Dad attributed his weight loss to stress.
He may’ve attributed the pain to stress too, but I can never know for sure. After dinner he’d watch TV on the couch until a deep pain near his stomach would force him into a pain-mitigating position on the floor. This position appeared to be a descendant of the fetal. He’d put his knees on the floor with his chest facing the carpet and his elbows on the couch. Somehow the pose offered relief.
Those of us watching him watch TV in this position would occasionally laugh. When it’s not your pain in your stomach, you evaluate based on what’s presented, which in this case was a grown man, our father, watching TV on all fours. He’d occasionally laugh about it too, and the pain, which was only ever lessened in this position, would tear into him firmly enough to make him cry out.
He continued to attribute his increasingly rapid weight loss to stress for a while.
My change was different in several ways. For one, it was sudden, and two, my body didn’t atrophy—it increased. I noticed one day that my left testicle was much larger. Not just larger than normal, but larger than I could believe was an excusable effect of some cause unknown, like a bee sting, a swift kick, or sitting down with haste. Something was wrong.
The sizable increase bothered me physically, but before long it took over my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Every time I thought about it, which was every few minutes, I would reach down to gently squeeze it or turn it over in my hand. Occasionally I would hoist my whole scrotum up for temporary reprieve from the now constant feeling that my testes were dangling well below my knees. After being caught in this act by several onlookers, who surely presumed I was groping myself with great zeal, I decided to permanently thwart the dangle by revisiting my prepubescent choice of underwear, the tight whites. They more comfortably contained my swollen sack, though I began to worry that my coworkers would notice the bulge.
This was quite mentally exhausting and through it all I was more or less sequestered with my worry. Not really dinner conversation, a swollen testicle. I showed it to my wife once but the abnormal bulk so frightened her that I tried not to mention my testicular torture again, lest her worry eclipse my own.
It was soon obvious that my problem would not resolve without medical assistance, so with my hand in my pants and my balls on my mind, I called a doctor.
A doctor’s knowing eyes tend to evoke in me slight alarm. Still, I’ve always felt that to know is to cure, so I put aside fear to meet any ailments head on. My dad didn’t share this view. Fearing a known fate, he had long avoided doctors. In hindsight, his logic was impregnable. To dodge those capable of diagnosing a terminal condition was to never be diagnosed with a terminal condition. Knowing this about him, I know that it took tremendous courage — or immense, complete pain — for him to forsake his lifelong view of doctor’s visit as death’s portent and see a doctor about his weight loss.
During the visit he told the doctor that his condition was stress-related, and at first the doctor upheld his view. Tests were ordered confirm it. When the tests came back, the doctor replaced her initial diagnosis with one of finality. My mom was by my dad’s side when they learned about the pancreatic cancer that would soon kill him. His prejudice verified, he would never again visit a doctor.
I was alone with the doctor when I got my bad news, and it came to me with greater graduation.
First was the rubbing of warm lube onto my crotch, which was by itself an OK experience. An ultrasound tech peered inside of me as I looked up at the ceiling with my back on the too-narrow table covered in crinkly paper. I could tell that my insides appeared in good working order by the fluid pace of his small talk. This was unsurprising because my right testicle was being examined first, the left in wait, and I expected nothing but the best from my righty.
Once the examination of the insubordinate left testicle began, I sensed that the images on the screen were profoundly different. The small talk promptly ceased. Images that can move a seasoned ultrasound tech to silence can’t be good ones. I wasn’t sure how not good my insides appeared — the ceiling had no answers — and for every moment that the tech continued not to speak as he carefully shot sound waves into me, I assumed greater degrees of it. I felt quite alone in that dark room.
Several weeks later I sat next to a urologist as we viewed the results of the ultrasound. He explained to me that testicles in ultrasound images should look normal. That is, a light grey shape with some darker grey lines indicating the testicle’s gentle slope. He showed me an image of my right testicle first and it did look quite normal. Seeing normal first, I was able to immediately recognize that the left side was not. On what should have been its light grey surface were more than several large black holes. It looked as though my testicle had been made cavernous by a number of parasites. It was a parasite of sorts, the doctor explained, because it was probably cancer.
I agreed to an immediate procedure where the doctor would remove the entire mutinous bastard. The news was a blow, swiftly administered, and I was left to stagger in that room while the Dr. penned my procedure onto his calendar. I didn’t cry at first, partially due to my stupefaction but also because what looked like a parasitic mass could be just a benign growth. I finally wept when I saw that the good doctor had stealthily placed a box of tissues on a nearby chair. I took this overture to mean that the diagnosis was grave enough to warrant it.
The drive home from that visit was a long one. I dreaded breaking the news to my wife and drove seeing her in the windshield, in the rear view, in the scenery. I drove knowing she would soon know what I knew and that it would devastate her. I practiced saying sorry. For devastating you today, my dear, and the wreckage that may await us, I’m sorry.
Along that drive she slipped from view momentarily when nature’s beauty begged my eyes to follow. I drove up a hill overlooking alternating vibrant green and burnt yellow-orange patches on the valley floor below, man-made fertility and rain-starved scarcity. Back and forth with spots of colorful flourish, the pace and movement of this dance thrilled me as I careened by. I passed pear orchards and vineyards laid out in symmetrical rows, the lines seemingly moving together like rolling wave. Suddenly I lost sight of it all. I shot into the thick evergreen tree line and before long was home. I opened the front door and right there on the stairs I devastated her.
The news of Dad’s imminent death was less devastating but no less sad. I was three thousand miles from him when I heard and quickly set out to him, scheduling a flight the next day. The airport was several hours away and my roommate drove me there through the night. Though my wound was fresh, we didn’t attempt to dress it with discussion; the silence was our communion and I found it to be exceptionally healing. Fall had begun to lose out to winter and it was snowing heavily. Our car’s headlights sent out their lonely beams, reflecting off the thick falling snow that we tore right through like a tunnel. The wash of illuminated snowflakes careening over the windshield hypnotized me and I thought of the billions of years of cosmic violence that spurred the earth, the millions of years of volcanic and glacial activity that lifted the mountain we were trekking over from the land below and how small and fleeting we really are. It was a spiritual experience which put me in such a trance that I don’t remember flying home or who picked me up. I did get there and there I met my dying father.
Watching him die over those weeks wasn’t overly melancholy. My family spent time together, sharing stories and love. The love was palpable to any visitor. Still, there was an odd normalcy about it. A guest may not have realized that in the bedroom, just over there, a man was days from death.
We would take turns sleeping by Dad’s bedside because he was restless at night and would get up to pace around. We didn’t want him to trip alone on one of these late night restless strolls, so we stayed close. It was my turn on watch the only time I remember cursing the cancer itself. Dad sat up, swung his feet off the bed, and planted them to stand. As he stood, his strength failed and he collapsed back onto the bed. I watched him sit on the edge of the bed, exhausted. He steadied himself with his hand on my knee. For a long moment he sat there, appearing to submit to an adversary. At that moment I saw the cancer as a person and I hated the cowardly fucker. I could sense that my Dad desperately wanted his admirable fight rewarded with more life and I knew it wouldn’t, and for the cancer my hatred grew. I despised the thing that could keep devouring a man without regard to his pleas or valiance. We continued to sit there, me with my hatred and him considering his foe, before Dad flashed a grin of painful admiration below his sad, defeated eyes, stood and continued to die.
Writing of his own cancer battle, Stephen Jay Gould said that though there is a time to love and a time to die, he found nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.
You hear sometimes of those who accept that it is their time to die. It’s a good way to go, as it’s described. This peaceful acquiescence of death may happen, but Dad had no such acceptance; he raged mightily against the dying of the light. He raged for days on end. We knew his raging was near the end when he wouldn’t sleep, refusing to let his eyes close for fear that they would not again open. We knew he was near when his eyes showed a dreadful, panicked realization that his rage wouldn’t keep the light alive.
One name for this rage is terminal restlessness. It’s common in young men. One of the few ways for the dying to exercise their rage is to move. Moving in bed—as one would chasing an elusive slumber, watching the boxy number on the digital clock move in odd increments until suddenly hours have elapsed—or moving on their feet, walking purposefully but aimlessly back and forth from the bed to somewhere nowhere near the bed and back. The brain sees danger at the door and plots an escape through flight. It has worked for thousands of years for millions of men and has staved off many dangers. What the brain may not fully realize, as it again and again employs its last best defense to no avail, is that a danger such as this can’t be outrun. It’s eating you alive.
Had Dad not raged, he may’ve succumbed days sooner. Just days. I can’t fathom an acceptance strong enough to will the body to rest much sooner than it’s ready to on its own. They say it happens and it may, but I haven’t seen it. The body fails, but fails slowly. Abandoning its complex systems in order of importance, it sheds weight, the legs get fat with fluid, the eyes glass, the skin turns a sickly white, and breathing slows and slows and slows and with an ugly sound finally ceases. Without the rage it may cease sooner, but won’t with totality on mind’s command.
His raging slowed around 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. He was very restless but, after beating back death for days, exhausted. He attempted another aimless stroll, failed, and tried again without success. He was awkwardly splayed there on the bedside, caught between a climb he couldn’t make and a body he could no longer carry. My brother and I couldn’t hoist him up because it so hurt his fragile, emaciated arms to be grabbed that he loudly cried out. We brought in a small mattress, placed it by his side and tried to coax him onto it. It was okay, we said. We love you. Sleep, Dad, just sleep. We love you.
He wouldn’t sleep, not yet, not when another lap may keep him breathing for just a bit longer. Not when a stroll would let the body, the parts of it that hadn’t yet been eaten, do what it was genetically compelled to do for just a bit longer.
We couldn’t let him take that lap, so I laid him down.
I was surprised how much strength he still possessed as I pulled his body toward the mattress. With arms extended he firmly gripped the bedpost, but I was able to gently pry his bony fingers from it and set him down to die. In this last father-son embrace he said his last word, a beg no doubt intended as a shout but spoken as a whisper. Desperately reaching out for that bedpost his one word plea for life was, “No.”
I laid him down anyway and shortly after that the light went out.
They say there are fates worse than death and it may be true. Forfeiting the mind, the mental prison of Alzheimer’s, or the entirety of your body, the terrifying solitary confinement of ALS, may indeed be worse than merely forfeiting life.
Surviving may be worse still.
I can think of no greater loss than a parent burying their child. Some do so suddenly, with a phone call or a dreadful screeching sound from the street. Some do so slowly, their innocent child mistakenly cursed with an adult’s wretched sickness. The parent of a suddenly dead child longs forever for one more kiss, one more hug, one more simple wave goodbye. The parents who watch their child slowly waste do get that last kiss goodbye, but have in their heads ghastly images to haunt them forever and sometimes find in their mouths the taste of that last pallid kiss.
Knowing all of this, I believe I took my not-so-bad news quite well. It was just a testicle after all. I had two.
After being diagnosed with testicular cancer, I did mentally make up my deathbed and indulge in mournful sentimentality. I thought of my son, who will never know his grandpa the way I never knew my grandpa, who won’t know his own father if I end up dying from this cancer. I could picture his mannish face looking intensely at a photo of my youngish face and it was crushing. Then his present-day self showed me such unknowing glee that it swept my imagined sorrow away.
I’m not facing a certain cancerous death, just the possibility of it. We’re all certain to die and everyday more of us will get there. Some of us will self-destruct, some are broken by forces beyond their control, and the unflagging march of time consumes the rest, but in the end we’re all destroyed. Testicular cancer may yet destroy me but I consider it unlikely. Our time alive is finite and therefore precious and worrying seems a very foolish use of it.
The night we found out about the cancer my wife and I cried a bit in fear. We cried for the good that has happened, the good that can’t be undone. We cried for the good that may yet happen and the good we will one day miss. We slept close, the way we normally don’t because she’s claustrophobic in bed. In the morning we woke up and drove to the hospital. We held hands all the way.
She was fearless — or gave one hell of a brave smile — as they wheeled me towards surgery. The doctor explained that the incision would start at the top of my groin, angling down toward my crotch. It’s not the surgical route I would’ve taken to pluck out a testicle but it’s not more years of school for nothing, either.
Through the sterile halls I went. You don’t think of death too often. Not until the doctor tells you you’ll die on Christmas morning, or the screen shows four or five black holes on your testicle where there should be none, or when a bed in your house remains empty but dressed in action figure blankets that smell dusty, unlike the youth they enveloped all those years ago.
I thought about death there on that gurney and as they transferred me onto the narrow surgical table. I thought about it as they strapped me down and readied the nasty silverware. I thought about it as they placed the mask over my nose and mouth, thinking how much I’d miss my wife and son and how I miss Dad often a little and sometimes a lot. Warmth shot through my arm, the air tasted cool and thick and I went black. It was complete and very peaceful. Probably much like death, though later I awoke.