It is Saturday, the first in November, and I will be dead before the next weekend ends. I say that not with a morbid desire to shock. I don’t say it in a desperate need for attention or sympathy either. I don’t need any of that. And I’m not crazy. Just so you know that too. I tell you what I just told you — and I do it in the strictest confidence — I say it because it is a fact. Like saying, I need to pick up some things at the grocery store this evening or I have to go to work on Monday.
I was informed by Dr. James T. Michaelson that I have a rare form of intestinal cancer. Terminal. He actually used that word. “I am afraid it is terminal,” he said. I’m not sure he was actually afraid, since he doesn’t have cancer but that is what he said. I am pretty sure he doesn’t have terminal cancer. I do, I have terminal cancer. He had prepared me during my last visit, telling me the “could be’s” of my condition. He had prefaced it that time with “Now, don’t be alarmed.” I won’t go into all of that now. Let’s just say that I have been feeling pretty lousy for the last year or so, especially after I eat. And with each visit, you learn to read the nurses’ face and you can tell how serious it is. I went to see my doctor about a month ago. It has all happened pretty quickly. He sent me to another doctor and I went for a series of tests and then two weeks ago this past Monday, Dr. James T. Michaelson told me the news. He didn’t have a timetable but it seems that things advanced rather quickly, so this cancer would continue eating away at my insides at a pretty good clip. They could try to slow it down but it was too far along to reverse or stop it. Could be a few weeks, a month, could be a couple of months, he said. But it will get worse, he told me, much worse. Again, I won’t get into it, but basically, all my insides will start to fail. He said that I’ll start to have trouble keeping food down, I will lose my appetite completely. Things I used to do without thinking will now not only take thought, but concentration and a great deal of effort as well. And then all my bodily functions will start to break down. Like a big machine, each part affecting the next. It could get pretty bad, he said. He asked if I had anyone to help me through this.
“Can’t I still see you?” I asked.
“No,” he said as he reached behind him and grabbed a pencil of the counter. “I meant at home, as this disease progresses. Do you have someone you can count on to act as a caregiver? Someone to help you as this begins to make some of the simplest things you do on a daily basis, very difficult. ”
“Oh,” I said.
The fact of the matter is that I didn’t have someone. I don’t have someone. I discovered that these things afflict single people too. On the bus ride home, that is what kept coming back to me. How could I put anyone through that? Seriously. How could I ask someone to clean me up after I went to the bathroom? How can you ask someone to do that? The way I see it, you couldn’t ask anyone except those you really love and who love you in return. And if you love them — really love them — then you would want to spare them that. Right? That all sounds logical but you just sit there in the doctor’s office and all your brains slip onto the floor.
I had sensed that something was seriously wrong but spent three solid days crying. In bed, in the shower, on the couch, over the kitchen sink. I wasn’t surprised by my fate but I was still shocked.
I am a lawyer by trade. I worked in the state attorney’s office for eighteen years. The last seven, I was the top counsel on staff. I got burned out. I couldn’t take it anymore. If you know anything about the American legal system, especially on a state or city level, you know where I am coming from. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was constantly amazed at the cases that came across my desk – they were all the same. Each defendant, every crazy story, all the egotistical judges and every single God-damned verdict. Even the juries that I helped pick began to look exactly the same. Exactly. The. Same. And I knew that those cases would all end up the same. I would sit at my desk at the beginning of the process. I’d open the folder to familiarize myself with the case. I’d read the arrest records, the affidavits, the sworn testimony, and I would realize that I was already familiar with the case. It was ridiculous. I could predict exactly how each one would end up, as I sat there at my desk. I could feel my head begin to explode as I sat and tried to remember pertinent names and the order of events. I walked away from that job and a three figure salary. All my benefits. Just freed myself from it all.
I‘ve been working in a car wash lately. Happy Car Wash on Seventh and McCormick. I’m going to work here till the end. It is perfect. I work my shift and it all feels good. Every day, every single goddamn day I feel like I did something. I can see the cars shine, the mats and upholstery free of stains and crumbs. I did something real, I can feel it. It is a great feeling at the end of the shift, I walk out of there, peel off my shirt and know that I did the best I could that day. I don’t take anything home with me, nothing to worry about. I don’t think about anything beyond myself, ever. Maybe I wonder about how to work more efficiently, how to do the things I do faster or better but that is it. I work alongside a bunch of guys who don’t even speak English and who come and go, week to week. I never recognize their faces, the guys next to me. I don’t know. There have been times, especially lately, when I have to catch my breath or just sit for a bit and they just keep working. I don’t have to explain anything to them, they just look at me and then go back to work. I like that our whole conversation, our whole relationship, can be summed up in an over the shoulder glance. Or with a knowing head nod. No questions, no explanations.
Thursday was a productive day. When I got home from work, I took a shower. I let the hard sprays of water wash away layers of sweat, of dirt. Before I put my clothes on, I grabbed a file cabinet full of paper and every document I had, every income tax return, every insurance paper, all the old bills and invoices. I stumbled down the stairs and then out on the back porch. I opened the lid and threw them on the grill and lit them on fire, bundle by bundle. I ran back in and threw the unpaid bills from the dining room table in there for good measure. What the hell, I thought? Got rid of anything with my name on it, everything that tells my story, even in the least little bit. It was incredibly easy and quick. And it felt good to do it naked. And this morning, I took all the photographs I owned and threw them in the garbage. The shot of my parents walking down the aisle on their wedding date – my father sour, my mother dazed, just the way they would remain for their 48 years together – that was thrown in the dumpster. As was the photo album my mother made for me, with pictures of me as an infant draped over her arm, or the 11 year old me posing with my sister next to my cake, candles ablaze. All of it went. I didn’t even look at the pictures, I didn’t open the boxes or the albums. I just threw them all away. My life in pictures – up until the age of seventeen anyway – was thrown in among the egg shells, the soiled coffee filers and grounds, the vegetable rinds, the used napkins and box tops. All garbage. I didn’t really have any pictures of myself as an adult anyway. After the divorce, I got rid of a lot of stuff but my sister had sent me some pictures. Whatever I had, all of them, boom, in the trash. When I looked into the can I was looking at myself in a heap. The photographs told my story just as, I guess, my garbage did. What I looked like at my high school graduation, and the items I ate and consumed in the last week.
I took all my money out of the bank. I took everything off my hard drive, erased all the memory on my computer. I have been spending some evenings visiting a few people I know, people on my street. I gave my lawn mower, my shovels to my neighbor. My cousin got some paintings, and some books. Some guys I used to work with got my couch, my small upright piano. There is one guy at the car wash, his name is Julio, and he speaks some English. I told Julio that he was free to take whatever he wanted. He showed up that night with a few friends and filled up a pick up truck with the TV, all my pots and pans, the plates, some lamps, some books, so much stuff. Stuff that I have had since college, some stuff Anne and I got, other stuff just a few years old. It didn’t matter. I just sat on the stairs, and watched the four guys move about the place like they had just discovered a treasure chest in each room. Their eyes darted about from wall to wall, they’d pick things up cautiously like they expected to be scolded. When I did not stop them, they hurried the items out to the truck. Julio and the three Mexican guys kept smiling at me and shaking their heads. Thank you, thank you, they said in their staccato English. They were more than welcome. They had no idea what a huge favor they were doing for me.
All traces of me are disappearing, mostly gone now. Layers of myself, my life, my whereabouts. All I have left are the basics to get by for a week. Some paper plates, some milk, some ketchup, some crackers. I don’t have a lot of energy now. I haven’t been that hungry so I am not missing much. This purifying has been incredibly easy, though. Extremely gratifying to rid myself of the past, and just concentrate on the next seven days. Nothing more than that.
So the last few days, as I have rid myself of everything I own, all my material belongings, my “vast wealth” as they say, I am filled, instead, with silence. There is the rush of cleansing, of ridding yourself of crap, years of crap. But when you get rid of everything, you are left with nothing. The emptiness is vast. It is so wide, I feel like I am swimming in it. My mind has been racing but it doesn’t know where to go. It is like trying to walk on ice. I keep moving cause that is all I know how to do, but I’m not going anywhere and I don’t know where I want to go anyway. All I have is one week. I try to think about what is left. What have I left behind? I want to leave this hellhole the way I came in — with nothing, with no pull on any other person. My emotions have been on a rollercoaster though. Anger, relief, disillusionment, confusion, and more anger. But I am mostly tired now. I didn’t anticipate feeling this. I don’t know what I thought would happen but the relief, the sense of euphoria, keeps being short-lived.
I sit on the floor and feel the sun pass through the front windows. I close my eyes and just feel the warmth on my skin, making it tingle and strangely alive, while my insides feel empty and broken. I have a tough time focusing on any one thing and find I don’t have any one thing to try to focus on. My sister stopped calling me but then I unplugged my phone the other day. I am not sure if I tossed it or gave it away but I don’t have it anymore. So if Carol has called since then, I haven’t heard it. I still have a mailbox but I don’t know how to stop the mail from coming.
Carol and I used to be close, when we were younger, in our twenties. We started to drift apart when she had kids and my marriage dissolved. It was tough to talk after that. Her life was going well and I was against the wall each night. She could recognize the differences that were separating us, but she never spoke to me about it. When our parents died, we stood separately in black and greeted cousins and various friends with a smile and a soft “thank you.”
And as I sit in the sun, I can feel my brain getting muddy. I think about things I never thought of before. Simple things, like, I think I should raise my arm up and get that bowl in the cabinet. And I have to push the feeling out, until it becomes an action. I watch my arm move upwards slowly and it is all I can focus on. It is ludicrous.
Dr. James T. Michaelson did not prescribe any medicine for me, at least on that initial visit. I guess a Death Notice is enough of a parting gift from that kind of consultation. He said that he needed to come up with a “game plan” as to how we would attack this disease. I was surprised by this. I didn’t think we were going to fight anymore but I guess you have to fight something. When the living loses out, you begin to fight with the death, I guess. The problem was, though, I didn’t feel much like fighting.
I took a container of pills from my medicine cabinet, and removed the white plastic top and stared down at the pattern of various colors, jagged and elbowing for room. I had been saving them for the past year. Whatever was left in the medicine cabinet, some stuff at least ten fifteen years old. Some heavier pills I got from a friend of mine. But this was the first time I stopped and looked at what I had collected. On Friday night, my forty-eighth birthday, I drew a bath, the water so hot I could barely stand it and slide into the tub with hardly a ripple.