What We Shoot When We’re at War
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2010
The radiologist fingered the mouse, moving the picture back and forth to illustrate it from various angles. His hand guided the mouse over the square rubber pad, clicking to give us sharper views of the spot. There was an uncomfortable silence that weighed on us in the room, my oncologist, my wife, the radiologist, and me. A strange inarticulacy had certainly come over my wife, Emily, and I. Moreover, while we were being shown the results from the CT scan, there was the feeling of being unable to look at one another. It felt like we were a little embarrassed by the disease and shamed by our own response to it having come back again. We were totally unprepared. We didn’t think it’d come back in the lungs. Shamed because we naively believed that the cancer would stay in my abdomen and pelvis (where it was originally diagnosed). How dare it move around to other parts of my body? How dare it change the way I know the disease? How dare it thrust upon us this new, terrible experience? The more he zoomed in, the more we blushed. My ears grew warm. My wife’s face flushed. It was like we’d been made fools by the tiny bit of remission we’d experienced; made fools by, in remission, falling back into some naive position, taking for granted the power of the disease; and now, awash with the news, we were ashamed to look one another in the eyes. I’d convinced myself of health. She’d convinced me of health. We’d convinced one another. It wasn’t so much a deceit we’d played with, but it certainly wasn’t the truth of things. We let the cool waters of remission bathe us and invigorate us. My initial thought, staring at the new images, was to damn myself right to hell for the stupidity for which I’d hoped remission was forever, a state of being we’d forever be able to swim in.
Breaking the silence that weighed on us, the radiologist asked, “See here? See how they’re along the edge of the lung?” He moved the image around to illustrate, from another point of view, the extent to which the cancer had dug in to the soft tissue cells of my right lung.
A couple of days ago my oncologist, Dr. V—, told me bluntly and very simply, “Two spots. Right lung.” I remember sitting on the examining bed and growing very warm and sick. I wanted to cry, but there was the sense that I’d forgotten how to do it. I began to think, as he was telling me more about the recurrence, that I didn’t really know how to cry. I wondered if it was truly involuntary because if there was any time to cry then this was the moment to do it. I grew angry. I know actors can make themselves cry, but it is fake. It’s not really crying. And I sat there listening to him, now a ludicrous mouthful of noises — like Charlie Brown’s teacher — and I thought about crying, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was angry and sad. I was sick and tired. A lump was growing in my throat and there was a tightening in my chest. I peeked over at Emily, who was sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, across from the doctor. By “peeked” I mean I looked over at her like she was a stranger on a bus, interested in knowing what they were doing but couldn’t just turn my head to see what was what. It was a moment when she ceased to be my wife at all or even somebody I knew. The whole peeking out the corner of the eye at her made me feel terrible. The tightening in my chest grew worse. I thought I’d have to tear my shirt off for breathe. I wanted to cry or to do something that gave the illusion of caring, an outward depiction of care for self; but, alas, nothing. The lump in my throat throbbed. Emily was crying. She just let it go when he told us. She wasn’t sobbing or anything, but tears were freely running from her eyes. She was asking him questions even, not afraid to be crying, to have tears run freely from her eyes. She had no tissues to clean up her face so she just let it all pour down her face. Finally, after some time, the doctor had handed her a box of tissues of which she took a couple. She’d been able to stay rationale and coherent even in the process of shedding tears. I think I was sitting there beyond ruddy, grown mute, hearing but not hearing. I was incoherent at best.
What was so ridiculous about it is that it’s nothing new. I’ve been dealing with cancer for three years now. I’ve been beating it pretty soundly. At the beginning of the first go-round, three years ago, I was told I had four months to live. Then I had two chemotherapy bombing campaigns and surgery. I was suddenly clean. I was in a kind of remission for 22 months, until in August of 2009, when the same doctor said, “Spot in pelvis, about this big.” He held up his index finger and thumb, measuring about an inch. “Surgery will take care of it.” So surgery it was. They opened me up and extracted the stuff.
If one were keeping score it would be Cancer: 2, Me: 2.
And yet, here we are. “Two spots. Right lung.” It’s not the pelvis anymore. It’s more serious, I suppose. It’s the lung. The place that takes in all the air you have and then disperses it through the blood to all the other parts of your body. It’s now the new host to the same knockout, lights-out treatment. Four rounds of Ifosfamide and Doxorubicin. It’s like killing daisies with a nuclear bomb. The insurgency of my cancer has come back with a vengeance.
If one were keeping score it would be Cancer: 3, Me: 2.
I’ve barely recovered from my surgery in November of this past year. I’m probably about 15 pounds underweight, and my wife and I were looking at the new cancer in my body. It was a startling image. We were looking at the sum total of rebel cells that are multiplying on their own accord, radicalizing without rhyme or reason like the insurgents in Iraq who could harness and disperse terror but couldn’t secure a path to the airport. It was mindless and random. There they were. We looked, hunched forward, peered: two gray smudges pulsating either from the life they lived or the static quality of the screen we watched them on – a couple of grey blotches on the black canvas of space known as “my right lung.” It looked like the New York metropolitan area by night from space – a web of lights, a grid of circuits. I was going to tell my wife that, but I didn’t. She stared into the monitor. She stared so hard that it seemed as if she thought she could bore into the meaning of it with her gaze.
There’s a strange feeling of being removed from the thing being studied even though there you are, in hi-def, on the screen of a computer in a back room of an oncologist’s office. There’s actually two of you: the old you (August scan) in one screen and the new you (most recent scan) on another screen. There’s you, your lungs, two spots of cancer. There’s your wife and your oncologist and your radiologist. There’s the computer, the double screens, the spots and the rest of your life. There’s the reality of intense chemotherapy dawning on you, beginning to gnaw on the back of your brain like feedback in a Jimi Hendrix song. “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually …” you think briefly, before your doctor, adding to your own disbelief, acts surprised. He is saying, “Yeah. They’re bigger than I first imagined.” He’s sucking in air like he’d spilled milk and was waiting for his mother to scold him.
In my body cells are multiplying in ways that causes other cells to try and kill them or coerce them to commit suicide – a last-ditch effort in the counterinsurgency happening at the biological and molecular level. The healthy cells are losing the battle right now. If my body were in a political season, this kind of anarchy would spell defeat for any incumbency. I wonder if they’re giving in or letting it happen. I wonder to myself, Do the cells in ones body even know how to quit? If I wasn’t so bowled over by the possibility of chemotherapy and the sick and the loss of hair and the blunt fact that my being in the world is in jeopardy, I’d want to laugh at how absurd everything is including the machines that illustrate my cancer, the desk they sit on, the florescent lights above my head, the Bluetooth piece my radiologist wears that blinks blue for some reason, the stethoscope my doctor wears around his neck, and the strange geometry of the four of us in this cramped little room. It makes me want to laugh out loud. It’s so funny that I can’t almost stand it.
My wife’s eyes are bloodshot like she’s stayed up all night, a victim of insomnia. Her eyes are a deep blue, more blue than usual as if the trauma, ironically, has taken out the impurities of the blue and allowed her eyes to shine in a some kind of pure state. These are the images I’m committing to memory as if I’m a human video camera. The premiere at a date to be determined.
We woke up the next day after finding out about the cancer, and we decided to go on with the events of our daily lives — however small and minuscule in comparison to it. Sure, there was a great hurt at the heart of things, a weight, not terrible, but poignant with a strange language, we knew not yet its symbols and syntax. It burrowed itself into our hearts. Some kind of ache neither of us could pinpoint; but it was searing. We thought the best medicine was not to acknowledge it at all. When we did look at it, speak to it, we’d grimace in pain. What were the words to employ? How did one speak to it? Shall we speak in hushed tones or raised voices? What were the words to rightly capture it?
It was the newborn elephant in the room of our lives. We walked lightly around it, tried not to wake it up. So we went to work. What else was there for us to do? At first we were to afraid to be alone with it, and so we fell headlong into our jobs, my wife taking care of the brand she was in charge of and me caring for the intellectual lives of my students. Anything but cancer was our silent motto. We had yet to formally talk about it, but it was something we’d come to agree upon.
Anything but cancer. Move ahead. Be anywhere but here.
Four days later we’d be in New York City. My wife and I had planned a little get away to New York a few weeks earlier. She’s here to shoot a commercial for the company she works for, and I tagged along because it’s the long President’s Day weekend and, because I teach 10th grade American literature at a private school in Las Vegas, I would have extra time in the City with her before production begins. The day before we went to New York City I talked with my classes about the end of The Great Gatsby, the scene where Nick erases the obscenities that were left behind on Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” by some rabble-rouser kid wandering in the last summer days in East Egg — what must have seemed to Nick as the end of days themselves. My students had trouble with the final image of the boats seemingly not being able to go anywhere at all, stuck between the current and the memory of where they’d once traveled.
Most of them thought the novel was terribly pessimistic and it seemed to confirm something they already knew about America. They were almost irreverent in their reading of Fitzgerald; but one of my students, Sameera, the child of immigrants from Pakistan, said that the end of the book was incredibly optimistic. She was the only one. She loved it, thought it the most moving thing she’d read all year — even after “all the violence and insanity of the earlier part of the novel,” she’d told us. She said that she hadn’t expected something so emotionally intense and promising given the debauchery of the rest of it, and for effect she dangled the book by two fingers in front of her face like it was something she’d found in the gutter.
For her defense she noted the phrases, “So we beat on,” which begins the end of the last line of the novel, and the “transitory enchanted moment” that Nick talks about when the Dutch sailors caught their first glimpses of the new world. I didn’t know if I agreed with her yet, but I let her have her moment because I was sick and tired of my kids’ cynicism and flippancy and “everything is terrible” mood. They were so ominous and gloomy, and when I thought about it too much I realized it wasn’t necessarily their fault, that this was their default setting. It transcended their reading of the novel. It was something at the heart of them as kids growing up in Las Vegas, being the offspring of air-conditioning. They were, with the sole exception of Sameera, ironic and cool, recession-weary and modern, doubting Nick’s musings at the end of the novel.
“Like, whatever, man,” was the silence they gave me. “Whatever,” they seemed to say in their way too cool look.
It was at this time that as she was talking the thought came into my mind: “Two spots. Right lung;” but rather than feeling the terror of dying (because, let’s be honest, how many times can one beat cancer?), a strange calm came to me as my sixteen-year-old student told the class about how Nick’s experience with Gatsby reinvigorated his understanding of the American dream and, more than anything, man’s sense of wonder. She said (as all teenager’s do – everything ending as a question) about how Nick’s restlessness was “maybe not cured, but, like, tempered? Which is all we can really hope for? And that’s, like, sort of, good enough for me?”
I didn’t understand it then, the feeling I had, the fact that my melancholy was setting me free. Today, in New York City, the melancholy I have come to know is related to a kind of calm that has come over me, and by proxy my wife. Rather than the despair I felt three years ago after I had first been diagnosed and being told I had 4 months to live in order to get my “life in order,” I feel remarkably cool. There’s really no other word. And yet, there’s this: how many times can one beat cancer? is what I am thinking about right now in this exact moment – sitting in my hotel room, listening to jazz music, and the view of lower Manhattan looming at the edge of my vision where, I can’t help but think about every time I look out into it, the twin towers once stood before two planes slammed into them and they exploded and fell down in a murderous cacophony, the incoherent rumbling prophetic of what would become the very cancer of our age — a so-called war on terror.
Today there’s low cloud cover, and so the city seen is the city in clouds, a heavy gray that is full of snow flurries. It wouldn’t be so bad usually (anything but the potentially grueling, hard sunshine of Las Vegas), but the news we’ve been given paints everything in a new light or at least lets us see things as they may truly be.
“How many times can one beat cancer?” I say under my breath, as I write, so my wife won’t hear it. It doesn’t mean anything other than that. It’s mere inquiry, almost like one of the many millions of questions we ask ourselves everyday, questions we never even answer. But this question: “How many times can one beat cancer?” It keeps coming back. I think about dying all the time these days. I think about it when I am deep in the midst of six-mile run up the Las Vegas strip at dawn, as Americans stumble out of smoky casinos, braced by the blue orange haze of a desert morning. “Passing away,” I think, as I drive through a neighborhood called the Naked City, a poor, drug-addled, no-man’s land — three blocks of loosely related apartment complexes where the dark-side of supply-side economics dwells in the shadow of the Stratosphere Casino and Resort, a Vegas icon where people, for money, even in this recession, pay to free-fall from the top of the building, which is really a tall spire (akin to Seattle’s Space Needle) that stabs the sky with its needle. “Dying,” I think, when checking the heft of oranges or inspecting organic broccoli in the produce aisle at Whole Foods. “Going to die,” as I tie up the garbage to take outside, or when I’m in the “Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer;” and the moment right before I fall into sleep there’s always, “Death.” I think about it almost as if it’s a secret I’m keeping with myself because if I voice it, even to my wife, I think I am being morbid or it’ll be used as further evidence to a depression others think I may be suffering, even though the word, “depressing,” can’t even begin to capture the notion or feeling of living with cancer.
I’d originally gotten to thinking about all this as we were at the airport waiting for the flight to take off. I was reading an article about the troops in Afghanistan who had just started a huge, new offensive against the Taliban. It wasn’t so much the article that drew me in or even the political intrigue, but it was the accompanying photo. It was a group of marines taking a knee around their general. All the guys were so young, and yet there was a being-worn-out that I identified with, the squinting of eyes from the brightness of the sun, the hunched shoulders – ever aware of the intensity of each moment in the world. I gazed deep into the picture to get a better look. I was drawn in because the caption said something about them being briefed right before a battle to come.
The general was addressing them, and they were listening to him like he was a beloved grandfather. One soldier had his head down, and you could tell he heard everything and was mulling it over. Looking in from the outside it felt like anything the general could say about the potentialities of battle couldn’t possibly do justice to the stark reality of what was going to come. His speech probably addressed strategies and tactics, hilltops to capture and somewhere, on the edges of it, what was left unspoken was the misery of it all, to be caught in the gaze of death. The misery of not knowing. The misery of letting go and quite possibly falling away — off into nothing.
They listened. He talked. They watched him. He paced.
Roadside bombs. Friendly fire. Search and Destroy. Everything was peppered with the familiar words of destruction and mayhem, the hard data of war, but behind it was the theoretical — the haunting of something known by all of them but completely unintelligible. They’d volunteered for this, and it was the one thing they knew very little about. It was the thing they signed up to do, but the last thing anyone ever talked about.
All of them were in camouflage (as if they could really hide from it, even up there in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan), their fingers resting over the trigger guards of their rifles. The general, when the picture was snapped, was mid-stride, walking in the middle of the circle his boys left him to wander and talk. He had his hand at his chin. You could tell he was thinking about something else to say. The boys were paying attention, even to the old man’s silence.
I peered into the photo, drawn into the tension of the picture. I told my wife, who I’d only been married to a little more than eight months, about it the next day when we were eating brunch at a restaurant in Chelsea, several days after the trip to the radiologist. I told her about it because it made me think about being sick and how maybe I might die soon and we had to give some thought to it, talk about it, give it our voices. We’d have to find the language. The symbols. The syntax.
See, the old man might have been about to tell his boys that they were going to go fight and some would die very soon. He was going to tell them that they’d have these moments when all the fight that was born in them would seem to be all gone — because to be sure, we’d all been born with fight but, ironically, our little daily lives asked us to forget our own default setting. So much of these speeches were to re-awaken the fighting spirit, uncover the thing at the center of us that, while forgotten, pushed into each day we’d found ourselves. I told my wife about it because I thought she should know where I was, what kind of place I was inhabiting in my mind. I said to her a couple of times, like an apology, “I’m not trying to be morbid. I think we should talk about it.”
I told her about the picture and how I thought that the old man was trying to tell them that they’d have these instances where they’d be valiant, but they’d have many more moments where they’d feel shame at just giving birth to the very idea of giving up. He was thinking about telling his boys that they’d be in the midst of the fight and they’d want to lay down and quit.
I told my wife, her eyes welling up, but me grabbing her hand to comfort her because we were in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day for God’s sakes. I was trying to comfort her because I wanted her to know that it was going to be okay, whatever the hell that meant but using the only word I could, the only word I knew to use. I said, “It’s going to be okay.”
And she said, “I know. Go on, tell me. I’m not crying out of sadness.” She let the tears fall down her face. They were big tears that started at the inside corner of her eyes and ran down her cheeks over her rouge. The trail of tears were like tributaries of some larger, more muscular river.
Outside the restaurant there was New York traffic. Cabs and people and dogs and trash. The intensity and beauty of it all was born in the feeling that it felt like it was all going to fall to pieces at any minute, like the world could break apart at the seams at any minute, any second —like it was being held together by the weakest of materials.
She wiped at her eyes, dabbed at her cheeks. But there was no stopping it. It was going to come, I thought.
I made an attempt to tell my wife about fear and dying and fighting on and being there in the world, almost like her and I were drawing up the rudimentary parts of a pact we were making with one another. The city sun was shining a bit from behind some gun metal clouds. The air was very cold. It made the lungs hurt if you’d breathed in too quickly. We’d forgotten this kind of cold living the last year of our life, our honeymoon year, in Las Vegas, out in the desert in the heat, near the irony and illusion of experience that is so much the thing that defines our newfound city. The New York street was full of people and cars and noise. Everywhere you looked was a photo to be shot and everything was beautiful the way I saw it, just how dazzling and enchanting it is to be in it and have it hold us in its grip, surround us in its vision.
I have cancer. Metastatic Sarcoma. Right lung. Back home the doctors are writing up the orders for a regimen of chemotherapy to try to “cure” me of this thing I cannot shake. Deep down in me I know there is no cure because it’ll just keep coming back. There’s no getting around it, and so here I am.
I didn’t tell her about the photo in those words I used to tell you. But I think she got it, the picture I tried to frame, the picture she readily gazed into with me by her side. Till death do us part. Sickness and in health. Richer and poorer. Etcetera.
To lighten the mood, as our coffees grew cold and our lemon tart warm enough to run all over the graham cracker crust and blend with the ice cream that was losing its frozen form, I told her to look at a building I could see through the window behind her. It was similar to the buildings we knew in Chicago, when we used to live there – a neighborhood by the lake, full of 19th century brownstones.
I said, asking her to look into the past, “Look at that building behind you. It’s like the homes in the Gold Coast. Do you remember?”
Before she looked, there was a single enchanted moment where she tried to recall the image of Astor, Walton, or Oak Street, a moment where she removed some of her blonde hair from her blue eyes and focused them in such a way that permitted her to not only see outward but also see inward, into some place we used to inhabit and know together. When she had it she turned and I was able to catch a glimpse of her profile. The sunlight that filled the space behind her was odd. It was silver almost. It filled up the space behind her like an overexposed photo, like dynamite had been exploded at the margins of things.
She looked at the building and smiled. Her eyes beamed.
Boy, I thought. Her eyes are so damn beautiful.
I didn’t know what else to say or think. It was all just so beautiful that for a brief, fleeting instant, I almost couldn’t stand it and felt like I would burst out from under my skin and evaporate into the atmosphere like pure light must moving at such incomprehensible speeds. I stared at her and took the shot. It was the only thing I could do, the only control I had in this, the crisis of being eaten by cancer. I shot her there, the image of her, because I’m storing as many as I can get just in case I can peruse them in what I can only assume are the astonishingly quiet waters of eternity.