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This is how we handle pain: A father, a son, a boy with cancer and one hospital room

"Dad has fibrillated excessively, my arm is leaking like a pus-faucet, and the boy here lost all his hair"


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Ken Pisani
May 22, 2016 1:30AM (UTC)

Apparently the way an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator works is that it’s programmed to detect cardiac arrhythmia (specifically, the irregular heartbeat that can lead to cardiac arrest) and correct it with a jolt of electricity. I have my own discomforting sensations—numbness, tingling, itchiness, phantom pain—but won’t even hazard a guess as to what it must feel like to experience a sudden and unexpected jolt of eight hundred volts directly into one’s heart, like Dad has.

“How the hell do they not have ESPN on the hospital TV?”

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Dad jolts the TV, repeatedly, as if trying to bring it to life via remote control. Admitted for observation but, we’re assured, with no cause for alarm, Dad has taken the place of my expired former roommate; and so father, with his recently defibrillated heart, joins son, without his recently amputated left arm, our suffering shared like genes.

“No idea what goddamn time it is. How come the cable box doesn’t have a clock?”

If casinos don’t have clocks so you can lose yourself in the mind-altering trippiness of gambling, hospitals rightfully exclude them for the opposite reason, against the numbing stasis that would only be heightened by the inert hands of a clock. (Other places you might not want a clock: middle school, prison, a loveless marriage.)

“And the food. You ate this for a week already?”

If I don’t get out of this bed I am going to die. Unfettered from my most recent dose of antibiotics I’m free to roam. Feet find slippers and I make my way to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“For a walk. Don’t want to get blood clots. Or bedsores. Or more suicidal.”

“I’ll go with you,” Dad says, without personal neediness but what sounds like genuine concern for me, and my resistance wilts.

We teeter down the hallway, with its antiseptic smell, hushed din of consultation, blank faces and the occasional slow-moving patient teetering toward us, a nod shared among the fraternity of the walking sick. Each room we pass, left to right, is a frozen tableau of illness: bedridden figure, sometimes accompanied by silent vigil-keepers; a multipanel comic strip without punchline.

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“Explosive diarrhea,” I begin to imagine the maladies of patients as we pass their rooms. “Badger attack…Barstool racing accident…”

“Stuck himself with the pins from a new shirt,” Dad joins in.

“Fell trying to hang his Christmas lights.”

“Serves him right, it’s too damn early.”

“Frostbite, from too long in a vodka freezer.”

“Heatstroke from a sunlamp.”

“A ‘sunlamp?!’ What is it, 1950? Tanning bed!”

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“Fine!” Dad growls.

“This guy burned his tongue testing a battery…”

Rounding the corner we come face-to-face with a small boy, about eleven, plugged into his rolling IV and standing with his back pressed against the wall as if holding it up—impossible, considering his weakened appearance: wilted frame, sallow skin, hair lost to chemo. He stares at my empty sleeve.

“What happened to your arm?” he asks, wide-eyed.

“Alligator attack.”

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“Really?”

“We caught him. He’s in my dad’s bathtub. We’re just waiting for him to pass the arm, and then we’ll let him go.”

He laughs. “You can’t get your arm back after it’s alligator doody!”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I turn to Dad. “What’s plan B?”

Dad shrugs, unable to keep up with this new subterfuge, probably mentally spent from our rousing game of Affix the Affliction.

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“I’m here because my defibrillator went off,” he offers instead.

“What’s that?”

“It’s for when you fibrillate too much,” I reply. “Are you walking? Do you want to walk with us?”

He stares at the floor. “I came all the way from there,” he points toward the pediatric cancer ward across the other side of the elevator bank. “But then I remembered, I’m not wearing any underwear.” He hugs the wall closer.

I reach behind me and pull off my underwear, stuffing it into the front pocket of my hospital gown. Dad leans on me for support and does the same.

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“Let’s moon some nurses,” Dad says.

Cancer Boy grins and joins us, wheeling his IV, three generations of stark white asses shining behind us. We pass a series of rooms: “This guy suffered a serious wombat attack…This one? Ran with the scissors…Caught in a gamma ray blast…”

“That’s the Hulk!” Cancer Boy laughs.

“Necktie caught in office shredder.”

“Hippo bite.”

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“Bee sting!” Cancer Boy shouts.

“But the weird thing?” I suggest, “It wasn’t the insect, but the letter B.”

“Bad dim sum,” Dad declares of the next patient.

“Blown up by leaf blower.”

“She got a wiener dog stuck in her hoo-hah!” Cancer Boy shouts gleefully, and as all heads in the hallway turn toward us I realize, there’s no topping that.

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*

Back in our hospital room Cancer Boy proves a quick study as degenerate gambler. When he hits on nineteen and pulls a deuce I have to think he’s counting cards. He’s also broken the house bank of all its M&Ms.

“That’s it, kid,” I fold. “No bank, no blackjack.”

He scoops up his winnings greedily. Dad still has four M&Ms and presses a red one between his lips, crushing it in tiny nibbles between his front teeth. Cancer Boy nudges three of his my way.

“What’s this for?”

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“Tip,” he shrugs.

“I told you: the kid’s a ringer,” Dad lies back on his bed.

“We’re going to check all the hospital security cameras, and if we catch you cheating, you’re banned. I’ll put your picture up all over the hospital, and you won’t be able to get a game of pinochle in the geriatric unit.”

“What’s that?”

“Never mind!” I pop a single M&M. “Why are you in the hospital anyway? Wait, don’t tell me: you’re a big game hunter, and you were hurt trying to shoot Monopoly.”

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“I have cancer!” he says, incredulous.

“No!”

“Yes! Why do you think I’m bald?!”

“I thought maybe you had a hair-spray accident while smoking.”

“I’m too little to smoke!” he laughs.

“Don’t sell yourself short, you’re not too little for anything. But don’t smoke. It gives you cancer!” I chew my second M&M.

“Still no goddamn SportsCenter,” Dad mumbles, flipping channels.

“I already have cancer, you big dummy!” he laughs harder.

“Well I told you to give up smoking, but do you listen to me? No. Never, not once, in all the time we’ve known each other.”

“You’re stupid!” he howls. “You just met me!”

“And yet, I feel I hardly know you.”

He turns to Dad: “He’s stupid!”

“Dumb as a bag of doorknobs,” he agrees. “But he grows on you.”

“Now, we’ve all been through a lot: Dad has fibrillated excessively, my arm is leaking like a pus-faucet, and the boy here lost all his hair in a terrible hair spray fire.”

“Did not!” he’s still laughing.

“But we’ve bared our derrieres, and there’s no stronger bond among men,” I swallow the third and final M&M whole.

“What’s a derriere?”

“Our butts!” I shout, just as the boy’s mother walks into the room.

“The nurse told me you were down here,” she says, exhaling perhaps for the first time since arriving at his room to find it empty. “What are you doing?”

“Baring our butts!” he howls, doubled over with laughter.

“Also, gambling,” I add, “in case you’re not concerned enough.”

She looks at me, indeed concerned for that instant before her eyes drop to my nubby shoulder and she melts, “I hope he’s not bothering you,” another giant mood swing triggered by a barely perceptible eye-shift.

Introductions are made and then the alligator in the room is acknowledged:

“He was attacked by an alligator!” Cancer Boy brags, “They have it in their bathtub!”

“Surprisingly, one of those things is true.” I try to sneak one of the kid’s M&Ms but he scoops them up.

“I’m saving these for later.” He drops them into the pocket of his gown.

“Don’t hoard! The key to being a good gambler is to enjoy your winnings.”

“I throw up less in the mornings,” he explains, suddenly quiet, and whatever unfairness I’ve carried since the accident leaves me to perch like a parrot on this boy where it belongs.

“It’s good to see him laugh,” his mother says, and she wishes us well before taking him back to the pediatric ward. Dad snaps off his television, and all that’s left is the quiet din of a meaningless universe.

Excerpted from "Amp'd" by Ken Pisani. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC. All rights reserved.


Ken Pisani

Ken Pisani is the author of AMP'D (St. Martin's Press; on-sale May 10). He is also a television writer and producer, screenwriter, playwright, comic book author, former cartoonist, and now, a novelist. (Ken needs to learn how to focus). Ken lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife Amanda, and is allergic to dogs.

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