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Drawing by Julie Seyler.

Drawing by Julie Seyler.


Last week, as part of my annual check-up, I had routine bloodwork done. I was also given “homework” in the form of a stool-sample kit, which tests for blood in your feces. If they find blood, it could mean you have colon cancer, which is highly treatable in its early stages, but frightfully deadly later on.

The stool-sample kit is ingenious. You lay a piece of thin paper on the surface of the water in your commode to create a temporary floating platform, “make your deposit” on it, then jab the top of the floating waste with a tool resembling a spiky plastic toothpick – twisting to ensure full coverage. Then you snap the befouled toothpick into a sterile plastic carrying case, wrap the case in a sliver of bubble wrap, and slide the whole thing into a padded, postage prepaid envelope addressed to the testing lab. Dump the envelope into the nearest mailbox, and it’s done.

Are we having fun yet? Surely not half as much fun as the lab technician whose job it is to unwrap and test those spiky sticks all day long.

Anyway, I dutifully completed the test, mailed it off, and totally forgot about the blood work and stool sample – until I went home after four days away and listened to the accumulated phone messages. There were four: one wrong number, and the next three, ominously, from my doctor’s office. All three merely recited that it was Dr. Gold’s office calling for Robert W. Smith, and asked that I give them a call. I’m not technically savvy, so I couldn’t figure out whether the messages had been left over three days, or three hours. Nonetheless, I was a bit alarmed that the doctor’s office was so anxious to reach me.

I checked my watch: 7:30 p.m. Too late to call. I made the one-hour drive to our shore house listening to the Yankees blow another game, and let my worries simmer in the background.

When I told my wife, Maria, she was silent, and pursed her lips slightly. I could feel a shadow of concern passing between us. My sister, a recent breast cancer survivor, was visiting for the week, and promptly gave voice to our worries.

“You better call them first thing tomorrow,” she said. “It could be nothing, but then again, it could be something. Calling you three times – that gives me some concern.”

It was right after dinner, and a knot of worry indeed seemed to be forming in my gut. Either that, or the raw onions in the salad were working their magic in my lower intestinal tract. I tried to brush it off.

“I will. Nothing I can do about it now, right?”

However, by the time I went to bed at 10:00, the issue was crowding out all other thoughts. “What could it be? Is the problem with the blood, or with the stool sample? If it’s the stool sample, how could it be anything but terrible news? If it’s the blood, how bad can it be? Maybe he just wants to adjust my cholesterol medication again. But why call three times then? Why not just once? It must be urgent.”

I managed to silence the crowd of doubting voices with a mindless thriller in which a CIA agent, running down a psychopathic serial killer, is forced to work with, and promptly falls for, a stunningly attractive Hispanic police lieutenant whose husband had tragically drowned, leaving her to raise her adorable six-year-old son on her own. At about 11 p.m., I fell into a restless sleep, peppered with car chases, snipers’ nests, suicide vests, and mysterious phone calls.

I snapped awake at 3:30 a.m., and reached for the book again, trying to silence my mind. I finished the novel in 45 minutes but found no comfort in the epilogue in which the hero embraces both the hot cop, and her young son on a beach at sunset, because my inner voices never stopped. This time, in the gray pre-dawn, their morbid logic gathered force and substance.

Why else would a doctor’s office call three times except to deliver tragic news? Every horrific possibility seemed likely; each imagined ailment corresponded with some recent ache or pain. I finally settled on colon cancer as the most likely culprit because it’s the most emotionally loaded: after my first colonoscopy, my doctor had ordered me to get one every three years. That was six years ago.

On top of that, I recently gave notice that I’m leaving my job as of September 30. So if now I’m disintegrating from the inside out like a spoiled apple that appears robust until you cut into it and discover the black rot running from stem to stern, everyone would say, “See that-he was just getting ready to really enjoy life, and it came crashing to an end. And all because he missed his follow-up colonoscopy.”

“That’s why they call it the silent killer,” they would cluck, shaking their heads.”What a shame.”

I recalled how Katie Couric’s husband had succumbed to colon cancer, even though he was probably rich, and should’ve known better, so it could easily happen to me. I imagined my despair, and the tragic sadness of my family as they helplessly watched me wasting away. I drifted off again at about 5 a.m., picturing myself standing before a microphone like Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in “Pride of the Yankees,” declaring myself the stupidest man on earth for having failed to get a follow-up colonoscopy.

I rolled out of bed at 7:30 a.m., because I couldn’t stand staring at the ceiling any longer. I called the doctor’s office and a bored recorded voice said the office opened at 9:30. I forced myself to eat breakfast, but the yogurt tasted flat and lifeless. I rode my bicycle to the convenience store to buy newspapers just to kill time. That image – everywhere.

Finally, at 9:45 a.m., I got through. Emily, the girl on the phone, was polite and noncommittal. She asked my name, and as usual, with a patient named Bob Smith, she needed my birthday, and had to go dig out my file. Appropriately, the gods of hold-Muzak had selected a sappy, funeral home arrangement of “Let It Be” for my listening pleasure as I waited.

Emily finally came back, and flipped through some papers. “Your occult blood was fine,” she said, apparently reading my rampaging mind. “But the blood work showed you have a vitamin D deficiency. Doctor says you should take 1000 mg a day.”

I wanted to kill her and kiss her at the same time.

“Have a nice day,” said Emily.

I thanked her, hung up, and dialed the colonoscopy doctor. Never again.

Until next time, I suppose.