Jamaan draws my blood. He’s done it almost monthly for over two years and is good at what he does. Neither of us is big on chitchat. I want little pain. Jamaan wants to be very good at what he does.
Usually, when I see him, it is the beginning of a three-day anxiety crisis for me. I have incurable Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Just when you begin to forget you have it, you have to face it again.
Every sixty days.
The anxiety starts up in me when I enter the airy lobby of the Cancer Center. Strange, because this is where I met the people who saved my life.
But still, the body remembers the chemo and radiation and illness on a visceral level and sends a jolt of fear to your system as soon as you walk in.
Every two months:
Get blood drawn. Make sure they check enzyme marker number nineteen, the one pancreatic cancer emits. Last time mine was down to a wonderful 17 from a high of 476.
“Hey, Jamaan,” I say to the big quiet Black guy who has so often drawn my blood. “How have you been?”
He remembers my name, pulls my standing orders from the accordion file on the rear desk.
“Take chair number two, Mister Humphries,” he said. “Good to see you.”
I stepped into the next room and sat in the vinyl-upholstered high chair, pulling the padded armrest down in front of me.
“It’s been a few months over two years, now,” I said. “The magic number they say. With this stuff I have.”
“You’re looking good.”
“My friend,” I was nervous and talking too much. He wrapped the tubing around my arm to pump the vein up. “My friend who drove me here, she just said that only the good die young, so I should be good for a hundred years.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said.
True. I’m at least twice this guy’s age. Young? Who am I fooling?
He was watching the vial fill with my blood. I never look. “I’ve known a lot of guys who weren’t what you’d think of as good and they died real young. Hold this cotton ball for a sec, okay?”
He had drained a small vial of blood from me painlessly. A pro. There’s a difference.
“There,” he said as he applied a strip of tape to hold the cotton ball against my tiny puncture wound, “just hold it there awhile.”
“Over where I live, there’s a ton of people dying real young lately.”
I can tell where he means. Richmond.
The part of the Bay Area he calls home has one of the highest violent crime rates in the state, the sixth highest in the whole country. Next door at Oakland, they just laid off eighty cops.
“It’s getting crazy over there, isn’t it?” I live a whole bridge away.
“Man, I saw my best friend killed in front of me when I was sixteen. My best friend. Shot dead.”
“It’s like this last shooting.” I read about it in the paper. “A teenage girl for God’s sake, at a memorial gathering.”
“Man,” he said. He’s a big guy with close- cropped hair and big eyes and a quiet way of speaking. “Man, it’s like two worlds and they don’t even know about each other.”
“Probably see that around here all the time,” I said. The Cancer Center attracts patients from around the country, most White and with money; the clerks, receptionists, nurses, and the phlebotomists not so.
“You almost want to say something sometimes. But of course, I wouldn’t.”
“But, even so, when I hear people complain abut getting old, Man, I just want to say thank your lucky stars and Jesus.”
There are huge obstacles to growing old in his ‘hood for a young person.
“I’m twenty-six and you would think I am out of the ‘kill zone’, but my best friend just got killed. His son is one year old.”
“Poor kid,” I said.
What do you say?
“We weren’t ever really friends, actually. Then we did some time together and, you know, you get to know each other. So we did time together and ended up calling each other ‘Cuz’. He was okay.”
We were alone in the clinic. The waiting room was empty.
“And now he’s dead.”
His eyes were wet.
“I’m sorry for your friend, Man,” I say.
“I hear people complain about the weather. Man. And I just want to say ‘Roll On’. Every day just ‘Roll On.”
I was looking up at him and listening.
“I remember being put in the hole when I was locked up. No clean clothes, no soap, no toothpaste, no nothing for a week. Now, man, it could rain for a year and I wouldn’t care.”
I move to pull my sleeve down.
“Oh, not yet,” he said. “There’s one other order. For your enzyme marker”
Jamaan draws it fast and painlessly.
“See you in two months,” I say.
“Remember,” he says as I leave, “just roll on.”
Next business day I get the CT scan. It can be a spooky experience when you are slid into the machine on a tray and the whirring begins.
“Breathe,” the recorded male voice says. “Hold your breath.”
“Breathe.” Five seconds later.
You do that a few times as the dye enters the IV in your arm. Your body grows warm from within from the chemicals.
My IV nurse this time was great. She glided the needle in my left arm at first try.
“How have you been, Mister Humphries?’ she asks.
“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.” I feel awkward because I like to be polite to these good people.
“Oh, I wouldn’t expect you to. The last time I saw you I was a Nurse in the O.R. when you had your surgery.”
“Long time ago,” I say. It was nearly three years ago. They opened me up; saw there was nothing they could do. Sewed me back up.
“That was a tough one.” She’s short, prim, about my age. “They looked at your tumor from every angle, though. They really tried.” She taps the IV port she’s installed in my arm. “That okay?”
“Fine,” I say. “Not loose at all. Thanks so much.”
. . .
The unwelcome memory of that past surgery came explicitly back. They had split me in half, straight down the middle. I was in the hospital recovery room, in horrible pain when I came to. A young gangbanger was on the gurney next to me, half of his genitals had been shot away.
“Listen,” a balding doctor was saying in no uncertain terms to the angry man, “don’t try to tell me who I can treat in my emergency room. If he’s the guy who shot you,” the doctor nodded at a gurney against the far wall, “the cops will deal with it. My job is to treat everybody who comes in here. Don’t try to tell me who to treat.”
The doctor walked away. His blue scrubs were splattered with red. The fellow on the far stretcher moaned beneath a turban of bandages covering his head and upper face as the guy next to me shouted curses at him, promising revenge. Dried blood smears nearly covered the floor.
Being alive or dead seemed a small thing to my roommates. I silently asked God to save my life.
The third day I see my Oncologist. She will explain what my CT shows. Tell me it is okay and to come back in two months.
I have beaten all odds with the kind of cancer inside me. I have lived beyond all expectations.
My son Ryan is with me in the examination room. It helps me to have him there and I tell him so and he always says to forget it, Dad.
“There are a few things in your scan that concern me,” my Oncologist says.
We wait to hear what they are.
“The mass on your pancreas has grown a bit and the shadow on your liver is of concern.”
This is not good news. Not at all.
“What’s my enzyme marker at?”
“Well,” she sighs. “It’s at nine thousand.”
“It’s only a number,” she says. “It means we have too many cancer cells running around unchecked.”
“What, uh, can be done?” I ask.
“I want to put you back on the same chemo regimen we did before.”
“What if it doesn’t work?” I ask.
“Then,” she smiles at me. Ryan’s hand grips my shoulder. “We’ll try something else.”
“When, uh, would we have to start the chemo?”
I hate chemotherapy. It is horrible.
“Well,” she says, “we could wait for a bit if you want.”
“Yes,” I’m thinking it is summer and I feel well and want to hike, swim, play. “Let’s put it off a bit.”
“Okay. Next week, then” she smiles. “Let’s get on top of this.”
We exchange goodbyes and the nurse comes in and is kind and will arrange my chemo and call in my pharmacy orders and gives me a hug and cares about all of it and me and my son.
I become slightly less stunned on the cab ride home.
“Hey, Dad,” Ryan asks, “What would she have done if you didn’t want to put it off. What then? Would she have just started injecting chemo into you? “
“Sent me straight upstairs, Ryan. Boom.”
“Jesus,” we start laughing. “Thank God we asked for some time.”
“How about lunch, Dad? On me?”
“Yeah,” I needed to shake the specter off. “That sounds great.”
“Hey, driver?” Ry asks. “29th and Sanchez, okay?”
“Sure,” the driver says as we crest a hill. The morning fogs have lifted, exposing a pastel-bright July day across the city. The long morning shadows were shrinking.
“Roll on,” I say to myself. “Just roll on.”
Causes richard humphries Supports
The Marine Mammal Center, California Prison Focus.