Suddenly after 158 Days of Almost Total Suck, it's graduation day.
It really wasn't the best of times and it came very close to being the worst of times. Quite frankly while chemo sucked, it didn't totally suck.
But it sure came close. One hundred and fifty-eight days of almost total suck. I can't imagine what totally suck would have been like. Actually I can. I'm still counting my blessings. There was comfort in the discomfort, as odd as that seems. The discomfort became a routine fixture during the last almost six months. Sure there were side effects but all in all, they were more annoying than anything.
Was it the worst thing ever? No. Nothing like the 8th grade zipper mishap due to really tight jeans and a pair boxers; or the broken front tooth due to a bad somersault while trying to impress a girl in 3rd grade; or the bee-sting-in-the-mouth while unknowingly sharing a can of Coke with that buzzy little bitch whose burning bite began with a bit of a blossom that ka-boomed into a full bloom causing the right half my face to billow up to a king-sized pillow giving me the appearance of the back half of an armadillo browsing Zillow with a Cigarillo in Amarillo. It was as big as a basketball that did require an emergency room visit but only after finishing a photo shoot for a caustic, unsympathetic not-on-my time client who I had already turned into an "I'll never work for you again" soon-to-be former client, the assface.
While my basketball face went away, that assface will be an assface forever.
All that stuff was bad right away. The chemo was a long, slow drain. By the third treatment I finally understood the true meaning of worn down, and by number five I was worn out. Number six was postponed. Meds were adjusted and I weeble-wobbled through the next seven treatments just nearly depleted.
Horrible? A bit. Would I want to do it again? No. Hell no. A good experience? Well, actually, it was.
Enter the Cool Kids on Chemo, the gang of regulars at the Chemo Bar I hung out with during Happy Hour every other Monday. We'd start at 9 a.m. and be done by 2 p.m. when we'd do the chemo shuffle on our way out, hanging on to each other in high hopes of preventing a trip and fall which could very likely cause a domino effect in which case wed end up in a big ol' "Ring Around the Rosie all fall down" dogpile. We'd mush-mouth ourselves silly with our tries at goodbyes which, to no one's surprise, sounded like a bevy of boozed-up best buddies. And that we were. Together we endured our cocktails which unquestionably were really strong and undeniably were a lot more expensive than even in the finest bars anywhere. And absolutely worth every penny.
All drinks are served by a pleasant wait staff wearing scrubs and some in disposable hazmat suits with their name handwritten in blue Sharpie, and get this: every bathroom in the joint is spotless with walls just begging for graffiti. I didn't but was very tempted.
Someone in our group monitored the closest bathroom for when it was all clear to go in. Or, more importantly if another patient had been in there too long which only meant, well let's just say the air would be quite fragrant but not in good way. Nothing an exhaust fan could even deal with.
In those cases, we'd toddle down the hall to another restroom. One thing about chemo, what goes in, does need to come out. Usually with a vengeance.
These are my people. Friends who became family since January 3. What a time its been. I can't even imagine what it would have been like without them.
In our huddles, the sight of an empty chair was always alarming. We'd worry and usually think the worst. Human nature in this place, I guess.
And today, there was one.
I apparently have the most structurally sound levee in the world that held back all my tears just seeing it.
It wasn't the case with the others. They knew.
Sweet old Mr. Robinson was doing his best to blink his tears away. The Bionic Woman was holding her newspaper up high to hide hers but it didn't muffle her sniffles. Mrs. Druker would wipe away an occasional tear that had welled up enough to where her eye just couldn't hold it any longer and it spilled out onto her cheek and then in the guise of adjusting her head wrap, she'd wipe it away thinking no one would see.
And there in the corner sat the very heart and soul of our Cool Kids on Chemo, the sainted Nana Mangia---so full of love and warmth and kindness and everything that is the very essence of grandmother. From across the room she could hug you into comfort. Just being with her made you realize that all would be right in the world.
But make no mistake: there is a very pronounced ying to her yang. She has a very sly sense of humor that she keeps under wraps but always at the ready if needed to sling a wisecrackingly barbed comment---slung at just the right moment and always on target. She often delivers them often without even looking up from her constant knitting accompanied with the clickety clack of her needles, a soundtrack that is both soothing and a bit annoying at the same time. Who would ever think such things would come of that seemingly sweet woman's mouth? But they sure did.
Nana was quiet today and quite uncharacteristically so. No offering up treats from her basket of fresh baked goods and certainly none of her well-timed asides. Timing is everything. This apparently wasn't the time.
It was the sight of that empty chair.
She looked up from her needlework for just an instant. I could see freshly formed tears following the paths of earlier ones.
And then, the levee breached a bit. Some of my tears seeped through. Seeing Nana silently weep, precipitated my precipitation, it was the unspoken reason that we all were tearful that really made it happen. The "we don't want to talk about"one.
That empty chair was mine.
My last day. No more chemo for me. Twelve out of 12 treatments. Done.
It was closing time at the Chemo Bar. At least for me.
I graduated today.
This is one of the happy/sad times. One of us is leaving because treatments were completed. We're happy for that; sad because one of our close-knit group is won't be with us any longer. There had been two others since I had been there. And now its my turn.
Early this morning while going over my final CT scan, my oncologist, who is a right-to-the point kind of guy, got right to the point. Today I needed that to help wash away the scanxiety I had had for a couple of days. No beating around the bush, no sugar coating, no hemming and hawing and no flip flam. Just do it.
And he did: "You're cancer free."
Three little words that on their own are blah, blah, blah. But together, they make the most beautiful lyric ever sung.
The levee broke open right then. Tears gushed.
Such an odd concoction of tear types: pure jubilation; sadness for my friends' heartbreak; excitement at closing this chapter of worry and concern and fear and the beginning of the new one of who knows what; and finally those tears of displacement and disruption.
For six months this was my life: Four hours of slow-dripping chemo on Mondays preceded by blood testing and meeting with oncology folks. Nearly three hours on Wednesday for a carry-out pump disconnect and a replenishing bag of fluids. A quick in-and-out on Thursday and Friday for injections. And then waiting for four or five days for the chemo fog to lift and coherency to return. Then one week off before repeating the whole process.
I fared much better than most. I escaped the constant nausea, the pounding headaches, the surprise diarrhea attacks and constantly feeling terrible. But I do have needles-and-pins tingles in my fingers and toes that are cold all the time and not as much hair anywhere. I'm kind of college skinny, my immune system isn't up to snuff, I tire easily although I do operate at about three-quarter speed most days; mentally everything is a just bit hazy and my fingerprints have sunken into near nothingness. Most of these effects should go away and revert to how life was before. Some may not.
I'm quite fortunate. My oncologist says I'm a tough guy. "Most patients won't go the distance with this stuff. But you made it look easy."
Easy it wasn't. Worth it it was: I'm cancer free.
The future is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling blue skies. I never stopped firmly believing it would be. Well, not never ever but those times passed quickly. I'm always one to keep my sunny side up. Except for a short time when I did the dark alternative. It wasn't me. Hated it and hated me. I wandered back to the sunny side. This is me and on this journey it has served me well.
While I'm leaving the Chemo Bar, I'll never leave my chemo family. Ever. We have this bond between us that will never loosen. Cancer does have that going for it. But nothing else, that evil son of a bitch.
And that empty chair? Forever mine.
"Don't let anyone take my seat. I'll be back! Just to visit though, no more cocktails. Maybe a cannoli or two. But for now I'm out of here. You will be missed and always loved. Well most of you. Well, just some, actually. OKAY! All of you! We're family! What's not to love about you all?"
Together, we did the chemo shuffle to the elevators en masse for the last time. All the tears dried up and turned into laughter. We couldn't walk a straight line if we tried. The extra hour we spent together attempting coherent goodbyes took care of most of our mush mouth to the point we could actually be understood, especially by others. Sort of. Even some of the treatment staff joined us. God bless those angels.
I got in the elevator and we quietly waved farewell. As the doors were converging, I heard Nana Mangia quietly count to three and then my loving family yelled in unison, "We love you, you big mamaluke!!"
I immediately jabbed my arm out to stop the doors from closing and stuck my head out, "Who are you calling a big mamaluke?"
"YOU!" they all yelled.
"Just checking. I'll miss you all. You ain't seen the last of me."
And out of the mouth of the sainted grandmother:"That's what we're afraid of!"
That Nana Mangia. I'll miss her the most. She certainly helped to make these 158 days not totally suck what with her freshly baked treats, that sly wisecracking and the constant clickety clacking. But mostly it was her grandmotherly hugs when I needed them most to let me know that all would right in my world.
And it is.
Actually not quite. I just realized that water is pooling around my feet as I'm writing this.
I've got to go figure out whats going on. But first, thank you all who have followed along on this journey. Your comments, well wishes, good vibes and prayers made it so much easier and meant so much and definitely made a difference. I couldn't have done it without you.
And just like the Cool Kids on Chemo, you ain't seen the last of me either. Adventures await all of which will need some reportage. Stand by.
Ugh. This water. An overflowing toilet. Not my thing to fix. But certainly my fault this time. I just had a feeling. Nana Mangia is right: I'm such a big mamaluke.
Happy graduation day to me.
This is going to totally suck.
But not for long.
The plumber is on the way.