It was 6:30 in the morning. Soon a nurse would take my vitals and an orderly would wheel me down the dim hallway to where a guy I’d met only the day before stood ready to cut my belly open like a ripe casaba.
Anxiety coursed through me like a shot of espresso. So I shut my eyes and willed myself into the Wayback, looking for perspective, a place where I could scope out this awful thing that was hurtling my way in slow motion: cancer surgery.
I emerged in 1958, a skinny eight-year-old lying on a bed in the children’s ward of the same hospital in which I’d been born. I'd had a summer full of ear aches. My parents had been convinced their eldest son could be cured of his affliction with a little surgical intervention.
I was about to have a tonsillectomy.
The attending physician was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist we’ll call “Doctor X.” It was at his hands that I formed my first impressions of hospitals, surgeons and surgery.
Doctor X' was a scary monster. His red-rimmed eyeballs bulged from their sockets for lack of flesh beneath them. His nose was little more than a double slit in the middle of his shiny face. The flesh around his mouth had been pulled taut around his jaw so that a smile was as good as a sneer. His breath came in dank gasps that you could hear from across the room.
Doctor X was said to have been disfigured by somehow having stayed too long under an x-ray machine. Whatever caused his disfigurement, it had done a thorough and thoroughly frightening job of it.
Before they wheeled me down to the operating room, Doctor X came round to assure me and my anxious parents that there was nothing to be afraid of. I would be fine. And when it was all over, I could have all the ice cream I wanted. He’d make sure of it. And better yet, my ear aches would be gone.
The last thing I remember after that was counting down from 10 to one. I got as far as ten.
Doctor X’s was the first face I saw at the foot of my bed upon emerging from the fog of anesthesia. I didn’t scream at the sight of him. I couldn’t. My throat was too raw for screaming. For breathing.
The worried faces of my parents hove into view. They leaned over me, trying to console me with calming words. My dad rubbed my head and smiled. Doctor X assured them I’d been quite the brave little guy, that the operation had gone well and that . . .
The words burned my aching throat, and scorched my parents' faces; they looked like someone had just slapped them, hard. Such language was unheard of in our house. I’d been raised to speak well of my elders. If I spoke to them at all, I would address them as “Sir” or Ma’am.” Never, ever was I to swear. To anybody. For any reason.
Truth was, “goddamn” was the only swear word I knew. This was the first time I’d ever uttered it aloud, and I didn’t give a flying . . .goddamn . . . who heard me say it. All I knew was I'd been thrust into a blazing new world of pain and I knew who had put me there, despite his measly promises.
Lying there, tears of rage streaming down my cheeks, I had no fear of the consequences I could expect when I got home: a lecture from my father, followed by a painless-but-humiliating whack on the rump to drive the lecture home.
It never happened. My parents took me home later that day, where I was treated to all the vanilla ice cream I could choke down. Just as Doctor X had promised. My father never spoke to me about my outburst, and I never asked why.
The ear aches returned within a month.
Lying in another hospital bed half a century later, I knew I’d be a better patient than I'd been as a kid. I’d joke with the nurses and act as if having my gut sliced open and a chunk of my insides removed were no big deal. I would be cooperative, accommodating, understanding, even to the doctor, whose young face was unscarred by life and who wasted not a second of his time promising me anything, including my survival.
The prospect of pain didn't worry me. How I would handle it did. I knew I could put up a manly show going into surgery. But the real question, I realized, was could I be a man after the anesthesia wore off?
My doubts were compounded by another memory of surgery: in 1964, at the age of 39, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
I was 14 at the time, the oldest son of a large family and therefore, the designated “man” of the house when the real man of the house was suddenly on his way to the Mayo Clinic. It was decided that rather than stay home and torture my siblings, I would accompany my mother and do . . . what? I didn’t know. It was the dead of winter and I felt as cold inside as the icicles that hung from every gutter on the day of our arrival in snow-packed Rochester, Minn.
I stood at my dad’s bed side after the surgery, much as he had stood next to mine following my tonsilectomy.
He emerged from the anesthesia slowly. His face was twisted in pain. He rolled his head slowly from side to side on the pillow. And his words were choice, especially to the Tonsillectomy Kid:
“Man oh Manischevitz. . . Maaaaan oh Maaaniscevitz.”
No goddam doctors. No anger. Instead of curses, the words of a popular radio slogan, a tagline for a cheap kosher wine of the day.
Unlike his son, my dad had heard a few curse words in his day, but he never used them. It was a matter of character to him, and you could hear how deeply he’d made it a part of his being that day in the recovery room.
“Man oh Manischevitz. . . Maaaaan oh Maaaniscevitz.”
We weren’t even Jewish.
After a good five minutes of listening to him, I began to feel a weird and unexpected urge well up inside me.
A giggle escaped my lips like it needed air.
I tried to swallow it but it was too late. The more I tried to squelch the urge, the louder the giggle got. It finally geysered up within me until I exploded in open laughter.
I was as shocked by my behavior as my mother was. But I had no control. The laughter poured out of me until I was left gasping for breath and clutching the bed’s guardrail for support.
I can look back now and see my laughter was all tied up in knowing my anxiety-soaked waiting was finally over and now my dad was cured of cancer and we could go home and we could forget this frigid, miserable day like it never happened and everything that led up to it and we could go back to having a family life free from cancer and surgery and I could finally get back to being 14 again and not some stand-in for my father but his son, the one who needed him, and not the other way around.
It took me decades to realize what I didn’t – couldn’t -- know then: that I was laughing in utter relief that my dad was alive.
If he remembered any of it – the pain, the chanting, my outburst – my dad never talked about it to me. And I never reminded him of it during the nine years that remained to him. We learned a lot about each other in those years, knowledge gained sometimes painfully, sometimes joyfully. Especially near the end, we saw each other change in ways neither of us expected.
For a moment, as they prepped me for my own cancer surgery, I remembered him as he'd been in '58. I felt a pang and wished my dad could have been standing by my bedside again, to smile and counsel me before surgery, to rub my head and assure me afterward. And maybe to let me know that however I met what was coming my way, I would do right. I would be right.
Maybe even goddamn right.