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One Man’s Cancer Odyssey, Part 4

An excerpt from the memoir, Bad Blood.

 If you’re looking to get silly

You better go back from where you came

Because the cops don’t need you

And man, they expect the same

– Bob Dylan

I cheated death twice in 18 months. In February 2004 I beat a leukemia diagnosis. November 2005 I was diagnosed positively again, but the second test came up negative. While things looked heroic from a distance, I was keeping a nasty little secret. One more genetic tendency that twisted around my psyche and my spine.

I was drinking. A lot.

It was not a lightly considered decision. In the decade before my 2004 diagnosis, my life was marked by patches of brilliance obscured by storms of binge drinking. Big binge drinking. Like out for a day and a half and didn’t call anyone binge drinking. I hurt my wife, my daughter, my brothers and my sister. Anyone who knew about my issues before I was diagnosed hoped that surviving cancer would lead me to stop drinking.

It didn’t. The rage from the blood draws, the sick-of-being-sick feeling and the need for drama fueled my desire to drink. After I received the second diagnosis I visited a series of out-of-state friends under the auspices of wanting to reconnect. Then I drank all over them. From Thanksgiving 2005 (re-diagnosis) to January 8, 2006 (all clear), I found friends to drink with because I was terrified. I would show up drunk. Drink for the Friday night. Wake up hung over. Apologize around noon. Spend an awkward Saturday with whatever friend I chose to drop this mess on.

By April 2007, I’d had enough. I had put two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy in the bank, but my body was still rank and poisoned. Everything was nasty. My mouth was dry and nasty. My breath stank. I had a sinus infection that wouldn’t clear. My skin was scaly. The joint pain and headaches were so bad that I was living on Vicodin®. My mood was foul. I slept late, showed up to work late, and dared someone to ask me why. Fuck you. Fuck this.

We started the month by moving our work offices one building over in our little complex off the Merritt Parkway. We were shrinking as a company. I was assigned a cubicle next to my boss. I shared the cubicle with the intern. The outer trappings of my life were all failure and struggle. Inside, I wasn’t much better. Inside my head the demons were shouting for alcohol. I envisioned shrieking little red men inside my skull, grabbing their ears to drown out some infernal racket.

The new building had very aggressive fire marshals. Seemed like there was a fire drill every day. When the alarm buzzed, we all had to walk four flights down and then four flights back up. On this day, I barely had enough juice to finish the stairs. When I got back to my desk I was heaving like a fat guy at a dance party. I was embarrassed. The young intern girl was giggling. I was dizzy.

I bailed early. Made some kind of excuse about a doctor’s appointment. My first intention was to go home and call Wendy, my therapist. Then I got on the Merritt. Completely stopped. My feet went numb from the nerve damage within about ten minutes, and I started to think I needed to get home and stick them in my mini-foot soak whirlpool to revive them. Then I saw traffic merging to the right and an ambulance trying to get through to an apparent accident north on the Merritt. I sat in traffic until I could reach the next exit. Fifteen minutes; no movement. I started to get little shocks of pain in my temples. My chest felt tight and my neck would barely move.

The problem, I decided, was hunger. I hadn’t eaten. I got off the Merritt and went to a burger joint called The Dry Dock where they had great draft beer and snifters of Sambuca with four coffee beans. Like coffee beans ever had time to flavor anything around me. One Cajun burger, two beers, three Sambucas. Back in the car feeling much better.

Smooth sailing up toward Milford. Then, where the Merritt merges with Route 95, I got the headaches again, and felt this rush of sadness. I was going to live this way forever. Slow. Fat. Depressed. Tasting pennies in my mouth. Craving alcohol. I took a Xanax from a vial I had in my console. No effect. As I sat on 95 in yet another traffic mess, I got off the exit marked Milford Hospital. I drove past the hospital where my Aunt Eleanor spent a lot of painful days. I drove by Archie Moore’s where I drank a lot of those hours away waiting for her to exit various surgeries. Drove down past Gulf Beach where they have AA meetings at sunrise during the summer. Then made a right down Orland Street and drove by the little house where she lived – where I spent so many summers growing up. Where my mother made our breakfast before Day Camp every morning. Where my father came up on Fridays and we walked down to the candy store near the beach to buy those oversized Sweet Tarts.

I drove down Orland until I hit Bayview Beach, parked the car and walked down to the Sound. I imagined my father walking by the overturned lifeguard chair with an open Bud can. Heard the crunch of the sand under my feet. My favorite sound. Felt good and fucking sorry for myself. Got down to the waterline. It was low tide and at Bayview the sandbars stretch out for about 30 yards.

I decided to chase the old man a little further.

When he took vacations at Eleanor’s in the summer, every now and again he would walk down to this shitty little bar. I don’t remember the name but it had a pool table, and thick polished tables with fake portholes on them. The jukebox played Love Potion No. 9 and Sunny by Bobby Hebb. It was about 3 in the afternoon. Darkest bar I’ve ever seen. Void of outside light. Overhead shade lamps and a bare bulb over the pool table. Dude behind the bar was crusty. Had crumbs in his moustache. There was no one sitting at either side of the bar. Nobody in the place. I ordered a Bud draft and a Sambuca. They didn’t have Sambuca. I ordered a Jameson neat, because I had class.

“My father used to hang out here,” I told the guy, who had returned to his nachos.

“I just started here,” he said.

“My aunt taught school here forever,” I said “Kay Avenue School. Eleanor Gaffney. She had a house up here on Orland Street”

“I’m from New Haven,” he said.

“I was gonna go to the hospital there,” I said. “I had leukemia.”

“Then you shouldn’t drink,” he said.

I drove past Eleanor’s condo on the way back out to Route 95. Stopped at the TGI Friday’s for one more beer and Sambuca. I got on 95 south instead of north. I was fucked up. I made a U-turn at exit 38 and had that flying sense that comes with the sugar and alcohol flurry of Sambuca. I could go to a strip bar off exit 40. But I was hit. I pulled into a truck stop motel dump called the Mayflower. Had a huge parking lot and I thought I could walk it off a little. Just walk it off.

Parked the car near a row of the dingy gray rooms, and saw that I could walk a good 100 yards across the parking lot and back. I walked really fast, like I had somewhere to go. Kept looking around to see if someone was watching me. Walked to the end of the property, which came up on a truck stop. Turned around. Walked back. Saw a sketchy-looking dude in a big gray parka with a Yasir Arafat beard, walking the same way I was. I figured he was a coke dealer so I jogged after him saying “Yo.” He jogged a little faster. “Yo dude, you got any blow?” Then I turned back and headed toward the truck stop fence. It was there, looking at the truckers pulling into the long parking spots, that I realized this feeling was not drunk. It was something more than that. Something racing. Something I was able to watch from the inside.

I walked in circles. Sat down on a nasty metal chair outside one of the rooms. I walked back to my car, thinking I’d call my wife and see if there was maybe a psych ward I could go to. I sat in the driver’s seat and dialed the number when I heard gravel slinging and a rush of cars. Two Milford cop cars. One pulled so close I thought he was going to hit me. The other parked behind and those cops got out, guns drawn.

I got out of the car. Started walking backwards. Hands up.

“Just let me walk,” I said. “Wasn’t gonna drive. Let me walk it off.”

One of the cops was following me.

“C’mon. I need you to stop walking.”

I didn’t.

“If you don’t stop walking you’re going to be charged with resisting arrest.”

I never saw the other cop that came up behind me and tackled me. He held me down on the ground while the other one pushed my face into the gravel.

“You stupid motherfucker. You think you’re buying dope around here? Do you know you’re trespassing?”

Opened my mouth and tasted rocks. Started yelling “fuck you” into the gravel and trying to get up. I would not stay down. Would not. And they kept pushing my face until I could feel two other cops, one pushing each arm behind my back. Cold metal on my wrists, real tight. I flapped on the ground.

I wouldn’t stay down. It was OK, I thought. They just don’t know what I’ve been through.

I came to in the little hovel of the motel lobby. Cuffed. Sitting on the floor, looking up at four Milford cops with their walkie-talkies crackling like they just found Bin Laden.

“Look. If you calm down,” one of them said, “we can sober you up and you can go home. Are you gonna calm down?”

I stood up.

“I’m asking you to sit down. Are you going to calm down?”

Wouldn’t sit down. There was a voice from somewhere deep in me that was trying to get some other guy inside me to sit down. The guy in my head wouldn’t sit down.

They led me outside, each cop tight on each arm. One of them started to bend my elbow the wrong way and I head butted him.

At some point a cop came down to my jail cell and woke me up. He asked me who Dr. Fogarasi was and I told him (my oncologist). It was a trick question. Apparently I gave him as my emergency contact. The cop told me that Dr. Fogarasi had been reached and wanted to speak to me in the morning. One of my neighbors was here to pick me up, he said. If I went quietly, I could go home. I started shrieking about my car and how the cops were going to beat me again. I told him to go fuck himself.

By the time light framed the gray window in the cell, I had more than calmed down. I felt like someone else did a bad, bad thing and now I had to take responsibility for it. A cop threw a banana and a milk carton under my door.

“Hey, excuse me. Officer.”

He stopped. Looked at me like I had already insulted his mother.

“I just want to say I’m sorry for last night.”

Said nothing. Walked on.

I hope you never have to face a bad hangover in a jail cell when it’s 5 a.m. and there’s a clock on the wall of the cell, and the cops that are roaming the halls are the same people you head butted the night before.

I maintained this completely mad idea that somebody – some doctor or shrink or social worker – was going to swoop in and make this go away. But when they came to cuff me, put me in the van and take me to the main courthouse in downtown Milford, nobody showed up. When they threw me in a huge cell crowded with drunks and crackheads and dudes that were caught driving drunk, nobody came. When that tall skinny black kid with the bug eyes kept up his nonstop rap about “you ain’t got much for the ladies; you ain’t got much for the ladies,” still nobody. When I appeared before the judge with a cut face, shackles,and cuffs, my wife was there.

“How could you do this?”

I didn’t know what to tell her. I had no idea how I could have done this.

I went back to AA meetings in Madison until some old guy caught me walking out of one and stuck his finger in my chest: “You’re going to die from this disease,” he said. But nobody could tell me anything then, because my cancer experience was becoming a drunk-a-log, and I hated myself. No one told me how I was going to die. I knew death. You didn’t. I didn’t go back. I started saying I was going to meetings, taking a notebook and writing at Oliver’s Tavern, up near Fogarasi’s office. I calmed down. But I still felt the rage in my stiff neck, and some kind of combustion in my gut.

I knew things had reached a very dangerous point. The miracle patient wanted out. And I didn’t how to articulate the rage and sadness that owned me. This was supposed to be my time. It was supposed to be a fulfillment of a promise. The delivery of the gift I had been given. I was blowing it. I committed to a six-week outpatient program up at Stonington Institute. Worked hard. Stayed in the ballgame. Came away with a commitment to stay alive and take another shot at beating cancer, because I was starting to understand that being sick was easy. Being sick was right in front of me. But these bordering demons. This depression. This rage. This entry to another level outside myself was actually a descent into hell. I wasn’t sure I had the balls for it.

Toward the end of May I had the court date from the Milford arrest. In preparation, I had letters from Fogarasi and Wendy Peterson testifying to my treatment and my character. This incident, Wendy wrote, was an aberration for a patient nearing the end of a long series of treatments.

I met my lawyer in the courthouse lobby. He had already been faxed the letters and I had spoken to him on the phone. I was being charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. I could have easily been charged with assaulting a policeman. They left that out. The lawyer thought I could walk with probation for the disturbing the peace charge. When I entered the courthouse, he seemed overly happy to see me. Put his arm around me and walked me toward the end of the lobby.

“Listen, here’s the deal,” he said. “This case is dismissed. You got lucky. You stay out of trouble you’ll never hear about this again. If you fuck up, expect no mercy.”


“The Judge read the letters. He’s a leukemia survivor. Case dismissed.”

Image Credits: Shutterstock

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