CANCER FOR THE FUN OF IT
Election Day 1980; I voted for Ronald Wilson Reagan at 8:30 AM at the rural Methodist Church across the road from where we live. I had been experiencing a very small amount of discomfort and a small swelling in the left testis. At 3:00 that afternoon I was told I most probably had a very deadly form of cancer, BUT with immediate treatment I had a 95% chance of complete recovery. WOW! I had imagined a lot of things but not this. I drove home on both sides of the road; I couldn't see for the tears. The fear made mush out of my stomach.
My memory of that time is sometimes clouded by that fear that the word cancer causes to penetrate the brain. The unknown is always the worst. Everybody knew a horror story. They were always glad to tell a story of someone who had just died. I remember once when a pleasant nurse's aide tried to humor me with the grisly details of the demise of one of her patients. She was repeatedly and literally kicked under the counter by my regular nurse. She blissfully continued to hammer out the gory details until she pointed to my bed and said, "Yep, she laid right there and died not three weeks ago, we couldn't begin to save her real bad she was. .eh" Humor began to be my crutch. The surreal sense of doom was followed by the torrents of giddy laughter and crude but not cruel practical jokes. Laughter, real humor, released the gnawing stomach tightening sense of disaster. Humor became a medicine to cure and then to begin the road to mental recovery.
Cancer had always been a big a monstrous monkey riding on my back. I smoked (past tense) and my father died of leukemia. People die horribly painful deaths. The media, television, radio, pulp magazines, were full of the tragedies accompanying the dreadful name. So where was the humor in it? That's what my hospital roommate's wife asked accusingly. Why could I laugh while I was being told I had the Big C? I had never really laughed at any thing else that way. I didn't laugh at having it, no not quite. I just used laughter to help make the reality easier to absorb. In point of fact I was a worrier from a long lineage of world-class worriers and doom-sayers. So where was the humor she asked?
She had brought her husband in for some operation of the lower innards. He was scared of the operation and after meeting his wife I realized he also lived in mortal terror of her flying broom. She swept into the room dragging gloom behind her. "Why had he chosen such an inopportune time to get sick? " "You #$@@%%^ if you hadn't gotten sick I could had my new couch". She'd swear he got sick to spite her and I had to agree that it was a helluv a way to do it but if ever a woman needed spitin' she was it. Why her acid looks would sour milk in the breast!
He was, however, an understanding roommate. We were both scared and I tried to help him through his new-found pain. I having twice before been cut in the same place and now a third time, I was well versed in the recovery routine. The intestinal surgical ward of bent over, gut clutchers, walking the halls of hospitals the world over. Like prisoners with the chained ball dragging our drip bottles and trying mightily to protect our modesty and dignity.
Of course his wife, her Dreadfulness, was always available to remind him that every day he spent recovering was another day without a new table. I long suspect that staying there and suffering through her inferno visits was heaven compared to being at home. When she was gone we would ribald each other with the most outlandish and coarse stories, usually vulgar to the extreme and quite possibly prevarications of the truth. It relieved us both. He was going to get better and I hoped I was.
It wasn't always clear that would occur, especially when Big Foot made her first appearance in our room. Big Foot was the exact opposite of all the hospital day-dreams about those luscious women in white. The good doctors probably have a name for it but I like nurses. Nurses, white full-figured starched uniforms, radiating smiles full of care and concern. As I said Ms. Foot wasn't any of that. She was our late shift; our vitals taker; she came on eleven to seven. At exactly 11:30 PM every night she entered our already darkened room. She clumped across the floor in her size 11 double E's. We always laid very still, dreading her pulverizing grip upon our pulses. We always bit back our screams and curses. Where just before the drip needle had been, now Florence Nightmare crushed the scab while searching for our life-signs. What the doctors must have thought when they read
" Pulse 175 Respiration 00 !"
On one particular night with the howling cold November wind and the hospital dark and frightening enough, she entered exactly on time. She lumbered to the opposite side of the room; there was a gasping for breath as my roomie under went her nightly mission of destruction. He could feel her hulking presence; as if the devil and the nursing profession had joined forces and she was the bi-product of 1000 years of primitive medical evolution. Then to me; the grab, the pain, and her heavy obnoxious breath. Her grip pulverized what was left of the arteries and veins. I cried out; and then silence; she dropped my hand; in the dark no further movement. Then no further sound. Had she gone? We waited. Surely she had left. Yes, she must have; then my voice. " God Almighty how would like to wake up next to that one person horror show, definitely two coyote ugly." And then to our surprise an exhalation came from the dark corner of the room and the door opened and she exited hurriedly. We lay quietly thinking, horrified, and vaguely remorseful, only the realization that tomorrow night she would come again--in the dark.
My roommate and I were not repentant. Conversely we were planning our penultimate achievement. Sunday's are visiting days at the hospital; the halls filled with scuffling lines of somber faces all coming to commiserate with the suffering patients. My roommate and I were unimpressed with the solemnity of the occasion. We began to fashion from bits of this and that a crude human lookalike. Hospital pajamas stuffed with pillows and linen made the body; hands made from latex gloves stuffed with tissues and topped off with a pillow case head covered by an utterly grotesque Halloween mask. The mask's most predominant features being large red boils and scars. The dummy took it's place in my bed, where anyone with his looks should be. We lit him a cigarette and propped him up, making him visible to the passing public.
Now Americans are if anything curious and do possess great mountains of politeness. Imagine Rev. and Mrs. Nearbeninety coming down the hall, casually rubbernecking all the rooms and spotting Dummy smoking a Camel and reading Playboy and grasping a cold Budweiser Beer. Many Sunday strollers would casually pass our open door, gasp audibly and double back-stroke to peer in again. But shock was not reserved for the only "tourists". Imagine my mother arriving expecting to find gloom and despondency and entering to see Dummy parked in my bed. Sad but true.
Dummy wasn't yet finished. Hospitals are famous for their attractive, nourishing and tasty gourmet delights. Not! I remember it being a little less so. Now on the whole the employees of this hospital were courteous and very pleasant. One particular woman I suspected enjoyed serving us the goo they called food. We left Dummy arranged in my bed. Again propped up behind the moveable tray. Cigarette in his lips and his favorite girlie magazine, he waited patiently for his slop. In came the darling of the kitchen service. First to my roomie, not a word; then out and back with my tray. Right down in front of Dummy. Plop! Not a word. Incredible, not only that she doesn't speak, she doesn't see us either. She left the room; then a small scream from the hall and we knew her mind had seen what her eyes had not.
Well the hospital was not all fun and with my operation being in groin region, I spent a good bit of time "exposing " myself to the very "personal" examination of others. No time more so than the day they measured me for my radiation blocks. Now these were devices that block those unpronounceable rays from frying, broiling or cauterizing other delicate parts of your associated anatomies.
I was naked under a sheet and brought to a dark room full of computers and lasers. The sweetheart that ran this particular shop was even in that dark room a 9.75 -easy! I laid flat on my back while she measured me with her particle beam disintergrator; my entire magnificent pale hospital gray physique. I was skinned, except for the sheet, which in a room kept 60F degrees had the R value of a -1 or maybe that was the real chill factor. My "Face" measured me from every angle and so our proximity was rather close at times. She assured me that my blue color would pass and I should put up with the cold. I contented myself with looking out the window on to the hall where everybody in the hospital appeared to be passing and staring into my semi private refrigerator. Then "face" came back along side and in what I might have wished was intentional but regretfully was an error she caught her gown in my sheet and proceeded to return to her dials and lights dragging my sheet, my modesty and all of my heat with her.
Now imagine if you will; here I am ...wearing my goose bumps, a half empty scrotum, and a stupid smile. The hospital, which as just released the entire staff for lunch, and who are now passing my window along with a busload of kids from the progressive education children's center,..AND a hospital that has seen fit to duct all of it's air-conditioning through my room AND my "Face" thinks I'm a whiner who can't stand a little chill. Finally, bared as I was to the elements and having lain agreeably still while the black arts of freezing cancer cells or some other space technology was experimentally fired at me, I inquired hesitantly, if she might conclude her calculations without delay as the children were pressed up against my window and pointing with unhidden glee. Apparently even a passing Rabbi thought I had under gone a dreadfully bad circumcision and was at the moment chanting the Kaddish as he gaped in horror.
The "Face" finally, looked back and with great shock, squealed in surprise to see me "au natural" and the guest of the pediatric show and tell class. She found my sheet and recovered my modesty from the floor. I was to her I suspect, barely talk in the nurse's lounge; to the passing hospital I was the frozen stiff laying on display in the lab; but for me well, it was almost fun. Patients are often far too serious and I'm convinced laughter and humor did more for my recovery than all the medicine they had.
All of that should have well prepared me for the next adventure. Now imagine that to be radiated in the medical sense you must allow them to shot three ga-trillion electrons of super radioactive magic dust at the part that has become infected. To set you at ease they show you this lead lined chamber with a concrete reinforced kryptonite-shielded door, and a console from which the Strategic Air Command could shoot nuclear tipped missiles. You enter this large, medically pure clean room with a slightly padded examination table and they tell you to drop your drawers and lay back buck-naked from the knees to belly button and RELAX!
Of course you are immediately put at ease when you notice that your every movement is being recorded by closed circuit television which is playing out in the hall on giant screen monitors for the hospital, CNN, the rest of the civilized world. You lay face and other items-up arguably in a most vulnerable position. Normally this nice gentleman who appreciates where men are tendered, comes over and he would take a piece of tape and CAREFULLY tape my parental appendage away from the direct focus of the beam shooter or whatever the medical name for it is. He was always careful so as to cause the least amount of discomfort. Now radiation causes minor burns depending on the amount one receives and you men can imagine if you will (I say albeit reluctantly) how even a minor burn can be a Real special event. You'd want the person doing this to get it RIGHT. Right?! His partner is one of those 9.5's that always seem to appear at the moment you are helplessly at their mercy and in the hands (might you say) of the medical staff. She was, however, the very standard of comportment and correctness. Also Damn good looking. It was I suspect my total lack of modesty and the sexless and sterile nature of the place that allowed me to be on display without embarrassment.
But there was this one time that at least their side didn't get it exactly right. Well for those that can still imagine!....Imagine my surprise when I arrived and entered the micro-wave and saw not one 9.9, but a room full! This was my team's day off and they were the replacements. WOW! Now I was a model of correctness and dignity. These ladies, actually none were over 20, were competent and precise. They had learned their lessons well. They approached the task at hand with care and understanding...all except for one minor inconvenience.
The beautiful young lady who took the totally reliable young man's part was not used to doing the taping. She could have asked me to do it, yes that would have solved the problem. But she bored right in took a large WIDE piece of the great sticky, very secure hospital quality, and I'm sure horribly expensive to the insurance company, adhesive tape and adhered the glans de tender something to the top of my hairy thigh. Tight. You men will under stand that she taped the pointy end down. Tight. They all scurried out the air tight door and it slid shut with the finality reserved for dogs at the pound. The microwave fired up and spit electagrons all over me and I was cooked in seconds. They thankfully pulled the door open when the timer went off.
The sweet, proficient little taper came over and now had to remove the tape. Delicately.. She believed that meant s-l-o-w-l-y. Agonizingly slowly. She removed the tape and the first three layers of dermis delectis came with it. After stifling a long gut piercing scream she inquired as to facial contortions now plainly evident. Delicately speaking she asked if she had done her job as well as her male counter-parts. I agreed that in every way save one she had performed admirably, to which she questioned the nature of the difference. I explained to her in the most genteel terms that there was great physical contrast between the also delicate but tougher areas of the shaft and the soft, fragile, now blood red stubby area she had so carefully attended. Well she turned a beautiful shade of crimson, and stammered her apologies, offered to bathe it in iodine and then hurriedly departed hopefully more fully educated .
Now I don't want to put down any or all of the other nurses but that radiation clinic was great. Imagine all the mostly older people and young children who probably did not appreciate the beauty, and then me...one testicle in a specimen jar and the rest of me under the microscope. There I was wondering whether a beautiful well turned ankle would ever crank up the ol' fire again. I was 33 and I was afraid. Afraid that all the mechanisms might be slightly flawed. Well, not to say there hadn't been stimuli, but the hospital was not the best place for a patient to experience those stimulations. At least not a married male that wished to remain married. Let the male audience be advised that in all seriousness irradiating your privates will neither add nor subtract from all of it's intended purposes. There are those that are experiencing problems and for those of you I commiserate to the en-th degree. The doctors are a little vague about the chance for kids but all in all if it worked when you went in, well it worked at least as well for me when I came out. It was more the sight then the resulting fear of dysfunction that was on some people's minds.
I had considered previously on the subject but how delighted I was to know that all the parts save one were still functional. But one thought that had not crossed my mind was what to do with the open slot left by the departure of the aforementioned reproductive oval. Now there was not a lot one could do and I had not considered what that piece of real estate was good for. I mean belly buttons are for salt and salsa; arm-pits for strange noises, and toes for upper math...so what do you do with a half empty scrotum. Late in the evening of my operation many calls had been received at my bedside. All well intentioned, concerned friends and relatives. One of the calls made it to my ear. I heard a voice commiserating with my predicament. I thanked the caller. Then he began discussing a testicular prosthesis. "...A What!" ;" well plastic ovals to sort of balance it out, you know.. align things up..". Had anything at all made sense I suppose it should have. I appreciated the thought and later even purchased a gold acorn which I wore for years around my neck. But I have never considered a fake testicle to be necessary to good grooming.
Maybe the worst part of my recovery was some of the phone calls I got from all my well-meaning country friends. I mean they were concerned. I appreciated that. They volunteered to help me whenever I needed strength and support. But then there were those fresh on their way to deer camp that kept pestering me to go to camp with them... to camp ...not to hunt ... but to be their irradiated ..NIGHT LIGHT!
Well humor is where humor's found. I tried to hide from reality. Coming face to face with our own immortality can do that to a person. Humor is a worthwhile vessel in which to travel; it can't replace reality but it can make the journey a lot more fun. Everywhere I went I found people with a smile and kind words. Oh there were the people that believe that hospitals are a place where humor, fun and merriment should be quietly hidden with the dirty laundry and the infected needles. We are conditioned from birth to believe that hospitals are for dying. People just go there to die. Maybe if we begin to see them as places where the living are made well and that cures are both physical as well as mental and I also mean spiritual, and that in reality they can not be separated. Listen folks! Humor isn't a placebo it's a for sure honest to goodness take your tonic medicine. When we feel good our bodies respond positively. How many times have you heard " she just gave up and died ; she willed herself to die." Well if that's true and there's no denying it, then maybe so is the opposite. Maybe humor won't replace medicine but laughter probably won't kill you either. I'm proof positive of that power; next time you visit a hospital; laugh, smile, go on just try it!
Kent Herrick Written and rewritten often