It went like this.
They tell me it was complicated. Intubating me was complicated. I had a small oral cavity, large tongue, and low soft palate. Placing the 128 radioactive seeds was complicated. There was an unexpectedly narrow pelvic window and a large prostate. It added an extra hour to the procedure—three hours instead of two. But I didn’t notice any of it because I was out like a burnt bulb.
Here is what I do remember right before the bulb went out.
As I was going under in the OR (operating room), I broke into hysterical laughter. It was real convulsive belly laughter. Later they told me they had never seen anything like it and that I had the whole surgical team in stitches. At the time, I had no specific images in my mind, just blue panes floating across my field of vision. There was the sensation of floating up and down, swinging from side to side. At one point I heard myself saying “It’s a Disney ride,” or, “Dizshney ride.” I heard someone say, “Stop laughing,” which only made me laugh harder. At the back of my mind I had an interior voice asking “Shouldn’t you be afraid of this?” I do have an anxiety about being out of control, which from time-to-time manifests itself in dreams of uncontrollable flying or floating. On this morning, my interior answer was literally “bring it on.”
The last thing I remember is laughing hysterically and asking out loud, “am I with God?” I know it was out loud because I could feel the breathing tube in my mouth, and I repeated the question more slowly, to make sure it was understood. I don’t really believe in God. I believe in the human invention, yes; the utility of the concept, yes; the impetus to the human imagination and its products, yes; but to an actual entity, not so much. At that moment, however, I really felt that if there were a God, this is what I hoped She would be like. A next life would not be so bad if it were like that—a perpetual belly laugh.
I came to in the PACU (post-anesthesia care unit) about four o’clock in the afternoon. My left knee and hip were a little achy—from the positioning in the stirrups, I’m guessing. Later, they explained that they had to hyperflex me—that is, bend the joints more than normal—to overcome the anatomy challenges. I also had sore gluteal muscles from lying on the cot, before and after the procedure. A catheter was affixed, which made me feel like I had to pee every two seconds, but that was okay because it flowed right into the bag. All the signs so far, and the physician’s judgment, indicated that I won’t need to go home with a catheter. Hurrah!
I was hungry. I came to famished as I had been strictly on clear fluids for the previous 48 hours. I started on ice chips and then graduated to red Jello—the one Jello I really like, but the one Jello I could not include in my clear liquids prep diet. I hoped for something more solid, but, by the time I got to a room, the hospital kitchen was closed. They had turkey sandwiches in the unit fridge, my nurse told me. I told her that, being ten days gluten free, I could eat the sandwich guts and leave the bread. I also asked if she could check the lunches of the unit staff; she said she’d get fired for stealing someone’s lunch. I was only kidding, anyway.
The one thing is that, because I am radioactive, I have to stay at least six feet away from any pregnant women for the next two months. So I have canceled my next few weeks of training with Kristen. It makes me a little sad to do so, because I do look forward to our bi-weekly 30 minutes. Even with the six foot guideline, I’m not willing to introduce this risk into her joy. I am selfish about the care I get from her, but not that selfish.
So it all went well and I am on a smooth glide path to being cancer-free. All is good.
There was this oddity, though. Over the few days preceding, I had begun feeling anxious. At first, I thought it was over the pending procedure, maybe the anaesthesia. This kind of stuff, however, has never bothered me before (wisdom teeth, colonoscopies). Then the recognition bell rang; you know, the bell that rings when we say “Oh, that rings a bell!”
I felt anxious about ending this year-long journey to becoming cancer-free.
Deb has often reminded me that I do not like change. Well, this past year I finally admitted it to myself (and kinda, sorta stopped resenting her for reminding me). This has also been the year when I learned that talking to booksellers, at the Printers’ Row Book Fair, and other strangers—instead of avoiding them—could help me appreciate my way of being, rather than depreciate it. I found out that ‘nice guy’ could be an earned honorific and not just a curse. I learned that an open heart lets the joy in—and out—not just the sorrow. I learned to respect the value of sorrow that is truly felt. I discovered that by relaxing into whom I really am, I could come closer to whom I aspire to become. I found out that taking a chance on myself did not have a fated outcome, just an even odds. This year, I think I finally began to answer a question that Harold Mosak put to me some 20+ years ago. “Ross,” he asked me, “when will you stop hiding your light under a bushel?” It seemed that it was this year and I did not, as Deb might have predicted, want it to change.
Having cancer has been a nuisance. There are Doctors’ visits; repeated, butt-bruising volume tests, prefaced by disgusting fasting/cleansing rituals; urinary troubles, too little or too much; drug therapies, with annoying side effects; delays-delays-delays by a prostate too stubborn to knuckle under to the drug therapies (so it’s me through and through who doesn’t like change!); and occasional bouts of mortality doubts.
Living with cancer, however, has been a kind of blessing. It has been a blessing bag, of sorts, filled with unexpected but basic necessities such as care, joy, love, laughs, connection, awe, admiration, gratitude, and friendship. These raised the bushel, and let the light peek through.
When the nuisances cease, will the blessings cease too? This is the question that stimulates my anxiety. It is the clapper in the recognition bell. I do not want to go back to the way I was (a change worthy of dislike); I want to keep on keeping on. Can that be done without ‘C’ and his band of rebel angels?
A couple of wise people, to whom I have already mentioned this anxiety, have proposed that it is not cancer and its treatment that brought about these benefits, but the choices I made about them. It is also that they will continue to be my choices. I hope that is true. I wish, though, I could keep something of this year as a specific, and concrete, reminder. Keep it as a relic, so to speak, memento mori, a memento vitae!
Perhaps, then, I could keep a long-nosed bottle of Fleet Enema set prominently on my desk, standing between my statuettes of Buddha and Jiminy Crickett, to remind me how it went, how it goes.
—Photo Credit: FlickrNIHClinicalCenter