“I was in a cancer support group.”
My daughter asked, “Really? You went to one?”
“Yep. Horribly depressing. Like in your story.”
Kid’s eleven, busy enjoying her summer between elementary and middle school. She loves singing. Loves science. She and her best friend from school saw the movie version of The Fault In Our Stars (TFIOS) a few weeks back. Her best friend’s Mom invited me to go along. I declined. Something to the effect of “Thanks very much but no way.”
Too many memories.
Even after twenty-five years.
Not long after seeing the movie, Kid talked back to her Mom, my Ex. For a consequence, Ex revoked Kid’s iPad privileges. For a whole Sunday.
That afternoon, I picked up daughter. Reduced to reading, Kid asked me to take her to Barnes and Noble. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Driving toward the shopping center, I asked, “Are you sure the book is appropriate?”
“Yes. It’s a great story.”
“Okay.” I figured, she’s already seen the movie. “How did you lose your iPad?”
“I told Mom we didn’t have any proof that [NAME REDACTED] stole her mother’s make-up. Mom said I was being disrespectful.”
Kid’s very loyal. A good friend. A strong sense of right and wrong without being judgmental. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong battle as [NAME REDACTED] is notorious for these mysterious disappearances. Even worse, this time, the missing loot belonged to Ex.
We parked, wandered all around the bookstore as if someone had snagged all the copies of TFIOS, as well. Eventually, we gave up, making our way back to the info desk. The helpful clerk leaned over, grabbing a paperback copy of TFIOS off the display case built into his counter. Looking down at the floor, we both thanked him.
Back in the truck. Next stop, Einstein’s Bagels.
I’d had Alka-Setzer for lunch. She’d loaded up on bean and cheese burritos. A couple of hours later, my stomach rumbled—famished, in dire need of caffeine.
“Do they have wi-fi?” Kid said to her book.
“I think so. That doesn’t matter today, right?”
“Oh, yeah it does.”
Life’s tough in the big house.
I said, “Tell me about your new book. I don’t know much.”
Kid launched into intimate details about Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. How they met. The cigarette he held between his teeth but didn’t smoke. About the book Hazel read over and over. Augustus’ single leg.
Before long, we pulled into the lot and snagged a choice spot. “We’re here, by the way.”
Focused, Kid kept reading me excerpts, supplying any necessary supporting notes. She noticed me staring at her. I do that sometimes.
Kid’s fingers danced through the pages as she read about Hazel describing the cancer support group her parents made her attend when they suspected Hazel’s depression. The passage ends with a litany of names: support group members who’d passed.
That’s when I spilled the beans. That I’d gone to a support group when I first started my chemo treatments.
Inside Einstein’s, midway between the entrance and bagel counter, looking through glass at the wonderful selection, I freaked my Kid out.
“Daddy, you’re crying.”
“Yeah, Kid.” Not uncontrolled bawling. Just extra moist eyes. “It’s hard to think about those people without being sad. But I’m thankful too. For all these extra years.”
“Do you want to go in the bathroom and wash your face?”
“No. I’m okay. It was a tough time,” I explained, “for everyone.”
Kid’s used to the occasional emotional outburst from me. But only for truly important things: bad calls in football, someone not going when the light turns green, the neighbor dog barking non-stop. This was different.
I order my toasted garlic bagel with hummus. Medium coffee. Kid only wanted a cup of water. We set up at a table in front of the MLS game of the week.
Reading a sign, Kid announced, “They do have wi-fi.”
I assure her, “Next time.” Then, my food arrived, riding a plastic tray.
Kid and I are tight. Close since she emerged from the womb. I tease Ex, saying, “I saw her first.” Then it’s pretty much been only the kid and me for the past ten years, two or three days together each week. When not on her iPad, Kid watches me. She knows if I find somebody attractive, if I dislike a meal, if I’m not buying what someone’s selling.
This was new territory for us.
Turns out, I’m perfectly willing to talk about feelings. Given the option, I’d just as soon skip it but, if need be, I can. She asks me about my cancer.
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer the summer between my junior and senior year of college. Like the group leader in TFIOS. Except my bouncing baby germ cell tumor turned out to be extragonadal. Rather than down there, a mass grew in my chest. Another, smaller tumor in my lower back.
I’d been experiencing shortness of breath. Swelling in my face; lack of energy. Bad signs when you’re twenty-one and in good health, otherwise. The stairs in my dorm became a challenge. Weightlifting more trouble than it was worth.
At the time, living in Hawaii, I figured I’d come down with some sort of tropical disease. Caught something from an international student? I checked into student health right there on campus. They sent me to get an x-ray.
A mad scramble ensued. The chest x-ray showing a fuzzy pale blob where lungs and heart should have been.
Because my Dad was active duty military, these x-rays and I made our way to Tripler Army Medical Center. The pink hospital sits on a lush hill overlooking Pearl Harbor. I’d been there once before to have my wisdom teeth removed.
Tripler immediately took another chest x-ray. You know it’s a bad sign when the radiology tech comes running into the waiting area, staring at you with saucer eyes, asking “Has the doctor seen this?”
“Yeah,” I assured him. “They know.”
The soldier could barely meet my eyes. Probably my age, he kept shaking his head, repeating, “Oh, man. Oh, man.”
I told him, “It’s gonna be alright.” Equal parts faith and ignorance.
My mom had flown out the day before. Mother’s Day. My dad had a bad feeling when I called, recounting my symptoms. Meeting Mom at Honolulu International, I gave her a fragrant lei and the news. “They say I have a ‘large mass’ in my chest.” Being older and wiser, she knew what that meant. She made up an excuse, snuck off and called my dad.
Dad arrived that next day. Waking into the Tripler radiology waiting room, a handsome O6; bright white uniform. It was reassuring to see the Captain. Twenty-five years later, he has this same calming effect on his granddaughter.
We all met with the head oncologist, Dr. Berenberg. He explained my treatments would be “aggressive.” Everything happens fast when your chest tumor measures in double digit centimeters.
In Einstein’s, bookmark holding her place, Kid asked me, “Tell me about the support group.”
“That first meeting, my mom went with me. The medical and counseling staff thought it would be a good idea. Mom was curious, too. It was a little different from TFIOS because everyone in my group was either military, a military spouse or military dependent. From all around the Pacific.”
I distinctly remember four group members: Randy, Marita, Jim, and a woman whose name I didn’t get. My mom and I joined the meeting a few minutes late, stacking chairs set in small circle.
I tell Kid, “That day was pretty bad.”
Sitting across from me was a figure straight out of Buchenwald. I don’t mean one of the survivors. Like someone off a body stack. Skeletal, colorless, hairless. One leg missing.
Kid tells me, “Augustus only had one leg. The other had to be amputated.”
“Same with Randy.”
Sitting in that first meeting, still fit, darkly tanned for a fair skinned Celt, black curly hair spilling over my shoulders, constant five o’clock shadow, the contrast with Randy made me uncomfortable. I probably felt guilty.
I spent the first ten minutes trying not to stare. Then an odd feeling swept over me.
Looking at this devastated young solider, I had a premonition. That’d be me soon. Not the leg, but all the rest.
Two things made this possibility bearable. The first was a faith that’d I’d make it through this. That God would see me through.
The second encouraging factor: an amazing spirit still animated this failing, decrepit shell.
Though deeply sunken, Randy’s eyes sparkled when he spoke. He smiled. He laughed. Encouraged. Younger than me, he already faced life with one leg.
Ours was a battle of attrition. Of inches, as they say. If your leg had to go to save the rest of you, that was just the nature of the conflict. Losing your hair was a given. Although I’d hoped otherwise.
Everyone seemed to love Randy. How couldn’t you?
When I’d absorbed enough to really comprehend what I’d signed on for, I knew I needed to follow Randy’s example. If I managed even half his grace, it’s only thanks to prayerful support.
Next to Randy sat a military wife. Her name lost in time. Mid-thirties, though age becomes blurred as obvious visual cues get distorted. Head scarf. Women usually prefer a head scarf. Heavy accent. Spanish, German? Hard to recollect because everything she said came out as a terrible wail.
“Why is this happening to me? I don’t understand!”Punctuated with moans and screeches. “Why is thing happening to me!” Tears flowing.
My Mom had amazing poise. Yet I saw the pain in her face when she didn’t know I was looking. You hate your kid to hurt.
The next member bore a faint physical resemblance to the wailing lady. But, inside, she was all Randy. Positive. Upbeat. Fighter. Marita the aerobics instructor—she still taught when she had enough red blood cells to support jumping around. Made up. Perfectly straight, blue-black hair with bangs. Like a Filipina Cleopatra.
I whispered to my Mom, “She still has hair.” A moment of optimism.
“It’s a wig,” my Mom breathed.
Mom and I saw Marita again the next month. Her hair had started growing. Now summer in Hawaii, a wig probably felt like sackcloth. So she skipped it. Black peach fuzz. Like one of the Space Marines from Aliens. Only sweeter.
The fourth support group member was an enlisted sailor. Tall and lean. Short dark hair.
“They don’t know what I have,” he reported. “But they’ve narrowed it down.”
Then it was my turn. “Germ cell tumor. About twenty centimeters across. In my chest.”
Depending on your outlook, a truly depressing experience.
Attendees at our own funeral.
“So a lot like book,” I conclude. “Only no romance developed in our support group.”
Kid asked “Did you have a girlfriend?”
I set my bagel down.
“I had a friend. We dated. She was great at first. Gave me a whole bag of encouraging gifts. A nice journal book.”
“I didn’t write in it much. ‘Day 39. Feel like crap today. No blood cells. Hurts to poop. Can’t be around people. Day 40. Feel like crap today. No blood cells. Hurts to poop. Can’t be around people.’”
Kid laughs. She likes it when I’m outrageous. Assuming she’s eaten. “Nooo, Daddy, I mean what happened to the girl?”
“Oh. We’ve never talked about this?”
“No,” Kid assured me.
“While I was busy having chemo and everything, she ended up dating my best friend.”
Silence. My coffee steams.
Garlic on my bagel nice and pungent.
“It really didn’t matter,” I confessed. “Lots of other things on my mind besides, uh, romance.”
“Were your other friends upset?”
“Yeah. But I made sure they knew it was okay.”
Kid’s really unimpressed. In TFIOS, Hazel and Augustus’ friend ends up blind. Cancer in his eyes. When his girlfriend dumps him, the trio egg her house. I had several friends offer to beat up my former best friend. At 5’ 10”, I’d dropped from 165 pounds to 115. That was drama enough.
“Everyone else was really nice to me. Back then, a friend from church did marketing for a rock radio station. She hooked me, Mom and Cousin Leslie up with tickets to see Jimmy Buffet. Good seats too. The oncology pharmacist was a funny guy. He teased us about the tickets. It took me a month to track down expensive bad seats. The same marketing friend got me a signed Billy Idol album.” A bit before her time, I ask Kid, “You know, the singer?”
I launch straight into my best “Eyes Without a Face.”
Kid cuts me off quickly. “Yes. I know who he is.”
When Kid was barely four years old, she made up an original song, its own unique tune and everything. It went “Sometimes, people don’t like daddies, when they sing songs.” We still laugh when I remind her.
In that respect, she hasn’t changed much. I quit singing, told her, “Billy Idol wrote, Kick some ass, Richard. Because he knew I was fighting cancer.”
Kid brightened. “Cancer perks. That’s what Augustus called them. Things people give you because you have cancer.”
“For a while, I’d see the other three guys from the support group. We’d talk every month when I’d go in for my week of treatments. Or for blood work. Or surgery. Never saw the screeching lady again.” Something occured to me. Who’d want to watch our icky story, on the big screen? I asked Kid, “In the movie, did everyone still look beautiful?”
“Hazel lost her hair when she was eleven. But yes.”
“We weren’t too beautiful. Plus, we threw up a lot. Did they show that?”
“No.” Shakes her head, then looks up. “But Augustus threw up blood. In his car.”
“That’s pretty bad. Did they make friends with any of the doctors or nurses?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
I start on my bagel again. It took years to be able to talk about chemo and cancer without instantly killing my appetite. Time heals.
“Well, I was in the hospital so much, for so long, that I made friends with one of the oncology nurses, Mary, and a young doctor, Steve. When I had enough white blood cells on a weekend, they’d invite me to watch movies or eat food with them.”
Kid smiled. “That was nice of them.”
“Yes. Real nice. After a few months, though, I didn’t see the rest of the support group guys around. New patients but not them. I thought maybe they gotten better.” I felt my eyes well up.
That made Kid uncomfortable. But I want her to understand.
“Turns out, Randy died,” I told her. “After all that suffering and misery. Later, my Dad told me Jim got separated. Moved out. They never could do anything with the cancer sticking out of his chest. So he didn’t make it.”
Kid nodded. Somber. Watching my eyes.
“They told me Marita seemed like she was doing better then she got real sick. When she died, the staff had to tackle her husband. He lost it. So distraught he started to hurt himself.”
Kid didn’t know what to say.
What do you say?
“Baby, nobody else made it. Just me. I’ve had all these bonus years the other guys didn’t get.” I managed a wry smile. “Plus, do you know why I’m extra thankful?”
“Well, with the type of cancer I had, like the group leader in the book, the first thing they usually do is cut off the man’s testicles. They didn’t have to do that for me. But the chemotherapy might have made me sterile.”
She looked blank.
“When you can’t make a baby.” Mostly finished with my bagel, I take another sip of black coffee. “After my surgery, when they realized my cancer was dead, we went in for one last appointment. Dr. Berenberg seemed overjoyed. Everyone was. Surgeon, doctors, nurses, techs. They’d saved me. After our meeting, walking out with my mom, Dr. Berenberg stepped into the hall. He called out, ‘Richard, assume you’re fertile!’”
Blank look again.
“That means, assume you can make a baby. That was kind of embarrassing right there in front of my Mom.”
“Do you know how I know he was right?”
She thinks about this. “Because of me?”
Overcome by equal parts joy and thankful sadness, I could only nod.