Friday, April 10, 2009

Mt. Bachelor

I'm lying on my back, staring up at a beautiful, snow-covered mountain. Morning sun falls across the golden snow, and a forest of dark trees, still in shadow, marches towards the glowing mountain. The heavens are an indigo abyss... as my perception draws back, I find myself on a table, staring at a poster on the ceiling, while a grandmotherly technician scans my family business with an ultrasound. The poster's subject is the mountain, and the mountain's name is Mt. Bachelor.

I ask the technician if the poster was a cruel joke.

That was the day before I learned I needed surgery for a mass found on my testicle.

A few weeks ago, I woke up in pain, feeling like I’d been kicked. The pain lasted all day, and gave way to swelling. I checked, and thought I felt something, but I also thought I might be imagining it. Maybe I was just paranoid. I didn’t want to jump the gun. But the pain returned periodically, and I made an appointment for a physical.

At the physical, my doctor had me take urine and blood tests. He said he didn’t think my condition was serious, but he scheduled me for the ultrasound just in case. A few days later, the lab work came back – perfectly healthy, except there were some red blood cells in my urine.

Though the lab results were relieving, I still didn’t want to face the results of the ultrasound. The weekend was beautiful, the first warm, sunny days of spring. I went to my appointment on Monday and then spent the afternoon drinking with Mike at Nick’s Coney Island, watching the hipsters and hippies walk down Hawthorne in summer clothes pulled from their wardrobes for the first time in months. I napped when I got home, and missed the message on my machine.

Dr. Crouse wanted me to call him immediately.

It was too late, so after another round of drinks, I set my alarm for 8:30 am and went to bed. The phone rang at 8. I answered it. It was Dr. Crouse.

“The ultrasound indicates a mass. I’ve made you an appointment with a urologist.”


“Today, at 2.”

I thanked him and hung up. There didn’t seem to be much good in getting out of bed.

The urologist’s office called to reschedule for 4. When I arrived at the clinic, I was asked to report to the lab for a urine test. The form was marked STAT in big, red, block letters.

When Dr. Zusman entered the room he asked to examine me. No preamble, really. Very direct, matter of fact. Cold, almost. I laid down on the table and he looked to see if my lymph nodes were swollen. “Do you have family in town?” he asked.

By this time, I’d been poked, probed, and prodded by man, woman, and machine alike. Modesty went the way of the coelacanth many days back. I’d told myself that if things came out worst case, I wanted a doctor that was up-front and didn’t mince words. I got my wish – Dr. Zusman is like that, but when he examined me all I could think was that he was a dick.

He’s not, though. He sat down and adopted his “I have bad news” face. When you’re expecting it, it’s obvious. He had his routine, and I had my tough-guy routine, too. I’d already accepted the diagnosis and I knew what was coming. It sounds easy to say – that I’d made my peace – but I had made my peace, done the research, all indicators pointed to the next step, and when Dr. Zusman recommended surgery, it came as no surprise. We spoke for a while, I signed a consent form and headed down to the lab for a baseline blood test, and then I went to the bar.

On Tuesdays, I play pool at a billiards hall in Hollywood, with two really close friends. I was late arriving. I had to tell them. They were the first to hear about it, and it hasn’t gotten easier informing anyone else. You want your friends to know, but this kind of news is shocking. There’s no way to make it easy on people, and my heart nearly broke seeing the look on Kerri’s face, and hearing Matt blurt out “But you don’t ride a bike!” I’d lived with it for a few weeks; no one else had the chance to catch up.

Part of the problem is that there's no way to determine if this is cancer without removal. Fortunately, removal is the first and best treatment if this turns out to be cancer. And those test results aren’t due back until next Tuesday. I can’t tell people it isn’t a big deal yet. I still have people to call, and each time it’s rough.

None rougher, though, than calling my parents on Tuesday night. Kerri insisted I use her cell phone. I stood in the parking lost in the waning light of day, the first few stars appearing in the darkening sky, and conversed back and forth with my Mom and Dad for half an hour. My mother is a nurse – she can hide her worry behind that. But my father can’t – he can only hide his worry behind care and the macho behaviors and social norms that men are allowed. And maybe those aren’t the healthiest ways to deal with emotion.

I feel like I want to spare the people I care about all the details, but I also want them to know what’s happening. The more information I share, the less friends, family, and coworkers have to worry about. Humor has been really helpful, as have the support of friends I've called upon since the initial decision to perform surgery (and one since the first symptoms). The process was long enough to prepare me for the worst, and so far this isn't the worst. I knew, in a strange, unknowable way, that the first symptoms were serious. I can't explain how I knew that. But I’ve had a chance to live with it for a while. This is one of those things that some people are embarrassed by - patient or otherwise. But it's life, you know? It sucks you-know-what, but it happens. The surgery is minor - an hour or so long, and I come out the same day, half the man I used to be... All jesting aside, it's a simple procedure and after a few days I'll be itching to get out. Those mountain hikes are farther away than my two-week, mandated rest period, though.

On Wednesday morning, the clinic called to tell me my surgery was scheduled for Thursday morning, and I spent the day getting ready to go to my parent’s house. I packed clothes, books to read, went through my bills. I went out with some close friends, but wasn't allowed to drink alcohol. In my mind, I blocked out the surgery, focusing on what I needed to do to prepare, and what I would need afterwards. Thursday morning was a blank spot, and the night seemed the same. I was with my friends, but we all knew what would happen the next morning. We joked about it, I was teased a lot, and it helped distract me. But I can’t say I wasn’t afraid. I got home, washed the dishes, smoked a last cigarette, and went to bed several hours after midnight.

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