I was telling someone that my current experimental treatment was like the experience of being in a car crash. It’s the only way I know how to describe it. Sometimes I think it’s not even the crash itself but the treatment I just had was like the moment right after collision and right before the crash stops — all that time in between. It’s much easier to say, “It felt like a car crash.” Moreover, it’s not even the violent part of the car crash, but some potentially dreamy core, some highly intense and traumatic middle place.
That’s how my memory is processing it, how things are coming back to me after being forcibly sick for 13 or 14 days. I know the major events of the experience: the chemotherapy to rid my body of the old, worthless white cells I’d been born with, then the actual treatment, getting back millions of white cells that they’d taken from me only weeks earlier and then modified and made bionic in the lab according to the cancer my body has harbored, and then, to spurn on my immune system, to make the whole thing go, the IL2 (Interleukin) treatments. I remember the four doses of IL2 even though I was stung by severe rigors, violent, strange chills that left me like a Mexican jumping bean for twenty minutes — maybe more — depending on how the Demerol worked on my system.
I remember the hallucinations that made the whole treatment come to a screeching halt two Saturday’s ago now. The doctor was nervous about continuing because they couldn’t stop madness ultimately, couldn’t predict when it would end the way they could my flu-like symptoms or the way they could yield a ventilator to stop the experience of shortness of breath.
I knew it once it was happening, me sitting in the bathroom, looking at smudges on a stainless steel shelf just in front of me. The whole time I’m thinking I’m hallucinating. I knew what I was looking at wasn’t real, but there it was, the movement of the smudge, what looked like, very briefly, a congo drum player, dressed like a conquistador or some sort of pre-American borderless wanderer, playing the music of nowhere. This was the weirdo narrative I had been building in my head as I took a crap looking at the smudge on the stainless steel shelf.
I said to myself, “It’s not really happening. You know this. You know that this is the Il2. They warned you. They said there could be madness.” Nonetheless, you did your business with the toilet, cleaned up, and then yelled, “Emily! Emily! Get in here. You got to see this.” Like you and her were going to dig the little musical show on the stainless steel shelves where, in your head, some weird musician was doing his thing. You couldn’t quite place it, the music. You figured he’d had to learn it all somewhere else too because the drum was African. He’d brought it with him, here, to this place where Hell was breaking out for all parties involved, a whole place being born, an Eden destroyed and, yet, a whole new peoples coming of age. Sitting in your bathroom you felt like you were at the edge of history.
You said, “Il2 treatments.”
You yelled out, “Em! Come see this shit. Not, like, shit shit. But, like, the shit. On the wall.” You realized the whole thing sounded mad. You. The music. The congo guy. All of it. Things were unraveling. “I’m hallucinating,” you said. But you wanted to be sure. You yelled again for Emily.
She opened the door and looked at me looking at the wall, and I said, “You see this, right? Or, I mean, you don’t see this, right? Well, I don’t know. Whatever. I think you know what I mean. I think you know what I’m talking about.”
Wow. How crazy you were.
She sighed. Looked at me sitting there, looked at my IV pole like it was a strange intruder, just standing there, like it’d been caught, a silent partner to madness and hallucinations. Like it’d been egging me on, pumping me full of drugs. My go-to-guy. Who Lou Reed had been waiting for with $26 dollars in his hand. My IV pole. Dressed in black. As she’s looking at the walls, I’m singing in my head, “Up to Lexington 125/Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive/I’m waiting for my man.”
“What you looking at, hon?” she asked me as delicately as possible.
“It’s no biggie. I’m seeing things. I’m just making sure. You don’t see this guy here playing the drums? Like a conquistador. Playing the congo’s?” I pointed over to the thing. I circled it with my index finger, fingered the area where I saw it happen.
“No,” she said. Then looking, and after some silence, “Yeah. No. Not sure I do.” She looked hard at the stains on the shelving. She really wanted to see it for my sake, I think. I don’t know if she thought I was losing my shit. I wasn’t, I thought, because I knew I was hallucinating. Does knowledge of hallucination make one less mad? But she didn’t know. I couldn’t ask her all that. She said, “It’s just dirt. I think you’re seeing into it.”
“Oh, I know it. I’m seeing into everything.”
“Honey, why don’t you pull your pants up and come on out and get into bed? You should just come on out and rest.”
“Yeah. Ok. Good idea.” So I pulled my underwear up and grabbed my IV pole and we wheeled out into the room and I got back into bed. I wanted to be confident in my madness. I just didn’t want to be making this shit up. I started to think that maybe I wasn’t seeing anything at all, that the whole thing was a hallucination in and of itself, like thinking about it to such a degree was itself a sort of madness. I then got lost in my thinking.
I looked around the room and things had a sheen to it. I remember thinking, “The room has a sheen to it.” That was the word. “Sheen.” “The room shined softly” is what I kept telling myself. I wondered if others saw it. It wasn’t malicious. It was blue, a light blue around all things. Things vibrated slightly. I knew it was all over for me. They were going to stop the treatments.
When the doctor came in he asked me how I was doing. I told him. He asked me how I felt, I told him that it really had nothing to do with “feeling.” I went on. I told him about the conquistador. Yeah, it was all over for me. I think I got him on the conquistador. I think that’s what did it for him, when I told him about the stuff in great detail, even the narrative I’d built about the conquistador — you know, “being at the edge of history” and all.
He put his hand up to stop me from talking, adjusted his glasses on his face, looked at me, said, “Wait, I’m sort of confused now.” He paused to catch his breath. I knew it. My narrative was breathless. I mean, the music, the conquering, the indians, the terror, the melding of peoples. It was a little overwhelming. He asked, “How are you being so lucid about hallucinations? You’re making me confused.”
I told him that my undergraduate experience afforded me opportunities to explore various modes of consciousness. I smiled.
My wife laughed, like “Oh my god. Here we go.”
He smiled uncomfortably, shifted his weight from one leg to another. He was in blue surgery scrubs, a white jacket over them, a patch on it that had a man slaying a huge crab. The doctor wiped his brow. He was sweating. “Ok, then,” he said. He proceeded to ask me a series of questions, as if this was going to prove anything at all, he asked, “What’s 100 minus seven?”
I said, “What?”
He said, “100 minus seven?”
“I don’t know. Like 85. Maybe 86.” I was counting on my hands. I was laughing.
“And minus seven.”
“No. I’m not doing this.”
“You have to.”
“No, I don’t.”
I told him to look at the clock, and I told him to look around at the blue sheen of things, and he did and didn’t. He was a very by-the-book kind of man, and I think he just thought I was seeing things and that there wasn’t any more to seeing things than seeing them, like there was nothing else to it, like no story to it, no MEANING. But I think there were other things happening, but he didn’t want go there with me. He didn’t have the time. He was on call. He’d been there all night already and didn’t need to do the whole Carlos Casteneda journey with a 35-year-old cancer patient whose got four spots in his lungs and a bigger mass along his psoas muscle. He didn’t want to do the Tim Leary thing with me even though I was all (always have been) like “Fuck Tim Leary.” I just wanted him to see what I was seeing, what I’d been seeing, but I knew that was probably impossible. He had his own research to do, his own kind of seeing to do.
He just said, “Well, I think we’re going to stop. You made it to four. That’s good. It’s clear the treatment is working. You’ve got the shine.”
I nodded sagely, I told him, “ Yeah, man. Everything’s got the shine. That’s my point. Been my point the whole time, man.”
Emily smiled. Shrugged her shoulders. Like, this is my man.
He smiled meekly and said, “Ok then. Well, I’ll check in later, Mr. Torch.” He threw me a little wave of the hand.
“Ok, Doc. See you later then.”
I think when he left then we were both a little confused because we were both witnessing some kind of shine. He just didn’t believe in mine as I was to believe in his. Later, my wife told me that my skin had a sort of flush to it that made it look shiny. It looked like I’d been in the sun for a few days and I had been sun-kissed. It’s what the doctor’s call the “IL2 glow.” Their “glow” was more “real,” I guess, than the “glow” I was just getting into and they pulled the plug on. This was part of what made this whole thing like being in a car crash — a beautiful car crash, a car crash that wakens you to the minute details of everything happening all at once. I feel like I’ve been in a car crash and it’s still sort of happening, the long smashing of glass, the noise of the crack-up, the way the light glitters off all that broken glass, the holy terror of it, the breathlessness of it, the speed or no speed of the whole thing. Everything sort of weightless and you’re left wondering when it will stop — things just suspended, there to see and witness.
* * *
Maybe it was two days ago, before I left, that I looked in the mirror at myself and had the brief sensation of being someone else. It was only a moment but one that seemed to last an eternity. Like I’m still looking into the mirror. I said, “You’re you. Stop being so dramatic.” I looked and tried to capture me and my heart got heavy and I thought I’d cry a little but then I didn’t.
I’ve lost a lot of weight these last three weeks. My cheek bones are sharp and my skin sort of falls near my chin or, better, it makes a slight dimple at either side of my lower jaw. I broke my nose when I was in my early twenties in some ridiculously wonderful and absurd bar fight and the broken bone now sort of stands prominently out at the top, where my glasses sit. My hair has been falling out and, also, a first, my eyelashes and eyebrows a little. So when I looked into the mirror I was experiencing something else. Someone I didn’t know. I wanted to put my hand out and shake his hand. My eyes have always been big, but they bulge a little now because of the severe angularity of my face without the weight I’ll gain back very quickly I’m sure. My eyes, they’re ridiculous. But there you have it.
I was talking to myself in the mirror, and I suppose everyone has these moments, moments we think for a few seconds that the person staring back at us, that this person, this can hardly be us. We hardly believe it. The years and the tensions and the joys and the hardships and the wonder and the pessimism and the strange skepticism and the terrible optimism and all of it, the madness and hatred and silliness and humanness of being alive all gangs up on you. I guess that’s what it was, I was looking at all of it at once. I wonder if you have before. I wasn’t hallucinating. It was me. But it wasn’t me, or, better, I didn’t want to think it was me because I didn’t want to believe, maybe like you, I didn’t want to believe that at my age, 35, I was privy to such things yet. When is the right age, I guess? There’s no right age. But I wondered, looking at me in the mirror, staring at the foreigner, I wondered what he was doing there. I wanted him to go away even as I leaned in to get a better view: the eye-sockets perfect in their form, but scary because it seemed like one good punch would do some serious damage; there was the seriousness of mouth and the slight hanging at the corners of my mouth, like I was frowning, but I wasn’t.
“This can hardly be us,” we say. We stare. We inspect. We can hardly believe it. Life all of a sudden. Yes. That’s it. Life all of a sudden. Like a heap on you. Like it fell out of the sky, out of nowhere. The passage of time. The complete wonder of it all. And it reads on your face now is all. When your hair does grow now there’s the little bits of gray hair. There’s the signs of history. You are at the edge of history. You weren’t bullshitting him. You weren’t hallucinating. It’s here.
And you’re like, “No way.”
But, “Yes, yes way.”
There it is. Look.
Nonetheless, even with this knowledge, you stand there, and you say, “Nope. Not you. Who are you? Get. Go on now. Get.” There’s a slight terror, but also a feeling like it’s always been this way. You were always right there. But what were we looking at before? What the fuck have we been looking at?
The hair product. The shaving. The lotions. All of it. The preening. The time in front of the mirror and really, well, where were you? Excuse me. Where was I? Where’ve I been? This is what I’ve been thinking about.
It’s like being in a car crash. Life flashes before your eyes. Moments of clarity. Illuminations. The pleasure of reality. Seeing and not seeing. Hearing and not. There you are and there you go. Gone.
And that’ s the experience I ju st had. As best as I can put it. So when I say something like, “It was like a car crash,” I guess I mean that it wasn’t just being treated for cancer, because, you know, fuck cancer, but it’s the experience of not being me. Or not believing me when me faces me with me. Like the image of me is hard to believe. But, there it is. Now, when I look in the mirror, there I am, man. A severe, sometimes terrified man. Yet a man who has experienced wonder, a guy with the shine. And he keeps experiencing it and keeps experiencing it, has bouts with much darker things, but this wonder, well, this wonder makes him want to go figure it out now that he’s back in the streets of his Chicago again after that long car crash.
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One of the most deeply moving pieces of work I’ve ever read. A case of pulling the reader into the experience rather than simply telling them about it. Beautifully written. Wishing you blessings, health, and recovery!