A lot of what happened and was said when my father was first diagnosed with colon cancer has long since blurred with the fog of time. I was turning 17 that summer, and could absorb only so much of the changes and information exploding all around me. But among the early memories of my dad’s first room at St. Michael’s hospital in Milwaukee, there is one washed-out afternoon I can still just scarcely recall. That brightly lit corner room would prove to be just the first of so many hospital rooms to follow, but we didn’t suspect it then. We were optimistic, simply because we didn’t know yet not to be.
My father had been admitted a few hours earlier, plastic bracelet wrapping his wrist and silly yellow gown failing to cover his chest hair. Though I can’t remember anymore where I was sitting, I know the doctor sat bedside, because I was relieved for my dad that he at least was lucky enough to have one of his friends, Jimmy Ansfield, as his gastroenterologist. Not everyone’s doctor sits on the bed and offers hugs, but my dad lived a charmed life in that way; he made friends with nearly every single person he met. As Dr. Ansfield took my father’s medical history and prepared us all for the surgery to come, my attention likely drifted, my own overblown teenage emotions eclipsing all else.
I don’t remember it now, but during that same conversation, Dr. Ansfield told my family that because of our father’s diagnosis in combination with a family medical history that predisposes us to colorectal cancers, my brothers and I would need to begin getting colonoscopies as early as age 30. I could argue now that at 16 years old and in a room with my older brothers, I wasn’t eager to hear details of a test where a camera would be shoved up my butt, I suspect that my thoughts were more occupied with rapidly blooming fears for my father’s health.
16 years later, my father is gone. Fear, worry, health, and family have come to hold new meaning in my life. I turned 32 this past August, and could put it off no longer: it was well past time for me to have my first colonoscopy. The night before the procedure, I filled a gallon-sized plastic jug with my prescription laxatives, and went to work. Drinking down what tasted like salty bathwater in such quantity took some time, but I managed it. I wouldn’t call what followed fun, exactly, but neither was it as horrible as legend would have us all believe.
As with most of these types of cancer screenings, the doctors and nurses usually do their best to make things as easy and comfortable as possible. Though patients may opt out of conscious sedation (read one brave man’s account here), most people choose not to remain alert during such an unpleasant and awkward procedure. As a starving poet struggling to balance two full-time careers, I was by this point almost looking forward to the test, simply for the chance to take a nap.
When the nurse introduced herself and set to starting an I.V. line in my arm and we made the perfunctory small talk, I warned her—as I’ve learned to do—that my veins can be tricky sometimes. “They roll.” I shrugged in apology.
“I’m a pretty good stick, but we’ll see what we’ve got here…oh, oh honey—you aren’t kidding.” She shook her head as she tapped two gloved fingers along both my forearms, her blonde curls pinned and unmoving. “Look at these little buggers.”
“I know.” I scrunched my nose. “Sorry.”
“Well now, it’s not your fault. You probably got them from your parents.” I didn’t tell her, but it was my father from whom I’d inherited my bad veins. The whole time he was sick, in and out of treatments, he’d learned to ask for butterfly needles to avoid being barbarically poked and bled in situations like this. In the years since his death, though, most hospitals stopped using butterfly needles; so I decided to say nothing at all. It was impossible not to think about Dad, about everything he faced in the days leading up to his diagnosis, but I couldn’t talk about him then. I didn’t want to cry in front strangers who would, in a few moments, be putting a camera up my butt.
After trying in both arms and one hand with no success, another nurse was called in, and the two women asked me about my work, my writing, and my book while they struggled to start the I.V. I tried to be polite, tried to gently steer the conversation elsewhere, but I knew the question was coming. As the doctor and lab tech strolled in, they too joined the conversation. Finally, the second nurse found a lucky vein, “That must be so neat, to be a writer.” She smiled at me as she washed her hands at the sink across the room. “If you don’t mind my asking, what did your father die from?”
“Colon cancer,” I touched the plastic tube taped to my wrist, feeling a tug where the I.V. needle entered my skin.
The room fell silent, the whole space suddenly dampening to a heavy, hushed stillness. The medical professionals in that room knew that 32-year-olds don’t usually have colonoscopies, and now they knew exactly what kind of risk I face of developing the disease that killed my father. I don’t know if the sedative works as quickly on all patients, but it seemed as if it were only seconds before the blissful narcotic took me into twilight and away from the tension in that small procedure room.
I’m a lot like my father—same dark hair and eyes, same outrageous sense of humor, love of working with children, and ability to make friends with just about every single person I meet. Like my dad—because of my dad—I have to take my health seriously and will need to get routine screenings so I can continue to stay cancer-free. Perhaps my most cherished inheritance, though, is the one that was always so beautifully modeled by my dad even before I was born: a passion for helping others.
It is in his honor that I launch next month the anthology I’ve have the incredible good fortune to edit, The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss. With 100% of the proceeds benefiting the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, even a small donation to this multimedia collection has the power to affect change when collected with the generosity of others. To celebrate the book’s release and order your copy of this groundbreaking multimedia collection, join us here in Seattle at Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar Wednesday, March 12th 7-9 pm, and stay tuned here for more information in the weeks to come.
**Writers! Attending AWP? Message me to meet up for The Burden of Light swag and special Seattle secrets from a local!