The Refusal of the Call
“now I’m lost…
it’s been said
long time ago
you’ll be the first and last to know
you’ll never know”
- Inertiatic ESP
(The Mars Volta, Deloused in the Comatorium, 2003)
It was a very cold and dark late-December day; nothing like the day we got married when the snow seemed almost warm and approving. Today was one of those days you wish you didn’t have to get out of bed. I wish my problems could have just blown over my like this storm, but there was no avoiding this “bluster-fuck” of a day.
I hadn’t driven a car for a couple years by this point. Since deciding to “strike it out on my own” a year into College, I had given up the comforts of automotive transport for more “public” options. The company had two cars that were designated for certain employees to use, and for whatever reason that day someone came along and handed me the keys.
Around the office it was no secret I wasn’t feeling well. My co-workers frequently asked me about my cough, and the ones near my office were probably quite sick of me by this point. My morbid sense of humour started responding in the most ironic way possible:
“Don’t worry it’s just Cancer.” Hilarious, right? Of course, if you’re reading this, you know how unfunny and ironic that “joke” would become.
This was my fourth doctor visit since my cough had started. To recap, up to this point it was either Bronchitis, Allergies, or “Walking Pneumonia”. This doctor asked the same questions, and ran the same tests as her predecessors. Then, something different happened. This doctor decided to send down the road to get a chest x-ray. Cool, more driving! I drove over to the medical imaging clinic, got the x-ray, and went back to work.
New Year’s Day came, and Alissa and I celebrated the End of Birth Control and the beginning of our new family. 2003 was set to be the last year as a “couple”, and I was going to enjoy trying to make that happen. We sat and talked about baby names if we had a boy or a girl.
“Anastasia Josephine if it’s a girl” she said, pointedly. I liked Anastasia, but when I suggested both of those names might be a little bit of a saccharine mouthful, her mood turned ugly. After a short argument I gave in to her demands. No, it was going to be that name if it was a girl. If it was a boy, perhaps I would get to suggest something.
For Alissa, I always felt that her end-goal was simply to become a Mommy. I was starting to wonder if the man who made that happen for her was really that important to her. In a lot of ways I felt like a means to an end, and the “easiest” solution to how to get what she wanted. She only truly started resenting me when I had put a hold on our plans for kids until after I had my career settled. That’s when the real fights started.
We were just two kids that got married too young, and it showed. We fought about money—mostly—or lack thereof. Spending habits needed to be reigned in if we were going to get our financial house in order in time for a child. I figured if I had this job for at least a year we could get a car, and then maybe a mortgage. In the meantime, she would work at the video store, making decent money with benefits. She hated the job, as any sane person should. But her inability to do anything other than complain about it was something I took issue with.
If you don’t like your situation, change it. If you don’t like your job, get a new one. If you’re unemployed, go wherever you can, and search for something better. Fourteen months of job hunting after graduation had taught me that you can’t just sit back and wait for the job to find you. I know laziness is a harsh word, but at the time I just found myself getting more and more agitated with her attitude. She would never really do anything to improve her situation, but she never accepted it either. It was everyone else who had to change, not her. The Universe would align for her, and she could just sit back and complain until it did. It was how she saw the world, and there wasn’t anything I was going to do to change that.
The prospect of children changed her demeanor toward me somewhat. I was finally following through on our “plan”, and I could finally take some pride in being a “good husband”, and with luck a good father. I had taken it all quite personally, during the year I wasn’t able to find work after college. Some kind of youthful pride that died out in me years ago was telling me that I wasn’t good enough for her or this life if I couldn’t deliver on everything I had promised.
The day I went back to get my x-ray results was the same as the week before: grey and dark. It was a typical early January day, one where you could look out at the cold white expanse and know that it was going to be like this for at least two more months. It wasn’t the kind of day where you walked outside, took a deep breath, and thanked some invisible deity. It was the perfect day to find out my true fate, and the cause of this relentless cough.
I was in a really good mood, too. Last week I had been given the notice that I was to be made a full-time, salaried employee, benefits and all. The money wasn’t great, but it was more than I’d ever made, and it validated the five years of schooling and effort that it took to get here.
The doctor’s office was as generic as any walk-in clinic could produce. The walls were off-white grey, without any posters or ornamentation of any kind; not even the illustrations of internal organs or what an eye looks like when it gets infected. There were a few office notices printed on various coloured papers on the back of the door. I always get great pleasure in reading these kinds of memoranda; they are almost always created as a reaction to some office worker’s perceived “unreasonable working conditions”, or the actions of some aggressive asshole. These were fortunately printed in Calibri, the standard Microsoft Office font. They were fairly ordinary.
“Please have your health card ready.”
“Aggressive behaviour or language will not be tolerated.”
“Please use the hand sanitizers provided.”
I sat there for about 15 minutes waiting for the doctor, having no particular anxiety or stress about it. I questioned going through the cabinets for interesting gadgets or tongue depressors, but I decided against it. I just sat there doing nothing except listening to the voices songs in my head. The fluorescent lights seemed a bit low for a clinic. Sure enough, when I looked up a couple of tubes had burned out. Those ceilings were a bit unusually high. I guess the employees here would rather complain about loud patients than change a lightbulb. Hmm…perhaps I hadn’t come to the right place.
The doctor that had seen me the other day walked into the room, looking down at the chart in her hands. She asked me if my condition had changed since the other day. Nope, still coughing uncontrollably all day. She asked me if I was feeling short of breath or if I had trouble getting to the top of a flight of stairs. This was a new line of questioning, and I started to wonder where she was going with this.
Honestly, the next part of the conversation was about as dramatic as your dentist going over your average-looking x-rays: No cause for alarm, just a few things we should deal with. She began to tell me that the chest x-ray had revealed “a lymphoma”, and she would have to refer me to a Thoracic surgeon to see about removing it. Like finding out you have a mole or extra flap of skin, it wasn’t anything to be worried about.
She continued to explain my situation, and I sat there having almost no idea what she was talking about. I’m a Designer, not a Doctor! The poster behind her was set in a combination of Arial Bold and Times New Roman, but she was speaking in Greek. She seemed very positive about my “prognosis”, and if you had to get this, this was the one you wanted.
I sat there, trying to follow her terminology and tone, and determined that I had some kind of growth called “a lymphoma” that would have to be removed. Well, that seems quite straightforward! The entire time, the doctor only used the singular “a lymphoma”—like “a mole” or “a hernia”.
I thanked her for finally making some progress after three months of this god damn cough. I didn’t get a prescription, just the name of the surgeon to whom I was being referred. I got back in the company truck and headed back to the office to finish my day.
When I got back to the office I was in a pretty good mood. I finally had something to report back to my Mom! Progress was better than nothing. I met my supervisor in the narrow hall leading to our area and she asked me how my appointment went.
“Great! I have…a lymphoma?” She immediately burst into tears.
Tears. This woman who barely knows me is crying. Not good.
“Travis.. I’m so sorry.” she coaxed out with a bit of effort. A person I don’t even know just grabbed me and hugged me, pulling me in as if I’d just lost a loved one. Definitely not good. After some pause we resumed our professional stances.
“If you need anything, just let me know. When you’re ready go talk to Carolyn.” She walked past me and headed to Human Resources. Behind her two office mates were standing silently in their doorways. I felt like I had just shit my pants at the school dance. I kind of felt like shitting my pants just to bring some levity to the situation. Why the fuck is everyone so upset—for—me?
“I’m fine. I just got a consult appointment that’s all.” The two coworkers retreated back to their offices without a word. I took off my coat and sat down in my office. I logged into my computer, and pulled up Google:
— Search: [Lymphoma] GO —
“Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that occurs when…”
“Lymphoma kills 500,000 people a year…”
“Warning signs and symptoms of this Cancer include…”
“Learn more about Lymphoma cancer on…”
I closed the browser window. I should not have googled that.
The next few weeks while I waited for my consult were cold and dark, and it snowed almost every day that January. No blizzards or anything dramatic. Just slow, soft flakes that turned to mud almost immediately. Usually in Ottawa we get an unusually warm week in Winter; a nice break. This year we had one warm day in early February…and it rained.
The bus was always slow in weather like this. Packed full of tech sector workers, we slowly ambled through the narrow, snow-packed streets, taking twice as long as it did back in July. It gave me time to think about my situation.
All I knew was that a group of cells in my lymphatic system had decided they didn’t want to die. They kept multiplying in my chest until they started to create a mass around my windpipe. That was why I was coughing. I was slowly being choked to death by my own immune system. What a douche.
What had I done to deserve this? I wasn’t a smoker…but I did live with one. I didn’t do drugs at all, even to the point of hubris. I was 23 and I had smoked about 1/3 of a cigarette, and I hadn’t even tried pot. Heck I didn’t even take Tylenol with most headaches. I was what was known as a “Straight Edge”. I never even got drunk until I was 19! My rebellion to the high-school system was to not do what my peers were doing. College, marriage and job hunting didn’t leave a lot of time for drug habits. I drank on weekends but all in all I guess I lived fairly “clean”. Lame, I know.
It’s not that I disapproved of drugs, I just didn’t want to “pollute the system.” It mattered to me to accomplish my goals, and to do so I had to keep my body and mind focused. Drugs were a distraction I didn’t allow myself to have, and I was happy with my choices. What had all that pompous bullshit gotten me? Fucking Cancer.
I did everything I was told. I listened to the stupid song about good and bad drugs. I went to school, got married, got a job. Now I might die before I get a chance to enjoy it. It wasn’t fair. Most of the people on this bus were older than me. The guy sitting next to me has a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. Why couldn’t he get Cancer?
“Why Me” is about the only thing I had at this point. Technically we didn’t even know what type of Cancer I had. The consultation was supposed to rule out whether or not it could be removed surgically. Until then, I had a prescription-strength cough medicine (useless) and a constant supply of cough drops. There was only one brand that could give me temporary relief from my now extremely painful, hacking coughing fits. It was a very good friend to a cold fish such as meself.
Alissa had been very positive and supportive, but had broken down several times both in private and with me. I was very apologetic, I felt so guilty. I had promised to put a baby in her and now I had Cancer inside me. It just wasn’t fair.
The Thoracic Surgeon’s office was on a high floor of the Ottawa Hospital. My mother and I arrived and waited for a short time. It was a very bright morning; I was enjoying the light on the magazines when the doctor called us in.
This was the first doctor I met that wasn’t working for a walk-in clinic or my family doctor. She was a specialist in all things Chest. Her bread and butter is the heart, lungs and esophagus (which is an absolutely horrible metaphor please forget I said that). Based on her analysis of my chest x-ray, I had a mass about the size of an orange in my growing behind my lungs and heart. It would be quite the operation to just go in and remove it. She requisitioned a biopsy to confirm the type of Lymphoma, and suggested that the best treatment would likely be a combination chemotherapy and radiation.
Wait a minute, how many types of Lymphoma are there? I hadn’t done any more researching since my initial search revealed that this was no mole or cyst that could be simply removed and forgotten about. All I knew was that there was something inside me that was not going to go without a fight.
In fact, no one knew exactly what was growing inside me. The biopsy would reveal the type and aggressiveness of my Cancer, and then they would be able to finally start treating me. I felt so completely powerless. When the medical professionals start guessing and ordering tests, you really start to feel helpless.
The biopsy appointment was in a section of the same hospital. It was under construction at the time so waiting room space was very tight. My wife, mother, father and step-mother had all come to support me. The three women found seats and my father leaned against the wall.
My parents had gotten divorced a decade ago. It had not been amicable, but in the ten years since they had broken up the family they had both remarried and become a lot less angry in general. They had barely seen each other other than to pick up or drop off us kids. I kept imagining one or the other saying something off-hand and it turning into a full blown fight right here in the hospital. Luckily, they were completely cordial, and even seemed to engage in friendly conversation once or twice. My parents being civil toward each other was just one of the many oddities of my new situation. Just about everything was different, but my parents getting along? This was really unexpected.
I changed into a hospital gown and went into what can only be described as an operating room. There was a large screen next to the bed that was attached to a sort of floating “arm” anchored to the ceiling so they could move it around at all kinds of angles. Then I saw the table full of comically large needles. Each needle was the length of my forearm, and one was decidedly thicker than the rest. They moved me on to the bed and made me comfortable. Then they strapped me down and began to move equipment around me.
The doctor came in and described the procedure. My fear was temporarily put on hold as the inner geek in me listened with interest. They were going to use an ultrasound image to guide a needle through my heart and lung to get a tissue sample of the growth. The needle had an inner core that, when the “gun” (his words) was fired, would make a small “popping noise” and it was important to not react or move.
“There is a small chance that you may start to bleed into your lungs,” he continued “so we’re going to have to get you to stay in the recovery room for about an hour after we’re finished.” My inner geek just shit his pants.
Wait. What? Small chance? How small? A million terrified neurons were firing all at once. You mean I could die before we even know what kind of Cancer I have? Can I please get off this ride now?
“Can you call it something other than gun? How about device? Apparatus?” My tenure at Laser Quest had impressed upon me that the word “gun” was to be avoided. Guns were bad, they hurt people! Now a doctor was about to fire a gun—a needle gun—into my fucking chest.
“Are you ready to begin?” asked the doctor.
“Can I see watch the screen while you do it?”
“You want to see it? Of course!” and he angled the ultrasound monitor to reveal what looked like a heart and part of a lung. Neato. Except that’s my heart and he’s about to shove a needle through it.
He put on some blue gloves and leaned over to examine my chest. He poked a few parts here and there, and decided on his point of entry. The largest and scariest of all needles and began to insert it slowly into my skin.
Can I say how grateful I am that we don’t have nerves inside our bodies? I am no fan of needles, but once you get past the intrusive entry the length and size doesn’t really make a difference to me. I watched the screen as the bright blue line of the needle went steadily deeper down.
After some time he stopped, and the monitor showed that the needle had gone through my heart and top part of my lung, and the tip was resting just beyond it.This would be really cool if it wasn’t me, right? The surgeon let the remainder of the needle go for a few seconds. It swayed back and forth for a few seconds like a metronome.
When he turned back, he was holding “the gun.” He grabbed the end of the needle that was not currently compromising major organs and attached it. He ‘primed’ it a couple times by pulling on part of it, then he told me he was going to take a sample. I held my breath and laid completely still. It’s pretty easy when you’re immobilized by fear.
Then the doctor retracted the “inner” part of the needle, leaving the outer part still inside me, like a tunnel to my insides. It waved back and forth slowly and I tried not to laugh. I had a giant needle inside me and everyone around me was ignoring me like it was no big deal. Sure, they see this all the time. I have a freaking needle in my chest, where is the concern?!?
They repeated and took more samples. The satisfying click of the gun was actually kind of cathartic after the third time. When they were done, the surgeon carefully slid the large, scary-looking needle out of me. There’s not much to do after so small a puncture. They just put pressure and gauze on me and sent me out. I tried to breathe lightly while my remaining “good” cells went to work to repair the man-made holes in my lung and heart. That’s no metaphor; I had a hole in my heart.
From where I was in the “recovery” area I could see my mother and father having what looked like a pleasant conversation in the waiting room. Alissa and Sylvia must be out for a cigarette. I waved and they smiled and waved back. I laid back and tried to relax. There were nurses and hospital workers going in every direction like blue worker bees.
I spent my hour trying to assess and diagnose the other patients in the room. Were they sicker than me? How many of them were dying? There were no children or teenagers. Just old, sick-looking people. I didn’t belong here.
They did a final chest x-ray to make sure I wasn’t bleeding internally (oh good). I got dressed and went out to rejoin my family. A few minutes later they gave me the green light and we left the hospital.
We said our good-byes to each other, and I left with my Mother. I had to get back to work. I had to finish the new website I was working on. They weren’t going to wait for me to work out my health problems, and I needed that job. I was only a few weeks into full-time employment and I didn’t want to get fired before my benefits even kicked it. Something told me I was going to need them.
Several days later, I got a call from the hospital. They needed me to…come back in and do the biopsy again? I was prepared for “you’re a deadman” but I was not prepared for “please let us stab you in the chest again.” Apparently all of that medical technology didn’t tell them that the sample size was too small and couldn’t make a definitive diagnosis.
“Great. Fine. When?” I asked the woman on the phone.
“Two weeks?” she replied. I almost burst into tears, instead I went into a coughing fit. Did I even have two weeks? Who knew? Not the doctors, that’s apparent.
The second biopsy was just as much fun as the first, except knowing what was going to happen meant it no longer interested me as much. No, this time was all about wondering if they were doing it right this time. There was a new person in the room this time. She was sitting at a desk with a microscope and a bunch of other equipment so I assumed she was the one verifying whether or not they got enough sample tissue this time. Why they didn’t do this every time, so that people didn’t have to go through this more than once? Don’t they know people have jobs?
No empathy for the dying, I guess. This is their job why would they care about my circumstances?
This time, my recovery was not so uneventful. Apparently it’s normal to have some blood in your lungs at the end of the procedure, and my cough caused me to spit up blood a few times. The agitation and embarrassment at attracting their attention made me visibly upset. The nurses gave me something to calm the cough, and a tiny pill to put under my tongue. They called it “Lorazepam”, and I already knew what it was for. It was some kind of sedative; but I only knew this because I played the hell out of Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation.
Before the pill took effect I was thinking about a million things and then- nothing. Peace. Just…sitting here, and everything is just…cool. I like this feeling. I spaced out and didn’t really think about anything in particular. When I awoke I was ready for my x-ray check, which I was relieved to pass. I would not be drowning in my own blood today. I can go back to work!
I had been a full-time employee for almost six weeks now, and my stock was literally (sic) on the rise. I had just been given “stock options” which meant some day I could be part of an “IPO” (which is the Internet Pot Of Gold)! If I suck around long enough, I could be one of those “high tech millionaires” like the Boss Man! I didn’t have time to be sick, I was too busy living the dream!
As the only graphic designer in the company, my projects quickly diversified in all sorts of directions. I was doing product branding, website design and coding (which I barely knew how to do when I got hired), and all of the collateral advertising and marketing materials. By early February I was working 10-12 hour days, getting home around 8 or 9pm most nights. There were almost a dozen people working on the project by now, and I was working closely with everyone to get the website launched within the month. We were all going at a frenzy pace to have the entire company in order.
It was the most work I had ever done, and it was the most fun I’d ever had working. I was creating a new Internet company from the ground up!
In addition to the biopsy, I had many other tests during this time. Blood tests, x-rays, and my first encounter with the giant technological doughnut known as the CT Scanner. It wasn’t the kind that involved being injected with radioactive dye. I just had to hop up onto the table, pull my pants down past my knees, hold my hands above my head and wait.
I laid there, staring up at the ceiling. The machine spun to life around me and I suddenly felt like I was about to travel in time—perhaps to the Future—to when this was all over or I was dead and everyone would just leave me alone. A yellow smiley face with a robot voice instructed me to HOLD MY BREATH. I inhaled as much as I could without coughing. You had to not move for up to 30 seconds, which in my current state was next to impossible. They had to redo the second pass a few times. I apologized profusely, put my pants back on and left (not the first or last time, mind you).
The only symptom I showed at any time was The Cough. It was constant, deep and coarse. I had even been moved to an office way off in the corner of our area that provided some buffer space from the noise. I did my best but it was getting to the point where I was losing my control over it. From time to time, as new people were hired and introduced to the company, I would have to explain my unending, cubicle-shaking cough. One evening, we were rewarded for a successful launch with a Sens game in the company box. As we waited to go into the arena one of the new Marketing hires decides to engage my coughing fit head on as best she can:
“That sounds terrible,” she said. “You should get that checked out.” I had replied to this one a bunch of times, and tonight I couldn’t stop myself from being an ass about it.
“Oh I’m fine it’s just Cancer.” Just like before I knew it actually was Cancer.
“That’s not very funny!” she started to get really upset.
“No, he really does have Cancer.” My manager had come to my rescue and the new hire apologized. I apologized for the bad joke and we went awkwardly up to our box. My coworkers knew I was sick, but no one knew quite how sick. I didn’t even know. How sick was I?
Several days after the second biopsy I was received a letter in the mail for an appointment at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre. It gave me instructions to arrive early to go through registration. It was official; on March 15th I was going to be an official Cancer patient.