A Quarantined Life Part 3: Getting Past Hopelessness
So I’m here to give you an unwelcome fact that you absolutely positively have to know about: in the next few days and weeks, things are going to get really shitty. You are going to want to give up, give in, and throw all caution to the wind. You’re not sure when it’s coming, but it’s going to happen… and you need to know this.
My pal the late Robert Schimmel, a wickedly funny stand-up comedian and fellow cancer patient, once told me that one of the most the insidious things about cancer is not that you think it’s going to kill you; it’s that you get to the point when you don’t care if it does.
Everyone hits their wall, and everyone’s wall is coming. While it might be scary to hear, I hope you find it the opposite: once you realize that you’re not crazy when you might think crazy thoughts, and that you’re acting completely normally in the most abnormal of situations, it’s shockingly comforting.
I’m living proof of this. In my book The Half Book: He’s Taking His Ball and Going Home, there is a chapter called The PET Scan. What happened in that chapter was my wall for so many reasons, and I literally got to the point when I thought, ‘I’m done. Finished. I actually don’t care if I ever get better or if I die; I can’t do this anymore.’
But in the midst of my despair, I found my answer in the most unlikely of sources. It’s that story that I want to share with you in this blog. To quickly set this up, my oncologist Dr. Burton Needles has just asked me to take a very painful test, after the first attempt at this very painful test proved “inconclusive.” In a nutshell, I told him to get bent, and I walked out of his office.
I very much hope you enjoy this, and take some solace in it. Oh, and always keep your eyes and heart open every chance you get; it’s often there where you’ll find your answers.
CHAPTER 21: Pulling a Jesus
The full-court-press was on. My dear, sainted mother was frantic.
“Danny, I can’t make you do this… but you have to do this.”
“No, I don’t.”
My dad made it more personal.
“Dan, I watched my dad die of cancer. I don’t want to see you with him.”
That one almost worked. I was so close to relenting. But I didn’t.
“I’m going to be fine, dad. I promise.”
I had no idea if I would be fine. It didn’t matter.
Stephanie took a brilliant approach: she saw my point.
“Do I think you should do it? Yes. Will I be mad at you if you don’t? No. It was a brutally traumatic experience, and if I were you, I wouldn’t want to go through it again, either.”
“But you would go through it, wouldn’t you?”
“If I had no choice, yes. But no one can live your life for you, but you.”
God, I love that woman.
I didn’t know what to do. Sure, I’d get another PET scan — but only under the condition that I would not have to endure another catheter. A catheter-less PET scan, at that time, didn’t exist. But if it did… that, I could agree to. But how the hell was I supposed to make that happen? For the first time in a long time, I was answerless.
I’ve always prided myself on finding ways around obstacles. Once, during my second semester at the Vancouver Film School, we were shooting a short film called Waiting for Jennifer. Vancouver weather is dicey at best, and on the fourth day of filming, we woke up to a driving rainstorm. We were supposed to shoot outside that day in Queen Elizabeth Park.
We called our pal Rob in the equipment room to ask him his thoughts. He had been a student at VFS himself, so we expected some good advice on wet-weather gear for the camera and microphones.
“You couldn’t pay me enough money in the world to shoot in this shit.”
Thanks for the advice, Rob.
Needless to say, the crew was a tick on the flustered side. This was the first time any of us had encountered an obstacle that stopped us dead in our tracks. Shooting outside was a no-go. Postponing the shoot was out of the question, since we had only six days to film the whole thing, and each day was planned down to the minute. And we couldn’t simply cut the scene, because omission would have messed up the flow of the story and dropped us below the minimum time constraint of the finished product.
In short, we were screwed.
As we contemplated educational suicide, someone in our crew threw up a Hail Mary: “We could always rewrite the scene, I guess.”
The plot of the film was simple enough: a man gives his business card to a woman at a bar the night before and spends the next day “waiting for Jennifer,” all the while daydreaming about the possibilities of dating her. The original scene we were supposed to shoot that day was a slow-motion shot of two people running towards each other in the park. They smack into each other and fall down in ecstasy.
Because of the weather, that scene was out. So we took the story indoors, to my apartment, a loft where we had filmed a few earlier scenes. The gear was already there, negating the need for a company move to another location.
The new scene showed our man sleeping naked on his stomach in bed. He rolls over to reveal Jennifer beneath him, also naked. They look at each other, smile, and then reach out of either side of the frame to grab already-lit cigarettes. Simultaneous drag. And cut.
The original scene was funny. The one we devised and directed in response to our meteorological crisis was brilliant. The scene got the biggest laugh in each of its two screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It was the only student film to be admitted that year.
But that was just the life and death of a scene. This was potentially the life and death of me, and I didn’t have a clue how to write my way out of it. I knew I needed the test. I didn’t know how I could ever rationalize making it happen.
Two nights later, I still obsessed over the question. Dr. Needles had called me personally to try to talk me into the PET, but I was unmoved. And the harder he pushed, the more I dug in. In fact, I had stopped talking to anyone about it, and I got snippy with anyone who tried to bring it up.
I needed to clear my head, so I met some friends for dinner at Schneithorst’s, the place where it all began for Steph and me. I looked good at this point. My hair had started sprouting buds, my weight was almost back to normal, and the diversion of good company really buoyed my spirits. We talked about Stephanie, the engagement, the absurdities of cancer treatment, and what everyone else had been doing with their lives. It was a magical night.
As time marched on, people started leaving, one by one. I knew the end of my respite was in sight, and I stopped talking. Fear gripped me again, and I couldn’t shake it. My friends noticed. I deflected the first two questions about what was wrong.
“Nothing,” I lied.
But my friends knew me better than I knew myself, and they weren’t buying it.
“Don’t be an asshole. What’s wrong?”
I relayed the story of my original PET, which apparently was one of the funniest things they’d ever heard. Their response did not help my mood.
“And now the bastard wants me to get another one,” I said… the bastard being Dr. Needles.
“So?” they chorused.
“And who’s to say that it will work? It didn’t the first time. What if it’s just a vicious cycle, over and over? The guy’s probably a masochist. You should see the look that he gives me with every new test he orders.” The masochist was Dr. Needles.
The look on my face must have shocked them into submission, because their smiles evaporated. I breathed heavily, and I’m pretty sure my left eye twitched. As far as they were concerned, I had officially gone off the deep end, and they were scared. I regretted unloading on them.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what to do. And I’m scared.”
For a good thirty seconds, everyone was silent. And then, from left field, “You know, you could just pull a Jesus.”
“Excuse me. What?”
“What did Jesus do before he died?”
“He was nailed to a cross,” I said.
“He was sentenced to death.”
“He was kissed by Judas, that prick.”
“He… uh… made a reservation for thirteen?”
“Will you tell me already?” I yelled, thoroughly pissed off at this point.
“So… why do you need a catheter?”
“I don’t know… I guess so that there’s nothing in my bladder to make a false positive.”
“So what would happen if you already had nothing in your bladder?”
To this day, I don’t remember which one of my friends made the suggestion. I’ve asked all of them, and no one remembers saying it. But I know the conversation happened. Because it — pulling a Jesus — is exactly what I intended to do.
“I’m going to do the PET scan.”
Ah, the words Dr. Needles wanted to hear.
“That’s great! Let’s schedule you this week.”
“I’m only doing it on one condition.”
Dr. Needles frowned. “What condition?”
“I’m going to fast from any food or water for three days, and I’m doing it without a catheter.”
“Dan, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Would it medically work?”
Dr. Needles thought for a moment. “I guess it would, but you risk severe dehydration by doing this.”
“I’ll take dehydration over being catheterized.”
He stared at me. “And there’s no talking you out of doing this?”
“You know I can’t recommend you do this.”
“It’s your choice,” I said. “You want the test. This is my body. These are your choices.”
“And there’s no catheter?” I asked.
“No,” said the orderly.
“You’re sure?” I asked.
As I gently glided into the machine that looked like the CT on crack, I closed my eyes and smiled, thanking Jesus, Dr. Needles, and my faceless friend, though not necessarily in that order.
Dan’s book is available on Amazon in both print and e-book. You may read a few pages, as well as order it… here.