I wish….(Be careful what you wish for)
6am. Shit. I still had 9 minutes till that damn alarm clock went off. I’ve cursed the thing ever since I bought it over a year ago when it’s predecessor took flight out of my third story bedroom window. Of course, it couldn’t fly very well. That’s why this one sits across the room just out of a mad morning’s reach. And every morning for the past year I’ve woken up at exactly 6am anticipating it’s ‘rise and shine’ screech… wondering if it knows that shrill clocks can’t fly. Don’t know why I set it for 6:09. I’ve always been a bit funny about numbers. Part of my OCD I suppose. Always seeing patterns here and there and somehow knowing that it’s all connected without really knowing at all. This morning, however, is different. I’m sure now that there’s been a pattern all along. Laying here under the light breeze of the ceiling fan, I actually watch the glowing red numbers on my morning menace with a bit of wonder. I’m not quite as ready to storm across the room and see if it’s any more aerodynamic than the last one. In fact, I take some solace in the sureness of it all. The knowledge that exactly 9 minutes from now, it will do its’ job by telling me to get up and go do mine. This morning I actually WANT it to set off. This morning is different.
15 hours ago I was sitting in the Internal Medicine and Diagnostics wing of Memorial General Hospital. “One of the Top 100 hospitals in the US”. I knew because you couldn’t drive a city block without seeing a billboard boasting their superiority in cardiac care and specialized medicine. Which thinking on it now, I guess their marketing department had their shit together. I was here, wasn’t I? I had been coming in regularly for the past 3 months or so getting poked, prodded, penetrated, and probed by all sorts of nurses, doctors, and maybe a few janitors…. not sure…things can get hazy under sedation. Now it’s time. Time see what all the fuss is about. Sitting here cursing the inventor of these damn fluorescent lights in the waiting room, I wondered if I really wanted to know.
I can’t really place my finger on the exact moment when I thought something might be out of whack. My whole life I had been relatively healthy. Nothing more than the occasional cold. And I never was one for doctor visits. Or dentists. Or anyone else in a lab coat and a sheep skin on the wall. But after a few months of headaches, nagging pain, hacking coughs, weird tinglings in my side, and more and more frequent visits to the bathroom, maybe it was time to let someone have a look-see. I figured the first visit would be my last. You know, your usual paperwork and once-over affair. Fill these out, have a seat over there, Mr. Boyd please come with me, step on the scale for me please, now let’s have a look at your blood pressure, any family history of the plague? You get the idea. The doctor finally came in some time later. Asked me the same battery of questions the nurse did while staring at his clipboard as if I was being tested on my answers and pausing to look up every third question or so to see if I knew. Finally it was his opinion that this wouldn’t be the first and last and that we needed more answers before we could get down to the business of addressing the question of exactly what it was we were trying to find the answers for to begin with. So it was off for tests. Blood tests, X-rays, CT scans and MRI’s. No definitive answers, so it’s off for more blood tests, more consultations, more hurry up and wait under the glare of those soul sucking florescent lights and the sounds of gurneys and doctors pages on the intercom with the sterile smell of industrial strength cleaners and death in the air. Finally, it was time. Just one more wait in the room with uncomfortable furniture and posters warning me of the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle and pictures of diseased organs to drive the point home. As if I need the lecture now. I’ve smoked for over 20 years. Drank 5 more than that. Done more than my fair share of every drug known to man. And ever since the high school track team I’ve never really been fond of exercise. The fact that I’m not overweight and eat relatively healthy foods was the one bright side they could find in my daily regimen. It was probably because I drank so much (I had recently gotten up to a bottle of scotch a day) that was keeping me from tipping the scale at no more than 185. So much for a bright side. Now at 42, the last 25 years of not giving a fuck had finally caught up with me and sent me here 3 months ago. And those three months had led me to this room one last time, and I was about to find out that those last 90 days had been half of what was to be the rest of my life.
“Be careful what you wish for”. Those words. Those damn words. They’ve been ringing in my head for months like “Don’t worry, be happy” rings in my ears now from the overhead speaker. Really??? Who the hell plays that song on a musak system in a hospital? Why not “Knockin on Heaven’s door” or “Amazing Grace” for Christ’s sake? Come to mention it, I never really noticed musak in a hospital before. Maybe cause I’m actually in Dr. Watson’s office, just off the west wing of the main building. Yes, that’s his real name. It’s become somewhat of a lame joke between us. He wasn’t the first doctor to see me when I started coming in. That pleasure went to a poor bastard resident student that was way out of his league and batting 0 for 3 the day I walked through the door. The last thing he needed was me on his hands. They referred me to Dr. Watson after seeing the results of my first round of tests and consulting with the attending, who apparently, had had enough of ‘Sir Fresh out of Med School’s’ batting average with the other poor saps that day. Everyone had been very professional during the testing. Yes Mr. Boyd, we’re working on it. No mister Boyd, we haven’t nailed anything down yet. Yes Mr. Boyd, we’ll let you know as soon as we know something. It was Dr. Watson that ordered the second round of blood panels and MRI’s after the attending physician ran the first set, convinced they were missing something. Good ‘ol Doc Watson. Head of Internal Medicine. He was kinda short and chubby with kind eyes. He looked a bit like Paul Giamatti but without the unfortunate hairline. Probably had a good knowledge of wine too. Not a bad guy to have around if you were on the golf course or having a round of drinks at the local pub. But our relationship was one of necessity, not friendly competition on the greens at the Honors course. And the occasional Sherlock Holmes joke was the best medicine we had to break the stress of three months of blood, sweat and tears that now were poised to define what might be.
“Be careful what you wish for.” I can’t keep those damn words out of my head. Why are they plugging my brain like a bunch of white noise when I’ve got a much bigger fish about to get fried? My mind has always wandered. And usually there’s a song or commercial jingle (shoulda gone to freeee-credit….report.com) or some random saying cruising through my skull. But not like this. I figure it’s some line from a movie I must have watched, when the door opened and scared the rubber reflex hammer I had been playing with out of my hand and onto the floor. Doc Watson walked in, not looking his usual cherub self. “Whazzup doc?” Another one of your garden-variety lame-assed jokes, one that usually gets one of those “jeez, never heard that one before” looks. Not this time. This time my feeble attempt at cornball humor fell flat. “Mr. Boyd, I’d like you to follow me please.” Damn, what the hell? Lame duck jokes aside, he had at least been calling me by my first name for a while. We’re back to Mr. Boyd now? “Where we goin doc?” He looked at me and screwed his face up just a little, like a 5 year old might when he can’t figure out his 100-piece fire truck puzzle. “Down to the east wing. I need to show you something.” I had been there before. It seemed newer than the rest of the hospital. You could almost tell exactly where it started by the change in décor. The tacky mid 70’s paint scheme and floral prints on the walls gave way to a deep matte finish and pictures of important people that no doubt had been financially responsible for the new addition. And the east wing is also where they kept all the really cool toys. Like the MRI.
As we walked down the corridor first passing the maternity ward, then the ICU, the words “Be careful what you wish for” are even more deafening. About the time we turned the corner at the nurse’s station Doc began what started out to be an encouraging conversation. “Jim”…ah, we’re back to first names….”Jim, all of your symptoms can be easily explained. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated liver enzymes, hacking cough, digestive problems, all of them are classic signs of a 40 something male that smokes and drinks and leads a senditary lifestyle. And none of them are so far progressed that we couldn’t treat them individually and prevent further damage.” Well shit, I thought, this sounds pretty damn good so far. I was expecting cirrhosis of the liver or lung cancer or some other ‘dread disease’ as the insurance companies call them. “And we’ve triple checked your blood and there are no markers for cancer.” “Ok,” I said, “sounds like I just need to pull my up bootstraps and get down to getting healthier Doc.” He turned and looked at me for the first time since we left his office. “We can explain all of your symptoms but one.”
I had developed a slight tremor after my first visit, which had prompted the second MRI. But as of yet nothing else had been said about it so I had written it off to nerves or stress. We stopped at the door to the MRI center and he looked at me with a look I hadn’t seen since my childhood when my father told me my papaw had just died. Watson was looking at a dead man and his face didn’t know how to hide it. “I need to show you something. Come on.” He led me to the room where they monitored the results that the big magnet pulled out of you and spit onto very expensive looking monitors. A room full of exquisite detail and color on 32 inch flat panel screens. I had never seen this room before and immediately wondered how much better internet porn or a good action movie would look on one of these babies. We sat down in front them and he pointed to the monitor on the far left. “This is your first imaging when you came in three months ago. Nothing out of the ordinary.” I looked at my brain in Technicolor and nodded. He pointed to the one in the middle. “And this is your second imaging we took later to rule out anything else the tests might have missed when your tremor appeared.” I looked at the monitor and again saw another full colored glossy of my gray matter. “Ok doc, not much of a glamour shot but I guess they’d look good framed.” He pointed and said, “look again, right there.” I followed his finger to the middle of my brain and saw what I had missed before. A spot the size of a penny that definitely looked like it didn’t belong. “Now look at this one. It was taken last week”. I remembered wondering to myself why they had given me three different MRI’s. All they said was there seemed to be a shadow that wasn’t there the first time and needed to rule out any mechanical error. I was now getting the feeling that maybe the big magnet hadn’t fucked up after all. I looked at the third monitor and had no trouble picking out what he was referring to. The penny in my head had turned into a nickel sized shape of a lemon. “What the fuck is that thing? I thought you said I didn’t have cancer?” Doc swiveled in his chair, facing me square. “You don’t. Cancer doesn’t spread that fast.” I looked at the monitor again, morbidly thinking the thing on the screen might go well with some crab legs and drawn butter. “The truth is Jim, it isn’t even a mass. It’s a shadow. We really can’t explain it” I had heard of brain fog before, but something told me this wasn’t the kind that went away when you finally remember your aunt’s name you only see once a year at the family picnic. “Ok Doc. I’ve always been a little dim. You’re telling me I’m getting dimmer?”. “ Jim, we don’t know for sure. But it’s not that kind of a shadow” he said. “We think the shadow on the imaging represents a conversion of sorts. Your brain seems to be rewiring itself, almost eating itself and replacing it with tissue that shouldn’t be there. And it’s killing you in the process.” I sat slack jawed in my chair and tried to wrap my brain, my homicidal brain, around what he just said. I’ve watched my fair share of TV dramas over the years and had never heard of a patient’s brain eating itself with some lemon and drawn butter. Was there an episode of House MD out there I hadn’t seen? “What exactly, doc, does that mean? Maybe I’ve got some weird infection or fungus or something. There’s got to be a logical explanation”. He paused for a moment, and in that moment I swear he looked even older than he did just 10 minutes ago. “Jim, we’ve run every test we can for every possible cause. Bacterial, viral, parasites, genetic disorders… everything comes up negative. We’re at a loss. I can’t tell you what’s causing it, just that it’s happening. And it’s happening very quickly.”
“Be careful what you wish for”….. I ignored the tape loop running in my head and looked back at the monitors. Even I knew that a shadow turning into a penny turning into a nickel turning into a lemon in your head ain’t exactly something that happens in the natural order of things. “HOW quickly doc? What are you saying? I’m gonna die? There’s nothing we can do?” He looked years older still, this time with the look of a defeated man. “Jim, I’m sorry. At the rate it’s progressing, and the effects on the rest of your body being what they are….you might have 2 or 3 months left. I’m sorry.”
Next: Jim gets his wish