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.”

2 responses to “Band of Brothers

  1. I have the same scar, exactly as you describe it! While recovering from surgery, nearly 17 years ago, I wondered about its length and used a toothbrush to measure it. (I had to resort to non-standard units due to limited resources in the hospital.) When my surgeon asked, “How do you like your scar?” (?!) The only response that came to mind was to say that it’s longer than a toothbrush!
    Great quote at the top of your post. Keep writing and keep healing!

  2. Hi Raf, I’m a friend of Maggie and Melanie’s (Spec) and had the pleasure of a few random encounters with you (Consent is Sexy orientation freshman year, in which we were the only two people speaking). I visited my Barnard biffles right before Hurricane Sandy and spent a few days reading The Audacity of Pope front to back. It was incredible to get an insider’s view on what facing cancer is like, and your attitude and experiences reminded me (helpful after a very mild depression) how great being alive is.

    I keep coming back to this post. I think it’s some of your best writing on the blog; I think it can stand alone. I can see you and your professor lifting up your shirts to matching scars. It’s beautiful and powerful.

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