Authors: Brendan Halpin
This book is for Kirsten
To Daniel Sokatch, for everything.
To Dana Reinhardt, without whom this would just be some thing I showed to some friends.
To Douglas Stewart, my agent, for believing in the book and working hard on its behalf.
To Pamela Cannon, my editor, for all she’s done to make this a better book. (Update: as I compared versions while compiling this ebook, I was struck again and again by how right on Pamela’s edits were. Also, and I thanked her for this in the Donorboy acknowledgments, but she really made me believe I was a writer and not just some guy that something happened to who wrote it down. I owe her a lot.)
To Andrew “Petey” Sokatch and Lisa Graustein for encouraging early reads, high-quality feedback, and for going to see kung fu movies with me.
To Sara, A.P. and Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash, the Stooges, Matthew Sweet, Shonen Knife, Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, The Jackson 5, U2, and The Rolling Stones for making the music that sustained me through a hellish six months.
To Carol Bell and everybody from First Church who supported us and helped clean our house.
To Nan Olson for taking care of us twice, and Carl, Kyle, David, Elizabeth, and Mary Olson for making that possible.
To Peg Halpin and David and Cynthia Shanks for giving us life, for helping us out when we needed it, and for patience with your offspring.
Kirsten told me I should write it all down. I think she thinks it will be good therapy for me. I have noticed that the stuff written about my situation is usually a line or two in the cancer books: “This is a tough time for him, too.” So maybe there is some room for my story. I begin this on October 7, 2000. Tomorrow is our sixth anniversary.
Somehow, as much as I wish he weren’t, the Troll feels like part of this story. We lived for 4 years in a condo over a childless couple: a Grizzly-Adams-looking, dyspeptic folk singer and his wife. We’ll leave the wife out of it, though she was a pain in the ass too. The husband, hereafter known as The Troll, is a loudmouth bully–one of those guys who is angry all the time and never stops to consider the possibility that maybe it’s not everyone else in the world who’s an asshole.
After our daughter, Rowen, was born, he became convinced that we were torturing him by allowing our daughter to walk. Honestly. This despite the fact that
favorite hobby was rattling our floors with his own special brand of 1970s wuss-rock. His response to our completely unreasonable practice of allowing our offspring to move freely about our home got increasingly loony, culminating in him pounding on our door one Sunday morning and then running away and then calling Kirsten a “stupid, ignorant, tight-lipped bitch” in front of our daughter the next day. He made his best to make our selling our condo and moving out difficult, including extorting 175 bucks in bogus “fines” from the condo association out of us. Our infractions included vacuuming at 9:00 a.m. and “heavy footfalls.” Our lawyer told us the fines were bullshit and he’d be happy to fight them for us for 200 bucks an hour. We paid and sold the place for two and half times what we’d paid for it. The Troll wrote “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA” on the back of the canceled check.
I never tried to take any revenge, figuring that getting in a lunacy contest with someone who has such a large head start is bad policy and that, you know, living well was the best revenge.
This has two implications for my story. One is that I took comfort in the knowledge that this hateful fuck would remain a hateful fuck and continue to find that the whole world was against him, while we would live happy lives in our new home.
The other implication is that we were busy moving all summer, and Kirsten decided to wait until her annual checkup in August to get those lumps in her right breast checked out.
She had painful lumps in her right breast. A year earlier, she’d had an ultrasound for some other lumps and been told that they were nothing. So it was easy for her to blow these off and wait.
It wouldn’t have been easy for me. I am a terrible hypochondriac. I worry constantly that every pain I have is a sign of a deadly disease, that my vision is blurring, that I have mad cow disease, that my pee is too bubbly, you name it. I also get chronic testicular inflammations. I had three ultrasounds on my nuts within six months because I was convinced I had testicular cancer. I mean, if your right nut feels like a bowling ball, that must mean something serious is wrong. Right?
Wrong, as it turns out. Sometimes my epididymis, which is a tube that carries sperm out of the testicle and sort of loops around it on the way out, gets inflamed. No big deal except, you know, my balls hurt a lot. C’est la vie.
Kirsten is always the steady one in these situations. She reassures me that I don’t have testicular cancer, that I don’t have mad cow disease, that my kidneys aren’t failing. She is the voice of reason.
So when she said that those lumps were probably nothing, I didn’t, you know, insist that she bust her ass into the doc’s office because it could be serious. She wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t concerned.
My dad died when I was nine. He fell over dead for no apparent reason. Kind of like a grown-up version of a crib death. He was thirty-five. I’m now thirty-two. Now you know why I’m such a hypochondriac.
My parents had been raised Catholic, but had lapsed. I grew up with a terrible fear of dying and a kind of vague fear of hell informed mostly by my five visits to mass with relatives and some horror movies.
My mom returned to the Catholic Church when I was in college. I still remember getting this letter one day in which she said, “I have been going to mass every day.” I was convinced she had lost her mind. Even Catholics think it’s weird to go to mass every day. Nobody does that except for the priests, who have to, and old ladies.
Well, she hadn’t lost her mind, though now she only goes to mass weekly, the church has been a very positive force in her life. While she could return to the Catholic Church, I, who had never been in it, could not return.(I mean, yeah, they got me baptized just in case their parents had been right, but they stopped going to church about a week later. It doesn’t seem like it counts, though if the Catholics are right, this ought to be enough to get me past limbo and into purgatory, assuming I don’t do anything horrible between now and when I die.) I didn’t know what to do. I had vague religious leanings and too much skepticism to profess belief in Christ’s divinity or resurrection, both of which seem to me to be kind of beside the point of his message anyway, which I know is some kind of heresy. So, naturally, I became a Unitarian.
I have been going, more or less regularly, to the Wednesday night prayer group at my church. This is an unusually Christian kind of activity for Unitarians to engage in. We’re much better at petition drives and protests. Not only do we say the “Our Father and Mother” (we are still Unitarians, after all) we also sort of chant the 23rd Psalm at the beginning, without even trying to correct for patriarchal language. The 23rd Psalm, by the way, is great. Thinking of yourself as a sheep being led around by a benevolent God is a pretty comforting thought when things are tough. I also like the end: “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We’ll see.
Though Emerson, the man who sort of runs the prayer group, is a spiritual superhero, and I do love everybody there, I found this summer that I was going less than I used to. While I like to pray, I need to go to group because I am too lazy to do it by myself. I started to have doubts, though. I know prayer makes me feel good, and I believe it’s effective, but if God can intervene in the world, I guess I wonder why she doesn’t do it more often. If God intervenes, where was he in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, etc. etc. etc.? Therefore God doesn’t intervene. So why am I asking him to look out for people, or grant healing to people, or to bring somebody home safely? What am I doing? Does it matter? I think I have now officially become a Unitarian. I am too tied in knots intellectually to pray.
This crisis of faith comes before–
, mind you–the Diagnosis.
Kirsten went for her annual physical. When she came back, she said that her doctor had recommended that she go for another ultrasound. So she went. Rowen and I went too. We walked around the pond near the doctor’s office looking at the geese and feeding them. Rowen picked up a stick and announced that it was a magic wand. There was goose shit everywhere, so we imagined that she could make it go away with her magic wand. “Zoop! No more poop!” she’d say. It was a beautiful summer day and I was happy.
Later I heard that they had found a dead bird carrying the West Nile virus very near to where Rowen and I had been walking. I worried about West Nile. Had I been bitten by a mosquito that day? Had Rowen?
The ultrasound came back inconclusive. The doc said something like, “It doesn’t really look cancerous. It doesn’t really look benign.” Apparently it was round on one side, which is cyst-like, and nubbly on the other side, which is cancer-like. So they set up an appointment with some kind of breast specialist.
Weeks went by, as they always do when you are waiting to see a specialist. We unpacked, worked on the new house, stripped wallpaper, and made a million trips to the Home Despot.
The breast specialist looked at the ultrasound and decided to order a mammogram and a “needle biopsy.” Here’s where it started to get scary. But ok, you can still talk to ten women and probably five of them have had an ultimately benign lump in their breast biopsied.
I didn’t go with her to the biopsy. It didn’t seem important. It’s just a formality. When they described the procedure to her, they said it was basically sticking a needle into the lump and sucking some cells out.
When she came home, her breast was bandaged, bruised, and bloody. She described how they had held this gun-like apparatus to her breast and fired it in nine times. They sent her home with this information sheet that said, “you may experience some oozing.” All the sudden, this felt real. I got incredibly sad when she undressed. It just looked like she’d been beaten up. I guess she had. I had to leave the room to cry, because I understood very clearly that my role was to be positive. This looked bad, though.
The biopsy was Friday morning before Labor Day weekend, so it was going to be Wednesday before we found anything out. We had dinner with some friends and had a very nice weekend.
School started that week. I am a high school teacher at a small charter high school in Boston. Tuesday was upper-class orientation. I met my advisees again–this is a group of kids that has the misfortune of having me as the person in charge of organizational stuff like filing their transcripts and presenting their grades to their parents, and the good fortune of having me as someone to listen to them and advocate for them. I suck at the organizational part of this job, and I have been very good at the advocate/counselor kind of parts. Anyway, it was nice to see my advisees again. I have a lot of affection for them even though many of them are chronic pains in the ass who are always in trouble because they can’t stop themselves from saying something rude to a teacher or something.
Talking about this at the end of the day, Kirsten busts me. She says, “You love those kids more than the others.” I protest that I really like and get along with all of my students, and she levels me with this: “There is a certain kind of kid that you like the best, and those are the smart troublemakers.” Well, she has me there.
Day two of school is the first day of classes. Things go well, except that I still don’t have my office supplies. We are having some kind of dispute with Staples, so our supplies haven’t arrived. I really need some pens and index cards, so I walk over to the college bookstore about ten minutes away.
I carry a pager, but I have it in my pocket on this day. We don’t let the kids carry them, and I sort of hate to have it on my belt just proclaiming the hypocrisy of the adult world, so I keep it in my pocket. While I am walking to the bookstore, my pager vibrates, but because I am wearing these loose-fitting pants, I don’t feel it.
I buy some pens and index cards. I head back to school in a leisurely way. I stop and talk to somebody in the faculty room. I eventually check my email. I read and respond to about three messages. Then I open the one from the office manager, which says, “your lovely wife has been trying to reach you. She is at the hospital at ” whatever the phone number is.
Well, that’s it, isn’t it? They only make you come to the hospital if they have bad news for you. They call you up and say, “Come in to discuss your results,” because they don’t want to tell you bad news on the phone, but of course they already have, because if they had good news, they would just say, “Your biopsy came back totally normal.”
I duck into a room and call the number she’s given me. It rings and rings and rings and rings. I call home–no answer. I call the hospital again. It rings and rings and rings. What the hell kind of hospital is this? Are there no receptionists? Is there no voice mail? Somehow this endlessly ringing phone just seems ominous. I am on the verge of tears.
And then I see her through the door. Kirsten has come to school to find me. I see her smile at one of my co-workers–maybe it’s not terrible news after all! She comes in the room and begins to sob. “I have cancer,” she says. I hold her while she cries. “I’m so scared. I don’t want to die.”
“You won’t, ” I tell her. “You won’t.”