Fun With Cancer

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer June 17th, 2014. Life goes on.

Fill ‘Em Up.

IBEATCANCERIt hasn’t even been two years since my diagnosis so maybe I just haven’t gotten there yet but I hope to reach a point where I can go an entire day without thinking once about cancer. Most days it just pops into my head without any warning or explanation. After all I’ve been clear since I finished chemo and I only get checkups about every three months. In between that I have a plastic access port in my chest that needs to get flushed—or, as I like to call it, any storm in a port—every six weeks. Oh yeah, I also have surgical scars and multiple medications that I take daily. But as long as there are no bumps in the road I can keep cruising along quite happily with the top down, the world’s greatest song on the radio, looking at cows and sheep and the occasional llama, at trees and billboards that tell me there’s a place just two miles ahead where I can buy firecrackers, stopping occasionally to grab a fish sandwich, get gas, and also put fuel in the car.

That metaphor got away from me.

During my most recent checkup my oncologist told me there was good news and bad news, and more good news—the bad news wasn’t really bad. The good news was most of my numbers looked fine. The bad news is my tumor markers were up just a tick. Oncologists, of course, measure tumor markers in small bloodsucking arachnids. The markers were still in the very low single digits and there was a strong possibility that it was a mistake and she was going to have the lab re-run the numbers to be sure. And let me be as emphatic as possible that even if the numbers are right the uptick is so small it’s nothing to worry about.

I’m emphasizing that because there was a moment where I emotionally slammed the brakes and came to a screeching halt, left skidmarks fifty feet long, did an impressive Tokyo drift maneuver across a stretch of highway, and blew out one of the tires. Fortunately I have a complete emergency kit including a can of that stuff you can use to temporarily refill a punctured tire so you can drive to a service station, although people passing by did wonder why I felt compelled to put out flares in the middle of the day.

Yeah, I really need to stop using cruise control with my metaphors.

It’s not been easy making the transition from “I never get sick!” to “I spent three months getting chemo for a disease that could have killed me and has affected the rest of my life!” The first phrase is easy, jaunty, and allows me to go on with my usual happy blind optimism and be the life of the party while the second phrase is clunky and long and doesn’t even begin to sum up just how complicated the reality is which is annoying because just by itself it’s enough to give me the fantods.

Rerunning my numbers required me to go in for a blood draw—meaning I had to get a second port flush in less than a week, which, by the way, was a reminder that even though I may never need chemo again it’s still too soon to get my port removed. There may not be storms but there are still squalls. And she wanted a urine sample too. And not just any urine sample. It had to be a first-thing-in-the-morning urine sample instead of a quick drink-some-water-and-fill-this-cup sample. I was given a specimen bottle to take home.

Specimens in mirror may be larger than they appear.

Specimens in mirror may be larger than they appear.

Almost every time I’ve been asked to give a urine sample I’ve been handed a cup or bottle to fill and it always feels like a missed opportunity to repeat a Groucho Marx joke. When he was called up for military service he and his fellow recruits were taken into a room for a medical exam. The doctor pointed to a row of bottles on the far wall and said, “Fill ‘em up.” Groucho said, “From here? Who do you think we are, firemen?”

Anyway I’d have to remember to fill the cup first thing in the morning, preferably after I’d taken the dogs out for their morning disembogue, and not join them in marking the tree. There was also a strong possibility—and it came to pass—that I’d have to make my passage before the clock crowed. In the event of that my wife suggested I put a note in the lavatory that read “CHRIS—PEE IN THE CUP!” She’s smart like that and through this ordeal has spent a good amount of time in the driver’s seat. So I took a heavy black pen and wrote the note. And then to sharpen the point I took a lighter pen and added, “Make it fun. Pretend you’re an astronaut using a zero-G toilet. And don’t spill any because if your urine’s floating around in zero-G the other astronauts will lock you out of the capsule.” I wish I could say it ended there but I went on to write more, referencing everything from the Apollo program to Quisp and the final scene of Dark Star and now I have to spend the rest of my life carrying a note reminding me to not drink and write notes, but that’s another story.

The real point is I can hopefully always get back on track, fueled by my sense of humor and the occasional fish sandwich.

Update: My oncologist has already gotten the new results back. Everything is back to normal and Beatrice and Benedick lived happily ever after.





Brave? No Question.

IBEATCANCERI think the adjective “brave” is overused when talking about people who’ve just been diagnosed with cancer or are about to start treatment. We don’t say someone with a cold is brave for staying in bed and eating chicken soup. Surgery and chemo may be a lot harsher but most of us are numb right after we’ve gotten the diagnosis. Even once we get past that all we want is to get better, we want to survive, and we feel there’s no other choice. There’s nothing brave about doing something when it’s your only option. The real test of a person’s bravery comes after the treatment. Real bravery is defined by how a person moves on with their life even if they’re lucky enough to be in remission. Maybe it even takes more bravery to live in remission because there’s no clear path for those of us who’ve fought the crab and won.

Even before her cancer diagnosis Tig Notaro, whose birthday is today, was brave. She pursued a career in standup comedy, voluntarily going into something where there is no clear path. In 2012 just after her diagnosis she did a now legendary live set in which she told the audience she had cancer. Two years later she performed part of a set topless, showing the audience her double mastectomy scars. In her comedy she sometimes strips away pretense, purposely violating the rules of standup, and with that act she confronted people with the reality of life after cancer. She’s been described as dry and unsentimental, a comedian who keeps audiences at a distance, but talking about cancer with inspirational thoughts and platitudes would be the coward’s way out. Tig Notaro made a choice to be brave.

And this is just hilarious.


IBEATCANCERIt seems to be hip to not make resolutions which is why I’ve decided to make a New Year’s resolution. After all I’m very concerned about being a trendsetter rather than following the trends. Actually I don’t care whether anyone follows me. Others may march to the beat of their own drummer, but I’m standing off to the side playing the hurdy-gurdy, which is really the only instrument I’m capable of playing. I’m that musically inept. I realized I should just give up any musical ambitions when I couldn’t even play the didgeridoo. Now before I hear from all those angry professional didgeridoo players let me clarify that it’s like the piano: it’s really easy to play, but difficult to play well, but that’s another story.

I understand why making resolutions has kind of fallen out of favor. Do you even remember the resolutions you made last year? I think they’re like “the check is in the mail” or “yes, I’ll respect you in the morning” or “club soda will get that out”. Most people, I think, make resolutions under duress. They feel pressured to come up with something to show they’re really intent on putting in some effort in the new year and then they fall off the wagon or slip out of the harness or whatever the appropriate metaphor is within a week of the new year starting.

As part of being hip I’m going for the ultimate cliche in resolutions: I’m going to lose weight. Not surprisingly this all goes back to my cancer diagnosis. It’s now more than a year and a half in the rearview mirror, but when I check my rearview all I can think is that objects appear larger than they should. It doesn’t help that not too long ago I was struggling to fit into a pair of jeans and the button above the zipper popped off, pinged off the wall, and hit me in the eye. This is really a resolution I should have made last year, but I’d been through a lot in 2014 and went a little easier on myself in 2015. Maybe too easy. And it’s not like I wasn’t aware of this even a year ago. During my last round of chemo I looked at a picture of myself and thought there were two of me, and that one of us had swallowed the other.


Last week of chemo and fading in all the wrong places.

Everybody else who’s had cancer since before Hippocrates has lost weight, but me, being the iconoclast who marches to the tremolo of his own didgeridoo, had to go and gain it. The worst part is that two days after my diagnosis my wife put me on the bathroom scale and even though I hadn’t been on the scale in months I knew what my normal weight was. The cancer had eaten away at me to the tune of almost ten pounds. That actually sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Cancer is when your cells suddenly go beserk and reproduce like rabbits on fertility drugs and even if they’re drawing resources away from other parts of the body you’d think things would at least even out. Maybe I’ll ask Hippocrates about that later. Anyway my wife decided to fatten me up. She said, “I want you to eat like a Hobbit.” If you haven’t seen or read The Lord Of The Rings Hobbits typically start each day with breakfast followed by second breakfast then elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, and I don’t know what comes after that but basically the life of a Hobbit is an endless buffet. The problem in those early days is there wasn’t a buffet in this world that could tempt me. This was not the cancer or even the chemo, which I’d barely started at that point. It was the stress of being diagnosed with cancer and not knowing what chemo would involve. Facing an uncertain future I was metaphorically and literally shrinking. Then the anti-nausea drugs kicked in and suddenly my daily schedule ran something like this:

9:00am-wake up

9:15am-Breakfast (Six pieces of French toast smeared with chocolate spread and crushed pecans)

10:15am-Second breakfast (Two sausage biscuits)

11:00am-Elevenses (Granola bar smeared with peanut butter)

12:00am-Lunch (Liverwurst sandwich, chips, milkshake, cookies)

2:00pm-Afternoon snack (Another milkshake, or maybe a can of smoked oysters or an eight ounce bag of almonds)

Dinner would be cobbled together from anything edible that was left in the house. I think one night I ate an entire bag of flour mixed with soy sauce, a can of vegetable shortening, two sticks of butter, a package of hot dogs, and a block of frozen spinach. At least I hit all the major food groups.

It didn’t help that in addition to turning me into a vacuum cleaner with teeth the chemo made me really tired and gave me an allergic reaction to sunlight so there was no way I could keep up my regular level of exercise. My wife tried to get me to exercise and I tried to listen but it was kind of hard to hear her over the constant sound of chewing.

Cancer is the gift that keeps on taking. I didn’t just lose parts of my body to the disease. I lost my health, my happiness, my ability to say I never get sick and my belief that I have no allergies. I lost my hair and while it’s mostly come back it’s thinner than it was before. I just wish the rest of me were too. I could just accept that this is how I am now, but I refuse to let it define me. I am who I am, and I’m determined that this time next year there will be less of me.


The Deep End.

December 8, 2014. I'm really not as cheerful as I look.

December 8, 2014. I’m really not as cheerful as I look.

Recently I passed another milestone. It’s now been a year since my big surgery, the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection. In plain English they sliced me open from my nipples to my navel and removed all the lymph nodes from my midsection. When I was told I’d have to have the surgery I was devastated. I stupidly thought chemo would be the end of my treatment, that the scans would give me the all-clear and my life would return to normal. And at that point my life was returning to normal. The big surgery felt like a setback. It would mean more weeks of recovery. I hadn’t been able to swim since I’d been diagnosed and I was itching to get back in the water. Not literally itching because that might mean I had some kind of skin condition and shouldn’t be allowed in a pool used by other people but psychologically itching. The big surgery meant I’d have to forget swimming for at least a few more months.

Swimming for me isn’t just good exercise. Actually for me I’m not sure it is good exercise because I’m kind of a clumsy swimmer, but it burns some calories and works the major muscle groups. It’s very mentally liberating being suspended in water. At the pool I go to regularly I start every lap in the shallow end then as I swim across the pool it gets deeper and deeper. When I turn to go back I like to dive down, completely submerging my body. I like to go as deep as I can, all the way to the bottom. I sometimes wonder if this freaks out the lifeguards. Or maybe they don’t notice. Well, I hope they notice, but maybe they realize that as long as I’m down there doing the breast stroke everything’s okay. I admire lifeguards. It’s one of those jobs where a good day is one where absolutely nothing happens, so I admire their ability to sit in one place and do nothing for a really long time and not fall asleep. And it’s mostly adults at the pool so we aren’t subject to the mandatory ten minute rest period every hour the kids get. When I was a kid and went to the pool almost every summer day I hated that rest period. That ten minutes always seemed interminable and it never occurred to me that it was a rest period for the lifeguards too, and that for them ten minutes was barely enough time to smoke a couple of cigarettes and maybe have a beer, but that’s another story.

When I’m deep under the water it’s very peaceful. It’s as though all the problems of the world disappear into the silence of the depths and I’m alone to contemplate big questions. Do we have a purpose in the universe? Can we survive as a species? If you swim hard enough do you sweat in the water? How can I keep my goggles from fogging? Is that a hairball?

At least that’s what I could do before the chemo and surgeries. When I first got back in the water I noticed I couldn’t swim as many laps. And I expected that. I was out of shape. The whole experience had been physically draining and emotionally it wasn’t easy either. There were a lot of times when I could have exercised that I spent lying around, times when I just felt so down I wouldn’t even have wanted to swim if I could, times I didn’t even want to get up and walk. There were times when the flesh was willing but the spirit was weak, and then the flesh got weak. So once I started swimming again I knew I had some catching up to do. And after a few months I could see the improvement, but I still couldn’t dive like I used to. I couldn’t stay under long enough to touch the bottom of the deep end.

Chemo left me with lung damage. That was one of the trade-offs: I could either get rid of the cancer and have lung damage or, well, eventually the cancer would probably have spread to my lungs as well, but at least with chemo I’d have lung damage and still be alive. I just accepted that the depths would forever be off limits to me. It was hard to accept that I’d be stuck almost at the surface for the rest of my life, but at least I was still swimming.

In some ways my recovery has been so gradual I really haven’t even noticed it. After all I’ve been through I should be a lot more conscious of my body, but I’ve been so determined to focus on what’s wrong that sometimes I don’t even notice what’s right. Some things take me by surprise. About a month ago I had reached the wall of the deep end of the pool, turned, dove, and realized I was descending. I kicked, went about halfway down, then turned and came back up. I breached like a humpback whale and took a deep breath which I’m almost positive freaked out the lifeguards but then kept swimming so they could relax and continue doing nothing. I started pushing myself, spirit and flesh working in tandem. And a few days ago I did it. At the deepest point in the pool, the ten-foot mark, I planted my left foot flat on the bottom. I’m five foot six inches on a good day so that meant there was a four and a half foot column of water over me. Then I pushed off gently and glided back to the surface.

Cancer has changed me permanently but not every change is permanent. It’s taken time but I realize that some of the things it took from me can be taken back.


That One Place.

Ozone Falls.

Ozone Falls.

Within a few hours of being diagnosed with cancer, while I was still in the emergency room, I told my wife, “I want to go back to Ozone.” Ozone is a small town in eastern Tennessee that has some quarries and Ozone Falls, a state park around a picturesque waterfall formed by Fall Creek, and slightly northeast of Fall Creek Falls, another waterfall and state park that, in my humble opinion, isn’t as nice. I’d been to Niagara Falls, which was big and noisy and exciting, but Ozone Falls, formed by a creek, is smaller, quieter, and easier to understand. When I first saw it I was spellbound because this is what a waterfall should be. And unlike Niagara Falls which you can see from a distance Ozone Falls has to be approached from a distance that makes it come into view slowly. And then it’s a difficult climb down into the basin where, if you want, you can stand under the waterfall itself. Try that with Niagara.




Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Just up the road from Ozone Falls is Camp Ozone. It was a Presbyterian Church camp when I first went there at the age of eleven and went back over several successive summers. I’d heard people talk about Camp Ozone and seen older kids wearing t-shirts with the logo of a cross on a hill with the moon rising behind it, but experiencing the camp for myself was, well, special. It’s a very frustrating thing to try and talk about because I can’t really put it into words, and I’m not sure why I keep trying to talk about it. I think I could describe staying in the cabins, tromping through the woods, finding oddly colored mushrooms. I could describe the bath house where the light stayed on all night so in the morning we’d find the biggest most gorgeous moths clustered on the walls, moths whose names we learned, whose names were almost as weird and beautiful as the moths themselves: luna, io, cecropia, imperial, sphinx. I could talk about swimming in the lake. Ozone Lake is manmade and, I learned recently, was dug in the sixties by some people who didn’t know what they were doing. They just took it as a summer job. Its manmade nature explains why it’s no more than twelve feet deep at any point. You can even take a canoe out into the very middle and look down and if the light is right see the bottom, or even touch it. Radial water plants that look like green anemones grow there. It was my first experience swimming in a lake, which was very different from being in a pool or even the ocean. It was cold and murky but I still loved it. I could float or let my feet slip along flat rocks or over to silky mud. My toes would even sometimes touch those prickly water plants which kind of freaked me out.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

I could even talk about the friends I made there in just a week and then never met again, or how the last night of every camp session we had a talent show. One year I did a stand-up comedy act and no one, not even the minister who was head of the camp, blinked an eye at some of the off-color Buddy Hackett jokes I told, although the laughter might have been a little bit forced.

For various reasons, mostly having to do with church politics, Camp Ozone closed when I was sixteen. From my very first year there—almost from the very first day—I’d hoped to one day come back as a counselor. That wouldn’t happen. My family and their friends would also take weekend trips to Camp Ozone for Memorial Day or at other times of the year. When we went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville we stayed in Camp Ozone, a little over an hour away. These trips gave me and my friends a lot of chances to explore the place without the normal camp schedule. There was also time for me to go off alone, to get to know the wilderness by myself. When the camp was officially shut down these informal visits also ended.

In a way I kept going back to Ozone, though. As a teenager I was taught guided meditation by some older friends and Camp Ozone was always where I went. I could, and still can, mentally walk all the way around the lake or stand in the waterfall basin. It was the place I always went to because it’s a place where nothing bad can happen to me. Maybe that’s why I was never afraid of going back, and while it took more than a year from that moment I told my wife it’s what I wanted she still managed to make it happen. I was prepared for it to have changed but the Ozone in my mind is a place I’ve been to so many times nothing can change it. And going there I was surprised by how little had changed. It’s now run by Children’s Bible Ministries and I was shown around by the current director. Most of the original buildings I remembered were still there, even if they’ve been repaired and renovated. He seemed to find it funny when I pointed to a large propane tank covered with green moss and said, “I remember when that was white.” He took me past where the hogans had been. The younger kids stayed in the cabins but when we got older we moved to the hogans which were canvas covered frames, open at either end, with wooden floors where mice lived. He showed me the top of the hill where I’d spent the night under the stars and then left me to walk back down by myself. What had changed didn’t matter. What was still the same made me happier than I can say.

And that’s the problem. None of this may have any meaning for any of you reading this, especially if you’ve never been to Ozone, because there are some things words just can’t convey. There is, however, something I think that can be shared. When I was in the hospital I was facing an uncertain and frightening future and while remembering a place that made me happy helped what mattered even more was the goal of going back. It’s not enough to say I didn’t want to die. I had something to live for.

So what’s your Ozone?



The Day After.

September 22nd, 2014--last chemo treatment.

What a long strange trip it was.

People often celebrate big events in their lives—birthdays, marriages—on the anniversary of those events. They mark the day of each year and treat it as special, but these were big events when they happened. Marriage days are, for a lot of people, filled with a flurry of activity and there’s not a lot of time for the couple getting married to think of even enjoy it, which is annoying because it’s supposed to be about them. And I don’t remember much about the day I was born, but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of stuff going on with me being dragged from my womb without a view and getting slapped on the ass by the doctor–I told him, “Hey, you could at least take me out to dinner and a movie first,” but that’s another story. It isn’t really until the day after the big event that everything settles down and this new life can truly be appreciated.

This is what I thought as I approached the first anniversary of my last day of chemotherapy, the day when I could officially call myself a one-year survivor of cancer. I had my last treatment on September 22nd, 2014. It wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. It wasn’t bad either, but it was complicated. Three months of my life had revolved around chemotherapy. That’s only a tiny fraction of the time I’d already lived but I’d quickly gotten used to the routine. I’d gotten used to the nurses, to the daily needle stick, the coolness spreading through my chest as the saline first rushed in. The boredom, tiredness, weight gain, the cold rooms, the allergy to sunlight, the swelling in my legs, and, hey, being stuck with a big needle I could do without, but it was all working toward killing off the cancer and that made it all tolerable. It even made it something I looked forward to. I thought, mistakenly, that chemo would be the last step. When I was first diagnosed my goal was to get to remission, but then at least one doctor told me I had “a good chance of being cured”. I’d never heard of cancer being cured—I didn’t even know it was possible, so that excited me. I latched onto that and made the mistake of thinking there’d be an end. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, but I made the mistake of forgetting that when I emerged I’d still be on the same track and that there’d be more tunnels up ahead.

I’ve forgotten most of what my last day of chemo was like. I’ve forgotten who the nurse was, what I did to keep myself occupied, what my wife and I did when I was finished. What I do remember, vividly, is leaving. There was a young man in the waiting room, skinny, with dark circles under his eyes, wearing a heavy shirt that was too big for him and a knitted cap over his bald head. He looked up at me as I was going out. I wanted to tell him things would get better but I didn’t want to offer that kind of false hope. Things were getting better for me but maybe for him they wouldn’t, and I didn’t want to shove that in his face.

It’s a form of survivor’s guilt. There wasn’t a single traumatic event that killed others and left me alive, but I’ve lost people I loved—people I sometimes think, in dark moments, deserved to live more than I do—to cancer. And so many others have died. What makes me special? Why was I so lucky? At least one doctor told me “If you’re gonna get cancer this is the one to have.” Actually testicular cancer is just one of some of the highly treatable types of cancer, but I still don’t know what the odds are or why they fell in my favor. Even when I talk to some other survivors I feel guilty. So many had radiation, multiple major surgeries, and chemo that went on longer than mine. My side effects were minimal. I had a few bouts of nausea—I didn’t even throw up—that were so regular my wife spotted the pattern right away and could make sure I took a magic red anti-nausea pill before they started. I was exhausted but could still manage to get out of bed every day. My immune system was knocked down so badly a cold could have easily turned into pneumonia but that never happened. The worst never happened. I listen to what others went through and I wish they’d had my experience instead. What I went through wasn’t easy, but it doesn’t seem fair that others had it so much worse.

And there’s a selfish side to it too. I think about what I lost. I think about the carefree innocence I had. Before cancer I really sort of felt invincible. I’d blithely wander into labs full of anthrax and bubonic plague and flesh eating bacteria and fix myself a drink and blow my nose with a napkin I found on the floor. That’s an exaggeration, but before cancer there wasn’t any illness that scared me because I could honestly say “I never get sick.” And there’s also the fear that, going back to the train metaphor and the light at the end of the tunnel, I may be in the light right now but I don’t know what tunnels are up ahead. The chances of my cancer coming back are extremely slim but I don’t know if this was just a battle or if I’ve won the war. I don’t say I’m “cured” anymore. I can’t be certain I’ve beaten the crab.

This is what I spent September 22nd, 2015 thinking about. It was not a happy day. Maybe future September 22nds will be easier to get through. Maybe farther down the track there are even days when I’ll forget I even had cancer. Even if the anniversaries are still hard it doesn’t matter. September 23rd I celebrated. September 23rd I put all those dark thoughts out of my mind. September 23rd I sang, I danced, I walked in the sun. I celebrated the day after.



Poke In The Eye.

pokeA single stalk of pokeweed came up in the backyard. I recognized it by its bright red stem and its black shiny berries, little oblate spheroids that somehow I knew even as a kid were poisonous, although it was fun to squeeze the juice out of them and write stuff on concrete in dark purple. Except I would later learn pokeweed isn’t always poisonous. Woody Allen’s line that everything our parents said was good for us—milk, sunlight,, red meat, college—actually turned out to be bad for us has its opposite, at least in nature. Plants that are normally toxic—pokeweed, milkweed, stinging nettle—can be edible if you boil them to death. And in the case of pokeweed you have to get the very young leaves when it first comes up in the spring, before it’s put up a stalk. People boil it and eat it, and call it “poke sallet”—not salad, which is what I first thought they were saying, before I saw it in print. I’m not a big fan of leafy greens. I like them best in the form of sag paneer, which is Indian for “creamed spinach”, but I’m kind of tempted by pokeweed, or I would be if I could spot it before it’s branched out. I always forget it Every time I see pokeweed I think of Jerry Thompson. He was a columnist for The Tennessean, back when it was a newspaper and not just a stack of printed coupons. I’m old enough to remember the morning paper being delivered, and I started reading Jerry Thompson’s columns in the fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know why, but I noticed one morning that he’d written something snarky about Barbie ditching Ken and taking up with a sketchy character named Rio. And it was funny to me that this was newsworthy. So “Thompson’s Station”, with his ruminations on everything from pop culture to the good old days when he did things like throw cats on his father’s bare back and accidentally shoot roosters. And there was the time he and a cousin took a snort of an uncle’s moonshine. His uncle kept a jug in the barn “for medicinal purposes”, and Thompson and his cousin weren’t happy when they learned it was flavored with pokeweed root, which may or may not be poisonous but tastes really awful.

My senior year in high school I took a creative writing class. And writing was only part of the class. We also had to submit. The teacher would let us thumb through her copy of The Writer’s Market in search of places that might take the contributions of high school students. And I found some. I had a real knack for finding small publications that had ceased or simply disappeared even though they were still listed as active. Some of my fellow students got their first rejection letters. All I got was envelopes marked “Return to sender”.

The teacher also brought in a few local writers. I was really excited that Jerry Thompson was one of them. By that time I’d learned that he didn’t just write a funny daily column. He’d had a long career as a journalist. He’d been the first journalist to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and had written a book about it, My Life In The Klan. I had to explain to a black friend that it was intended to be an exposé of the organization and not a recruiting manual when he saw me reading it. Maybe I should have kept it hidden under my copy of Rooster Bingo, Thompson’s other book, which was a collection of his lighter newspaper columns, although if I’d looked like I was trying to hide it that might have come across as even more suspicious. Thompson in person turned out to be a lot like his columns: gentle and kind and funny and laid back. He told a few jokes and a few stories. Aside from mentioning his love of poke sallet—something he brought up regularly–I really don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember he had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on anyone.

After each writer visited we were supposed to write a thank-you letter to them. At least that’s how I interpreted it. A girl in the

He signed my copy and added, "Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win." I feel like I lost.

He signed my copy and added, “Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win.” I feel like I lost.

class wrote a report on Thompson’s visit, describing his attitude and adding that he was really cool. It, along with my thank-you letter, was mailed to him, and Thompson wrote about it and quoted her, but didn’t mention me, his number one fan–at least in the class. Being published eluded me once again.

A few years later Jerry Thompson would be diagnosed with cancer. Since I was off at college I didn’t read his columns regularly anymore so I missed most of his fight with the disease, although on a few trips home I did see his new “Thompson’s Station” photo. Already bald when I’d met him Thompson’s new photo showed him completely hairless, eyelashes and all. He would fight the disease for eleven years before finally passing away in early 2000. Maybe I should put a marker or a small fence around that spot where that pokeweed plant came up so that next spring I’ll be able to spot it as soon as the first leaves appear, but I’ll probably forget about it until there’s a bright red stalk.

Never Mind The Bollocks.

Portrait of a fool.

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.


Either Way You’ll Be Flying.

Wear a surgical gown the next time you fly. It'll make getting through security easier.

Wear a surgical gown the next time you fly. It’ll make getting through security easier.

My recent experience made me realize how little difference there is between flying and surgery. The distinctions are subtle:

Flying-It’s recommended that you arrive at least two hours early so you have time to get through security.

Surgery-It’s recommended that you arrive at least two hours early so the receptionists have time to sit around and argue about where to have lunch.

Flying-You have to go to three different desks to check in. Your luggage will get a plastic identification band.

Surgery-You have to go to twenty-seven different desks to check in. Eventually your wrist will get a plastic identification band.

Flying-You’ll spend a lot of time sitting in uncomfortable chairs around strangers staring out the windows.

Surgery-You’ll spend a lot of time sitting in uncomfortable chairs around strangers staring at the elevators.

Flying-The waiting areas will have a large variety of overpriced junk food.

Surgery-The waiting area will have a cart with a small variety of overpriced junk food reminding you that you haven’t been allowed to eat or drink anything for more than twelve hours.

Flying-Delays are likely.

Surgery-Delays are inevitable.

Flying-The waiting area will have places where you can buy overpriced current magazines.

Surgery-The waiting area will have lots of free old magazines.

Flying-Everyone in the waiting area is getting on a plane.

Surgery-Half the people actually going into surgery brought three hundred and fifty-nine relatives to sit with them.

Flying-There are occasional garbled announcements over the intercom.

Surgery-You can’t hear the garbled announcements over the mass of relatives fighting over the free magazines.

Flying-Lots of people in the waiting area are using laptops to write email.

Surgery-Lots of people in the waiting area are using laptops to update their wills.

Flying-People come and go on motorized carts.

Surgery-People come and go in wheelchairs.

Flying-An X-ray device will scan your entire body.

Surgery-The surgeon’s going to cut your body open and have a look around inside.

Flying-You get complimentary nuts.

Surgery-You get complimentary morphine.

Flying-The plane may leave without you.

Surgery-If the surgeon starts before you get there get another surgeon.

Flying-In the event of an emergency you may have to stick a rubber mask over your face.

Surgery-As soon as you go in someone’s going to stick a rubber mask over your face.

Flying-You hope the plane doesn’t crash.

Surgery-You hope you don’t crash.