Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cancer Story Number One

By Joshua Powell

A lot of this stuff I put away. But I don’t forget it; rather I wrap up the memories and put them up on a shelf somewhere in my head. Does this make sense? I’m not sure, but it is what it is.

It’s like when we were little and we would wrap up all the Christmas ornaments that survived the season in gray tissue paper my mom would buy at Shatz Stationary stores, back when they had stationary stores. The next year, when we brought those dusty boxes up from the basement that paper looked so old. There was something so right about the smell of corrugated cardboard infused with mold and fresh pine. And inevitably each special decoration had a story attached to it that year after year would get told as if it were a new tale and not one we heard year after year.

This is exactly what it is like for me when I tell my cancer stories.

They come out of some dark moldy place and I unpack them, and then when I am done I wrap them back up and they are gone – out of sight out of mind. The sick part of it now is that I like them, or maybe it is that I need them. Whatever it is it feels somewhat perverted to look at them now, kind of like the way I felt when I was 14 and would look at porn up in my room.

People always want to know what it was like. All I can really say about the cancer is that it never hurt me. The pain always came from the cure. Some cures are more hurtful than others, and I say some because it is not one cure, but an army of cures.

Some die trying and others save the day, but the battlefield was me and somehow no matter how good the cellular fight, I was always feeling like I lost. Maybe that is why I look back on how the cancer treatment changed me. I never see the silver lining. Maybe because the change is so connected to the poisons and glowing isotopes and I can’t help but wonder what else it did and when I am going to get hit with the next big thing - the first was bad enough. And I when I unpack this bit of me I feel ambivalent, stretched, and I can’t wait to put it away. And then I want to look at it again.

OK, so here is a cancer story. It's years old, but still warm in my mind:

"Lying in bed I can smell the cold air, metallic blue and kissed by snow. My feet are uncovered at the end of the bed blowing off the heat of my fever. My trunk is all wet with sleepy fever sweat and my forehead is dripping in sebaceous oils, agitation and salty water from inside me. The bleomycin has effectively wiped out all of my white cells - just as planned, but the antibiotic that they put me on did not prevent the infection that is now in me, biting at my gut with what feels like a puppy’s milk teeth.

The doctors have me on dilaudid, which does less to stop the pain as much as it does to stop me from caring about it. One of the white coats comes into my room, talks to me, feels my belly. He looks like some weird pachyderm hybrid with his stethoscopes swinging down to my belly in hopes of hearing “normal” bowel sounds, but it will be a week before that happens, so they kept the dilaudid in me and I drift in and out of my days like a reluctant traveler exploring a town found by way of some ill planned tour.

It is the nights that are the worst because that is when the fever always seems to take a stride ahead of the antibiotic and that is also the time that my mind drifts to the bad place and I feel that maybe this is not the end of the infection but the start of the end. And if it is not the start of the end, I know that this is what it's going to feel like to start the end of my life. My treatment is really nothing more than a second mortgage and I know that there is going to be a heady interest payment.

The fever will not leave me, rather it is going for broke and no matter how much of that lovely dilaudid they “push” I have to stay with me, my skin afire and my body chilled into a dull ache that pulls on every muscle making it tight to the point I am a cramp unto myself.

They keep pushing the dilaudid. And because they are trying to help me I am forgiving when they ‘push’ so much that my bladder freezes and the urine starts to pool inside me, blowing my lower belly up like a kickball. The piss has been in me now eight hours after the fever left. I am so tired from the nights and days with bacteria in me kicking my ass that I don’t really mind the suggestion of the straight catheter, though maybe I was guiltier of not paying attention to what they were talking about.

When the two nurses come into my room before dawn with a bed pan and a large syringe I just hope with all the hope that I left in me, admittedly, not a lot, that I could piss, just a little bit. I sit up and swung my legs to the side of the bed and then I fall back against the pillows, the room spinning - so much time prone that getting up is not going to happen - and I feel the way I did when I was child and had dreams that they called the ”night terrors.”

The nightmares when I could not move or scream and something was going to get me and in these dreams the only fucking thing that would save me would be waking up. But I am awake now. Wide awake. The bed hums as they bring my head down. I see the chatter between them. I hear the sounds of putting gloves on, the assurance that I was going to be okay. No big deal, right?

I look at them getting ready to work on me, like a bilge pump. I look up at the ceiling tiles and feel a rubbery hand push my apron-like gown up over my hips. A hand grabs my dick and they shove the catheter into me and I feel the sweet relief of water gushing out of me. And then I wonder when the last time someone wrapped their hands around my cock was? How did I become something to cure rather than please?

I look down at the woman, who I do not know, and watched her pull the tube out of me, a sphincter somewhere deep inside me moved in a staccato fashion. And she looked at me with a smile that was she reserves for her work, distant but real kindness. She wipes down my body while her counterpart takes away the pan filled with my piss and they talked about having to pass meds before the shift change. I heard them washing their hands. Then she came back to the bed with a tiny little needle and pushes the contents of it into the clear plastic tubing that grows out of my arm.

”It’s all over now,” she says as I feel the medication burn up my arm and into the bean. I take her hand and pull her toward me. I humm “Two-bit Manchild.” She smiles at me and then, “Now how did you know that Neil Diamond is my favorite singer?” She puts her hand on my face.

The thing was, I did not know that song or for that matter had ever listened to Neil Diamond, but somehow I knew every damn word to that song as I sailed away to sleep that night."

Joshua Powell, a writer in Albany, New York, was treated successfully for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma when he was in his twenties. We are delighted to report that he is a healthy man today. He runs about 35 miles a week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a really spectacular, very touching piece. "How did I become something to cure rather than please", indeed. There's something about the medicalization (is that a word?) of people that turns us into somethings. And it's an incredible shock when despite all that, our humanness bellows and yells, "I am a person, dammit!" anyway.