by Raymond J. Steiner
HE WENT DOWN on one knee and eased over onto his side, holding his arm out stiffly to balance himself as he negotiated his weight onto his back.
“A bit old for this,” he murmured, as he stretched his body out to its full length over the warm grass.
He pulled the bill of his cap a little lower on his head to shut out the direct rays of the sun. Now, with the blazing globe situated somewhere beyond the lip of the cap’s bill, he was able to look straight up.
A cerulean summer sky gazed back at him, a few rising cumulous inviting scrutiny off to his right. He let his eyes linger on their impossible lightness, their slowly shifting shapes.
Not rain clouds.
He lay there for several minutes, trying to make his mind blank.
Step through to the right side of the brain.
A sharpness in his right side reminded him that he was lying on the ground, and he shifted a bit to avoid whatever it was that was nudging him from below.
“Too old for this,” he repeated, as he settled once again into the softness of the grass.
Stretching out his arms, he ran his fingers over the yielding blades of grass on either side of him.
He let his eyes wander back to the slowly drifting clouds, to the intervening blueness that separated them. He reckoned they were heading on a northwesterly course.
He lay there for several minutes when the sun’s rays began to intrude, creeping past the bill of his cap, the brightness causing his eyes to squint.
Feel cosmic winds.
He closed his eyes fully then, allowing the brightness of the sun to fall onto his lids, their red veins dancing before his mind’s eye.
Am I really seeing them … those veins?
When it became too dizzying, he pulled the cap over his face, feeling his warm breath fill the enclosed space.
Let go…you need to do this.
He tried to imagine his body disintegrating, sinking into and through the grass beneath his back, his body breaking up into particles, sifting deeper and deeper into the warm rich soil … the inviting, warm, rich soil.
“Wouldn’t be so bad,” he mumbled into his cap.
Would I feel anything? Hear anything?
“Aye, there’s the rub.”
Thoughts of disappearing into the elements were not unusual for him, the idea of not being — of death — a part of his thoughts for as long as he could remember. Never were they unwelcome or unpleasant speculations. As he grew older, he learned to keep such things to himself, at first surprised that speaking of death bothered people, then, later in life, accepting the fact that most avoided the subject altogether.
He lay still for what seemed like an hour but, judging from the sun’s position, probably not even a half hour had passed.
“A funny thing, that,” he said.
Time. Hard to believe that I’ve been around for almost seventy-five revolutions around that old sun up there.
He tried to doze off, but knew from experience that whenever he tried to fall off to sleep that it would always elude him.
“Just like death,” he whispered into his cap. “Sleep can dodge you just like death.”
But he’d been put on notice, and he might just as well be ready.
He pushed himself up off the ground and slowly walked toward his back door.
“Never wanted a rose garden — promised or not — anyway.”
The doctor pointed to the monitor. “That’s cancer,” he said.
The nurse stood silently alongside the examination table. She looked at him, the vertical lines between her delicately arced eyebrows belying the encouraging smile she turned in his direction.
He turned from her face and craned his neck to the left to see where the doctor was pointing.
He breathed deeply.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
The doctor paused before saying, “I’m not sure I’d call it ‘beautiful’.”
The nurse, silent, had moved off somewhere behind him, out of sight.
The whole examination had taken less than a half hour.
His eyes still on the monitor, he reeled back the past half-hour or so to go over it in his mind.
“Please pull your pants and underwear down to your knees and lie back on the table,” the nurse said politely.
As he did as he was bidden, the nurse, somewhere behind him, said, “I’m going to put some lidocaine on the head of your penis.”
“It will numb the area,” she said.
Hands touching him; a coldness.
He felt uncomfortable lying there in such a vulnerable position, his private parts exposed before this stranger — a young woman, at that. Before he could blurt out something in his embarrassment, she added, “The doctor will be in shortly,” and covered him with some light, gauzy material.
He lay alone on the table for a few minutes and then heard a soft knock on the door. Before he could say anything the doctor was standing by his side.
The doctor, short, handsome, soft-spoken, said quietly, “Good morning”
He’d met the doctor — Dr. De Soto — for the first time only about two weeks ago. He’d been sent to him for consultation by his regular physician after she had discovered blood in his urine during his annual physical.
“What might cause that”? he’d asked his doctor when she’d told him.
“Not sure,” she said. “I want you to see Doctor De Soto. The receptionist will make an appointment for you.”
That was almost a month ago, and after ruling out kidney stones, Dr. De Soto scheduled the cystoscopy.
From a few drops of blood, to a consultation, to a cystoscopy.
Hardly a month had passed.
After the “good mornings” were exchanged, Dr. De Soto became all business.
“You’ll feel a little discomfort at first.”
When the nurse returned, she laid her hand on his arm. “Okay?” she said.
He lowered his chin in assent.
“You can watch the monitor up there on your left,” the doctor said.
A T.V. screen with a grainy picture.
Not great reception.
The image on the screen told him that they were traveling along what seemed to be a narrow, curved tunnel.
“We’re coming to your prostate now,” the doctor said quietly. “A little enlarged, but nothing unusual in someone your age.” A pause. “You might feel some discomfort as we pass through.”
A little ‘discomfort.’ That’s all I’ve been feeling since this circus began. ‘Discomfort’ that they found blood in my urine — ‘discomfort’ that they saw fit to send me to a ‘specialist’ — ‘discomfort’ that he had to drop his pants in front of a young woman — ‘discomfort’ in lying helplessly on his back while they poked and prodded — ‘discomfort’ in having something shoved into his penis — and, most of all, ‘discomfort’ in the idea that somehow his body was betraying him.
He focused intently on the screen, as much to take his mind off the doctor’s manipulations as to follow what was unfolding a few feet from his eyes.
“Something like that movie — ‘Fantastic Voyage’, or something?”
The nurse chuckled. The doctor remained silent.
Probably heard that about a thousand times before.
Once past the prostate, the tunnel slowly widened out to reveal a murky-looking cave.
Must be my bladder.
“Now we’re inside your bladder,” the doctor’s voice confirmed.
We seemed to be moving from left to right.
Amazing! I’m looking inside my bladder! I’m looking inside my body! Whoa! What’s that?
“What’s that,” he said. “Looks like a cluster of mushrooms.”
Dr. De Soto sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“Like coral. Like something you’d find underwater on a reef. What is that?”
The nurse pressed his arm once again.
“It’s a good thing your doctor was on top of things. We can scrape that right out.”
Well, I suppose at my age I had to expect something.
He took a deep breath. “It’s beautiful!”
Scrape it out?
He played back the reel in his mind once again — it was getting longer — from the discovery of the blood in his urine, through the unreal journey through his urethra, to the declaration that he had cancer.
Scrape it out? Where was it written that such a beautiful life-form must go and that I must remain?
He set the cup of coffee on the small stool alongside his chair and sat staring out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight.
His mind drifted to something he had read once — a story from the time of the Renaissance about a boatload of soil from the holy city of Jerusalem that had been brought to Pisa and, when mixed with the soil in the Santo Campo, brought forth a beautiful flower — an anemone — that no one had ever seen in Italy before.
The stuff of legend and mini-miracles.
Why should the memory of that tale come to me now?
He let the silence of the house penetrate his mind. He lived alone — had been living alone for many years now. Alone, but never lonely. It seemed like he never felt loneliness — not since he’d been a boy, at any rate. Too far back in time to really remember the sensation of it.
Well, I’m not ‘alone’ anymore, am I? I’ve got a visitor now…although maybe a bit closer to home than I’d like.
He sat up straight in his chair.
From what alien shore came the seed — my own beautiful anemone — that had been planted within my body?
His mind flashed back to those few days ago — the day Dr. De Soto told him that he could “scrape it out”.
“The receptionist will set up a date some time next week for the procedure,” Dr. De Soto said.
“Next week?” He’d hardly had time to digest the fact that he had a cancer living in his bladder.
“Yes. You’ll have to stay overnight in the hospital. Do you have someone who can come to pick you up the following day?”
He thought for a moment. “Yes, sure.” Then he added, “To pick me up?”
“Yes. You won’t be able to drive yourself. It takes some time for your body to completely cleanse itself of the anesthesia.”
Scrape it out. Anesthesia.
He thought for a moment and then asked the doctor, “How’d I get this?”
“Smoking, most likely.”
“Smoking!” he said. “Doc, I haven’t smoked in forty years!”
“About how long it takes,” Dr. De Soto said matter-of-factly.
He frowned. “Boy! I thought I held a grudge!”
The doctor smiled and shrugged. “Please make sure you stop at the reception desk to set up an appointment for next week.”
As he turned to leave, he looked at the doctor and asked, “How come not the throat or the lungs, doctor? I mean, if it’s from smoking. After all, I hardly ever smoked through my penis.” He smiled. “Well, maybe when I got really drunk, I might’ve tried once or twice.”
Dr. De Soto returned his smile. “All things considered, you’re lucky to have it there. It’s one of the most treatable cancers you could have.”
He pondered that. “Well, tell you the truth, doctor, I’d feel a helluva lot luckier if you’d found it in your bladder.”
He turned from the window and, holding the cup in both hands, took a sip of his coffee. As he brought the cup to his lips, he focused on the brown spots dotting the backs of his hands.
Old man’s hands. ‘Liver spots’, he remembered his mother called them.
He’d arranged with a neighbor for the ride back from the hospital. The “scraping out” would occur tomorrow morning, presumably sometime after his arrival at the hospital at 8am.
“You need to be there on time,” Dr. De Soto’s receptionist had told him. “You’ll have to take an EKG and fill out some forms.” She looked up at him. “Be sure you have a list of all medicines you are presently taking.” Her fingers tapped on the computer keyboard. “And you’ll have to fast.” She noted his growing frown. “Don’t worry,” she said with a big smile. “I’ll be giving you a sheet with all this written out for you.”
“Good. I’m sure I’d never remember half of it.”
“Not to worry,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve got a lot on your mind to deal with.”
He set the coffee cup back down on the stool and looked again at his hands. He remembered when they didn’t have those spots.
‘Faggot’s hands’, his wife once called them. ‘Your fingers are so long…like a piano player’s’.
‘Sissy hands,’ she’d say.
As he lay in bed, the reel began playing back again, over and over as if in an endless loop, each detail seemingly being etched deeper and deeper into his mind.
I ought to be able to stop this.
He knew he’d have to prepare himself for going into the hospital. A generally healthy man, he’d only been in a hospital once, years ago as a young man when he was confined overnight for a hernia operation. He’d pulled “something” in his groin on a construction site and the foreman had driven him — oblivious to his objections that “he felt fine” — to the hospital. Other than his objections — and his embarrassment at having to be taken off the job by the foreman — he had little recollection of his hospital sojourn. If memory served right, he was back on the job a few days later and, other than a cold now and then, had never broken a bone or suffered a serious illness in his life.
There were close calls, of course. But these incidents involved accidents, not sickness and, although he was close to losing his life on more than one occasion, had the good fortune to enjoy a robust, energetic lifestyle that mostly involved employment in the manual trades.
He once made a list, and over the course of his working years had been a laborer, a teamster, a carpet layer, a concrete block maker, a lumberman (he topped out trees for a lumber company that specialized in making palettes), a barge captain, a cab driver, a grunt on a highline job in the Everglades, a landscaper, a rough carpenter (he could build passable book shelves but not a fine cabinet), a farm worker, a county laborer, and, in the infantry, an underpaid and highly-skilled, hired killer for the United States Army.
In short, he enjoyed working with his hands and making his living at doing things that showed tangible results — a road he worked on and could drive over, a fresh-laid lawn, a serviceable shelf that held its fair share of books.
On the other hand, he did not think it amiss that he spent a good deal of his time in his head. A loner by nature, he found the company of his own thoughts to be of greater pleasure to him than an evening at the local watering hole drinking with the guys.
By far, it was his silent nature more than anything else that eventually caused his wife to call it quits.
He was just “no fun”.
The daughter of an outgoing, Italian-American, fire-chief father and a hard-drinking Irish mother — as well as the sister of two loud and rambunctious sisters and a timid brother — she and her family simply out-matched him. Right from the beginning, he knew where he fit into the hierarchy — he was the intruder.
The marriage also brought him three brothers-in-law, none of which he could tolerate for more than an hour or so of well-spaced visits. One, her brother, was simply a loser; the other two, husbands of her sisters, were worse to be around, the one, a man frightened of almost everything, the other, haunted by something in his past that no one in the family could ever wheedle out of him.
And, in spite of his lifetime of hard-hat jobs, according to his wife, he still had “sissy” hands, “faggot” hands.
But then, his manhood had been often called into question and maligned by his own second-generation, German-American father.
“Dick-kopf! You don’t even know how to hold a hammer! Hold it here — not up there by the neck as if you’re trying to choke it! Ach! You’ll never amount to anything!”
The middle son, he was constantly on the short-end of any argument with either of his brothers — when it was with his older brother (named, appropriately, like any Teutonic son, after Papa) he should respect his “elders” or, when it was with his younger brother, then he ought to have known better.
Long used to being on the losing side when it came to family relationships, he offered little resistance to his wife’s wanting out of a marriage that was probably doomed from the outset.
What finally snapped the marital relationship was the meditation.
With that memory suddenly surfacing and breaking into the never-ending loop of what he was now calling “the cancer-saga”, he turned his thoughts to meditating himself to sleep.
Most of the answers to the questions on the sheaf of papers he was handed was “no.”
The EKG showed no problem for the anesthetist to worry himself over so all systems were go.
He was moved from his bed to a gurney and wheeled onto an elevator and then down halls into a bright room that turned out to be one room short of the operating room.
He told them.
“Five, one, thirty-three.”
Another voice. “And why are you here today?”
“To have my ears checked.”
“To remove a cancer from my bladder.”
“Right. A cystectomy. O.K. The doctor will be here shortly.”
A pat on his arm.
I wonder if they all have to take ‘Arm-Patting 101’ in nursing school?
Within moments, his gurney is moved, shoved through a double set of swinging doors and under glaring, overhead lights.
The operating room.
A nurse appears at his side. “Are you O.K.?”
He brings his chin to his chest.
An oriental-sounding voice asks from somewhere behind his head, “Ready to go to sleeping?”
Leddy to go to sreeping?
Now the never-ending reel will get longer.
But now there’s a piece missing.
He wakes up in another room. Several voices. Movement.
Not really awake.
He re-awakes a bit more fully.
Time. How much has passed? How long was I out? Funny thing, time.
“How do you feel?”
A pleasant-looking blond is seated at his left.
“A bit groggy.”
A nice smile.
“Am I in heaven?”
Another stupid comment…she’s probably heard that one a million times. At least.
A new room.
Moaning on the other side of the curtain that separates him from at least one other person.
He shuts out the moaning and dozes.
A dark-skinned minister — or priest — approached his bed.
“Are you awake?”
“Are you all right? Do you need anything?”
He thought for a moment.
“Have a good day.”
He wondered what he was — a priest or a minister.
The moaning on the other side of the curtain was still going on. Even more irritating than the moaning, was the cartoon channel that continuously spewed out childish nonsense. Whoops. Squeaks. Crashes.
I don’t even want to know.
In an effort to block the sound of his roommate — judging by the size of the room, he must have been the only other person sharing the room with him — and the sound of the television that hung over his neighbor’s bed — he thought about the clergyman — the minister or priest or whatever he was.
Religion — at least any of the major organized ones — were not a part of his life — not since his youth, in any event. His family had been Roman Catholic and he had attended the Catholic school in his neighborhood until the 8th Grade.
It didn’t stick.
He soon discovered that his penis was tethered — via a catheter — to a plastic bag hanging alongside his bed — a bag that was periodically checked by a nurse named Beth.
Each visit was essentially the same.
“How’re we doing?”
“A bit of a headache.”
“I’ll come back with a couple of pain pills in a bit.”
A check of the bag.
“Still a bit red.”
“Blood. When it’s yellow, you can go home.”
He wondered how long that would be. What little peeing he was able to accomplish was sporadic and painful.
Makes you wish it would and wouldn’t.
The moaning to his left was continuous and irritating, only punctuated by his roommate’s periodic fouling of himself, the attendant stench, and then a visit by two nurse’s aids that came in to clean him up.
“Well, shitmeister, we see you’ve done it again.”
How old was this person?
“What a mess this time, poopster!”
“Look at this pile of crap!”
He couldn’t see — and didn’t care to see — the two women who were doing the cleaning. He wondered at the vulgarity of their chatter.
When Beth next came to check on his output, she found him with his head under the pillow.
“What’s going on next door?” he asked when she handed him two pills and a small cup of water.
She informed him that his roommate was an elderly retarded man who had been there for some time, but did not tell him what his illness was.
He didn’t really care.
“Would you like to be moved to another room?” she asked.
His eyebrows shot up. He didn’t know he had a choice.
“Yes,” he said. “I’d like that very much.”
“I’ll arrange it as soon as the doctor finishes up with you. He should be in to see you in a few minutes.”
Dr. De Soto strode into the room, his handsome face adorned with his usual smile.
“It went well,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“So-so. A bit of an effort to pee.”
“Well, that’s natural. You should be back to normal by tomorrow.” He looked down at the clipboard he held in his hands. “You did arrange for someone to pick you up, didn’t you?”
“Did you give the name and phone number to the nurse? She’ll call in the morning to let them know to come around eleven.”
“You should be fine to go by then.”
“Nope. The nurse — Beth — said she’ll be moving me to another room.” He inclined his head toward the curtain that separated him from his roommate. “I’ll be glad to get away from the Cartoon Channel.”
Dr. De Soto smiled and nodded.
“So, is this it, then?”
“Yes. Now that you’ve — what — ‘scraped out’ the cancer, am I done?”
“For now, yes.”
“Hm, hmm. In three months we’ll take another look and then proceed from there.”
“Well, if it returns, then we remove it again.”
“Like this time?”
He thought for a moment. “For how long might this go on?”
“Well, every three months…maybe in a year or so, every six months.”
“For how long?”
“Well, for the rest of your life.”
The rest of my life?
“The type of bladder cancer you have,” Dr. De Soto explained that day in the hospital, “is persistent but not aggressive. It has a tendency to return, but will not appear elsewhere in your body.”
“I’d thought about that when you first told me about ‘scraping it out’. I mean, if I were forcibly evicted from my home, I’d look around for someplace else to settle in.”
“Luckily, this bladder cancer is, like I said, persistent but not aggressive. It tends to remain in the bladder.”
He wondered how much actually was a result of “luck”. It was not that he feared death. He’d suffered enough of life’s “slings and arrows” to often long for that place from which there was no return. He’d seen enough of the world to know that he’d seen enough of the world. As far as not existing anymore, he’d learned over the years to think of the event as neither “good” nor “bad.” Death had no undue negative overtones for him. It simply was part of the process of what becoming “him” entailed. Granted there seemed to be a finality about it — but then he’d not existed for who knew how long before he came on the scene and there appeared to be no lingering bad memories of it.
So, the idea of death didn’t trouble him.
“Persistent” was O.K. by him. He prided himself on his own “persistence”. And when the image on the monitor rose up in his mind, the delicate elegance of the cancer as it grew from the side of his bladder, he could well understand its need to be persistent. Even sympathize with it.
It has as much right on this planet as I do. We’re just trying to occupy the same space, is all. Who’s to really say who was here first?
The nuns in elementary school, of course, tried to make as much fodder out of death as they could, making it into some kind of bugaboo that ought to keep us in line. And, with the threat of Hell thrown in for good measure, it could keep one in fear for a lifetime.
It just didn’t stick with him.
Once he’d been drafted into the service, the overwhelming realization that his parents’ way of life was not the only one practically dictated that he never go home again.
And he didn’t.
And, with what he’d picked up from experience and books ever since, at this point in time death was no longer the bugaboo he once thought it was.
When Beth had set him up in his new room, he was pleased to find that his new roommate was a quiet-spoken gent, who was about his own age and who also preferred not to have a T.V. on.
The curtain that separated their beds had not been closed, so some conversation was inevitable.
“So, what are you in for?” his roommate asked after he had been settled in.
“Some obscure felony against my maker,” he quipped. After he received his expected chuckle, he said, “Cancer. Don’t know yet how long the sentence is, but the doc suggested ‘life’.”
“Me too,” his roommate said.
And who knew just how many years ‘life’ might entail?
He learned during the course of the evening that his cancer was not as “serious” as his roommate’s, and that if he thought he had problems pissing, well he should rest easy because they were still waiting for him to give up a single drop.
“Once I can present them with a bona fide amount of pee, I’ll be able to go home,” he confided.
Neither man spoke for a few minutes.
“You know,” his roommate finally said, “I’m a history professor. I’ve spent a lifetime in poring over the past and trying my best to apply whatever wisdom I manage to dig up to my present life. My point is, with all that stuff crammed into my head, it’s amazing how my whole world is now focused on the simple act of taking a piss.”
Well, Einstein did try to tell us that everything was relative.
“I hear you, brother.”
Although he enjoyed the intimacy of space at times — especially outdoors, like the small space of lawn that he had stretched out on shortly after he’d been put on notice, or a secluded copse, a favorite spot along a creek — his usual frame of mind encompassed a much wider scope. For some time now, he’d try to put the events of his life on a cosmic stage, trying his best to “see” them in relation to the “grand scheme of things”.
He’d once tried to console a niece — his wife’s brother’s child — when she’d sought him out to listen to her tale of woe. She’d met a young ski instructor during her junior year at high school while on a ski trip at Aspen with her parents and had, in her passion-laden voice, “fallen deeply in love” with him. And now, her “uncaring” parents would not move out to Colorado where she could finish her senior year of high school “out there” where her one and only true love lived.
Adapting himself to the seriousness of his niece’s plea for an understanding ear, his voice took on the appropriate avuncular tone.
Since they were seated outside in his brother-in-law’s backyard at the time, he searched the flower garden and found two small stones that would suit his purpose.
He placed one on the ground near his niece’s feet.
“Let’s say that’s the earth,” he said.
Then he took the second stone, slightly larger than the first, and walked to the end of the yard where he placed it near the fence, which separated it from the neighbor’s backyard.
He pointed to the stone. “And that is the sun.”
He walked back to his niece and sat back down beside her.
She was looking at him quizzically.
“O.K. Got that? This stone here by your feet is the earth — and that one over there by the fence, is the sun.”
She nodded, but still looked at him with a puzzled expression on her young face.
“Now you know by now from your science classes that the earth here,” he pointed at the stone, “travels around the sun over there, right?”
“And that it takes the earth 365 days — or thereabouts — to travel around that sun over there?” He waited for her nod of assent. “So that means — if this stone here is the earth and that one over there is the sun — that its orbit would take it way beyond your yard here, way over into that neighbor’s yard — and probably into some other’s as well before it gets back here — think that’s about right?”
He leaned down to pick up the stone at her feet and held it close to his eyes. He pointed his pinky at a spot on the stone and moved it closer to her face.
“Now, you’re telling me that everything would work out just fine if only you could move from here” —he moved his pinky a fraction to the right — “to here?”
It took but a few moments for her to “get the picture” but he was pleased that she had indeed gotten it.
He thought back to how long it had taken him to gain some perspective. Being raised in accordance with a particular dogma, of course, was poor preparation for such luxuries as other points of view and he learned the hard lesson of “unlearning” only after years of working at it.
When he served as an altar boy during his parochial schooling, he had dreamed of one day becoming a priest — a compelling dream until his first wet dream cast all thoughts of celibacy into serious doubt. In any event, after he had been discharged from the service with the only wound received a serious hole in the bottom of his bag of religion, his first exploratory steps beyond the teachings of the catechism were taken while in Kentucky where he discovered an abbey of Trappist Monks.
While visiting there for a few days, he met a monk who spoke eleven languages — including such exotic — at least for him — tongues as Aramaic and Sanskrit — and a willingness to hear out his doubts and fears.
When he shared with the monk his dissatisfaction with answers to the few questions he had directed at his chaplain while serving in the Army, the monk just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“Well, he was probably a parish priest when in civilian life. You have to remember that the church has been in business for over a thousand years and all the questions that are going to be raised have probably already arisen by now. So, if the parish priest is going to be asked question number one-thousand-fifty-four, say, well then, he already has answer number one-thousand-fifty-four at the ready. Truthfully, that’s as far as any parish priest’s education has to go to do a passable job in tending his flock.”
The monk didn’t say it, but the implication was that to be a Trappist took considerably more learning — knowing eleven languages, for instance, including the one that presumably Jesus spoke.
He’d had suspicions about the depth of the chaplain’s mind when he listened to one of his “talks” at a Saturday afternoon TI&E — “Troop Information and Education” — session in which a short film was presented as an introduction to the topic — which was killing.
The film featured a young soldier brought up on a farm and familiar with the use of firearms. He was a crack shot and quickly earned his marksman medal on the shooting range. As his training progressed, however, the usual “bull’s-eye” targets were replaced by cutouts that were supposed to represent enemy soldiers. These human-type forms would unexpectedly pop up as a line of trainees traversed an open field with loaded M1’s at the ready. All of a sudden, the “crack shot” began missing targets and was soon called before his cadre leader.
“What’s going on? You hit the bulls eye over and over on the firing range, and now you’re missing every target that pops up right in front of you?”
“Well, sir, I was taught not to kill and, well, these targets look like men.”
At this point, the film ended and the chaplain launched into his theme, which was the difference between murder and killing during war.
“And so you see, men,” he wound up his spiel, “the difference between murder and killing the enemy in defense of your country is that murder is pre-meditated.”
Oh yeah? Then what did he call sixteen intensive weeks of being taught various methods of slaughtering the enemy?
He didn’t relate this story to the monk, but he felt that he really didn’t have to — the guy seemed pretty savvy and probably didn’t need his private suspicions confirmed.
The main thing he came away with after his visit, however, was that every time the subject of Jesus came up — and what He thought, taught, or believed — the monk would say, “Remember, son, Jesus was a Jew. He probably thought like one and not like your typical, garden variety, parish priest — or Christian chaplain…or, for that matter, a Trappist monk.”
He was apparently ready for this new perspective.
He’d been primed somewhat before his visit to the monastery by his Army experience. Raised in a home without books, reading for its own sake had not been a part of his growing up. It was his fellow infantrymen that opened the door to books and, although his ‘reading list’ was somewhat eclectic during his Army years, the practice had begun and the habit of picking up a book when he had a few free moments not long in being set.
And, whatever he might have missed in his reading along the way, he knew —as he once pointed out to his niece in her back yard — that, cosmically speaking, whether we were “here” or “there” didn’t matter a whole hell of a lot.
His new room brought not only a new roommate, but a new nurse as well, Beth now replaced by Benjamin, a male nurse.
Not quite as pretty, but just as efficient.
Apparently the color of his urine was beginning to please his watchers, and after an emptying just before his evening meal, Benjamin informed him that he would be removing the catheter sometime that evening.
And what’ll that entail?
He didn’t voice his question. Sometimes it was just better to face things as they came rather than allowing the mind to run rampant with too much information.
Dr. De Soto — as well as his nurse — would often preface their doings with a “this might cause some discomfort” or “this will sting” or “you might not like this” and quickly follow up such ‘friendly’ warnings with “now, just relax.”
After gently waking him — he had no idea as to time, but his roommate was snoring gently and he could see darkness outside the window — Benjamin set about removing the catheter.
After pushing back his coverings, Benjamin said, “Coming out now.”
No “this might be uncomfortables” — just a simple “Coming out now”.
He was happy with both the timing and the bare-bones simplicity of Benjamin’s technique. He was still a bit groggy from sleep and had no time to allow his imagination to take hold. It was over in a second.
Benjamin was gone before he could thank him for not telling him to “relax”.
The soreness he felt in his penis lingered through the night, reminding him of his roommate’s observation of how one’s mind might be concentrated on a single thing or thought.
Why his penis? Why the bladder?
Although he’d joked with the doctor about never “smoking through his penis”, the question of why the cancer appeared there rather than in any other part of his body loomed as the weeks went by — and the never-ending reel of the “cancer saga” replayed itself at odd moments of his day.
He’d also asked if they had not a better route into his bladder.
“My nose, for example. It’s a lot bigger.”
“If you discover a new route, you’ll become a millionaire,” Dr. De Soto said.
Wasn’t it bad enough to learn that you had cancer without having to suffer the indignities visited upon your penis each time he visited the doctor’s office? He never really took the time to examine the microscope or the contraption to which it was attached, but he knew it had to pass through a pretty narrow — and sensitively tender — stricture. Each examination resulted in the next several times he urinated — either that day or the next — to be a major ‘discomfort’.
Why the penis?
Once the Trappist monk had tweaked his mind to think along different pathways, he’d started on the track and done just what he’d asked the doctor to do — find a better route — back then, however, not to his bladder, but to a surer understanding of why we were here.
Judaism, naturally, was his first stopover, since the monk seemed to be nudging him in that direction.
“Remember…Jesus was a Jew.”
The monk had said it more than once, and it hung in his mind for days after his visit.
Having made up his mind not to return home after his discharge from the Army, he decided on an itinerant life, working as he needed, earning enough just to get along. He had no master plan; no time schedule; no commitments to anything, any place, or anyone.
Most of his earnings were spent on books — usually cheap paperbacks that he didn’t mind leaving behind when he was off to greener pastures — some novels, but mostly books on religion, philosophy, history — on any subject that took his fancy at the time and that might teach him something new.
He enjoyed his books on Judaism, finding that — at least to him — it sounded a bit more “grown up” than the particular brand of Christianity he had been raised to believe in. He liked that there were no intercessors between a man and his God — no one to “speak” for him in his stead. If he’d done wrong, he couldn’t whisper it into a priest’s ear in the privacy of a wooden box and expect to be forgiven; if he offended God, he had to seek His forgiveness, and if he offended his neighbor, then he had to face him and ask for forgiveness. There were also no airy-fairy things like raising dead people, walking on water, mysterious births, people coming back from the dead and pointing to exposed and bleeding hearts. As far as he could see, Judaism — although it did have its fair share of tall tales — was, well, more adult and threw you more often onto your own resources.
But then, he also liked the books he found on Jewish humor — even more than the books that tried to explain their belief system. Besides, even Jews had difficulty sticking to rules — and you could become orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, or whatever, and still call yourself a “Jew”. If they keep on going, he thought, they might soon be able to catch up to the Christians and their interminable list of sects and “isms”.
But he liked their humor and the fact that no matter how tough things got, they could always make a joke about it — and more often than not at their own expense. He supposed if that was all you ever got out of your religion then it wasn’t a total loss and often resorted to it himself during awkward or uncomfortable times…as Doctor De Soto was slowly beginning to understand.
From Judaism — which he spent considerable time on before abandoning it, even teaching himself a bit of the language along the way (he could say most of the prayers and read them aloud without referring to the transliterations — after all, didn’t he just take three years of profanity in the Army and become proficient? Why not another language?) — he went on to study the Buddhist — especially Zen — and Sufi masters, giving each their due, each their equal time for persuasion. He particularly liked the humor of the Zen masters, savoring and memorizing their jokey little stories.
A Zen monk is walking along a large lake, head down and lost in meditation. After some minutes, he realizes that something is interfering with his concentration and he stops in his tracks. He recognizes that the noise is a human voice and he glances around, looking for the source. Eventually he notices a small island in the middle of the lake, and there on the shore is a man praying aloud. Then he realizes why he found the voice interrupting his thoughts — the man was saying his prayers incorrectly! A little ways along the shore, he spies an empty rowboat and, climbing aboard, rows out to the man on the island. “Excuse, me,” he says. “But you are saying those prayers incorrectly.” The man looks up at the monk and immediately recognizes him to be one of the most famous wise men in the region. “Master!” he says as he bows his head to the ground. “Please teach me the right way. I would be honored to be your student — even if it is for only a moment.” So, the monk teaches him the correct form of the prayer and, taking his leave, rows back across the lake where he once again resumes his private meditation. Within only a few moments, however, he once again is disturbed, this time by the man shouting to him as he runs toward him over the top of the water. “Master! Master! Please stop! I have already forgotten the correct way. I am so stupid! How did it go again?”
Well, he might as well as come right out and say it — he enjoyed humor, pure and simple. He liked the way it could release tension, but more important, that it could immediately change one’s perspective. That sudden switch in viewpoint, in fact, was often revealed in the punch-line — it was the joke. All you had to do was see it in its proper perspective.
As he read, as he traveled, as he applied himself to learning different tasks, he discovered that, in reality, there was never just one way to look at things. It all depended on what one settled into, what one accepted was “it”. And this was tricky, as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once pointed out. He claimed that, at birth, we were all as if suddenly “shipwrecked” — surrounded by flotsam and jetsam such as family, country, language, customs, religion, and so on — none of which had anything to do with who we were, or were meant to be. And, as we floundered to stay afloat, we grabbed out and attached ourselves to whatever came to hand. The trick was to know that none of this stuff was us and we could only learn who we truly were by remaining un-attached. Most, however, don’t get it and identify with whatever flotsam and jetsam they happened to be born into, hopelessly losing themselves in the frantic business of grabbing on and “fitting in”, of “belonging”.
This much, he had already “got” while on the road. What he learned on one job, or at one town, was another ballgame altogether on the next job or at the next town. The trick was not to get ensnared into any one game-plan — and jokes, humor, sometimes helped you to break through the veil…. something that Jews after years of persecution, or Zen monks after years of putting up with lunkheads, learned.
O.K. So what’s the joke with the ‘discomfort’ I’m having with my penis? How come I’m failing to see the “humor” here?
“What’s the punch line this time?” he wondered.
Three months later, Dr. De Soto’s cystoscopic examination showed that the cancer had returned.
Although he still had to arrange for a ride home after the “scraping”, this time he did not have to stay in the hospital overnight.
A “condensed” version of the first time, everything seemed to go smoother, faster. He could pee almost immediately after returning to his room, and though it was painful, did not show any presence of blood.
He was on his way home before noon.
Home. Kind of a relative term, that. We’ve managed to reduce its meaning in our usual fast-food kind of way: “Home is where you hang your hat,” we say nowadays. A bit more refined — but not much more — than, “Home is where, when you get there, they have to take you in.”
The ancients — or so the Florentines who resurrected them tell us — claimed that “home” was where one felt entirely free to be “whole,” “realized,” “complete.” Sort of a more serious take-off on the more wryly modern, “No matter where you travel, you always bring yourself.”
Who you’ve decided “yourself” to be, however, depended on how well you’ve digested José Ortega y Gasset’s lesson.
Anyway, he was at the house where he had lived for the past twenty years or so and had to deal with the fact that his visitor, at any rate, seemed to be making a “home” for itself inside his bladder.
Trying to ‘self-realize,’ I guess.
“Philosophically,” he said aloud, “I have to admit that it stands on pretty solid ground, since the idea seems to have been around for quite a time.”
He didn’t have much time to dwell on the idea that he’d have to periodically — every three or six months, depending on his visitor’s ‘persistence’ — to have his bladder ‘scraped out.’ Each time he thought about it — which was more often than he wanted to, since the reel, ever-expanding with added details, continued to play back at odd and quiet moments — images of square-jawed, resolute cowhands with hats pulled down over their eyes running off squatters fluttered through his mind.
Go get ‘em, De Soto!
“I’d like to try a new treatment,” Doctor De Soto said.
He’d been asked to come into the cancer center just a few days after his last bout of ‘squatter rousting’ for a follow-up consultation.
He looked up at the doctor standing before him.
“It’s called the ‘BCG’ treatment and, basically, it entails a form of maintenance therapy that uses a vaccine commonly employed in the treatment of tuberculosis.”
Well, that’s all over my head.
Correctly reading his puzzlement, Doctor De Soto continued. “It’s been discovered that ‘BCG’ — it stands for Bacillus Calmette-Guerin — has proven effective in retarding — sometimes, even curing — bladder cancer. We are not quite sure just yet why it does, but it apparently works in many cases, and I’d like to try it with you.”
A bit more information — but still over my head.
“I think we have a good chance, especially since we were lucky enough to catch your cancer in its early stages — before it had a chance to settle in more firmly,” De Soto continued.
There’s that word again — ‘lucky.’
“So,” he urged. “What do you think? Shall we try it?”
How much of this ‘luck’ can I take?
It didn’t take long to find out. Turns out that it wasn’t “over his head” after all…more, in fact, like below his belt…again.
The treatment began — as with all of his visits — with his dropping of his pants around his ankles and with lying on his back on the examination table — he was still not inured to the fact that he was lying exposed under the eyes of a young woman.
As before, lidocaine was applied but, instead of a scope, a catheter was inserted through which the ‘BCG’ would be instilled directly into the bladder. The whole procedure — depending upon the nurse — took but a few moments.
The process extended over a period of once a week for six weeks, after which a wait-and-see period was followed by a cystoscopic examination to determine what ‘results’, ensued.
The variable — as indicated — was the nurse. Whereas the first nurse had been “in-and-out” in a matter of moments, her alternate, undoubtedly less practiced in the procedure, took long and painful steps in her insertion of the catheter. During one session with the alternate, she finally gave up the effort after much painful prodding and poking to call in the doctor to make the insertion.
It was all, he discovered, in the “luck” of the draw.
After each session at the doctor’s office, he was instructed to refrain from urinating for two hours, spending the time in bed and rotating his body — from back to side to front to other side — in intervals of thirty-minutes each. This, he was informed, was to ensure that the ‘BCG’ coated all sides of his bladder for maximum effectiveness. When the rotation was complete, he could then go pee. In fact, he was urged to drink “plenty of liquids” to speed up the process of discharging the vaccine, which, apparently, was somewhat toxic, since he was also urged to put generous amounts of Clorox into the toilet after each urination before flushing.
If the medicinal side of all this made little impact on him — his years of reading had not prepared him for how one treated or dealt with the actual “slings and arrows” his body would be heir to — he did find the mechanics of the ‘BCG’ treatment objectively interesting.
A bit innocuous in the telling, the theory of immunotherapy involving ‘BCG’ was not so easy to undergo in the cold, hard world of subjective reality. After the rotisserie-like movements in bed — during which, he learned, the vaccine was not only coating but removing the inner layer of his bladder in an effort to eradicate the locus where the cancer was attempting to set up squatter’s rights — the act of peeing was not so easily effected. Not only globules of blood, but also bits and pieces of the inner layer of the bladder vied for space within the strictures of his penis, painfully blocking the flow of urine as they were being discharged.
Ouch! Ouch! And, again, Ouch!
Although the emission of blood and body pieces eventually ceased and urination gradually became “normal”, when the body quit demanding his attention, his mind shifted into gear. As all this was being “edited into” his ever-growing reel containing the “cancer saga”, he now began embellishing and enhancing it with his imagination.
By mid-week, with the next session looming on the horizon only a few days away, he found himself unable to keep his mind off the next go-around. Like the man in the tale of Till Euelenspiegel who was asked why he laughed and smiled as he pushed a cart of rocks up the mountainside — only to grumble and curse as he freely rode down the other side — his answer was, “As I ride down, I am thinking of the next mountain!”
Although the first six-week session went fairly well — and the cystoscopy revealed that the treatment had in fact prevented a return of the cancer — the following three-month examination heralded a return.
If the first six-week set brought home his human frailty — the first day of peeing felt as if he were urinating razor blades, the second hot water, the following days increasingly less painful if fraught with thoughts of the upcoming session — the second six-week cycle very nearly unmanned him.
So, with the three- or six-month increments of time that Dr. Se Soto is meting out to me, what am I supposed to do with that?
OK. I get that I’m on notice.
Still, isn’t everyone ‘on notice’ from day one? Shit, we’re all ‘terminal’. Yeats had it right when he said that we — whatever the hell “we” means — are all attached to dying animals.
If there’s a punch line somewhere hidden in all this, I guess I’m just missing it.
Granted that all of the traveling, all of the books, all of everything, is dead weight at this point — flotsam and jetsam, as Gasset would point out — and absolutely of no use in giving me a clue as to what I’m supposed to do — what am I supposed to do?
O.K.? I got the notice. Just don’t nickel and dime me. One straightforward lightning bolt on the top of the head would have served rather nicely. Now that would have been luck!
I guess the upside is that I will finally know what’s me and what’s not me. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
On the other hand, if I’d have been a bit more observant at the time I was shipwrecked, I might have had this all figured out by now.
Hell! I’m seventy-five years old!
Maybe that’s the downside…all those years wasted on who knows what.
So, O.K. I got the notice. I accept the notice.
Just don’t nickel and dime me!
Let’s not run this reel forever.