Updated: Apr 7, 2022
We are all earthworms,
digging our wrinkles.
We live beneath the ground
and if Christ should come in the form of a plow
and dig a furrow and push us up into the day
we earthworms would be blinded by the sudden light
and writhe in our distress.
As I write this sentence I too writhe.
— Anne Sexton
Whether it be employed as an elaborate allegory or a bare-bones metaphor, the emergence-into-the-light-from-the-tight-walls-of-a-cave trope certainly has staying power.
Plato uses it in The Republic to describe the movement from mere belief to knowledge of the way the world is, from misunderstanding to enlightenment.
As part of a character’s drug-fuelled spiel in his novel A Shock, Irish writer Keith Ridgway compares the sudden attainment of happiness to the experience of tunnelling spelunkers who come upon a “huge empty beautiful space, and they burst on to this suddenly, with a beautiful shock.”
To me, stepping into the light works equally well as a description of what it feels like to convalesce after a serious illness — to regain agency over one’s life after groping blindly for months through the labyrinthine chambers, secret caverns and hidden trapdoors of a deadly disease and an overburdened Canadian medical establishment crippled by COVID.
Immensely grateful to be feeling better and saner than I could have imagined a month ago — revved up like a Deuce, another runner in the night— as I write this sentence I too writhe.
Have I beaten cancer or am I merely following the enchanting music toward the portals in the distance before Orpheus does a quick shoulder check and sends me crashing back into the Underworld?
Am I being drop-kicked by Jesus through the goalposts of life or will Lucy yank the football at the last moment again?
Milton’s description of the fallen Satan’s predicament in Paradise Lost encapsulates the last year of my life and will be familiar to anyone who has ever endured a life-threatening disease:
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
Now that’s an oubliette.
My acquaintance with the deep began in November of 2020, when I learned via a blood test that my Prostate-Specific Antigen level was in the 40s. At that point, an aggressive prostate cancer is advanced and poised to metastasize — if it hasn't already. Though I felt perfectly well, an emergency MRI showed that a significant tumour was breaking through the prostate wall.
Disconcertingly quickly, I lost 30 pounds I could ill afford to lose and started to look, oh, let’s round it off at 30 years older. Crow’s feet deepened and spidery webs of wrinkles and lunar rills spread across my cheeks, which imploded as if I were perpetually vaping meth. The skin of my chest, biceps, back, thighs and even my ass began to sag. Opportunistic moles and itchy skin lesions spread across my whole body. Mushrooms sprouted in my navel.
My life quickly devolved into a whirlwind of bone and CAT scans, sitz baths, MRIs, sitz baths, heavy-duty antibiotics, sitz baths, blood tests, blood tests and more blood tests, sitz baths, biopsies, sitz baths, biopsies, sitz baths, stool samples, stool samples, stool samples (honestly, I’ve lost count) and testosterone-killing hormone treatments (my voice now registers somewhere between an agitated Joe Pesci and Sharon Carstairs on helium).
If you remember Sharon Carstairs’s feisty vocal range, by the way, chances are you also watch The Weather Channel and take snapshots (that you’re not even in, for crying out loud). No need for despair. You’ve found a spiritual home in this interweblog. Set a spell. Take your shoes off.
After six weeks of daily hospital nukings that texturized while they moisturized (no, wait; that was my unfortunate experience with Alberto VO5 in 1973), the radiation therapy portion of the sixth circle of the Inferno is on hold for now. It all depends on how the tumour responds and whether the cancer has spread to the bones or elsewhere.
(Judging by the way this essay is going, it might already have seeped into my brain.)
Key markers such as hemoglobin and the red and white blood cell counts are low and continue to go south, so that’s a tad worrisome. My PSA level was hovering just above zero after the radiation sessions wound up last fall, but has doubled since then.
Though still careworn, faded and as much in need of a thorough ironing as a sports desker's loose shirttail at deadline, I've regained about 10 pounds and some of the old caffeine-fuelled stamina that got me through 40 years of botching newspaper copy and mangling headlines.
Food tastes like food again. I can climb hills and small mountains, albeit with a walking stick and in ridiculously slow motion. I no longer dread social interactions.
Even more heartening: By staying up five straight nights a month or so ago, I finally managed to wean myself off the sedatives/antidepressants prescribed by a cancer agency psychiatrist since last summer. The pills would knock me out for an hour or two each night, but their effects lingered throughout the day and turned me into a knight of the living dead.
I couldn’t read because I’d get a headache. Didn’t listen to music because it gave me no pleasure. Wouldn’t stay interested in TV shows or movies long enough to take my mind off my mind. Couldn’t empathize or even converse because I couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t concern my self-absorbed descent into hell.
At my worst, I kept hearing Suzanne Somers in the distance, flexing her Thighmaster — squeak, squeak, squeak — and kvetching about how my cocky intransigence as her manager cost her the sweet gig on Three's Company.
(OK, I made the last part up. But whenever I feel really sorry for myself, I think of Al Hamel and a half-century of listening to that buzzsaw. As if those Howard the Turtle groaners he had to endure on Razzle Dazzle weren't punishment enough. Should have glommed onto Trudy Young, I always thought.)
Now where was I? Oh yes.
How Rekha, my long-suffering wife, put up with me I’ll never know. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say while struggling through our neighbourhood walks. Stopped evincing more than perfunctory solicitude or uttering the occasional grunt when she’d update me on how the kids or the grandchildren were doing. I was a void, a cipher, a trough.
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep.
I'm indebted to the shrink for getting me off zopiclone (aka Imovane), on which I became dependent last spring when desperately seeking sleep in the face of rancid nocturia that had me up urinating every 10 to 15 minutes, all night long. But I finally worked up enough fortitude to boycott her well-meaning drug substitutions and am relearning how to fall asleep again without pharmaceutical intervention and the full Nurse Ratched Experience.
Scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Sounds simple enough, but you can lose the ability to nod off when zopiclone rewires your brain — no matter how tired you are. And I was very, very, very sleep-deprived — with gusts to anemia, oblivion and stupefaction. The bleak wagon ruts under my eyes will likely never be erased.
Sharp pains emanating from my enervated back and arthritic knees, coupled with peripheral neuropathy in my feet and fingers, still make it a challenge to relax. Throw in worsening sleep apnea, and the slumberland safe becomes even harder to crack. I finally gave in and spent two thousand dollars in February on a CPAP machine. It's cumbersome as hell and I can't get my mask to fit properly, but for a week or so I would stick it on for a couple of hours early mornings while battling to breathe.
Gave that up when the facial fart noises from the escaping air became more of a distraction than the sensation of a perpetually full bladder. Bother. But the machine is there if I really need it.
Did I mention my hand tremor? Both hands. My Bip the Clown/Edward Scissorhands adventures with chicken noodle soup became a spectator sport for the transfixed grandsons over Christmas.
In January, after being besieged by horrendous headaches for months, I had my brain examined (paid more than a grand for a private MRI) and they didn't find anything (insert punchline here). Except, that is, for evidence of ischemia that might have caused mini-strokes last summer when I collapsed a few times after getting out of bed to pee again and again and again. Still have irksome memory lacunae, a pared vocabulary and two sprained thumbs to prove it.
I'll spare you the gruesome details on my digestive system (last month's colonoscopy was free), but man, you would not believe the weird noises that a stomach can make at the least opportune times. And not just the stomach.
I've looked at gloves from both sides now.
Oh hell, I won’t spare you. Think eight months of bloody diarrhea, recurring C. difficile ordeals — picked up, presumably, during transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP) surgery and an overnight stay in a crowded hospital room last April — and a persistent E. coli infection any healthy person would shake in a matter of days.
The TURP was supposed to cure the pee problem and has a success rate, I was told, of better than 90 per cent. Naturally, I emerged among the recalcitrant 10 per cent. If anything, the problem got worse.
Two more trips to the hospital for cystoscopies — in which a hollow tube equipped with a lens is inserted into one's urethra and slowly advanced into the bladder (every bit as much fun as it sounds) — produced seven urological doctoral dissertations but no firm conclusions, as it were, as to why I continue to weewee, piddle, spend-a-penny and micturate like a drunken circus elephant on shore leave from the USS Enterprise.
And if that image isn't gross enough for you, consider that just six weeks ago I was begging (and failing) to be admitted to a fecal transplant trial. Talk about eating shit. Half the time I don't know whether I'm coming or going and going and going and going.
Rekha and I go for walks most afternoons; I often run out of gas after 3-5 kilos and she carts me home. I get chills easily in the absence of body fat, so I’m wearing two coats in the photo accompanying this screed that was taken just before I turned into a tree. (It was a way cooler trick when Daphne did it, surely, but I didn’t have the hot breath of Apollo to motivate me.)
This is getting epically classical. Classically gassy. Mythically pretentious.
The point is: Before this all unspooled, my total health regimen involved popping a daily vitamin D. I rode my bike an hour or two a day and was inordinately proud of my calves of steel and a backhand Steve Shutt wouldn't have sniffed at.
We wouldn't be in this mess if I had spent a princely $35 on a PSA test three or four years ago, but my previous GP didn't think they were worthwhile. I figured he was the expert … but knew in my heart that I should have insisted on one. The cancer would have been caught early, the prostate would have been partially or completely removed and that would have been it, save for routine monitoring going forward.
I know there is still a controversy about the value of PSA tests, particularly once men crack the three score and ten mark. There’s no exact way to measure whether the cancers detected would cause symptoms during anyone's lifetime. The potential harms of unnecessary treatment are not bagatelles: incontinence, impotence and a what-remains-of-your-lifetime pass to an emotional rollercoaster, just for starters.
But having finally slain the demonic sedatives and broken the spell cast by the wriggling earthworm shadows on Plato’s wall, I can’t help flattering myself as being a bit like a philosopher staggering out of a cave. And my hardscrabble advice on this one — born of my year of living stupidly and unbounded gratitude for my nascent delivery from evil, however transitory — is sincerely and soberly proffered to any men who will listen (and equally to the women who care for them): For the love of all that is good and holy and worth sticking around for, get tested.
If your PSA level is abnormally high, you can decide at that point what to do about it. Maybe nothing. Consult a doctor. Get a second opinion. But at least take a peek at the sun.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark,” Plato is often quoted as having written, though in truth, I can’t find this in any of his dialogues. “The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Scintillating observation, Platonic or not.
To subvert the conclusion to the Anne Sexton poem with which this all began: “Take off the wall that separates you from God.”
Not by dying but by that other thing.
Step into the light.