This is a sample chapter of my memoir, Lymphomania – hopefully coming to a book store near you. Someday. All we need is a publisher. And an agent. And a pony. (see next paragraph)
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He wasn’t always Aloysius. In the beginning we were very formal, calling him Dr. Hamlin. I didn’t know him yet, but I wanted to impress him, convince him that my wit and accommodating attitude were reason enough to save me. I begged my family and friends to accompany me to my appointments so he could see I was loved, that people would miss me if I ceased to exist. I wanted him to be invested in me. And with as much trouble as I was having breathing, a blow job seemed out of the question.
I liked him instantly. At our first meeting, his brown shaggy bangs had brushed against his glasses when he leaned forward to shake my hand. I still remember how warm his hand felt at that moment, full of life, comfort, and confidence.
Rocco was not as instantly enamored with Dr. Hamlin. He had hoped for someone with more experience, more gravitas I think. Dr. Hamlin was probably Rocco’s age, but he had a youthful innocence that made him appear much younger, a joy for life that was infectious. In Rocco’s defense, I too had a hard time envisioning anyone our age as a doctor. But that probably said more about the life choices of our friends than their ages.
“He’s awfully young,” had been Rocco’s first words the moment we were alone.
“Fuck that,” I countered. “I don’t want some wizened old geezer with shaky hands and a jar of leeches, Babe. I want the energetic young go-getter with all the latest gadgets and something to prove. I’m betting this guy has an iPhone app for the latest medical journals.”
We’d sat in the waiting room of the physicians’ suite for over three hours before we were granted that first meeting. The couches were filled with sickly looking, hairless people comparing how much weight they’d lost or their white blood cell counts. How did this become my world?
Finally we were escorted into an exam room and within seconds of meeting him, my impatience melted away.
“I’m sorry,” he’d said simply. “I’m sure you have more long waits ahead of you, that’s the nature of this place. But I promise, once you’re in here, I’ll never rush you. I will answer each and every one of your questions and you won’t leave here until you’re comfortable with what we’ve discussed.” Those were the most calming words I’d ever heard from a doctor, Dad excluded of course. From that moment on, I put my complete trust in him. Plus that toothy smile of his, framed with a dark, close-trimmed mustache and goatee, didn’t hurt.
I tried calling him “my oncologist” in casual conversations with other people, but it felt awkward in my mouth. It felt even stranger than that brief period when Rocco and I were engaged and people expected us to call each other “my fiance.” Barf. I think in both cases I managed to force myself to use the term all of four times before abandoning the cause all together.
After we decided he was, in fact, our oncologist of choice, we referred to him simply as Hamlin, as though we were all members of the same football team or platoon. For the most part, it felt like that, too…just with less ass slapping and helmet thumping. Together we were collaborating, strategizing against our common opponent.
I occasionally came up with other, profanity-laden nicknames for him when he put me through something particularly horrendous “for my own good.” Those things almost always included needles. Big needles. How is it that with all the medical advances of our lifetime, a girl can’t get some real drugs before a bone marrow biopsy? Local anesthetics don’t cut it. Just trust me.
On the day of that much dreaded procedure, Dad had crammed himself into a tiny padded nook on the far wall of the examination room. Mom was seated just to the right of the tall scale that had only moments ago surprised me with it’s low numbers. How long before Hollywood introduces cancer as the latest weight loss system? Maybe they already have and that’s why so many celebrities smoke. Rocco sat in the chair next to the physician’s desk, just to the left of the door. He only occasionally raised his head from the notes he furiously scribbled on his notepad. Hamlin sat at his desk chair, occasionally leaning over to point out Rocco’s misspelling of medical terms.
As Hamlin calmly and methodically described the steps of the procedure he was about to perform, I not so calmly started hyperventilating. I hadn’t thought it was possible to sweat in a room that cold, but he had me good and riled up. “You aren’t going to knock me out?” I screeched.
He reached inside his white coat to straighten his tie as he rose from his seat and approached me. It was covered in thick stripes of blue with thin orange accents. It takes balls to wear an orange tie. Twenty more points for you. Doctor Doom. He placed a hand on my shoulder, a subtle indication that it was time to begin. “Not for this procedure, no,” Hamlin answered casually, clearly not understanding the level of panic flooding my body.
“What?” I stalled, wringing my sweating hands and hoping for a reprieve. “Is it that you don’t have an anesthesiologist available?” I started to pant a little when the adrenaline hit my system. “That’s no problem,” I gestured excitedly at my father sitting quietly in what he had hoped would be a inconspicuous spot. “I brought my own. Suit up, Pops!” Dad’s face went blank for a moment, as if he were trying to calculate the amount of drugs he would need to knock me out based on the weight we’d just measured. God love him for trying.
“Good try.” The doctor turned back to the desk and his stack of files. “Now, I’ll need you to sign this release form before we get started.”
“Seriously? A tiny shot of Lidocaine is all you’re going to give me before you take needles the size of Slurpee straws and plunge them into my spine?” I wailed on, undeterred. “You hate me, don’t you Doc? C’mon, we’re both Duke fans. That bond is holy.” I slapped the white paper that covered the examination table beneath me. “Now help me out here.”
“Technically it’s your pelvis,” the doctor interrupted, a slight smile on his face. He placed a pen in my hand and tapped the paper. “I do these things every day. Don’t worry.”
I hated to admit it, but the zen of his smirk calmed me, but only slightly. I erupted into a coughing fit and waited for the oxygen to return to my brain. “You’re going to perform the stabbing yourself?”
“I really prefer to call it a procedure, but yes.” After a scolding glare from my mother, I signed his paper. Hamlin gave me a little nod and patted my shoulder again.
“Look Doc, I like you. I don’t want to hurt you — and I don’t mean that in a mobbed-up, I-live-in-Jersey kinda way.” Again the paper beneath me crackled with my perpetual squirming. “I once punched my dentist in the face when he didn’t give me enough anesthesia for a cavity. It’s a reflex thing. Drug me for your own safety. Really this is about YOUR needs, for fuck’s sake.” His shoulders shook with a chuckle. Fuck. Did I say fuck out loud already? “Say, I already warned you I have a tendency to curse on occasion, right? I’ll try and watch it, but we both know that’s not going to really stop it. Especially if you stab me in the ass without drugs.”
Mom interrupted my rant, tsking. “She has a flair for the dramatic.”
Hamlin looked away from me, grinning widely, and turned to my parents. “I’m picking up on that.”
“My dentist was pretty damn dramatic when he was screaming for an ice pack.” I scrambled to get the conversation back on track. “What about those anti-anxiety meds you gave me last time? Would they help at all?”
“They should, sailor. If you’re holding, take them now so they have time to kick in.” I turned to look at Rocco who was already frantically tearing through the compartments of my traffic-cone orange messenger bag, searching for the small plastic bottle that hadn’t left my side since all this started. He shook out a single pill and closed the cap. He extended his hand to me and I gave him a stern glare. Reluctantly he popped off the cap and shook out a second pill.
All too soon, I was bent over an exam table in another, even colder room with my bare ass in the air and my ego nowhere to be seen. A nurse clanked around behind me, out of sight. The warmth radiating from her body alerted me she had moved closer. “SOOooo…” I nearly shouted as I reflexively jerked away from the cold antiseptic swabs she used to draw targets on either side of my ass crack. I attempted to fill the vacuous room with empty prattle. “You, um, come here often?” The Lorazepam had just kicked in and the filter between my brain and mouth had completely dissolved.
“Actually quite a bit,” my oncologist answered as he breezed through the door.
“Oh hi! Fancy meeting you here! What do you think of my new look? Remember when Prince wore those assless chaps? This is my homage. It’s all the rage in Milan,” I quipped, trying to look over my shoulder and futilely curling my fingers towards and away from the white-paneled drop ceiling. My movement became even more constricted when Hamlin and the nurse threw their body weight on top of me. “So I guess you’re taking that whole I-punched-a-dentist-thing to heart, eh? It’s not too late, you know. I’d settle for Rophenol.”
“Are you ready?” To his credit, he didn’t sound even slightly annoyed by my incessant whining. In fact, he almost sounded like he was smiling again.
“Does it matter?” I, on the other hand, was deeply annoyed.
Obviously I survived the procedure. While it was far from pleasant, it was nowhere near as terrible as I had feared. I’d put it somewhere between lemon juice in a paper cut and shoving an icepick under a toenail. Strangely, it wasn’t the stabbing that hurt so much as the sucking. I remember my grandfather always complaining about aches in his bones. I never fully understood that statement until I felt that tugging deep inside my pelvis, in the core of my being as they literally sucked the life out of my bones.
I managed to stifle the litany of expletives coursing through my mind while the doctor probed me. But when he finally murmured he was finished, I exclaimed, “Thank fucking God.” Apparently he, Rocco, and my parents had a good laugh over my “nowhere near trucker status” reactions to the torture session. Fuckers. Come to think of it, I’m fairly sure I came up with some particularly colorful nicknames for the whole lot of them that day.
No, I didn’t find my pet name for Hamlin until much later, after I started the R-ICE chemotherapy. It was the first time I’d been admitted to the hospital. (That’s not entirely true, but I’m not counting ER visits for dehydration or other weird chemo complications. I’m talking about straight out, pre-meditated hospitalization.) It was the first time I’d been trapped in a room for days, staring at the informational bracelet encircling my wrist.
First I wondered at the material. It felt like paper, but, like fabric, I couldn’t rip it. And I could get it wet, like plastic. It was like a wholly new substance; pla-bric-er maybe. Then I stared at the information printed on the bracelet. “Name: Ellen Lonon” Check, I can probably remember that on my own. “Date of Birth: 10/09/1976” Double check, I’ve still got that memorized. My eyes stopped at “Physician: Paul A. Hamlin.” I repeated the four syllables over and over again, spinning the bracelet around my left wrist, careful not to snag the IV line.
Rocco shook the ice pellets in my otherwise empty cup. “What’ll it be this time, Miss? You want me to mix the cranberry and orange juice together for a little variety?”
“What do you think the A stands for?” I ignored his question, holding up my left arm instead.
“Please?” he queried, making me smile. He didn’t do it often, but every now and again he’d say please instead of pardon. He claimed it was a Cincinnati thing, that everything there had a German history. “Bitte” served both purposes in the German language, therefore “please” should serve both purposes in Cincinnati-an.
“A.” I repeated. “It’s his middle initial. Paul A. Hamlin.”
“It’s probably Andrew,” he answered absently, shaking the cup again.
I stuck out my tongue and blew, making a moist, motorboat sound with my mouth. “That’s your middle name. You aren’t even trying.”
“Arthur?” he offered, now aware of the game and equally eager for a distraction to pass the time while the fluids slowly dripped from the bags suspended above my head.
“Alec,” I said with certainty.
“Atreyu,” He bested me with a reference to one of my favorite movies from childhood, “The NeverEnding Story.”
“Mmmm,” I paused to daydream. “I’d like a luck dragon of my very own right about now.”
Our name listing was interrupted by morning rounds. Suddenly the room was filled with seven fellows studying their clipboards. One of Hamlin’s partners stepped forward to introduce himself before poking at me. He was much shorter than Hamlin and wore a boring beige tie. Dude, I so totally picked the cooler oncologist. He checked his chart, then addressed me by name. “So Ellen, I see you’re one of Hamlin’s, eh? How are you feeling?”
“Radioactive,” I answered. “We were just talking about him. Do you know his middle name?”
“Pardon?” (See? Wouldn’t it have been cuter if he’d said “please?”)
I pointed to my wrist and read aloud, “Paul A. Hamlin. What does the A stand for? Angelo?”
The physician seemed surprised by my questioning. “I have no idea. Isn’t that strange?” He seemed intrigued by the question, too. “Maybe it’s Abraham.”
“Ick. I hope not. I hope it’s something spectacular and strange all at once, like Aloysius.”
The physician smiled and one of the fellows giggled. “You know what? Now I’m dying to know, too. I’m going to find out for us both.” And with that, the crowd of spectators filed out of my room.
Maybe fifteen minutes later, the physician’s head and beige tie appeared in my doorway. “I texted him. No word yet, but I won’t rest until I get the answer.” He disappeared before I could respond.
I turned to Rocco. “Do you think they have to take a ‘How to be Adorable 101′ class in oncology school?”
“Maybe it’s part of the orientation program here at Sloan. They can’t all be this nice,” he agreed.
The physician swung by our room one last time, just as he was leaving for the day. “Well I heard back. It’s Anthony.” He looked so triumphant I hated to take the wind out of his sails. I did it anyway.
“Anthony? That’s awful disappointing.” I slumped against my pillows. “Oh, I don’t care,” I mumbled, exhausted from a day of visitors and toxic sludge. I shoved another hard candy in my mouth before continuing, “He’ll always be Aloysius to me. That’s way better than Anthony.”
“You’re right,” he conceded. “Try and get some sleep tonight.”
“Tell your peeps to stop taking my pulse and temperature every three hours and I might.”
The next afternoon, Rocco and I sat in the patients’ lounge on the fifteenth floor, finishing up the wood crafts we’d started the previous day during one of the hospital’s regularly scheduled craft classes for inpatients. I painted polka-dots on the roof of my disjointed birdhouse while Rocco half-heartedly hammered an axle into his old-fashioned car. We were both eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. A middle-aged guy was explaining his lack of an IV pole to the three other patients grouped around a pile of discarded wooden pieces and bottles of Elmer’s glue. “I bit my tongue and nearly bled out. So now I’m under observation. So far this round, I’ve been here three weeks already.”
Rocco and I locked eyes. Just as I lifted my crossed fingers above the edge of the table, the alarm on my pump began it’s relentless beeping. “Let’s go get that last bag hooked up and in me so we can get the flock out of here,” I whispered. He pushed the “silent” button on the pump as he came around to help me untangle my lines from all the paint brushes.
From behind us I heard a familiar voice calling, “There you are!” I watched his searching face crack into a side smile as he purposefully strode across the room. My face must have looked puzzled. Without his ever-present white coat it took me a moment to recognize him. “It’s me!” he announced, only steps away. I took a moment to appreciate the lime green highlights of his tie. His grin was infectious. “It’s Aloysius! Shouldn’t you be in your room?”