As he flipped through waiting room magazines, he tried to find one that would occupy his mind. He had been struggling with his body’s mutiny against him for months. At first he tried to convince himself it was just the normal act of aging, metabolism slowing down, achy joints, but after so much time and so many specialists…
But he wasn’t ready for that yet.
His eyes desperately searched bright yellow and pink blurbs, shapes he knew were supposed to be vapid celebrity names randomly combined with pointless “just like us” factoids. There had to be something here that didn’t need any energy but could make him forget why he was sitting in that bland off-white waiting room, with its innocuous-looking gray carpet and the dull, uncomfortably right-angled, drab gray medical-grade waiting room furniture.
He exhaled plosively, defiantly disrupting the still, sterilized room and its inoffensive decor, until the stale air swallowed it up into its dull, implacable surface, like a bullet shot into a lake that suddenly loses speed and floats harmlessly and impotently to the bottom.
Apparently This Doctor liked ducks. (Mallards to be specific.) The last one liked sailboats. The one before that liked jazz festivals. Other than the 2 or 3 posters, probably selected by a professional Medical Office Interior Decorator, it could have been the same room each time. The same magazines lay strewn across the Yet Another Doctor’s Office Waiting Room Magazine Stack Table, presumably purchased for each specialist’s office out of the Yet Another Doctor’s Office Waiting Room Piece of Furniture catalog.
Although, he imagined absent-mindedly, the YADOWRPoF was probably available on-line these days…
He sighed as he chucked another magazine to the side, checking for anything that could keep him occupied in the stack. Celebrity gossip, home improvement, parenting… all magazine themes that seemed fraught with perilous pictures of People Living Their Dreams in the Future. People who wouldn’t need chemo. Who wouldn’t need radiation. Who weren’t looking at months if not years of grueling appointments and risky treatments. It’s not like he hadn’t seen it before.
He decided on a science magazine, attracted to a headline about the miraculously self-healing human body. Researchers had found out Some Great Thing to make us forget all of the randomness and chaos in the world. Except, of course, in the article it turned out that the Some Great Thing wasn’t really that great and still required decades-long Clinical Trials and Major Federal Review.
Placebos are still effective, he grumbled in his head. Mind over matter and all that.
He morosely flipped to an article about the Vermont beekeeping industry, challenging his pessimistic, obsessive brain with finding some creative way to manipulate even that into being about him. If the idea of a diagnosis, perhaps fatal, were going to lurk in his brain against his will, let it at least put some effort into it. Go ahead, monkey brain, find a way to twist your fears into a story about the Vermont beekeeping industry.
He couldn’t stop saying it to himself, link a whimsical, distant and utterly foreign mantra, as it gained greater and greater importance: The Vermont Beekeeping Industry. THE Vermont Beekeeping Industry. He imagined it was a subset of the Greater Yankee Beekeeping Association, but it was The One And Only Vermont Beekeeping Industry. The article author had observed his or her publication’s style guide, but in his mind he rectified the lack of capital letters the deeply concerned author obviously intended. He wondered what sorts of conventions they had, those Industrious Beekeepers of Vermont. Was the Industry part even necessary, given the reputation of bees? He wondered if he had any honey at home, and if so, was there a way he could determine if it was made in Vermont?
The article actually turned out to be fairly entertaining for a few minutes. It was about some sort of “zombie bee” that was terrorizing The Vermont Beekeeping Industry. A parasite fly was infecting bees and laying eggs in their stomachs. This mysteriously made the honey bees fly around at night. Apparently this is what raised the suspicions of The Vermont Beekeeping Industry Constabulary, the honey bees being out after curfew, so they raised the alarm and it turned out these bees had all these parasites. None of the authorities consulted in the article felt it was a significant threat, but the Vermont Beekeeping Industry was greatly concerned about the mysterious deaths of these 30 zombie bees. Effects on honey production in the region were unknown.
Honey. The taste of honey. That was how it started. He woke up one morning with the taste of honey in his mouth. He wondered if it was like the metallic taste people on chemo got, a side effect of some pill he took, a vitamin. A week or so later there was a tickle in thr throat, which slowly became a sensitivity to certain foods, until ultimately he was struggling to stand straight from the pain. Antacids had helped, laxatives had helped, but the pain always came back. Eventually it became migraine headaches, and his vision changed. He heard a buzzing in his ears. Specialist after specialist couldn’t tell him what was wrong.
The magazine slipped out of his hand to the floor, unnoticed.
All of the tests, Xrays, CT scans, MRIs were inconclusive. The Ultrasound technician was visibly disturbed. None of this could be a good sign.
The door to the inner corridors of the office opened and a large, loud nurse called his name, disturbing his reverie. God, I can even make The Vermont Beekeeping Industry all about me, he thought. Was this what he had come to?
Just a few months ago he was a young guy, maybe not a kid any more, but certainly not an “adult” in the traditional sense. After so many years of taking care of his family, how was he expected to have it all figured out so soon? He was still full of promise, trying to get his life together. Maybe he didn’t have a great job, but it was a job. Maybe he didn’t like his living situation, but at least he was still living. Was this his future? Was his life going to become a string of specialists, appointment after appointment, treatments, then follow-ups, with public interest magazine articles being twisted to feed his self-pity until…? He cut off the thought angrily.
It seemed like he was always so irritable now. Edgy, but unable to focus or control his thoughts. Probably the loss of sleep.
Even now he walked like an automaton through the routine of yet another medical visit. He smiled and nodded politely and mindlessly when it seemed like a response was required as the chatty woman took his blood pressure and weight, presumably comparing the figures from prior visits to other doctors in a continual and monotonous hum. He’d stopped listening to this bit, which he’d started calling “the Preamble,” many appointments ago. Sometimes he’d lost weight, sometimes he’d gained. He almost always had high blood pressure. Knowing he had high blood pressure didn’t stop the panic attacks at night. This wasn’t why he was here.
As the nurse continued thrumming away on whatever mindless topic she’d latched onto, he thought about how much of his life he’d spent in this same office complex. Too many identical waiting rooms to remember what 2 or 3 posters the doctor had chosen. First one grandfather, then another, until his father wasted away, succumbing to the “dying of the light.” The Big C always won. How long would he be able to “rage”?
How many times had he been in this building? Hospitals, medical offices: all fractal-like creatures whose every floor, hall, office, closet and cubicle look identical to every other one. Dozens? Scores? Maybe even a hundred or more?
It was a just another plain, unadorned medical building, filled with dozens of GPs, medical technicians, and specialists each with identical little cubicular little offices and identical little corridors that go down strange paths. Paths that always wind up back at some big desk of pear-shaped desk nurses who look at you with silent disdain as they point toward the exit sign you didn’t see before, their black, cold eyes judging you as you fearfully trudge through the hive of little identical looking wooden doors trying frantically to return to the outside, with its fresh air and sunlight…
It suddenly occurred to him he might be a little tense.
He didn’t realize he’dstripped off his clothes until he found himself shivering in a thin paper “gown,” a special medical term he assumed was somehow related to the Latin for “Hey everyone, have you seen my cold, tense butt-cheeks?”
This was the last specialist.
He decided, in this moment. This was the last one.
Even with a real diagnosis, he wouldn’t get any real treatment or relief today anyway. Maybe after this it was time to try some holistic something-or-other. A witch doctor, some energy worker, or maybe a new agey person who’d prescribe ancient mysterious remedies made with common household products. Wasn’t there something in the article about honey being good for sore throats? Maybe he’d try it.
Every night now the dry, tickling in the throat woke him up. Sometimes he caught it when it was just in the chest, drowning the itchiness in a glass of water. Dehydration, said one specialist, and on some nights it helped. Other mornings he had laryngitis. Water didn’t help then, except to occasionally settle his stomach. Stress, suggested the gastroenterologist. Maybe IBS. Antacids stopped working entirely. One doctor even prescribed smoking pot before bed to calm his nerves and help him sleep through the night. He tried it, and for a few nights it worked, but after a while his throat hurt worse than ever, and some nights he woke with shooting pains in his eyes or blisters in his mouth.
As he sat on the unyielding cold vinyl and crinkled paper of the examination table, the door opened and the Oncologist appeared. As she went through the usual pleasantries, he suddenly remembered he had already tried honey.
It was during the pickle juice and apple cider vinegar concoction experiments. It was amazing how many home remedies he’d found on the Internet when he couldn’t sleep. More amazing were the few he remembered in the dizzy haze of his half-asleep morning, especially now.
The nights were always the worst. During the day he had an unsettled stomach, which he initially wrote off as nerves. He adjusted his diet to reduce acid, thinking that would help alleviate the fluttering in his stomach or his scratchy voice & painful swallowing. But now the stomach pain was more intense at night, and the dry, tickling spots were waking him so often he was dozing off at work.
Most recently, he noticed a shortness of breath, and not just at night, and his cough was wet and thick. It was as though his lungs were starting to cave in, and he didn’t have much phlegm, but it was streaked with an orangish-brown. The cardiopulmonologist had ordered tests and referred him to another specialist.
He was pretty sure it was lung cancer, but no one would tell him. He suspected no one had had the authority to offer up a diagnosis and they were afraid to even try.
“Mr. Jamison, thanks so much for coming in to discuss your test results.” The doctor continued on before he could utter a syllable. “I have to tell you that we are quite concerned about the masses we’re seeing. Unfortunately, the test results have so far proven inconclusive.”
He wanted to speak its name, but the fear gripped his chest and he couldn’t find the breath: Was it cancer? After seeing it destroy his grandparents, one by one, then his dad… Over a decade of his life spent driving to appointments, lifting them out of beds, helping to bathe them. He could handle anything else.
“Earlier we noticed some masses in your intestine and near your heart. These most recent tests have shown a reduction in those masses, but suddenly, some large, dark areas have started to appear in the lungs and stomach. We think it’s time for an aggressive approach at the rate this seems to be spreading. Of course, you have some options…”
Not again. Not him. If he had cancer he was certain he’d just snap, go completely mad like some character in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Maybe he could become a hermit. A slowly dying hermit. Just no more treatments. And turmoil. No more doctor’s offices. That was the one thing he just didn’t have in him anymore.
The doctor was still talking. Apparently, she thought it was best to proceed with haste given what they were dealing with.
They. Were. Dealing. With. None of those words made sense. Firstly, who was this “they”? The doctor wasn’t sick. And, although he was too polite to point it out to her while she continued droning, he certainly wasn’t “dealing.” And the “what” that was being dealt with still remained to be seen. Not to mention, what kind of doctor ends a sentence with a preposition? Maybe he should get a second opinion.
Maybe he should just get up and run out of here to live out the rest of his life in the Swiss Alps, or Cancun, or the Yukon. Anywhere but here. He wished he had the energy to do something, anything but sit on the cold, vinyl table with a doctor between him and the door. He felt his chest tighten, his breath get more shallow and panicked, his stomach more frantically tying itself in knots as he averted his eyes from the doctor’s, looking for any exit.
But he couldn’t muster the energy to breathe, let alone flee, and there were no windows; only a sink, some cheap blue laminate cabinets, and some paper towels.
The doctor was unfazed by her patient’s sudden psychosomatic depressive paralysis. Mistaking his silence for consideration of an operation he had not understood versus a forgotten procedure, she began listing pros and cons of each choice, but was obviously pushing for an immediately invasive tact. The doctor assured him that these were standardized procedures, completely normal, and to not worry about the outcome until the samples had been tested. But tested for what? his mind continued. Do you know?
Please, no, he thought. Anything but that. Just not the big C. He didn’t think he could do it again, not after grieving for so many. Please, let it just be something else.
The doctor was expecting a response.
The buzzing in his head grew louder, his stomach was spasming more than ever, and his heart rose up in his chest as he realized he had to face whatever came next. For all of his bluster about running, or hiding, fighting or bargaining, he simply had no choice but to accept the world and moment he was living in as they were. It was time for him to do what countless others had done before him.
He barely had time to register the doctor’s expression of horror before he thought to cover his mouth. He was embarrassed by the string of mucus and spittle he felt on his chin, and he began to turn his head to prevent coughing directly at the doctor even more.
It was then, out of the corner of his eye, that he saw the first black dot swimming in his field of vision. Not swimming, he thought. Flying. He felt light-headed and woozy as he saw another dot start swirling in a circular ballet around the first. He continued turning his head away from the doctor, following the dots as they swirled into his peripheral vision, not sure if he was losing his sight, his mind, or his lungs.
It was only when he turned and saw his own reflection in the paper towel dispenser that he began to realize. Only in that glimpse of the shiny aluminum when he saw the black and golden body as it crawled in zigzags across his chin before taking flight, when he recognized the false-eyelash-claw legs reaching out over his lower lip…
It was only then, in that calm before the swarm, that he truly understood how his pleas for mercy had been answered.