by Ryan Callery, SOM ’11
Honorable Mention 2009 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award
You remembered passing by Joe in the urology clinic while moving between exam rooms. He was in his early 20’s. Perhaps it was his avoidant eye contact, but you sensed preoccupations that lead you to believe he may be dealing with something serious on that day. It was his age, the type of clinic he was visiting, and, most importantly, your own personal history that made you suspect what the patient list on the bulletin board confirmed to be true: left, solid testicular mass of one months duration.
As you read the information on the list you felt a chill and for a moment you could actually see the names of British cities flickering on the scheduling board in King’s Cross station that day seven years ago. You remembered yourself back then, sitting on that bench, looking down at the white tiles, isolated from the hundreds of people hustling through the station, trying to make their trains, struggling with the thought that you probably wouldn’t die. Then you’d tell yourself, as if to convince yourself, that you almost certainly would not die, and you’d get frustrated with yourself every time the thought that you could potentially die would pop into your head. You’d get frustrated every time you thought that the pea-sized lump you found on your left testicle a few weeks back could be anything more than a cyst or some other kind of benign abnormality. You were only 20 years old after all; you were too young to have cancer. And then you remembered why you were at King’s Cross to begin with. That was the day Selena came to surprise you for your birthday. You remembered how she set up the surprise. She told you her friend was coming to look at the University College London and she was hoping you could give her a tour of the school since you’d been there studying chemistry for the whole semester. You agreed, but as it happened that was the day you had your appointment with the urologist for the lump that had been driving you crazy for a month, and you remembered wishing that this tour you had to give would happen on some other day, some day when you were happy again, some day after all this frustration over the lump had gone away. It was then that you looked over to the escalators across the station and saw her standing there. But it was Selena, and not her friend, who came all the way from New York to surprise you. She was at the top of the escalators, smiling, in that knee-length, tan leather jacket that you still remember so well, and for a moment all the anxiety was lifted and you would have done anything to be healthy with her for the weekend. Then you kissed her. It was the saddest and happiest kiss of your life. Sad, because you did not want to tell her the things you knew you had to tell her, and happy, because there was nobody else you wanted to be with more at that moment. The two of you went to the urology clinic together that day. It ended up being cancer, but somehow you knew it would be, no matter what you had been telling yourself, deep down, you knew.
In the clinic you heard the urologist say to you “Let’s go see the next patient. He’s a young man that looks like he has a testicular cancer.” You followed him down the hall, and watched him knock quickly on the door before entering the room. The patient was sitting on the exam table in a Johnny. You introduced yourself. He told you to call him Joe. He said he first felt the lump about a month ago. It had been bothering him ever since. It had taken him about three weeks to call his primary care doctor because he was hoping it would go away on its own. But it hadn’t and the more time that passed the more the anxiety had built until he finally reached the point where the lump dominated his thoughts and he needed to have it checked out.
As you listened to Joe talk you could almost hear the beads of water dropping off you, hitting the shower floor, that day you had first felt it. The bathroom was dark because the bulb had burnt out so you were able to feel but unable to see what was growing down there. And from there it was days spent trying to ignore the problem. Constantly telling yourself that it was nothing. Going to class, going out at night, trying to enjoy London. Pushing away the general sense of wrongness for as long as you could. Checking to see if it was still there every time you went to the bathroom. Sometimes leaving class to do so, hoping that this time would be the time that it finally went away. But it was always still there, every time you checked, it was there.
The urologist told Joe to stand up, and the two of you performed the exam. This is when you felt the lump yourself. It was there, and it was real. You could remember being in the office yourself seven years ago getting examined by that British urologist. You could see he was concerned after he palpated your left testicle. You said to him, “Is it serious?” And he said it could be, so you joked and with a nervous laugh said, “So what? Am I going to die?” expecting him to say no, but your heart fell into your stomach when, instead, he said, “There’s a small chance.” It was then that the sudden swell of helplessness came over you. Chunks of your past started swimming around in your head. Pictures of your first communion and your graduation from high school. Your parents kissing you good-bye at the airport before you went off to London. Seeing Selena smiling at the top of the escalators at King’s Cross, and then thinking that you had to go out to the waiting room and tell her that your worst fears had been confirmed.
And for a moment you were transported back seven years. It was no longer you in a hospital in Worcester, examining a man named Joe, but it was you in that urology clinic in London. You’re the doctor now. And after you finish examining the patient you tell him to sit down, and when you look at him you realize you’re looking at yourself. He’s a little younger, and a little thinner, but he’s got the same blue eyes and the same scruffy hair. And you can see how scared he is. But you’re his doctor now, you’re seven years older and you’ve dealt with this kind of thing before. You get to tell him that it’s all going to be ok. You get to address all the concerns he had that day way back when, because you know what happened, you’ve got all the answers. So you tell him about the girl in the waiting room and how she’s going to book a flight home for him while he packs up his London flat. She’ll be with him on the plane, and will be there when he wakes up from all the surgeries that he’s going to have to go through. She’s not going to leave him. Then you tell him he’s going to take some time off from college but will come back strong, he’ll even get to finish up his college basketball career. He’s going to graduate and eventually go on to medical school. Five years later he’ll be cured of his disease. His parents aren’t going to have to bury him. Then he looks at you and his face changes. His blue eyes light up and a big grin comes over his face. He says to you,
“So all this worrying is for nothing.”
And you reply, “Yes, and you don’t have to live in fear for the next two years, because if you do it’ll stay with you, and, trust me, you don’t want to carry that around with you.”
Then it flashes back seven years and it’s you in a clinic, examining a man named Joe, who has got that same lost look in his eyes that you had seven years ago. And you want to tell him that it’s all going to be ok. That he doesn’t have live in fear. Just as you wish you could have told yourself seven years ago. To save you both the worry and the scars it can sometimes leave. But you can’t tell him this. His story is not your story. It has yet to be written. All you can say is “Seven years ago I was sitting where you are right now, listening to a doctor tell me that I may have cancer. But I’m still here…stay hopeful.”