SHOVING OFF FROM SHORE
Mom’s dead. Cancer of the bones. I can’t get it out of my mind. Her tiny body just lying there, empty. The nurse suggesting I remove her wedding ring so it doesn’t get stolen before she’s buried, and me wishing Mom would get up and sneak a cigarette or make a stupid joke or lecture me for drinking milk right out of the bottle. Something. Anything.
I return to Santa Cruz and enroll in community college. I need to let this deep and constant ache in my chest move through me. Can’t move on till that happens. It’s more than her being dead. It’s what we’ve missed, what had just begun, ironically, because of this tower falling. Maybe I’ll give school a try, ease into a few no-stress classes like sign language and piano, get my mind busy. I’ve never gone to college. It always just seemed like an extension of all the bullshit in high school. I’d visit my friends at Southern Illinois University and they’d all be getting high and partying and cheating on exams and trying to get laid. There just has to be something more.
This is my second winter on Emily’s remote property. She is a brilliant, independent woman in her sixties who owns a hillside in the lush mountains sighing heavily with redwoods outside of Santa Cruz. She needs a caretaker for her acreage, and someone to look after her unique octagonal home while she’s in Benin, Africa, teaching local women there about parental planning—politically correct language for birth control. I immediately fell in love with Emily’s spunk, finding that perhaps I could learn a thing or two from her about delivery—she has mastered a certain diplomacy of the independent iconoclast, which seems more effective than my in-your-face style. Emily has let me set up my tipi on the only bare, flat space around, in a delightful circle of towering sentinel trees near her house. I get the run of her pretty little home, which sits on a steep, south-facing slope. There’s a hot tub on the deck. Huge ancient redwoods surround us. Deep blue Pacific sky above, black fertile earth below, and in the middle, a thickness of brown and green. Smells like life and death all at once. I can’t hear my own footsteps in the moist humus. Hidden birds sing. Clouds scud by frequently, bringing fog, drizzles, rain, downpours. A sanctuary for a desert rat.
In exchange for light duties around the house, I get all this—a beautiful place to live, plus an utterly fascinating woman, a true wise elder, to talk to from time to time. Apparently I have missed what has been right in front of my very nose, surrounding me, battling me daily to break through, loving me in spite of my defiance. To my great shame, I must learn from perfect strangers how to finally accept what my own flesh and blood offered for free.
When Emily’s gone, which is often, there’s nobody around for miles. I help collect pigeon eggs for the owners of the dilapidated old squab farm next door, for next to nothing. Once every three days I enter each bent wooden frame caged with rusty chicken wire, on down the row of gray timbers. The cooing calms me. I also work in a cabinet shop in town for a few bucks. I want to learn how to build. When I’ve got enough money, I will build my own homestead in some unspoiled, solitary wilderness somewhere far, far away.
One beautiful starry night, I am out in Emmy’s hot tub, alone in Nature’s glory. I whirl and twirl in the steaming water, arms spread, head tilted back, eyes up towards the sparkling heavens framed with trees, wondering what might be next in my life. I cannot contain my wounded spirit any longer. One part of me feeling young and powerful and alive, one part heavy as cement, I cry out to the universe, “I’m ready for anything you’ve got! My next adventure. My next lesson. C’mon, give it to me! Whatever you think is right…let me have it!”
The next day, in the student lounge, I sit on a little couch, studying the language of signs. I get up to get a cup of tea, laying my book on the seat, and when I return I find a woman has taken my place. Curly haired, skinny as a rail but pretty, she’s curled up in my sofa chair, barefoot, seemingly deeply involved in her own book, sitting on mine. She’ll later swear that this was her seat all along, that I’d made a mistake, even though that book was under her.
JoAnne is attractive and very bright and perky and wry. I find this all very sexy, in spite of my initial confusion. It soon becomes clear she is also utterly driven, focused on success by her mother’s own ambition-by-proxy, long ago lost to motherhood. JoAnne and I begin seeing each other, tentatively at first, sharing laughs and casual sex. Our relationship, for only a fleeting moment—like just about everything else—helps me forget.
But, since the funeral, I just can’t get back into anything that takes energy or thought. I’m half comatose even in class. I need the tinkle of flowing water and the feel of sand between my toes. The river otters beckon. I will move back to the Sierra Foothills and live at the ETC commune. I’m still helping train new guides on the soon to be dammed Stanislaus River, where Denny and I began guiding. I know most everybody at “The Land.” Neal’s there too. One of my oldest buddies, going back to third grade in Chicago. We spent a lot of time together in high school hanging out, getting high. He came to California to do a five-day raft trip with me a couple of years ago, but rivers stole his soul away, too. So he moved out here to volunteer for ETC on the Stanny. Now he’s the much-respected handyman on The Land.
I will rest there in the rolling foothills carpeted in orange and yellow poppies and strong oaks and clear out the cobwebs while awaiting the commercial river season in Canyonlands, my enchanted desert in Southern Utah. There I’ll make my living doing the only thing worth doing. There is nothing to keep me here. Even what JoAnne and I have going is only a couple of weeks old—casual, incidental. We discuss it like grownups and agree we’re not in love.
I visit her on my last evening in Santa Cruz for a final goodbye. I’ve already packed all my stuff into my ’57 Dodge stakeside truck, folded up my tipi, said goodbye to gracious Emily. The Dodge is parked in front of JoAnne’s apartment. I’m going to leave in the morning, as soon as I can get a jump for the dead battery. I’m too damn broke to buy a new one.
Everything is cool until I announce my departure—at which point JoAnne’s eyes roll back into the top of her head. Her mouth gapes open, so wide I expect it to tear at the corners. She screams, drools, hits the wall and kicks something across the floor, clutches her head between her hands. This has the effect of silencing me, hand on the doorframe like it connects me to some underground current.
JoAnne howls, “Why can’t I just give up school when I want to and take a break? Why is Mother always controlling me?” Her fists are clenched; she’s glaring and shrieking at the blank wall.
I respond tentatively, “Um…OK, why not? Sure. Go ahead. I’ll back you up.”
Her face whips towards me, contorted and malignant.
“You’re trying to make me give up my studies, my career,” she shouts, pulling out little clumps of hair in her clenched, shaking fists.
I’m squinting at her, mouth slightly open. I shrug and say, “OK, fine, stay in school.”
“Yeah. Sure. You’re just trying to make me stay in school like Mother does.”
I am lost. I wander through a disorienting, fetid mist, deep into a bewildering night. JoAnne shrieking, attacking, flailing. In the pre-dawn morning hours, I tell her I have to go—like, right away. There is something not quite right here, and I am just not strong enough yet to cope. Escape seems the best option.
During a lull, I feign going to the bathroom but instead sneak into the kitchen to call Neal.
“Neal, man. I’m scared. JoAnne’s acting real crazy, screaming and slamming the walls and stuff.”
“What time is it? Huh? Really?
“Yeah. I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried talking to her but she’s just berserk. She’s scarin’ the shit out of me.
“Wow…it’s two in the morning…”
“Yeah. I’ve been up all night trying to calm her down. I need you man. I’m scared.” There’s a pause while Neal lets the idea of Jeff being scared and needing someone sink in.
“Well, come on out and stay here with us.”
“My truck’s broken down. Can you come and get me? Please. I need you, Neal.”
I’ve never said anything like that before. I need no one.
“I’ll be right out. Hang in there. What’s the address?” The vise in my chest loosens a bit. Deep breath.
It is a three hour drive.
While I’m on the phone with Neal, there is nothing but silence from JoAnne’s room. I get the weirdest sense that she’s hiding on the other side of the wall and listening. Couldn’t be. I go to the toilet, and when I get back to the bedroom she’s calmed right down. She acts like nothing has happened; she transforms into the person I’d known these past weeks; petting and arousing and seducing me. She’s got a perfectly reasonable response to all of my confused queries about what the hell just happened. Maybe it didn’t really happen at all, not like you think. I start to wonder if it’s me that’s crazy. But hey, why worry. It’s okay. Neal’s coming anyway.
Alarm bells dulled by sex, I fall asleep anticipating rescue.
It never arrives.
I awake past seven, confused, not knowing where I am. JoAnne’s in the shower. I get up, go to the kitchen, and call Neal.
“Hey, man, what happened?”
“Oh, well. I figured you guys were maybe just having a little quarrel, being emotional. I decided to let you calm down a little. You know, sleep on it. I figured you’d feel a lot better today.”
A rock in my path, go left, or go right. One channel clear and easy, the other hissing with foam, churning, boiling. This once I’m not at the oars; I really need to rest while someone else rows. Silently, around the next bend, the cataract awaits.
JoAnne loans me the money to buy a new battery. She hangs around the truck, cooing, while I swap it for the old one. We end up deciding “together” that she’ll take a semester off and come up to live with me on The Land. I can’t quite figure out how we arrived at this decision, nor can I follow JoAnne’s twisting logic, but that’s how it goes. I’ll head out now to set things up; she’ll join me in a few weeks.
During that winter, my heart has to move over a little to make room for the growing weight of the anvil that JoAnne’s presence metamorphoses into. I had told her what living in a tipi would be like: cold, wet, confined, primitive. I had told her what living in a communal situation would be like, too: not much privacy, decisions by committee, little money, shared kitchen, shared bathroom, shared everything. I haven’t even completed the tipi set-up when JoAnne insists I return for her and her belongings.
Too soon, it is time for the traditional Jewish dedication of my mother’s grave in LA. Hard to believe it’s been a whole year since her death. The ritual says I should mourn for a year, then move on. So why can’t I shake this? My truck is full of JoAnne’s stuff, so she loans me her car. I drive the seven hours to LA, to my family. I’ve just arrived from the exhausting overnight journey. I’m hugging my dad and sisters when the phone rings, breaking us apart. It’s raining in Angels Camp. JoAnne is choking on her sobs.
“I’ve begged these people to help me stop the dripping in the tipi, but everything is soaked and they refuse to help me and I’m freezing and wet and my paintings and other stuff in the back of your truck are getting ruined. They’re irreplaceable! Come back now.”
I can barely breathe. “Just cover your stuff with tarps for now. I’ll just stay for the dedication ceremony tomorrow morning and head back afterwards. Okay?”
What’s left of my family silently observes this, saying nothing. Another seven hour drive. I find the tipi perfectly dry inside. Her stuff in the truck, likewise.
I confront the ETC folks. “Why didn’t anybody help JoAnne?”
My question is greeted with raised eyebrows.
“She didn’t ask us for any help.” They glance at each other. “We didn’t even know there was a problem.”
The winter progresses. Any time of day or night, JoAnne seamlessly toggles. One minute she’s cooking or washing dishes or having a perfectly normal conversation, the next her eyes flash wild and she’s flailing about, lashing at her mother, school, me. One night she shoves me, wakes me from a dead sleep.
“I have so much anger! I can’t let it go! Nobody’s ever helped me. Both my abortions… I did them all alone!” Her parents are controlling; she’s lost, with no goals she can call her own.
Groggily, offhand, I offer, “I read a book once about a guy hitting a tree when he got upset. He pounded on it and yelled for a while and then he felt better. Might help get it out of your system.” I just need to sleep. I roll over, drift away.
The next night I awake to a wild animal straddling me and pounding on my chest, screeching insanely. No moon, all is blackness. Adrenaline pumping madly, I grab JoAnne’s arms and hold on tight.
Throughout that muddy spring, there are more mouth-gaping, eye-rolling, screaming fits. Countless fights over bizarre, bewildering things, out of the blue. Ruining ski trips, ruining dinners, ruining me. She claims a bad PMS problem causes her fits. She explains that the only thing that helps is a hot bath. Fair enough.
I carry her naked, skinny body, head lolling, limp as a rag doll, through the drizzle across the muddy field towards the communal house, to the hot bath I’ve just drawn. Menstrual blood drips down my arm, off my elbow, into the dirt. When I finally drape her into the bath, the water swirls pink. Nobody else is around—not a coincidence. I cannot speak about it to anyone later. How would I find words?
The next morning I take yet another long, solitary walk through the sparse Digger Pines. I have the pistol JoAnne gave me. She’d told me her father had found it and gave it to her. I’ve never owned—never even touched—a gun before. On I walk. In the end, I toss the pistol and the box of bullets into some bushes, deliberately looking away. I do not want to remember where it lies. When I return, she’s waiting for me just outside the tipi door flap. I tell her, “It’s over. I just don’t love you. I’m sorry.” It’s time to just end the thing. I wonder if it’s too late, which is peculiar since we’ve only known each other a couple of months.
She flops down at my feet in the rain, clutching my legs, sobbing, wallowing in mud. “NO, don’t make me leave! Please, please, please.”
I stand there, dull, frozen, splattered. I’m getting used to this. This fact sickens me. “Hey, come on, get up, it’s not like we’ve been together for years. This just isn’t working for me. Why are you doing this?” I try and pull her up, but she drops back down into the muck.
“If you make me go, I’ll kill myself. You forced me to quit school and come out here to this terrible place with these horrible people.”
I find myself trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s in a strange place living in a rather wild manner with total strangers. What did I expect? We make up and try again, then fight and claw once more. JoAnne has fits of anger and jealousy and craziness. I tell her I don’t love her, offering to pack her up and move her back to Santa Cruz so she can get into the next semester. She tears her hair, goes berserk. I find myself trying to placate her. It’s like reaching through a fence to pet a junkyard dog, and you’re not real sure if it’s going to be docile or demented. You have to ask yourself, “Why do it?”
The sex is bizarre. I begin treating her badly, talking down to her, sneering, saying nasty things. If I’m brutish, maybe she’ll go. I am sinking into a pit. The real world, normal life, recedes. The sun is a feeble glow far away. This is not how I imagined leaving Mom’s death behind. I am gnawing away at my own trapped paw.
“I hate the people here and they hate me,” she screams.
I approach the others. “C’mon you guys, why do you hate JoAnne?” Each time, the same response: “What are you talking about?” She tells me of mean things they’ve done or said. I ask them about it, feeling obligated somehow, though it seems to me to be out of character for them. Now annoyed, they counter, “What’s wrong with you?”
I confide in one after another of my mellow hippie friends about my confusion and fear. They think I’m the crazy one, that I’m making it all up, ruining their dream existence. I can turn to nobody. I’m dead broke. The commercial river season in Utah is months away.
I come at last to the conclusion that the only way out of this insanity is for me to leave my friends, leave my home. If JoAnne won’t go, then I must. Hopelessly lost, I have to backtrack, find where I last knew my position. I still recognize that much.
I am packing my truck. I disassemble the tipi around JoAnne’s head—she refuses to move. There she kneels in her nightie, on a filthy carpet on the bare ground in the middle of a clearing in the trees where the tipi once stood. Stringy, drenched hair hanging into her open mouth, she stares into some dreadful void while a light drizzle soaks her to the bone.
I’d always figured that personal transformation would hit me like a ton of bricks. A revelation. A consistent upward trajectory towards nirvana or something. It never occurred to me that I could subtly change. For the worse. And not even notice.
The least little thing goes wrong, and it drives me nuts. I drop something, knock my shin, can’t find something—whammo! I blow. The universe is way off balance. I am a blinding mirror, and all those near enough to catch the reflection must cover their eyes.
“ JoAnne, I hate you. Shit, why don’t you get the fuck out of my life? Why would you want to be with anyone who hates you as much as I do?”
Hell, if I could leave my own self behind I would.
She is pleading with me to stay. Again. I’m in my camper on the back of the Dodge, finishing packing. My final day. I’m so far gone I can’t respond. I feel cruel, savage. I will save myself from drowning, goddammit, whatever it takes. She’s hammering at me from the back bumper, through the open door, sobbing, pleading, berating, screeching. I’m doing my best to ignore her, aiming like an arrow straight for tomorrow—key turning in the ignition, wheels rumbling over the cattle grate where the dirt road meets Highway 4.
JoAnne says, “There is a really good reason why you can’t go.”
I glare at her and unwittingly feed her the answer she seeks.
“You’re not pregnant, are you?”
She begins to shake her head no. Something changes behind her eyes. Smooth as silk, it transforms into a nod.
That’s it. The Answer.
“Do whatever you want with it. I’m still going.”
She looks at me. One of those damned cosmic pauses again.
“You mean I can keep the baby?”
The way she says it makes my skin crawl. I realize, as does she, that she will then be part of my life. Forever.
Terror makes me vicious. My face contorts, my teeth clench.
“No.” My voice sounds strange to me. “Kill it.”
Pure, razor-edge cruelty. I don’t see a baby, if indeed one exists. I see only the finest of lines between escape and death. I’m all gummed up inside—some part of me is gone forever. Nature abhors a vacuum, and I fill it with the wrongest of things. I will spend many long miles on the way to Utah justifying this brutality. JoAnne agrees to abort.
“Will you be there with me?”
“Not a chance in hell. Ask Neal.”
Changing plans, I leave the ETC land late that afternoon with January and Havasu on board, aiming for the Yampa River. All through the days of travel, I cannot escape the reruns, the ugly fantasies. I decide to bury them deep.
AROUND THE FIRST BEND
My right testicle is still sore—sort of hard and lumpy and enlarged, as if someone had kicked me in the balls. I’m sure I would have remembered something like that. The one night I had during my abortive visit to LA for the dedication, I’d visited Doc McElroy, my paramedic school buddy, and asked him to check it out. He still headed up the emergency room at UCLA. He put his arm around my shoulder, chatted as we walked down the familiar halls. We found an empty exam room and he felt my testicle, then gave me a prescription for antibiotics. “It’s probably just an infection. If it doesn’t get better in a couple of weeks, go to a urologist and get a radio isotopic scan.” Routine. We went to the cafeteria for coffee. I took the pills and put it out of my mind.
Now, having just escaped and with river season a couple months off, I’m leaning hard towards this forty-five day river trip with my pals. The crew includes Havasu, a young, extraordinarily gifted girl of fifteen who joined us on a Grand Canyon trip the year before. She’s fallen in love with rivers, too. This is our bond. When we first met, she had been saving animals from the rising waters behind the newly built New Melones Dam, which is drowning the Stanislaus River, our lifeblood. This will be the first of too many beloved rivers I passively watch drown, and will always remain the maiden of my life. Havasu, a tiny blonde with the unusual combination of innocence and ferocity, would paddle a borrowed canoe out to the numerous islands—once ridges and peninsulas, now slowly disappearing under the rising waters—and trap mice and squirrels and snakes, shoving them into plastic buckets and burlap sacks (suffering the occasional nip or scratch), then release them onto the new lakeshore. And there’s George–aka January, a fellow ARTA guide. Funny, capable, a favorite companion, January is the ladies man. Even the lesbians on the crew fall in love with his lanky grin. Irrepressible and ready on the spur for damn near anything. January and Havasu are keen to join me on this adventure. We’ll go to the Yampa River in northern Utah for the put-in, a thousand miles away from anywhere, and float for forty-five blissful, cleansing days into the Green, then the mighty Colorado. Hundreds of miles of water, flowing gently (or not) through Split Mountain …Dinosaur …Stillwater …Labyrinth …Cataract …Narrow Canyon and finally into Lake Powell.
I can get rid of the hatred, the anger, rebuild my self-confidence and spirit in the enchanted canyons of Utah. I can howl with the coyotes, dance naked around a fire of juniper driftwood, laugh at my enormous, ephemeral shadow on the illuminated cliffs. I can slither through narrow slot canyons, recklessly climb to ancient Indian cliff ruins hidden at frightening heights, return to our camp in the dying light and collapse in the warm sand.
Floating and swimming down these muddy arteries of the Great Southwestern Desert will cleanse my soul.
Arriving in Moab, my summer base, we drop off my camper and tipi at the dilapidated ARTA raft tours double-wide mobile. It is affectionately named the Melody Home, from a battered brass nameplate riveted to its side. We yelp from the goatheads—a particularly mean grass seed whose barbs attack our bare feet and ankles—slap the red dust from the gear, and rig the boats for the long trip. Starting out of this little desert town on the banks of the Colorado, surrounded by red cliffs and riveting deep-purple sky, we head towards Grand Junction, Colorado, thence to the Yampa put-in. I belatedly remember that I’m suppposed to go to a urologist if my testicle wasn’t better. It’s been weeks. It hasn’t. Smart guy that I am, I figure I’ll try to find a urologist somewhere on the way to the put-in—as long as it doesn’t interfere with this blessed river trip, my salvation.
We stop at the little Moab hospital surrounded by tumbleweeds and blowing scraps of plastic. When we enter the lobby, there’s a pretty girl sitting on a worn green couch in the otherwise empty waiting room, bent over a clipboard on her lap, busily writing. Her long brown hair hangs to the tiled floor. She looks up. Her eyes meet January’s. I smile to myself and wonder how long this will take ol’ “Handsome George” and wander down a hall to find a nurse.
There’s no urologist in tiny Moab.
On returning to the front lobby, I’m introduced to Maryanne, who has agreed to come with us and drive our vehicle shuttle. We leave for Grand Junction, a few hours off. Once there, I go into a public phone booth, pick up the ratty yellow pages hanging on a chain. I look under Physicians: Urologists, and randomly choose Doctor Roy. He’s just had a last minute cancellation. Four-thirty p.m., on a Friday. His staff tells me to come right in.
THE QUICKENING CURRENT
Doc Roy is a damn good guy. I, however, am a real jerk in a hurry to get to the river and save my soul. He’s more interested in my nuts. He feels my testicle, asks some questions, leaves the room. I’m left to consider the food buy for the trip.
He returns and says, “You need a radio isotopic check, but since it’s Friday afternoon you’ll have to wait till Monday to get the test done. By the way, do you have any insurance?”
I stifle a laugh.
“Look, doc. We’re on our way to put-in a forty-five day river trip tomorrow. The test will have to wait till we get back.”
Doc pauses, then, “I don’t think you should wait that long.”
“Sorry, I really need to go on this trip.”
Twisted mouth. “Hang on a minute please.”
He leaves again, returns after a few minutes. He’s called in the after-hours technicians. They’ll be waiting for me at the hospital radiation room.
This perfect stranger, at this perfect moment, has saved my sorry ass.
We go to the hospital; I take the test. The radiologist says, “Hey, the test looks normal. You should be outta here in no time.” Havasu, Maryanne, January, and I happily resume planning the food and shuttle. Rice? Powdered milk? Granola?
Doc Roy comes in and wags his finger. I follow him into a private room.
I say, “Great news I hear—normal blood flow!”
“That’s the problem. If it had been an infection, it wouldn’t have looked normal. We have to check further.”
I cock my head.
“We need to operate and pull out your right testicle and have a look. If it’s fine, we’ll put it back in. If not, we’ll take it out for lab tests.”
I don’t recognize the rattling sound at my feet. Nor do I feel the cool skin of the coiled serpent.
I ’m going on a river trip tomorrow. It’ll have to wait.”
“Look, I’ve got a space tomorrow at noon in between surgeries. I’ll skip lunch and book you in if you’ll come.”
I have to think about that. It’s a three-hour drive to the put-in. If we drive up tonight and get the boats and gear ready, I can come back tomorrow morning with Maryanne, do the surgery, then head back tomorrow night and put-in Sunday. We can do this. I reluctantly tell the doc, “Okay…I guess we can put off the put-in for one day.” As an afterthought I add, “How long does it take to recover from that type of surgery, anyway?”
“Well,” he says, pursing his lips ever so slightly, “until the pain goes away, I guess.”
Early the next morning, Maryanne and I drive the empty Dodge back down to Grand Junction, leaving January and Havasu at the river’s edge, in the middle of fucking nowhere. We’d been on the road half the night to get up to the Yampa, Georguary driving with Havasu curled up on the bench seat next to him. Maryanne and I rode in the open truck bed, trying to find a comfortable crevice on top of a ton of dusty river gear. Rolled up inside a bunch of tattered, flapping Navajo blankets, limbs intertwined for warmth, we froze our asses off in the sixty-mile-an-hour wind and unexpected cold of an early-spring highland desert night, the smell of flowering sage keeping us from flying away altogether.
We arrive at St. Mary’s in time for me to shower, prep, and go under anesthesia. It’s my first time. I’m clueless.
Half awake, half dreaming. My belly hurts. Huh…that’s weird. I slowly come to in a vast, impersonal, four-bed wardroom. A tall brick smokestack belches black smoke just outside the window. My hand slowly crawls under the covers, hits a bandage around the right upper corner of my pubic hair. What the…? Why didn’t they just slit my scrotum? Suddenly my skin feels clammy, tingly. Momentum finds my hand inching further down. Eyes fixed on a rain-rust stain on the ceiling.
Right on cue, a nun sticks her head into my room and asks, “Is there anything I can do for you, my son?”
“Um. No, thanks. I’m Jewish.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Thanks, but… it does to me.”
I glance over at my roommate in the next bed. He’s ancient, bluish-white, unconscious, breathing the death rattle. Cheyne-Stokes. One long, deep breath, followed by a series of shorter and shorter breaths, then a long pause of deathly silence, then the cycle repeats. Or not. I’ve seen it before as a paramedic. Phantoms and chimeras.
Doc Roy appears. He sits on the edge of my bed, asks how I’m doing.
“Fine…” I say, leaving it hanging like a question.
He takes a deep breath.
“We’ve looked at the testicle. Looks like there’s a possible tumor. Lab results are due Monday. Um…I’m sorry, but…you might have cancer.”
My mouth opens. Just a crack. I blink.
A puff of wind twists the smoke outside my window. A door shuts.
“We’ll talk about the options later, after you have a chance to rest.” He turns and leaves. Can’t wait to get away. I don’t blame him.
Alone, my buddy in the next bed and me. His breathing fills and empties the universe. Maryanne comes in. They’ve told her. We just met yesterday, and now she’s sobbing. For me. She touches my arm with one hand, holds her head in her other. This sort of thing will happen a lot.
The phone rings. It’s January. They’d waited all day. When we didn’t return they got worried and borrowed a car from the remote put-in, finding the car keys stashed in the usual place. Drove to the nearest town, an hour away, with its solitary payphone.
“Hey,” I advise, “go ahead with the trip. You guys already have all the gear and food and all.”
Silence. Then, slowly, softly, “No…I don’t think so.”
They return the car with a note and ten bucks, pack the whole river trip back up, wait for Maryanne to get them and bring them back to Grand Junction.
I forgot—January’s mom recently died. Cancer. I am a reluctant mirror. I will stay that way for a time.
This is not going to be easy, but there’s no way around it.
“Pop? Hi. It’s me.”
“Hi son…Whuh? I thought you were on a trip?”
“Yeah. Well. I had to postpone it…. I, uh…I’m in the hospital in Grand Junction.”
“Huh? What? What’s wrong?”
Come on. Come on…
“Well. Kinda looks... uh... like I might have cancer.”
“Oh! Oh my God…Oh noooo!” he screams. Why is this happening to me again?”
Young as I am, I have been in some very far-flung, untamed places. Lucky. Often I have wandered alone. There is a unique, feline power in this dance. Loping, unencumbered, sniffing the air, muscles taut, in place, just so.
Sometimes it happens. In a flash, you find that for the first time maybe you need help. Someone Else. I’ve been very busy avoiding this. Till now. There will be a battle. Not between me and him. Within.
My lips tighten.
“Dad. This is happening to me, not you.”
“It’s happening to both of us” he says. “I’ll be there as soon as I can catch a flight.”
“Hang on. Hang on a minute…”
“At the moment…I, um… look…maybe it’d be better if you just didn’t come.” Come on, swim. Breathe... The phone is silent, crackling.
“Pop? Hello? Look, I’m sorry. I just can’t hold you up. I need… I need my daddy.”
Only then do I notice he’s not blubbering any more. But I am.
And I hear a tone I haven’t heard in so very long.
He says “I see, son.”
OH God, please…
“Son?... My son. I will do that for you... I promise.”
In a split second, the healing begins. For the first time in months, I feel something other than frozen steel in my chest. The trembling of my body passes. I hadn’t noticed that, either. He will come, and he will hold true.
Decades later, floating down the Tuolumne River, jewel of the Sierra, I ask a crazy friend (approaching middle age) how he had managed to paddle so far beyond the edge. He no longer did, but knew it, and how one moves through it, well. He said, “You just know. The instant you begin to question your assumptions… it’s over.”
I smile at this, silent in recognition. It’s not the going over the edge, not really even the coming back. It’s the glory of letting yourself be taken–moving in concert with it, fearless, fluid.
Like when an earthquake makes you realize that even the earth is not solid.
Weird how this thing seems to bring us all together and at the same time drive us into our own isolated worlds. Me, I’m feeling a little more isolated than together at the moment. I call the Etcetera folks–my old high school buddies Neal and Bobby, Graciella, Rick, and a couple others are coming right out. It strikes me to ask them to make sure JoAnne doesn’t know. Remembering Neal and Santa Cruz, I figure I’ll explain a bit further.
“You gotta understand. I’m not trying to mend a broken heart here, guys. I’m scared of her. I hate her. She makes me crazy. Please. Promise me. Don’t tell her and don’t let her come.”
Doc Roy outlines the plan: Get out of the hospital and heal from this surgery. Get some lab tests done in Denver. Come back here for the next surgery, to remove the lymph nodes from behind my belly. The cancer is most likely to travel from my testicle to the belly lymph nodes, then the lungs. If the nodes are clear, then maybe they got it. If not…
This is the real thing. I need advocates. I need my friends, my family.
Doc Roy says it’ll take me about two to three weeks to heal enough for the next surgery. I want that alien creature out of my body immediately. We negotiate and agree on surgery in ten days. I’m such a pain in the ass. January drives us all to Moab and the Melody Home.
There, another fellow guide, Dugald, arrives to do an early season private river trip down Cataract Canyon. I limp into the living room, sit on the couch. He asks me how I’m doing.
“Okay, just don’t make me laugh. It hurts in my balls. Sorry. Ball. Solamente uno.”
Dugald nods. I sit there for a few moments while he fiddles with his gear, finally pulling out his guitar case, opening it up. He takes the guitar out slowly, deliberately. Saying nothing, he sits on the worn couch opposite me, tuning up. I slouch and watch, half interested. Finally, he strums a cord, then breaks into a Beatles song.
“Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be…”
We collapse into fits of laughter, both of us rolling on the floor, me grunting, “Ooh!…Uhh!...Ow!”
Bruce, a friend from paramedic school, sends a brown paper bag in the mail, filled with something bulky but light. On it he’s taped a photo of porn star John Holmes, “Johnny the Wad.” He has the biggest penis I’ve ever seen. There are two naked women on either side of him, eyes wide. He holds his enormous erection as if he were battling a swordfish on the end of a fishing rod. Underneath, in magic marker, Bruce has written,“Try these herbs. They REALLY work!”
Before it’s time to drive to Denver, I take a few short limps with a cane in some pretty little dry washes around Moab, reflect and rage to the silent desert. The solitude mends me a little. I cannot yet focus. Thoughts drift. I recall a guy named Bob living at the Etcetera land when I was visiting the year before all of this. He’d had Polio as a kid, leaving him partly paralyzed. One leg and one arm were shriveled and didn’t work. He took his disability with good humor, considering. Even nicknamed his useless arm “floppy.” He lived in a modified cabin halfway between my cabin and the communal kitchen. Each morning I’d pass his window, where his bed was conveniently placed at sill level so he could see out without having to struggle to get up. He would groggily call out, “Mornin’. How ya doin?” and I’d reply with a perky, “Great!” One morning, after some weeks of this ritual exchange, he surprised me, saying “Fuck, man, you make me sick. I wish sometimes you’d just be shitty like the rest of us.”
Maybe I’ll give him a call.
RIGGING FOR A FLIP
Things move downstream swiftly. I am merely swept along in the current. In Denver, after hours of driving, several tests are done, which include sticking needles into some exquisitely sensitive veins in the tops of my feet. Later it turns out the tests were the wrong ones. It’s only the beginning of a long steep journey through pain, terror, and humiliation. Cold steel. Antiseptic smells. Strangers pretending not to look at my exposed rear end. This surreal Cancer ghost slowly but surely gathers substance and form.
Back to Grand Junction and St. Mary’s for the big operation. Dad and Suzie and Linny arrive, as well as the ETC crowd, and January and Havasu and Maryanne, now firmly part of the family. My sisters and I, though we live thousands of miles apart, are close. I was the baby. They took care of me. Beat the crap out of me too, while Mom and Dad worked at their dry cleaning shop. I still have the toenail scar on the bridge of my nose to prove it.
There’s a small hitch. Nobody wants to tell me, but Neal slips it into a conversation—a casual aside. JoAnne “had” to loan some of the ETC crowd her car to drive here. She of course now has to come out and retrieve it.
I should have known.
I shake my head. I have more critical things to think about at the moment.
In pre-op, as they shave my belly, they describe the foot-long vertical scar that will stretch from my pubic hair to my ribs.
“We might be able to save your belly button, might not.” I guess some people find this important. I encounter for the first time the written form explaining all the things that may happen: I might bleed to death, become a vegetable, have permanent disability, be in constant pain…. I’m supposed to sign this thing, accept these inconvenient details. I’m lying on the operating table, immense, masked professionals hovering over me. What am I supposed to do? They give me the morphine and anesthesia. I look down at my still firm, young, virile torso, trying hard to imprint it in my memory. Futile.
I awake from oblivion. Seemingly only an instant has passed, but really it’s about eight hours later. Searing hot flames are boiling out of my belly, and as I come to, my mouth is already speaking on it’s own. “Oh God please help me it hurts please please please.” The pain is so crushing that I cannot speak louder than a whisper. My head thrashes from side to side, hands tightly gripping the solid bedrails that prove I am wretchedly alive. My sister Linny materializes next to the bed, petting me and trying to calm me while nervously calling the nurse. Her eyes are red and baggy and fearful. Tubes are in my nose. They hurt. Tubes are in my arm. They hurt, too. A cacophony of devilish beeps surround my head, flickering lights weirdly illuminate the semi-darkness. I’m in hell. But how’d Linny get here?
A gray haired, gnomish night nurse comes up and gives me something through the IV tube, says it shouldn’t take long.
Oh, but it does. Eternity. My belly is ablaze, someone is ramming a burning, rusty pickaxe through me and turning and jerking it, the pain driving my sanity from me. Never before have I screamed in pain. Actually, I can’t really scream because it hurts so badly. These are the gentlest screams you’ve ever heard. I thrash while trying not to move my insides, my wonderful sister does her best to comfort me. Many long minutes pass.
“Uh. Uh. Uh. Oh, God. Oh, please. Oh, God. Oh. Oh. Uh. Uh.”
Short, animal, grunting breaths. I’m soaked in sweat.
Finally, the nurse returns. My eyes nail her to the floor.
I barely squeak, “It hasn’t worked, the pain is too much to bear, I can’t breathe, please give me something more. Please. Why isn’t it working? Oh. Help me. Please!”
“I only gave you half of the dose the doctor ordered.”
“I didn’t want you to become addicted.”
My sister’s mouth drops open. Mine would have had it not been clenched to keep myself from biting my tongue. I start to softly weep. Can’t help it.
“I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait till it’s time for the next dose…three more hours.” Lips tight, face a mask, holding her ground. She turns on her heel and disappears.
My sister and I look into each other’s eyes, clean through to the backs of our skulls. Thank God for her. I have no doubt she wants to kill that stupid fucking nurse just as bad as I do. That thought, and her love, keep me fighting for breath during the longest three hours of my life…so far.
My father and I walk the barren, sterile hospital halls, my trusty IV pole doubling as a cane to lean on. Very slowly, very gently, don’t jiggle my belly. I’m back in the same wardroom I started out in. My old buddy in the next bed is gone. I imagine him in the basement morgue, on a stainless steel gurney, cold, silent, free. We pass my post-op nurse. Our eyes meet, and she quickly looks away. I would love to say something glib, sharp, something that would prevent her from tormenting someone else. We pass each other by in silence.
I’m told that during the surgery the doctor had accidentally cut one of my adrenal arteries, causing what should have been a two-hour operation to stretch to nearly eight while they desperately tried to staunch the flow of blood. Apparently I died at one point while I was on the table. I hadn’t noticed. They’d used many liters of blood to keep my blood pressure up, running out of my type in the end. Touch and go. My dad collapsed in the waiting room. First his beloved Florence, now his son. Lightning striking twice. I am the blinding bolt and he is the burnt, smoking oak. But he never says a word.
I’m sitting next to the sink in my hospital room, Linny the professional hairdresser lovingly washing my hair in warm water. Mmmmmm. I long ago learned that a critical ritual of hairdressers is to jawbone with “the head.” She tells me that JoAnne came up to her conspiratorially in the hospital hall and introduced herself.
JoAnne’s strength comes from secrets, separateness. She’ll tell one person one thing, another something else, start some bad blood. She watches for what works, what doesn’t. Quick on her feet, she discards the useless, builds on whatever slips through. Naturally, the partial truths evolve unnoticed into whatever fits her needs, leaving reality subtly and forever tainted. On this new stage, however, JoAnne’s webs are finally being traced back to the spider. Revealed. Exposed. I’m out of the loop, thankfully.
She confided in my sister with oily affection, “Your brother has gotten me pregnant.”
My sister had already, with purest instinct, made up her mind as to whom she was dealing with.
JoAnne parried, “I think I’m going to have to tell your father. I mean, what if his infected testicle is going to hurt the baby somehow?”
My five-foot tall sister explains to me that she then took JoAnne firmly by the throat, thrust her to the wall of the hospital hallway, and told her if Dad got any inkling from any source that JoAnne was pregnant with my baby, she would kill her.
I glance up at my little big sister. The slightest of smiles caresses my face for the first time in a long, long time.
Havasu comes in and stands next to my bed, her face a troubled mask. It seems JoAnne booked a motel room close to the hospital. The perennially broke ETC crowd, including Havasu, had been camping out on a dirt road outside of town. JoAnne invited them to stay in a room next to her. She’d pay.
In tears, Havasu reveals that JoAnne had baited her away from the crowd the evening before, into a dark hallway corner and in an angry whisper told her, “I’m sorry. Jeff asked me to tell you to leave right away. He says you’re just too young to be any help. He doesn’t think you’re really a friend of his, anyway. You’re just always in the way.”
I find myself clutching Havasu’s hand—shaken, outraged, but not surprised. Our moist eyes meet for a long moment. Something moves between us in silence. Nothing more is required. She no longer seems so young. She leaves with her self-confidence, and my friendship, in her clenched fist. I wish I could be there to watch.
Left alone, I seethe. Then, the weirdest thing—relief, like ripples in a pool. An inner tenseness evaporates. I hadn’t even known it was there. Finally, I’m not isolated. There are now others who grok JoAnne. Maybe I’m not totally out of my mind. Wow.
Thus begins a process. It will help me through the upcoming horrors, allow me to come out the other side. Not an earthquake–a drumming. A circle, forming around–me! And I am not making it–they are. And, just as wondrous–I allow myself to be taken.
And thus, even if I die, I might still be healed.
It’s an art, really—a dark art–the ability to craft statements and gestures, gather allies, create strategic connections. To recognize on the fly that a particular tack is not working, to smoothly and covertly alter course and draw the skeptical listener back into the fold. To create a collaborator with a lie so close to the truth that it’s plausible. Smooth as a moray’s skin. As long as nobody tries to discuss the varying stories amongst each other—and why would they? —nothing can be traced. Everything is perfectly normal. Anyone who suggests that JoAnne is lying, or crazy, or mean, or manipulative, must be, of course, badly mistaken or worse. This anyone, until this point, happened to be me. The best manipulator is the one who nobody thinks is capable of such a thing. Besides, nobody likes to think those people really exist in their world. It only happens in the movies.
Someday far in my future I will acknowledge that what was happening to me wasn’t JoAnne’s doing. I simply hadn’t had the skill or strength to cope, especially that year.
But I’m not quite that magnanimous yet.
Finally, the inevitable happens. JoAnne comes into my wardroom, waiting, in her way, till she knows I would be alone. I’m trapped in my twisted sheets and IV tubes. She tries to touch my hand through the steel bedrail—the devil offering a bargain—but I draw it weakly away and bury it under the covers, shivering. She tries to kiss my face; I turn away in disgust, as if she were a leper. Okay, I admit it. I fear her.
“How are you?”
“Go away. Please.”
You won’t be able to do this twice. I turn, look her in the eyes.
“Didn’t they tell you I don’t want you anywhere near me?”
“Yes, but I decided to come, anyway.”
“Did you threaten to tell my dad you’re pregnant?”
“Did you tell Havasu I told you to tell her to leave, that I didn’t like her?”
I’ve seen that look. Wheels are turning.
“You’re not really pregnant…are you?”
“I’ve clearly got some rather momentous things to deal with right now, JoAnne. You are no longer a part of my life. In order for me to heal, inside and out, I must and will simply forget you ever existed.”
The fire is gone. It is a simple statement of fact. No attachment, no anger. The lack of emotion confounds her.
Air flows through ceiling vents. The IV machine goes beep…beep…beep. The late winter wind thrums the windows. Her mouth is half open, like it expects to have something to say, but nothing comes. She rises, crisp clothes rustling, turns, and leaves.
I will never see her again. Motel rooms no longer funded, the ETC crew happily return to their dirt road encampment. Me and my buddy, Fate, met that night in Emmy’s hot tub in Santa Cruz; now we finally have the freedom to take responsibility for ourselves, to focus on the immediate problem.
A short while later, my sisters enter my room.
“You’d better live, dammit, or we’ll never forgive you.” They giggle, half serious.
“OK, I’ll tell you what. Let’s make a deal. If you both quit smoking, I’ll live.”
They look at each other, nod their heads. It is a covenant that we all will honor.
A few of my lymph nodes have some microscopic metastases. That is the dreaded word. It even sounds evil. It means the cancer has spread. Could’ve been worse, could’ve been better. On x-ray, there seems to be nothing on my lungs, at least not yet.
Another new doctor visits. She is part of a growing list of smiling strangers. I’m supposed to put my life into their hands, just like that. We discuss chemotherapy. Chemo at this time is in its primitive stages, though I have yet to find that out. The inquisition is young; they’re still perfecting the torture chambers. She describes a “therapy” plan.
“You will be very, very sick. You will vomit quite a lot. We have drugs for that. Your hair will fall out.”
“Okay. Tell me the bad news.” She doesn’t find that funny. “Sorry…How long?”
“I don’t know—four, maybe five months. It’s too soon to tell. We’ll have to see how you tolerate the treatment.”
She’s the first in a long line to tell me how lucky I am. Up until only two years ago, pretty much everybody who got this one died. Now, however, the new chemo regimen is saving as much as seventy percent. My type of cancer is a real fast grower, unlike breast cancer, which helps the chemo more easily differentiate its cells from my own. Search and destroy. I won’t have to wait years and years to see if they got it all, fearing its return from hiding in some secret corner of my insides.
“If you live more than about two years, you’ll know you’re cured, period. Only trouble is, the chemo itself can cause cancer in twenty years.”
Blues singer Tom Waits’s gravelly voice enters my brain. Two dead ends, and ya still gotta choose.
“The next step is to heal from the surgery. Then we’ll go from there.”
“How long before I can row a boat?”
She looks at me for a moment, slightly befuddled. “Excuse me?”
I repeat the question, with a bit more emphasis.
Indulging me, she replies, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe six weeks.”
I can see she doesn’t get it. I explain. Half a ton. Must-make moves. Enormous rapids. Rowing against the wind.
Whatever. She sticks to her guesstimate.
“Can anyone know for sure whether or not they got it all with the knife?”
She shakes her head.
“If we wait, and don’t do the chemo right away, and if later it does show up again, and then we start chemo, will my chances for survival be any less than if we start right now, not knowing?”
She doesn’t think so. She glances at her watch, looks at me blankly. Her expression says, Just do what I tell you to do and shut up.
I decide to skip it.
It turns out my question was too specific. I only asked about my chances for survival; I should’ve also asked whether, if I waited, I’d get carved up again.
ROWING AGAINST THE WIND
Everyone invites me to recuperate with them, at their place of course. Chicago. LA. Even back at The Land. Whoooeee! I choose being alone in Moab, a sleepy little Mormon desert town. Bathed in searing heat and red dust and soaring cliffs of petrified sand, full of rednecks and boatmen and the faithful. Up above, snow and trees cover volcanic Mt. Tukanikavits, landmark oasis in the desert. Above that, the deepest blue of any sky on earth. Just down the road, the mighty Colorado, my lifeblood, flowing brown and deep from melting snows high up in the Rockies, miles away.
The rafting season is about six weeks away. Every doctor I ask says six weeks and then I can row. Of course none of them knows what I’m really talking about. So much the better. I focus. I walk, using a cane made of a piece of twisted, river-sculpted juniper driftwood. After a few weeks, I ceremonially burn it. As my belly heals and the pain subsides, I stow the Percocet in my river first aid kit, slowly begin to use my upper body, gently exercising, not yet able to rebuild muscle, trying at least to avoid atrophy.
In Cataract Canyon–”Cat”–the upper big-water desert canyon above the renowned Grand one, we row eighteen-foot long inflatable rafts, carrying up to four passengers. We also row, or motor, “snout” boats: jerry-rigged contraptions made from two twenty-two and a half foot long, large-diameter Korean War–era bridge pontoons. Big enough to float a tank, the floats made of the heaviest rubber known to man (in order to protect them from AK-47 rounds); they’re held together by a huge, heavy steel frame with a rowing seat in the middle. This bizarre craft carries tons of gear and up to six passengers—an absurdly heavy load to row. Consequently, in very high water where it’s critical to make certain eddies, we clamp a motor to the transom in back and pilot her that way. We carry motors on every trip in Cat, even those without snouts, low water or high. Once the river’s flow dies in the backed-up waters of Lake Powell, there is still over thirty miles of flat lake to get to the take out at historic Hite’s Crossing, a remote Utah back road where we unload the people and gear. Any old-salt boatman can tell you the solitary day in history that the wind blew downstream. Boatmen get tired and grumpy on this so-called lake, stagnating where our river once flowed. We miss the natural sound and feel of flowing water. Clients miss the excitement; they get impatient. The final night of the trip, after hitting the calm reservoir waters, we untie the motors and fuel, then tie the boats together into one huge raft. We wake everybody up before dawn for breakfast, load them up for the stunning float-out, slightly ruined by the motor’s whine but so awe inspiring that talk is rare. By getting an early start, we manage to beat a small portion of the merciless hundred and twenty degree heat.
On the first trip of the season, the spring water is high from snowmelt. Real high, in fact, and thick with mud. It’s a weird sensation, even to the initiated. Makes it hard to read your path through the rapids. Instead of dodging rocks, we maneuver around exploding pillows of red muck. Instead of hitting small ripples just for fun, we battle roaring red mountains of surging, piling waves that hide the inevitable, bottomless breaker. Seemingly innocuous spits of foam and spray are the only tangible clue from upstream. Logically, this is not a place you want to be, but once you feel the fleeting exhilaration of horizons of water obscuring shore and fellow rafters, you’re committed. Paul, a fellow boatman—quiet, deep voiced, dependable, another musician—is a great oarsman. He’s going on this trip to learn from Dave how to motor a snout. I’ll go along for the ride. All I have to do is hold on and enjoy finally being back on the river. No problemo.
Everyone’s psyched. Nothing much memorable happens until we hit the Big Drops. A mile or so of consistently huge whitewater that, at this water level, is far more extreme than what even the Grand Canyon can boast. Surrounded by sheer, two-thousand foot cliffs, huge boulders choking the river, huge boulders lining the ravaged banks. There’s very little vegetation or any other sign of life. The roar drives like a freight train through your bones.
The most fun on a snout boat is “riding the snout”—straddling the upturned nose, exposed way out there in front of the frame, legs wrapped around the tubes like you’re riding a horse bareback, no straps to hold on to, nothing in front of you but water. There is simply no ride more exciting, especially in big water. You alternate between being buried deep in a huge wave, like Captain Ahab on the white whale, then blasting out the back of it into the sky, fifteen feet above the water, while the whole vibrating rig stands on its tail.
That, of course, is where I find myself in the big drops.
Everyone else is hunkered down towards the center of the boat, except for Dave and Paul, way out back. Learning how to motor, Paul looks nervous, as do all good boatmen when about to descend into the maelstrom, responsible for your rig and your people. He is serious, focused. We enter the top of Big Drop One, immediately slam a huge wave, and I am swatted off, in between the tubes.
My left hand still grips a strap from underneath the boat. I emerge from the dark mud, slamming up under the sloped wooden front transom with all the force of the river. Two tons of boat plow into me with the power of thirty-five horses. I disappear into the water again. It comes to mind that if I let go, I’ll be swept pretty damn fast between the tubes, directly into that whining Mercury motor’s blades. I surface again, frantically gesturing to the clients leaning over the transom to have Paul cut the motor, using a slicing motion across my neck.
We hadn’t told them about my surgery. They’re here on vacation. They think I’m joking around.
A kaleidoscopic world of smiling faces and laughter, then blackness, then the faces again as I reappear and disappear, over and over. Up again, then Slam!, cutting motion and frantic eyes, searching for somebody who will save me, someone who will believe I’m really in trouble. I’m unable to speak because it’s all so quick and I barely have enough time to catch a quick breath and then I’m under again. My death-grip on the strap won’t be good for much longer. Up again, this time I’m flung high enough to see Paul and Dave in the back, because the boat’s on a huge wave, pointing at the sky. I try desperately to make eye contact, but they are totally focused on the river beyond and getting the boat through. Then, splash!, I’m back under again. That’s when it hits me—no one is going to save me. If I don’t use what strength I have left to climb out right this instant, I’m mincemeat.
I feel my belly ripping inside as I heave myself over the bar, timing it just so with the dance of the boat and the water. Now on the proper side of the bow transom, I sprawl like a broken puppet dipped in chocolate sauce, my hand still twisted in the now superfluous strap, my eyes shut. My belly is on fire. I’m gasping for air, gasping in pain at their feet. I close my eyes and I disappear.
The rapids end. We pull into shore and camp. The folks have had a ball, and are busily chatting away about the day’s run, unloading baggage. They’re oblivious, thankfully. I hunch over to a bus-sized boulder towards the back of the beach and collapse in the sand behind it. I won’t move again till morning. Thankfully it is warm enough that I don’t need a blanket. I lie in the sand in fetal position, arms cradling my belly, eyes, ears and nose filling with fine blown river sand, caked mud plastering my body, drying hard in place. Breathe. Gently. Dave and Paul, missing me after cleaning up dinner, discover my crumpled form at dusk. I don’t want to be moved. They retrieve my pain pills. I gobble down two, lie there thinking, once again, about what a fool I am. Again, the terror rises. There will be consequences.
A CALM STRETCH
Through that summer, I poke my bowels back in between the folds of torn muscle on either side of my scar. They tend to bulge out after a particularly hard pull on the oars, or lifting a heavy box or bag. Eventually it stops hurting, becomes automatic, reflexive. I’ll be playing guitar around the campfire, and I’ll notice someone looking at me strangely. I’ll look down and find my hand unconsciously pushing my guts back in. So?
I figure it this way: this could be my last river season. Ever. If this is so, if I am to die this coming winter, I’ll be damned if anything is going to stop me from living it to the hilt. Oh, and how we guides do live. Hiking hard and fast in dusty, holed running shoes to spectacular desert views at the cut-edge brink of the world. Slithering along spooky slot canyons, watching fluorescent ravens soar across the burnt sky. On one trip, as a joke, all the boatmen take a red magic marker and copy my angry red belly scar on their own bodies. The shape is sort of an elongated question mark, curling around my belly button. A client asks me why we all have red marker lines on our bellies.
“One is real…you guess which.”
I meet Sara that season. A friend of our area manager, Jen, she comes along on some of our Cat trips as a cook and general “swamper”. Usually this is our term for a non-paying guest who will work their butts off and do most anything to get down the river for free. I would normally include myself in the “almost anything” part, but, in this case, Sara turns out to be just what I need, and visa versa. Calm, poised, quiet, timidly straight-laced in an ex-Catholic sort of way. Not exactly who you would expect to fall in love with the likes of me. Yet she knows what she needs–a visceral thing that in my Jewish experience most Catholics deny themselves—passion, adventure. Freckled and out of place in the desert, her red-brown hair and fair skin always covered from head to toe from the unkind desert sun, we begin a frail relationship, founded on a shared love of hiking and boating and traveling in Nature. She’s often embarrassed by my rambunctious, unkempt and rebellious nature. Yet in some strange way she needs that, craves it without acknowledging that need. For my part, I need her solidity, her poise. In “civilization,” Sara can barely stand the mortification of being seen with me. But alone together in the wild, our love is uninhibited.
A ROAR AROUND THE CORNER
The river season, along with the sizzling desert summer, ends. I ponder my split belly, and I decide I’ll fix it if and when I know I’ll live long enough to give a shit. It doesn’t bother me all that much. As long as I can push my insides back where they belong. I’ve made enough money to repay my small debts and purchase a rebuilt slant six engine for the Dodge. I head back to California, spending a considerable amount of time dealing with a reluctant Medi-Cal, arranging payment for my hospitalization, treatments, and surgery. I wrangle with pure Chicago ferocity. They relent and pay most, though not all, of my bills.
Bobby, January, and I plan a fall trip across the country to North Carolina. We’re keen to run the New and the Gauly Rivers, famous for their classic whitewater. We’ll then tour up to Indiana, where January’s dad lives. January will drop out for a holiday visit; Bobby and I will continue on to Chicago for our own family and holidays.
We squeeze onto the bench seat in the cab, playing cribbage, taking turns driving. As we pass back through Utah on our way east, January decides on a whim to take a brief detour south to Moab to see Maryanne, who is spending the winter working for the old letch who owns the local rock and gemstone shop. Bobby and I are to drop January off at the deserted highway crossroads, then hang out in Grand Junction for a few hours and wait for Maryanne to bring him back in her old Subaru. In the darkness of night, we drop January off, then, with a hitchhiker in tow, Bobby and I continue on towards Grand Junction. I’ll say hi to Doc Roy, show him how good I’m doing, thank him for overlooking my single-minded arrogance and stupidity and for saving my worthless ass.
Twenty minutes later, going sixty miles an hour, the engine seizes. We jerk off the highway, spewing gravel. The brand-new screw-on oil filter has blown off. All the oil in the newly rebuilt engine has consequently drained out. The oil light in the dash, coincidentally, is faulty. Pistons are welded to cylinders. My new engine is now one very hot hunk of useless metal. We sleep on it in the back. The hitchhiker grabs his pack, abandoning the damned, and high-tails it down the highway, thumb aloft.
It just so happens that we have broken down on the very longest stretch of unpopulated highway from coast to coast. Hours into the hot morning, I finally get a ride to an abandoned gas station a half hour away, in the wrong direction. There’s a dusty, dilapidated phone booth next to the station. Thankfully, there’s a dial tone. I call for a tow.
The guy has to come all the way out from Grand Junction, a hundred and twenty miles away. It’s Sunday. Maybe he’s a hero. Maybe he smells money.
The brown Dodge—with boat, camping gear, oars, and rowing frame overflowing the wood-slatted bed—looks like the return of Ma and Pa Clampett, all tilted up at a queer angle, crazily weaving behind the speeding tow truck. Bobby and I are squoze in the cab with Merle, the tow-truck driver. Merle has the perfect name. He’s also got a wide, gap-toothed smile on that just won’t quit and, incongruously, his Sunday Church Best. January and Maryanne catch up beside us, going sixty miles per hour. January stares up at me, mouth open, just a tad. I manage a crooked smile. They follow us to Grand Junction.
Being Sunday, there isn’t a chance in hell of finding another motor to replace the seized one. But it just so happens that Merle also owns a wrecking yard, which just so happens to have a field of old slant sixes growing neatly in the dirt as if planted in rows. We pick one, relying on luck that it even works, hoist it into the back of the Dodge, and tow the whole shebang to an alleyway behind one of my ex-nurses back yard. I’d sort of struck up a friendship with her when I was recuperating from the last surgery. Well, maybe a bit more than a friendship. She agrees to let us stay until we can replace the engine. None of us have ever done anything like this before. But hey, how hard can it be?
It takes us half the week, renting an engine hoist, buying a curled Dodge manual at the local auto parts store, reading through it’s yellowed pages step by step. Like most manuals, it’s sort of generalized, leading to some improvisation.
The damn thing starts right up first time, and we’re back on the road. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a cloud hanging over me. During the week, I had contacted Doc Roy. He’d suggested I come in, just to say hi, and oh, maybe get a quick check up and x-ray. He thought I looked just fine. The phone call came the day we were to take off.
“Jeff, you’ve got a bit of a spot on your lung. About the size of a dime. I think it’s probably just a nipple shadow or something, but you ought to get it looked at, just in case. Oh, don’t worry…you can take care of it in Chicago. Probably nothing.”
“Okay. Yeah. Thanks.” Click.
Days and miles down the road, we land in Kentucky early on a Saturday morning, driving through the dazzling reds, golds, oranges, and yellows of the autumn dogwoods, sumacs, and maples. A horrific squealing and shaking coming from the left front of the Dodge halts us once again. Veering off the next highway exit to a tiny town, Shelbyville Kentucky, whose banner proudly proclaims it to be where Colonel Sanders died, we pull the smoking wheel off. Kentucky fried bearings. Saturday morning, Middle of Nowhere. A frantic search through the Yellow Pages, however, and we discover a mechanic in the next town who is in his shop, working on his personal car. He makes the mistake of answering the phone. Yep, he’s got the right bearings, he thinks. “C’mon over, sonny…I’ll be here till noon or so.” January hitchhikes back down the highway and returns a few hours later with the bearings. We hammer them in and are back on the road.
Very late that night, we arrive in North Carolina, near our destination of the New River. Bobby’s driving. Sitting next to him, I’m awakened by “Shit! Shit! Shit!” The car is swerving back and forth, and he’s having trouble controlling it.
“I think the front tire’s blown!”
“Well, so stop.”
He stops. The tire is shredded. After some effort, I manage to pull out the spare from under a ton of gear. Also flat. By now, I’m just shaking my head. As we stand there pondering, a truck pulls up. A bearded guy in overalls, speaking with a thick Southern accent, asks if we need any help. It’s one a.m. He says he works in the plant just down the road. He’s got some tire repair stuff, and a compressor. We all four look at each other. We’d just been talking about hillbillies and shotguns and Deliverance. I head off alone with him, down the road to fix the flat, trying not to appear nervous. I return an hour later with a good tire.
We finally pull into the put-in area for the New, lay out our bags, and conk out. Before dawn, I have a nightmare…
We’d heard there was an old steam train that ran beside the New River. Used to be for coal mines or something. In my nightmare, it is night, and I’m walking through a wooden tunnel along rail tracks, the rushing sound of a river somewhere below. All is black as obsidian. Suddenly, looming directly ahead–a black cat. At first small and innocent, in an instant transforming into horrible, obscene rage. It has needle sharp teeth several inches long, and stares right through me, eyes red hot. Suddenly, it leaps at my face, sinking its teeth deep into my neck. Terrified, I grab it, struggle to wrench it off, tearing at its hair. We thrash, me shrieking into the night, the river roaring below, the cat voiceless, menacing, hideous. Those burning eyes. I rip it off my shredded neck, bloody meat. Its fangs drip with my blood. Relentless, It flails once more and sinks them back into me. With the last of my strength, I just manage to jerk it off again. I clutch it’s head with both my hands. We stare into each other’s eyes, and I squeeze. Hard. The cat’s claws flail and shred my arms, its teeth sink now into my hands and the pain is unbearable. Now it’s shrieking also. A maniacal duet. I clutch it stiff-armed–I must keep it from my neck–squeezing, squeezing hard. We share the same insane look, eyes wide, teeth bared, screaming into blackness. We are one. At last, the cat’s head crushes in my hands in an explosion of blood and brains. I drop it on the ground and stagger on out of the blackness of the tunnel, into the moonlight, never looking back…
I awake, and, as I lie there panting, shaking, sweating, I think back to high school in Chicago in the late ’60s, to Ted, a friend who was into Buddhism. He read my palm one day; we had been stoned and mellow, but when he looked at my hand he jerked back, avoiding my eyes. After some pressing, he told me he’d seen a great evil I would have to battle in my future. I asked him who won. Still avoiding my eyes, he claimed he didn’t know. He wouldn’t look again. It was the last time we ever saw each other.
Early Monday morning, leaving the raft and gear by the side of the river, we go back a ways to what looks to be a rafting company headquarters, basically a cabin in the woods. We’re seeking information about the river and a shuttle. The water looks low. The trucks out front are all army green. The sign is army green. We walk in and discover that all the people inside are wearing army green shorts, army green T-shirts, army green caps. I glance out back. Army green rafts, army green boxes. Bobbie, January, and I look at each other. I speak.
“So, uh, we were thinking of rafting the river, you guys. Looks kinda low.”
We must seem as queer to them as they do to us. They exchange glances.
“Yessir. It’s dam controlled. They don’t let out water on Monday.”
January has had it. He just wants to get to his dad’s place, screw the river trips. I suspect he also wants to get away from whatever is happening to me just as much. Wish I could, too. I convince Bobby to come with me, low water or no. We hear there are two take-outs: one just before the New River Gorge Bridge, one a mile or so downstream. The first is on privately owned land, and the guy who owns it is apparently rather protective. A hillbilly, they explain, with a shotgun. Their company has an agreement with him allowing them to take out there. He gets coffee and doughnuts and the rare human contact—probably more than enough—in exchange. The road goes right to the edge of the river, making it pretty easy. The other one—the public take-out—would force us to make a long, steep, rocky hike with all the gear. They offer to call the guy who owns the land, tell him we’re with them so we can take out there. We thank them and take off in our flip-flops and cut-offs, chuckling at their uniforms. January makes things easier for Bobby and me by offering to do the shuttle. We’re disappointed he’s not coming along after all those miles, but accept his offer and take off down river. Dancing amongst the glistening rocks, placing our paddles just so in the intermittent pools between a sea of rocks, joined by challenge and grace, we remember who we are, why we’re here. With only the two of us, the boat is light, and we manage to bounce and scrape our way downstream. Along the way, I glance at the left bank and notice railroad tracks and a covered wooden bridge.
We see the take-out, pull out at the dirt road, find January upset and nervous. The hillbilly was expecting a raft, but we had the raft, and January had my kayak stowed in the Dodge. Seems ol’ Jethro came out pointing a shotgun at January, who wasn’t exactly used to that sort of thing. After a tense discussion, January convinced him he was with the approved party. He wants to get the hell out of here and get this cursed trip over with. As we’re de-rigging, I open the repair kit and find that a container of contact cement has broken, ruining my expensive sunglasses, my Swiss Army knife, and everything else inside the kit. I just squat there and gaze at the gooey mess.
January opines, “Boy, when you have bad luck, you really have BAD LUCK.”
All I can do is sit back on my haunches, nodding.
Miles later, I’m in Chicago, at Linny’s place. January is with his dad in Indianapolis, Bobby with his family across town. This Trip, however, is not quite over.
Neal had told me his brother Marty was going to medical school at the University of Chicago Hospital. I give Marty a ring; we exchange pleasantries. I tell him what’s been going on, and that my doctor had suggested I get an X-ray tomography done on my lungs.
“Sure, c’mon out and we’ll take care of it. I’m sure you’re just fine.”
I go in the old brick hospital, they take the X-rays. Afterwards, while I’m buttoning my shirt, Marty says, “Hey, you were a paramedic. You’d be interested in this kind of stuff. Why don’t you come down with me to the radiology lab and watch this professor read your X-ray? There’ll be a crowd of interns and he’ll be teaching us how to read the negatives. It should be pretty cool.”
I agree without thinking about it much, and we saunter over to X-ray. Inside the crowded, dark room, a huddle of young interns gather round the lighted screen, before which an old white-bearded doctor, also in white lab coat and the only one seated, is rapidly scanning one X-ray after another. His back is to the assemblage. I stand next to Marty. The room is quiet, except for the occasional whisper, and the teaching doctor’s droning, Germanic voice. “Dis von looks fine, dat von shows a broken fibula…”
He puts up a picture of a chest, lungs, heart.
“Ach, look at dis!”
The room goes silent. I shut my eyes. He says, “Dis is ze most classic picture of a metastatic cancer I haff ever seen.” He excitedly takes his pen out of his lab coat pocket and encircles the dime-sized bright spot on the left lung. “Look here, see ze classic ragged edges reaching out to consume ze rest of ze lung. Perfect!”
Marty leads me out without a word.
“I’m sorry. I thought you’d be fine. I’m really sorry…”
“Don’t worry, Marty. It’s not your fault.”
Nothing like fear to focus the mind. I make some scared phone calls from my sister’s house, seeking the very best testicular cancer clinic and doctor in the States. That’s where I’ll move. Just tell me what I have to do. Fortunately he, they, are at the University of San Francisco. I’ve already been approved for Medi-Cal. I’ve lived there, I have friends there. Familiar territory. San Francisco, with its magnificent bay and bridge, wonderful beaches, green parks. A few short hours to the Stanislaus and the foothills. Not bad—for a city.
I make arrangements to be seen in a couple of days by Doctor Lewis. Back to California in the Dodge, alone.
HANG ON TIGHT
Mile after mile, state after state pass by. At least I imagine that’s what they do, since I don’t see a thing. I pull into gas stations, all night diners, not saying much, not having much to say. Thinking, thinking, thinking.
I like Doc Lewis. Calm, clearly in control, knowing but not arrogant. He has time for me to ask stupid, scared questions, and if he doesn’t have the answer, he says so.
“We need to do a biopsy, try and get a piece of lung through a needle to get a lab report. If it’s cancer, and it does look like it is, then we’ll go in and take it out.”
“Huh? I thought we’d just have to do chemo if it came back.”
“Let’s just take one thing at a time.”
Another backless, flimsy gown, bare-assed to the world. Freezing cold steel gurneys and crisp, cold white sheets and sterile, factory-like halls and withdrawn, scared faces glancing from other gurneys and wheelchairs, and an overriding clinical anonymity. Surrounded, a beehive of activity, yet so alone. Looking up, yet again, into some stranger’s professional disguise. The staff always seems kind enough, pretty much normal. But there is, necessarily, a certain aloofness. I remember it from my paramedic days. Can’t get too close—some of them are going to die. Don’t get into their pain and loss and suffering, or you can’t do your job. Be cool, professional, precise. Comfort from afar, do your thing and move on. Don’t get involved or emotional, keep your distance. Funny how people get into this line of work because of a certain compassion, a desire to do mankind some good. But after all is said and done, the only way to really get through watching all that horror and still be effective is to remain distant. Hold your compassion in check. Care for, but not about. A silent, mutual agreement between medical professional and patient. It works, superficially anyway.
The nurse is comforting, professional. Cute. Careful never to really look me in the eyes unless she’s aiming a question at me. She explains they are going to stick a needle in between my ribs to try and get a tissue sample from my lung. The needle is about the size of an ice pick. Okay, fine, go for it. I glance through the glass partition to the young doctor in the adjacent room. An older doctor is leaning over his shoulder. Teaching hospital. We need them. And who knows? I might be lucky and have one of those interns who’s got it together, who’s had some sleep, who’s really good.
They go in three, four, five times, pushing that cold steel rod deep inside my chest. The cute nurse leans over my head and holds me down, tells me not to breathe as I stifle reflexive yelps. All of a sudden, I can’t breathe too good. The nurse’s face is inches above mine, holding down my arms
“Don’t. Move.” Her eyes are hazel, just like mine. She’s caring too much. I can see it.
I glance back to the glass partition. Both doctors look frustrated. I don’t think I can stand much more. I ask the nurse, gasping, if she couldn’t please just get the real doctor to do the next one. Finally doctor grey-hair looks at me directly from behind his partition, not smiling. Takes over. But my lung is now collapsed. Like trying to spear a minnow in a pond at midnight. Not a chance. I look up from my cold steel gurney at my best pal in the world. She has hazel eyes, like mine. I tell her I love her. She doesn’t get the irony. Got too close. She withdraws behind The Mask. They wheel me out to recover.
I’m in one of those tiny two-bed hospital rooms, alone. The only light comes from the IV machine. The window looks out onto a dark brick wall checked with other dimly lit rooms, the evening rain pouring down. I’m looking at a permission slip I’m supposed to sign, telling me once again all the nasty things that might happen.
They’re going to remove my left lung.
I stare out the window. Thank God I’m alone, because I’m crying again. I don’t think I’ve cried this much since I was a little boy. Hell, I am a little boy. The anesthesiologist comes in to gather the papers and prepare me for tomorrow’s surgery. He pretends not to notice me wiping my eyes. I ask him if it’s absolutely necessary to take the whole lung.
“Couldn’t they just maybe take part of it? Christ, I’m a mountain climber, a hiker, an athlete. I play music, I sing. I need that lung. Please.”
He doesn’t think so, but he’ll ask Doc Lewis. I wait, once again, for word of my fate. I continue to cry, softly, till dawn. I should’ve done this a long time ago. At some point the door opens slightly, then closes again. It never stops raining.
When Doc Lewis comes in, he tells me it’s okay, they’ll just take a part of the lung, the lingula—if when they go in the cancer seems confined to that area.
I’m as ready as I’m gonna get.
Dad’s in from LA to be with me. Graciella and Rick, from ETC, live in San Francisco and are also here. They’ve offered me a place to stay and recuperate for a day or two at the ETC house a couple of miles away from the hospital. Sara is away on one of her life’s dream trips, trekking in the Himalaya. She’d planned the trip during the fall, while my health seemed fine, before the now-infamous Bad Luck Boy’s Expedition to the New River. She isn’t going to return to the States until February, and she’ll be unreachable until the end of the forty-five day Annapurna trek. It is the end of November.
They give me the anesthesia. From somewhere in the drugged darkness, I sense Graciella and Rick’s good-natured laughter as I’m wheeled down the hall to surgery. They inform me later that I was loudly calling out “Sara….Sara…Saraaaaa.” Just a dream.
There’s a clear plastic tube, about a half-inch in diameter, sticking out of my side, between the ribs. It runs down to a plastic, see-through, briefcase-like thing hanging at the side of my bed. When I get up for a stroll around the room, or go to the toilet, I carry it with me like I’m going to work, only instead of paperwork and a calculator it’s full of a creepy mixture of blood and bubbly fluid which is constantly oozing out of me. On my other side is my IV. Dad’s sitting next to my bed, reading the paper, his favorite pastime. The sharp pain inside my chest is so bad I can barely breathe. Can’t talk or eat or sit up. I just lie there, waiting for the pain to subside, which it does from time to time, giving me some measure of relief. Across from me is a guy who has had a lifetime of collapsed lungs, both sides, spontaneously. He’s just had one side of his chest opened up, and they took sandpaper and scraped the inside of his chest cavity and the outside of his lung, then slapped them back together again, and sewed him back up, hoping that the resultant scar tissue would keep them attached and keep his lung from collapsing again. He’s already had the other lung done. Seems to be working. He’s in reasonably good spirits. The bastard.
Dad and I play cribbage. He’s good, proud of his skill at cards. He’s been playing cards with his brothers and cousins for many, many years. Pinochle usually, while mom and the aunties and cousins played Mah-Jongg. Lately, since mom died, I’ve been hearing he was getting a little too angry, a little too explosive at the card games. They were considering maybe having him take a little break. With me, though, he’s fine. I’m a good match for him. We end that particular series even; seven to seven.
Feeling rather greasy, I ask him to wheel me over to the wardroom sink and wash my hair. They said it’d be okay. Over we go. I bend my head over the sink, and instantly a tearing pain in my left chest jolts through me. Can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t talk. Pop, behind me, can’t see my sweating, blue face down in the sink bowl. He cheerfully goes about his task of finding shampoo, a towel. I’m trying to lift up my head, but I can’t. Trying to talk. Can’t. I’m paralyzed with pain, but if I don’t get help to sit up straight, I’ll suffocate. This must be what it feels like to dive into a river, break your neck, and be drowning, paralyzed. Finally I use the last of my breath to squeak from inside the porcelain, “Dad….pick up my head, pick up my head, quick, quick.” He says “What? What?” and rushes over, thankfully jerks me upright. Blinded, I sit, panting fast, shallow, unable to speak. Dad’s crying out “What happened? Are you okay? What happened? Nurse!”
The doc happens to be there in the hall. They arrive at a run. He figures maybe this is a good time to confirm what the nurses had already hinted at.
They’ve only taken out the lingula, and I still have about two-thirds of a left lung.
Back at the American River Touring Association commune, ARTA, to complete my recovery from the lung surgery and prepare my mind for the big one—chemo. As if.
It only seems like I’m stuck in some hippie-commie backwater of communes and free love. It’s really just part of being a river guide. We work in remote, beautiful, exciting places. We require a location close to the river to store the gear, house and shower the guides for the summer, meet and greet the clients. Temporary, cheap shelter is the name of the game. Gotta be somewhere during the off-season. The ARTA house is at the joining of the put-in and take-out roads to the Stanislaus, my beloved first river. Not far from the ETC land. This is where Denny and I worked commercial river trips in between our volunteering in order to put food on the table, gas in the car. Twenty-seven-and-a-half bucks a day. Icing on the cake to get paid for what we did all the time, anyway.
Denny started out with ECHO River trips, just down the road in Vallecito, a town of less than three hundred. I worked for ARTA. Life was basically running rivers daily, meeting lots of new friends, having lots of affairs, living in tipis, tree houses, and trailers, helping weed Paula’s organic garden and milking the goats, Yoghurt and Crystal. The communal house needed someone to keep it warm in the winter, and the ARTA warehouse needed someone to keep an eye on things. The parking lot for the clients was at the wooded entrance. They’d show up like clockwork every warm summer morning. The guides working that particular trip would go out and meet the folks and get them ready to go down the Stanny. The rest of us would go about our business. During the summer, there were thirty people or more living there. For some it was a fun thing to do in the summer. For others, like me, it was life. Everyone was young, fit, tan, healthy, rugged, independent, intelligent. We shared everything—work and the time in between. You couldn’t help but be lustful, incestuous. During the winter, though, there’d only be a couple of people hanging around, living on the cheap, reading, cutting firewood, enjoying the mild winters and solitude. It was—and remains—idyllic.
Okay. So I am stuck in a hippie backwater.
Big-hearted, nutty-professor Mr. Marty is there this winter’s day, with the lanky craftsman-musician Sparky, dark beard and long hair flowing, and gloriously beautiful, golden haired Olympic canoeist Marietta, all ARTA guides. They welcome me with open arms, big pink bowties and plastic party hats. I can never figure out why people, when told, “It only hurts when I laugh,” must then make me laugh. Anyway, we laugh a lot, and after the first few days, I feel it strengthening my lungs. I hike, trying, bit by bit, to get back in shape, pretending to myself that I know how bad chemo is going to be. Even I find it curious that I’d choose to be so isolated during this critical moment. It would have been easier, in so many ways, to be near family and friends who could cook for me, help me dress or get to a doctor or bathe or whatever. Oh, yeah—and to have someone to talk to. But I can’t see living with my family in either Chicago or LA. Big Cities are what I escaped; not my home–theirs. It might diminish me, and I feel like I need as much me as possible. I need the space, the peace, the closeness of nature, trees, mountains, and especially, The River. The surgeries and chemo would take care of their part. The sound of the river in my ears would keep me wanting to suck air in, breathe air out.
In early December, I’m back in Doc Lewis’ office. Chemo lessons. They’re planning an intensive regimen, a triple cocktail of deadly toxic chemicals antiseptically named Cisplatinum, Bleomycin, and Vinblastin. The names sound rather medicinal, but, really, it’s just poison. Simple as that. The trick is to give me just enough to kill the faster metabolizing cells—the cancer—but not so much as to kill the rest of me. A fine line. Body cells that naturally grow fast will get hit hard, too. Hair, gone. Eyelashes, pubes, armpits, everything. I don’t know yet how emasculating that will be. My body’s natural response to being poisoned is to throw up—like nonstop. Naturally, it’s trying to get rid of whatever it figures I’ve accidentally ingested. (Surely he wouldn’t have done that on purpose!) The doctors forget to mention the other part. How could they know? It simply doesn’t translate. You’ve either been there, or you haven’t. It’s easy to conjure throwing up all day, but the brown-yellow nails and eyes, the numb feet, the green skin? And, of course, how unbelievably sick a human being can actually feel and still not drop dead.
Every third week, I’m to get all three chemicals at once, in the hospital. They’ll have to watch me real close so they don’t kill me. I’ll be there however long it takes me to recuperate. They’ll give me Phenobarbital to put me out. I won’t feel a thing.
It’s what they give the guys in the execution chamber. Could be it’s also so I don’t get too tempted to stop the chemo.
The nurses try to reassure me. “You’ll never know what hit you.”
For the intervening two weeks I’ll go in as an outpatient; they’ll just give me a shot of the Bleo and Vinblastin, leaving out the Cisplatinum. I guess that’s the worst stuff. I’ll feel crappy probably, but should be okay to just go home and try and sleep it off. Then, on the third week, back to the triple whammy. They’ll continue this regimen while monitoring me for five, maybe six repetitions. They won’t know exactly until they have a chance to see if it’s working. Or if I’m not recovering enough in between. Or maybe like if I’m dying. Each time, it’ll be just a little bit harder, I’ll be just a little bit sicker. At least I’ll have good pain drugs. I imagine lab-coated executioners sitting behind the one-way mirror with the reporters.
I go in to USCF for the first dose. Several friends are there. I notice no one but Neal. He is my connection to everydayness. Redemption. The staff is very efficient. They know what I’m in for, have seen it before. They give me the Phenobarbital, after making me comfortable and putting in the IV. I joke with Neal, then slowly sink down, down, down into the bed, feeling like I’m falling through clouds, passing through the earth, becoming molten lead, the world shriveling to a core of Neal’s eyes. Then even that is gone.
The abyss. They’ve given me just enough Phenobarbital to paralyze me but not enough to put me to sleep. Oops. Unable to move or speak, lost in limbo, not alive, not dead. Hard to breathe. Shit scared. So sick, so sick. Deep down, I know that the IV, the venom that’s making me feel like I’m being eaten alive, is drip, drip, dripping away. I must stop it. I am a phantom in Hell, not manifest enough to grasp the needle and yank it from my vein. I need to puke, but I am paralyzed, unable to call out. More than alone, I have never existed.
Dawn breaks, and at long last the dose wears off enough for me to call out for help. That, as it turns out, is merely the beginning step into hellfire. For the next three days, I wretch my guts out with the dry heaves every five or ten minutes till my ribs ache, head pounds. I am unimaginably sick–intense migraine, extreme stomach cramps, painfully sensitive skin, racking body aches, constant shakes. Sort of a combination between having the worst flu ever and being seasick—for days. All the while I know there’s more to come. I must stay strong.
Mom appears, with that smile. Calm, all-seeing, protecting. She’s watching out for me. She’s always known what to do. I long for her to hold me. Then it hits. I never saw her cry during those last days. Like a lioness–fierce, defiant. The Cancer had her body, but not her soul. I shake my head, starting to shiver, reach out for something solid. She was human, must have cried. But when? Certainly not in front of us. I look around at my desolate, soulless hospital prison.
The thought of her crying, here, all alone in her watchtower, rocks me, makes me howl. The nurses rush in.
They offer me pot. For real. UCSF is one of the only hospitals in the U.S. with a permit allowing the use of marijuana to alleviate nausea during chemo, on a trial basis. Of course, leave it to the bureaucrats and the politicians—it’s still illegal for the hospital to actually purchase and supply the pot, so they don’t have any THC pills. I have to score weed in the hospital—which is illegal (having friends in high places takes on new meaning)—and have it delivered secretly. My roommate, also doing chemo, can’t handle the smell. They move him out. I smoke a few joints, savoring the irony, but it really doesn’t help much, so I just let it go. I get some really good legal pain meds, which help a bit after the worst first few days. This little eddy-out allows my brain to function on a certain level. Nothing, however, helps for the first seventy-two hours after the big dose. I am released, and am absolutely certain I cannot survive it again. I’ll quit and try alternative medicine. I call my old friend from paramedic school, calm, poised Doc McElroy at UCLA.
“Just like every other lazy instant gratification American. No guts.”
“You heard me. Go ahead. Give up. Fuck you.”
I stare at the phone receiver.
“You’re fighting for your life. The chemo clobbers you once. You give up…Spineless.”
“Hey, Doc. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I couldn’t stand it again. It’s …”.
All of a sudden I feel like puking again.
“If you quit now, YOU … WILL …DIE. Period. You keep going, maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But it’s your only chance in hell. How’re you supposed to know till you’ve at least tried?”
“Very inspiring, McElroy.”
“Look, Jeff, I’m not shitting you. I know it was bad. It’s the worst cocktail they have. I hope to God I never have to go through that myself. But you’re at a crossroads. The Black Knight appears on his horse, he attacks, and he intends to rip you to shreds. You give up after the first wound; or you stand and fight ‘til you can’t even fucking lift a finger anymore. You fight like you really mean it goddammit. I woulda never thought you’d give up so easy. I’ve lost all my respect for you.”
Click. The receiver goes dead.
Being in the Bay Area helps a lot with the alternative thing. I mean, all I have to do is cross over on the subway to Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue and go into any one of numerous bookstores near the über-liberal university. I spend the intervening days—when my brain is operating, more or less—researching, reading in the aisles, asking the long-haired booksellers questions, making phone calls. Cancer 101.
I come to the conclusion that if I could read all the alternative medical books ever published, I would find, according to the “experts,” virtually everything in the universe— solid, liquid, gas or alfalfa sprout—either cures or causes cancer, depending on whose book you’re reading. I start out confused and angry about all the bullshit. I end up laughing.
I call some natural healers, explain what’s happening to me.
“What should I do?”
“Stop the chemo immediately. I have some herbs that will help you. We’ll also use meditation, change your diet, and practice some special body work.”
“Do those things work with my type of cancer?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Let me ask you this. If I broke my leg, what would you tell me to do?”
“I would prescribe some helpful herbs for you. We would change your diet to one more healthy, and do some body work.”
“You wouldn’t suggest that maybe I go to a hospital and get a cast? An X-ray, perhaps?”
“I don’t trust Western Medicine.”
Backed into a corner, it starts to seem like its the desperate people for whom nothing else has worked, and those who rightly cannot face the hell of chemo, who are the ones who end up turning to alternative medicines. Of course, the cure rate is terrible. All that western-style (and thus somehow corrupt) medication has already ruined people’s spirits and immune systems for real. The disease–now a physical eating machine, not an abstract concept–has progressed too far, cannot be stopped. Perhaps never could have been. Fair enough, but there’s more. I search and search for any evidence that anyone has actually been cured of my type of cancer by alternative means. There are scant, vague testimonials. Anecdotes. Otherwise, nada. I tote up the odds. Even with the fluky case of a “miraculous cure” thrown in, it’s a fool’s game. The smart money stays with chemo, with a proven cure rate of better than seventy percent. I suppose, for me, it boils down to the difference of having an easy, pampered death, surrounded by silly, self-congratulatory flatterers, or running the gauntlet and striving for the prize. If not life, then at least peace.
I’ve quietly been a vegetarian for several years. Uninformed acquaintances helpfully explain that I probably got cancer because of my diet. Some cannot cope with mystery. I happen to embrace it. After the umpteenth time, however…
“Fine, dammit. I’ve actually been a vegetarian for years. So I guess I’ll start eating hamburgers and hot dogs again.”
Then, of course, there’s the New Age spiritual dogma.
“You must have done something pretty awful in a past life to deserve this. It must be a great lesson for you. What a growth experience!”
Fuck that self-indulgent bullshit. I can’t get across how it feels to have others judge me for being ill, as if I’m deserving of my terrible fate, low on the spiritual social ladder. I suppose they’re just desperately seeking an explanation, trying to keep some distance from death. Hell, I don’t blame them. No raven of death sitting on their left shoulder. What bugs me is that they somehow think they’re being helpful. I don’t need to ascribe a safe cause to the mysterious and arbitrary dance of life. I…just…want…out.
Neal offers to help me through the chemo. Big mistake. We still haven’t talked about him not coming out to Santa Cruz after my plea for help. My resentment is still there, though, festering. I’ve been trying to just let it go, trying being the operative word. He’s in a tempestuous relationship, living in one of the small cabins on The Land, where this all began.
I find myself in the hospital for the second big dose, forcing myself–one step in front of the other–over the threshold. I choke back the desire to cry out, avoiding everyone’s eyes. Every step like on a steep glacier at altitude, taking everything I have. Into the elevator–wading through molasses. Can they hear my heart pound as I stare at the floor numbers? So commonplace–“ding-ding-ding” they pleasantly chime as the numbers scroll. Palms against the back wall, once again I find myself seeking something solid. The steel rail is ice-cold.
“No Phenobarbital this time, please.”
The nurses glance at each other, mouths pursed.
“You sure? We promise you’ll get the right dose this time.”
I shake my head, the walls close in…
A Giant Hairy Tarantula scuttles across the hot sand, focused on something very important to a spider. A client shrieks, heads turn, we are all drawn in. Rubberneckers. All look down, fingers point. I scan the sky. Unusual to see one of these critters so exposed in hot sunlight.
Sure enough, there it is: orange body, legs dangling like a sky-crane, ungainly in the air and prehistorically huge. The Tarantula Hawk, an outrageously large hornet-like creature, homes in on the escaping spider like a laser-guided missile. Ignoring the rapt audience, it maneuvers itself through our distracting forms, drops low. Meanwhile, the tarantula closes in on its hole and salvation.
SNAP! The hawk’s tail drives into the spider’s abdomen. The spider flops on its back and reaches out to grab the hovering wasp, misses. We gasp, unconsciously. No one moves. The only sounds the drone of the Hawk, and the peaceful river behind. The spider regains its eight legs and tries again for its lair, slower now.
WHAP! Another paralyzing injection. WHAP! WHAP!
The giant spider writhes. It writhes so longingly and so painfully that I wince. One leg moves, then another. Then—still. We watch, transfixed as angels, as the wasp begins to drag its prey across the blazing sand to a quiet place where it can lay its eggs inside the spider’s body. The spider is still alive, paralyzed. In a short while, the hawk’s eggs will hatch, and eat the living spider from within.
In the morning I manage to unclench my fists from the bedrails. The nurses’ eyes are bloodshot. Exhausted, at the foot of my bed, they whisper to the new shift. I let them off the hook, and say
“Next time, just make sure you give me enough Phenobarbital to knock out a horse? I don’t care if I never wake up.”
Back at Neal’s, I shake, shiver, cry out and moan in utter agony, squirm, trying to somehow escape the torment of being in my own skin. I rock back and forth, back and forth, puke—exhausted and pouring sweat—nonstop for three days and three nights. Neal and his girlfriend, making like they do in Japan and pretending we have some private space between us, make love, kiss and cuddle, talk about a future I can no longer grasp. This, especially this–really pisses me off. How dare they have a future? They eat in front of me and bring me food, which of course I can’t eat. In reality there’s nothing he can do, but I resent him anyway. With the Santa Cruz incident as a catalyst for my fevered brain, the image that he’s not really helping at all, like he said he would, gels. This evil loop becomes the focus of my rare lucid moments. Like in a nightmare, I’m an unwanted guest but can’t escape because I’m naked. I Need, with a capital N. I think what I need is Neal, and I convince myself that he’s let me down. Again.
A tribe loves, protects, bears witness. But in the end, we walk alone. Many years later on the river I met another man going through chemo. He projected his need onto me, hating me. Freeing me. I called Neal the day we returned, apologizing at long last.
There’s something I must do for myself. I just wish I knew what the hell it is.
Chemo on Christmas Day, 1980. Chemo on my birthday three weeks later, 1981. Pizza in the hospital room with friends, during the big dose, just before the Phenobarbital kicks in. Of course, each time I swallow, I vomit the entire red mouthful into a carefully positioned bowl in my lap. Nonetheless, we smile and laugh. The things you get used to. Other times we go out for dinner, I bring a pail and place it on the floor next to me and we sit in the corner, ignoring the stares. Driving anywhere, of course, is a sight. I don’t want to paint the side of the vehicle with vomit, so I open the door a crack, and puke onto the pavement, smiling at the passing cars while wiping my face. I’m trying my best to pursue the rituals of the land of the living, I suppose because I feel more like a refugee.
I spend nights alone at the vacant ARTA House, reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I’ve just got to know there are worse things in this world to bear—that it’s possible to muster the strength to do so. Solzhenitsyn made it, and that was decades, not months. The real thing. Torture. Hopelessness. Agony. Loneliness. Fear. Death all around. His strength staggers me. I gaze at the book on my bedstead in the moonlight, as I lie on moist pillows dusted with clumps of hair. My hair. The few moments of relief I glean from my wretched, unflinching Russian companion help me lift my sword once again.
Some friends disappear. Can’t handle being so close to it, I guess. I don’t blame them. I’d always been the strong one, the hero, the one to do the rescuing. They just can’t watch. Like most people, when they hear cancer, they smell death.
Melia says, “What an incredible lesson this must be for you.” She starts at my fierce glance.
“Lessons imply you have a future in order to take advantage of them.”
Another friend says, “You’re so brave.”
“Bravery implies choice. This isn’t bravery. I had no choice. Stamina, maybe, but bravery?”
I’m way out of line. I don’t consider myself angry, but it’s smack-you-in-the-face obvious. Another reason friends recede, withdraw, flee.
Only after it’s all over will I realize how I caused my own separateness. I’m so young. I have to fight, don’t I? Doesn’t that mean chaining myself to a stake and standing proud as the armed horsemen come at me from all directions? Surely I can’t summon my will and struggle towards life—and at the same time not be too attached? How do I watch with dispassionate interest as my destiny takes its course, if the course ends in death? I’m only twenty-six for cryin’ out loud.
I ask people to take pictures of me while I’m bald. They won’t—too morbid. “Look, if I live, it’ll make for good memories. If I die, you have my permission to burn them.”
There is only one picture of me from that time, an afterthought—me helping a friend, Marjene, to load the treadle sewing machine I’d just sold her into the Dodge. You cannot see my face.
I visit my Russian refugee grandmother with the concentration camp tattoo on her wrist. She asks me if I like wearing my hair that way. Nobody has the guts to tell her.
Strangers appear, smack-bang out of the blue. One is a musician who drifts through the hospital room searching for another patient who had been discharged. We chat briefly. She returns several times, plays her mandolin for me as I float in and out of consciousness. Never saw her before, haven’t seen her since. A momentary lover, sharing an unexpected but welcome intimacy, then whoosh—gone.
Speaking of lovers, Sara is still in Nepal. Having lots of time on my hands, I somehow manage to track down the telephone number of the post office in Katmandu.
“My girlfriend is trekking in the mountains and doesn’t know I’m sick. I know this is a weird request, but if I send you some U.S. money, would you be willing to buy a rose for Sara and give it to her when she comes by to pick up her mail? Maybe deliver a letter to her?”
“Oh, yes, Sahib, it would be my pleasure.”
“How much should I send?”
“Is two dollars too much?”
Sure enough, when she calls in for her general delivery mail after two months of trekking, he tells her to come back later. Pretty quick on his feet. She leaves, puzzled. When she returns, he calls her into his office, in the middle of which is his desk overflowing with two-dozen brilliant red roses, a single white letter in their midst.
Adventurous, self-sufficient Sarah calls me from a cramped phone booth in downtown Katmandu. Her ticket back isn’t for a month or so. The chemo will be over by then. It’s kind of expensive to change a ticket.
BACK AT THE OARS, BUT WHAT’S THAT SOUND DOWNSTREAM?
Finally. Made it. Through the valley of death. Time to recuperate, keep my fingers crossed that they’ve got it all. My neuroses adjust. Instead of focusing on making it through the chemo, I get really paranoid about the damn thing coming back. Every time I feel sick or something hurts, my spine tingles and I break into a sweat. I hide it as well as I can—which probably doesn’t help much—but that underlying and constant panic never leaves my side. I stare out the window of Doc Lewis’s fifth-floor office overlooking Golden Gate Park and wonder if, after all that, I’m still gonna die. I’m jealous of all my friends who have a future river trip or climb or hike or adventure to plan for. Any sort of future at all. I obsess on the Grand Canyon. I must get back there again, float the Colorado. I must.
The story should end there. I should take it easy, get strong, breathe deeply, forget.
I go back to the foothills to grow my hair back and recuperate. I push The Fear into the background best I can. At least I’m not getting hammered every single week. I take walks amongst the local digger pine and manzanita, smelling the bay laurel along the broken lava ridges above the Stanny. I can’t allow myself to consider a future. Not yet. People talk to me about the power of positive thinking, of opening up the spirit. I think of Mom. Aunt Annette, one of her best friends, taught classes in positive thinking. Mom took it in and never once doubted she’d pull through. She possessed a natural, unique vitality. The people who are lecturing me about all this don’t hold a candle to her.
She still died.
If they haven’t got it this time around, I’m not going through it again. Not a chance. If there is a next time, I’ll live it up until I can’t, then kill myself. Creatively, of course. I refuse to become an invalid, unable to dispatch myself when the right moment comes. I’ll find a Russian operative, offer myself up as a Kamikaze. Have them teach me how to take off and fly a plane. I won’t need to know how to land. Aim the plane, tactical nuke on board, smack into Glen Canyon Dam. Eject just in time to gently float through the air, and for the split second before I’m incinerated, watch that dam go to hell.
I’m supposed to go in every month for two years for checkups to see if it comes back. Not much chance of forgetting about it. They check for Alpha Fetal Proteins, typically present in a pregnant woman’s blood. My particular cancer, affecting my gonad, also produces these proteins, along with tumors containing bits of hair, nails, bone, unformed body parts like maybe an eyeball or something. For a while before chemo, I had enlarged breasts from these proteins. A fellow guide told me I looked like a pubescent girl. Thanks, pal.
It would be nice to be completely done with this, to forget about it, put it in the past. In some strange but typical way this comes down to getting my foot-long belly hernia from the Cat trip fixed. I see a surgeon—an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, which in his world is supposed to communicate that he knows what he’s doing. I bite. We set a date for him to fix it. Going under again isn’t easy, but hey, this time it’s just a routine hernia operation. Shouldn’t hurt deep down inside my bowels with that unbearable searing pain, like that first time. Nuh-uh.
Turns out that the doctor, without asking, decides that since he’s in there anyway he’ll feel around a bit in my intestines to see if there is any evidence of masses—more cancer. He takes my intestines out and lays them on my chest once again to get a real good look.
Coming out of anesthesia, I meet an angel. Beautiful, long blond hair down past her waist, perfectly braided, with yellow and blue and red ribbons intertwined. I ask her if I’ve died and gone to heaven. She rolls her eyes. Turns out this nurse is the girlfriend of a friend and fellow boatman. Susan helps me through the following days, explaining that I can’t leave the hospital until I move my bowels.
Things are grim. Every time I laugh or talk or try to eat, I hiccup. Hiccupping hurts. I’m being fed through a tube in my arm and another down my nose. I’ve lost over thirty pounds. I’m green and hairless and utterly exhausted. I should’ve waited. Too late now. My focus at present is on the one and only vital thing: defecate. No matter what…the only way out of here is to crap.
Nurses dash in and out, doing nurse things like cleaning beds, checking vitals, changing IVs, bringing food, taking it away untouched. Time rolls by with occasional groaning sounds from inside my belly, still nothing concrete. I lie on my left, then roll over to the right. I sit up, then bend over the bed with my head down. I try to eat, unsuccessfully, then try scanning magazines. (It’s really amazing how many pictures in magazines have food in them.) Plenty of time to invent a million ways to take a shit.
At long last, I feel the urge. I painfully shuffle into the cavernous bathroom, sit on the throne, nearly fall asleep there. Nothing. Persistence being one of my more annoying qualities, I remove my restrictive gown and bear down, clenching my eyes shut to keep from yelping. Zilch.
Okay. One last try. Climbing onto the toilet seat, I squat down and push with all I have.
Here’s the picture: I am butt-naked, perched on the toilet seat in full squat, holding onto the IV pole with my left hand for balance, red faced and grimacing like a monkey, groaning and bearing down with all my might.
The door swings open wildly. Three eager nurses burst into the room with the “crash” cart. They stop as one, a hand still on the doorknob, staring at the bizarre apparition before them. It stares back. After a slight pause for reflection, they silently retreat–on tiptoes, eyes downcast–covering their mouths to stifle the giggles. As they close the door carefully behind them, the last one, who happens to be the angel Susan, sticks her face back in with a hand covering her eyes.
Biting her lower lip, she whispers, “Um…your elbow…is pushing…the alarm button.”
Peals of laughter echo down the hallway. I disengage the alarm button next to the toilet, shut my eyes, shake my head. Gathering myself, I feebly pull the gown back on, and turn to leave. As I flush, I flick an off-handed glance at the toilet bowl.
My guard is down. I return home to Vallecito. Surely it’s all over now. But every time I eat my gut goes haywire. I wait it out, curled up in pain on the ratty old couch. Sharp pains, coming in wave after wave, leave me doubled up in a sweat, fists balled into my belly. I am weaker and weaker. I go down to about a hundred and twenty pounds in two weeks. I’d started out at one sixty-five. I call the doctor and unashamedly beg.
“Doc. Something’s terribly wrong.”
“Just give it time. You moved your bowels. Obviously there’s no obstruction.”
“I’m telling you. There’s something wrong.”
“Okay, fine. We’ll schedule you for a barium enema. Talk to the receptionist.” Click.
Sure, Dickhead. You think I’m faking it.
I have barium enemas, x-rays, the works. They find nothing, but I’m going downhill fast. Nothing left. Too soon after chemo, you damn fool.
It gets so I can only eat broth. That hurts too, just not as long or as bad. Finally, after four weeks, I can stand it no longer. I give.
Mom’s tranquil smile drifts like a boat in still water, gently rising and falling along with me. My world has shrunk, eyes turned inward.
Come to me, Death. End this.
It is night, and they’re trotting alongside my gurney, wheeling me to my fifth surgery in a year, roughly shoving the gas mask in my face. I’m screaming.
Eyes blinking open, reluctant to return to a familiar scene: tube in my raw nose, tube in my arm. A large poster of redwood trees directly in front of me, another of whales to the left. But not the usual ward room…a private one. Thanks, Susan.
I can’t move. I’m too afraid.
Susan comes in, firmly in control. Exactly what I need. The colorful ribbons in her long, braided hair accent my Mother-Goddess.
“How ya doin?”
So weak, so weary. I barely manage a whisper.
“Dunno yet.” I suck my breath in between my teeth, throat and nasal passage on fire. Squint it back. “Can you please take this fucking tube out of my nose?” My eyes are moist. It must be from the stinging of the tube.
“No, not safe yet, we gotta see if you’re bowels are working.”
“What’d they find?”
“Partial bowel obstruction, adhesions from surgery, closed down to the size of a straw. That’s what hurt so much, trying to squeeze all that food through that little tube. And that’s why they couldn’t see anything wrong on the barium enemas…because something was coming through. It wasn’t just a simple complete blockage.”
Wry smile. “Figures.” I tenderly lick the inside of my blindingly raw mouth, considering the obvious next line.
“Did they fix it?”
“They think so. Took a section of bowel out. Only time will tell.”
Doesn’t matter. Flip a coin. Darkness or light. A smile crosses my lips. A borrowed smile, now mine. Susan’s head turns ever so slightly, eyes a question mark. She can’t see in here.
Somewhere, deep down, something has changed. No fear. No expectations. Desire, hope, jealousy, anger—gone. Alone in the darkness now, I yank out the tube, the crushing sting inside my skull turning my face into a contorted caricature for several minutes. I will not let them replace it, come what may. My mind is dull iron. The fire is sublime. I am ready.
As fate would have it, a different sort of ending comes, of it’s own accord. I have nothing to do with it anymore. Probably never did. Here I am, finally at peace, ready for death. Nothing can touch me anymore—the truest healing. My body comes along for the ride.
Letting go is transforming, eternal. The pain is almost a friend by now—familiar, intimate, grounding.
The Black Knight withdraws. He’s had enough, too, I guess. Apparently, I’ve fought well. But I won’t fight any more. Nothing left to take, nothing left to lose.
EPILOGUE: THE FLOAT OUT
The next winter I share a cabin with Denny and Martha on a cross-country ski track high in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City. We ski our brains out. I start slow and smart, although I suppose to some skiing at all doesn’t sound all that smart. When I face plant, my belly doubles me up in pain. Three days in bed, back to the mountain slopes. Falling down with the same force now has no effect. Steeper. Faster. Fall harder. Back in bed for three days, then out for more. I imagine the scars and adhesions left inside my belly rearranged by all those surgeries. I’m so clever.
Once a year or so, in what becomes a ritual of sorts, I have a belly spasm, spontaneously—in the theatre, on a plane, along some river—that requires opiates and leaves me on the floor in fetal position for twelve hours. After another twelve hours of rest, it’s gone. If on a river trip, I grow quiet until I can escape up some side-canyon, hiding and moaning until dawn, when it relents. For now I can cope, though it will surely kill me if it persists until I’m old and frail—that is if I don’t get hit by a bus first.
Neal confides that JoAnne had asked him to be with her for her abortion. She had expressed anger over how she’d been alone for all her other ones. He told her he’d be there for her. A date was set. He was to pick her up when she called him with the time. She never called. Weeks later he called her and she told him she went ahead and did it on her own. He wonders about that.
Sara and I break up. She loved my wildness when we were alone together in the wild. Made her eyes glow. But she was embarrassed by that very same quality when with our friends. I, on the other hand, would not be judged, or shunned.
There are scattered hernias in my belly. Once in a while they bulge. All I have to do is poke them with my finger to stuff them back in.
There is no silence anymore. The ringing in my ears from the chemo could easily drive a person nuts. It is best to have some background noise all the time. Like a river, for instance. I take medication daily for reflux, the burning bile coming up on me in my sleep. Ironic that all that concentrated puking should stick around, like a ghost. I pee constantly, night and day…okay—I dribble. On the now-rare occasions when I allow myself to make a wish—even in jest—I involuntarily look upwards.
“No tricks, okay? Please. No tricks.”
Death has transformed into a sort of depot. The end of the tracks for the rushing locomotive of my life. Not a quest—I love life. But as I lay on the warm sand, dried twig rolling in my mouth, hat covering my eyes from the blinding sun, I smile in welcome of that certain quiet, no stranger to me. Somehow all the tumult of getting there seems like nothing to get all worked up about. Like a cool, fresh evening breeze, the following blackness no longer holds terror.
This makes me appear reckless to some. That unmistakable dread in the eyes one naturally expects at perilous moments is conspicuously missing. Others mistake this for courage. Its almost as if it fascinates them—perhaps they hope it’ll rub off. I tend towards chuckling, then wild cackling, when others are sweating bullets. Sometimes, I have to take my own hand and walk myself into fear in order to get a dose of adrenaline. It helps to be near others, say, at a scout above a huge, terrifying rapid. All the fuss, the nerves, the self-questioning, the banter and route planning, the wink, then the ultimate turn towards each separate, lonely boat. It’s the living and dying, not the death itself, that absorbs me. The power and frailty attracts me, engages me, gives me pause. Knowing night will fall, with stars blinking and leaves rustling overhead, birds fluffing out their feathers towards a decisive, concluding, welcome stillness, makes it all bearable.
Occasionally someone mentions a person who is “terminal.” I would suggest that everyone is terminal; the only difference is that sometimes you know the number of the bus that’s bearing down. But buses break down. Schedules are missed.
The promise? My sisters don’t smoke any more—and I lived. Even-steven.
I have a black-and-white photo of my mother and father, from their wedding during World War II. He is in uniform, she wears a lace bow and flowers. So happy, so proud. It makes my heart ache, but not with loss. Her borrowed smile, now mine.
We held each other’s hands.
Twenty years later, at Warm Springs rapids, the biggest the Yampa has to offer. Martha passes by me in her little raft after a long, fear-filled scout and subsequent successful negotiation. I’m bobbing in my kayak in an eddy just below, ready to paddle out and pick up gasping swimmers or careening empty boats if necessary. Ready for my friends, ready for my wife Carrie soon to come (also terrified). I’m providing safety, as usual.
Martha smiles her gorgeous smile as she floats by. She tosses her red hair and says, “You know, I’ll always think of you sitting in a downstream eddy, smiling, waiting, watching.”
It’s the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me.