Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Cancer Playlist

American Boy
Estelle Featuring Kanye West

On April 27, 2009, the day of my mediastinoscopy, this song looped in my head when I awoke in the early morning dark. I’d been fixated on the song in the days and weeks leading up to the surgery. It’s so catchy it’s disgusting. And it’s upbeat. Not sad. Not desperate. It’s wallpaper music.

By then, the cancer whispers were blaring: first, a swollen lymph node popped up by my left clavicle in June 2008. Weeks later, a CT scan revealed an “abnormal mass of lymph nodes” between my lungs. Then my left calf became itchy months later, unresponsive to anti-itch creams. In November 2008 a biopsy of the swollen lymph node yielded a negative response but then three months later two swollen lymph nodes sprouted around the area where the previous one had been snipped out. All along, my doctor feared lymphoma was causing the swollen lymph nodes. Every other possibility had been exhausted.

There were a lot of things I didn’t want to think about then.

Emotion Sickness

During the weeks and days leading up to chemotherapy, I became obsessed with this song; it is Silverchair’s masterpiece—a startling, harrowing, epic rock-opera-like song complete with dramatic strings. When I first heard it ten years before, I was impressed by how thoroughly depressing the song was. (Daniel Johns—then only 20 years old—wrote the song while suffering from severe anorexia and depression. Years after he wrote the songs on Neon Ballroom, once he recovered from his eating disorder, Johns did an interview in which he confessed that he had contemplated suicide during that period.) But once my 30-year-old body became host to a Life-Threatening Disease in Residence, I felt like I truly understood the numb sorrow, the pleading, the desperation in Johns’ howls during the song’s climax in a way I couldn’t before.

One night, I closed my bedroom door and sat in front of my computer to watch the song’s music video. By then, the recycling basket beside my desk was filled with empty beer bottles. (I drank that night in hopes of peeling through the numbness that had enveloped me since I was diagnosed.) When the song reached its peak, the drums beating, the strings building, it felt like I was socked in the gut when Johns screamed “GET UP! GET UP!”—which I thought was “GET OUT!” Tears filled my eyes as I sat at my desk with this horrible thing sprouting inside of me.

This was the only song that ever cut through that shell.

Someday You’ll Be Sorry
Louis Armstrong


Dressed in a black suit with red tie and head shaved, I imagined myself striding into a large ballroom. The couples dancing in the middle of the room are elegantly dressed as though they were from the Roaring ‘20s. The room is softly lit by crystal chandeliers.

A jazz band plays at one end of the ballroom. The pianist plays the high, twinkly intro notes to Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” Standing front and center beside a vintage microphone, Louis Armstrong blows his trumpet.

I make my way around the tables toward the Art Deco-style bar where several gentleman puff on cigars. Leaning my elbow against the bar, I face Mr. Hodgkins—my corporeal adversary—who sits on a stool. He wears a white button-down shirt, black bowtie, and vest beneath his black tuxedo jacket. His derby hat rests on the bar as he stares into an empty martini glass.

Let’s dance.

Without turning to him, Mr. Hodgkins acknowledges Juan by shifting in his stool.

Must we?

But of course. It’s our song.

Your song.

No, it’s our song. If you hadn’t come into my life, it wouldn’t have meant what it does to me now.

I put an arm around Mr. Hodgkins and lead him to the dance floor. Hip to hip, we dance beneath a chandelier that makes the smoke around us look like a swirling veil. When Armstrong finishes his trumpet solo and steps to the microphone, I lean my cheek against Mr. Hodgkins’. I sing into his ear while Armstrong croons.

“Someday, you'll be sorry. The way you treated me was wrong.”

Teary-eyed, I caress Mr. Hodgkins’ face.

“I was the one who taught you all you know.”

We continue to dance to the light tempo while Armstrong flashes a toothy smile to the crowd.

“There won't be another to treat you like a brother. Someday, you'll be sorry dear.”

In the Light
Led Zeppelin

Monday morning, during the week leading up to my second infusion, sweat poured down my face and moistened my bare arms as I cycled up a long hill toward USF’s Lone Mountain campus to attend a weeklong writing workshop. Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” played through my headphones. Plant was singing the chorus before the song’s outro (Light, light, light…in the light). Page accompanied the vocals with ascending notes on his guitar, bringing the song to a peak as I neared the top of the hill. With not one cloud in the summer sky, sunlight pouring over me, I closed my eyes. My eyelids became warm blankets of bright orange. I imagined myself grasping that sunlight, imagined it to be like water seeping to my roots, my very core. I imagined myself becoming one with the sun’s light (which we are an extension of)—its warmth, its energy healing and nourishing me as I pedaled on.

I knew I needed this joy and love like never before.

Of Wolf and Man

Friday mornings, before almost every single one of my twelve chemotherapy infusions, this song blared from my headphones as I marched out of my flat on Dolores Street to San Francisco General Hospital. My spirit roared to the nasty staccato riff that sound like dragon breaths, the thundering snare, the opening verse: Off through the new day’s mist I run / Out from the new day’s mist I have come / I hunt, therefore I am / Harvest the land, taking of the fallen lamb. I was the wolf. My corporeal nemesis, Mr. Hodgkins, was my prey.

I was so pissed off to live.

The Judas Kiss

While racing my bicycle to and from grad school, or along the city streets, I would sometimes imagine myself hurtling toward Mr. Hodgkins in a motorcycle armed with machine guns by its handles, the city lights blurring past like flares shot into the sky. I was dressed in black—like death incarnate. Mr. Hodgkins stood in an enclosed parking lot in the heart of the city, waiting for me. His cackles echoed off the brick walls, daring me on. I would press hard on the pedal and sneer as the motor roared, the wind howling as I sliced through it, 80, 90, 100 miles per hour. You shouldn’t have fucked with me, I would say, my eyes fixed on him, pupils opening like pools of black.

After I mowed Mr. Hodgkins down, his derby hat flipping high up into the air, I would pounce on him and pound his skull, fist to face, fist to face against the pavement, his dark blood splattering over my knuckles, pouring out of his mouth and nose before I would bite and tear off his bloodied face, chomp by chomp, chunk by chunk, until he was a faceless pulp, and then I would stand and lean over his mangled corpse and scream and scream and scream (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!) until the concrete around him would splinter like broken glass.

“Raindrop” Prelude, Op 28, No. 15
Frédéric Chopin

December 4, 2009. A reprieve arrived: chemotherapy was over. Four weeks of radiation treatment awaited. I was saddened to leave my angels, my mothers, my 4C nurses, but I hoped I would never have to see them ever again.

Moonlight Serenade
Glenn Miller & His Orchestra

There I am, in focus, in the middle of the wide-angle frame, donning a black pea coat, gray slacks, the loafers I wore to work. It’s 5 o’clock, Thursday evening, first month of 2010. Downtown San Francisco, corner of Market and Montgomery. Watch as I part through the crowd funneling past me into the underground tunnels. Now see them through my vantage: a mass of silhouetted figures bathed in golden light, the sun setting behind them past the hills. This is my life, I think to myself while I listen to the timeless, lilting melody from Glenn Miller and his big band orchestra through my headphones. This is the world I’m still a part of. Now switch to a close-up of my clean-shaven face as the camera tracks backwards. My hair, in its rebirth, is growing.

On most occasions, I would have felt annoyed to walk against wave upon wave of humanity, hurrying to pile into crowded trains from their tiny cubicles. But I feel graced to be among them as they brush past me: chirping into their phones. Texting while walking. Marching with expressionless faces.

In my world, in my head, curious thoughts begin to dawn as the sunlight fades. I think to myself: someday I want to play and pass this song along to my children, fill our home with its peaceful rhythm. I think to myself: I want this song to play at my wedding reception. I want to play this song when I leave this town. And someday, when my sun is setting, I want to sit and close my eyes and listen to this song fill my heart like the sound of the ocean’s waves.

As I walk down the sidewalk, I play the song again and again—stirring those images, stirring those emotions. This is new for me—the desire to imagine a future.

I play the song, again and again and again.

I’m Still Standing
Elton John

Outside the oncology clinic, beneath a sweet drizzle I call my mother and father to share The Best News Ever: Mr. Hodgkins is officially dead. It is March 2, 2010. I have longed for this moment for almost one year. Throughout that time, I daydreamt of dedicating this song to Mr. Hodgkins, particularly the chorus:

Don't you know I'm still standing, better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid
I'm still standing, after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind.

Pa' Llegar A Tu Lado
Lhasa de Sela

Back in 2009, less than two months before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, I began to date a bright, cute, and mildly nerdy Latina. We were both attending graduate school for creative writing. When we sat together at cafes in San Francisco, reading and writing like homework buddies, we often asked each other’s opinion on a line, paragraph, or word in the pieces we were penning. I felt at peace beside her. I fell in love with this dream of us being a brainy, driven duo of writers—like a Latino version of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

That honeymoon phase new couples experience?: it was cut short by my dis-ease. Take it from me, it was the worst time to begin a relationship. And god knows my anger and drinking didn’t help either. Despite all that, we stayed together, off and on, for a tumultuous year and a half.

Near our end, I gave her a mix of music dedicated to her. This song made the cut. It should never be a song you dedicate to a lover. Never. In retrospect, it was our requiem:

Gracias a tus manos doy
Por haberme aguantado
Tuve que quemarme
Pa'llegar hasta tu lado

Nutshell (from their MTV Unplugged album)
Alice in Chains

Rejoining “the kingdom of the well”—as Sontag called it—was deliriously great at first but there was fallout to deal with. Fallout from lowering my head and pushing through grad school and that shitstorm in my life for over a year and a half and never relenting. Staley’s lyrics and wearied voice in this recording sounded like that feeling locked inside:

And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home.

I’ll Fly Away
Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch

Winter 2011. I was in Taos, New Mexico for an artist residency. On the day I rented a neo-hippie white Volkswagen Bug to cruise out of Taos, past the Rio Grande Gorge, I saw the land and gray sky open before me, nestled by the surrounding mountains. This song came up on random play from my iPod. It was all so piercingly beautiful—being alive, listening to this immaculate song in a land that felt like home. I cried. It was a great day to die.

The Rain Song
Led Zeppelin

This is the springtime of my loving
The second season I am to know

I can close my eyes and listen to this song and feel myself float through the sky like a singsong leaf descending in the wind. Jones’ mellotron, coupled with sliding notes from Page’s Danelectro literally sound like a melody orchestrated by a quiet torrent of raindrops. There is something about the song’s peak; it feels triumphant with Bonzo’s crashing cymbals and Plant’s invigorated vocals. It feels like a spiritual cleansing—as though the band attained a long-sought freedom. And that’s what making it through that trying period in my life and being alive feels like for me.

Ventura Highway

May 21, 2013. A regular oncology check-up, except this time I’m bringing someone along to visit that part of my past, that part of my life I have kept to myself and few others: my girlfriend, Maria. I didn’t beg her to come. She wanted to come, and it’s weird but glorious to have someone beside me—to show the tranquil, tucked-away garden next to Ward 86; to meet my kick-ass oncologist, Terry, who teaches us “the oncologist handshake” (This is when the patient lifts his arm to rest his hand on the oncologist’s shoulder while the oncologist probes the patient’s axillas (a.k.a. the armpit) for any swollen lymph nodes.); and to have another person hear the yippee-skippee news that my good health remains. After the appointment, Mari and I became grown-up kids at The Exploratorium. All the while, step in step con mi compañera, I feel like this song—free and full with bliss from this exalted day that I have been blessed with, a day I could have never known awaited me when I sat in the reclining chair at the infusion ward four years before, staring out over the Bernal Hillside with chemo flowing through the IV pricked into my arm.

Mystery Train
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Train arrive, it’s sixteen coaches long,
Train arrive, it’s sixteen coaches long,
Well that long black train, take my baby and gone.

Mystery train, rolling down the track,
Mystery train, rolling down the track…

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