It was a little bit of hell packed into a month. After years of that thing growing in my face, all the trouble providence lobbed upon me, I can say that this chapter is closed. No more waking up in the middle of the night in a puddle of cold sweat. No more mental images of my face with a big dent in it, drooping with permanent paralysis. No more wondering if I have cancer. No more second guessing myself, nights wasted pondering if it’s already too late. Should I really be going to this hospital? Should I really have this surgeon work on me? I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow from the draining exhaustion that bubbles out from the fountainhead of incessant worry. I’ve been a worried man since I was a little boy. I worry about things I have no control over. It’s a habit I actively tell people not to fall into, yet here I am. It’s easy to say it and to know it. Then I show myself what a hypocrite I am. It’s the lack of control that really does it to me. Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Yeah, right on, sure thing.
After the diagnosis, the physical size of the tumor remained the same, but it grew to mammoth proportions in my consciousness. It became the biggest thing in the world. All moments were consumed by the tumor. Attempts at distraction were fruitless. My girlfriend could see the dread come over my face when I would become lost in thought. She encouraged me to snap out of it. I really did try. I read books, leaned into my writing, and watched enough TV to make me hate myself for the next few years. I was due to be back to work soon. I had been out for three months after I slipped and fell on a sneaky black strip of ice, fracturing my ankle. Not being able to run did a number on me. When I returned to work, I was the new guy all over again. I had to relearn nearly everything. I embarrassed myself a few times, but I pushed through. It was difficult to concentrate on anything. I had the surgical procedure memorized after watching it so many times on YouTube. It repeated in my head on loop as I attempted to focus my attention on other tasks. The weeks back at work compounded the stress. I was gaining weight too, great. There were days when the promise of a few cold beers at the end of the day was enough to pull me through. Not the healthiest behavior, but nobody died and I didn’t wind up in jail.
I had a couple days off before the surgery. They were dedicated to decompressing, watching wacky forgotten movies from the seventies and eighties with my girlfriend and our dog, draping himself over my lap and farting as I melted into the couch. I wanted my brain to turn to mush, to be as numb as possible. My broken body. My broken brains. I watched every head and neck surgery on the Mayo Clinic’s YouTube channel. So much of my worry stemmed from a fear of the unknown, the lack of control, and putting my trust in someone I didn’t know. These videos were made for residents at the clinic. Cool, collected, and knowledgeable surgeons explained thoroughly what it was they were doing as they were doing it. It was comforting. I could see for myself how it was done and the quality of their work. I hoped to hell I would be in such good hands.
Then the morning came. I was due to check in at 6:45 am. The Providence VA is large and Byzantine. I sat in a small waiting room outside of surgery with my girlfriend for what seemed like forever as my brain was draped in anxiety and confusion like chocolate syrup on an ice cream sundae. Nobody was at the desk to process me. Ten minutes passed, then twenty minutes, and the worry was palpable. A woman finally arrived at the desk and explained to me that I needed to check in at the emergency room. Why I needed to do this was beyond any explanation, but I hadn’t officially checked in. I was technically half an hour late now, just wonderful. After a wild goose chase through the labyrinthine corridors of what could pass for the mother of all escape rooms, I checked in and made my way back up to the waiting area outside of surgery. Beige tile, florescent lights, the faint smell of bleach, and my poor nerves. Such disarray in this bureaucratic hades. The debacle had me on edge. That was a nice little touch. Finally, I was called into the OR. I kissed my lady goodbye and held on to my ass.
I was led into mint green hall with a row of hospital beds. I was assigned one, handed a hospital gown and instructed to put it on. A small curtain was drawn. I had never worn one of these things before, but I’d seen enough cheap gags in the movies with bare asses hanging out of the backs of these things to know I’m not supposed to wear anything underneath. I tied this stupid thing on as I overheard the doctor explaining to the guy in the next bed over what they intended to do with him. He was there to have his toe amputated. This place is a goddamn slaughter house. My state of mind had been through such a roller coaster ride, by the time my bare ass hit the bed, I was spent. Any consternation left the building. I accepted my fate. A sense of peace came over me as I was finally able to surrender. I could hold on to my ass or kiss it goodbye. It was up to the gods now. They jabbed the IV into my arm. I was strapped in. No turning back.
A medical resident came around and explained the procedure to me. His hair was out of place and his mask was on crooked, looking like he just survived a tornado. “Mr. Fabian?” He verified it was yours truly. He looked at me as if I were a man going to the gallows.
“You know what you’re here for, right?”
“Yes, I’m here to have a tumor removed from my parotid gland.”
“That’s correct, you’re on for a total parotidectomy. That means that if need be, your entire parotid gland may be removed.”
“Yes, I understand that.”
“And you know about the complications, right? You can get first bite syndrome where it’s painful to bite down when you eat. You may have permanent facial paralysis on the right side of your face.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve spent every waking hour for over a month thinking about it.”
He wasn’t going to be there in the operating room. He was just the guy getting signatures. The seriousness and inflection in his voice would have given me pause just hours before. I scribbled my name and put it in the hands of fate. The anesthesiologist came over pumped me up with something to the point where I didn’t care about anything anyone was trying to tell me. They wheeled the bed into the operating room. The lights were bright and in my face. The room pulsated with the hustle and bustle of people doing serious work. These places are so heavy. I wondered how many people died in this room. I crawled onto the operating table. Someone made a joke that I didn’t understand, but I laughed anyway. They gave me the gas. Then I was coming back to waking life in the same place where I overheard the guy giving the okay to have his toe cut off. My face was numb and swollen, stitched up from the back of my ear to my neck. But I could move my face. I could smile. I could move my eyebrows up and down. The nurse tending to me brought a salad over. I didn’t feel any pain when biting down. I felt reborn. The tumor had been cut out with most of the parotid gland intact. No huge dent in my face. All the fear, all the dread, all the nights of constant worry, were over. At least for now. That’s good enough. A new dawn rose.
There was a tube placed in the back of my ear underneath the incision with a drain at the other end, collecting blood and puss. That whole side of my face felt fake, like a leather bag filled with cotton, bloated and ugly. There I lay, shoving salad into my face, reading The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus, and shaking off the effects of the anesthesia. I looked up and caught a glimpse of the surgeon packing up to leave beyond the green hallway. We exchanged glances and waves. Just another day at work. I was happy to be alive. I watched him walk away. He was a serious person with white hair and blue eyes. I still find it difficult to express the gratitude I have for what he’s done for me.
I had to stay there overnight. A night at the VA is something akin to being strapped down to a bed in a truck stop bathroom with a loud TV booming infomercials at high volume and workers periodically emerging out of the florescent hellscape to collect piss bottles and rapidly disappear if you need them. The thought of sleep was laughable. Whatever drugs I was on had worn off and the discomfort of having a tube sewn into the back of my face began to make itself known. The guy in the next bed over loudly complained about the food, the TV, the nurses and his need for a cigarette. There were some very audible crises on the floor. A geriatric man’s creaking and childlike voice echoed through the hallway, proclaiming, “It’s Jerry! Jerry is back! I am your naked gnome!” A nurse would stammer to their colleague, “He’s naked again.” The sound of footsteps, bodies thumping, running, and sneakers squeaking reverberated throughout the floor. I anticipated Jerry’s next episode. His voice was audible in the distance, wild and mindless.
I anguished in this place until the following afternoon. A nurse came around and pulled the drain out of my face. I was given a stack of papers and prescriptions and that was that I looked in the mirror at my face. A swollen and warped thing, like a basketball with half the air sucked out, left out in the yard too long. But I could move it, that’s what counted. I returned a week later to have the stitches yanked out. It was confirmed that the tumor was benign. The weight of the world was off my shoulders, for now at least. I didn’t have cancer and my disfigurement was minimal. That was triumph enough.
I like my scar. It’s a badge of honor, a physical remnant that I will take with me for the rest of my life. In retrospect, it wasn’t so bad. I thought it a bigger deal than it was, but it was hell at the time. I could sit here and write like I’m a real tough guy. I could tell you that this didn’t phase me and I brushed it off like it was nothing, but that’s just not the truth. That month sucked. What a mess. I have a newfound sympathy for people dealing with cancer, tumors, and all the emotions that come with being given a diagnosis. I appreciate how lucky I am to have such a solid support system. Being able to lean on my girlfriend and family members for support has been invaluable. I’ve always been such a solitary creature, I never figured these things would be important to me. This experience showed me otherwise. I’m extremely grateful to have my grandfather, who raised me, still around. I was able to drop by and stay the night in the house I grew up in when I was feeling lost and my mind was fried. I faced this as bravely as I could with a solid foundation. I didn’t do it alone. I had lots of help.
I’d like to close this out with a PSA. If you feel a lump on your body, get it checked out. If it gets bigger, get it checked out. If your doctor tells you it’s nothing, get a second opinion. Don’t do what I did, remaining in denial as it grows larger and larger. Get it taken care of early on. Waiting will only make it worse. Come to grips with reality and deal with it. Stick around a little longer.