“Good news,” the doctor said. “You have cancer.”
No, that’s not exactly what she said, but that’s how it felt to me. As a “survivor” (more on that later) of a melanoma on my cheek two years ago, I was understandably nervous when my dermatologist mentioned the possibility of a return of the disease in two moles on my face – each less than two inches from my scar.
She carved out some cells for the biopsies as I tried to make confident jokes using my Cary Grant voice from a late-night North by Northwest a few weeks back: “All this cutting is taking the fun out of coming here.” I was told to come back in a week to get the stitches removed and the results of the biopsy.
And quite a week it was. I’m naturally an optimistic person, but Cary Grant quickly faded into wherever old movie voices go. So I lapsed briefly into self-pity – you know: “It’s really OK if I die now anyway. I won’t be missed that much.” Unfortunately, when I mentioned at work the possibly grim biopsy results, people expressed only mild interest before moving on to other topics. Apparently there was a lot going on in their lives that was much more interesting than my imminent death. A subtle shift of direction took me to Garrison Keillor’s mockery of the stoic inhabitants of Lake Wobegone: “That’s OK. I’ll be fine. It’s nothing, really. You go on ahead without me.” I found myself comfortable, for a few days, with self-ridicule. Much more comfortable for me than experiencing true emotions.
Then, after seeing Julie and Julia with Kim, I decided to take the stoicism a step further, accepting as my mantra a line used by Julia Childs after receiving some bad news: “Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now, what?” This seemed more constructive than self-pity, even ironic self-pity. While I was not totally comfortable speaking through Meryl Streep – I prefer Cary Grant – the Meryl/Julia package did the job for me. I even practiced receiving bad news from the doctor – right after saying a clench-jawed Hemingway-esque “Shit.” Saying “merde,” I thought, would sound too literary.
I was now developing a portfolio of voices, and Kim helped me expand and refine my repertoire. She gave me just the right amount of caring when she turned tearfully to me on the couch during a commercial and told me that she had been looking at some pictures of me and realized how much she would miss me. This pretty much destroyed the “I won’t be missed that much” self-indulgence, but it left me with the chilling prospect of a naked emotional response.
I was saved by a creative move on her part, bringing together two themes of our recent marital conversations: How to improve our marriage (I think her word was “save”), and what to include on our croak list – a term we used before The Bucket List came out. Turns out that many of the same items appear on both lists! I found myself, of course, not being Jack Nicholson but rather Morgan Freeman – reluctant to break out of his shell and do anything daring, or even different. Besides, I cannot imitate Jack Nicholson. Neither can Kim, but she does fine just being herself. I had to internalize my Morgan Freeman voice, mainly because Kim had seen the movie with me and would figure out what I was doing.
So we started planning adventures. Trips to Nova Scotia. To the park across the street. Maybe to Key West. To Columbus, Ohio. To the movies. I know – none of these is the top of the Great Pyramid or Mount Everest, but it’s a step up from checking the scores on espn.com and watching The Bachelorette.
I refuse, by the way, to see myself as a cancer survivor. My wife and daughter have filled that role rather well, both as breast cancer survivors, though neither one lists “survivor” at the top of her resume’. Besides, I don’t think anyone can count himself or herself as a cancer survivor until he or she dies of something else. I’ve survived being a cancer survivor: Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now, what? So as much as I enjoy Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” that’s not my song. If you’ve ever heard me sing, you are glad of this.
So why was the appearance of cancer on my face “good news”? Well, it was the “right” kind of cancer: basal cell carcinoma, not melanoma. Curable. Not particularly disfiguring – though my career as a pre-mask ice hockey goal tender, plus my melanoma, pretty much removed modeling from my croak list. I’ve mentioned to people at work that “I have cancer” – without adding that it’s the good kind – with no discernible impact on their lives.
Still on my croak list is giving a naked emotional response. To be more precise – it’s giving one when I’m not actually naked. If I can do that it will be really good news. I’m searching movies, starting tonight, to find someone to show me how.