At eighteen, Charles thought he was invincible. At the end of his freshman year at Stoneleigh University, he learned he wasn't.
The work had been challenging, because he guessed more than he studied, yet it wasn't school that brought him down. It was night clubbing. In the first semester, he accompanied friends no more than once a school week to Judges Bar and Dance Club, but, by the spring semester, he answered most final calls and had to sometimes dance through shortness of breath.
Those next mornings required him to walk slowly to calculus class and ignore the mental throbbing that had nothing to do with delta and epsilon limits. That is, until the final exam. He studied the previous night instead of drinking and dancing. He left for class early and shuffled his way across campus, but try as he might, he couldn't get a full breath of air into his lungs. Minutes into the exam, the professor spotted Charles' distress and rang for the school clinic. It only took the nurse practitioner one minute to declare hospital care was required.
In the emergency room, his heart raced uncontrollably, but no infection showed in his blood work.
After six weeks of bedrest and diligent medical care, he felt much restored. The doctor arrived with his discharge papers.
"You must remain on bedrest, until your heart returns to normal sinus rhythm. If you don't, it may never resume. Your sole physical activity should be returning for your checkup. Come back in one month." The doctor indicated another section. "Follow this diet. Especially no caffeine and no added salt. When your heart resumes sinus rhythm, you have to make an important choice. Continued limited physical activity or accept a pacemaker."
"With the first choice, I might as well be dead, Tell me more about the risks and rewards of the pacemaker."
A semester had passed by the time Charles was well enough for the pacemaker operation. "I didn't think it would make so much of a difference, but it did." Finally, he returned to college with a new focus. As a sophomore, his excitement, such as it was, came from quiet meals, noir movies, and board games. His health improved. He studied and landed on the Dean's List.
After graduation, he landed a job at the local mall, in the publicity department. In time, his casual turns of phrase became a staple of coupon circulars. He purchased a nearby condo.
Although Charles had become cautious, gradually the memory of pain slipped from his consciousness. When his new boss invited the entire staff out for a drink, he didn't refuse. As the months went on, he saw a coworker, who drank with the boss, had been promoted. Charles stopped declining routine afterwork invitations, spending a couple of nights a week at the bar with coworkers. He stayed in other nights, but drank himself through his loneliness. He continued cavalier outings, until twinges while breathing recalled half-forgotten memories. A sharp pain beneath his right ribs was a new worry.
Charles stayed in a few nights, resting on the couch, surfing the net. His breath returned to painless inhalations and internal pains finally disappeared. He convinced himself that he was just a worrywart. He began a cycle of late, uninhibited nights followed by short skeins of lazy home nights of recovery. This helped him through several months, though eventually rest only lessened his chest pains while the internal pain persisted. He used vacation days on morning afters of decided pain.
One Thursday early evening as he recovered, a sharp rap on his condo door woke him. He ignored it, but the insistent rap repeated. His boss called out that he wanted to see how he was. Charles yelled for her to use the key in the planter. She opened the door and saw him lying on the couch. "Come on. Get up. You're just hungover."
Charles waggled his fingers slowly.
She saw that was all he was capable of. "We need you at work. The coupon circular reads like crap." She helped him up, telling him he'd feel better with some good food from Maggiano's. But after she helped a very slow, wheezing Charles to her Mini Cooper, she drove straight to the hospital.
This time his crisis was diagnosed as edema in the lungs and kidney disease. The doctors strictly limited his fluid intake and prescribed a plentiful dose of diuretics. After a few days, he could breathe without pain, but the sharp pain inside, under his ribs, still screamed for attention. The doctors offered him another choice.
A few months later Charles received an artificial kidney. "I never had any doubt they could do it." His discharge orders instructed him to limit fluids to sixty-four ounces a day and to get adequate rest.
After a brief recuperation, he returned to work, spent most evenings at home, and was bored out of his mind. He started smoking grass. It relaxed him, made him mellow, all in the safety of his own place. Soon it was his regular vice. He spent evenings at home, got loaded, drank sodas and ate sweets. He dismissed his stomach distress and occasional red splotches on his stools. They disappeared after a couple days of sticking to his prescribed diet, so he didn't waste time worrying about passing symptoms.
This cycle continued for several seasons. He was not happy, but he was not sad. He was complacent. It wasn't until one day at work, the sole activity that gave him real pleasure, that a bathroom visit had an unpleasant surprise. Copious blood in the toilet, so much that he felt light-headed. As soon as he could, Charles left work.
His general practitioner sent him to a gastroenterologist. The following day, Charles learned that he had early-onset colon cancer. Six months to live, if untreated.
The cancerous polyps were removed successfully, but the procedure revealed that his cancer had metastasized, involving the liver.
A new prognosis, but the same result. Six months to live.
Cover image by GabboT / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)