...listen carefully; the Universe may be whispering in your ear
It is a poorly kept secret that often my bedtime reading is something related to astronomy or quantum physics. Not the down and dirty math and hard core science found in the trenches, but the high level stuff. Astronomy is my usual bedtime poison. I can read about expanding Universes, black holes and old riverbeds on Mars until I fall asleep with the book laying open on my face.
But some nights, I find myself reading about string theory, multiverses and the crazy world of quantum physics where particles don't have one history but every possible history. Where the aroma of your morning java may not have taken its usual more or less direct journey from the pot to your nose, but perhaps made a quick tour of the Andromeda galaxy first. Or was maybe here and on Pluto at the very same instant.
As I waited for the phone to ring, my arms trembling almost imperceptibly, my face draining of color, I found myself thinking about the quantum stuff because the name Cornelius Ryan popped into my head. Ryan was a World War II correspondent famous for writing The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day, as well as The Last Battle and A Bridge Too Far.
But the book I remember him most for was A Private Battle, written from secret notes he kept during his struggle with prostate cancer, a war he eventually lost. His wife, Kathryn Morgan Ryan, discovered the notes after his death. She journaled his war against cancer as well, and from what I have read, neither was aware of what the other was doing. Kathryn turned their journals into A Private Battle. It was an extraordinary piece of work that pulled readers into Ryan's long fight with a devastating disease.
I read that book decades ago, and I am not entirely sure how it came into my possession. It is almost as if it simply appeared one day on my nightstand. A gift from the Universe. An absurd thought, of course. More likely, I bought it at my church's annual summer Festival flea market. I had a habit of doing that each summer; I would just pick out a bunch of books that looked interesting, buy them, and bring them home in a small pile. Yet I don't remember picking that one out, and it was certainly an odd choice. I was in my late twenties or perhaps early thirties at the time, not an age group where prostate cancer is common. Also, as far as I know, there is no history of prostate cancer in my family.
I'd had one episode of prostate inflammation when I was in my thirties. It resolved itself on its own not long after a visit to a urologist. The doctor's prescription was: "You're a young married man. Just have lots of sex. Keep the pipes clean." (You can't make stuff like this up.)
He wasn't amused when I shot back a Rodney Dangerfield reply of: "But Doc, sex scares me. It's dark. I'm alone."
So anyway yes, logically, it was probably the flea market that brought the book into my life.
Or maybe, just maybe, the threads of the multiverse crossed for a second, and the book fell out a parallel Universe and quite literally, it seems now, into my lap. If that had been the only message the Universe sent to me about prostate cancer, I'd likely have forgotten about it.
But there was more.
In June of 2008 I began writing Water's Edge. The short story is about a man terminally ill with prostate cancer who decides to meet death on his own terms. I was drawn deeper and deeper into that story with every clickety-clack of my keyboard. If one is allowed to have favorites among their own works, this was one of mine. When I finally finished it, I remember thinking: "Well, where the hell did THAT come from?"
The phone rang. The biopsy results. The call I dreaded.
When I'd had my biopsy a few days earlier, I'd asked my urologist when the results would be in.
"It will probably be Friday, but there's a chance they'll have them on Thursday afternoon. Just call the office."
"They'll give me the report over the phone?"
"Anyone in the office can give you the report if it's benign."
"So," I said flatly, "My tipoff is if you have to call me back."
He paused a bried second and says, "Yes, that's your tipoff."
The biopsy itself was a piece of cake. That was because I was smart enough to research it and ask to be sedated, which required it being done at an ambulatory center. The other option was simply having it done in the urologist's office while wide awake. The biopsy would involve an ultrasound probe delivered up the rear entrance and then a dozen jabs through the wall of the rectum to withdraw thin cores of prostate tissue. In my reading, the best thing anyone had to say about the procedure was that it was like having a rubber band snapped. In your butt. Over and over. No thanks. When I was a kid I didn't like a towel snapped against my butt in the showers after gym class. I certainly didn't want anyone snapping anything IN my butt with me conscious at the time.
I was with the nurse when she called to set up the appointment. "Thank you," I said after she finished the scheduling call. "I have no intention of being awake when I have telephone pole shoved up my backside to harpoon my prostate a dozen times."
"It's not a telephone pole," she laughed softly.
"Maybe not. But what do you think a urologist would do if he was in my shoes?"
"Exactly what you're doing. Any of them would."
The day before the biopsy I started taking a particulary gnarly antibiotic called levaquin, which has a bunch of interesting possible side-effects, including tendon ruptures. It was only a three-day course, but among my other genetic blessings is osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). OI affects bones and connective tissues. Fractures are common, and I've had a number of them. But I've also blown out the patellar tendon in my right knee as well as partially tearing an achilles tendon. The powerful antiobiotic was necessary because of the path the urologist would take to do the biopsy. (See the note above about telephone poles and harpoons.)
The biopsy went well. I had no pain, but for about week I would have the distinct feeling I was constantly sitting on a softball. An odd, odd feeling indeed.
I picked up the phone and the doctor greeted me. I immediately fired off a list of questions:
What was the Gleason score? ...7
How many cores were positive? ...9 of 12
In one side of the prostate or both? ...both
What is next? ...you're going to need treatment
At that point I babbled a bit. I can't recall what else I asked or what he said. The call ended after I asked him if he believed in prescience. He paused, and I said I'd written a story about a man who had terminal prostate cancer and that I had no idea where the inspiration came from. Perhaps the Universe was sending me a message. He paused again, and said the office would be calling Friday to schedule me for a CAT scan and bone scan and the call ended abruptly.
My face reddened with embarrassment. I could only imagine what he was thinking! I must have sounded like a nut case. And then I realized he had probably experienced a wide range of reactions from folks who'd just been told they won the cancer lottery.
But I am relatively certain no other patient will ever tell him the Universe lent him a book and then sent an early prostate cancer warning through a fiction project. It is these weird little quirks in the way I think that set me apart (and probably explain why I didn't have my first date until I was twenty-two).
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