“Are you going to be alive when I’m a teenager?”
I’m strolling through the supermarket in Siberia With a View, accompanied by my 6-year-old grandson, Banzai. We’re holding hands and the store’s music system is playing So Happy Together, by The Turtles, featuring Howard Kaylan as a B-grade lounge singer. Someone has dropped a jar of marinara sauce in the middle of the aisle, glass shattered, red schmutz spattered across the floor tiles. We make our way through the shards and muck, and head for the flesh section at the back of the building. Dead animals beckon.
The market is in the midst of a $3 million-plus remodel and much is in disarray, including me. Few items are where I found them the week before: no pasta on Aisle 7, no Garbanzos on Aisle 3, cheese and cheeselike substances moved from cold cases at the back of the store to a crowded, side-wall location near the pharmacy. I have no clue where to find Kozy Shack pudding. I am old, in a dither.
Bonz, on the other hand, is at ease, homing in on his target: the toy section —six-foot-wide shelves stacked four high, littered with cheap, brightly-colored Chinese crap. Store managers move the toy section from one location in the store to another every few days as different areas are remodeled, but Bonz has Chinese crap radar and he tracks directly to it.
First, though: meat.
I explain to Bonz how to break down primal cuts of beef and he hits me with the death question. It seems appropriate, considering our location.
“I’ve been thinking,” he adds, staring at the chuck roast I am using as an example in my cow lecture. “I hope you’re still here when I’m a teenager.”
“Me, too,” I reply.
“But,” he says, prodding a hunk of bottom round with his index finger, “I don’t think you will be: you’re fat, and you never go outside, except when you drive here or the liquor store, or to the gallery to see your friends. You don’t get any exercise.”
“Well, yes, you’re right.”
“You need to go to the gym and stop eating so much cheese,” he says, as we say goodbye to the flesh and veer down Aisle 11.
“You know,” I say as I try to keep pace with the little asshat, “lumberjacks in Finland take in a hundred times the amount of cheese and butter that I do, and …”
Bonz skids to a halt in front of the toy section and claps his hands to the sides of his head. “Ooooh, look: a value pack of Star Wars characters! And … dinosaurs!”
Bonz manipulates the soft plastic, Chinese-made dinosaur figures, the crudely fashioned globs riddled with toxic industrial waste products. The lad is transfixed. It gives me time to think about his question, and my impending departure. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately.
I’m close to the finish line in the Death Race. I admit this is a trivial thing to note, since we’re each of us close from the time we are conceived, though the exact end date usually remains a mystery. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man,” etc. But, I have cuddled up to the inevitability of my demise during episodes when it was near; I am familiar with the situation.
Take, as examples, a couple of dramatic auto accidents, an incident in which I awoke in a room that was ablaze, the smoke inches above my head and descending, several experiments with body chemistry gone awry, none of which I should have survived. I was too young at the time to fully recognize the perils I faced or the role of luck in my life. During the last six years, however, I’ve neared the edge twice in a medical environment, under schooled supervision. I’m old enough now to grasp the meaning of these events and of the worst-case scenario possible in each. What I encountered has given me pause, provided reasons to fine-tune my perspective.
Six years ago, I was told I had prostate cancer and advised by several physicians that I needed to do something about it, stat! It was a Defcon 1 situation according to the folks with stethoscopes: bad biopsy results, nasty PSA readings. Get it out now, they said of my Fun Juice factory, it promises corruption and your end will not be pretty.
I sought second and third opinions, became familiar with the range of treatment options, had numerous objects shoved up my ass and, after much consternation, decided on a surgery that, barring one rather important result, was remarkably successful. That one thing: after removal of the diseased glob, following the post-op agony, the lab tests, the catheter bag phase, stool softener gobbling and theatrical suffering, I still had cancer. Those freaky fucking cells made it outside the envelope of the gland and migrated to other parts of the system before the vile goober was carved out of me. Having dodged the possibility that the surgery would kill me, I now wait to discover when and where the cancer comes to roost, burrowing in bone or brain or both to do its ugly business. What does it mean? Simple: I scan my horizon line with sharper focus; I re-order priorities in accord with my perceived limits. As in: I have things to do, and a short period of time in which to do them. Get to it.
With this perspective comes the clear awareness of a companion I cannot shake, no matter how diligent I am regarding my work or how attentive to those people I love: Death waits with patient confidence in the next room, unshakable gloom in a dismal shroud, ready to punch my ticket. The prospect of a visit is clear when I wake in the middle of the night, my head on a sweat soaked pillow, gaze unfocused on a dimly-lit ceiling, my breathing ragged, heart racing. As a student, I read the major existentialist literature and later incorporated mention of those dreary works in classroom sessions during my stint as a less-than-competent teacher. Angst, dread, fear and trembling: dramatic ideas once pitched from a lectern with empty bravado are now real and unwelcome companions in the early morning hours. You can be certain I do not turn on the bedside light and read Sartre or Kierkegaard. Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus perhaps, but stoicism provides meager comfort. “Think continually how many physicians are dead after often fretting over the sick…” Yeah, that’ll pep a guy up.
Another reminder of the last stop on the line was delivered four years ago as I was stretched out on a bed in a pre-op ward, listening to a hospital official detail negative consequences that could result from an impending neurosurgical adventure.
Well, let’s see, Karl: We’re just about to put you under and the team is going to take a space-age instrument package up your nose, drill back through your sphenoid sinus, breach the lining of your brain and gouge out a tumor that’s filled your pituitary cavity, the ugly growth jamming that precious hormone nugget up into the optic chasm, flattening the gland to the thickness of a sheet of gelatin. There could be some problems, so we’d like you to sign twenty pages of consent forms that absolve us of any responsibilities should you… (sound of throat cleared)…die or suffer grievous repercussions due to the intrusion. Things like strokes, unmanageable arterial bleeds, paralysis: little things like that. Sign here, and here, and here. Don’t hesitate and try to figure odds; this isn’t a single-deck-pitch blackjack table at the Tropicana, with Theresa the dealer delivering an insincere smile and giving you a glimpse of sagging tit as you finish off your twelfth watery gin and tonic. Sign now, before the pre-op sedative takes effect. Our operating theaters are booked solid, we have an incomprehensibly huge air-conditioning bill, and time’s a-wasting.
I sign. They drill, they gouge.
I bob in the surgery’s miserable wake for more than a month, first in the ICU with a five-day cerebro-spinal fluid deficit and accompanying skull-crushing headache, later unable to sniff, snort, cough or blow my nose for six weeks, for fear of prompting a fatal bleed or reopening the surgical entry point, allowing all manner of rot to invade Brainville. Death perches on a stool down the hall, waiting, supremely confident. I feel the chill.
As with my prostate cancer surgery, the trip inside the skull is not entirely successful, and this adds weight to my Death Race meditation. The surgery relieves the pressure on the optic nerve and my eyesight returns to normal, but the neurosurgeon informs me he’s left bits of the tumor that were cozied up to arteries and other fragments of the mass that grew into the Dura. Could come back, he says of the tumor. He speaks in a monotone and peers at me over the top of gold-rimmed, round glasses; I imagine he drives a Mercedes. Yep, sure could, he says, exhaling and gazing up at a full-color poster on the wall displaying illustrations of common brain tumors. If it does, he says, the only recourse is radiation.
Ah, yes, a crazy ray melting its way into my head. Death stands in the next room and chuckles at the notion we will meet and I might not be able to remember my name.
I lie awake in the early morning hours. I hear the sound of wings beating in the dark. I have things to do, and a clearly limited amount of time in which to do them. Among them: living until Bonz is a teenager. Bonz will be a teen in seven years, his brother Bodhi Valhalla in eleven.
If I take Bonz’s advice about exercise and cheese I might last seven years; I’m nearly 69 years old and seven more years would put me at 76. It’s not unreasonable to expect a guy to make it to 76 in fairly good shape. The body can still manage stairs, lungs will survive the occasional hill; the mind operates well enough that one can cook eggs, navigate the cablesphere with the remote, dial in 135 degrees on the vaporizer, pour a stiff drink. At 76, I should still be able to write and paint each day and, if I avoid a crippling and/or final run-in with the cancer, I should be able to do well enough, given I don’t tumble headlong down the stairs on my way to take a piss, four cocktails and ten hits of Purple Kush past the safety zone.
Eleven years is another matter: Bonz will be 17, in his last year of high school, on probation, wearing an ankle monitor. Bo will be 13 and, no doubt, wreaking havoc at the middle school. I will be 80 and a pathetic shell of a man.
At 80, the biggest event of the day for me will be feeding time on the veranda at the care center, with an overweight, tattooed goof from Chihuahua hitting me on the back of my head, urging me in his not-so-kind, ESL way to finish my stale egg salad sandwich. I’ll crap myself at least twice each day and mumble about Joni Mitchell and the time she played Clouds for me in a dilapidated hotel room in Manhattan. I’ll have a rash beneath the waistband of my Depends; my shit will be white and my urine black due to an untreatable liver problem related to the above-mentioned experiments with body chemistry. Compression stockings will leave my withered lower legs bruised and the hair in my ears will resemble ferns in a rain forest. My earlobes? Like sails. My dick? Don’t mention it.
If I live to 80, some charitable person (likely a Christian showing good will to an outsider) will fetch me from my cell at Oldster Heights and take me to one of Bonz’s soccer games, or to the high school theater department’s execrable production of West Side Story. I’ll be the old fart slumped over the steering wheel of a Rascal parked near the fence at the high school stadium, his splotchy hand clutching an half-empty can of Ensure. I’ll be the feeb doubled over in the end seat of the back row at the school auditorium, a wheezing relic who smells like a dirty diaper and calls everyone Kathy.
“Yes,” I say to Bonz, repeating myself as we old folks tend to do, “I hope I’ll be here when you’re a teenager.”
He’s no longer interested.
“Will you buy these dinosaurs for me?”
“Sure,” I say, “so long as you promise not to force your brother to eat one of them.” From the expression on his face, I can see I have thwarted a plan.
We walk from the store and cross the parking lot to my beat-up ’93 Chevy pickup. I strap Bonz in on the passenger side and I get in. The driver-side door doesn’t shut tight, but I figure there are worse ways to end things than to fall out of a crappy pickup and be run over by a Texan who’s talking on a cell phone while driving a new Escalade. The truck is like me: we’re both rusted and our parts are failing.
Bonz takes two of his dinosaurs from the pack and holds them up, inspecting the flawed details, admiring the garish colors. The boy’s profile is beautiful, bright sun lights his golden hair, my love for him fills the cab, fear and trembling evaporate. Death hitches a ride in the back of the truck, but I don’t look in the rearview mirror. I don’t give a fuck. Worry can wait until dark.
I turn to Bonz and say: “You know, I’m old now, but long ago, for a moment, I was the youngest person on the planet.”
He looks at me like I’m a crazy person ranting on a street corner, and he growls like a T-Rex.