A funeral, and Dr. Cassandra makes the call(or: The beginning of my own annus horribilus.)

Last night I went to my own funeral but just couldn’t hack it. I tried to be a good corpse – really, I did! – but the whole death-funeral-honor-thy-memory thing gives me the creeps so I snuck out of my coffin and bailed through the mortuary window. I did hesitate before bolting; I was worried I’d disappoint people. You know, wreck the last rites, ruin the opportunity to speak nice of the dead (God knows my friends and family have been waiting for the opportunity), wasting all that money on flowers and somber men in black suits, et cetera ad nauseum. But I just had to bolt.

I flashed one of those phony “So sorry!” grins to those who happened to see my escape, but the dearly beloved gathered didn’t look all that concerned. A lot of acted like they actually expected it. My rep, I guess. Nothing I do re: living and dying seems to surprise anyone anymore. So out the window I went and it was a relief. I never could abide a funeral. Want to do something nice for somebody? Do it while they’re alive. Otherwise, don’t bother me. I’m dead.

–––

Today is the anniversary of my latest death sentence, the third in a series. One year ago
on a Friday at 10:30 in the morning, my cell phone rang as I walked out of Gold’s Gym in San Francisco’s SOMA district. It was warm (as it is today), I was happy in shorts, blood pumped from a good workout and a relatively early start (for me) to the day. It was Dr. Cassandra (name changed to keep me out of hot water with the many many docs I see, though everybody in San Francisco will know who I’m talking about) and he personally came on the line. I shivered. A doctor calling without the use of staff is not, Martha, A Good Thing. I had no idea.

Are you ok?” Dr. Cassandra was his usual cheery self, but I detected an edge.

Uhh…yeah…?” Huh? Dr. Cassandra is not one to personally call to enquire as to your well being. At this point I was crossing Brannan Street, trying not to get run over by the cars sliding down Division Street into the city’s Fashion and Design District like logs at an amusement park water ride.

Are you?” I say back lamely. Stupid response. I dodged a car and made it to the middle of the wide street. More cheery words emanate from Dr. Cassandra.

I got your latest liver scan results. You have hepatocellular carcinoma.

Pause. “What?” I stopped by the “Don’t run over the pedestrians” sign the city installed in an attempt to slow down the fashionistas. The word “hepatocellular” didn’t quite land, but “carcinoma” sure did.

“That’s liver cancer. It’s caused…” Cars whizzed by on either side of me. Doc Cassandra’s voice morphed into a buzz tuned with the exhaust pipes. I looked back at Gold’s and down at my pumped legs.

–––

My funeral was in a dream, of course. You only get to attend your own ceremony in movies, or if you’ve screwed up your life so badly you have to fake your own exit.

My mother, dead seven years now, was in attendance. That made me nervous. Would it be the mother of my childhood, with all her hyper instructions and biting criticisms? Or would it be the mother of her later years, generous and wise and tolerant? The difference was crucial to my anxiety index. As my parents usually do in dreams, she stood at a distance, giving up no opinion. However, looking back at her from the window, one leg still in the funeral parlor, the other leg and half an arm out, I swear I saw a slight upturn in the corner of her lips – perceptible only to a mother’s child. I knew then she approved.

–––

Dr. Cassandra is never happier than when he’s scaring the shit out of somebody. This isn’t just my crank, payback for that horrible mid-street call on a bright morning in March 2006. He’s notorious in San Francisco (“Sooner or later I look up everybody’s butt in this town!” he once bragged) for taking the most routine of colonic or esophageal scans and, prepping you with lurid descriptions of the dire consequences of every possible Bad Thing that can grow in one’s nether regions, turning it into a near-certain ruin. He keeps lurid graphics of diseased colons and other noxious innards on the exam room walls at his office and sees that you are left alone with them long enough to imprint the image forever in your brain. I’ve seen him reduce the most macho of patients to melting jello shots rushing home after their visit in tears to do some frantic will-updating.

–––

It wasn’t until later it occurred to me the real weirdness of attending my funeral is I wasn’t actually dead yet. I laid there in the coffin, nicely laid out in clothes I would never be caught living in (which miraculously morphed into jeans and a t-shirt as I crawled out the window), hands piously folded (yeah, right), waiting for my breath to shallow and decrease, waiting for The Final One and the bright tunnel. But if anything my breathing got faster – anxiety has always a problem; apparently it’ll be so even at death. In the end I just couldn’t bring it off.

What a waste. Next time my friends are unlikely to give me a choice. Next time they’ll just roast my body in one of those Neptune Society incinerators to make sure I don’t come bouncing back a third time. Or a fourth.

–––

Dr. Cassandra’s wasn’t supposed to be delivering this hepatocellular carcinoma news. We had an agreement. He, and just about every doc I’d seen for the last two decades were always fretting about my liver. “Your enzyme counts are too high!” “You can’t go on like this.” Yes, I knew I had hepatitis, hepatitis C to be exact, but it never caused me any problems. In fact, if it hadn’t been for those AST-ALT-Bilirubin numbers that freaked out the docs every time I had blood draw I’d never have known anything was odd. All I’d ever noticed was a low tolerance for alcohol, which was fine with me as it saved on wine bills. I don’t respond to meds normally anyway; another gift from my mother. Years of listening to doctors’ cacophony of doom after every blood test led me to push a deal on them: to hell with accepted norms; don’t bother me about my liver counts unless they’re weird for me. I don’t do “normal” anyway. However, Dr. Cassandra was loathe to let go of a potentially deteriorating organ. And, truth out, in the last few years I did have some complications – internal bleeding, varices (swollen blood vessels in the deep throat), a bout of anemia, that indicated things weren’t quite as rosy as they used to be. That’s why I was Dr. C’s patient. But I still paid it no mind. Problems are momentary things, right? Forgotten when they’re over? Not trends, never trends. I had bicycles to ride, computers to debug, plays to write. One way or another we are all in bed with denial, aren’t we?

Three months before the post-gym mid-Brannan Street phone call, after all sorts of nasty drug experiments and exotic body probes, Dr. Cassandra announced with a frown (of disapproval, I swear) that my liver was, sigh, “compensating” and it didn’t look like anything was going to happen to it after all, at least not soon. “We’ll do a CT scan once a year just to make sure everything is ok,” he said and scheduled one as a baseline.

It was that baseline scan that triggered his “hepatocellular carcinoma” phone call.

–––

What did I do after I climbed out the mortuary window?

The thing about dreams is, you don’t get to answer the logical questions. Hell, you hardly ever even get to ask them. And if somehow you manage to ask, you wake up or the pink snow monster butts in and takes you on some totally unexpected tangent or you forget you were lying in your own coffin, you forget you just jumped out the window, leaving all your friends and family and previously dead mother behind, staring at you. And then of course, 99 percent of the time you forget everything when the caffeine kicks in.

This time is that one percent exception: the dream’s vivid to me still. I didn’t wander, I didn’t have strange adventures, I didn’t forget what I was doing. I just woke up, memory of everything intact. I woke up with a sense of the strangeness of having escaped my own funeral, and a relief at having done so. Most of all, I woke up feeling, enough with all this year of medical drama! Enough with living in existential life-crisis mode. I haven’t read Sartre in years already! I woke up certain that after I climbed out the window, I’d be getting back to my life. If only.

–––

Reconstructing Dr. Cassandra’s cell-phone monologue later that day, I remembered him describing a mass less than 3 centimeters in one of the liver’s lobes – size matters in hepatocellular carcinoma or HCC in the jargon – and that was a good size to be under because it makes you eligible for a transplant, that without one, HCC kills in six months, that “a procedure” might be able to burn the tumor out so I’d get maybe an extra six but it’ll definitely re-spawn and usually in multiples, that “traditional” chemotherapy and radiation didn’t work with HCC, that a liver transplant is the only possible cure. He also said, “You need to call UCSF’s Liver Transplant Clinic right away.”

That last stuck, and so did this, said in his cheeriest tone: “Oh, and I won’t be working with you any longer, so good luck!” Doctor Doom was ready for his disconnect.

I managed to keep him on the line long enough to promise to call me back with the who-what-where-why and phone numbers when I “was with pen and pad.” I actually had one with me – I write after all – but what I really meant with the lie was, call me back after my brain reboots and I can comprehend this news.

–––

I closed the phone and stood there in the middle of Brannan. A car honked at me, I waved it off. Finally I made it to the other side of the street and my car. I could think of nothing to do but what I’d planned, so it was off to PetCo for food then Jeff’s to pick up the dog.

A hell of a start to a hell of a year. No wonder I wound up at my own funeral 12 months later.

[March-May 2007]

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2 Responses to “A funeral, and Dr. Cassandra makes the call(or: The beginning of my own annus horribilus.)”

  1. Bryony Says:

    You write very well.

  2. Three years… counting… count. | Too Stupid To Die… | There are a bunch of cats out there missing a life because of you. –my sister, to me Says:

    […] bed in Nine Long… in a hospital room I’ve been in myself… remembering that telling phone call three exact years […]

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