My wife and I sat in the crowded hospital lobby waiting. I was clutching a pager. When it went off we would be called to another, smaller waiting area because you can’t go into surgery without having to wait and wait and wait. An older gentleman sharing the curved row of seats struck up a conversation with us, and by “struck up a conversation” I mean “gave us a meandering soliloquy about his time in the pre-seventies country music industry”. I tried to convey to him with my facial expressions that I was impressed even though I didn’t know the names he was dropping from Shinola, but he only stared at the table in front of us, gesturing as he wove through his tangled memories. He talked about his good friend Jack Greene whom I’d never heard of, and who wrote the song “Statue of a Fool”, which I’d never heard of in spite of its being so popular when it was first released in 1969 that it was the Country Music Association’s Song Of The Year. “And then,” he said, his dark eyes brightening behind his thick glasses, “it stayed so popular it was Song Of The Year the next year too. Only song in history to ever do that.”
It seemed like an omen. Months earlier when my second orchiectomy was scheduled, then postponed because my blood pressure was so high a paper cut could produce a scene from Evil Dead II, then rescheduled, I’d come to terms with it emotionally by thinking of it as an end. Dexter had been cut away and with Lefty gone I’d be a proper gelding and the whole cancer experience could be put out to pasture. Except, as I keep reminding myself, there is no end. With any luck I won’t have to have any more bits cut away—although it will be at least several more months before the plastic port that was installed just below my right clavicle can be removed. And I still have scars that will probably be permanent, and be permanent reminders of the sharp divide in my life: before cancer, when I could take my health for granted, and after cancer. Now I can’t take anything for granted. “Statue of a Fool” broke records the year I was born.
I thought about that when the pager buzzed. It had buzzed earlier when I’d had to go back for my initial check-in, rattled off my name and date of birth, and been given a wristband—a procedure I’d been through so many times I didn’t even need to think about where I was going. A nurse led me, my wife, and a small group of other soon-to-be patients and family to an elevator then through familiar corridors to a familiar waiting room. This one was smaller, quieter, and with windows that looked out at buildings I pass every day on my way to work. I think I even sat in the same corner seat I occupied when I was in the same room waiting for my previous surgery. Then I was called back to the familiar pre-op area. The familiarity of everything really hit me when the same woman who’d taken my blood pressure before my previous surgery took my blood pressure then handed me a plastic bag for my clothes, a hairnet, a paper gown, and a pair of yellow socks. I have a dozen pairs of the same kind of socks. She slid the curtain closed to give me privacy. I didn’t need to be told what to do, but I sat down on the bed, still fully clothed, for just a moment.
I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally lucky guy. My friends have thought so too. Once a friend and I were evacuated from an apartment complex because a gas leak set off the fire alarm. We stood around the parking lot like a couple of yutzes wondering if the building might explode.
“If it does,” said my friend, “my super reflexes will allow me to duck behind a car before any of the explosion hits me.” Then he looked at me. “It’ll all just fly around you.”
It’s a memory that’s come back to me repeatedly because I’ve felt so lucky throughout my cancer experience. At the beginning one of the doctors said to me, “You’ve got one of the best cancers there is.” There may not be such a thing as a good cancer, but it could have been worse. That same doctor told me I had a really good chance of being cured. I’d never heard the word “cured” applied to cancer before, and I repeated it a lot before I realized it was giving me a false sense of hope. I can’t say I am or will be cured because that implies that I’ve reached an end, that there’s nothing else that needs to be done. For the rest of my life there will always be another pill, another procedure.
I looked around at the pre-op room, at the yellow socks, the gown that I knew from experience I wouldn’t be able to fully tie in the back, but I’d spend most of the next few hours lying down so I wouldn’t need to worry about my ass being exposed. I looked at the hairnet. And then I started to undress and put my clothes in the plastic bag. For a moment I’d been on the verge of breaking down. I thought I was okay, but then the familiarity of everything crashed down on me, and I thought, I don’t want to go through this again. Then I slipped the hairnet over the hair that, a few months before, hadn’t been there, and adjusted the paper gown as best I could. As I lay back I heard machines beeping. Soon I’d be hooked up to a machine that would beep and trace a similar pattern for every heartbeat. I thought about how grateful I should be, how lucky I was to still be here. And I felt like a fool.