I went to the doctor yesterday who sent me for a chest Xray. The Xray came back showing “a spot behind the heart, and I’ve ordered a cat scan for you.” I said, “Doctor, you have to talk to me about this. It is not enough to casually report, ‘You have a spot behind the heart.’ That could include anything from being shot with a .44 Magnum to a button I swallowed at age five, or something.”
I had frightening flashbacks to my father who at about my age was diagnosed with lung cancer. He survived that and several other cancers, but I thought, maybe it’s all in the family. “It’s not cancer,” the doctor said. “But it could be a ruptured aorta.” (You can bleed to death with a ruptured aorta and in a hurry) The doctor went on to say, “I think it’s merely an anomaly in the film – nothing to be worried about.” A small gift from the medical profession called “reassurance” not taught often enough in med school and for which good doctors get no bonuses. I appreciated it.
“It is such a non-problem that I should immediately get a cat scan, right?” I asked.
“Right,” he said.
“I saw myself, along with all of you, in the Universal House of Death waiting for my name to be called.”
I began to fantasize the end. I saw myself, along with all of you, in the Universal House of Death waiting for my name to be called. “Yes,” I said to one of my friends, “the minute we are born we take our place in the Universal House of Death and then wait” – those dark, frightening thoughts that grip at the stomach while you smile at passers-by and answer your phone with a cheerful “hello” knowing that your name may be soon coming up. After all, with me, at 80, the time according the standard mortality tables has been long past. But not to worry.
I never used to read the obituary column in The New York Times. But now it pops up in front of me when I log on, and I see that most of those whose names have been called were younger than I. I have defective hearing and wear hearing aids. I thought about taking them off to keep from hearing the call. Maybe that’s why they have such a time trying to get us old farts to wear them. Moreover, we do not know who will call our name or when. But our name will eventually be called. Something like Turd Falls that I have written about before.
Then the paranoia often suffered by trial lawyers began to set in. Maybe the bastards over in Radiology didn’t take good Xrays to begin with and then ordered cat scan follow-ups to enhance their yearly take. Maybe it was clear to them that ninety-nine percent of the time this was merely an anomaly in the film as my doctor suggested, but that to be absolutely sure that everything was benign they ordered a cat scan. Yes. It was pay back time for me, a trial lawyer, who had put the fear of the law into the frontal lobes of all doctors. I’ll bet, I thought, that some poor homeless devil who staggers into the emergency room without insurance would never be asked to take a friggin cat scan.
I went through all the sign-ins, including proof that I had insurance and medicare, and I smiled all the time and made light jokes so that everyone would like me and think I was a nifty old man. I was then shown a booth with a freshly laundered gown folded up in the corner and told I should put it on. I am not good at things like that. I came stumbling out without my arms through the arm holes and the nurse smiled back at me, rolled her eyes at the other nurse and they both smiled at the piteous sight before them and both, one on each side, helped me get my arms in where they belonged.
Then they laid me down to take blood for the insatiable Dracula who lurks in the lab — the pretense being that they needed to determine if my blood would endure the toxic substance they were about to shoot into my veins as a dye. The nurse couldn’t find the vein after half a dozen jabs. Sadism in its fullest bloom. I hate to be called upon for bravery, so I asked if it was all right if I cried. Instead I suggested they try the other arm where the vein was obvious and only a person with vision worse than 20/800 could miss it, which she did the first time.
They lie you down on a hard, flat table, and tell you to raise your arms back behind your head like those idiots do at the concerts where barbaric noises of all kinds are made and people scream into a microphone, call it singing, and others in shabby, often dirty cloths play guitars as if the same were an extension of the male sex organ. Be that as it may, once in this position with your arms straight up and behind you they roll you into this big pipe, like the culverts we used to crawl through as kids and where I got my first peek at the forbiddens of the opposite sex at age twelve. That memory did not reappear. Instead, I was commanded though a loud speaker to hold my breath. Something bad was about to happen.
It was called a heat flash. I am told it had something to do with the iodine. That was the stuff we put on ringworm when I was a kid. It burned like hell. They shot the stuff into my veins and suddenly I get that heat flash they warned me about. I could feel it clear down to the anal orifice.
On command through the loud speaker I held my breath. They took the picture. Now you struggle to your feet again and get dressed. You try to be calm. You try to think of something funny and nothing comes. The belly is churning with fear. “Sorry, Mr. Spence,” I could hear the doctor saying, this man whom I had never met and who never met me and to whom I was but another piteous slob whose time had come and whose name had been called in the Universal House of Death. I had asked my doctor to tell the radiologist that he could give me the results directly so I didn’t have to lay awake whimpering all night waiting while the doctors got their act together and understood that I was their only patient and should get the results stat, which is medical jargon meaning, really fucking quick.
I followed the nurse into the lab, a dark place lit only by the screens in front of two men neither of whom displayed any human characteristics. I suspect that is why they went into this branch of medicine – a discipline that protected them from meeting face to face any living creature. They dealt with “a ruptured spleen,” not George White, or “a fractured distal phalanx of the great toe,” not Billy Henderson’s broken big toe, and not Gerry Spence, but his “spot behind the heart.” Their monotones in the dark of the laboratory sounded like mumblings from the dead.
“Nothing to be worried about,” the dead voice said. I had heard those words before. One does not worry about death, not if one is already dead. “Hiatal hernia,” the voice said. I had known that for years. If I ate ice cream just before bedtime it came lopping back up full of acid and, taken down the wrong pipe, could choke you. Not a good way to go. But when ice cream and hot fudge are put in front of me at night, something in my brain turns off and I eat it anyway. Ice cream and hot fudge are the meaning of life. He showed me the hernia on the screen. “Nothing to worry about,” he said again.
So what have I learned from all of this? Yes, at the moment of birth we take our place in the Universal House of Death. All of our names will eventually be called. But in the meantime, the key to living, among other things, includes the art of being playful. Childlike. I have worked hard at that now for 80 years. I suppose that has something to do with the fact that Imaging, my darling, most often refers to me as her 14-month-old triplets. They will have to kill all three of us – one at a time.