The Morning After

“Funny how nothing else in my life seems to matter after 5:24 pm yesterday. Women, food, to do list, job search, none of that… that’s about it except for which friend to tell.”*

*Journal entry for Friday, August 21.

This morning I read over the journal entries from those first, critical days in August, when my very ordinary isolation life became my very ordinary survival life. Besides my literary creativity in trying to best describe what a clump of dissolving-in-urine blood mass should be called, the 24 hours after First Symptom were spent repeating the phrase,

“I’m scared. Of course I’m scared.”

The fear which consumed me, and navigating those feelings, through “very ordinary” things like eating and sleeping… and at that point, having not yet told anyone… well, I can barely remember what that felt like, even while reading my words as I compose what I’m typing right now.

By the way, my chosen simile for what came out of me every time I was brave enough to pee was “hibiscus tea”. You’re welcome. Let THAT image carve its own space in your brain going forward.

“And now the questions… How long will I live? How will my quality of life be? Who will be there in my future? Seriously, will I even see the election? What comes after that? What DOES come after that?”**

**Same journal entry for Friday, August 21.

You know, it’s been 11 weeks and I still ask most of those questions. The election question just seems silly right now, but on August 21st, November 3rd seemed like one hell of a long ways off.

There is a thing said of athletes as they mature, and as experience begins to show itself greater than any ability with which an athlete plays the game. That thing said is, “The game begins to slow down” for them. It is that moment when experience and a history of being good at something, trade places, and the doing of a thing is made easier merely by having been there and done that so many times, that there is an almost unconscious take-over by the body, of the mind. Call it Gladwell’s ten-thousand hours. Call it simple muscle memory. It’s how I know I could still roller skate when I haven’t laced up a pair of roller skates in decades. How I know I can field a ground ball behind second base and, all in one motion, throw it, without looking, to first. And it is how, without ever having been this scared for my life, the game of life slows down, and I am able to make check-box decisions, one after the other, even when, in my head, I hear myself screaming louder than the crowd of spectators that surrounds me.

Call it time served on earth.

“How many times have I mentioned that I’m scared? At this time yesterday, I was peeing clear, felt fully hydrated, healthy, alive even. This morning, I feel like I need to get my affairs in order. Seriously? In 24 hours?”***

***Even later journal entry for Friday, August 21.

(c) copyright 2020 William S. Friday

Rashomon

“When that long-anticipated first conversation with your oncologist leaves you feeling like the words, ‘Today, you are cancer-free’ are as temporary as a sandcastle at hightide.”

This is a day for catching up with the present.

(flashback)

For the last three days, I have written about what happened to me during that week in August, when an innocuous trip the bathroom (“There Will Be Blood”) turned into a completely unexpected diagnosis of cancer (“Panic Room”) and soon after, how having nothing to say isn’t necessarily a bad thing when there’s nothing left to do but the next thing, and the next (“Requiem for a Dream”).

You may have also noticed that every post title is taken from a movie I’ve seen.

That’s also something that, if you know me, you know this is how my brain works, and how it will keep working, all the way through this series. This day is for flash-forwards and flashbacks. No particular order. Just telling the story as it tells itself. And this is a story about those who know me best.

(flash-forward)

Yesterday, four weeks to the day since my surgery to remove a cancer-ridden kidney, I had my talk with an assigned oncologist. It was not what I expected. In these protracted days of Covid-19, first conversations take place on the telephone, not in person. In the case of this first conversation, the oncologist spoke and I listened. I took notes and then asked questions to the best of my untrained and overwhelmed ability.

When I want to be, I’m pretty good at asking questions in a vacuum. Yesterday, I did my in a vacuum best. But after an hour of statement-question-reply-question-answer, I had a full page of handwritten notes, and now, one day later, even more questions than yesterday I had answers for. Today, I did something about that. I asked my friends who have been there and done that. A friend who has survived cancer. Another friend who’s father lived five years with late-stage cancer, with her as his primary caregiver. And one other who has been down the kidney disease road, and come out on top. Their wisdom, both theoretical and practical, helped me navigate more than just a resetting of my understanding, but more important, a repurposing of my personal strategy to overcome this shit, and live.

(flashback)

In mid-September, I sent out the first of a series of texts and DMs to people I had considered what came to be called the “First Circle” friends. That is, those who would be told first, by virtue of the frequency of communications between the two of us. A couple of dozen folks. The essence of that message was to tell them that I had been gotten a preliminary diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma, and that I was waiting for further steps to be taken, which would ultimately lead to surgery. In late September, having been given a date for my surgery, I sent a second round of texts and DMs to the First Circle, and a similarly-crafted message to folks in what came to be called the “Second Circle”. Ultimately, with a couple of days to go before the surgery was to take place, a final “Third Circle” message was sent to let those who, for a multitude of reasons, I had not previously informed.

So, you know how you can think you know someone… until you REALLY know someone… and then you realize you really didn’t know them at all? I will never assume anything about a Circle Friend EVER again. Through this, I have learned that a friend is not that person you assumed they were. A friend is someone who exists in reality, not in your mind. And not in your own wishful thinking about them. And a good friend is someone who never thought they needed to try and convince you of who they already were all along.

(flash-forward)

(c) copyright 2020 William S. Friday

Requiem for a Dream

I didn’t even pee on my hospital johnny.

I didn’t do a lot of things that day. I didn’t cry. I didn’t tell the world I had cancer (that would come later). I didn’t make any rash decisions, including but not limited to,

*packing a bag and moving across the country,

*packing TWO bags and LEAVING the country,

*packing NO bags at all,

*getting drunk (actually, I had stopped drinking the night I started peeing blood because it just seemed like the thing to do),

*nailing scrap wood over my bedroom door and never coming out again,

or any number of other random things that rolled through my head as I walked the half-mile from ER to the pharmacy at Kaiser Permanente in Harbor City. The only plan I had at that moment was getting a bottle of oxytocin in my hands, staying ahead of the pain that had detoured me from lab tests to the ER that morning, and feeling no pain as I drifted off to sleep that night. I didn’t realize it yet, but random plans weren’t anything I was going to be making unless they involved doctors, nurses, and what questions I needed to ask.

After the pharmacy, my son-in-law picked me up for my ride home. My son-in-law who had just lost his own dad to cancer. My son-in-law who didn’t have a lot to say, specific to what I was going through in the last few days, and that was just fine with me. We drove in mostly silence to a couple of nearby carnicerias in search of carne asada… he and my daughter were grilling that afternoon and my extended time in the ER had not been on the schedule for this Saturday. When he and I did talk, the words were real, and there didn’t need to be a lot of them on the long way home to my place.

Before the ride, before I was discharged, I had texted, and then called, my daughter. She didn’t take the news about dad having (probably, likely, not officially confirmed but really REALLY probably) cancer well… at least for a moment… until I heard the sound in her voice that told me she had gotten her game face on. The game face she inherited from me… and got back to her three kids.

Which I would tell you will always be more important.

Facing the future has always been weird for me. Over the years, I had become a dreamer. Always looking for something I never knew quite what. Somehow always hopeful about it. But this year had become the end of that. Plans had become something people no longer talked about, and dreams weren’t something people shared. My plans and dreams were now confined to my morning journal, along with everything else I only admitted to myself.

And now this was happening.

When I finally got home, I did the math on when my next dose of pain meds was due. Yeah, I guess that counted as a plan. Then I said screw it, and just took the meds.

Which would become the next dream.

(c) copyright 2020 William S. Friday

Panic Room

The third symptom was fear.

I thought I was taking things pretty well when the ER doc told me, “Your CT scan revealed a large mass on your right kidney.” Which, when you think about it, is not a something anyone is supposed to take well.

A short time earlier, my assigned ER nurse, another 59 year old man in seemingly perfect health, was joking with me about how what I was experiencing was probably the early stages of kidney stones. About how he knew a guy when he was in the navy who shot kidney stones, pain free, into the metal latrine urinals, and still remembered the sound of the stones going “PING” whenever his buddy passed another one.

Now, the time for jokes was over. I was being gurneyed by that same nurse, who decided that I shouldn’t have to wait for the technician to come get me. Because that same doctor who told me how large “large” was, also explained to me that this second CT scan would include a contrast dye, injected into my existing forearm IV, which would illuminate the mass three-dimensionally, on the second film.

While somehow, from the time my wheeling through the halls commenced, to when I arrived in the imaging suite, I began to notice that my body was shaking. Shivering, actually, as if the hospital temperature had dropped 20 degrees in the two minutes it took to go from one room to the other. Then, as I moved myself from the gurney to the table, the technician explained what would happen when the dye was injected… to expect a sudden, cold feeling in my pelvic region, followed by a sensation of urinating all over myself… and that was when the shivering became panic.

When I first thought, “This is…”

Back in high school, I was in the drama club. After getting cast in a couple of key supporting roles in the 9th and 10th grades when, from out of nowhere, I started to develop what I thought was stage fright. It made for a very short acting career. After high school, it followed me to college, and any public speaking I would have to do in a class. This stage fright continued into my early professional life. Any time I had to be in a meeting with management, any time I had to address clients, any time I had to record a message on an answering machine without a full written script, just to say the words, “Please leave a message at the beep”. And even though this intense fear of public speaking disappeared when I was in my mid-thirties, mysteriously… miraculously… in front of a roomful of sweet, older ladies at a radio advertiser luncheon, and never EVER returned, I still remember what out of control panic feels like.

After the shivering moved from my limbs to my lungs, and my breathing became shallow while my chest began to quake, the technician noticed what was going on in my body just as I was about to, for the second time, be conveyor-belted into the machine that looks like… warning, sci-fi reference… a tiny, single-occupancy Stargate. She asked if I wanted a blanket, to which I said,

“No thanks. It’s just fear.”

(c) copyright 2020 William S. Friday

There Will Be Blood

Silence. Followed by,

“That’s not good.”

I suppose there are a lot of things a person can say when an innocuous trip to the bathroom turns into a toilet-full of blood. In my case, due to many years in the church, and a still-in-tact holy reverence for not wanting to piss-off God at a time of crisis by exclaiming things like,

“Awww, shit!”

or,

“Ohhh, fuck no!”

I tend to go to that inward, generally understated place of expression. That place where I take into myself all the external control of an airline pilot who knows his plane is going down, but still believes that if he acts calmly and rationally, he and everyone sitting behind him aren’t going to die.

Yep, I’m THAT guy.

Even with THIS.

Although, I’d never had a THIS before.

So, about the blood. This was the first symptom. Turns out that there are only a few possibilities for what “blood in the urine” is a symptom of. But since I had not experienced extreme urethral pain during urination (possible kidney stones), or an extreme beating in the ring like Apollo Creed’s kid experienced at the hands of Ivan Drago’s kid in the movie Creed II, that left the only other high-percentage possibility for what “blood in the urine” is a symptom of. Renal Cell Carcinoma, or in plain language, kidney cancer.

This all began at 5:21 pm, on a Thursday in August. In the meantime, through all the exchanging of emails with my doctor, and appointments made for lab work to be done on Saturday, I spent the next 36 hours alone with my thoughts, and peeing blood. Then, on the morning I was to head for the lab, the blood in my urine stopped.

Just in time for the pain in my kidney to start.

Pain that got so bad so fast, I skipped the lab appointment altogether, and went straight to the ER. This was the second symptom.

Side note. Let me take a moment here to affirm that hospitals really do have the best drugs. Because by 10 am on Saturday, the pain that woke me up 5 hours earlier was all the way gone. By 11 am, all the blood and urine the lab was supposed to have helped itself to at 8 am was drawn into vials or drained into cups . By noon, I was being gurneyed into the imaging room for a CT scan. And before 1 pm, I was being told by the ER doc that the CT scan showed a mass on my right kidney that was troubling enough for him to schedule a second CT before I could even change out of the grippy socks on my feet and the hospital johnny, flap open around my ass.

Finally, as I was riding the gurney back through the halls from ER to imaging, that was when the third symptom hit.

The third symptom was fear.

(c) copyright 2020 William S. Friday