Friday, August 31, 2012

2010: A Strange Odyssey

Here's another excerpt from my memoir...

It was dark outside my bedroom window when my alarm rang. The white figures on my VCR read 6:40. Hideously early for a night owl like me. It was Monday, January 4, 2010. First day of radiation treatment. My appointments for the rest of that week were at 7:30 am. It was the only time slot Pat and Maria—my Patient Advocate and Radiation Therapist—could squeeze me into. They had shown me their morning to afternoon schedule. It was all booked up. Henry Ford would have been proud at the amount of people they were bringing in and out to get zapped.

I sat up. Though I felt cold and tempted to lay longer in bed—that fuzzy-warm siren—I had to cycle three miles over to UCSF. While I stared at the time on the VCR, six fucking forty in the morning, a part of me felt incredulous that this was happening. Cancerlicious-déjà vu is what it was: like the morning of my first chemotherapy infusion. Me? Radiation treatment? Really?

But this time, I didn’t feel angry.

Fuck it, what can I do?

By then, I knew I had lymphoma for nine months. During that time, I carried that deathly presence everywhere I went. And so, a level of complete acceptance had long since settled. But just as importantly, I believed I had weathered the worst of this drawn-out struggle for my life. As far as my treatments, it was home-stretch time. And I had every intention of closing strong.

With my blue sweatpants, gray hoodie, and bicycle helmet on, I walked down the dark stairwell with my bicycle, Blue, held above my shoulder. I rolled down 22nd Street to hang a left on Valencia. The streets were empty other than a few joggers and people walking about. It was a smidge chilly. I considered turning back home for a thicker sweater but I had been everywhere with that hoodie, which my first serious girlfriend had given to me nine years before. I had traveled through Western Europe, South America, Cuba, the Yucatan Peninsula, Thailand and Cambodia with it. Together, we would endure radiation treatment, too. I pedaled on, figuring I would warm up during the twenty-minute ride to Mt. Zion.
Blue and I rode down 18th Street past Mission High (the school Maya Angelou and Carlos Santana attended), past the tennis courts at Dolores Park. The hipster-magnet-of-a-park was a desolate mound of gray that early in the morning. Then we pedaled up Sanchez to cross Market Street, which overlooked the city’s skyscrapers. Once I zigzagged through the Lower Haight, I cycled up one last hill that took me past verdant Alamo Square. At the top of the hill, I panted and flashed my I-made-it-I-made-it grin! before I zipped down to Mt. Zion.

When I took the elevator to the hospital basement, wiping sweat from my face, I felt proud of myself. My dad had offered to lend me his Toyota Rav so I could drive myself to the hospital throughout treatment. My sister Mariana and her husband had offered to take me to and from the hospital. I thanked them but declined their offers. In a suburban town like Fremont, my dad needed a car to get around. And I didn’t want to hassle Mariana that early in the morning. It was tempting to borrow my dad’s SUV, but I wanted to push myself. Man up. In my heart, I believed the rides to and from the hospital would nourish me. Strengthen my resolve. Build my resilience. After reading Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness the year before, I knew how vital the mind and one’s convictions were in the healing process. As long as the treatment did not fatigue me, I was determined to cycle to my appointments. The hard part would be waking up on time.

The moment I opened the door into the men’s locker room, I saw the adorable old man with bushy white eyebrows and Buddy Holly glasses I had seen the week before. He sat on the cupboard bench where the gowns were kept. He looked to be in his late sixties.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning to you, too,” I said, opening a locker to put my backpack in.

“They’re going to have me on chemo for an entire week. Did you have chemo?”

“Yeah, I finished.”

“How much did they give you?”

“Six cycles,” I said, keeping our conversation to our Cancer World jargon.

“What kind of cancer do you have?”

“Hodgkin lymphoma.”

He didn’t nod or have a knowing look in his eyes.

“It’s a rare one. A blood cancer,” I said.

He asked if it was similar to leukemia. I told him I wasn’t sure. Then he stood and walked over to me.

“Well, take care of yourself,” he said, opening his arms.

“You too,” I said, hugging him back. My neck and upper back were damp with sweat, which is why I almost apologized to him when he put a hand on my neck. Once we let go, he opened the door to let himself out. We were smiling, grateful for this unanticipated early morning affection from a fellow cancer fighter.

“I’ll see you around,” he said, as if we were boarding an all-expenses-paid flight to Maui.

“Take care, man.”

In the dimly lit radiation room, I hopped up on the treatment table. Pat and Maria locked the mask to the table. It was clamped down over my face so that my eyelashes bent against the mask whenever I blinked. They confirmed that the X-marks on the part of the mask that covered my shoulders were aligned with the green lasers that shot from both sides of the room like laser pointers. After tying me down with my arms pinned to the sides, Maria gave me a horn to hold in my right hand. It was like a clown horn (nyuck nyuck!)

“Use it in case you need anything,” Maria said.

“Okay,” I murmured, barely able to open my mouth.

After they raised me toward the ceiling, beneath that curious looking part of the machine that hung over the treatment table, Pat and Maria turned to leave.

“We’ll be next door in case you need anything, okay,” Pat said. “You’re doing great.”

The lights went off. I heard the door shut.

Once the room became completely dark, I could see a soft white light emitting from the part of the machine that hung over me. It was about two feet away. The light came through a rectangular piece of glass with markings on it that looked like quadrants for measurement. It made me think of a periscope. Since the machine didn’t look like a pointy laser out of a sci-fi movie or a James Bond flick, it was difficult to imagine that contraption as the one that would zap my chest. But once I saw that light penetrating through that periscope-like opening, once I saw that square opening of light narrow then widen, it was clear that is where I would get a stream of subatomic particles shot at me.

The machine slowly rotated to my left. I was befuddled and mesmerized. It reminded me of the languid, poetic movements of the spaceships in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s probably why I began to hear Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” play in my head.

Once it rotated out of my peripheral vision, I heard the machine make a buzzing sound as though there was a loud hair clipper behind me. The buzzing lasted for about five seconds. Oh, I must have just been zapped!

Then I heard the humming sound of the machine as it gently rotated back in front of me. All the while, the lilting Strauss score in my head became louder while I observed this strange beauty. I was trying to distract myself from the weirdness of it all.

When the machine stopped, produced that buzzzzzzzzzzzzz sound again, I focused on the chest area by my tumor. I swore I could feel something—a sliver of heat—as though a magnified beam of sunlight had shot through the room to shine upon it. I am not sure if that sensation was simply in my head. But while I got zapped, I imagined a searing laser beam sawing through the cavernous tumor that Mr. Hodgkins and his minions made as their lair. I imagined boulders breaking off, crashing down as they scattered in disarray.

Weeks later, Maria would explain to me that the machine had zapped me with radioactive particles from the back and the front. If it were done twice from a single position, it would have done more damage to my internals.

The buzzing stopped. The door opened. The fluorescent lights flicked on as Pat and Maria walked over to my side. Maria began to unfasten the mask.

“Okay, you’re done,” she said. “Let me lower you down, though.”

“I’m done?”

“That’s it.”

Once I was lowered, I swung my legs over to hop down on the floor. Maria was putting my mask up on top of a steel-shelving unit against the side of the room. I had never really noticed it before. There were three levels of shelves about ten feet in length. The top shelf was crammed with masks—about ten to fifteen of them. They all had large X marks taped onto numerous spots: the neck. Chest. Lungs. Head. Like my mask, they each had a long piece of masking tape placed over the upper torso. It had their name and identifying medical record numbers written on them with a black marker. The middle shelf held other wire-mesh maskings. Those were shaped to cover other parts of the human body such as the lower back or the upper thighs.

All those names taking up those other schedule slots suddenly felt more real.

It was sobering to see all those masks.

* * * * * * *
After Pat walked me back to the dressing room area, I went to the bathroom to pee. When I stepped to the sink to wash my hands, I discovered a curious sight reflected back at me in the mirror. My face—forehead, nose, and cheeks—looked like they were covered in fish scales. The mask had made creases all over my face.

“Man,” I said, chortling to myself. I was perversely tickled that I had physical evidence of just how tight that mask was clamped down on me. I took out my cell and snapped a pic of my scaly-looking face.

The sky was a swirl of lavender when I began to cycle home. The sun was lifting above the skyscrapers in the distance. I smiled, marveling at this early morning beauteousness I rarely saw, this unexpected gift I had been graced with.

One down, nineteen to go! I thought when I rolled up to my home. Six miles down, 114 more to go.

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