There are times when I wish I was a doctor. After all, my father was one. It would have been so easy just to have shaken my chest-thumping individuality for an instant and said "OK Dad. You win! Medicine will be my path!"
Being my father's son was not an easy proposition to begin with. When you have a father as recognized in the field of oncology as mine, a shadow is cast upon your existence. You could grow up to be the president and you are always introduced as "the cancer doctor's son". Every passing acquaintance asks the relationship question to me with the look of a tabloid detective beginning the sentence with "oh, you wouldn't happen to be…" or "by any chance, are you…".
I suppose there were those fleeting moments of regret that hover around everyone who chooses a less financially secure career path. These thoughts would tap me on the shoulders of my mind every once in a while, but they never lingered long. From the time I was 6, I felt more secure letting my fingers float across piano keys than I ever could sticking a stethoscope in my ears. I always thought of the tools of medicine as more toys than instruments. While my sister was playing doctor as a little girl, I was the one who would grab the end of the stethoscope and growl as loud as I could into her ears. She would always run to my dad crying and holding her ears and I would be sent to my room for about an hour or so to "think about" what I did. Little did my father know that my sister's sore eardrums were the farthest things from my mind as I sat in my room alone and poured over the sheet music of classical piano concertos. He did more to turn me away from medicine by sending me to my room than he could ever have imagined.
I will give my father credit for one thing, though. When I told him I was going to college to major in music, he didn't rant and rave and tear his hair out like those tyrannical fathers in the movies. His way of protesting was to say, "Well, I gave you the resources and the wherewithal to be more than that, but I must admit there have been times when I came home late and there you were filling the house with these wonderful sounds. Had I wanted to stop you, I guess I had my chances".
I was always a little closer to my mother when I was growing up. I couldn't help to be. My mother was the only one home most of the time, what with my father bouncing between his patients and the medical conferences he was always attending. There were some months when I was younger when if I saw my dad a number of times that required two hands to count, I wondered why he was home so much. My sister and I were my mother's life's work. When my first album came out, I dedicated it to my mom with the words "Congratulations! Mission Accomplished!". When she received the compact discs in the mail, she called me in tears after she read the dedication. She proclaimed it to be her "Mother's Day gift for life".
I told my mother first when I got sick. A lifetime reflex more than anything else. You would think the first thing I would have done is call my father the world-famous oncologist with the news that I had come down with lung cancer. My first reaction was anger. I don't smoke and never have. We lived far from the madding crowds in the suburbs where vehicle exhausts were virtually non-existent. Then I began adding up in my head all of those smoky clubs I had either played or listened in. I was warned up and down about second-hand smoke from an ever-vigilant doctor father and here I was, years later, with lung cancer.
My mother was the only one in the room who knew what I was about to say. My father was there, perplexed that I wanted to talk to the whole family at the same time. Jane and my brother-in-law Henry came in from Boston. They were confused. Whenever my mother wanted to get Jane to be in the same room with me for anything, she had to lie to her. She told Jane that Dad had a big announcement for everyone. Jane kept looking at Dad waiting for him to speak, and he never did.
I love Jane, but with the realization that we are opposites. She thinks I'm some kind of lollygaging neo-hippie with my head in the clouds, and there have been times when I thought I could have more exciting conversations with a coffee table than with my sister. It is life's ultimate revenge that Henry and I share almost everything in common. 48 hours after I met him when Jane introduced Henry as her intended, he asked me to be his best man at their wedding. Jane was furious but relented. I always swore I would return the favor to Henry some day, but musicians have a way of attracting the wrong kind of woman. That is not to say that I didn't take advantage of that in times of bodily need, but as I got closer to middle age, I didn't see the point anymore.
When I told the family I had lung cancer, I could almost see Dad and Jane salivating. At long last, a chance for one or both of them to control my fate had presented itself. A sick man needed doctors, and this sick man needed the doctors in the room. The family wolf was metamorphosing into a sheep right in front of their eyes.
And then I detonated a verbal bomb. I looked all of them in the eye and told them I wasn't seeking treatment, and I had no plans to do so.
My mother was horrified. Henry was confused. Dad and Jane were furious.
Jane called me pig-headed. "You're going to reach a point when you finally give in to treatment and by then, knowing you, it will be too late".
Mom chimed in. "OK. So I didn't raise my son as a doctor, but I also don't remember raising someone stupid. It's bad enough you live in California in the middle of nowhere…."
Anyplace outside a 5-mile radius to my mother is the middle of nowhere.
"….Are you trying to encourage better living through terminal illness?"
Then it was Dad's turn.
"I want you to stay right in that chair and explain to a man who has been treating cancer patients for nearly thirty-five years- not taking into account my high success rate-….."
Whenever my father sensed something illogical, he read everyone within earshot his resume.
"….why you choose not to fight an irregular bodily process."
My father also has a gift for making the outlandish and the ghastly sound mundane. I was sitting in front of him acknowledging that whatever this shadow on my lung was was eventually going to kill me and he refers to it as an irregular bodily process. Diarrhea is an irregular bodily process, I thought. Yet I learned long ago I didn't contradict my father on matters of medicine. In return, we didn't discuss music one on one.
"Dad, you must have seen the human cost of treatment between accepting awards…"
"Now hold on". He was visibly upset that I seemed to put his accomplishments above his bedside manner. "My work and the recognition for it are not exclusive of one another. Did you think they give me awards for looking good?"
" Of course not, but you can't sit there, even as a distinguished man of medicine, and tell me unequivocally that there are times when the cure isn't worse than the disease."
Then Jane piped in
"This is all about losing your hair, isn't it?"
"Jane, even coming from you, that's ridiculous.", I said.
"Oh, here we go again. John the Different. John the Anti-Doctor. Why can't you just be normal?"
"Honey, relax", said Henry, "Let's keep it civilized".
"Easy for you to say, Henry. You have six siblings."
Jane uses every instance she can to remind Henry of his Catholic roots. This was quite the statement from Jane, for she was once again, with one sentence, reiterating her wish to be an only child.
"Maybe you're right", Dad said, attempting to right the ship by the power of discourse, "but I don't see the sense of giving up when you have every conceivable treatment option at your disposal".
My father always had an inability to come out and say what he was feeling. I could see from his expression that he wanted to be my one and only doctor. He wanted to be my caregiver. He wanted to give me the best he had to offer. He wanted to give me my life back.
"Dad…Mom…Jane…Henry? Has there ever been a time in your life when you wanted to see me suffer?"
"There was the time when we were younger and while I was sleeping, you super-glued a tongue depressor to my arm."
Jane is my personal walking transgression diary. She takes great delight in pointing out what to her are my obvious flaws. I don't mind. She still has a small scar on her left arm from the tongue depressor.
"You're playing bait-and-switch with us hoping we'll bite", said my father, "No human being with the slightest conscience wants anybody to suffer. My God-given purpose in this life is to ease human suffering. If you're sitting there telling me that I have built this house, this family and this life by making people feel worse, I'll personally boot your carcass out on the street!"
"Dad, I'm not suggesting that at all. And I am totally aware of the fact- and how couldn't I be growing up in this house- that if I were to get any illness in the world, given my personal connections, that this is one to get……"
"But….". My father was waiting for the rest.
"….But, remission is not a cure. You of all people should know that. How much medicine is too much medicine?"
"So, you would rather be in constant, intractable pain for the rest of your life- however long that may be- instead of a few months of baldness and discomfort?
"As I see it, I have two options. Either I fight, knowing I'll live the rest of my life seeing recurrences around every corner, reducing me to fear of everything, or I accept the fact that as a mortal man, something must kill you and my time is short. I have things to do, Dad. For the first time in a long time, I know now what my priorities are. Torturing myself with chemo is not on the list, and it never will be."
"John", he was getting impatient, "cancer is not a passive illness. A vicious disease requires a treatment with an equally bad disposition. I'm saying what I now say not as your father, but as your doctor. Don't throw your life away because you don't like the manner in which you prolong it."
The room fell silent with a momentary eternity that often appears when the subject matter suddenly turns awkward. Henry couldn't stand it.
"When you die, can I have your piano?"
I began to laugh uncontrollably with Henry following suit close behind. Dad and Jane were livid. My mother began to laugh with tears in her eyes. I reached for her hand.
"Mom, if you like, I can move back here. I suddenly don't need smog as much as I used to."
"I'd like that", she said, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"You are so goddamned selfish", Jane erupted, "Not only are you going to die needlessly, but you're going to move around the block and shove it up your parents' noses."
"Jane, I've done pretty well for myself blocking you out. After hearing that, I don't think I'll be changing that."
"Same old John. Why don't you just look Dad in the face and tell him 'Dad, I have no respect for you or your profession'".
"Jane, stop it!" Mom said, still unaccustomed after all these years to Jane's temper.
"And YOU", Jane continued, turning her attention toward Henry, "If you want to play piano so much, you can pack your bags and move in with him."
Poor Henry. This wasn't the first time she had threatened to throw him out of the house. These threats came whenever he contradicted Jane.
It has been 15 months since I broke the news to my family. I now live ten miles away from my mom. I still talk to Henry. He calls me. Jane won't speak to me. She hasn't since Dad died. Four months after I told him I wasn't going to be treated, he had a sudden and massive heart attack while accepting yet another award for his work. All his colleagues at the funeral had no idea I had cancer. In one afternoon, I told approximately 60 oncologists that cancer would take my life someday without being treated or fought. Some old well-known actress delivered a eulogy thanking him belatedly for giving her her life back. Doctors, nurses and patients all got up to speak.
To this day, Jane blames me for his death. Henry tells me that his heart was broken by my stubbornness. Jane's words, not his. The day my father was put in the ground, Jane came up to me and told me the next funeral in the family she would be attending would be my mother's, and no one else's. I read her loud and clear. I pity her patients. When I pray at night, I thank God for not making Jane an urologist.
Mom and I are very close, as always. The only regret I have about my illness is I can't be more of a help to her now when she needs a man about the house. Dad was smart enough to marry someone who was very good with the family money, so bills are paid and debts are non-existent.
My last album was released a month ago. I asked my record label and my publicist not to make my condition public. A statement was released saying I was not touring in support of the album, and no one is beating the door down to find out why. I guess this is what they define as having a "cult" following.
I've been looking a lot at trees lately. Being from the East, I always marveled at the wackiness of Southern California when I lived there. After having lived there and now having moved back, I came to realize why the people in LA are so nuts. There are no trees to filter the sunlight. The sun burns into their eyes and psyche with such unchecked force that things such as celebrity and suntans become important. From my bedroom window I can see the sunshine dancing in small yellow spots on the green leaves. Nobody ever bothered to tell me about sights like this. I feel blessed with piano players' hands, and yet my eyes had been looking at lines and staffs for so long my vision had become burned with black parallel lines.
For the pain, I take about ten or fifteen really good pills that an old drummer friend of mine supplies. If self-medication is what you need, what better occupation than musician? I could build a skyscraper if every offer of drugs to me in my life was a brick. As the pain has increased over the last seven or eight months, I have been calling in old favors to get pain medication from various sources. My mother marvels at how I am some days, with so much energy and strength. She never sees me the following day, in bed, alone, drinking Ensure to keep up my strength.
I have more gray hair than I used to, but it's all there. Maybe Jane was right. Is it mere vanity that causes me to travel the quick road?
I am having fun planning my own funeral, though. What a wonderful opportunity! I've planned the music, picked the church and selected a minister. To the best of my knowledge, no old, well-known actresses will be eulogizing me. I don't know any and never prolonged the life of one. I'm going to be cremated and my ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean a few miles out from Big Sur. I went there for a weekend once and fell in love with it. I figure my ashes will be my own little contribution to saving marine life. I never could stand those environmental canvassers. And through all of this, my music continues. Henry is getting my piano, but I'm not done with it just yet. I have my piano facing my back yard, so I can play while I watch the birds. I play my musical impressions of their flight. Everyone I've ever discussed music with complained about the noisy quality of contemporary music. I always told them that this is the natural order of musical evolution. As we get older, we think about the next step, usually thoughts of a spiritual turn. I think heaven is a loud place. Billions of voices sing out at the same time in perfect order. I remember being afraid of thunder when I was a child. My father sensed this. He just touched my face and said, "Relax, John. It's just choir practice". I've been a musician ever since.
Peace to the world tonight. Wish us luck selecting a leader. Not many Americans can read, let alone choose the right person to run things.