Finitude


Wait.  I need to be clear.  I DON’T HAVE CANCER.

I have a tumor.  And I’m getting radiation.  And I’m experiencing all the weird side effects of that.  And they’re so weird, that I find them compelling enough.  Though I’m pretty easy.

At my weigh in yesterday I clocked in at 148, down 3 pounds.  To be expected.  Each Tuesday they basically query me on symptoms.  They offer some small remedies, but their main job I think is to simply observe and make sure things don’t get too out of hand.

I mentioned the hair loss.  Apparently the radiation kills hair follicles.  Not all, just 50% of the ones they hit.  And of the ones that die, I think there’s a 50-50 chance they may grow back.  I asked if they could change my treatment plan so that the radiation could spell a word or something on the back of my head.

No, the rad onc said.  Because there’s only a 50-50 chance that we’ll destroy the follicle.  Good answer.  Now I realize, of course, that she probably gets asked this question by a new patient every week.  Dang it.

This life now consists mainly of finite rituals of excoriation. The best antidote to prevent or minimize mucusitis (the dreaded mouth fungus that can render the mouth and throat into a mass of aching sores) is to swish regularly with a concoction of water, salt, and baking soda. The salt kills bacteria. The baking soda restores a bit of the saliva pH (the radiation also destroys the sub-mandibular salivary gland on one side which makes my saliva more acidic – hence brush brush brush – and also affects taste). The baking soda also supposedly helps with the mucous consistency. It’s become uncomfortably thick, lining my throat with a dense layer so that behaves something like a clogged artery. I feel a fairly constant impulse to gag. Mornings and around food are the worst. I was swishing 3 times a day after each brushing. Yesterday my rad onc recommended six times a day. People who swish do a lot better, she said. I decide on a routine of salt and baking soda before each meal, after I brush, and everytime I enter the bathroom or walk by the sink. That should cover it.

I also brush every time I eat. 20 times on each surface with just water. 20 times with toothpaste on each surface. Floss. Swish and gargle with hyper-salinated baking soda water. Rest.

Eating becomes a dogma. I awoke at 3:30 am famished with no desire to place anything in my mouth. This morning, breakfast was grape nuts, half an apple and yogurt. All animal products – fat, milk, yogurt, meats – taste cloying; imagine lathering the inside of your mouth with a dollop of metallic tasting lard. The first bite of breakfast tasted, well, like poison. I arrived at the following routine. Place bowl of cereal on deck balcony and face the headlands. Place food in mouth. Pace forth and back on the deck, chewing once for each step. I must swallow the bite by the time I return to the bowl again. Repeat. When finished: brush, floss, swish and gargle with hyper-salinated baking soda water. Rest.

Water tastes uncomfortably like metal. Apparently it comes from the salts and minerals, but also its the flavor of dead tissue in my mouth sloughing off. It makes it difficult to stay hydrated. New routine: Brew 1 cup of green angel tea from chinatown. Sip. Imagine nectar. Sip. Imagine nectar. Repeat until tea is gone. Brush. Gargle. Rest. Repeat three times a day.

The right side of my neck now sports a burn. I bought an aloe/water spray at Whole Foods. Just straight aloe – no dyes, alcohol, whatever. Upon returning from rtx, spray on neck. Repeat three times a day.

Today after treatment I felt like I’d been kicked. Not in the way that everyone else here feels kicked, but just a shadow of it. I guess I say this mainly for them – if I’m feeling this cruddy, my god, how do they endure?  I have 12 more days of this.  Twelve never before seemed like such a big number.  I wrapped my arms around myself, looked down and beetled slowly down the street. I trained my sight on the line in the pavement. One step after another, just following the line. The tiny crack was filled with detritus – pollen, bits of plastic, crushed leaves, dirt. So much that we leave invisible.

I thought of a Russian ascetic, he was a priest, I think, in the 17th or 18th century and he and his sister (or perhaps it was his wife) were banished to the frozen barrens of Archangelisk or someplace. They trudged for weeks through the fields of snow and ice.

His companion was famished and exhausted. How much further must we walk? she asked.

To the end, he replied. To the very end.

And he continued walking.

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