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order some chicken fried
rice for take-out on Seamless. It’s from the Thai restaurant down the street
from our apartment in Brooklyn. It’s just regular chicken fried rice. I don’t
foresee it being written about in the Times, but I haven’t had chicken fried
rice in a while. I can taste it now. It’s going to be delicious. Everything is
going to be great.
Then my phone rings. I pick up and hear Seema, but it doesn’t sound like my wife. The usual cheery, bright, voice I expected to hear has disappeared. All I hear instead is sobbing and hyperventilating. The sounds on the other end have a rhythmic tone as I hear gasps of air convert to tears.
I know she had gone for a follow-up with her doctor from the week before. I know from the sounds on the phone that something horrible has happened. A few moments pass before she can speak coherently.
“I can’t tell you on the phone. You need to come here.”
She gives me the address. I sprint to the corner of Union and Smith to flag down a cab. I try to stay positive, but my mind is racing. Even as the taxi flies up the FDR, I somehow already know what has happened. But I refuse to believe it. I convince myself I’m being ridiculous and I shouldn’t think so negatively. I exit the cab to see Seema waiting on the sidewalk. She seems to have calmed down. I get out and give her a tight hug. Her petite frame feels smaller than I remember from our embrace this morning.
“We need to go see the doctor upstairs,” she says slowly. “We need to make an appointment with an oncologist.”
I stare at her. She stares at me. Cars continue to drive by us on 34th street. Patients enter and exit through the revolving doors of the medical center in front of us. The words continue to hang in the air. Seema’s normally bright face is completely drained. She’s ahead of me emotionally and I’m jealous of her head start. I fear the cycle of sadness she’s experienced that I soon will. I don’t know what to say, so I just hug her again tighter.
We hold hands as we walk silently to the doctor’s office on the second floor and sit in the empty waiting room. Seema answers her phone. Her parents have been calling every 5 minutes to check-in since she called them with the news. I’m oblivious to their conversation as I look around the beige, asymmetrical waiting room. I see a pin board filled with photographs of other patients. They are all happy and smiling. I suppose it would be ill-advised to have a board filled with emotionally shell shocked patients like ourselves. I feel a numbness slowly coating me. Seema hands me her phone. Her parents want to talk to me.
I never really understood the cliché of hating your in-laws. My wife’s parents have always been generous and loving to me. I think about the last time I spoke with them on the phone. It was probably Seema’s mom asking when we were going to visit them in Dallas next, then Seema’s father trying to convince us to just move to Dallas since there is no income tax. But that was then. This is now.
“Don’t worry,” they say. “Everything is going to be alright, beta.”
I don’t understand their positivity. Maybe it’s the only thing they can hang on to in this moment. They continue to talk and reassure me but the words stop making sense. I don’t know where their confidence originates, but I feel an emptiness in their words that is compounded by the sheer amount of uncertainty that has been laid at our feet. My mind tumbles from one dark thought to the next. Is Seema going to be OK? How bad is the cancer? Has it spread? Is it terminal?
I hang up as a nurse interrupts and leads us into an examination room. A stunned silence continues to reverberate between the walls as we wait for the doctor. I hug Seema again, but I can’t fix anything. I can’t make her smile. I can’t immediately make anything better. I take in the first of many moments realizing that this Universe is built on forces that are beyond our control.
A doctor comes in. He is short, bald, terse and cold. He looks at a clipboard.
“We analyzed a tissue sample from Seema. She has cervical cancer. We’ve set up an appointment with an oncologist for you tomorrow.”
He continues to talk, looking at this clipboard and allowing us no time to absorb the news.
“In my opinion, Seema will most likely have to undergo a hysterectomy.”
I stare at him blankly. Hysterectomy. I’ve heard the term before. Never thought to ask what it was.
The doctor detects the ignorance emanating from my blank face.
“It means… We’ll have to completely remove Seema’s uterus. Look, I need you both to start accepting the fact that you will not be having kids.”
My soul takes a fierce body blow. I feel a sudden, deep pain within my chest. I can’t breathe. I hear Seema start crying again. I try to continue to stand up straight and absorb the pain as the doctor sets an appointment for us with an oncologist the next day. I pray they have better bedside manner than he does.
The trusses of the Brooklyn Bridge fly by the window of our cab as we drive back home. There are no answers, only a rapidly multiplying list of questions. I sit in the backseat as Seema lays with her head in my lap. I run my fingers through her long, black hair. I stare out the window of our taxi, looking at all the different unwitting drivers and passengers surrounding us.
Fuck all of you ungrateful fucks. You don’t know how good you have it. You don’t know how lucky you are to not have your life ripped apart.
“Are you going to call your family?” Seema asks softly from my lap.
The thought of calling my family hasn’t even crossed my mind. A new layer of sadness is added to emotional sediment that is slowly burying me. I have to call them and let them know. I have to tell them everything has changed. Then my phone rings. Unknown number. Maybe it’s the doctor. Maybe this has all been one giant mistake. I answer my phone.
“You pick up order?”
“Fried rice. You pick up order now?”
My Thai Seamless order has been waiting for me. I can’t contain my anger. I take my newfound rage and disappointment out on the Thai restaurant owner speaking broken English on the other end of the phone. But my anger gets in the way. I begin stumbling through a scream-stuttered response.
“NO. I… CAN’T. I’M NOT… PICKING UP THE FRIED RICE. THERE WAS AN EMERGENCY.”
“Ok ok. Soooooo, you pick up later?”
I want to say “I would need an electron-fucking-microscope to see how little of a shit I could give about fucking fried rice right now.” But I don’t know how to say that in Thai. I hang up instead.
We get home and immediately pour ourselves some Johnny Walker Black. I down half of the glass in my first gulp. I feel its effects immediately as it burns my throat and gives my muscles permission to relax. Never before have I better understood the healing power of alcohol.
“I’m sorry,” Seema says.
“If you married someone else… Maybe you could’ve had kids...”
She breaks down. I squeeze her tightly.
“Don’t ever say anything like that ever again.”
We sit on our couch and alternate roles of crier and comforter. All those potential baby names we would whisper to each other. All those discussions about what kind of parents we swore we would be. Were we just tempting fate? There are no answers. Only questions. Seema decides to take some Zzzquil and crawls into bed. The combined shock, sadness, and exhaustion catch up to her and she quickly falls asleep.
The apartment is quiet as I sit alone in the kitchen chair with my drink. I need to call Dad. He’s a physician. He’ll know what to do next. He picks up the phone, positive and beaming, always excited to hear from me.
How do you tell your father that your wife has cancer? I struggle to push the words out, so I ask Dad how his day is going instead. As Dad talks and laughs, I try to enjoy the last few moments of pre-cancer normalcy that our family will experience. But I can’t. I hate myself so much. I realize I’m about to ruin Dad’s day. I realize I’m about to deliver him a sucker punch directly to his emotional solar plexus. I realize there will be more phone calls like this to make. More sucker punches to be thrown. More days to be ruined.
I begin walking Dad through the worst day of my life. I feel the wave of emotion hit me again as I try to force the word “cancer” out of my mouth. My tears come quicker than I realize. Johnny Walker has turned on me. He’s no longer my friend. He’s just an instigator. When I finish my recap, I hear nothing on the other end, just the sound of our kitchen ceiling fan rattling. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard Dad speechless. In the silence I can hear him taking a step back and understanding the full panorama of sadness that has encircled our lives. I wonder about the worst day of my Dad’s life. I wonder if he’s thinking about losing his mother to breast cancer when he was seven. I wonder if he is cursing this disease that keeps entering the lives of his loved ones. But he isn’t quiet for long. He says he’s buying a plane ticket and leaving Augusta for NYC that night.
I end the call. I sit in the kitchen and try to breathe slowly and deeply. My tears will come again later when I talk to Mom on the phone and I hear her crying. But for now, I just sit and stare at the wall. The photos we’ve hung of our friends and our travels stare back at me. One picture stands out, a small framed photo of Seema and me sitting on a swing on a porch in Indore in 2010. Seema looks radiant, wearing a red and green sari while holding a cup of chai. Her soft, beautiful features are accented by a slight smile. I wear an old hoodie with my beat up Atlanta Braves cap. A shorter version of my beard surrounds my happy grin. But the more I stare at the photo the more it doesn’t look like us. It looks like two kids I don’t know. Two kids oblivious they are sitting on some tracks with a freight train a few years in the distance hurtling directly towards them. I feel the powerful numbness weighing me down once more, and I wonder if I’m ever going to feel anything ever again.
My phone rings. Another call. Another unknown number. I pick up and hear a familiar voice.
“Hello, you still want fried rice?”
I hang up. I can’t help but laugh.
wake up suddenly,
staring at the ceiling of our apartment. I hear some drunk bros across the
street at the bodega arguing in the humid Brooklyn night. I look at Seema,
sleeping peacefully beside me. Sleep is nice. It’s our only escape from having
to deal with the newfound stress and sadness that has entered our lives.
The screaming bros prevent me from sleeping, so I continue staring at our white ceiling instead. I grasp at distant memories to cheer myself. I find myself thinking about our wedding weekend eight months earlier in Charleston. I remember Seema’s bright smile during our first dance to Rose Royce’s “I Wanna Get Next to You.” I see us both surrounded by a sea of friends and family dancing to B.I.G., Kishore Kumar and Montel Jordan. I remember speeches from loved ones and our parents drastically underestimating how much alcohol our friends would drink. I remember these same friends settling for warm shots of gin after cleaning out the bar on that cool November night in 2013.
I see Seema and me on a raised mandap on the banks of the Ashley River in front of our closest friends and family on an idyllic Fall day. Seema looks like an Indian queen in her crimson sari with her gold jewelry sparkling. Her dark hair and big, brown eyes are framed by her crimson veil. The dupatta that hangs around my neck is tied in a knot with her veil, connecting us as we hold hands and take turns leading each other around a sacred fire. Each orbit around the flames symbolizes the devotion to each other needed for a happy marriage. Afterwards we perform the Satapadi, the seven steps we take together that each represent a different marriage vow of strength, positivity, prosperity, health, happiness, trust and love.
I didn’t realize the vows would be tested so early. I assumed I’d have at least a few decades until our first family health crisis. I want more time. I need more time. I feel like I'm not ready for this, and I can never let Seema know that. The bros continue to scream outside our bedroom window, pulling me back to reality and the blank ceiling in our apartment.
The last 48 hours have been a marathon of medical appointments. Dad and Seema’s mom have flown up to provide moral support but to also act as medical translators who can interpret the tsunami of medical jargon and analysis that is quickly enveloping us.
Dad is a cardio thoracic surgeon who grew up in rural India and ended up raising our family in a small town in Georgia. My bald head, eyes and nose are his own. He has a deep commanding voice and is always ready sit back with a glass of wine and reminisce. He brings a calming presence to any situation. As fate would have it, Dad attended medical school with Seema’s mom in the mid 70’s. I lovingly refer to her as Aai, the term for mother in Marathi. When pronounced correctly, “Aai” sounds like a truncated version of the noise an Ewok screams during a surprise attack on Endor. Aai is a successful OB-GYN who has an incredible bond with her daughter. She’s a few inches shorter than Seema, and when in motion, takes short steps that create her trademark waddle. Her shoulder length hair hasn’t changed since I met her in 2007. She likes to laugh and takes immense pride in her ability to make an excellent cup of chai each morning for her family.
Seema is paired with a new team of doctors at NYU Langone. Dad and Aai are with us during our first appointments to ask follow-up questions and throw out suggestions for medications or procedures. We try to keep up, but the conversation quickly becomes complex physician speak. Our parents ask follow up questions that I would have never thought of asking. I’ve never been more thankful to have parents who fulfilled the Indian stereotype of studying medicine.
The more we speak with our new doctors, Seema and I are thrilled to learn this group actually has bedside manner. They are nothing like the doctor who gave us the original diagnosis. They are patient, caring and empathetic. They become our Dream Team, a multi-headed beast with an expertise in Oncology, Radiology, and Chemotherapy.
Seema is young. She is smart. She is beautiful. She has so much potential. I can feel the Dream Team pulling for her. They want her to beat this just as much as I do. I didn’t think that was possible, but I accept it with open arms.
As we schedule and await
Seema’s first scans that will indicate the severity of the cancer, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage the flood
of uncertainties about our future.
I thought I had everything planned out. I recently quit my strenuous job as a creative director at a successful advertising agency with plans to freelance as a hired creative gun. Seema just graduated NYU Law School and had the entire summer free before we moved back to Los Angeles and she started a job at the prestigious law firm Skadden Arps.
With our newfound flexible schedules and free time we were going to do novel things like eat dinner together. We would finally have time to enjoy New York City with each other and the friends we love. Seema would explore fashion and intern with a designer. I would read the 400 books I’ve ordered on Amazon over the past year but have never read. We would travel and explore the world together. I would work out more. I would do yoga. I would meditate. I would learn Muay Thai. We would get a dog. We would name him Huck. I would do stand-up comedy. I would write movie scripts with Seema and my friends. We would make films. We would get into Sundance. We would all become famous and buy adjacent farms in rural Georgia. We would volunteer for causes we believe in and would eventually win a Nobel Peace Prize and a Congressional Medal of Freedom. Seema and I would attend a State Dinner with Barack and Michelle. I’d make an off-the-cuff joke about Joakim Noah’s hair to the President. He’d think I’m hilarious and would eventually quote me in his final State of the Union.
Cancer has other plans. All our dreams take a backseat as we are forced to deal with our new reality. I feel like we’ve been cheated out of a unique window of time we carved out to enjoy life to the fullest before Seema begins her law career. Instead, we are on the phone with NYU trying to figure out the exact date Seema’s student health insurance will expire.
In addition to uncertainties about Seema’s health, uncertainties about our future, family, and careers constantly drift in and out of my everyday thoughts. Dwelling on all of these uncertainties will slowly drive me insane. I know this. So I search desperately for something, anything, to distract myself. Seema distracts herself by diving into the prose of Junot Diaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since Johnny Walker has proven himself to be an unpredictable asshole, I bury myself in the 2014 NBA Finals instead. I bury myself with a fanaticism normally reserved for televangelists and NYSE floor traders.
The Finals are already a highly anticipated series, a rematch from the previous year between the two-time defending champion Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. I remember watching last year. The Spurs were thirty seconds away from winning the Championship. The Larry O’Brien trophy and velvet ropes were brought out. The Spurs were ready to pop the champagne. Then the Heat went on an improbable run, punctuated by a Ray Allen corner three that sent the game into overtime where the Spurs lost. The Heat emphatically closed out Game 7 in Miami and won the Championship. The close-up of the Spurs bench in the final minutes of Game 7 told a story of combined shock and devastation that I now know all too well. How quickly things slip away…
A year later, the basketball stars have aligned perfectly for a rematch. On one hand you have the Heat, trying to achieve a threepeat which would propel Lebron into the next level of the NBA’s Mount Olympus and give more fodder for the pointless “Lebron vs. Jordan” debate. Then there are the Spurs. They are old, banged up, and have a lot mileage. But despite their age, they have been rebuilt into a fast-paced, well-oiled, small-ball machine by the loveable curmudgeon, Coach Popovich.
Like 99.7% of human beings, I don’t like the Heat. I didn’t like Lebron leaving Cleveland. I didn’t like his smug assumption of winning 7 straight Championships. I don’t like Heat fans. I don’t like DJ Khaled. I don’t like Gloria Estefan.
I’m not a Spurs fan by any means. But the week after the diagnosis, the NBA Finals becomes something completely different for me. This has moved beyond a battle of villains, heroes, rings, legacies, pundits, fan bases and statistics. I need the Spurs to win. I need to know that it’s possible to rebound from a horrific, soul-crushing loss and return stronger, more focused, and triumph. The fact that our lives share nothing in common with NBA athletes doesn’t matter. I need to see a comeback.
As the day of Seema’s first scan arrives, however, things are already looking bleak for the Spurs. The teams have split the first two games in San Antonio. The series shifts to Miami and the Spurs are already in a hole. The Heat have stolen home court advantage and no team has beaten Miami on their home court in the Playoffs.
I pace our apartment, religiously refreshing Twitter and watching ESPN analysis searching for any kind of Spurs advantage. I watch and loudly narrate Youtube highlights from the previous years Finals analyzing weaknesses in the Miami offense. Seema alternates between tracking my pacing around the room and continuing to read Americanah.
When we drive to NYU Langone for her scan, I try not to think about the fast approaching Game 3 and the impeding uphill climb ahead for the Spurs and ourselves.
The doctors allow me to
be with Seema for the scans, so I sit with her as she changes into a hospital
gown in a patient room in the lower levels of the hospital. Dad and Aai wait
for us in the waiting room. Seema’s first scan is a PET-CT scan, which stands
for Positron Emission Tomography – Computer Tomography Scan. It’s an advanced,
nuclear imaging scanning technique that gives detailed information about cell
Seema is given orders to drink a viscous, white concoction. The drink contains barium sulfate, which acts like a tracer that helps doctors identify cancer cells on the scan. From its look and consistency, barium sulfate resembles a combination of chalk, buttermilk and elk semen. But luckily this particular bottle of barium sulfate is coffee flavored! Seema says the artificial flavor barely masks the awful taste.
“This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had in my life.”
The grimace on Seema’s face makes it clear Starbucks is completely missing an opportunity to launch an Elk Semen Mocha Liquid Chalk Frappuccino.
I hold Seema’s hand as she lays on the hospital gurney and is wheeled into the PET-CT room. The machine looks like a giant, immovable, beige donut that Seema must pass through. Seema scoots from the gurney to the flat slab that will slowly inch her through the scanning device. I stand next to my horizontal wife as doctors, nurses and technicians buzz around preparing the machine and optimizing equipment. As they speak to each other from across the room, it feels like we are preparing to send my wife through the portal in Stargate. I sense myself becoming more and more nervous about the scan and what the results will mean. My heart begins beating faster. I fear the cancer has spread everywhere, even to Seema’s soft earlobes. I think about ways to calm Seema.
No need. Amongst the din of technician chatter and medical-speak, I hadn’t noticed Seema nonchalantly chatting to an attending physician about the most recent episode of The Bachelorette. They talk about the rose ceremony last week and a guy who apparently has been acting like “a real dickhead to Andi.” I marvel at my wife who is unfazed by the environment and the moment. I wonder if the scan results will also confirm the absence of fucks given towards the cancer that also resides within my wife’s body.
The doctors tell us we need to clear the room so they can begin the scan. They close the vault-like door to protect us from the bombardment of radiation that will envelop my wife. We move to an adjacent room that is the medical equivalent of NASA’s Mission Control. There are so many different monitors, I’m not sure what to look at. I focus on a smaller screen that shows the video feed of the scan room. My wife who has been instructed to stay completely still for the scan to be accurate. Wrapped in multiple thin white blankets, she looks like a tiny, motionless mummy.
As she is slowly inched through the Stargate, cross-sectional slices of my wife begin appearing on another screen. The doctors and technicians huddle around it and begin analyzing. I have no clue what the fuck is going on. As I look at my wife on the screen, I imagine Seema intaking Gamma radiation. Maybe like Bruce Banner, she will gain super powers that will immediately cure her and turn her into a stronger being with wondrous abilities. By day she will be a high-powered attorney, but at night she will fight crime on the streets of Brooklyn. When the scanning is complete, Seema appears to have no super powers (yet). She’s just thankful that she can scratch the itch on her knee that’s been bugging her the last hour.
Seema, Aai, Dad and I wait for the results in a Radiology patient room. Since the other patient rooms are filled, we are put in a children’s patient room instead. We stare at the wallpaper of dinosaur illustrations as we wait.
Dr. Schiff finally enters. He’s the Radiation Oncologist component of the Dream Team. His omnipresent bow-tie is complimented by the omnipresent stethoscope hanging around his neck. He has a walrus mustache that partially obscures a warm smile. Combined with his protruding belly, he reminds me of John Candy if John Candy was a world-renowned radio-oncologist.
Dr. Schiff breaks down the scan for us. Luckily, we’ve caught the cancer early before it has the chance to spread to any other organs. He’s spoken to the rest of The Dream Team. There will be no hysterectomy. Instead, they want to pursue an aggressive regimen of radiation and chemo as well as an additional experimental trial of chemotherapy to help eradicate the cancer permanently. I like the word “eradicate.” I like that the doctors are using military terms when talking about fighting the cancer. I like that we are going to show the cancer no mercy.
Seema tells me she is ready for a battle. She tells me she is ready for an uphill climb. I feel the same. When we leave the hospital, I feel like we’re slowly emerging from a fog of uncertainty. We finally have a few answers. We know what the enemy looks like and how we’re going to fight it.
We watch the next two
games of The NBA Finals at our apartment. I was worried with the Spurs losing home
court advantage and going to Miami. But the Spurs are now playing as if home
court advantage doesn’t matter. They play as if crowds don’t matter. The Spurs
find another gear in Miami and begin playing some the best team basketball ever
witnessed in the great game. Selfless and beautiful, fluid and precise, the
Spurs proceed to put on a clinic and blow out the Heat in back-to-back games in
Miami in some of the most lopsided victories ever seen in the NBA Finals.
The series heads back to San Antonio, with the Spurs holding a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Spurs could clinch the Championship in Game 5. It’s almost a forgone conclusion given the kind of basketball that the Spurs have been playing.
But sports are funny. Anything can happen. You can’t manufacture drama or momentum shifts. And as improbable as a total Spurs collapse could be, you remember the other teams and great players that choked and weren’t able to seal the deal. History is littered with examples of teams defying the odds, going off script and pulling off the impossible.
Some friends invite us to watch Game 5 at a bar. Fuck that. I’m not switching up the sports feng shui of watching at home, which has obviously ensured the previous two Spurs’ wins. We need to keep the same energy going.
Seema and I order some gyros and sit on our couch for tip-off. The Spurs start horribly, going 0-6 from the field. They are putting up brick after brick. Lebron, on the other hand, is flying around like a demigod. He throws down putback dunks. He drains long-range threes. He swats layups into the San Antonio bench. Five minutes into the game, the Heat lead 22 – 9. The once raucous San Antonio crowd is becoming more eerily quiet by the second. I knew we should’ve watched at the bar. My mind begins a slow downward spiral of dark thoughts. I see the chain of events that will unfold to rob Seema and me of our Spurs’ comeback inspiration:
As I see things falling
apart for the Spurs, I see things falling apart for Seema’s health. Hope is
fading for both. Ghosts of the Spurs’ collapse from
the previous year begin to simultaneous haunt the AT&T Center and our
apartment. Maybe some defeats are just too devastating to bounce back from.
But then something magical happens. Spurs’ shooting guard Manu Ginobili checks into the game. He strides onto the court like a beautiful, balding, Argentinian unicorn. First possession in the game? Bang. Manu nails a three. Next possession? Bang. Manu finds Kawhi Leonard who knocks down another three. The Spurs are still down 12, but it’s a spark. Everything begins clicking for San Antonio. The team that was so dominant the last two games remembers who they are. They move the ball. Shots begin to fall. Defensive stops are made. The crowd gets back in the game. Suddenly the Spurs lead 37-35
In the Spurs’ doomed Finals the year before, Manu did not play well. He had a few too many costly turnovers and made a few too many poor decisions at the wrong times. But watching him play now, I can see he was exorcising his own demons and disappointments from the previous year. The moment that solidifies his redemption occurs in the final minutes of the 2nd quarter, when Manu transforms into an unbridled tempest of Rogaine and storms down the court. He blows by Ray Allen then throws down the mother of all dunks on Chris Bosh. The Spurs crowd collectively loses their shit. Across the globe, bald men in their late 30’s simultaneously feel more powerful without knowing why.
Once the Ginobili dunk is thrown down, everyone watching now knows there is no way the Heat are going to win this game. But I continue to watch, even when the Spurs are up by 20 points. The inevitable feels too good to be true. Not until the black and silver confetti falls from the sky for the trophy ceremony do I feel like I can pull away from the screen. Seema, long since bored from the blowout, is in the kitchen drinking some tea while reading a book. I find her and squeeze her with a tight hug. She looks at me, a little concerned her husband has lost his mind.
Maybe I did lose my mind for a brief moment. Maybe it’s stupid to be so emotionally invested in a sporting event that has no real relevance or ramifications to our lives. But this one did. Thank you, Manu Ginobili. I believe in comebacks.
here are about forty-six
empty seats in the waiting room of the fertility clinic. This morning only one
other couple waits with Seema and me. Is there some kind of fertility rush
hour? Is this place packed at 4pm? I make eye contact with the well-dressed,
middle-aged white couple sitting across the room every once in a while, an
awkward bond slowly created from the shared purpose of our environment.
We only have a few weeks before Seema’s treatment begins. It’s a small window before doctors say they will begin strategically bombing Seema’s pelvis with radiation. I’m starting to not be such a fan of the military jargon.
But there’s hope. The doctor who first gave us the diagnosis last week was utterly wrong. The Dream Team has told us we still have a chance of making a baby, but we’re running low on time. The tumor is growing. We have to begin fertility treatments immediately so we can harvest Seema’s eggs before the radiation kills her ovaries. The treatment that is saving Seema’s life is robbing her of bringing life into this world. Someone else will have to carry our child. But that no longer matters to us. At least we have a chance.
“Kamath?” a nurse with a clipboard announces.
Seema and I follow her back to a spacious corner office where the doctor and nurse begin explaining the procedure for Seema to self-administer the fertility medicine. The instructions are a litany of prescriptions, needles, doses, more prescriptions, sonograms, more needles and check-ups. The routine is so complicated that I wonder if we’re trying to harvest eggs or prepare Seema to be the first human to undergo cryostasis.
I want to make sure we get the routine right, so I begin to ask follow up questions to write down the instructions step-by-step. I expect the nurse to answer, but instead, Seema gently places her hand on my arm.
“Jay, I got this.”
She takes over, answering each of my questions with sweet authority. She’s memorized the dosage, frequency, and each day of our follow up appointments after only hearing it once. Seema ends the demo by assembling the injection pen with the efficiency and speed of a Navy SEAL assembling an assault rifle.
I seem to have underestimated how much my wife is not fucking around. At some point during the five-minute tutorial, Seema transformed into a fertility medicine prodigy that can instantly channel the cumulative knowledge of the Johns Hopkins Medical Library. Sensing we’re going to be okay following the fertility medicine routine, I slowly put away my pen and paper.
Before we leave, I’m told I need to give a semen sample for analysis. I wasn’t expecting this. My body tightens and my anxiety spikes. What if there is something wrong with my semen? What if I’m the reason this is no longer a possibility? What if I’m the defect that takes all this newfound hope from my wife? But there is no time to dwell on my sperm at this moment. An older nurse gives me a plastic sample cup and the clipboard full of paperwork and begins leading me to a different room. As we walk down the hallway, I hear a song begin to play over the office speakers. The 80’s music playing through the office has been white noise up to that point, but suddenly the iconic opening chords of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” cuts through.
This is obviously a sign. Much like a city boy (born and raised in South Detroit), I too must not stop believing. I give mental props to the DJ currently holding down the Sirius XM Fertility Station for providing me sonic inspiration, but my nerves persist. As the nurse and I continue our long walk down the hallway, I distract myself from the impending moment of truth by creating a mental playlist of other songs that could provide the best soundtrack to inspire confidence while ejaculating in the hopes of creating an embryo.
“Work It” by Missy Elliott is an obvious choice, as is R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest.” “Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera could be an inspirational anthem for the moment, but the song could also summon mental images of Ralph Macchio at the least opportune time. This is dangerous and not worth the risk. “Like a Pimp” by David Banner would provide much needed confidence, while the consistent beat of Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” would provide rhythmic advantages.
“Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze makes sense, purely for the titular pun value while the drums, horns and chanting of “Gotham’s Reckoning” by Hans Zimmer would provide epic momentum in the homestretch.
The playlist would conclude with “On Our Own” by Bobby Brown since I already tend to scream “Oooooooweeeeeeooooo, y-y-you know it!” when I orgasm. Maybe there is some unwritten, yet-to-be-discovered scientific law that jerking off to something from the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack ensures the healthiest semen sample for a healthy embryo. I would like to be featured in that scientific study.
The nurse and I finally arrive at a narrow room with a chair, a TV screen, and a small metal door in the wall that opens to a lab on the other side. The nurse directs my attention to a shelf filled with a backlog of Penthouses from 2003. She also points out the tube TV with three different channels. She wishes me “good luck” as she closes the door behind her and joins the pantheon of most awkward farewells I’ve experienced.
I sit alone in my masturbation cell and diligently fill out my paperwork and label my sample cup accurately. I’m curious about the TV and the cornucopia of pornography that must exist on all three channels, but I have a strange fear I will turn on the screen and see the nurse’s face staring at me asking if I need any assistance. Suddenly I hear more clanging on the other side of the wall to the lab. I realize I can faintly hear Journey still playing outside. This room isn’t even sound proof! I strategically opt for the magazines. Minimal sound. Years of old school, 90’s stealth masturbation are finally paying off.
Filled with the confidence provided by Steve Perry’s immortal words, I proceed to bust the healthiest load I can muster into the plastic cup.
Seema and I sit and
order lunch at a French bistro down the street from our apartment. It’s a nice
spot with large sliding doors so we can feel a slight breeze while we sit
inside. As we begin to eat we notice the Edith Piaf background music we were ignoring
abruptly cut off. Suddenly the sound of Journey’s opening piano chords begin playing
over the speakers. We stare at each other
bewildered, wondering if someone is playing a joke on us. The bartender notices
we’ve stopped eating.
“You guys don’t like this song?” he asks.
“This is the greatest song ever,” Seema states matter-of-factly.
“Good. The owner is out of town. If I hear one more French song I’m gonna fucking kill myself. Had to change it up.”
I don’t know why he chose the Journey Pandora station to change it up. He could’ve easily selected the Ma$e Pandora station instead. But the universe is mysterious. As the week goes on, we notice Journey’s power ballad playing everywhere we go. Taxis, elevators, and bodegas are all playing “Don’t Stop Believing.” Were we oblivious to the ubiquity of the song pre-cancer? Regardless, Seema and I lock eyes, smile and do a mental high five when we’re together and we hear the song playing. The power of Steve Perry is strong and his omnipresence is another obvious sign that everything is going to be okay.
I’m embarrassed that a Glee-ified, cheeseball, karaoke anthem now has emotional value and has become our philosophical North Star, but it has. With every fertility check up, we get better news. Seema is responding well to the medicine. Don’t Stop Believing. Sonograms show she is ovulating like the fate of humanity depends on it. Don’t Stop Believing. We learn we might get up to sixteen eggs from the retrieval. Don’t Stop Believing. My semen analysis comes back and everything is healthy. Don’t Stop Believing.
Seema’s egg retrieval goes smoothly. Sixteen eggs are retrieved. Eleven are fertilized, well beyond the normal 50% success rate. We just need to give the process a few more days to see how many fertilized eggs fully grow into embryos. We are feeling confident.
Seema and I are walking back home from the grocery store after stocking up on foods and vitamins recommended by our hospital nutritionist, when we get a call from the fertility doctor. We smile at each other as we arrive at our stoop, excited to hear the results. I put on the speaker phone so we can hear the good news at the same time. He tells us that three embryos survived the growth process.
Three embryos? Only three? Out of eleven? I feel the numbness creeping in once again, slowly coating me. I suppose three is better than two. Or one. Or zero. But not right now. It’s hard to see the silver lining when you’re so wrapped up in the moment. I don’t even know what we’d do with eleven embryos. But it would have given us more chances to try and start a family in the future. The disparity between my expectations and my hopes feels like an ever-expanding chasm.
We hang up. Seema looks up at me. I know this look. Her big brown eyes scan my face, trying to understand how I’m handling the news. But I don’t want to have a breakdown in front of my wife.
“I need to go for walk,” I say.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
It requires endurance to stay relentlessly positive. I’ve run an emotional marathon the past few weeks and I feel myself beginning to crack. Seema and I are symbiotic emotional beings, where the feelings of one of us quickly envelop the other. I’m afraid of our individual sadness combining into collective despair. So I leave my wife on the steps of our apartment. I walk up Smith Street and I wonder if we are even meant to have kids. Is some higher power trying to give us a sign? Should I just take the fucking hint? The farther I walk up Smith the further I walk away from Seema and the more I’m disappointed in myself for abandoning Seema in this moment. But sometimes you need to disappear. Sometimes you need to be selfish.
As I continue to walk, I pass seven different baby strollers and five expecting mothers. Each feels like the Universe taunting me. I find a stoop. I sit. I seethe.
Fuck all of you and your fucking Bugaboo bullshit.
I continue sitting on the stoop waiting for something to happen. I imagine an old man coming out of the stoop door with his dog. He walks with a cane. He hobbles down the stoop and notices me. He asks me if I’m ok. I tell him I’m not. I tell him my wife has cancer and I don’t know how to deal with it. He tells me his wife had cancer when they were younger, but they were able to weather the storm. He’ll tell me his secret for getting through this ordeal. But no one exits the door. I continue to sit alone on the stoop, a grown man who feels like a lost child.
I eventually pick myself up and meander back home. I find Seema is sitting on our couch wrapped in a blanket watching Law & Order: SVU. She can tell I’m still upset. She gets up and gives me a warm hug.
“Don’t worry baby,” she says. “Our family will be whatever it will be.”
Even with cancer she’s the one that makes me stronger. I calm down. I feel foolish for letting my anger and hopelessness get the best of me. I feel foolish for not remembering the things I do have. Three is, in fact, better than two. Or one. Or zero. I tell myself to remember what you do have and stop worrying about what you don’t.
When I sleep, I begin having dreams of Seema beating cancer. I have dreams about a faceless woman who will carry our child. I have dreams about three embryos in a freezer somewhere in Manhattan. Three chances to live on.
y first “Fuck you, Universe”
purchase comes a few weeks after the diagnosis. I sit in another carbon copy
hospital waiting room at NYU Langone. Seema is having her blood drawn to
monitor her white blood cell count before we start chemotherapy. Chemo will
weaken Seema, so her blood will constantly be analyzed throughout the treatment
to ensure her body has enough white blood cells for a functioning immune system
that can fight off everyday sickness and infections.
I open my laptop in the waiting room. It is sad moment when you realize your laptop remembers a hospital wifi network. As I use the spotty hospital wifi to look for distracting internet things, I stumble upon an article announcing Dave Chappelle will be performing stand-up at Radio City Music Hall. I assume when you’re Dave Chappelle you can just do whatever you want, so he’s inviting Nas to come perform the album Illmatic in its entirety after his set. It makes sense. Nas performing Illmatic after anything would be amazing. Weddings, corporate retreats, and quinceañeras would all benefit from having Nas perform Illmatic afterwards. I assume when you’re Nas you can just do whatever you want as well, so he will be performing the album accompanied by a full orchestra.
Seema and I were supposed to see Nas perform Illmatic at the Tribeca Film Festival that year. Nas was premiering the documentary Time is Illmatic, a film celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary, and was going to perform the album after the screening.
I can’t remember why we didn’t go. That alone speaks volumes. Whatever the reason, whatever the prior engagement, whatever the errand, I’m sure it was not nearly as culturally stimulating as Nas performing Illmatic. I shudder thinking of all we’ve missed out on from being entangled in the irrelevant minutia of life that feigns importance. We’ve been given a second chance to see Nas perform one of the greatest albums of all time, this time accompanied by one of the greatest comedians of all time. No way in hell we’re missing this. No way we’re missing out anything. Never again.
It feels immensely gratifying when I click the PayPal confirm button in the hospital waiting room. The tickets are expensive, but I don’t really care. Nothing frees up a bank account like a life threatening illness entering your lives. I have no clue what life is going to look like for us in six months. Might as well enjoy what we can, while we can.
We arrive at Radio City
early with a small group of friends, grab a few drinks, and get settled into
Chappelle walks on stage in a tailored black suit to a huge ovation. Chappelle lights up a cigarette and wastes no time getting into his material. Any lingering doubts from stories of Chappelle’s hit-or-miss stand-up performances over the past year are quickly put to rest. We are witnessing a comedic goliath who has returned to the peak of his abilities.
Chappelle delivers a solid hour long set, most of which is penis related. He jokes about Donald Sterling’s 80-year-old penis, a Wu-Tang affiliated rapper making a diamond encrusted chain out of his own severed penis, men giving birth out of their urethras, and being too old to masturbate.
Seema is laughing hard. She’s laughing harder than me. It’s good to hear her laugh. She’s has a high-pitched laugh and that always ends in involuntarily big, throaty gasp for air when she’s finished. After the twenty-fourth audible gasp, I feel we have earned a solid return on our investment with the tickets.
Chappelle crushes his set and exits the stage. After a brief intermission, the house lights go down once again. The 45-piece orchestra that has been assembled on stage begins playing their rendition of the opening of “New York State of Mind.” A giant screen flashes images of Nas’ childhood while counting down from 2014 to 1994 in giant numbers until Nas himself struts onto the stage in a red tux. Radio City erupts.
“Straight out the dungeons of rap! New York, what up?!” He salutes the crowd and takes a bow before he starts rapping the song’s first iconic bars.
I’ve always felt the first two tracks of Illmatic are the greatest sonic representation of New York City that has ever been captured on record. Subway tracks rattle and some kids from Queens frozen in time in 1992 drink, smoke, talk greasy then proceed to deliver some of the most brilliant poetry ever heard.
Nas commands the stage like the 20-year vet he is. He paces, delivering his complex rhymes with gusto. As fans rap along to key punch lines, Nas soaks in every moment. It must be second nature for Nas to perform this album at this point in his career, but it’s still impressive to see such dense rhymes performed live, far from the safe confines of a studio booth.
Seema and I nod our heads to the beats in unison. The hard drums knock accompanied by a live rendition of the song’s looping iconic piano sample. When Seema and I started dating in 2009, we would drive around in my beat up Nissan Sentra and have in-depth conversations about J Dilla, Mos Def and debate the merits of Jay-Z and Nas. Her love for hip hop matched mine, which I didn’t think I would find in a girlfriend, let alone a wife. During one of those early Sentra conversations I learned that she had been on a date with Q-Tip. I found this incredibly intimidating and inspiring at the same time. Since Seema is one of the smartest and most beautiful women on earth, I don’t know why Q-Tip dropped the ball. But Q-Tip’s loss is my infinite gain. Nas continues to rhyme for us onstage. I smile at Seema. She smiles at me.
Nas moves onto the next cut on the album, “Life’s a Bitch,” accompanied again by a flawless orchestra interpretation of the song. The entire crowd chants the chorus with Nas.
“Life’s a bitch and then you die!
That’s why we get high,
‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go!
Life’s a bitch and then you die!
That’s why we puff lye,
‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go!”
After he spits his verse, Nas addresses the crowd as the orchestra continues to play the song’s instrumental. He talks to us about his father, Olu Dara, an accomplished jazz musician who recorded a trumpet solo specifically for the album track. He talks about how his father composed the solo thinking about Nas as a child playing in the streets of Queens. On cue, Nas calls out the trumpeter in the orchestra behind him. A spotlight hits the trumpeter, who stands up and belts out a perfect rendition of the wistful solo at the end of the song.
I’ve heard the song a thousand times before, but in this moment, this trumpet solo performed live is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my thirty-one years on this earth. It makes me think about Nas and his father. It makes me happy that a son and father could collaborate on something so timeless. It makes me think if I will ever be able to collaborate with my son in the same way. It makes me think if I will ever have a son. I feel nostalgic for something that has not happened and maybe never will. A warmth burns within my chest as I feel my eyes well up. I catch myself.
Don’t. Don’t you motherfucker. Don’t be the only person in human history to openly cry at a Nas show.
Maybe there was some guy who saw Nas perform “NAStradamus,” live in 1999 and was moved to tears, but I doubt it. Flanked by my wife and my friends, I take a few deep breaths to hide my emotions and ground myself. The strain needed to temporarily redirect my sadness will probably manifest itself as heart disease or a stroke somewhere in the future, but it feels worth it. There is a stupidity in not confronting and embracing these emotions in the moment. But I’d rather take the short-term rewards. I’m relieved I’ve dodged an emotional bullet in a public setting. The song ends and the crowd cheers.
“What y’all wanna hear next?” a smiling Nas asks the crowd.
A few rows behind me, a voice emerges from the darkened crowd to pierce my state of melancholy with a suggestion.
The show ends. Seema and
I walk down 6th Ave with our friends in the warm New York City
night. 6th Ave is far cry from Queenbridge, but there is something
beautiful about hearing the quintessential New York album, then walking its
streets on a quintessential New York night. We walk a few blocks to the Halal
Guys. Seema’s face contorts as we approach the food truck. The grates on the
sidewalk emit a smell that only be described as that of boiling urine. It’s the
least strategic location for a food truck but that doesn’t stop us from joining
a line fifty people deep who are enduring the continuous bombardment of smells.
We stand on the sidewalk talking about Chappelle and Nas. We laugh and debate the best jokes and best cuts performed. When we finally get to the window, one of our friends proposes to the gentleman taking orders that they should somehow incorporate the urine smell into their recipe. The stonefaced Halal guy taking orders does not laugh. But Seema laughs. So do I.
As we wait for our food, I realize this all feels normal. Not so much the quantity of urine jokes being made, but more so just enjoying a night out with our friends. I feel relaxed. I can tell Seema does too. We’re not worrying about white blood cell counts or the first round of chemo that approaches. It feels like the initial shock has worn off. I can sense there are tough times ahead, but we’re ready for the fight.
Life’s a bitch, and we endure.
n Seema’s first day of
chemotherapy, we awake anxious and excited. She says she feels like it’s the
first day of school. Seema hops out of bed and immediately begins the process
of picking the most stylish, comfortable outfit possible for the long hospital
visit. After second guessing a few of her choices, she emerges from our room
wearing grey Champion sweatpants, a giant, soft pullover emblazoned with the
graphic of a tiger roaring, with a blue beanie and furry slippers.
Seema paces the kitchen as we make breakfast. I can sense Seema is nervous, so I tell myself today is all about positivity. No matter what happens today, I’m going to emit positivity. I’m going to radiate so much fucking positivity that I will punch the first negative person I see.
We stumble through our new morning routine that we will eventually learn to execute with military precision. I check and recheck the NYU tote bag we’ve packed with blankets, socks, magazines and books. Seema has done her opposition research online. Chemotherapy is long and boring. You need to keep yourself entertained for the hours-long process of the strategic poison entering your body. There is no way to anticipate what this treatment will be like or the side effects, but we are excited to begin the process of ridding this horrible thing from our lives. We eat our simple breakfast of oatmeal and fruit then recite some, simple Hindu shlokas that my Mom gave us. I like our new morning ritual. I like the rhythm of the Sanskrit. I like that we sit on our couch in our living room and hold hands when we say the prayers in unison.
We step out of our apartment into the brisk Brooklyn morning and pack into our Uber. When we arrive at NYU Langone, the receptionists are warm and helpful. They welcome Seema with open arms. The positive vibes I’ve sworn to emit are obviously being reciprocated. A middle aged black man, with a tie tied so poorly it reaches the middle of his chest, gently tells us we need to use the elevators to go to the 4th floor.
We enter the elevator and see we have a fellow passenger. In her 70’s, the elderly white woman sits in her red Rascal scooter, wearing her pink hat, sunglasses, and what appears to be a permanent scowl. From the look on her face, I sense I should bite my tongue. I shouldn’t say anything. I can sense that my positivity may not be reciprocated in this situation. I should just press the button that says “4” and stay silent. But I can’t. The Southern hospitality seared into my DNA from a childhood in Georgia gives me the compulsive reflex to create small talk when in close quarters.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Are you here for treatment?” she blurts back.
“Yes. I begin chemo today,” says Seema sweetly.
“I hope it’s nothing like mine.”
Rascal woman’s tone makes my body tighten. Her voice has traces of bitterness and anger. She emits a solid 8.7 on the negativity Richter scale. She removes her hat to reveal a bald head, opening a Pandora’s box within this elevator.
“The doctors said it would grow back. But it never did! Don’t believe a word they say!”
As she frantically continues filling the elevator with paranoia and fear, I stand dumbfounded in what has to be slowest elevator in the Western Hemisphere and can’t help but be awestruck at the chances of this specific encounter happening. Of all the days and all the elevators in all the hospitals in Manhattan, we have to be in the exact same one inhabited by this angry, four-wheeled, medical conspiracy theorist. We continue our excruciatingly slow climb together. My mind travels through time. I think of the infinite, improbable historical chain of events needed for her to be on the same elevator this morning. I can’t believe our luck. If I had written down this morning exactly what I would not want Seema to experience her first day of treatment it would be this. All that’s missing is Rascal woman tossing acid on our faces then zooming off on her scooter, never to be found by the authorities.
She probably has every right to be angry. None of this is fair. Maybe this is a bad day for her. Maybe she has no emotional outlets. Maybe she has no one to vent to. Maybe she has no support. But I don’t care. I’m in damage control mode. Any sympathy I have quickly gives way to protecting Seema and trying to salvage any semblance of positivity that might still exist for today that hasn’t been shattered by Rascal woman. I can see Seema becoming more scarred by the second. I briefly contemplate the repercussions of tipping over a 70-year-old cancer patient on their scooter, hitting the emergency stop button then attempting some kind of exit from the opening of Speed. But before I can do or say anything, the doors open to the 4th floor.
I’m happy as the elevator closes behind us and Rascal woman is out of our lives forever. But the damage is done. It seems like Fate obviously wants Seema to have a horrible first day of chemo, and after our encounter in the elevator, I know Fate is playing hardball. Seema looks deflated. Any “first day of school” positivity generated from our morning routine has evaporated as we get settled in the hospital room. Seema lays on the bed and I put some warm, wool socks on her feet. The nurse leaves to go get the Chemo IV and I decide now is the time to turn this day around.
“Excuse me baby. I need to have word with the cancer before we start.”
I plant my face in Seema’s crotch and begin speaking directly to the cancer.
“Hey cancer. Go fuck yourself. You leave my wife right now. You’re not welcome here. We’re going to fight you, you fucking piece of shit.”
I hear Seema giggle. Maybe it was the ridiculous nature of what I was doing. Maybe it was ticklish. As I fling harsh, muffled insults into my wife’s uterus, I can’t help but think of the all the cliché movie scenes I’ve seen where a father whispers encouraging words to his yet-to-be-born child in his wife’s womb. I’d give anything to talk to a child, a welcomed guest, instead of this hostile intruder. But I don’t care. Making Seema laugh in this moment feels as triumphant as victory lap with the Stanley Cup raised above my head.
The nurse returns to our room with an IV bag with clear liquid labeled “CHEMOTHERAPY.” The bag has several neon green warning labels on it, each stressing the hazardous nature of its contents that will slowly begin to drip into my wife. The nurse asks Seema her full name and date of birth to make sure the medical labels match the patient. She hangs the chemo IV bag and places it’s tube into the infusion pump. The nurse presses a few buttons and leaves the room as the pump comes to life.
In her research, Seema learned that chemotherapy makes you feel cold, so we pile a mountain of warm blankets on Seema. I pull a chair next to her bed, take out my laptop and we load Netflix. Unsure of the appropriate genre to watch during an inaugural chemo session, we decide to check out an episode of Cosmos. The infusion pump begins to beep every few seconds as the medicine begins entering Seema, causing damage to heal. She slowly drifts off to sleep as we listen to Neil Degrasse Tyson describe the beginnings of the universe and the wonders of the Cosmic Calendar.
eema's hair starts falling out.
She can deal with the nausea, fever and constantly feeling tired, but losing hair
is different. The long, black strands she wakes up to glued to her pillow are
the first physical manifestations of the ongoing battle with cancer. I tell her
I think she’s beautiful no matter what. I tell her I don’t care. But I know my
compliments ring hollow for her. The more her strands fall on her pillow, the
more her thick eyelashes and eyebrows disappear, the more I catch Seema glancing
at herself in reflective surfaces and sighing. Sometimes our own self-conscious
is too strong a barrier for any adulation.
I try to help by relating to Seema with my own bald head. I say that we can both be Mace Windu for Halloween. All we need is oversized, brown bathrobes and purple sticks. Seema stares at me blankly. I slowly realize she hasn’t seen Episodes I-III. I make a mental note not to use Star Wars prequel humor to alleviate emotional pain from chemotherapy. George Lucas fails me once again with horrible material.
As we lay in bed early one morning, I tell Seema she should let go and shave her head. Every time she sees her hair falling out in the shower or around the house it constantly reminds her of what the cancer is doing to her and what it has taken away. The hair loss gives her a reason to feel bad about herself. She nods and agrees. Shaving her head is taking back control. Shaving her head will be losing her hair on her own terms. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. She opens her eyes.
“Ok, let’s do it.”
The medical team at NYU Langone has provided us a few different options for places to go for wigs. We find a salon near Grand Central that has the best Yelp reviews. When we arrive, we are greeted by the owner who is also the main hair stylist. He’s a portly, effeminate man with a thick, Israeli accent. Seema describes her ongoing cancer battle and that he was recommended to us. He nods sympathetically and guides us through the salon’s narrow, modern space to the styling area in the back. He pulls back a curtain to reveal an entire wall of Styrofoam heads resting on wooden shelves displaying a spectrum of different wigs in an array of styles of shades. They stare at me blankly. Perhaps I’ve watched one too many episodes of NCIS, but I wonder if this could all just be a front for Mossad. As Seema browses the wig options, I peer behind the wall, expecting to stumble upon a surveillance device or at least a framed picture of Golda Meir and/or Eric Bana.
Seema chooses a wig she likes. It’s a black bob that’s very similar to her hair before the treatment. When the stylist tells us the price of the wig I realize I’m in the wrong profession and if things go sour for my career in advertising, I will join the thriving industry of Israeli wig merchants.
Seema tells the stylist that she wants to shave her head. He beams with pride and immediately whisks her to one of his chairs. He tells her that this is the best decision she could make. He tells her she’ll feel liberated. As he circles Seema in the styling chair, he continues to reassure her and proclaims her hair will come back thicker and fuller than before. I feel so thankful for the secret Mossad agent’s positivity.
After taking an initial pass with scissors, he flips the switch on his clippers and begins to slowly and methodically mow all of Seema’s hair. He talks incessantly to Seema as he seems oblivious to this watershed moment in her treatment. Seema smiles as the stylist gives a nuanced soliloquy regarding the deep connection between Jews and Indians. I can see tears welling up in her eyes as she politely listens to his analysis of the geopolitical ties of our respective motherlands.
As the final pieces of her hair fall the floor, I’ve never been more proud of my wife. She rubs her fingers against the prickly surface of her emancipated scalp and stares at her new reflection in the mirror. This is the strongest I’ve seen her during the treatment. This is the strongest I’ve seen her ever. For a moment, I can sense the cancer is scared. The cancer realizes it has fucked with the wrong 5’4”, 105 lbs., half-Gujurati, half-Marathi, Dallas-raised, Brown-Columbia-NYU-educated badass that is my wife. She looks fierce. She looks defiant. She looks better than Demi Moore in G.I. Jane. She looks better than Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. She looks like an Egyptian queen. She looks more powerful than three Cleopatras.*
Seema dons her wig and we bid farewell to our favorite Mossad agent. As we make our way to the closest F train, I feel like the wig is the best purchase we’ve ever made. I see the wig as new, powerful, camouflage armor that makes Seema impervious to stares and questions. We can continue battling cancer in a discreet way, hiding in plain sight amongst our fellow New Yorkers and blending into the normalcy of chaos in this city we love.
* No disrespect, Ms. Hill.
y walk to the therapist’s office is a straight shot up Court Street and goes right into the heart of Downtown Brooklyn. I like the walk. It’s great for people watching, but more importantly, there is a Popeye’s in Downtown Brooklyn. I make it a point to visit the Popeye’s before each of my therapy sessions for two strategic purposes.
They call me “Atlanta”
when I walk in, a nickname inspired by the Braves hat I constantly wear. They already
know what I’m going to order. I simultaneously have immense pride and shame
that I’m a regular at a Popeye’s.
“Number 3 with sweet tea?”
“Gonna be a minute. Ya boy is taking forever with the biscuits today.” He motions to his co-worker in the back, who quickly responds.
“Man, fuck you!”
They laugh. I laugh.
Talking with the people working at Popeye’s is a welcome distraction that feels like more psychological relief than what happens in my actual therapy sessions.
It took me a while to navigate the bowels of the Empire Blue Cross website and find a therapist. Perhaps I was just using their shitty digital user experience as an excuse to postpone reaching out and setting up an appointment. It’s hard to admit you need help. It’s hard to ask for help, when asking itself feels like an admission of weakness. It’s hard to talk to someone about your fear, anger and sadness. It’s even harder if that person is a complete stranger. But I’m quickly realizing there is only so much I can say to Dad, my brother and my friends about the cancer. I feel myself projecting the same façade of positivity towards them that I do towards Seema to avoid them worrying about me. Beneath the surface I can feel a fierce emotional undertow that is dragging me downward.
I’ve also seen how helpful Seema’s therapy sessions have been for her. She seems more mindful and can clearly communicate how she’s feeling. These results seem far superior to my approach of just internalizing my emotions until they get so pent up that I become catatonic in the shower. So I put aside any pre-conceived notions I have about therapy and decide to randomly cold call a number on the Empire database list that is walking distance for our apartment.
Dr. Gottlieb is the therapist who has won the Empire Blue Cross lottery. Every week we meet in his small, barren office. I sit on a blue couch as he sits across from me in a leather armchair. There is one window behind him that serves as opportunity to be distracted. There is one framed piece of art in the room, an illustration done by one of his former patients. It’s surrealist artwork; the creator must have been studying Dali that week in Art History.
Gottlieb is a small man with thick glasses who wears oversized shirts and oversized ties. His outfits are so consistent it becomes clear he must have gone overboard during the swing craze in the mid 90’s and now his entire wardrobe is comprised only of zoot suits.
Besides possibly being a founding member of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies who moonlights as a therapist, Gottlieb is somewhat aloof. He is nice and well intentioned, but when I talk to him, his eyes wander. He fidgets in his chair. He sighs. I eventually get the strong sense that neither of us wants to be there. Unfortunately this realization doesn’t happen until our fourth appointment, at which point the thought of finding a new therapist and recounting the entire timeline of our cancer battle again just seems mentally exhausting. I wonder if his other patients are in the same predicament. So by default it’s just Gottlieb and myself, battling the inner demons unleashed by my wife’s cancer.
During one of our first sessions Gottlieb and I talk about my recent efforts to find movies and books with themes of perseverance for Seema and myself. Gottlieb thinks this a worthwhile endeavor. He even says he will think of a list of suggestions. I feel good about Gottlieb being proactive and engaged. Maybe we’ve reached a turning point. The next week he kicks off our discussion.
“Oh! I thought of a movie for you to watch!”
“Cool. Which one?”
“It’s called Life Itself. It’s about Roger Ebert.”
“But… he died from cancer.”
There is an awkward silence for about twelve seconds as we stare at each other. I wonder if there are any other recommendations on his list. I can only assume they are such uplifting suggestions as watching Shoah, the 17 hour Holocaust documentary, while listening to “Tears in Heaven” on repeat.
So no, I don’t like him, but I can’t deny that it’s helpful to talk. When I’m with Seema, I have to constantly emit positive energy even during my sadder episodes. At least with Gottlieb I can just vent. I can be negative without fearing it might hurt Seema. I can spew my dark thoughts so they won’t fester. I begin looking past Dr. Gottlieb’s strange mannerisms. I don’t care. We just talk. My anger and sadness are released. It’s a deep well to pull from and I’m frightened when I realize how deep the well is.
When I speak to my family and try to articulate the sense of loss cancer has brought into our lives, I stop myself from over sharing. I don’t want them to be concerned about me. So I just add another brick to my façade of positivity. Instead of talking about this seismic shift of our dreams and our life to them, I oversimplify and tell them cancer is just a curveball life has thrown us. But I know a curveball is not the right analogy. When you’re in the batter’s box you can actually see a curveball coming towards you and try to make adjustments. The surprise and shock of cancer is different. A more accurate analogy would be standing in the batter’s box, waiting for a pitch, then Drew Carey appears out of nowhere and stabs you in the neck with a screwdriver.
I talk to Gottlieb about the curveball. I talk to him about Drew Carey and screwdrivers. Gottlieb doesn’t blink. He doesn’t judge. He just listens.
I tell Gottlieb I can feel my personality changing. My once natural state of being carefree now seems so naive. I constantly worry when the other shoe will drop and what form it will take. The lack of control and uncertainty is overwhelming. Will Drew Carey return? He could be anywhere at anytime. I hate The Price is Right.
I talk about how hard it is to see so many friends with their new families. They all seem so happy and content. It feels as if everyone on the planet is having healthy, beautiful babies. I see an incessant perfectly curated social feed of perfect photos of perfect families and perfect lives. My jealousy leads to shame.
Gottlieb nods calmly, then unexpectedly drops a knowledge bomb on me. He tells me it’s horrible what Seema and I are going through. But I don’t know what other people have gone through. I don’t know what struggles they’ve faced in their own pregnancies. Or in their own lives.
The scenery on my walk back to our apartment is the same, but the characters are now different. I pass my Popeye’s. I pass the halal stands. I pass the Barnes & Noble, Trader Joe’s and all our favorite bars and restaurants on Court Street. But when I pass my fellow Brooklyners a wave of empathy overcomes me. I wonder what struggles they’re going through. I wonder what battles they are fighting. Every face now seems like another façade plastered on that is hiding some trauma in their lives. I vow to be nicer to everyone. I vow to add more small acts of kindness into the world, the same that others have shown us that have helped Seema and I through this trauma.
I get home. Seema is asleep. I lay in bed next to her, but the knowledge bomb continues its aftershock. I wonder if I’ve been wrong about Gottlieb. Perhaps he’s more than oversized ties and horrible movie recommendations. Perhaps Gottlieb’s suggestions have value that I don’t see. Perhaps I’ll take a nap, get up and watch Life Itself.
t's December 2013, a month after our wedding. We are in Cambodia for our honeymoon to see the ancient ruins of Ankor Wat. The ruins are giant temples built over centuries with beautiful layers of Hindu and Buddhist architectural influences. As we explore, we see a smaller, stone temple removed from the larger temples. Two Buddhist monks with shaved heads sit on the floor inside. Our tour guide tells us if we give a small donation, the monks will tie a woven bracelet around our wrists. The bracelets will bring us good luck. Being pro-monk and pro-luck, we give them some money. One of the monks ties two pieces of tightly intertwined red and blue thread around my right wrist. Their eyes are kind and fill me with warmth. The donation feels worthwhile. It’s going to be a good year.
Eight months after the
honeymoon and three months into our cancer battle, the yarn and the monks
aren’t living up to their bargain. Seema is experiencing the worst side effects
of the chemotherapy. She has 105 degree fevers and can barely hold down any
food or water without vomiting. Seema then has to undergo a painful
brachytherapy procedure to ensure the success of additional internal radiation
procedures. The first attempt fails and she has to undergo the procedure and
it’s pain again. As she is transported in a gurney from one medical center to
the next, every slight bump created by a crack on the sidewalk causes her
immense pain. Seema screams with the slightest movement. I feel helpless.
I spend countless hours in different hospital waiting rooms staring at my wrist and try to make sense of the yarn that wraps around it. I don’t understand why the cancer has chosen us. As I exhaust my rationality, I come to the conclusion that this is most certainly some kind of karmic payback for past misdeeds. My mind drifts to every major mistake I’ve made, every time I’ve let my family down, every ex-girlfriend I hurt and all the hate each one has wished my way. All of it has conspired against us. Maybe all those mistakes and ill will are just too much for the monks and their yarn. I feel silly for putting so much faith and hope in some string from two strangers on the other side of the globe. I wish there was a science to the metaphysical, but there isn’t. We’re just getting older and experiencing the clichés of life that we once thought we were immune to in our youth. Perhaps there is no rhyme of reason to any of this. But I still don’t take off the bracelet.
The doctors tell us that Seema’s white blood cell count is dangerously low, and if it drops below a certain level we will have to halt treatment because of her weakened immune system. I’m worried about Seema losing weight. I worry that it will lead to lower immunity. Seema and I fight when I think she isn’t eating enough.
Certain smells make Seema ever more nauseous, so I try making her the most simple, bland meals that won’t upset her stomach or offend her nostrils. I bring her a plain turkey sandwich with a smoothie. Our nutritionist at the hospital has recommended adding olive oil to each smoothie for extra needed calories that don’t affect flavor.
I bring the meal into our bedroom. Seema is tucked under the covers with her oversized blue beanie covers that her head.
She takes a bite of the sandwich, and then immediately tells me she’s full. She can’t eat anymore. I implore her to take another bite, or take a sip of the smoothie. She doesn’t want to.
“Babe, can you try to take another bite?”
“Jay, I can’t.”
“Seriously? You haven’t even eaten anything today.”
“I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
I storm into the kitchen and set the tray down. It’s hard constantly teetering from sympathy to frustration. I’m worried she will whither away if she doesn’t eat enough. I’m worried how much worse the treatment and side effects can get if she doesn’t eat right. But I can’t force her.
I eat the leftover sandwich and smoothie I made her. I feel annoyed and let down. Why can’t she just take a few more bites? I feel like Seema is being too picky with food. Then I remind myself.
Oh. Right. She’s going through chemotherapy, you fucking idiot.
I come back into the room sheepishly and apologize. I lay with her and give her a tight hug. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about low white blood cell production and having to stop treatment for Seema.
I have no idea what will affect white blood cell count, but neither does anyone else really. Cancer is a disease with so many variables and unknowns. Doctors, nurses and nutritionists all have their own opinions on what is best for Seema and what she should be eating to increase her white blood cells. My mom and Aai also have their own opinions on what foods and habits will increase the count. My grandmother’s solution is to sit in her favorite chair in my childhood home in Augusta and pray constantly. My aunt in India has a puja done in our names at my family’s ancestral temple in Mangalore. Seema tries her best to eat my turkey sandwiches and not overanalyze WedMD (which should just be renamed “SecondGuessYourMedicalProfessionals.com”). I continue to whisper my own prayers at night in the darkness of our bedroom and wait for the bracelet to kick in.
Seema is too exhausted
to go out. So we watch Netflix to pass the time. But watching 634 consecutive
episodes of Law & Order: SVU leaves something to be desired.
“What do you want to watch next?”
“I don’t know. You pick.”
“Oooh, Mega Shark Versus Crocasaurus!”
“It has Jaleel White in it!”
“Jay, I don’t want to watch anything with a giant crocodile or Jaleel White.”
The best non-giant crocodile/Jaleel White viewing option we find is Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s a wonderful documentary about an elderly sushi chef, Jiro Ono, and his one-of-a-kind, 3 Michelin star sushi restaurant located in a Tokyo subway. The dedication to craft and presentation of food captured in the film makes us salivate.
Just a few days after we watch the film, we discover that one of Jiro’s sushi apprentices featured in the documentary, Daisuke Nakazawa, has opened his own restaurant in the West Village called Sushi Nakazawa. The reviews are unanimous in their acclaim. Ingredients are caught and prepared the same day by Daisuke, ensuring a freshness, quality, and craft that exists at Jiro’s original restaurant. The only reservation available is the night before Seema’s next chemotherapy session. We decide it will be a delicious distraction and make the reservation.
Our pre-chemo date night starts well. We are escorted past the sushi bar in the front of the restaurant to the small, modern dining area in the back. We are seated next to a young, French family and some middle aged banker-types. We feel a bit out of place. Seema whispers to me.
“Do you think anyone can tell I’m wearing a wig?”
“Hell no. You look amazing.”
Seema looks over the wine list.
“So fucking ready.”
“You only eat at Sushi Nakazawa once, right?”
We order a nice bottle of wine and prepare ourselves for the onslaught of Chef Nakazawa’s twenty-course omakase. Seema is excited. Her eyes are bright. She’s been thinking about sushi since we watched the documentary, and now we’re about to indulge. I’m more excited that her appetite has returned.
The meal at Nakazawa is incredible and every bite lives up to the hype. The fresh ingredients stimulate different regions of our taste buds. Each course is more delicious than the next. I can only assume the final dish of the evening will be a magical seahorse, drizzled in Poseidon’s tears that will grant you three wishes and allow you to shit fine silk.
The next course our server brings is a plate of sea urchin. A thin, circular wall of seaweed paper houses a brown, puffy, gelatinous substance. It’s the first course that looks suspect. But given where we are, we know we must trust Jiro’s padawan. Seema takes a bite and her face lights up. The texture is unexpected, but undeniably good.
The final course isn’t a magical sea horse, but a small, perfectly sliced brick of egg custard. It’s the same recipe that Chef Nakazawa strived to perfect under the tutelage of Jiro in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. After his 200th attempt at perfection, Jiro finally deems the custard acceptable and Daisuke recalls crying in happiness. It is a fitting final course. But Seema can’t stop talking about the sea urchin. She says there was something distinct and unique about it that she can’t quite describe. I’m just enthralled Seema has powered through an entire meal. We leave with full stomachs, a massive bill, and thankful for our pre-chemo date night.
The next day, Seema gets her routine blood test before her chemotherapy. When the nurse returns with the results, we learn that her white blood cell count has spiked out of nowhere. Suddenly, everything seems so simple. It was obviously the fresh sea urchin hand picked and cooked by Jiro’s apprentice combined with prayers from my grandmother and a cosmic beacon from an ancestral temple in India along with the bracelet from the two monks in Cambodia that directly affected the rise in Seema’s white blood cell count. It all makes perfect sense.
Seema and I feel like we’ve stumbled upon the sushi silver bullet to increasing white blood cells. As we leave the hospital after the blood test, Seema and I discuss our discovery.
“It had to be the sea urchin. I’m positive,” she says.
I nod in agreement.
It makes perfect sense to make another reservation at Sushi Nakazawa the night before Seema’s next and final chemotherapy session. We go all out again. You only eat at Sushi Nakazawa twice, right? The meal is just as delicious as the last. When the sea urchin dish arrives, Seema and I knowingly nod at each other. Fuck you, cancer. Time for a white blood cell booster shot.
We arrive for Seema’s final chemotherapy session the next day and get her blood tested once again. I have the confidence of Larry Bird with his final shot in the 1988 All-Star Three Point Contest. This one is in the bag. My only worry is if the sea urchin works too well and Seema gets some sort of super human white blood cell powers. Our nurse returns with the results. The white blood cell count is healthy and we can proceed with the final chemotherapy treatment on the 4th floor. I walk out of the room Larry Legend style, one arm and one finger raised to sky.
Seema is administered the IV for the final round of chemo. Her doctors, nurses and nutritionist swing by the room to say hello and check-up on her. Everyone expresses how happy they are that the white blood cell count had risen. I feel compelled to share the connection between sea urchin and white blood cells we’ve uncovered. We need to start planting the seeds now so Seema can be cited in the medical study.
“So, Seema and I had sushi last night.”
The nutritionist stares at me in horror.
“YOU DID WHAT??”
Seema and I both look at each other. Our wide-eyed gazes connect as we telepathically wonder together how badly we fucked up. I try to recover.
“We… we ate at Sushi Nakazawa. Have you ever seen the movie Jiro Drea-”
“You should not be eating sushi. Didn’t you read the pamphlets I gave you? That’s the worst possible thing she could’ve eaten!”
The white blood cell count begs to differ, lady. Scoreboard!
“Really? Why?” I ask.
“Sushi is raw! You don’t know if it was cleaned or prepared correctly. Her immunity is weakened from the chemo. Who knows what other foreign substances could have been on it? How could you have been so careless?!”
Instead of discovering our sushi silver bullet, we appear to have dodged it. I look at Seema and shrug as she smiles at me. Guess it was the bracelet after all.
few weeks later, Seema and I sit at an outdoor table of a restaurant near our
apartment. The sun shines. Seema eats a salad. I eat a fish sandwich. I tell
Seema I’m amazed at the fact that the yarn around my wrist still hasn’t
disintegrated or fallen off yet despite being tied-on eleven months ago. I tell
her about how I’ve spent hours wondering if this accessory has any metaphysical
value or if it was just two women with shaved heads in Cambodia hustling
gullible western tourists. I tell her that it’s made me question the inherent
decency of our fellow humans and the value of religion and superstitions in
My wife, the cancer survivor, tilts up her sunglasses. Her face glows with sunshine and she looks at me lovingly.
“Jay, it’s just string.”
ix months after the
diagnosis, a cold December grips NYC as we begin the slow process of packing up
our apartment. Sunny Los Angeles beckons. We are ready to begin the bumpy reentry
into the life we had planned before cancer. Seema will be starting her job at a
prestigious law firm in the new year. I’ll continue to freelance and maybe eat
some tacos. Tacos that are equally prestigious.
Normally my procrastination is the source of annoyances and aggravation. But with our impending move, my procrastination is a weapon. There are still boxes yet to be unpacked from us moving in three years ago. Jokes on you Life. I’m so fucking behind I’m ahead.
The night before we leave, we plan one final hurrah in NYC with a group of our best friends. We decide on a two-pronged assault of the West Village. Our first stop is Wogies, a Philly bar on Greenwich Ave. It’s a nostalgic location for Seema and I. The bar was the launching pad for our first hook-up on a cold night back in February 2009. The bar stayed open longer than usual that night. Seema convinced the owner to let us stay and also managed to get my friends and I free shots of tequila. From that moment on I knew she would be the heroine in an epic poem we would write together.
We arrive at Wogies on our final night in NYC rolling 20 deep. We eat cheesesteaks, drink Yuengling and reminisce. Even though the treatment is done, Seema can’t drink too much since her body is still weak from the chemo. So I step up and let her know I’ll be drinking for both of us. We eventually rally our crew of warriors to Karaoke Boho a few blocks away and reserve a room in the back. As we wait for our room to be set up, we grab drinks by the bar and get to witness a tubby Filipino man possessed by the ghost of Etta James belt out a flawless rendition of “At Last.” I am inspired and hope to channel the spirit of Lionel Richie.
I proceed to consume my weight in sake as we all butcher renditions of such classics as “Conga,” “Say It Ain’t So,” “How Will I Know,” “That’s What Friends are For” and “Bailamos.” Around 3 A.M., when the headache of continuously sing-screaming for several hour sets in, a bittersweet feeling sets in as well. I’m happy we’re moving to LA. It feels like turning the page. A fresh start feels right after such a tumultuous year. But leaving this particular group of friends feels wrong. These friends who cooked for us during Seema’s treatment, who brought Seema flowers and care packages filled with candles and trashy, gossip magazines she loves. These friends who came over to watch The Bachelor with Seema since they knew it made my eyes bleed. These friends who got edibles for Seema that helped her work up an appetite to eat. These friends who got drunk with me on rooftops and let me rant and vent. These friends who brought their dog to our apartment to make Seema feel better. These friends who showed up at 8am to surprise Seema on her final day of chemo. These friends who helped us through the hardest year of our life.
When we leave the next day, we will be saying goodbye to these friends and a time in our lives that we will never get back. Even in my drunken state I marvel at the improbability of the intersection of so many of our favorite people that all happened to be in the same city at the same time. But New York City isn’t sustainable for most of us. At some point we’ll all be splintered across the country and the world. Our paths will all surely cross again many times, but I can’t help but feel like we’re leaving a community we will try to recreate for years to come but will never quite succeed at replicating.
We awake hoarse and hungover the next morning and scramble to make our flight departing NYC. In the chaos, I’m thankful for this hangover. It mutes the pain of leaving.
Before we move to California, we will be making a slight detour to Georgia for the holidays to stay with my family. Since Seema is tougher than a brick of adamantium, she has declined the extra time off that has been extended to her by her law firm, and will instead pivot straight from chemotherapy treatment to studying for the California bar exam. It’s toughest bar exam in the country. Other state’s bar exams take two days to complete. California’s takes three. But that doesn’t deter Seema. She wants to start her new job as soon as possible, and that means crushing giant volumes of nuanced state law at record speeds.
Augusta is a sleepy Southern town that is equal parts quiet and boring. It’s the perfect place for Seema to study and for us to regroup before our voyage West. Dad has also arranged an important scan for Seema at the Medical College of Georgia. Much like the Stargate scan that began the treatment, this scan will be a bookend that will allow us to determine how successful the chemotherapy and radiation treatments have been. It seems strange to be adding a new set of doctors in Augusta into Seema’s already crowded bench, but I trust my Dad.
The plane takes off for Georgia. My hangover gets the best of me and I fall asleep as the crowded footprint of NYC fades beneath a thick layer of clouds.
I sit beside Seema as
she lays flat and enters the MRI scan. I put on a pair of hospital earphones to
block the deafening sound the MRI creates. The headphones are so bulky and worn
they look like they were used by a helicopter pilot extra in Apocalypse Now. But even Coppola’s
oversized headphones cannot distract me from our surroundings. The MRI room is a sad place. The windowless room has
three of the four walls painted with a mural of blue sky and green fields, as
if to try and cover up the fact that we’re bathing in florescent lights and a
gargantuan, metal machine is swallowing my wife.
After the scan there isn’t much to do but wait for the results. Naturally, Seema, Dad and I go eat some pie at The Boll Weevil, a restaurant downtown not too far from the hospital. We sit. We eat pie. We drink coffee. We try not to think about the scan. Pie has wondrous powers, but it doesn’t seem to be distracting enough today. After an hour of eating pie a drinking coffee, Dad gets a phone call. The scans are back. His colleagues tell him to come by the hospital and look at them himself. Dad tells us to wait. He’ll be back. We shouldn’t worry. Seema and I order more pie. We wait. We worry.
I eat a bite of pie. I look at Seema. I have an epiphany. It could be the pie. It could be how my wife looks sitting across the booth from me. It could be a combination of the pie and the way Seema looks. But I slowly realize that maybe there is a silver lining to the curveball/Drew Carey stabbing us in the beck with a screwdriver. Seema and I are now closer than ever before because the battle with cancer has created an impossibly strong bond between us. Like two soldiers in a foxhole being shelled in Bastogne, the last six months we’ve huddled together in a tight embrace, hoping we can avoid the artillery fire and shrapnel of the unknown. With every appointment, scan, success and setback, a deeper, unspoken respect has been building. No one else will ever know what we truly went through. Only us. We are now more patient with each other. We are more sensitive to each other. My love for my wife has grown as I’ve witnessed her endure and persevere.
I take another bite of pie. I realize Seema and I have been given the gift of a new lens to revaluate what’s truly important in our lives. We have a perspective that others don’t. We know what we have lost. Nothing can be taken for granted. Everything should be celebrated. We know that time is precious. So what should we do with our time?
I eat some more pie. I want to spend time with my wife. I want to spend more time with my family. I want to hear my nephew laugh and I want to see my parents more. I want to thank my parents for everything they’ve done for me and ask them about every sacrifice they’ve made for me so I can appreciate them even more. I want to surround ourselves with people who love us and who are supportive of us. I want to hug every one of them a little tighter now. I want to be unashamed to text these friends expressing that I love them. I want to carve out all the bullshit people, events and noise from our lives. We’ve never had an excuse to do so, but now we do.
I continue to eat pie and wonder. Would we be worse at marriage without the cancer? Would we have not found a deeper appreciation for each other and life without it wrecking our lives? Is there an alternate universe where we aren’t continuously tested that makes us not as close?
I can’t eat any more pie. My thoughts begin to wade between what might have been and what will be. I take a deep breath and try to reassure myself. If the other shoe does drop, or another curveball is thrown, or if Drew Carey reappears, we have this battle with cancer as a barometer to measure our durability. The other challenges life will throw our way will just feel like annoying hiccups in comparison. I know we will be tougher than we previously were. And we will be ready for what comes next.
“Babe, what are you thinking?” Seema asks.
“Nothing,” I respond.
We don’t hear anything from my Dad. The radio silence is unnerving. Suddenly, he walks through the door of the Boll Weevil. He is beaming. He wraps up Seema and myself in a huge bear hug. The scans have come back completely clean. The doctors referred to the scans as “beautiful.” N.E.D. they say. No Evidence of Disease.
We wear giant grins as we speed back home in Dad’s car. I resuscitate Dad’s beat up iPod mini I bought him in 2007 that has spent the last century permanently lodged and forgotten between the passenger seat and center console. I excitedly use the click wheel to scroll through his music selections for our soundtrack.
“What should we play?!” Seema asks excitedly.
“I don’t know! All I see is Simon & Garfunkel and The Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack!”
“Frank Sinatra! Play Frank Sinatra!” Dad exclaims.
Dad rolls down the windows as “The Best is Yet to Come” blasts from the speakers and we fly down Fury’s Ferry Road. We arrive home and are greeted with hugs from Mom and my grandparents. We cry tears of laughter and relief. We pop a bottle of champagne and make phone calls to spread the good news to friends and family.
This should be a moment of triumph. Seema has gone through chemo, radiation, and more chemo. This cancer nightmare should be behind us. But the moment is fleeting. The next night, Seema and I sit on a couch in my parent’s living room drinking some wine and watch my Mom happily cook up a storm in the adjoining room. Dad comes home from work, pours himself a glass of scotch and sits in the leather armchair across from us. I can tell something is wrong.
He tells us a doctor in Augusta has suggested that, despite the beautiful N.E.D. scan, we should consider being even more aggressive with the treatment. He says Seema is young and can handle an additional series of chemotherapy treatments. Going through this extra chemo could decrease the chances of a cancer reoccurrence in the future.
I look at Seema. She is handling the news way better that I could. She is composed, but I can see she looks completely drained. She lets out a deep sigh.
Another round of chemo might seem like overkill. But if cancer is a strange beast, chemotherapy is a stranger one. When treating cancer with chemo, the first wave of treatment is your best shot at taking out the cancer. If there is a reoccurrence later down the road and you’ve already been treated with chemo before, the chemo is exponentially less effective the second time around.
Our doctors in NYC say we’ve done enough. We shouldn’t proceed with more treatment. We have a choice. Do we hit the cancer with another uppercut?
We have an impromptu conference call in the living room. Seema is naturally torn. Like the President in the Situation Room, Seema wants to hear everyone’s opinion before deciding the next steps. I dial Seema’s parents, put my speaker phone on, and set in on coffee table in the middle of the room. After Dad explains the predicament, I can hear the frustration in Aai’s voice as the iPhone speaker crackles. I understand her frustration. She doesn’t want her daughter to do more chemo. She doesn’t know this doctor in Augusta. All she knows is that they are recommending putting her daughter through more suffering. Our deep bench of doctors now feels like too many cooks in the kitchen.
My gut says no to the chemo as well. The thought of Seema going through additional rounds of chemo is excruciating. But the thought of cancer reappearing later in life, and the constant nagging sensation of wondering if we did enough, is even worse. As our Sisyphean reality sets in, I find myself frustrated on the verge of tears. The goal posts keep moving. Sprouts of Seema’s hair have just started to grow back. It’s a sign of a return to normalcy, but now it feels like we’ll never be done with this chapter in our lives. We were so ready to move on. We were starting to make plans again. But cancer will not be ignored. Cancer doesn’t give a fuck about your plans.
Aai says no to the chemo. Dad says it could be worthwhile. Doctors in NYC say no treatment. The doctor in Georgia says more treatment. Seema and I are unsure what to do. We’re all divided. But we have an appointment with Seema’s new oncologist in Los Angeles in a few weeks. She will be the tie-breaker.
The California sun beats
down on our rental as we crawl through sluggish traffic on the 110-N. Dad and Aai
have flown in for the tie-breaker appointment at USC Keck Medical Center in
Pasadena. I’m happy they are here. Our initial team from the first week of
diagnosis in Brooklyn has come full circle in Los Angeles. As we wait in
traffic, I can’t help but think about all our stuff from our Brooklyn apartment
sitting in storage waiting to be unpacked so our lives can be unfrozen.
We finally pull up to Keck Medical Center and drive through the medical campus. My heart pounds as I wind the car through the giant, spacious parking garage next door. I can’t navigate my emotions of anticipation, excitement and fear that are all attached to our new oncologist’s treatment recommendation.
After we check-in, we wait in one of the patient rooms. Seema sits upright on the examining table, her short legs dangling over the side. Dr. Roman walks in and introduces herself. When I shake her hand I feel like she could be the mom of one of my friends from high school. She is warm and caring, but direct. She takes us step by step through her analysis of the MRI scans from Augusta, then patiently answers our avalanche of questions about how to proceed. She speaks with a confidence and authority as she answers each of us individually. Then Dr. Roman turns to Seema and speaks to her as if she’s the only person in the room.
“Seema, I’ve dealt with a lot of patients over the years. And I can say one thing for sure. More isn’t always better. The treatment you’ve gone through is extensive. You’ve put your body through a lot. More chemotherapy is not the answer. You’ve done enough. It’s time to start living. It’s time to start getting on with your lives.”
Seema looks at me and smiles. I smile back.
Time to start living. It’s music to my ears and the best advice I’ve ever heard.
Thank you for taking the
time to read The Curveball. If you feel motivated, please donate to one of
these organizations that helped Seema and I during her battle with cancer:
Thank you to our families.
Thank you to #TeamSeema (pictured above cheering Seema at her last chemo session).
Thank you to all the doctors, nurses and staff at NYU Langone.
Thank you to my classmates at Writers Workshop LA and our instructor Seth Fischer who helped me realize this story had value.
Thank you to Peter Vattanatham for designing the cover.
Thank you to Tyler Branch for taking the cover photo on our wedding day.
Thank you to Seema for everything. I love you.