Time was when turning 50 for a man meant buying a red convertible or taking up with a blonde secretary. Or both. Now, thanks to Katie Couric, that bitch, turning 50 means having a colonoscopy.
In the waiting room, the first thing I noticed was the bathroom. Not down the hall, but right there in the waiting room. Just like the friendly hints in the written instructions on colon cleansing, I suspected irony: After drinking the liquid laxative diluted in 12 ounces of fluid, and drinking an additional four eight-ounce glasses of clear fluid, you will want to stay near a toilet.
Little wonder that I am also instructed to have some moist towelettes on hand and Desitin for chapping. I remember a boss once saying, “You know what chaps my ass, Casey?” Now I know. Given my gurgling bowels, I decided to be heartened by the nearby facilities.
The elderly gentleman nearest me wore a Ricky Ricardo two- tone shirt, khakis, brand new white sneakers. His close-cropped silver hair and tanned narrow face made him look like a military man, his eyes staring into the distance. When the nurse called his name, he got to his feet in one motion, turned to leave, stopped, pivoted back, leaned down to kiss his woman on the forehead, then marched to meet the medicos.
I’ve spent my adult life avoiding doctors. Last time I visited a doctor was 10 years ago when I turned 40 and my wife threatened divorce if I didn’t submit to a physical. I submitted. A mere decade later and she’s nagging me to get another one, and I know exactly where this will lead. A bad bit of business, that’s where. Thanks, Katie.
My mother was a willing victim of Western medicine, which excels at treating symptoms but rarely seeks causes. Consequently, on the counter flanking the kitchen sink, my father’s quart of Seagram’s VO was surrounded by my mother’s pill bottles: steroids, painkillers, mood elevators, tincture of opium. My mother had a lot illness in her life, so she took a lot of medication. Naturally, I developed an aversion to legal drugs, even the over-the-counter stuff. Doctors weren’t my favorites either.
Growing up, I thought everybody’s mother went into the hospital one or two times per year for one or two weeks. I have early memories of standing outside the Stanford Medical Center and my father pointing up to the window of my mother’s room. Me and my brothers and sisters stood there so she could look down on us. It didn’t strike me as unusual, until I was a teenager and noticed other parents rarely, if ever, went into the hospital.
The doctors couldn’t cure her. Her stomach hurt, she couldn’t eat, lost weight; then she was hospitalized where they were happy to try out another cure. Drug treatments, surgery, diets, there was always something new to try. Stanford was a teaching hospital, after all. My mother happily agreed to every treatment, though. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Krohn’s disease. She lived with that for twenty years until Leukemia got her in the end.
In my late 20s my wife noticed a small extra flap of skin in my armpit.
“It’s nothing. Get the scissors.”
“You’re going to the doctor.”
I didn’t have a doctor, so I ended up in the urgent care clinic with a young, male physician’s assistant, and he decided I needed a finger wave because of a harmless growth in my armpit. Later, curled on the couch at home, I attempted to explain my sense of violation. My wife said, “I’ve birthed your three children, so don’t complain to me about doctors poking you.”
Philosophic hindsight now allows the possibility that the finger-wave procedure was strictly diagnostic. If not, then fair play to him. I was a handsome buck then. Still, the incident did little to change my opinion of the medical profession.
Many years later my wife grew restive about a marble-sized bulge on my neck. “That has to go. It’s freaking me out.”
The first doctor reported that it was a fat deposit; insurance would not cover cosmetic surgery.
“Did you tell him about the cancer on both sides of your family?” my wife asked.
Actually, I had told him and was shocked when, after cursory fingering of my neck bulge, he hustled me out of his office. Thrilled, of course. But a little alarmed, too.
“We’re getting a second opinion.”
A young surgeon did finally see me and said insurance wasn’t a problem. And somehow I got the idea that the surgery was on a par with a trip to the dentist. “Local anaesthetic; he’ll flick that thing out with a melon baller,” I explained when my wife offered to accompany me. “I’ll be fine.”
I firmly believed this, too, until the morning of the surgery when the nurse called to make sure I didn’t eat anything. “Since 10:00 pm last night, right?”
I cradled the phone to my chest with my chin to free my hands to spread the mustard on the salami sandwich the call interrupted. I replied, “No, nothing.” Then ate my sandwich. I didn’t see how a salami sandwich could affect anything one way or another.
My next clue that this was more than getting a tooth filled was the puzzled, concerned look on the admitting nurse’s face when I answered, “Well, no, I came alone.”
She craned her neck to look past me, “There’s nobody with you, really?”
I felt lonely when she said it like that.
Then the orderly took my book away.
“No,” I explained, tightly gripping the novel I happened to be reading at the time, “this is how I relax. It will help me.”
He was a young, pasty-faced fellow; he easily yanked the book out of my hands. “Not sterile.”
The more awful memory, an icy jet of fear freezes my bowels when I think of it, was the gurney ride: strapped in, flat on my back, fluorescent light fixtures passing overhead, wind playing down the length of my body, rolled and steered by a stranger’s hands. For me, a vision of the future — this is how you will end, right?
I was given Versed. I remember the anesthesiologist telling me what a great surgeon was operating on me. Then I was in the recovery room and they started in on somebody accompanying me. “Mr. Casey, you can’t drive yourself home. It’s illegal.”
“My ride is waiting for me outside,” I said.
A Candy Striper rolled me out to the exit. It was raining past the awning, the parking lot streaked with the overhead lights. “Mr. Casey, I don’t see a car out there.”
She stopped the wheel chair in between the sliding double doors. “Sure,” I said, standing, “it’s right down there.”
“Mr. Casey, please.”
My house was less than a mile away; I easily drove home.
Before you get to have a colonoscopy you receive a physical. Avoiding doctors meant I didn’t have a doctor, so my wife worked the phones, which is how I ended up with an attractive young female doctor instructing me to bend over the examination table.
At work the next day, Andy Seubert asked me how it all went. I replied, “A beautiful young woman shoved her finger up my ass and told me I was too fat. All in all, not bad.”
My name was called. I remembered to kiss my wife — mental tip of the cap to Mr. Ricky Ricardo shirt — and squared up. I was shown to a curtained-off area that contained a chair and bed and was handed a gown. Once I was gowned and on the bed, an IV was started and I was left alone. That’s when I noticed activity in the room across from me. When I figured out the gloved, masked woman’s task, I remembered my advice to my teenage daughter one evening while we sat on the couch watching Friends. Sarah, who had the cat on her lap, suddenly thrust the animal off of her lap and screamed. I spotted the problem right away, a turd clinging to the fur on the cat’s ass. When my daughter returned from putting the cat out, I told her if that happened to me I would kill myself.
That’s how I felt when I observed the woman place the black, serpentine cameras into a dishwasher. They could never get the water hot enough, could they? Each soiled camera was delivered in a large, rectangular plastic container, maybe even Tupperware. Did they scrub those fuckers out?
Eventually, they rolled me a few feet from the prep area into the procedure room where I received an ugly surprise when the doctor instructed me to turn on my left side.
“My left side?,” I asked. Because then I faced the high resolution screen, a 52-inch terrifyingly clear panel that already contained a white spiderweb with thousands of strands that turned out to be a piece of gauze the camera rested on.
The nurse answered for the doctor, “Yes, your left side. Is there a problem?”
Oh, you glib … you think you’re going to force me to face my inner self when the camera is inserted in me? Fuck that machine. Fine, I turned on my left and closed my eyes.
They dripped the Versed into me and I opened my eyes to visual wonders, like gliding in an airplane over sand dunes sunset pink.
I am fucking beautiful!
The camera hesitated, hovered over a white flat area, lowered to what appeared to be a slight protuberance. A small claw came into view and gnawed on the polyp and a thin stream of blood bisected the white area and for that brief moment I understood religious ecstasy. It was all so lovely and it was in me. I am lovely inside.
After thirty minutes of recovery, I dressed in my street clothes; the nurse ushered me into a consulting room and then went to the waiting area to call my wife in. Once all three of us were seated, the nurse explained that everything looked good, that they did take one small sample but it was nothing to worry about, worse case is that instead of waiting ten years for the next examination, it might be changed to five or three. “But I don’t really expect that,” she summarized, and was proven correct when the tersely-worded lab results arrived a week later.
In a hurry to flee I walked ahead of my wife, exiting the room and then down the corridor, eyes on the door out of there. Door knob in hand, I looked back and saw my wife standing in front of the consulting room next to ours, head cocked as if trying to hear through the closed door. I couldn’t wait. I skipped out.
She caught me on the sidewalk, said, “They’re still in there.”
Foggy from the Versed, I wanted to go home.
“The older man, the one in the black and tan shirt, the one they called before you. When they called his wife I knew it was your turn — but they’re still in the little room.”
I turned to the parking lot, “Ricky Ricardo?”
She continued, “Early detection, though, leads to extremely high survival rates. What do you think of Katie now?”
I kept silent and followed my wife out to the parking lot. Dull, grey clouds filled the sky. I hoped Mr. Ricky Ricardo shirt lived a long marching life, but Katie Couric was no friend of mine.