Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why (The Inevitable Why)?

Here's an excerpt from my memoir, a piece I read at last year's Litcrawl:




At age 30?

After I was diagnosed, these questions inevitably plagued my mind:


How could this happen?

Hodgkin lymphoma was first described in 1832. One-hundred and seventy-nine years later, the medical field still has little idea what causes this blood cancer. Though it was comforting to know what was wrong with me after all those “non-diagnostic” biopsies, it has always been unsettling in not knowing how it happened—what caused it, so that I know what I should change in my life. Like eat more organic food. Sleep better on a consistent basis. Stop drinking alcohol altogether. Or move out of an urban center.

Though the medical community doesn’t know what causes lymphoma, this didn’t deter me from spawning a slew of theories. Could my disease have originated from the cosmetic Teflon plate that was fused with my chest plate when I was fourteen? Could the electromagnetic radiation emitted from my cell phone somehow have reacted with it in order to create a toxic environment within my chest? Was it from the marijuana I smoked the past few years? From the cigarettes I puffed on occasion? Was my body simply too sensitive to such toxins? Or did my cells go haywire from the Nalgene plastic bottle I had for years, the one that had these strange white flecks floating in the water—the same bottle the company pulled off the shelves in 2008 because of fears that BPA—a chemical used to produce them—caused cancer and increased the risks of other serious health problems? Or was it from all the car exhaust I had inhaled while cycling in the city the prior five years? From sniffing all those dry-erase markers at the workplace—something I did to make my co-workers laugh? Or was it all those years of chewing my fingernails, even my toenails? Did someone put a curse on me!?

How did this happen?

Or was my mother right—that my disease was a “test from God,” an opportunity to look up to the sky and acknowledge that He exists? This is what she thought cancer must mean—that it was some sort of divine intervention and unspoken communication in the form of a killer disease to awaken a wayward being like me. As if God’s mighty hand, his all-powerful index finger extended through the clouds and pointed down at me. ZAP! You petty mortal! You who doubt my existence! You shall have lymphoma, a rare form of cancer! Could there actually be such a sick god—male, female, hermaphrodite, or whatever—that is so greedy, so in need of my miniscule attention and belief? Am I “wrong” in my atheistic belief, as my mother said. Part of the losing team? And if there is such an insecure, spiteful God, why would I possibly want to be any part of It?

Or might my disease be a masterful concoction of my own, born of my self-destructive spirit, the “suicide impulse”—as my girlfriend at the time had called it——that she recognized early in our relationship? During the time my cells must have first mutated into cancerous ones——months before the first swollen lymph node popped up—I was getting fucked-up, I-don’t-remember-how-I-got-home drunk once or twice a week. Sometimes thrice. The troubling part is that I often bicycled to the bars, which meant my rides back home were redacted with a thick fog of memory. These were bicycle rides from the outskirts of downtown, two miles and numerous intersections from my home in the Mission. One night I rode out from North Beach, beneath the towering buildings in the Financial District, down windy Market Street, taking Valencia Street through the Mission; it was a four-mile ride in which I didn’t remember one thing when I awoke in my bed the next morning, parched and befuddled.

Throughout my young adult life, there have been times—however fleetingly—when I haven’t cared about living (which, as writer Asha Bandele pointed out in The Prisoner’s Wife, is different from wanting to die). Moments when all the destruction and suffering I read about, see, and feel from this world is too much. Moments when I have seen little point in continuing to be a part of this evolution, which feels more like a mass extinction.

Could my disease have bloomed from that bleak abyss?

Was the rest of my body too weak to fend off this act?

* * * * * * *
I still remember a shower I took a few days after I was diagnosed. Pale morning sunlight streamed through the window while I stepped into the clawfoot tub. When the warm water hit my bare chest, I coiled in slight pain. There were three red scratches, about an inch and a half long, running down my chest. I furrowed my brows while I studied them. While the shower fogged up from the hot water, the pale sunlight felt suffused with eerieness.

For a matter of seconds, I seriously considered if some form of demon had visited me in my sleep to leave those claw marks. Maybe I had gotten cancer because someone had laid a curse on me? After I shifted my index, middle, and ring fingers into a rake to press onto the irritating claw marks, I told myself, no, I had evidently dreamt that my disease, which I had personified as Mr. Hodgkins (a well-dressed business-type in his mid fifties with a white button-down shirt, vest, pressed black suit and a derby hat; like a Blues Brother, but mean), was perched behind my chest plate. I could feel some tightness, some discomfort there, and I had simply tried to claw him out in my sleep. There are no such things as demons! And who would put a curse on me?

But when I stepped out of the shower to finish drying off, I felt a flash of panic when I looked over at the fogged-up mirror, my smudgy reflection, and thought it might reflect a dark figure walking toward me through the fog.

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