Five Years

Today marks five years that The Curmudgeon is cancer-free.

Five years ago today, a surgeon removed several small cancerous masses that had appeared in an area that only boys have.  It wasn’t the usual boy cancer, so let’s just say that in the unlikely event that The Curmudgeon is ever in a physical altercation with a woman and she kicks him where girls have been taught to kick boys in a way that quickly ends such encounters, the chances are only fifty-fifty that the altercation will immediately end.

Having a doctor look at you and say “It’s cancer” is about as sobering a thing as can happen to a person.  Walking in front of mirrors for the next three months, looking yourself in the eye, uttering aloud “I have cancer,” and then breaking into tears is pretty damn sobering, too.

At the time of all this drama, The Curmudgeon was just two months shy of his fiftieth birthday.  He’s not one to make a big deal out of these milestone birthdays – he didn’t see the big deal when he turned thirty or forty and wasn’t looking toward fifty with any particular dread – but just the same, when you’re headed toward that plateau and someone tells you that you have a disease that’s synonymous with death, the combination of the two reminds you of your own mortality in a way that the aches and pains you suffer after playing half-court basketball with guys barely half your age never quite does.

A fellow named Richie Ashburn, who played baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies for more than a dozen years and then was a television and radio broadcaster of their games and a newspaper columnist for another thirty, was once described by a prominent national sports writer as a conservative Republican with a hippie attitude toward life.  The Curmudgeon is just the opposite:  he is an unapologetic liberal with an extremely conservative attitude toward life.  He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t use any recreational drugs, doesn’t carouse with women, drives within the speed limit, pays his taxes, removes his hat when he’s indoors, and holds doors for women.  Every summer he vacations in a place so close to the gambling town of Atlantic City that he can read the names of the hotels from his sand chair on the beach yet he rarely visits that town and hasn’t set foot in a casino in more than a decade.  On the other hand, he doesn’t begrudge those who drink, smoke, use recreational drugs, gamble, and carouse with women, although he admits that he doesn’t appreciate those who drive too fast and don’t pay their taxes because those things affect him and he doesn’t like those who don’t hold doors because he believes there’s no excuse for bad manners.

He offers this information only to establish that if ever there was a person who might decide to steer a drastically different course after such a life-altering experience it was him, but the reality is that The Curmudgeon didn’t do anything drastic either when he received this diagnosis or when he recovered from his surgery (outpatient surgery:  in by noon, home by seven, and he worked the next day) and post-surgical treatment.  He didn’t take an extended vacation, quit his job to hitchhike across the country, go on a bender, sample some sweet ganja, pursue a series of mindless one-night stands (although everything still works just fine, thank you), take up Texas hold’em, or treat every day like his last.  (The Curmudgeon always gets a kick out of people who claim they live every day like it’s their last.  If that were the case, would they bother to shower and brush their teeth in the morning?  Change their drawers?  Eat anything good for them?  Go to work?  Lock the door behind them when they leave the house?  Stop at red lights?  Take the time to write that they live every day like it’s their last?  The Curmudgeon thinks not.)

Still, The Curmudgeon did make some changes in his life, but they were minor, almost invisible.

He stopped trying to learn to enjoy opera and to appreciate certain kinds of literature.  There would be no fourth attempt to read Kafka’s The Trial.

He lost interest in trying to find the pleasure of eating steak, which to him is just a tasteless piece of gray meat no matter what the cut or how you cook it and no matter what you put on it.

He fired one of the doctors who treated him for his cancer because no one should subject himself to such an ass.

He now spends more time listening to great music, and sampling music he’s never heard before, and much less time watching television.

He goes to the beach more often and pays no attention to the time when he does, although he’s still slathered with a sunscreen with an SPF of 105 because the mirror mirror on the wall tells him that he’s the fairest of them all.

He gave up watching professional football because he no longer wanted to commit to spending three-and-a-half hours a week for twenty weeks in front of his television on his day off from work when there are so many other, better things he could be doing with that time.

He gave up eating cheap chocolate – the kind they use for chocolate Easter bunnies – and won’t eat that Hershey’s or Nestle’s crap anymore but still eats more than his share of the decent stuff.

He gave up dating women whose politics are conservative because he decided that life is too short, even for the perfectly healthy, to tolerate being glared at like he’s an idiot every time he disagrees with them over some minor point of public policy.

His fuse is much longer and he tolerates nonsense much better than he did in the past.  Sometimes, though, that just means walking away from the nonsense.

He stopped honking his horn.

He has much more compassion now when he hears that someone is sick or has died even if he doesn’t know the ailing or deceased party.  He tears up inappropriately at times, especially over sentimental stuff, which embarrasses the hell out of him.  When he read a few months ago that Donna Summer passed away tears involuntarily fell even though he didn’t particularly care for Donna Summer.  When he was driving recently and the radio played Terry Jacks singing “Seasons in the Sun” he had to pull over until he stopped sobbing.  He bawled like a baby watching the Saturday Night Live send-off of Kristen Wiig even though he’s not even a Kristen Wiig fan.

He is, he is rather annoyed to admit, a kinder and gentler Curmudgeon.  In all honesty, he wishes this new facet of his personality would just go away.

Five years is considered a pretty big deal when you’re recovering from the big C, and The Curmudgeon’s recovery has gone well:  lots of blood tests, lots of CAT scans (he now glows slightly in the dark), lots of liquid barium choked down at six-thirty in the morning and all of the gagging that goes along with it, a few false alarms that led to agonizing hours or days, and lots of doctors poking him in places where he really only wants to be poked when he is both the poker and the pokee and both pokers are naked and horizontal and about to do a lot more than just poking.

The Curmudgeon was pretty lucky, too.  The tiny masses contained two types of cancer – one that required radiation and the other that needed chemo.  The math and the odds, though, said he could skip the chemo, so he did, and three weeks of radiation weren’t that bad.  Oh, he barfed a few times, including while his then twelve-year-old nephew scored a goal on a header while his uncle was off doing his business in the woods.  Now, he bears a souvenir of his radiation:  three tiny blue tattoos that the technicians used to guide the laser beams.  “Got any ink?” a single woman might ask.  “Sure,” The Curmudgeon can now reply.  Soooo Joe cool.

Nine months after it was all over, The Curmudgeon found himself in a supermarket check-out line with his mother, a long-time cancer survivor herself.  As they waited their turn, The Curmudgeon noticed one of those racy tabloid newspapers with a headline that read, “Christina Applegate’s brave fight against cancer.”  The Curmudgeon turned to his mother.

“All these years, I saw headlines like that and thought they were stupid,” he said.  “There’s nothing brave about it, is there?  You either do what the doctors tell you to do or you go home and write your will, right?  I never thought I had the right to say that, but now I guess I do.  Am I wrong?”

Mom smiled.  “No,” she said.

And that’s the truth.  All you can do is what the doctors tell you and hope for the best.  Occasionally during those early and darkest days, The Curmudgeon would find himself standing in line at the drug store or the fruit store or the Wawa, look at the cashier, and think to himself, “Doesn’t she know I have cancer?”  But she doesn’t, and if she did she might be sympathetic, but really, she doesn’t care.  Life goes on, the cancer’s gone, and though occasional, unexpected twinges in places he knows are vulnerable to recurrence lead to panicky “oh shit, it’s back” moments, those moments pass in increments that can be measured in seconds, not even minutes, and the sanity that briefly deserted him returns just as quickly as it disappeared.

Five years.  Pretty damn good, all things considered.

Pretty damn lucky, too.

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  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On September 13, 2012 at 7:01 am

    What a wonderful milestone to reach. Congratulations. We are happy The Curmudgeon is healthy and will be able to entertain and inform us for many years to come. Soooo Joe cool.

  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On September 13, 2012 at 7:33 am

    An homage to Paul Simon, really. Enjoy the day.

  • Miss Kate  On September 13, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Congratulations, Curmudgeon. Here’s to many, many more.

  • Scott  On September 14, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Glad that the Mudge is doing well. Wonderful perspective on life. Except…not sure how you gave up on football AND Hershey’s chocolate in the same lifetime…I can’t even do without them on the same WEEKEND!

    P.S. Who the heck is Kristen Wiig???

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On September 14, 2012 at 10:36 am

      You see, that’s what happens when you get older and have to turn in early: you never see the woman who’s been the star of SNL for the past four years or so.

  • Barb  On November 3, 2015 at 10:00 am

    I just discovered this piece today. I am glad you have made the 5 year mark!! Congrats. I,too, am learning all about this cancer crap. My brother was diagnosed in late May with gastrointestinal/pancreatic cancer. I am his caretaker Monday through Friday. My sister who works full-time and with whom he lives, takes over for the weekend so I can get home. It is a brave fight. Sometimes I don’t know how any of us are able to go one more day in this battle. I am glad you are well, for I understand what it takes to get you there.

  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On November 3, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Actually, that piece is a few years old and I recently had my eighth anniversary. I was amazingly lucky, and I know it. I read about your travails on your blog; my thoughts are with you and your family – and the way you’re working together, you must be a great family.


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