reprint of the cancer blogs; post-birthday, grateful AND something you should know-

things i didn’t get around to saying……like thanks

i’m finding myself riding the choppy seas of political hope for the future.

making it past the black hole that is the Bush presidency is reason enough, but the outlook for America’s future has me just a little edgy.

i’m doing what most newly cancer-cleared patients do; i worry about recurrence.
that’s me for a few minutes at least, as i go for my monthly post-op exam when i ride the “dread local” into the city. the dread local is not located on the “J” line, nor is it in manhattan. it’s in my head and i can generally extricate myself from there fifteen minutes after waking.
the best illustration of the way this post 9/11 press-doped cancer survivor thinks is this;
cancer equals terrorism. it was an invasion.
but is terrorism cancerous?
or is the fear it generates cancerous?
that’s why our fratboy President uses those words so damned much. that’s why the press, news and everyone running for president uses it.
it’s extremely effective at keeping people in that skittish, “what-the-fuck-was-that-and-why-am-i-constantly-looking-over-my-shoulder?” mode.
we are hotwired for that when we’re not busy worrying about every other aspect of our lives. go gas up your car and file every thought in your head. i just paid a dollar for a BAGEL today. that’s not counting toast or butter.

just the bagel.

so, i have it for my reasons.
for me it’s that always-uncomfortable state of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
for others, it’s forever september 10th or december 6th (depending on your age and personal trauma date), but getting past this takes much less time than it takes to write it.
i’m way past it for today, but i’m pretty sure it’ll rear its head again tomorrow.
it always seems to, even if only for a moment.
maxx, my dog, has it for his reasons.
when he was a puppy, he was living in the front window of a pet shop on Broadway in Bushwick-Bedstuy. whether it was a car backfiring or gunfire, he heard something.
sudden, loud noises lift his four paws off the ground at the same time.

but i digress. i always do….it’s that stuff that makes me forget the good things.
goodbye blue monday’s still here.
buddy’s still here.
i’m still here.
and you’re still here.
well, most of you, anyway……
thanks from all of us.



the beginning; life’s a ball. a little ball rolling around in my jaw-

as my finger absent-mindedly discovered it, something inside said “you know i’m not a dental situation, but go….talk to the dentist.” my ring and forefinger would touch the little “ball” laying next to my jawbone. i’ll call it a ball because i have to define it differently from what a swollen gland would feel like, which i’ll call a “lump”. this thing was perky. it bordered on “cute”. could an abcess be cute? it’s different from a gland, maybe. as i would run my finger along it i would find myself suspending thought. then i’d say something like,”this is bad”, carefully not letting the cute little ball next to my jaw think that i was talking about it. “this is bad” would be tagged to a lamppost, car tire, pavement crack or small child being led by grandma.
blazing-neon-red-alert flashing in my head. don’t say that word. it is not that word. (yes it is. it is that word.)
but it’s just so darn cute. and painless. it doesn’t hurt. it’s nothing. (no, it’s not)
and it’s christmas. i would consider this bad poetry if it’s THAT and it’s Christmas. would it be considered “ironic?” would i be ironic-ER if i were to consider my life a series of ironies? what am i thinking about? oh, cancer. no. not that word. where’d that word come from? (you, it came from you)
it’s that abscess. it’s that tooth. the one the dentist says is gonna blow up on me. he’s been warning me about this for five years. it’s finally here and i’m going to have hell to pay. too late for root canal? fuck knows. besides, i can’t afford root canal. i can’t rub two nickels together. not now. not christmas.
success. abscess has won the moment.(no it hasn’t)
and that’s how it began.


the middle; fear and clothing in bellevue;

ok – i wasted five weeks between discovering that little bugger and sitting in this dentist chair. in between i gobbled down a prescription full of amoxicyllin you know you got it… know! after a series of x-rays, my dentist announces that “there’s no abscess that has anything to do with me, steve.”
thank you richard. i can feel the heat rising in my head like my entire brain is blushing. what more do you need to know before you know, buddy?
so OK, then i see my doctor from when i had a health plan and he really doesn’t want to deal with me even if i do have a little cash in my pocket. “i can’t see you anymore” he says.
i had a girlfriend tell me that. in fact several, but i thought of one in particular. she handed me a book on learning how to type and said i should get a real job. (i was a bartender).
i could offer no prospects as a person, i guess. some time later with the following girlfriend i revealed this typewriter story. “that’s horrible,” she said. about a year later she handed me a book entitled “Computing in DOS”. i don’t think i have to re-write that “real job” – line from above.
oh well.
i digress. i felt like the doctor knew these people somehow. i felt i had to qualify my life, something i stopped having to do twenty years ago; something no one should ever have to do, ever.
“alright, doctor…. alright, but can you just give me an opinion on this? i thought it was an abscess, but my dentist says it has nothing to do with him.”
i lift my chin up and the doctor begrudgingly obliges. he runs his finger across the jawline, noticing nothing. “where? there’s nothing there”, he says.
with my right hand, i introduced his forefinger to my little friend.
this, i learn, is how to make a professional lose his composure.
“i can’t help you” he says stepping away, “but you really better do something about that.”
something backed him the-hell-up, pronto. and oddly enough, it gave me a sense of power. i might just be a working stiff, but i have something……else.
this was the moment that i first realized we have a health-care crisis in this country. wait – I have a health-care crisis in this country. i’m being told in no uncertain terms that i have a life-threatening problem (he didn’t need to tell me in words- his voice and manner told me everything), and being a small-business man without a healthcare budget built into my fledgling dream-come-true, i have just wandered into “holy shit, what do i do now?”-land. i worried that i might not be wearing the right shoes for this journey. see? i told you
it’s amazing how much better my hearing became that moment. the doctor delineated a plan of action and he didn’t have to tell me twice. “go to bellevue,” he says, and to bellevue i went.
bellevue. i thought it was just ray milland, crazy people and homeless shelters. i thought it was the place they used for the hospital scenes from “jacob’s ladder.”
in short, this happened;
another doctor touches the ball and calls it a node. she walk out and returns with another doctor who she identifies as her “superior” who touches it and asks, “smoker?”
was. stopped about 12 years ago.
“drinker?” was. stopped about 12 years ago.
“let me take a look in there – open wide”, i oblige, “probably cancer – tonsil, possible heading into your lymph-nodes. it’s what say…three fingers wide,” he turns to the first doctor and says “probably stage 2B, but we’ll run a cat and biopsy and get him over to ENT.”
the voices in my head are high-fiving each other.
somewhere in the whirlwind that is my brain, i hear words like earnosethroat, biopsy, dentist, cat-scan.
here’s why there’s poetry in math and it’s part of the universe’s dance steps;
enter a childhood friend who knows the lingo,”me and the wife are both survivors, and hell, she’s even had the same cancer you were diagnosed with!”
i have guides and translators now. walking the cancer jungle has become a little less terrifying.
these things beget oral surgeons, radiologists and chemo-oncologists. i have ENT (formerly “ear nose throat” and something that is by now, familiar), telling me their plans, surgery-wise, but first any and all questionable teeth have got to go and quickly. having cancer in bellevue is like having a VIP card when you need dental work. you can cut the line. they see the chart and smile assuringly. “mr. trimboli, you come THIS way. radiation and bad teeth and gums don’t go well,” and so go the teeth and welcome to NYU Cancer center and we’ll be running 6 weeks of radiation along with chemotherapy every third week for two sessions and then passing you back onto ENT who’ll be performing the dissection (HUH?)
my friend says that the radiation and chemo aren’t singularly overwhelming, but cumulatively, they wear you down. and yeah, ok, this seems pretty easy…..maybe a little nap when i get home before i start the store issues.
god i can’t get up, god i’m sick – i can’t even look at food let alone eat it……what do you mean i lost seven pounds this week?
“steve, you have to eat or we’ll have to put a feeding tube in your stomach, not too much of a procedure, really and it’ll keep you strong for the battle you’re in..”,
“oh, this is a battle. OH, THIS IS A BATTLE. it seems i’m always the last to know. how much ENSURE do i have to drink in order to stay alive, anyway? i don’t want to die, but this living sure is getting mighty inconvenient……when was the last time i ate solid food? is this shit ever gonna end? i’m not happy i’m not happy i’m not happy. change that. i can’t do this i can’t do this i can’t do this. it doesn’t matter.”
“steve, you’re doin’ great. it’s almost over.”
that’s when i stopped caring. something broke. my brain was finished. i had completed twenty out of thirty radiation sessions and four of six chemotherapy dates. i was pasty-grey with a dark-brown ring running around my neck that was flaking and peeling in a bizarre way. i looked like a sick guy. i was twenty-something pounds lighter and as apathetic as can be.
here is a sign that you’re not thinking clearly any longer;
i had to ask three kids who come to my store solely to steal things from it, to leave.
“you kids can’t be here. you’re underage and we serve alcoholic beverages”
one turned to me and said,”it’s because we’re black”
“no, it’s because you come here and steal things from me.”
i then detailed to each of them what they stole the last time they were here.
“don’t lay that black guilt shit on me – you’re fucking thieves,” i said.
that’s when the fourteen-year-old pulled the gun on me.
and i didn’t care.
and the kid did a double-take because of my lack of attention to his threat.
he held the gun sideways just like he was taught in the movies or the videos or wherever else they teach mental slavery, the kind that guaruntees another professional prisoner in a lifelong revolving door, then jiggled it in his hand trying to rouse me out of my cloud….. i did everything short of asking him to pull the trigger. “just go away” i said. “ride your bike the hell away from here.” i like to think my bitterness scared him. i hope it did, anyway.
i was ready to go.
this radiochemo can mess with your desire to exist, you betcha.
two days later i counted the days and sessions. eight and two. i can do this. it’s over. i’m going to be alright.

the end; hello, i must be glowing-

the end;
as they wheeled me from pre-op, heading into the operating room, i heard myself singing “hello, i must be going” a groucho marx song-

Hello, I must be going
I cannot stay
I came to say
I must be going
I’m glad I came
But just the same
I must be going…

Margaret Dumont sings,

For my sake you must stay;
For if you should go away,
You’ll spoil this party I am throwing…..

Groucho answers-

I’ll stay a week or two
I’ll stay the summer through
But I am telling you
I must be going

the surgeon said i have a great chance of surviving intact but i have to understand that i might lose my jugular vein on my right side, the entire muscle-mass that controls my right arm and the nerves and muscles that control my right side. she asked me if i was prepared for this. (of course i’m not prepared for this) but i said that if that’s what it’s gonna be, so be it.
she said this on monday at around noon as i lay in the operating room, oxygen mask across my face, my eyes slightly glazed. i breathed deeply and felt a tear in the right corner of my eye. how did this happen? this ride has been going on for ten months now, and it comes down to this. am i prepared?
the anesthesiologist chimed in from another planet…”ok stephen, now just keep breathing deeply and you’ll drift off very nicely…” and i looked on, trying to peel the paint off the ceiling tiles with my eyes. i can’t remember if i prayed to not wake up, but do remember thinking it and how much simpler it would be. i can’t remember if i gave up and said, “whatever.”
i don’t remember.
i was being called by name. from the foot of the bed, the surgeon (an attractive asian woman in her 30’s) called me – mister trimboli? – how about giving me a smile. Can you smile for me?
through the haze i managed a stoned-gaze, wasted smile. Can you say hello, mr.trimboli? after some difficulty i was able to say something. maybe it was hello. stephen, can you move your right hand up above your head and wave to me? and i could do that, too, and as i did i came out of the fog i was in and realized what i was doing and the surgeon began to laugh and so did i. you can use your arm – the muscle’s intact. and your nerves are all where they’re supposed to be.
i have a huge scar across my neck that runs from my adam’s apple to and around my right ear.
this scar’s a doozie, and i know scars.
in 1962 my skull was shattered by the front bumper of a 1953 chevrolet. america’s first black neurosurgeon laced in 118 stitches to close the wound and would eventually lay in 6 layers of these stitches when he’d put in the metal plate during the second operation. thanks to dr. thomas matthew’s scar, i was able to have long hair when the beatles came to america a year later.(to hide that unsightly scar)
this scar is much more visible.
i choose to believe it’s a miracle.
and i know miracles almost as well as i know scars


About stephen trimboli

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