Welcome

The Audacity of Pope chronicles my experiences undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes a bit of a mix. And it has a happy ending—I’m cancer free since May. If you’re tuning in now, the story begins here (at the bottom of the page).

Thanks for visiting. I hope you enjoy.

-Raphael

Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

What do you say to the man who saved your life? Do you fall to your knees and kiss his hand? Do you write him a letter the length of a novel? Do you say anything at all?

In early June, I had a post-surgery follow-up at the hospital. I’d fantasized that, after treatment, my interactions with my doctors would be dramatic—in some way memorable. But when I was back in the examination room, seated in the same beige chairs as what feels like five years ago, I was once again reminded that things never play out quite as you imagine them. The doctors poked and prodded me a bit. They said I had a clean bill of health, but that I should come back each month for precautionary testing. They commented on the length of my hair. We made small talk. It was uneventful. For the first time in months, nothing to write home about.

On my way out, I paused for a moment and said, “Thank you.” That was it.

*****

I haven’t written much here this past month, in part because I’ve been out a lot, enjoying my newfound mobility. I’ve been watching the World Cup, drinking the occasional beer, going to the movies. I’ve visited some museums, taken in a ballgame at Citi Field, and picnicked in Central Park. I went to Peter Luger for lunch the other day, making good on a date I’d set with my friend David back in February.

Two weeks ago, I put up a post about my experience with a roommate who was told he was dying. That post was more challenging than almost anything I’ve ever written. But this post I’m writing now is the most challenging. And that’s the main reason it’s been so long in the coming.

It’s one thing to thank a doctor for what is, in a sense, doing his job. It’s quite another thing to thank the people who held me up when I didn’t have the strength to stand on my own two feet.

You weren’t there for me because it was your job. You have your own lives, your own trials and tribulations.

You were there because you chose to be there. You certainly weren’t there to be thanked. But you must be thanked, because you were there.

*****

Over the past six months, the tone and focus of this blog has varied. But what hasn’t varied is its subject matter. It’s been a blog of me writing about me.

This post is not about me. It’s about you. You who are reading it, you who wrote, who visited, who called. You who lent me a book or baked me cookies. You who stayed with me in the hospital, who walked with me when I was in pajamas and had no hair. Some of you I don’t even know or have never met. But even if you’re a stranger, you are a part of you.

*****

I didn’t start this blog to elicit pity from the masses or to universally define what it means to be ill. I started it to tell the story of one loud, judgmental, kind of nerdy guy undergoing a very unpleasant experience.

At the time, “The Audacity of Pope” was an easy choice for a title. I was already using “Audacity of Pope” as my account name on Twitter, so it required no further creativity. It was short, clever, easy to remember. And I really did believe that my goal—to write honestly and plainly about being sick—would require a measure of audacity.

In a way, I was right. This blog did take audacity. Sometimes I wrote even though I felt awful; sometimes writing—or what I was writing—made me feel even worse. There was some boldness, some sort of fortitude in there. That was a kind of audacity. And at the beginning, I thought that audacity was itself the Audacity of Pope.

But the real audacity of the Audacity of Pope was not my audacity. It’s not what I’ve been through, what I’ve borne, what I’ve written. It’s you. It’s my parents and aunts and uncles. My grandparents and cousins. My brothers and my sister-in-law and my friends. Professors, old teachers, neighbors. Perfect strangers, friends of friends. Readers.

It was audacity when someone who only knew me well enough to nod hello in the elevator offered a kind word and an open ear. When a man more than twice my age e-mailed—as a grown-up, but also as a peer—to swap horror stories of chemo, that was audacity. When a friend of a friend told me he too had testicular cancer and that I shouldn’t feel so terribly alone out there, that was audacity.

I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable reaching out to people who are sick or mourning. Terrified of saying the wrong thing or convinced it wouldn’t make a difference if I wrote or called, I’ve shied away from doing so. Time and again, I’ve found myself in bitter fights with my mother, who has always insisted that I reach out—no matter how much discomfort I might feel. Sometimes I’ve given in, sometimes I’ve ignored her. Either way, I’ve continued to struggle with the solipsistic desire to keep my head down and avoid the unpleasantness of confronting those things in life that are necessarily unpleasant.

It takes audacity to step up and step outside yourself. If I’ve learned one lesson from this whole ordeal, it’s that. In my life, I haven’t always had the audacity to reach out. But a million times these past few months, you’ve shown me that audacity.

When you pick up the phone to call, or start typing that e-mail, you take a leap. You might be ignored, or brushed off, maybe scorned.

When you share your stories, you take a leap.

When you see someone suffering and you don’t turn away—when you say anything at all or do anything at all—you take a leap.

That’s audacity. That’s intrepid and bold and arrogant—the Merriam-Webster definition of the word. You were all those things.

You were audacious to reach out to me. Audacious to commiserate with me. Audacious to share with me. You provided the audacity for this story, this blog.

But what of my friends and family? They stepped up, but you expect friends and family to step up. Were they audacious?

I don’t know much about watching someone you love get very sick. I haven’t experienced that. I’m lucky. It sounds a lot worse than getting very sick. At least when you’re sick you feel a modicum of control. As far as I can tell, when you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t.

What I do know is that just because something is expected—the love of a parent or the loyalty of a friend—doesn’t mean it comes easily. To do what my friends and family did for me took strength and sacrifice. You spent hours or days or weeks by my bedside, at home and in the hospital. You holed up in a cramped apartment to watch over me. You crawled out of bed in the middle of the night to drive with me to the emergency room. You had a hell of a lot of audacity.

The audacity of strangers. The audacity of acquaintances. The audacity of friends and family.

I called this blog the “Audacity of Pope.”

I should have called it the “Audacity of You.”

*****

From time to time, people have written me to comment (or complain) that I’ve been dealt an unfair hand. I’ve never thought about it that way. Being sick is not fun. It’s not glamorous or heroic. It’s nothing I would wish upon my worst enemies. But it’s also not a question of fairness. It’s just a thing that happens.

So I haven’t dwelt on the fairness or unfairness of my situation. What I’ve often thought about, though, is how remarkably blessed I’ve been.

Since December, I’ve received kindnesses—in both quality and quantity—beyond what I’d previously imagined were possible. You have shared with me your stories of suffering, of personal illness, of loss.  You’ve sent me cookies and books and DVDs and greeting cards and more e-mails than I can count. You’ve watched me vomit, read about me vomiting, cleaned up my vomit.

There would be no Audacity of Pope without you. Sure, I could have written periodic e-mails to friends or family. I could have written a blog to update my family and a few close friends on how I was feeling. Or I could have just scribbled my thoughts in a marble notebook (that would have been a pity, because I can rarely decipher my own handwriting).

But then all I’d have would be a record of what I’ve been through.

The Audacity of Pope is a record of my experiences. But more than that, it’s a record of what you’ve done for me. This blog is bigger than me and my story.  For six months, it made an experience I often thought I could not bear bearable. Not because of what I said, but because it gave me the opportunity to connect with all of you.

I’m not glad I was sick. The old adage says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Maybe that’s true. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not true. I tore my labrum, which didn’t kill me, but which also made me weaker. My shoulder still clicks. As my dad likes to remind me, even if that saying does have some truth, it doesn’t mean you should jump off the Brooklyn Bridge to see if you can survive and become a superhero. There’s no need to seek out suffering. Life has a way of periodically raining it upon you, regardless of what you do.

So I hope for a life with minimal misery. I hated being sick and I hate suffering in general. (If I ever run for office, “I hate suffering in general” would be my campaign slogan. You can’t argue with that one.) But I don’t wish I’d never been sick.

Why? In part because I’m not much for wishful thinking (though I may throw the odd penny into a fountain). But mostly because to wish away these months would be to wish away the time when I discovered you.

And when I say I discovered “you,” I’m don’t just mean you the individual or you the collective group of individuals. I also mean the very idea that there is a you out there. That to be sick or frightened or in pain is not to be alone. That people are capable of repeated, titanic feats of generosity and decency. That “the kindness of strangers” is not just an expression.

You taught me these lessons. You, whom I knew and whom I didn’t.

I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that you exist.

*****

Testicular cancer is not that common; in young men it’s not that uncommon. I worked out (or found on Wikipedia) the odds of having it a while back, but the exact figure doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s one in 5,000. Maybe one in 10,000. Maybe it’s as low as one in 20,000.

But what I’ve been given is something that’s one in a million, perhaps rarer.

I’ve been given you.

Now, for what I’ve been given, I give thanks.

I could have thanked you in a word, or in a post a dozen times as long as this one. Either way I would never do justice to all you’ve done for me. The 26 letters of our alphabet aren’t enough.

But I’d rather fall short in my thank you than say nothing at all.

So this is me thanking you.

Thank you for everything you’ve said or written or thought.

Thank you for everything you’ve done.

Thank you for existing.

This isn’t the end of the Audacity of Pope. It’s the end of a chapter. It is, as they say, the end of the beginning. It’s the end of a story I thought was about me, but which turned out to be more about you.

Thank you for that story. I can’t claim it was a fun story. In many ways it was a miserable story. It was also a blessed story.

Because of you.

And so, I leave you with my favorite quotation, from Yeats:

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends.

Thank you. That’s how this chapter ends. Thank you.

The Iron Curtain

This post has been in my head for almost two months. I’ve known what I wanted to write, but I’ve needed to get some distance between myself and the events described here before I could actually put pen to paper. I should also offer a little caveat emptor. These stories are toward the darker end of what’s been published on this blog. If you’re sensitive to that sort of stuff, you may find what follows upsetting.

Hospitals make strange bedfellows. That’s not to say that they make you share a bed with someone. That would be uncomfortable, and probably very unhygienic. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that hospitals make for strange roomfellows. But that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

In my most recent (and final) stay at the hospital, I had two roommates. The first was strange, though not particularly exciting. He never spoke, but his family (two women—I think his wife and sister) was convinced the hospital was guilty of some sort of vast conspiracy (not to mention grave malpractice), spanning months if not years of this man’s treatment. They complained, loudly and ceaselessly, about this injustice, constantly denigrating the doctors, nurses, and technicians who periodically slipped in and out.

After a few days, he was moved to another room. Apparently in addition to their frustration with the medical establishment, the two women were very unhappy about the loud noises emanating from my side of the room (sometimes late into the night). Since I was barely conscious for the duration of this roommate’s time in my room, I must lay the blame at the feet of the kind folks who visited me in the hospital. If you did, you should know that meant a tremendous amount to me, even if I appeared catatonic at the time. You should also know that you were excessively boisterous and drove a sick man and his family to their wits’ end. So again, thank you.

Before I relate the story of my second roommate, I should note that technically speaking I had three roommates. After the conspiracy theorists’ departure, I briefly shared the room with a man and his genial, talkative family from (I think) Morocco. They were warm and quite pleasant, but had apparently intended to settle in a single, so they hung around for a few hours before moving into new, capacious quarters.

The next day, my second roommate arrived. He was a wizened, graying man, his face haggard, his voice rough and trembling. When I first saw him, I guessed him to be in his late 80′s.

Many of the patients in my ward were, like myself, young men. Worn down by weeks or months of chemotherapy (and often invasive surgery), they all had that dusty look in their eyes, obscuring the little flashes of light one associates with youth. Yet despite the obvious toll treatment had taken on them—despite their bald heads, their gaunt faces, those tired eyes—these men retained an ineffable sense of boyishness. They were sick, yes. But they were, if you looked closely, still quite young.

My roommate was not, it turned out, in his late 80s. He wasn’t even in his 70s. He was 64. A year older than my father. He appeared to have been robbed of two decades of his life.

That first night, his doctors ordered an MRI. He was wheeled to the imaging center and returned an hour later, climbing ever so slowly into bed. As I wrote earlier, I spent most of my nights at the hospital tossing and turning, beset by stabbing pains in my abdomen and stomach. That night, as I lay in bed, I heard this man moaning across the curtain. For what seemed like hours, he moaned, suffering his untold agony. He called for a nurse and she came to check on him. “Not calm,” he said. “Not calm.” She hung a bag of a common sedative and left him alone. But the moaning continued.

In the dark, I heard the rattling of a pill bottle, then a gulp. For obvious reasons—legal and medical—patients admitted to the hospital are expressly forbidden from administering their own medications. Every drug you take—even acid reducers or other over-the-counters—comes from the hospital pharmacy, with approval from your doctor. But here this guy was, downing his own stash of sleeping pills, desperate for relief from whatever was plaguing him.

In the morning, I opened my eyes slowly, trying to avoid the blinding sunlight flooding in through the window. I was groggy and still exhausted, so it took me a moment to get a grasp on my surroundings. It was time for rounds, and behind the curtain a group of doctors was speaking to my roommate. Perhaps they’d been with him for a while, but the first words I heard them speak were these: “Your test results came back. It’s spread. You have lesions all over your brain. The treatment is 10 days of radiation. We need to begin tomorrow.” My roommate had no response. And with that, the doctors ambled out of the room, off to see their next patient.

What do you say to a stranger condemned to death?

I was only an accidental witness to this man’s prognosis. Had we been separated by a real barrier—not just a curtain—I wouldn’t have heard what the doctors had to say. Nor would I have heard first his silence, then his muffled tears.

As the day wore on, the man’s family began to arrive. His younger son, his wife, maybe a cousin. I lay in bed, listening to this family confront the unconfrontable.

In the Histories, Herodotus writes of the horrors of war, reminding his readers that, “No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace—in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.”

Since antiquity, then, we have understood how unnatural it is for the old to watch the young die. This happens in times of war, but also in times of peace.

This man, of course, was not a son, but a father. That his son would come to bury him was not itself an inversion of the natural order. It was sad, not strange.

What was strange—and what reminded me of that ancient quote—was the conversation between the man and his son. We expect a father to be a source of strength. To offer wisdom and guidance to a son. But here, it was instead the son, at his father’s side, striving at 23 to conjure up sage advice for his father.

Despondent, depressed, probably in some excruciating state of suffering, the man seemed uninterested in the course of treatment prescribed by the doctors. The son begged him to remember all he had to live for. “There’s Danny’s wedding,” he said. “And so many bar mitzvahs. And Rebecca, when she gets married.” The man said nothing. “You have to be there. You’re going to be there. We have so much to celebrate. And we need you to be there.” Still nothing.

A son pleading with his father to stay with him, to see through the pitch darkness a reason to live. That seemed to me as unnatural as a father burying his own son.

I can’t get that scene out of my head. I didn’t even witness it with my eyes; I only heard it. But in my mind, I can see the son, bent over a hospital bed, trying to project his words with confidence and composure, but his voice unmistakably raw and, over and over, cracking.

In my months of treatment, I was exposed to a whole new world (not the kind in Aladdin). It was a world full of vomiting and nurses and fear and confusion and sick people. That world is familiar to many—anyone who’s been sick or known someone who was sick. And almost any medical professional. But for me, never having seen that world before, it was surprising and disorienting.

Sickness is a surreal and terrifying thing. When you experience it—but perhaps (and I can only guess) more so when you witness it.

Having been sick, I think I have some understanding of sickness. Not by any means a full grasp, or even a good grasp, but an inkling. But sickness is not death. Death (and this, of course, is a true blessing) I know nothing about.

To be in the room as this man and his son reckoned not just with sickness, but also with death was stranger, sadder, more unsettling than any experience I can yet remember.

Perhaps I should have thanked G-d for my good fortune, that despite the searing pain in my abdomen, despite the sinking terror that my operation had gone wrong and I would die, despite the crushing depression and exhaustion of my then-young recovery, I was very much alive, that I didn’t have to remind anyone why it is that life itself is worth living. But I didn’t feel fortunate. I just felt sick to my stomach. Wondering if that searing image might be forgotten.

Of course, it couldn’t be.

So from the outside, maybe the vomiting, the overwhelming enervation, the frustratingly slow pace of recovery seemed like the worst part of this whole ordeal. But this was worse than all those things.

And yet, even though I can’t forget that scene, it has faded in the past six weeks.

So I’m left with this memory, like a scene from a dusty print of some ancient horror film.

And I was just lying there. I wasn’t the man’s son.

Video Killed the Radio Star

Well, after all this, I’ve finally made it. I’m on TV. Or I was on TV. And by TV, I mean Brooklyn Independent Television (BIT). It’s like BET, if BET counted its viewers with fingers and toes. Anyway, here is the clip. If you’re impatient, skip to 2:11 in the video. This interview took place at the Brooklyn Blogfest. In my defense, I had no knowledge of the sponsorship issue (described in this article) at the time. For the record, I have no affiliation with Absolut Vodka, though I hear it’s the smoothest vodka of them all.

Anyway, check it out. The interview is about 40 seconds long. Still, it does make me a celebrity. Also, it should remind you why I am a writer. And why I don’t do a podcast. In the sense that my voice is similar to the screech of a cat with sand in its throat.

Enjoy!

Pleasantville

Got into a brief discussion with Julia about some funny news item she showed me. I asked her if the story was true. This was her response:

Some things you just have to believe for the good of your smiling soul.

Yeah. I think that’s a good policy.

Lighting Strikes Twice

I was sitting in Union Square Park today with my friend Elizabeth, when I looked up and saw a familiar face. It was my professor, seated on a bench perhaps twenty feet away.

Until yesterday, I’d never bumped into this guy anywhere but on campus. Not once in three years. Then I see him twice in two days.

I’d be tempted to attribute this bizarre coincidence to fate, but as my uncle the math teacher always reminds me, if a million things happen to you in a month, there’s a decent chance something one-in-a-million will happen to you every few months. So I’ll chalk it up to probability instead.

Life is perfectly unpredictable. Sometimes that’s a curse, sometimes it’s a blessing. When you’ve been knocked around, it takes a bit of audacity to remember that second part. Seeing my professor again was just a coincidence. But it was a nice reminder of what a wondrous thing this unpredictable life can be.

Band of Brothers

When I stand before thee at the day’s end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.

Rabindranath Tagore

This afternoon, I met Pete for coffee at a small cafe on First Avenue. I was raised to have a deep philosophical opposition to decaffeinated coffee, but recently I’ve been trying to limit my intake of caffeine because it gives me the jitters. For a while, that meant abstaining entirely from coffee. But I love coffee’s smell and its taste, so a few weeks ago I gave in to temptation (sort of) and—for the first time in my life—ordered a cup of (iced) decaf. Like most of the things in life that I despise or claim to despise, the decaf coffee wasn’t half bad. So a small lesson learned.

Anyway, today I had the opportunity to order the second (again iced) decaf of my life, and I grabbed it with great aplomb. Well, with some aplomb. I splashed in a little milk, dumped in a pile of sugar, and plopped in a straw.

This was one of those miserably grey days where the rain never stops—where there’s neither the serene dampness of a spiraling mist, nor the awesome force of a real downpour. We sat in a cozy corner of the shop, shooting the breeze over coffee (and tea), enjoying this little redoubt from the dreary street outside the window.

After an hour or so, our cups drained, we decided to head out, in search of a restaurant for a very late lunch. Just as we were standing up to leave, a young woman asked if she might take our table. She was probably ten years older than us, but she was pretty and had a friendly face, so I offered my best attempt at humor and replied, “No, we’re leaving now, but we’re saving it for later.” The woman smiled and—my simple mission accomplished—I turned toward the door. At which point, I found myself staring right into the eyes of a former professor.

I jumped, and then froze, shocked both that I would bump into this fellow and that he’d been watching as I made a snarky comment to his friend. Fortunately, he’s an young and affable lecturer (and musician/bartender), not a stodgy old academic, so once the initial surprise wore off, I was sincerely excited to see him. He was one of my favorite teachers at Columbia and taught one of my favorite classes, which (sycophant that I am) I quickly mentioned.

When I was undergoing treatment, I went back and forth over whether, when I bumped into people, it was appropriate to tell them I was sick. On the one hand, I subscribe to the philosophy that honesty is the best policy. On the other hand, I also subscribe to the philosophy that awkwardness is the worst policy. Mostly, if it was just a chance encounter, I didn’t say anything. Awkwardness aside, that’s a heavy load to place on someone expecting to just exchange pleasantries.

But now that I’m clean, it seems strange not to tell people that I was sick and am now better. Unlike many stories of illness, mine has a happy ending. So even though it’s still a bit awkward, I think I’ve settled on just spitting it out. I get to be honest when asked what I’ve been up to, and I also get to repeat the sentence, “I’ve been cancer-free one month and five days (or whatever the actual figure is).” I like saying that. It makes my interlocutor smile—or at least takes the look of horror off his or her face. And I like hearing myself say it.

I had cancer and now I don’t. I hate the term “survived” or “survivor,” so I won’t use it. I wouldn’t call myself a “cancer survivor,” nor would I pride myself on such a title. I like to say that I had cancer and now I don’t because it reminds me that I’m once again healthy.  But I also like to say it because I’m proud. Not that I survived—that wasn’t under my control. I’m proud to be myself. A young man (or, less poetically but more accurately, a boy) healed up and healthy, but with a few new scars.

This afternoon, when my professor asked what I’d been up to, I just said, “I actually took the semester off. I had cancer. I went through treatment and I’ve been cancer-free, clean, for a month and six days.” He said he was sorry I’d been sick but that he was really happy to hear my good news.

“I had cancer, you know, ” he said. “Senior year of college.”

“Testicular cancer?” I asked. “

“Yup. Twelve years clean.”

He asked about the specifics of my treatment and I said I’d had the initial surgery, chemo, and then an RPLND. He said he wasn’t familiar with the RPLND (which wasn’t strange—lots of people who have testicular cancer don’t need it), so I started to explain that it was a “major surgery where they go in and cut your lymph nodes out…” He cut me off there—”This?” he asked, raising his shirt to reveal a familiar scar, running down from his sternum across his entire abdomen (with a dogleg around the belly-button).

“Yeah. Wow,” I said. I raised my shirt, exposing my own scar, clearly rawer than his, but otherwise identical.

We both smiled. If you were Pete, my professor’s friend, or anyone else who happened to be watching, you’d witnessed something baffling: two guys, one about ten years older than the other, lifting their shirts to display their impressive, matching scars.

There are only two places in the US to go for an RPLND—Sloan-Kettering and Indiana University. I remembered he was from Indiana, so I asked if he’d gone to IU for treatment. “Yeah, I happened to be in Indiana at the time, so I went there,” he said.

“And I happened to be in New York at the time, so I went to Sloan,” I replied, by way of echo.

We chatted a little longer about our respective experiences with treatment, then moved on to the usual pleasantries. He asked if I’d be on campus in the fall and I said yes. I asked if he’d be teaching in the fall and he said yes. We agreed to grab coffee at some point next semester to catch up.

And with that, I shook his hand, waved to his friend, and stepped out into the rain.

Across the glass from my professor, who was now sitting in the seat I’d recently occupied, Pete turned to me. “That was surreal,” he said. “You have the same scar.”

I shrugged. “It’s a brotherhood.”