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.