It’s been an exhausting but rewarding couple weeks at school. The Adventure Race, Literacy Night, and the preparation and execution of our Expeditionary Learning National Conference Site Visit have taken their toll. Next week the hits keep coming with the annual delight of standardized testing and its stresses.
My 7th and 8th grade Humanities students are writing memoirs. All members of the Humanities Team wrote drafts to use for modeling with the kids. Here’s my first draft, which I will revise parts of in front of the students as they work on revision and editing:
I knew something was up as soon as Doc Hartig walked into the exam room. I’d been sitting there on the end of the cushioned exam table in my street clothes, that waxy paper slipping and squeaking beneath me if I shifted my weight to grab an old Time or Baltimore Magazine off the radiator by the window. The magazines were yesterday’s bad news and I’d given up on them quickly as a means of distraction, preferring the cheap framed reproductions of Norman Rockwell prints so familiar from childhood visits to this office: a country doc bent over to apply his stethoscope to a teddy bear at the behest of a small girl child; a befuddled pharmacist with prominent Adam’s apple mixing a potion; a suburban practitioner with Saint Nick’s demeanor attending a young boy’s young boy abrasions. This exam room was all hard metal glint, plastic veneer, and glaring fluorescence. In Rockwell’s day a visit to the doc meant stepping into some old codger’s living room. Rockwell would never had painted this interior. Rockwell would have found little to paint in the 1990s that wasn’t devoid of character or comfort.
There was no jovial teasing when he came in. There was no chummy hello. He cast his eyes away from me, this man I’d known more than ten years, and seemed unable to land them anywhere satisfactory. He scanned the sink, the biohazard waste bin, the glass jars of swabs and cotton balls and bandages with their chrome tops. I took this time to get a good look at him, this awkward pause, this situation which had moved from a formerly comfortable routine to something new and disquieting. His skin was looser now then the last time I’d seen him. Flesh pulled more heavily around the undersides of his eyes. There was a hint of paunch pushing the button of his dress shirt just above his belt. Gray hairs were accumulating at his ears and above his temples. “Uh,” he said, and though I’d often read in novels of people who wrung their hands in distress, I’d never witnessed this behavior until this moment. “Hmmm.” Behind his glasses I noticed Doc Hartig’s eyes were glassy and red. The hands wrung each other and then he clapped and those glassy red eyes landed on my face and darted away again.
“We got the results, and it’s a melanoma. I know you’d said this spot was there for a few years so I’m concerned about its margins. I’ve got a plastic surgeon who’s a good excision guy up in Towson. You need to get with him as quickly as you can for a consult so we can get it all cut out.” Doc Harting cleared his throat because his voice was squeaky and cracking like a pubescent’s.
There’s no way for me to capture that moment. I thought the word cancer, I processed it, I knew what it entailed. Every melodramatic movie or television show or novel with a character slowly rotting away in agony flashed through me. I felt a keen revulsion akin to the sensation of walking through a thick spider web in the dark. My interior became warm gelatin, and I put my hands down to either side of my hips. My fingers felt detached, insensate. My body had become an enemy. I imagined myself sliding off the exam table and that slippery paper unspooling as I went. The Norman Rockwell prints now suggested tombstones and decay, and I wondered if Rockwell ever painted the Grim Reaper swinging a rusty scythe.
“The big C,” I replied to Doc Hartig, with what I imagined to be bravado. “Ok.” I spent an hour and a half at the gym this morning, I thought. I ran 6 miles yesterday. “We just bought a house,” I said, and smiled, or tried to smile. I just finished graduate school.
And the hardest thought: How can I tell Patricia?
The week before I’d gone to the doctor for the first time in 5 years. I’d not had health insurance since I’d moved out of my folks’ house and had never been substantially sick. But a persistent cough and sinus infection sent me back to the doctor who’d done my annual checkups through middle and high school, the doctor who’d seen me change from boy to man, the guy who’d filled out my sports permission slips. He’d seen the mole on my shoulder immediately during our exame and said “That should come out.” I’d asked if I could hold a mirror and watch him cut it, and though the nurse had immediately exclaimed no, Doc Hartig instructed her to hold a mirror so I could watch as he made incisions down either side of the small brown patch. Because of the numbing shots I had no sensation in my shoulder as I watched his gloved fingers pull the mole out, a thick white root coming behind the surface flesh, blood moving slow and sure, and a final scissor cut to sever it from me. There was an antiseptic wipe before the quick and easy stitching and bandaging. That mole had gone to the lab in a small plastic vial and someone in a lab looked it over and typed up a report and that report had just kicked me in the gut.
Though it was 17 years ago I still remember the drive home from the doctor’s. How pointless, ugly, and forgettable things glowed. The Jiffy Lube at Warren and York Roads—I’d seen it a thousand times, but now I really saw it, and its employees going about their business looked to me like the most important things. Litter and dry leaves swirled in the wind along the ramp to I-83 and as I pulled onto the highway. I headed toward our new home where I still had painting and unpacking to do, and wondered how long I would live there?
I had to go to work in two hours.