At the corner of Health Center and Health Sciences Dr. in La Jolla, California, there is a bright orange sign that states “Share the Road.” I had just exited the Moores Cancer Center after my third of seventeen radiation treatments for a patch of malignancy near my right eyelid. This was my second time in the ring with the big “C.” It wasn’t as life-threatening as the other, but reading this simple road sign somehow eradicated my fear. Like the proton beam that daily sliced through my cancer, it reminded me that I am not alone in this, nor any other aspect of my life, while I share the road with others.
The Rebecca and John Moores Cancer Center, at the UC San Diego Health’s La Jolla campus, is a brilliant building of sand-colored stone, aqua-colored tiles, towering glass doors and windows. When you enter the building, there is almost a feeling of arriving at a five-star hotel. A valet, with a smile, takes your car, and the front reception desk is staffed with welcoming guest relations representatives. People are swarming all through the complex, which includes other buildings, streets and parking lots. Large Torrey pine trees and brightly colored flowering shrubs divert attention from the capital letters—CANCER—on the building. Wheelchairs, bicycles, electric carts, Porsches, Mercedes, Range Rovers and old beater cars all swerve from one street to another, creating a blur that makes you wonder who is who and who has what.
Each morning as I wait for the technician to call my name, I sit in the radiation department’s waiting room that is large, bright and comfortable. The young dark-skinned woman who tends to the front desk smiles broadly and greets everyone as if each person has just arrived for the first time. Her hazel eyes never let on to the emotional and physical pain she must witness daily. Families who appear to have a loved one in treatment gather around her desk, sharing photos and stories, along with occasional laughs. Everyone, however, looks up to see who is coming out when the door to the inner sanctum opens. For the patients waiting—the hope is that it’s their technician, so they can receive treatment. For the families—a loved one who has finished treatment, so they can go on about their day. Each morning the door also opens, spilling out large groups of doctors, technicians, nurses, family. And one beaming individual in the middle of them. It’s graduation day for Patient X. Clinicians and family all gather around a golden bell on the wall, anxiously awaiting the patient to ring it with pride—marking the end of their treatment period and becoming the champion in the ultimate knockout round of their life. iPhones and such snap pictures. Tears flow. Clapping and hugs abound and, finally, all family members exit the department, hoping never to return. For many, that will be the case; for others, ringing the bell only signals the end of round one. The match is still on, and no one—nor any thing has been officially knocked out—yet.
Three weeks before starting my treatment, I was awoken at 6:50 am to the news that my sister had passed. I knew it was coming, and I couldn’t even cry. I was too tired from the constant care she needed over the past few months. I answered the phone with the only question left: “What time did she die?” I could tell my brother was taken aback, as his only response was, “Sorry, I was too upset to ask.”
On my last drive up to Newport Beach, to be with my sister the day before she died, I had left late enough to avoid the early morning crawl into North San Diego County and beyond. I was finishing up the last segment of the Serial podcast, hosted by Sarah Koenig, exploring the potential innocence of a man, Adnan Syed, who has been in jail for over fifteen years. He was convicted of killing an ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, while in high school. The weather as I drove up the coast to visit my sister was “picture perfect,” as my mother used to say. I couldn’t help but let my mind wander from the panoramic views of the glistening Pacific Ocean as I tried to picture this young man in jail, and the body of his girlfriend in a shallow grave. Neither ending for the young man or the girl was in any way picture perfect. Neither was the visual of my sister lying in bed, on her side with one eye open as she tried to mouth, “I love you.”
The board and care facility my sister spent her final days within was a nice residential-styled home along 16th Street, which was in the city of Costa Mesa, not Newport Beach as the facility’s brochure touted and, I guess, as I preferred as well. The home being in Newport Beach evoked, for me, an image of vibrant, albeit older, people in wide-brimmed hats—dressed in whites and yellows, living out their last days playing croquet, laughing and sipping iced teas on a sandy beach as they watched the sun slowly set in the western sky. Reality consisted of those same people, many dressed in stained pajamas, staring blankly at CNN on an aging wide-screen TV. Others tapped their feet to the imaginary music playing in their minds. Oxygen tanks littered the room, slowly delivering their last drops of life. There were no croquet matches and, certainly, no joyous graduation ceremonies signaling time to go home and about their lives. Only the television turned up full volume, drowning out the sounds of power-driven oxygen tanks and the chatter of Spanish-speaking caregivers in the background. Unlike the patients finishing their radiation treatments at the Moores Cancer Center, these residents have been knocked out and are just waiting for the bell to ring—signaling that their time on Earth has ended.
My first bout with cancer took place seven years ago. I was too young, but no one had told my prostate that. After getting a call from my doctor, who said he was “sorry” that I had cancer, I simply hung up the phone, walked into the kitchen and finished dinner with my family. The news didn’t hit home for me until I was well into my second month of exploring options for a cure. As a father, I wanted to make sure that I did what was needed to ensure my longevity. My son was ten, and I wasn’t ready, like any good parent, to give up on making his life a living hell! I also knew my husband wasn’t ready to take on that parenting role by himself. He had reminded me of that daily since 2001 when we adopted him. Being a prideful man, I felt screwed. I had spent the first half of my life pampering my body and enjoyed feeling sexy. My peacock feathers were molting. I could feel the walls closing in.
The ride with my family to the City of Hope cancer treatment center in the far eastern reaches of Los Angeles County felt like a scene in the movie, Dead Man Walking. I hadn’t killed anyone, but I did feel, however, that I must have done something incredibly wrong to deserve this punishment. After months of research, I was told that having my prostrate removed was the best treatment available, but all I had in my head were images of being sailed up the river to a penitentiary to serve out my last days. To a degree, getting my prostate yanked out of my body felt like a death sentence or, at a minimum, being sentenced to life. My sex life as I knew and loved was going to be over for a long time and, if the surgeon was having a bad day, maybe forever. As I walked into the center, I was expeditiously moved from the light and bright waiting area into the surgical unit where the sunlight died and so did my hope of leaving there the same as I entered.
I often think about Adnan Syed. The podcast left me with a lot of unanswered questions. Adnan was only eighteen years old when he was convicted. He was handsome, smart and well-spoken, but also a darker-skinned Muslim being prosecuted by lighter-skinned non-Muslims. The latter part may have doomed him, regardless of the crime. According to the charges, he bummed a ride from his ex-girlfriend after school, strangled her and buried her in the park. His best friend Jay, in a plea agreement with the DA, stated that he helped Adnan bury the girl but had no part in her murder. Adnan had informed his defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, about a girl who contacted him vouching that she knew he was innocent. Apparently, the girl, Asia McClain Chapman, had seen him in the library studying at the time the murder was taking place. Cristina never pursued the alibi, nor did she cross-examine a key witness brought in by the prosecution. One theory is that she was no longer able to concentrate on her cases due to declining health and personal financial problems, so she just blew it off. Unfortunately, she subsequently died, so no one can ask, or even post to her Facebook wall, WTF?
If Adnan didn’t do it—then who did? Was he living out a life sentence that could have somehow been radiated or surgically carved out by a lawyer who did their job instead of saying “sorry” at the end of the trial? Bell has rung—you’re knocked out. Sorry! The good news for him, however, is that on March 29, 2018, Syed’s conviction was vacated by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. They stated that his legal counsel, during the trial, was ineffective because his original lawyer failed to call a witness whose testimony “would have made it impossible for Syed to have murdered Hae.”
I do wonder, however, regardless of guilt—what brought him to that point in his life? If he is innocent, was it just rotten luck or some sort of cosmic preordained karma that took his freedom away—like having one’s prostate yanked out, or being placed in Newport Beach’s senior version of the Hunger Games? There’s only one way out and regardless of the outcome—you’re not going to like it.
My sister’s illness wasn’t cancer related, but it was a death sentence. She went in and out of many similar UCSD medical complexes and City of Hopes like I did. She most certainly sat in many a waiting room hoping that the person coming through the inner sanctum door would deliver good news to her. Unfortunately, there was no special appeals court waiting to take a second look at her condition and tell her that maybe she wasn’t ill after all. She will not be coming through that door like Patient X. She will not ring the bell. In the end, she quietly slipped away and took with her a part of me.
The drive back to San Diego, after my surgery at the City of Hope, was a long one. The traffic was heavy, and the stop-and-go action painfully cut into my freshly opened gut with each tap on the brake pedal. When I had left the hospital that morning, there was no celebration, no hospital staff to escort me from my room, clapping and offering hugs. Only an elderly gentleman pointing to the spot where a final signature was required on a long document, making me promise that I would pay the hospital, along with some paperwork describing months of recovery. I could almost hear my original doctor saying, “sorry!” They had simply done their job and done it well. I, in turn, had left a part of me at the hospital that would fundamentally change me forever.
As we sped down the I-15 freeway back into San Diego, I was sleepy from the drugs that were still pumping through my system. It had been a long, quiet drive. I was feeling sorry for myself, and there were no podcasts to let my mind wander from my ill-fated circumstances to someone else’s. I remember smiling, however, as I thought about my family, including my sister, who had been there for me at the hospital. She didn’t let on to what was happening with her even though I now know her illness was starting to consume her body. I’m sure she didn’t want to worry me or to somehow cast a shadow over my recovery. At her memorial service, I wrote that “while she was dying she began to teach me, whether she knew it or not—and even whether she wanted to or not—that change is inevitable—but how we react to it isn’t.”
The thing is, my perspectives on cancer, surgery, death, board and care facilities, family and even imprisonment have all fundamentally changed in the past seven years. How could they not have? Even the word sorry has taken on new meaning for me. Sorry, your sister died. Sorry, you got prostate cancer. Sorry, you ended up in jail due to a horribly distracted attorney. I wonder if anyone is really sorry or that is just the crutch word we use to protect ourselves emotionally. I would like to think that true sorrow still exists, and it’s not just a word society has taught us to use when none other makes sense.
As we merged from I-15 South to the 8 East transition, I got a glimpse, from the top of the concrete bridge, of that long road that leads from the Pacific Ocean to Phoenix, Arizona. The mood in the car had picked up a bit, and I was hopeful: we were less than a mile from home, and my recovery had begun. I had survived. My thoughts drifted during that last mile to the multitude of cars that were passing under me as we crossed over that bridge. I share the road daily with people who are on their way to prison, who will die that evening expectantly, who will find out that the cancer they thought was under control has again reared its ugly head. No golden bells will ring. No photos will be taken to memorialize the moment. There will be no clapping and no hugs. I wondered how I would react to their news in the future? Will I be distracted? Will I be enraged—looking for justice? Or, will I simply be like everyone else and say sorry. Sorry. So sorry.