Dr. Bartlett sat behind an obnoxious, oversized desk clicking his pen as he contemplated the words to tell me what I already suspected.
“It’s inoperable, Mr. Humphrey. I’m sorry.”
His words hung there, rendering me silent. “Dummy-fucked”, as my friend Timmy often said. His expression for when your brain hung a “Be back later” sign on the door, leaving you to fend for yourself. Two weeks ago, I had suffered a seizure. The images laid out across his desk showed a tumor the size of a grapefruit competing for space in my skull, pressing on my brain.
“Well, (Click) due to the location of the tumor, an attempted removal may result in one of two outcomes: either death—the best-case scenario, I might add—or a complete vegetative state,” he said.
“How long?” I asked. My brain appeared incapable of forming proper sentences. I’d have an easier time walking through mud in high heels.
“Well, it depends on when we begin treatment. The sooner the better if we want to slow the growth…”
“Chemo?” I asked, interrupting him.
“Mr. Humphrey, this tumor has shown to be aggressive. Chemotherapy will increase your quality of life”.
Nausea, vomiting, and withering away in a hospital bed while pissing through a tube didn’t sound as if it had any “quality” to it.
“And if I should refuse treatment?”
The doctor’s eyebrows rose up as if trying to run away from his eyes. “Mr. Humphrey, I recommend against it. As I said, we are dealing with a very aggressive cancer. Research is making new finds every day and one of those discoveries may help you.”
If a scientist discovered a lab rat cancer-free due to the drug they created, after human trials, FDA and government bureaucracy, I’d be a memory. In the ongoing war on cancer, I was on the losing end of the battle.
“How Long?” I repeated.
“Without treatment? Three, four months?”
“Okay. Thank you doctor for your help,” I said, standing to leave. The constant clicking of his pen unnerved me; as if a metronome was counting off beats, every click one minute closer to death.
Before I could leave, Dr. Bartlett once again expressed his concerns over my refusing treatment, explaining what symptoms to expect as the cancer progressed. He made me promise if I changed my mind, I’d call his receptionist right away.
I agreed, but I knew I never would.
By the time I made it downstairs, I was in an emotional spin cycle. Anger turned to depression, then fear. I began to hyperventilate. The chilidogs I had for lunch earlier came spewing onto the sidewalk, drawing looks of disgust from two women who moved fast enough to avoid regurgitated chili on their clothes.
I didn’t understand this. Three weeks ago, I was shopping for a suit to christen my niece, now I’d need that suit for my funeral. My stomach began another wave of spasms, but the tank was empty. Nothing came up but dry heaves.
Life had blindsided me. I just wanted to crawl into a fetal position and pretend it was a dream. But the headaches reminded me otherwise. The idea of being home alone frightened me, so I began walking westward.
In late August, the summer heat may begin to slow but the day remains sunny enough for the sunbathers to cook themselves to golden bronze. A sea of bodies filled the lawn of Central Park. Off in the distance, a man threw a Frisbee to a golden retriever who never tired of chasing and bringing it back. Life continued around me.
I had taken life for granted, confident I’d have time to come back to it later.
We spend our lives rushing ahead, but we never see what we leave behind us.
My grandmother once told me when she woke, before rising from bed she thanked God. When I asked her why, she said, ‘For allowing me to see another day’.
I stripped off my shoes and socks, and turned my face to the sun. The blades of grass between my toes were cool and tickled. The tears came slow, and then turned to sobs. Death is a journey we face alone. From the time we’re born, we’re given a fraction of time to make our mark in this world. Had I left a mark? I didn’t believe I had, and that saddened me more than dying.
I had run out of time.
As the sun began to set, the park began to empty. Despite food being the furthest thing from my mind, my stomach proclaimed it dinnertime with a series of loud grumblings.
In New York, Katz’s delicatessen draws tourists and locals alike seven days a week. I sat at the same table where a sign above my head proclaimed “Where Harry met Sally”, the movie made famous by Meg Ryan’s interpretation of a fake orgasm. Pictures of celebrities and politicians hung on the walls. I wondered if any of them knew they were dying and just had to have one last pastrami sandwich. After overindulging on a smorgasbord of cured meats, a knish and three cream sodas, I placed an order to go, complete with a half dozen half-sour pickles for later.
The next morning I spent hoping there wasn’t a need for anti-diarrhea pills in the afterlife. Then I began to figure out how much money I had. My finances weren’t terrible, not but great either. I’d need to cash out my 401K (no need for it now) and my savings account. I’d have enough to pay for the funeral arrangements and have enough to live on for a few months.
But world traveling wasn’t going to happen, either.
I made a list of everything I ever wanted to do, narrowing it to doable and pipe dreaming.
Performing “Enter Sandman” with Metallica on stage at Madison Square Garden was the first to go. Of course, on my list, the band loved my version.
The Pulitzer Prize came next. The possibility of finishing a book (3 chapters done) I started three years ago was slim to none.
Seeing the Seven Wonders of the World would have to be via Google earth.
September rolled around, and as the fall began to usher in the winter, the air began to cool and the leaves began to change. I had managed to visit the major attractions New York had to offer, from Les Miserables to the Statue of Liberty. I even took a bus tour with a group of Japanese tourists, who later insisted we take a group picture. Throughout my “tumor tour” as I referred to it, I kept a journal complete with pictures to document my journey.
The headaches began right before Halloween.
Doctor Bartlett explained that as the tumor grew, pushing outward as well as inward, it created pressure, causing a series of mini strokes before one final one. Modern medicine transplanted organs, cloned sheep, and viewed distant galaxies. But we still didn’t know what awaited us after death.
Religions teach the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished. But physical proof still eludes the question. Does life continue after death? For each psychic medium claiming to speak with the dead, hundreds of skeptics cried fraud.
On those days when the headaches kept me home, I’d watch a library of my favorite movies or listen to my music collection. If life continued after death, I wanted to remember everything.
Two days later, when I felt strong enough for a weekend trip, I rented a car, packed an overnight bag, and hit the road before sunrise. Twenty minutes later I was heading south on the Garden State Parkway, taking the exit marked Shore Points.
With less than ten minutes before sunrise, I parked on a side street and made my way up the wooden ramp leading to the boardwalk. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. The sea air smelled faintly of cotton candy and fried dough. Throughout my childhood, my parents had taken my brother and me to the Jersey shore every year for summer vacation. Being here reminded me of good times, and I wanted to experience it one last time.
During the off-season the shops and beach closed, so I had the whole place to myself. I jumped over the railing and made my way towards the water. I could hear the waves crashing on the shore. Near the shore line I found a spot to sit and watch the sky turned a bruised purple as a new day began.
I spent most of the morning walking the boardwalk and reminiscing over my childhood memories. Arcade after arcade my brother and I spent hours playing Skee-ball, collecting our tickets to redeem one of the Holy Grail prizes that enticed us. We’d bust our asses the whole week we were there to win a radio or a Kiss doll. By the time we headed home, we were lucky to leave with a pencil case or plastic crab.
Later that afternoon, I pulled out on to the highway and set the GPS for Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania. The weather being warm, I opened the sunroof and sang along to the radio at the top of my lungs, ignoring the stares of passing motorists.
An hour or so into Pennsylvania, I came upon a road sign that advertised food and books. I pulled off to see what “food and books” had to offer.
The outside resembled the last place someone might to want to eat. An old farmhouse converted into a restaurant. It didn’t look fancy, but with a parking lot full of cars, they were doing something right.
Meeting customers at the door was an older woman with a big smile and warm personality who introduced herself as Mary. After welcoming me to her establishment ‘where food and book lovers meet and eat’, she invited me to browse the used books while I waited to order.
“Oh, and don’t forget to pick out a free book as part of our lunch special,” she called out as she ran back to greet more customers. After placing my order, I browsed the hundreds of books that lined each available shelf space. Downstairs in the basement I discovered more shelves with more books.
Positioned in the center of the room was an old carousel that squeaked when you spun it. On my second spin, I found my free book. Old and battered with water stains on the cover, the pages dog-eared and brown, was a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”. Long past its prime, it had been discarded to the donate pile, but to me it meant finding an old friend. Similar to an old pair of sneakers or jeans, it always felt comfortable.
From upstairs, Mary called to let me know my lunch was waiting. “Don’t dawdle” she yelled, “food will get cold”.
With a smile, I took my new my book and came up for lunch. Homemade pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy awaited my arrival, steam still rising from the plate. I felt home again.
When I paid the check, Mary wished me a good day and told me she hoped to see me again. I lied and said yes, she would. I left heavy-hearted, but grateful for the unique experience.
When I reached the exit for the park, a headache was beginning behind my eyes. I needed to stop for aspirin. It didn’t always help, but there were no over-the-counter products for brain tumors.
Cherry Springs State Park is known as one of the best areas to see the Northern Lights without going to Canada or Alaska. It attracts people from every nearby state. Having consulted a few star-gazing websites earlier in the day, I knew the low humidity and minimal cloud cover would ensure peak visibility for the next few days. At the campground, I settled in for the night.
I relaxed in the sun and read my book and listened to music. As the sun set and the night deepened, the sky began to turn colors. Swirls of purples and bright greens blended with blues and reds. The scientific explanation is gaseous particles colliding with charged particles from the sun creates this natural phenomena, but I envisioned God, paintbrush in hand painting the sky as an artist might paint a canvas. I took out my list, scratched off the last item, and folded it back into my wallet. My headache began to intensify blurring my vision. I lay back in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.
Sarah McLachlan’s haunting voice began to sing “In the Arms of the Angels”. Within the darkness behind my closed eyelids, my mother sat with me, my head in her lap. She stroked my hair just as she had when, as boy, I spiked a fever. Her hands were cool on my hot skin, her gentle voice told me I’d be okay.
I may not have left a mark on this world, but I had done my best. For the first time since my seizure, I was no longer afraid.
copyright © 2015
C.K. Black resides in Sherman, CT, and his work has been published in Tales of the Zombie War and The Rusty Nail.