I was short of breath, lethargic. Maybe it was winter in Illinois. A particularly dark and blaring Arctic wind whipping down the chimney and snuffing out the flames. The mums on the back porch I neglected to put away for the season like icicles. Brittle, fragile. One step two step one step two step. Shaving, putting on my socks, making a sandwich were all chores. 64 years on this earth. A few shoulder surgeries, irritated old football injuries. A few heart attacks, mostly after I got bumped teaching high school business math down to teach middle school literature. No blockage, only stress. Some chipped teeth, mostly from the midnight popcorn binges. I was doing ok all things considered.
But this was different.
Open heart surgery in the dingy East St. Louis (saintless?) hospital, a new valve in my heart. A pig valve. It was an immigrant, a foreigner that helped keep me alive. I welcomed it in. Doctors said I would fully recover, this wasn’t a new beginning, starting over. Me and the pig valve as one.
Oh, but that shadow. The cardiologist was my son’s college roommate. What are the chances. He took an extra look over everything. Needing to pay me back for the bottomless potato chips and mountain dew of his college experience.
That shadow in my lower abdomen was odd. Where shadows are typically other organs, pumping and gurgling and doing their best in a symphony of functionality.
Scans and biopsies later, I was still holding a teddy bear to my chest, a post heart surgery hug, when they came back with the news. Kidney cancer. A silent killer. They used those words. I noticed those words. My ears rang. On my bones. Metastatic. That is an ugly word.
Making it through open heart surgery only to realize my kidney had betrayed me, looked at its brother across the way and said, you can do this on your own. I’m out of here. Pump all the blood and urea and force all the good things in and bad things out, do double time, be up to the challenge.
Chemo. Surgery. Radiation. Radiation. The bone aches. Why does cancer parachute into different places. Maybe parachute is the wrong description. It indicates grace and ease. Maybe the better word is puncture. The cancer punctures my bone, penetrating in, making bore hole after bore hole. My 7th rib. Then 9th rib. Part of my pelvis. My humorous. It’s like a scattershot approach, drill bit after drill bit. Shrapnel.
Then it showed up in my lung. And then it decided to take hold of my bladder. Did my body let it? Was I asleep at the wheel, focusing on trying to live, stay upbeat for my family? How did that happen? A second primary cancer. Quite rare. Go by a lottery ticket.
More scorching. This body is tired. Burned from the million watts of nanoparticles throbbing through it. Burrowing different holes. Changing my cell structure, the fabric of my body.
Time passes. More chemicals. Different pills. And all I’m hungry for is donuts.
Then the third primary cancer diagnosis comes. Prostate. The doctors look at my body, the students look at my body. They marvel at how I’m alive. The pain keeps me on patches and pills. I sleep. Or rest. I drive some days, and ride other days. My laugh, breathing in quickly, I feel the constriction of my lung in the place of cancer.
I lose a vertebrate. I learn to walk again.
I gain pins in my leg. I learn to walk again.
I get a brand new femur, straight custom from Germany. I learn to walk again.
What will come next.
Giving in and letting go are different things.
I used to be a body, but now I’m a host.