Friday, February 6, 2009

Frat Party

I lay on a white sheet as Genevieve drew on my groin with a Sharpie.

Straight lines and hash marks and cross-hairs. Radiation targets.

Adding to the adventure, Genevieve used athletic tape to secure personal elements to one side, clearing the deck for mapping and target acquisition. The area south of my belt buckle resembled a drunk conventioneer’s necktie at closing time.

“A guy usually has to go to a fraternity initiation or a bachelor party to get this kind of treatment," I said.

Genevieve giggled, but nervously. As if she didn’t know whether she should.

Jill and I had been in our financial planner’s office a week prior. It was a Thursday and Brad was helping us prepare an offer on a house. My cell phone rang. I excused myself. I stepped out into the hallway, answered hello and listened as the doctor told me what the lump was made of.

“You’ll need to see an oncologist,” he said. “What side of town do you live on?”

"Side of town? We're... I'm... Ahh, we're northeast,” I said.

“Is St. Vincent okay with you?”

“Sure. I guess. If you think that’s best.”

It didn’t take Jill more than a moment to quash this suggestion. “What side of TOWN do we live on?” she said. “What the hell difference does that make?” Indiana University Health is one of Jill’s clients and she’s written extensively for them, profiling many of their departments -- including oncology.

“Forget St. V's. We need to be at IU Med Center,” she said as a fact. “I’ll make the call.”


We auditioned oncologists, but never got past Dr. Larry Cripe. I had mentioned his name to a friend who worked in oncology, and this friend pointed me to an essay Larry had published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In his piece titled, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” (referring to the Emily Dickinson poem), Larry had written:

"...I began to realize that hope, as a thing – a decision or an action – is fragile; while hopefulness – the enduring capacity to hope, to live with meaning even if recovery is not possible – is resilient."

In seeking an oncologist, we thought we were looking for a mechanic. A plumber or carpenter of men. Yet here was a literary sensibility and a depth of understanding, and even spirit. We looked no further.


A week later, we found ourselves in the basement of the IU Simon Cancer Center. Down the hall from two linear accelerators, our waiting room was the size of a walk-in closet. Each day, a half-dozen of us bided time, waiting to be called back and have some body part or another blasted with radiation. Sitting in the waiting room was like being stuck on a crowded elevator, but without a panel of floor numbers you could pretend to scrutinize.

And I felt like an imposter, like the protagonist in a Chuck Palahniuk novel who visited his Tuberculosis Support Group on Thursday, his Blood Parasite Survivor’s Group on Friday, and his Sickle Cell Circle every other Saturday. I was a big tourist.

Because you see, these people were much sicker than me. I had one little lump. One. And a lump that I fully expected would melt away during the course of 15 radiation sessions.

The people in this waiting room, on the other hand, were banged up. Nauseous. Chapped. Bald. Sore.

Radiation. Radiation and chemo. Radiation and chemo and stem-cell transplants. They were tired.

Me? I felt fine. Like Forrest Gump, shot in the ass and eating ice cream, and Lt. Dan in the next bed with no legs. I didn’t want to appear too strong or too well in front of them, perhaps making them feel worse in contrast. I didn’t know quite how to act, so I did the only thing I knew I could: “Hi. My name is Joe. What’s yours?” And we went from there.

I learned that Angela was an 18-year-old college student with a PICC line, a brunette wig, a pregnant 13-year-old sister, and stage-four lymphoma throughout her body.

Ray was a retired auto worker, esophageal cancer having taken his voice box and the economy threatening to take his GM pension.

Margaret, the African queen with long, ornately painted nails, drove herself down and back from Anderson each day for chemo and radiation. We would nod in sympathy as she raged at the racism of that asshole cop who had the nerve to give her a ticket for swerving all over the road.

Randall, trying to understand what they were doing to save his teenage son’s life, described to the congregation how a stem-cell transplant worked: “They drain all the blood out yer body, see? Then they put in them 'baby cells' in there. Them baby cells grow into teen-agers and then adult cells. Then you're cured.”

Margaret was incredulous when she said: “You mean they drain all the blood??” Randall: “Evvvery drop.”

I'd ask “How was the Veteran’s Day thing at your son’s school?” or “When is your daughter coming up from Florida to visit?” or just “How are you feeling today?” For this short time, we were in it together.

I learned that Brian, the tech who positioned each of us on the treatment table at our turn, Brian liked to ride motorcycles with his dad. Brian rode his Triumph Bonneville with a freshly painted Union Jack on the gas tank, his dad riding a Harley Fat Boy. Brian liked to watch UFC with his buddies, or go down to Atterbury and put some 7.62 rounds downrange through his SKS rifle. I could relate.

The head of the radiation-oncology department was Dr. Peter Johnstone, an Annapolis grad who’d retired from the Navy after 28 years of service. We shared a military background, so I could speak plainly. I could make the observation, as Marines are known to do when conversing with sailors, that "Sir, you are aware that squids are a lower form of 'marine life'?" I could bitch that his goddam machines were scorching my region, and if something didn't change, I was gonna need a toupee or a comb-over.

I had to make an effort to remember his Christian name, but not for lack of respect. Far from it. In my mind, he was simply: “Commander.”


Jill cried only twice and then only for joy. The first time was after they'd completed initial diagnostics: x-ray, blood tests, needle biopsy, bone-marrow biopsy, CAT scan, PET scan. We waited in an exam room to hear how bad it was.

Dr. Mina, kind and petite and Middle Eastern, knocked politely and let herself in. She pulled up a chair and her face seemed barely able to contain a smile, as if she had a present for us and couldn't wait for us to open it. “Has anyone told you?” she asked. The bone marrow and PET scan results had come back. The cancer was in only one place. This was the only scenario, we were told, in which it was fair to use the words “possibly curable.”

The second time I saw a tear was weeks later, after the radiation treatments were complete. Dr. Cripe went over the results with us. He said the radiation appeared to have done its job. He said it looked good. He leaned back in his chair and asked, “When do you want to come back? You can come back in three months, if that would make you feel better. But six months would be fine.”

Into every radiation treatment, I'd carried a small cross Jill had given me, a cross carved from 20,000-year-old mammoth bone. I choose to believe it helped. 


My friend Sarah reminded me of a favorite Raymond Carver poem titled, “What the Doctor Said.” In that poem, the doctor speaks:

…he said are you a religious man

do you kneel down in forest groves and let yourself ask for help  

when you come to a waterfall  

mist blowing against your face and arms  

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments 

I said not yet but I intend to start today


Cathy said...

eloquent and brave, an honor to read...

Jared said...

Thank you for letting me know about the blog my friend. I am quite touched. It is hard to know what you went through. My dad did not say much and I was in Indy for most of the hard stuff only returning to the south once he was in remission. While I can imagine your writing is therapeutic for you, I think reading it is helpful for at least me; I bet for others too. Thanks.

Joe said...

Cathy and Jared, thanks for the comments. Appreciate being able to share this with you. Joe

Seba said...

Very brave Joe! Thank you for letting me know about it

Anonymous said...

Wow Joe! You are an amazing writer. And your story is awesome. Thanks for sharing your experience, strength, and most of all, hope. So cool.


Joe said...

Glad you like the story, Pat. Thanks for looking. j

Ken Robertson said...

Thanks for sharing! Wow...

Joe said...

Thank ya, Ken.