The last column I wrote on this subject complained about the music the medical team was playing while it tried to radiate my prostate cancer away. My wife – also my best critic – read my article and said it was a nice piece of writing but “a bit arch,” especially if I wanted my readers’ sympathy. I shall not, therefore, write in an arch fashion this week, but simply tell the story and not be judgmental about other people’s tastes in music.
Briefly then, here is where I found myself on Wednesday, March 14 at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Burholme at 10:30 a.m. – the fourth day of treatment, with 30 more to come on a Monday through Friday basis for seven and a half weeks.
On Day One they’d played some piece of raucous pop music I didn’t like. I asked for classical the next day and got Pachelbel’s Canon, a piece of music I like, but not one that fit my image of what it’s like to lie in a dark, eerie room with death-dealing gizmos flying about me. The next day they offered me Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” Again, a tranquilizing piece of music, but not suitable to the weirdness of the experience.
On the third day I handed the team a note card on which I’d written my first choice of musical accompaniment. One of the technicians went back to the control room to set up the song. Meanwhile, I must confess, I was still afraid of my cancer, afraid the radiation treatments might not work and that I might die of cancer, despite everyone’s good wishes for me.
Like a good patient I went over and lay on my back on the table, my belly exposed, with red laser beams crisscrossed over the area where my prostate bed lay. The machines began their astronomical dance about me, finished another half circle and paused. “Treatment starting,” the tech spoke through the speaker.
Okay, I thought, here’s where it really starts: with an attitude. I was about to allow the forces of physics to beam out of the space machine, through the air, through my thin skin, and into my abdomen to kill every cell in its path with lethal photons as they passed through my body. My “normal” cells would recover, I was told. My nasty, colluding, devilish little cancer cells would not survive. They’d try, but at replication they would scramble and choke and die and be gone. I wanted them deader than dead. I wanted them gone before they got me.
So, as the machine began whirring, I looked down to my abdomen and pictured them inside, cryptically planning what part of me they’d eat next. I said (in my own mind): “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” (There being a time and place for everything, of course, I finally got my chance to use this quote from “The Princess Bride.”)
And that is when my first chosen song came over the loudspeaker: Peggy Lee, singing, “Is That All There Is?” Oh what a joy that was to hear. The world may constrain our bodies, and the world may disappoint us, but nothing, nothing ever, can keep us from forming whatever attitude we want. Miss Peggy Lee owns that song. I just bask in the glory of her defiance, “Oh, no, not me I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.” That day, I drove home from radiation feeling happy for the first time.
On the next day I handed over a card asking to hear Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a Wonderful World.” As the giant machinery began floating by me, its unfathomable lights blinking their way through the darkness of the radiation room, I decided to relax and be positive and try to to ignore the life and death revolving about me. I joined Louis in seeing trees of green, and red roses and skies of blue and “the dark sacred night.” I saw the rainbow and people shaking hands. And babies crying. And I love you. And I joined him in singing the words softly to myself, “What a wonderful world.”
My eyes filled up. I felt disappointed when the song ended and the machines stopped and the lights came back on. It was Friday, the end of my first week of cancer radiation therapy. I couldn’t wait to get back to that room and lie on the table again on Monday! I had so many songs I wanted to hear under those indifferent lights. Attitudes to assume. Scenarios, some frightening, some wacky, some just beautiful, all of them meant to enhance my otherwise bland and sterile encounters with the frontiers of physical science, the tickling of mortality.
Next week: Willie Nelson, Giacamo Puccini, Louis Prima, and Procul Harum join me for a spin around the Planetarium of Life and Death.