Friday, January 17, 2014
Existing in New York City: "Sorry, pal, but you've got the Big C."
The Dreaded Diagnosis
The first person with cancer I encountered was an old man from my original hometown who came to stay with my family in Dallas while he underwent treatment at the infamous Hoxsey Clinic. He had lung cancer. He had been a 4-pack-a-day cigarette smoker all his life and I can remember hearing his coughing spells late into the nights he stayed with us. Hacking coughs; yet, I also remember him sitting eating breakfast and drinking coffee while smoking his first cigarette of the day before he went off for his daily treatments at this notorious Dallas clinic. Harry Hoxsey, an ex-insurance salesman, had a grandfather who noticed a huge tumor on one of his horses one day. He turned the horse out into a pasture of wild grasses and plants and one day he noticed the tumor had disappeared. So old Grandpappy Hoxsey gathered up some of these wild grasses and plants and concocted a paste which he began hustling as a cure for cancer. Harry Hoxsey opened his first clinic in Illinois but was soon run out of Illinois and he took his voodoo paste to Iowa where once again he was driven out as a quack.
But Harry Hoxsey found a home in Dallas, Texas, arriving there in the 1930s and being able to exist there into the 1960s when his Dallas clinic was moved by one of his nurses to Tijuana, Mexico. Hoxsey ironically developed prostrate cancer in 1967 but when his treatment didn't cure him he subjected himself to surgery and standard medical treatment for the disease and lived another 7 years before dying in 1974.
The gentleman with cancer who stayed with my family underwent the Hoxsey cure for several weeks before returning to his home where he died soon afterward.
I was just a kid when this gentleman stayed with us but I clearly remember how my mother and dad believed cancer was contagious and how after this gentleman left us, mother destroyed the dishes and cups and glasses he had used and also the sheets and pillow cases on which he had slept.
It wasn't long after this gentlemen died that the next cancerous episode entered my young life. My mother's brother was a great man of the world to me who owned and operated a chain of movie theaters around Texas and who when he was younger had as an early aviator opened the first airport in my West Texas hometown. A man of stubborn pride, he loved good clothes, drove only Packards (luxury cars of the 30s and 40s), and smoked at least 4 packs of Pall Mall cigarettes a day. He truly believed Pall Mall cigarettes were not detrimental to his health. As a man who sometimes managed one of his big theaters by himself, he was also his own projectionist and spent many a late night hours in a projection booth breathing in the carbon that was exhausted from the carbon lamps on the big movie projectors in those days.
So one day, this favorite uncle of mine happened to take advantage of one of the X-ray vans that would come to your neighborhood after World War II and that offered free chest X-rays the results of which were then mailed to you several weeks later. His results showed that he had lung cancer. Not only did he have it but he had it bad. He checked into the Veteran's Hospital in McKinney, Texas, and there one day on a family visit, I saw this great man of the world as I'd never seen him before. Due to the vicious spreading of his lung cancer, it had galloped out of his lungs and had invaded his brain. In those days the standard treatment of cancer if caught early was surgery (it included removing huge chunks of your lungs if you had lung cancer like my uncle); but if, like my uncle, your cancer had already spread throughout your body, the treatment consisted of shooting you full of morphine and just letting you slowly die.
Seeing my uncle that day made such a god-damn horrible impression on me that I decided right then and there that I'd never smoke cigarettes...EVER. My uncle had been isolated in a makeshift room out back of the main hospital area. Our visit was in the dead of summer and summers in that part of Texas can be brutal in terms of heat with temperatures hovering steadily in the 90s and going over 100 on the hottest of days. This makeshift room, it had been a porch room that they had walled in, had no air-conditioning of any kind. It had windows and they were open but still the room was stifling. My uncle was lying on an old army cot in his underwear with no cover.
This once mighty independent man was nailed to the cross of a surplus army cot and suffering, I would assume, much more than Jesus, a martyr to the saint of cigarette smoking. Screaming forth, and that was what he was doing, screaming forth vindictive denunciation against "this God and his fabulous son Jesus" that my grandmother and my father were trying to get my uncle to obey and fall on his knees in begging forgiveness for his many sins. "What kind of a god-damn God is letting me suffer like this..." and then he would claw at his face with his pale hands..."fuck all of you...fuck every god-damn one of you...the whole lot of you."
The doctor told us the cancer had spread from my uncle's lungs up into his brain. The pain was excruciating. The morphine didn't help; in fact, due to its dream-inducing power, it made the pain and that form of dying worse.
The last thing I remember my uncle saying (to his mother and my father) was, "If you really loved me you'd take a pistol and blow my brains out...," and soon he was ordering us to "Get the hell out of my sight...fuck all of you...get out...leave me alone." And we did. And going back to Dallas the conversation between my parents and my grandmother had to do with whether "Brother," as his sister and mother called him, was going to go to Heaven or not.
My next personal contact with cancer would happen many years later here in NYC.
[This little gleaning from my past will be continued...In the meantime, I continue to read Proudhon.]
for The Daily Growler