Saturday, October 30, 2004

No Man's Land

In his 48th year of life his organs simply began to wear out. Threadbare, raggedy, frayed around the edges, they were bursting like an overstuffed child’s toy. The exertion caused his insides to bleed, ever so slightly. They bled enough to make his charity ride to raise money for a cure for cancer miserable.

When the pain did not subside days later, he took his worn out body to the emergency room where the doctors tested his patience with marathon waiting sessions. When the ultrasound technician came over and told him she did not have good news, he tugged on one of his ears, as though he was not sure of what he heard. The smile on his blood-drained face was now frozen in a polite posture hiding the disbelief. There was something on the picture, she told him. They needed more tests. They needed an MRI.

More days would pass and a gaggle of doctors would look at all sorts of pictures of his insides. There were blood tumors on his liver – benign – but most likely responsible for the bleeding and the pain during the ride.

Then there were the kidneys. That spot 1 centimeter and round; too small to biopsy. The gaggle of doctors needed more pictures. While waiting, his wife stood at the gaping maw of the MRI and they talked in hospital tones. When the technician left the room, his wife pulled out a small medal of the Blessed Virgin given to her by a friend. She opened her fingers slowly at first then uncurled her fingers flat. The magnet of the MRI machine whisked the medal out of her hands and into the tube.

“Shit! No! Shit! Shit!” was all she would say. When she told her husband what had happened he giggled.
“Get it out of the machine!” he teased, “Or when they take the pictures the image of the Blessed Virgin will appear on my kidneys! Then the Vatican will be forced to send investigators, and people will come from all over the world to worship my kidneys! I’ll become another Medjagory.”

They laughed. It was a funny thought. For the moment, the lump on his kidney was gone.

When the radiologist report came back it said everything and it said nothing. The words “possible renal carcinoma” stood out as though he’d written them with a pink Day-Glo highlighter on the report. But it also said that it could be some other type of tumor – one that was not cancerous.


It carries all sorts of power; power we are not even aware we possess; power over us and power within us.

He searched the internet that night, staying up until early morning, googling “RENAL CARCINOMA”. He had done this before for others. He realized that when he did this before it was an impassioned attempt at unearthing hope. But as he stared at the mortality statistics it sank in that these numbers were for him. It left a lump in his stomach. The letters just hung on the screen, peering out from the large black CRT screen. The statistics took on a stone-like quality that did not allow his thoughts any movement at all. Not in any direction but the worst.

The fact that this “thing” was discovered while raising money for a cure for cancer did not escape his sense of humor. He was a living example of irony, he told his wife.

Still, words were spilled about like a mop in a bucket. Nephrectemy. Ablation. Metastasis. The words were lead pellets for something that was no more than 1 centimeter in diameter on the lower lobe of his right kidney. There was no diagnosis but plenty of fear. It was a prognosis by default.

If it IS cancer, his thought process went, then it must proceed this way. All the doctors told him: they would simply take his kidney out. Still, it was HIS organ and thoughts of ending his life on dialysis began to paralyze the center of his brain that was responsible for optimism.
There were many things worse than death, he often told his wife. He was not afraid of dying. He was afraid of losing the few things that made his life sublime. Being tied to a machine; not being able to go anywhere overnight without needing to worry about dialysis; forced to focus on inability day in and day out with such an invisible tether.
In the greater picture, there were other things, he knew. There was, at least, life. But what kind of life?

His head of course told him that he was light years from this scenario. Still, the possibility of this alien on his kidney, growing however slowly, on an organ he took good care of, left him uneasy. He could not sleep.

Then the dreams began. He dreamed he was holding his kidney in his hands and it was glowing red. It looked like one of those paintings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with Jesus smiling demurely and his heart, all aglow in the center of his chest, hands clasped around his heart like he was holding it.

He could not sleep. He woke earlier and earlier each day until he was not even sure if he slept at all. He stared up at the ceiling wondering how he would tell people, if he should tell people. People were very understanding. They all had friends who had friends. They talked about the progress of medicine, and recovery rates. They talked about better doctors and second opinions. No one asked him if he were just the slightest bit afraid. No one. He knew the answer but he did not know how he would have responded had someone asked.

It was not technically cancer, really. It was only maybe cancer. This “peri-cancer” experience was beyond the grasp of anyone who knew the man or his wife. Days would go on as they always have. This was no tragedy. This was just something to get through. Still, it was hard to understand. How could the doctors not know?

The doctors were quick to talk about early detection, great fortune of the discovery, smart medical advocacy and a recovery to a former life maybe even a good life, but certainly not the same life; not an unmarked life. He tossed in bed as the image of the statistic that 3 to 4% of participants would experience growths on remaining kidney danced around in his mind; IF it were cancer.


But “IF” is not a way to live.

That summer, he learned about living in shadows. Not directly in fear, but in that same shadow of fear that gripped him whenever he watched the movie Jaws – that primal fear of being eaten alive.

Sometimes things mark us for life that never even place a hand on us.

He would wait. Time, the greatest diagnostician, would give him an answer. At the very least, it would give him an answer. That’s all anyone deserves, really. How can anyone fight otherwise? How can anyone fight in a no man’s land?

MB 2004


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