There are a lot of shitty ways to die. A quick Google search of the worst ways to die will lead you down a not so wonderful rabbit hole of people drowning, burning, being eaten by animals, even falling in volcanoes. Not that I’m an expert on dying, but I’m walking into the hospital right now for my third year of chemotherapy and I’d argue this must be on the top 10 shittiest ways to die. Burning? That sounds horrific but from my limited research I found out you black out within 20 to 30 seconds. Your worst 30 seconds alive. This has been my worst 3 years alive. Slowly being eaten away by the ravenous monster inside my single lung. My left lung was cut out during my first year. Empty promises of a quick fix. “The tumor is only in your left lung,” they said. “We think you’re in remission,” they said. That month spent in remission ended with me face down in the busy Chicago intersection. Blood flowing from my nose and mouth. Shit and piss down my leg. A crowd of people. Some taking pictures with their phones. Others rushing to my aid but hesitating when their noses reached the stench. Took a half an hour for the ambulance to come. Now they say, “there’s cancerous cell growth around your right lung.” As if they have to specify which lung it is.
The other cancer patients look at me with dreadful eyes. One young woman, who is still very much pretty, is looking at me wondering, “will I look like that in a few years?” Sorry, you probably will. You will probably throw up, shit, and piss more than you thought was humanly possible. You will have no appetite and will shrivel up more with each day that passes, leaving you looking like a stray dog living in a dumpster in a back alley. In your worst moments, you will compare yourself to Jesus Christ as you sweat blood down your jagged face. I pass her and say, “you’ll be alright.” and use all my strength to give her an encouraging smile and a pat on her (soon to be bony) back.
I’m running a little late so most of the good beds and chairs have been taken. I sit down in an old wooden chair with a penny thin cushion that allows the hard seat to grate on my fucked tailbone. The same nurse as always goes around and draws the curtains. This way you can’t see the other poor bastards turn into zombies. Not that this does much. The noises people make can be just as bad as seeing them turn into the living dead. The first year I tried to sleep through the “therapy” but the visceral nightmarish imagery that flooded my dreams made it unbearable. Now I bring a stack of mindless magazines to read. I tried novels but I’d get bored too easily.
I have managed to get comfortable with the needles and tubes in me. At first, you feel like the patient in the game Operation. It’s been about an hour. Family members of patients are starting to visit now. The support by family and friends in the early stages make you feel like you’re a celebrity. Your brother’s daughter’s girl scout troop sells cookies to raise money for your surgeries. Your mom’s church holds a healing service. Your best friend from high school that you haven’t talked to in years, except for the occasional Facebook message, stops by your house with a casserole and hallmark card. Your siblings and parents come to every chemo session. You get used to their company. But after a year or so the hype around your death begins to fade and less people visit. I haven’t had a visitation in a full year. Not that I care. I can’t even speak during the sessions anymore.
A few curtain rows down I hear sobbing. A young voice. A kid voice. A little girl whimpers, “mommy it hurts,” again and again. Her mother’s voice can be heard trying to comfort her dying daughter. “I know baby, I know. The medicine will help baby,” she says. That’s what we all hope. In my three years of chemo I’ve never shared a session with a kid. I’m focusing on my magazine trying to distract myself from the poor child. Brad Pitt in trouble again. The new Marvel movie broke another box office record. Nameless actress had a nip slip on the red carpet. These are the things that occupy your mind in these circumstances. Mindless pop culture magazines spreading gossip like you’re back in high school. Don’t pretend you don’t like it. You live for it.
My reading is interrupted by the sound of the little girl screaming. I hear the man closest to me ask a nurse for earplugs. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t want a pair as well. You’d want them too.
“Mommy I can’t,” she screams. “Yes, you can Claire,” her mother says with a trembling voice. She has a name. Claire. I feel the devil in my chest clawing at my heart. A name solidifies. It completes. It makes someone’s suffering tangible. A little girl isn’t dying of cancer. A little girl named Claire is dying of cancer.
I unplug all the needles and tubes inside of me. The monitor begins beeping in a fast-steady gallop. The nurse rushes to my assistance. “What are you doing? Where are you going? Are you alright?” she says. I extend my skinny-ass legs until they reach the floor. Using the chair as support I push myself up. I head down the room ignoring the nurse’s plea to sit back down. I shuffle my feet like a toddler learning to walk. All 70 pounds of me walking past all the other patients towards the sound of Claire’s cries. I turn to face her laying in her uncomfortable piss-soaked hospital bed. Her mother stands surprised to see anyone who isn’t the nurse. I fall to my knees next to Claire’s bed. I reach out both of my hands. One towards Claire and one towards her mother. Claire takes my hand and her mother hesitates a little before doing the same. “You’ve got this Claire,” I say, “you’re gonna kick cancers ass.”
I know the pain won’t stop but Claire’s cries and screams did. Another hour has passed and I’m still kneeling next to her bedside with her mother and their hands in mine. The only thing to be heard is the rhythmic beep of her monitor.
She’s asleep now. Her face soft and smooth. Soon she will be frail. Her skin will drape over her twig-like bones and her muscles will shrink. Her half circle eyes will take up most of her face and the skin around them will begin to darken. Her hair will be gone, and she will cover it up with a Mickey Mouse bandanna. She’ll want to throw punches at God, but her hands will be too weak to be made into fists. But for now, I’ll sit here in silence and comfort both her and her mother. There’s a lot of shitty ways to die but I’ll lie and tell them that cancer isn’t one of them.