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One Year After: When the Curtain Calls for You

May 17th, 2010 by Jeff Simmermon

I had a little cancer last year.


A rare, malignant and ambitious tumor set up shop right in the middle of my left testicle, eager to get out and expand the franchise. My old friend Kim took me to the doctor for my second opinion – the first doctor said “that’s got to come out right now, but go ask Sloan-Kettering. Only a crazy person gets one of his balls cut off because one guy said to do it.”

We were right in the middle of gossiping about shared frenemy from college when the doctors rushed into the examination room and bisected the conversation with a festive, vomitous curtain. The head doctor gave me a careful, measured juggle while the other guy stood by doodling on a clipboard. “Well, this had got to come out soon,” he said.

“How soon?”

“Tomorrow. The nurse will let you know what you need to do to get ready, but I’ve got to go right now.” He left, and whisked the curtain back to the wall. Kim sat there looking up at me without blinking, her eyes wide and wet.

Still, you’d really only say that I actually had cancer for a month or two. And for those two months, I really only knew about it for two weeks. Once my testicle got chopped off, there was no radiation, no chemo or anything like that.

So while I kind of had a little cancer last year, I got off pretty good. I’ve been cancer-free for exactly one year as of last Friday. Half of me feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment, but the other half thinks I didn’t really do anything apart from go to the doctor a lot and cry when I didn’t think anyone else was looking.

People love to talk about “fighting” cancer, love to use all these different wartime metaphors and talk about going out and “kicking cancer’s ass.” Some people need to tie a kerchief around their heads and wear a pair of combat boots about it. Everybody’s entitled to use whatever collage of metaphors and posturing they need to get through it, but personally I find that kind of talk pretty stupid.

I wouldn’t say that I fought cancer at all — I just lay there unconscious while a bunch of faceless androids cut off one of my testicles. Then I went to the doctor a whole, whole lot.

What I fought, day and night for a full fricking year, was a deep and pervasive depression. I might still be fighting it. Unlike other types of depression (which I am also fortunate enough to have experienced firsthand), this wasn’t just a chemical imbalance that can get squared away with a little medicine. This was like being caught in an avalanche made out of cold anesthetic oatmeal and having to swim out of it. I got a lot of help from friends, family and trained therapists, but it’s not the sort of thing you can get rescued from. You just got to swim until you hit shore.

The whole time I was depressed, everyone kept telling me how strong I was, how healthy I seemed and how well I was holding up. I felt like a robot that had been programmed to think it was me, but it was nice to get credit for something all the same.

This depression was unfortunately rooted in very, very real life events, too. It’s not like I just found the ordinary bumps and setbacks of everyday life to be too much to handle. I called up my best friend, ever since kindergarten, and told him “Man, I’m healing up fine, but I’m just so depressed.”

“Well, good,” he said. “I’m glad to hear it. I was hoping you were much more depressed than you’ve been letting on. You just got one of your balls cut off, and if you’re not depressed you’re fucking crazy and I’m not sure anybody knows how to fix that one,” he continued. “This is very, very unpleasant, but at least it’s normal.”

I went to see a therapist, and during the initial, getting-to-know you conversation where you describe who you are and the things you did in your life before you got run over by truck made out of cold oatmeal, he said “So, where are you from?”

“I’m from Norfolk, Virginia,” I said.

“Really?” he said, amazed. “But you speak so well!”

“I said I was from the South, I didn’t say I was retarded. There’s a difference,” I said.

He stammered and sputtered, backpedaling. I don’t have much of an accent usually, but if I get mad or drink enough whiskey, it comes right out. I was drunk on outrage and I went in for the knockout.

“You know, I wasn’t sitting here thinking that your manners were remarkably good for a Yankee, which is good. Because they’re really, really not. I believe this meeting is over,” I said, and left the room.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t bright spots in the last year, though.

I was sitting in the waiting room for a CAT scan, quietly marinating my body tissue with a giant bottle of robot piss when this couple walked in. The man wore a perfectly tailored suit with no tie. He looked personally responsible for the financial crisis, if he ever took full responsibility for anything. The woman’s hair was a thick oak river. She clutched the front of her hospital robe shut with arms like nut-brown antlers. This was out of pure instinct – there was nothing left to hide.

“You know I can’t think for myself when you’re around,” she said. “I went to the house in Italy to have some time to myself and just think, and you showed right up a few days later and took over my life again, as usual, and dragged me back here,” she continued.

“Did I pick you up and haul you onto the plane?” he asked. “You didn’t seem to resist very much, especially when I told you I needed you to help with my commitment to sobriety.”

She let out a small, bitter bark. “Commitment to sobriety. That’s a good one. How long have you been committed to sobriety this time?”

“Two weeks.”

“Two weeks isn’t a commitment, that’s a hobby! And now after this round of treatment, you’re going off to the place in Paris by yourself again. And God only KNOWS what kind of drugs and women you’re going to get ahold of in Paris.” She rolled her eyes and leaned away from him. “You know, neither of us is really dealing with our own issues right now, and I think we need to be dealing with this stuff separately. We’re just hiding from it with each other. I don’t even know why you come with me to these appointments, to be honest.”

“Well, that just does it. You know, I try to do the right thing and take care of you here, and this is what I get for my trouble. I don’t think this relationship is really working for either of us at all,” he said. He sighed and massaged his temples.

I know it sounds kind of ghoulish, but my heart just soared. This couple was breaking up right there in the cancer ward, right there in front of me. All I had was a little cancer, but these folks had acute money poisoning on top of it all. That shit’s fatal, too — money poisoning will rot your guts right out and leave your body standing there numb and looking for something you’ll never be able to buy. The depression I was feeling was really, really awful, but it was temporary. It gets so, so much worse.

Exactly a year after Kim and I sat in that waiting room together, she had a tumor the size of a nickel removed from the base of her ear canal. It was pressing on her nerves, giving her awful migraines and making her leg go numb. They say you can’t catch cancer but shit, man, I don’t know.

The following text is excerpted from some emails I wrote her the night before her surgery:

Now you know my secret. Now you’re in the club. You have been shoved into the circle of strength, where you get a lot of credit just for showing up. Here’s the secret: all you do is all you can do. You’re totally allowed to fall on the floor, cry, be scared, whatever. But eventually you run out of that, too. Eventually you take a little nap and the tears dry up. Then you just go to your doctor’s appointments.

Bravery isn’t being fearless. Fearlessness is idiocy. It’s why they recruit Marines so young.

Being brave means being scared as hell and doing what you’ve got to do anyway.

It’s going to the doctor and doing what they tell you. Maggie (my girlfriend, also a cancer patient) always said this, from the day I met her: “Everyone’s going to die somehow. Cancer patients just have more reliable information.” Don’t beat yourself up for being scared, don’t be afraid to be afraid. Just make sure you do everything anyway.

I got a lot of credit from you, from other people for being all strong, but really, I wasn’t. I was a fucking WRECK for about a year. If you want my advice, don’t even try not to be a wreck. Just do whatever, let the waves rock your tiny boat. It’s when people use their oars to fight the ocean that they really embarrass themselves.

Bravery isn’t being fearless. Fearlessness is idiocy. It’s why they recruit Marines so young.

Being brave means being scared as hell and doing what you’ve got to do anyway.

There is this really weird, beautiful thing that is about to happen to you now, too: you are going to discover how incredibly AWESOME everyone in your life really is. It’s nothing short of incredible. People at the periphery of your life move towards the center and you realize how amazing they were, how caring and supportive, the entire time. You’ll get closer to your family, closer to your boyfriend, you’ll really feel how loved you really are.

Now you know my secret. Now you’re in the club. You have been shoved into the circle of bravery. It’s a lot more raggedy in here than it looks from the outside. There is a balled-up tissue on the floor and an old newspaper in front of a couch that looks a little more stained once you actually sit on it.

But generally speaking, the company’s pretty good. Everyone in here knows something, and now you do, too: you’re allowed to be as scared as you want to be as long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to do. Be as scared as you want, cry all you need to and everyone else in here is ready to put you on our shoulders for a while.

We got you covered.

When the curtain calls for you, you’re going to go out onstage and step into a narrow circle of bright light and take a bow. That light’s not going to shine on your bank account, it’s not going to shine on your portfolio and it’s not going to light up your resume. It’s going to shine on you. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to stand there blinking in that bright light and say a few words before you take that last bow. And if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll hear everyone outside that little cone of light cheering, crying and clapping for you simply because you showed up — because you existed and they love you for it.

I listen to this song on the train on the way to the doctor — seems to go with this post pretty well. This one, too. Give ‘em another tab and give ‘em a listen.

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