have this compelling intuition that when death does come for me, and it will, in that last moment the death experience will seem . . . familiar.

And so I stand up.  I want to speak.  I will speak; because I want to remind myself we are not alone, no matter how alone we feel. 

And so I go and so I speak.  And my tribe collectively gasps.  And so they light a candle for me.

When I sit down, Bobby, a springy, feisty old woman in her 80s, sitting behind me, Bobby my friend reaches over the pew and gives me a hug. 

After the service, before I can stand up and leave my seat people come to me, people gather and speak.  These are the survivors, they hug, they speak, each to each and me, speaking of their journey.   Some of their stories are harrowing; they have suffered as I may well suffer soon.  But they are standing still, they’re here and full of life and kindness.  What’s amazing to me is their healing cheerfulness, these walking wounded, missing breasts, and uteruses, and prostates.  When I talk to them and hear their stories I’m amazed at how many there are.  And how strong they are.  I am jealous of their strength and optimism.  I wonder if I have that in me.  If my time comes, I wonder if I can be that person for someone as they are to me.

When the ultra sound appointment comes around in Doctor’s Hospital, the technician turns out to be a pretty, cheerful blond girl in her 20s who calls my name from down the hall.  I’m beginning to get used to the idea of dropping my underwear for one after another of these cheerful young women to look me over.  As we walk down the hall I ask her if she’s an oncologist or just does the ultra sounds.  It sounds patronizing the way I say it and I hate myself instantly, but she understands me already.  She sees scared old farts like me every day, mixed in like nasty chocolates in the same box with happy pregnant women who are about to see their babies on radar for the first time.

No, she says, she just does the ultra sounds.  We chat as we go down the hall, and she makes it clear she doesn't do diagnoses and I have to wait, but don’t worry so much, we’ll see how it is. 

In the little exam room, she shows me a stack of starchy white towels, the laundry bin to put them in and what to do.  If you’re wondering how this works, a man takes off everything from the belt down, lays down and tucks a towel across his legs and under his balls so that they are displayed in isolation like an exhibit.  Your shriveled little dick gets lifted up and tucked out of the way under another towel.  This might be the male equivalent of putting your feet up in the stirrups.  I ask her a question, this pretty young woman, I've always wondered about.

“My left testicle is larger than my right.  Is that normal?”

“Oh yes, I see that a lot.” 

“Okay.  Just curious.”

“I’ll close the door and knock in a minute to see if you’re ready.”

That’s an interesting instruction.  Tugging down my underwear, exposing myself, that’s too much like what lovers do.  Not quite right to perform in front of this pleasant stranger, not quite like business, watching a man pull it all down and whip it out like that.  But lying down, being wrapped and packaged and prepped, like shrink wrapped meat in a supermarket, that takes the monkey business out of it.  It’s just business. 

I’m waiting for the technician to come back.  The lady or the tiger?  I've been given this sacred box, and there’s something in it that will change my life forever or maybe the sacred box is empty.  But I can’t open it.  This priestess has to open it and explain the mystery. 

And there’s that wave again, the jealousy.  This young woman with her health and youth.  This young woman who doesn't have this thing hanging over her.  I wish that I were her.  The older you get, the more it seems as though your fate is out of your hands because you've come to know more about contingency and how things you’re not looking out for can knock you off the rails.  You eat blueberries and lots of olive oil and miracle-shit supplements because magazines have told you these talismans can ward off death with the conjured magic of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories.  When you’re a kid or a young adult, you have no sense of how out of control things can suddenly get; you have instead an intense fascination with yourself and the mystery of your future, never questioning that’s it waiting there for you to do great things.

Next to the monitor screen someone has left a white pencil.  I pick it up and turn it over, worn down point, black scuffed eraser, an insurance company logo.  If I put the pencil down over here, will the Universe turn itself in my favor this way in the forked path instead of that way?  Or if I steal the pencil will God turn His face and discard me to my fate? Where are the timelines of contingency?  Can I feel out the right one and land on it, like a silver ball on a roulette wheel, or an empty chamber in a pistol at my head; am I sitting here at some vast nexus of possible universes, like a bug in a spider’s web?  If I sit this way, here, with one foot up, will I live?  If I lay quietly with my penis neatly tucked up and balls earnestly displayed on the towel, will I live?  What am I supposed to be doing to give fate a nudge like some rogue asteroid?  How do I charm the universe, get on the right side of God and get a break in all this?

I want to call my dad, to ask if there was a moment of unknowing like this for him just before things turned grim.  I feel a great urge to be sloppy, to be relieved of this tension, to throw clean white towels on the floor and spit on them.  Take a shit on the floor to show my defiance towards death and all fear.  You think you’re not attached to your life, you imagine throwing down your life for a beautiful woman and being her romantic hero, but when the sword hovers over you, anything, even a little bug wants so badly to live.

The knock startles me.   I drop the pencil and it rolls out of sight like a pair of dice down a storm drain.  When she comes in I’m lying on the hospital couch with my penis tucked out of sight and my balls on the towel.  She squeezes some goo on the ultra sound wand while making some cheerful chatter and warns me the wand might feel warm.  Woof!  It sure does.  She frowns, smiles and turns the screen around so I can see. 

This might be my first sign of honest hope.  A sign of good news.  She’s breaking the rules for me, and hospital lawyers wouldn't like it if you broke the rules for bad news.  As the wand moves over my nut a thing like a black moon crater appears on the radar.  I’m seeing my balls from the inside for the first time in my life and it’s so amazing I forget to be afraid.

“Well.  That looks like a cyst.”

“How can you tell?”

“Because it’s black.  See?”  She moves the hot wand down a little.  “See this black area?  This is the fluid inside the scrotum, and water or liquid shows up as black, flesh shows up as gray. “  She moves the wand up a little.  “This is your bump.  It’s black which means it’s full of fluid.  Like a cyst would be.”

“How would you know if it were a tumor?”

“It would be a dark gray, like the gray around it, but denser.  See?  But anyway, wait for the doctor’s report.”

When she leaves I’m sitting on the bench with wet towels and my balls and my lap are all sticky wet and I’m light and relieved.  I feel like a guy who’s just had a massage with a happy ending.

A few days later the report comes back and my doctor calls.  It’s official.  It’s a cyst.


  1. just now i am working on my post on this subject & i was writing about how jealousy comes from a superficial comparison of one's own life with someone else's & then i read this. a very potent piece, Garce. if true rather than fiction, i send you very strong healing mojo. if fiction, i'm gobsmacked. it's effective as hell.thanks for sharing it.

  2. Hi Amanda!

    Oh it's real.

    I probably should have said something, but yes, this has been my experience for the last couple of weeks. It's the second big bullet I've missed so far this year.

    I think cander may be one of these hidden diseases. People don;t talk about it much, but when there's a way to bring it up it's amazing how many peole reveal themselves as survivors.

    Keep that mojo comin' .


  3. i will most certainly keep the mojo coming. i hope you share as much as you feel like talking about here or elsewhere.

  4. Oh, Garce!

    I read this holding my breath, worrying about how it would end. In fact I was thinking about you earlier today, since I hadn't had any updates about the diagnosis. I felt as though the sun had burst through the clouds when I got to the final sentence. Hallelujah!

    About cancer, though - I'm trying to change how I think about it. You're right, people tend to react as if it were the plague. But in fact it's not necessarily a death sentence. I have quite a few friends who are cancer survivors (five, ten, even twenty years later). My step mom is currently undergoing chemo for bone and lung cancer, and yet she's doing amazingly well. For her, cancer is apparently going to be more like a chronic disease.

    I'm glad you had the courage to share your fears with your congregation. You gave them a blessing, the chance to feel love and compassion for you.

    Honestly, it's so hard for me to understand how you can see yourself as small, used up, petty. I am sometimes jealous of your depth of feeling - and your ability to express those feelings so movingly. Then I realize how much of a gift that ability is, to me and to everyone who "reads your stuff".

  5. Hi, Garce,

    I'm not even going to make any comments about the jealousy thing, at least not now, because I'm just SOOOOOO relieved for you that it was just a cyst. Whew.


  6. Every so often the great Foolkiller gives us a tickle to remind us we're mortal and what a wonderment life is. He tickled you in a pretty delicate place, my friend. Glad it was, after all, just a tickle. Best wishes always.

  7. Great to hear it's okay, Garce. The limbo you speak of, although not nearly as unsettling as a positive diagnosis, plops us down in an ambiguous world where no trajectory seems plausible in the moment. How do we conduct ourselves when we don't even know if we'll be around in a few months? Do the fears take over our priorities? Or do we try to live the zen of it, accepting whatever the outcome? It's something we'll have to deal with unless our personal Grim Reaper is benevolent and takes us unawares. Maybe that would be the best way out.

  8. Yeah, anonymous is me.

  9. I'm jealous of how beautifully you expressed all this, but I'm also adding my name to the logbook of those who've been there. Well, with a different bodily part, but close enough. Mine turned out to be non-invasive, and might never have become really dangerous, but it still called for moderate surgery and radiation. I'm four years out now, but those initial days of terrified speculation are still vivid when I let them be.

  10. Yeah, I'm also one of the lucky ones. After cancer, a liver transplant and a year of chemo in '04-'05 I'm up and running again. From here on, it's all grace time and bucket list. I think sometimes I appreciate life in a way others who haven't been there may not quite understand.

  11. In my retail job last week I waited on a woman who was trying to find clothing that would fit since she'd lost so much weight fighting her breast cancer...not the least of which was the weight of both breasts. She was honest and unembarrassed once she saw that I glanced with only casual interest and no distaste or fear at the flatness under her chemise but went on talking to her while meeting her eyes, discussing what colors looked good on her, how to best showcase her good features, and how relieved she was that chemo and radiation weren't needed...yet. She had been measured for her prothesis(pl?) that day and wondered how she'd like having smaller breasts than she was used to. We joked about how so many women want big ones, when those of us who are cursed with them know how uncomfortable they can be to carry around.

    My Father died from colon cancer. Many of my relatives did also. I get my requisite check-ups yearly. I do as you do: eat right, exercise, knock on wood and toss spilled salt over my left shoulder to blind the devil and keep him at bay. But the grim reaper is waiting for all of us.

    I agree with always denigrate your own talent. You have the ability to use words to capture feelings and thoughts so eloquently. The biggest travesty in the world is that someone with your ability to move the reader to tears with a few well-chosen words, labors in obscurity, where-as the current "flavor of the month" famous authors count their money on the way to the bank, unaware and uncaring that their words neither move nor enhance anyone's life as much as they bring huge profits in a business-like manner to a select few.

    I'm so pleased that I clicked on your first invitation to read your "stuff" years ago. My life has been enhanced by reading your words. I've laughed and cried with you. And yes, I'm damn relieved that you'll be around to pleasure me with your words for a while longer.

  12. Hi Lisabet!

    Your friends, your mom, its amazing to me how many people have this problem for real and have had their lives changed by it. Everyone knows someone. It makes such a difference too having a community of friends, the church, here and others to share with. If you had to keep this stuff inside you;d go crazy.

    I do feel small though compared to what I would like to do. It seems to come from inside.


  13. Hi Rose!

    Whew. Yeah, me too.


  14. Hi Anonymous Bob!

    Yeah, sometimes we need to be reminded that we're only here for a while, the best and the worst of us, death comes to us all. And why not? Who would want to live forever? We're afraid of death, but we're not made for endless life.


  15. Hi Daddy X!

    Yah, that limbo is a powerful moment, because it is so unknown. It reminds me of something Stephen King once said about horror fiction, which is that the monster you don't get to see is always more scary than the monster that you do.


  16. Hi Sacchi!

    Wow - you've been there too. You see how it is. That's what I was saying to Lisabet, its amazing how widespread this is. Wishing you luck too, stay healthy.


  17. Fiona!

    You're very good to me. I'm also very gad you and your large breasts (I want to be reincarnated as a bra) come by to read my work and even more to comment and speak your mind. Readers don't know this about us, they think writer's get a lot of attention, we don't. Writing is this very solitary, mastabatory activity and you don't know if it goes anywhere or not. It's easy to put ourselves down, which I think I do too much.

    And you lost your father to cancer too. Your father. My father. Lisabet's mom, fighting it out.Isn't it amazing?


  18. I think you have the title for your next short story, Garce:

    "I want to be reincarnated as a bra"