categories: Cocktail Hour
We seem to be on a mortality theme here at Bill and Dave’s, what with Bill going under the knife (as they say.) I’m also thinking that way, since I’m coming up on the twentieth anniversary of my 30th birthday. I’m planning a three day pagan party in my backyard–bonfires, pig-roasts, loin cloths, the works—and my daughter Hadley is scheming about getting all the kids to wear wolf costumes and howl at the moon.
No matter how successful, or wild, the party is, it’s unlikely to match my 30th for sheer wildness and joyous fucking life celebration. That’s because a week before that birthday I was operated on for testicular cancer and spent the next days waiting to find out what flavor of cancer I had. As I remember it, I was feeling pretty pessimistic, and had settled into a deep gloom, by the time my doctor arrived in my room, late in the week of my hospital stay, to give me the news. I remember him walking over to my bedside and fixing his eyes on mine, very professionally, and then for the final touch, placing his hand on my shoulder. Then, the key moment: his thin lips curled slightly upward in what was unquestionably a smile. It was then that I understood that he had come to tell me just what I most wanted to hear.
I sat up straight.
“A seminoma, David.”
“A seminoma!” I punched my fist in the air. “A fucking seminoma!”
I pushed myself off the side of my bed. This caused a small stab of pain in my groin but I didn’t care. I wanted to waltz my doctor around the room, but contented myself with pumping his hand and showering him with “thank you”s. Then I danced a little shuffling dance, while he stood off to the side with his arms hanging in front of him, one hand gripping the other wrist. For a minute he stood there, the smile still on his lips, nodding slightly, and then congratulated me one more time and backed around the curtain.
“You are a very lucky young man,” he had told me earlier in the week. I had sneered at the idea, if not at him, thinking myself anything but lucky. But now I was starting to get it now. I was a very lucky young man. If accident had led me to having cancer (bad) then accident had led to its discovery (good) (I’d been kneed n the groin during a pick-up basketball game and it kept hurting), then by happy accident the cancer I had was a good flavor.
“I’ve never seen a stage one seminoma fail.” Those had been my doctor’s exact words. Which meant I wouldn’t fail either.
This was truly good news, good news of the life and death variety. But it would take the perspective of years to see just how personally momentous they were. I was living in Worcester, Mass, aka Wormtown, at the time, which is a whole nother story, but it was here that my narrative was taking a turn and my plot was twisting; it was here that my story turned from a cancer story into something else. And it was here, at this exact moment in the story, in a kind of heavy-handed foreshadowing, that I could first see, or at least glimpse, what that year would become in my personal mythos: that is a trial, a temporary descent into hell and therefore just a chapter, not the final chapter, not the period at the end of my sentence. Or, to put it another way, it is here that the Worcester Year first started to become the Worcester Year, a nightmare that I escaped from.
Not long ago I discovered the word “hypernarrativia,” which its inventor, Paul Eakin, defines as “a consciousness working overtime to make experience read like a story in a book.” I think it’s fair to say that I suffered from hypernarrativia as surely as I did from cancer. No sooner did I get home from the hospital than I started organizing my hospital notes and making outlines and sketching out the plot for a new novel. (Actually I started taking notes in the hospital.)
But that character dancing around the hospital room wasn’t thinking about writing, at least not yet. For all his insistence on constantly narrating events, on being a kind of reality show onto himself, he understood, at some basic level, that something important had just happened. Despite his hypernarrativia, at that point he was still more interested in his story than his book.
The next morning I was sprung from the hospital. Despite the cold rain soaking through my parka, there was a bounce in my step as I walked away from that building. The stairs descending from the hospital entrance were speckled with gray chipped paint. I took them two at a time. I stared defiantly at the pale dirty yellow grass and the small patches of tar-colored snow. “Let’s not go straight to the car,” I said to Daphne, my girlfriend. “Let’s walk by the lake.” As we hiked along the gray stretch of Lake Quinsigamond, the same shores that had once been home to thriving Nipmuck Indian settlement, a foul gassy stench rose off the water. Three malformed ducks floated close to shore, untroubled by the rain. Across the bridge was one of Worcester’s cultural centers, the famous “White City Plaza” with it’s Burger King, CVS, Laudromat, Cinema, as well as my Uncle’s pizza place, and farther up Route Nine loomed “White City East”. By the time we got back to the car we were both soaked through and shivering, but, before climbing in, I took one good long look back up at the medical center. A barbed wire fence ran around its periphery. There was a large smokestack off to the left, jutting out of the plant that powered the hospital. The hospital itself was a series of dark black-grey cubes that seemed to have been arranged haphazardly, as if by a giant child playing with blocks, and the windows were a slightly darker shade. It occurred to me that if I were ever to direct a re-make of 1984, this building would be perfect as the “Ministry of Fear”. I shuddered from the cold and looked up at the gray slabs that made up the converging wings.
Two days later I had a birthday party.
The day I turned thirty was exactly a week after my operation. During my stay in the hospital Daphne had asked me what I wanted to do for my thirtieth birthday, which was on a Saturday. I said I wanted a party. “Should it be small?” she asked, concerned. “Big,” I said. Now I was glad: I wanted to celebrate after hearing my good news. I asked her to invite all my old friends as well as her fellow med students. She did and two days later they all came.
The house was packed. Most of the people in the crowd were Ultimate Frisbee players or former Ultimate players. My old teammate Hones was downstairs grilling with another ex-teammate, Bobby, and we toasted to our old team, the Hostages, and reminisced about great plays and funny stories. While I hadn’t done much else during my twenties, I had had my share of both. Looking around the room, I decided that Ultimate hadn’t been, as my father once contended, “a colossal waste of time.” Though Ultimate might have been an even sillier pursuit than writing, it had the advantage of not being pursued in solitude. By playing it I had become part of a second family, had become part of a large tribe, and now my tribe was rallying around me. While my real family remained in the South, and had not been able to make it, my Frisbee family had come through for me.
Perhaps retaining some residue bitterness from my week in the hospital, I tacked up a large poster that I called “The Wall of Hate.” On the poster there were a hundred blank spots where partygoers could write in their nominees for the most hated human beings. This was 1991, remember, and notable candidates for most hated included Dick Vitale, Garfield, Nixon (still and always), Bill Lambier, Yakov Smirnoff, Sinbad, The Blonde Poseur who played guitar on Saturday Night Live, Judas, and One-Balled Guys who sing at parties for attention. The party was, as Ultimate parties tend to be, a wild, drunken affair. Still not recovered from the operation, I tried to bluff through as if I was. I remember my roommates Jon Kenton and Dan Stern came, my old college friends Bill Doyle and Simon Long, and was Griff there or was that my 40th? I pooh-poohed any cancer talk, one beer after another sliding down my gullet. Then someone started passing around the tequila.
Suddenly I was a million miles away from the hospital, a million miles away from Benjamin, a million miles away from a grimmer diagnosis. Another Hostage, Paul Turner, had given me a K-tel tape called “The Greatest Hits of the Seventies.” We sang along with “Delta Dawn” and “Having My Baby” and “The Night Chicago Died.” After Rachel brought out the cake I got the whole room to sing “Brandy.” We roared out the epic climax:
Yes Brandy used to watch his eyes
When he told his sailor’s story.
She could see the ocean fall and rise
She saw its rage and glory.
But he had always told the truth
Lord he was an honest man
And Brandy did her best to understand.
I don’t know why “Brandy” affects me so, I only know that it had become the closest thing I had to a personal theme song. That night I told people it was the song I wanted played at my funeral (and I still do).
It was a night full of the usual stupid drunk things: people fought and made out and I put my arms around friends and told them I loved them and danced and maybe even took some of my clothing off. As best I can remember I didn’t wear a lampshade, but if I did it wouldn’t shock me.
And I even danced with Daphne and told her I loved her, which I still did, though we were only a few months away from an ugly end to our seven year relationship.
At one point I remember taking a leak in the bushes while staring at black-blue clouds skudding across a moon that looked like it had been chipped out of soap. I know that because even in my drunken state I found a pen to scribble down that description. (Writing trumping alcohol.)
As the night wore on, Hones, Bobby, and I sat in a circle in the living room passing around a bottle of tequila, a beer, and a joint. Each of us would take a hit of whatever was in front of us and pass it along. Sometimes someone would mutter “cannonball it” in imitation of Bill Murray in Caddy Shack. It was crazy to be doing this right after being cut open and losing so much blood but it was also an appropriate way for my twenties to end.
At the time I had no idea I would be typing this twenty years later. It was accident that guided my story, just as accident guides all our stories. I wasn’t thinking about deeper meaning, not yet. Maybe there is no deeper meaning. Maybe life is the only meaning, not-life the only other meaning. Either way, most of the insights I gained from my illness came long afterward, once I’d had enough time to digest what had happened. But there was one brute fact that I understood right away.
For me the difference between life and death at an early age was as simple as a knee to the balls. Had that not happened or had I had a less sensitive (and brilliant) doctor, my condition might not have been caught. I would have gone about my normal life while the cancer swam happily up into my lymph nodes. I would have found out about it eventually, but it would have been too late.
Forget that I still had weeks of radiation ahead and didn’t have health insurance and that the prospects for both my health and career were uncertain. At the moment none of it mattered. I felt like beating my chest like Tarzan. Is there any happiness happier than that of recovery? Was sick. Now healthy. It’s that simple. It was March 15th, the way it always is on my birthday, and my operation was a week behind and Spring was a week ahead, and it looked like I wasn’t going to be dying any time soon.
My cause for celebration was the most pagan and elemental of all. I would fucking live.
This was adapted from my unpublished memoir, Wormtown, about my year in Worcester.