My First Foray Into Semi Public Nudity Derailed By Teenage Girls - Or "How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Morphine"
When I was a teenager, I finally took off my shirt at a public swimming pool. I knew that everyone felt self conscious from time to time, especially at this adolescent period in their lives, but I didn't just think I was different. I KNEW that I was. But still, I decided to risk it.
At the edge of a swimming pool in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, I shed my t-shirt and laid it on the chair with my towel, trying to act as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Internally however, I was completely petrified. "Everyone else seems so comfortable," I thought "Why can't I be?" Despite trying to reason with myself, I was on high alert, feeling an odd surge of adrenaline, but I was determined to work through the fogs of trepidation.
Then, I heard it. The musical sound of tittering giggles behind me. I turned to see a group of four girls my age, each dressed in a very colorful and fashionable two piece swimming suit. Of COURSE, they were gorgeous. Why wouldn't they be?!! Cue the "deer-in-the-headlights" look for Michael. I stopped, hoping their vision was, like a pack of T-Rexes' vision might have been, based on movement.
As they passed by, one of the girls looked at my left shoulder and arm and said out loud to her friends, "Oh my god! What the fuck is wrong with his arm?!" Being teenage girls, they looked, laughed incredulously, and walked away. There I stood, feeling like less than a person and more than a little self conscious.
I didn't understand their reaction, but somehow expected it. They didn't understand. How could they? Would they even want to?
You see, just a few years before, at the age of ten, I had a bit of an adventure..
It began with a long fist fight with a misunderstood boy by the name of Jimmy Arnold (who I'm sure is a great person all these years later and actually saved my life back then, so if you know him, tell him "thanks"), I raised my left arm in the air only feel a powerful "SNAP!" and have it fall back at my side, completely immobile. I couldn't believe how much it hurt.
Doctors concluded that I had a bone cyst that had made my left humorous bone weak, allowing it to break under pressure. They conducted a bone graft from my hip to the arm and I was declared "soon to be fit for duty". I would get back to normal after a routine healing period. Unfortunately, life had other plans.
Memorial Day, 1991 - I took out the trash from my family's home to the garbage cans in alley. The day was warm, but wet from rain throughout the night and early morning. On the way back to house, I noticed a baseball base that my little brother, David, had left out on the path. I decided to make a heroic, game winning run for third base.
I pushed off the wet grass, slipping only a little, picking up speed to beat the throw from the imaginary outfielder in my imagination. There was just enough time to make it, I thought, as I stretched my arms forward and slid...
The first thing I remember upon hearing the "SNAP!" sound again was that my parents were going to be upset with me. I didn't quite understand, but I knew surgery couldn't be cheap and here I was, ruining the surgeon's hard work. The next thing I remember is the pain. It overwhelmed me and made it hard to roll over and push myself off the ground. Tears filled my eyes and I made my way back into the house to tell my startled parents what their dunce of a son had done.
Within three hours, the "cyst" in my arm had grown to the size of a grapefruit. A few days of tests confirmed that it wasn't a cyst at all, but a bone cancer, called "Osteogenic Sarcoma" or "Osteo Sarcoma".
My parent's wrestled with how to tell me, wanting to understand how to explain it me first. Meanwhile, a well meaning nurse had given my mother an outdated medical textbook that told her that the first step to treating Osteo Sarcoma was to immediately amputate the affected limb. They were also told that my expected survival rate was "less than 4%", and that was with the amputation. Hard words for a parent to hear.
Of course, they never told me these thing and I thank them for that. I was never told what the "rules" were, so therefore, we didn't have to follow them. Enter the medical heroes of the story - Dr. Lori Odom (Oncologist) and Dr. Ross Wilkens (Orthopedic Surgeon) http://limbpreservation.org, who stepped forward to pull off a treatment strategy that ended up being nothing short of a miracle, although that success was never a guarantee.
There were countless nights in the hospital, too many tests to remember, a lengthy coma induced by a reaction to a chemotherapy drug, and any number of strange medical procedures and drug induced experiences that got to me to stop worrying and love morphine (love is not a strong enough word - but our affair ended in a painful opiate sweat out all those years ago), learn and immediately practice self hypnosis to control excruciating pain, be the first human to have a biodegradable chemotherapy sponge implanted in his body (in a surgery attended by a veterinarian, of course!) and so on.
I also developed a deep and abiding love of Mexican food. For this, I am grateful.
That day, as I stood by the pool, shirtless in public for the first time since "my adventure", I watched the girls walk away, completely oblivious to the story they had just crossed. At that moment, I had a realization.
They didn't know what they didn't know. They were innocents, much like I was. They saw the scars. but not the war, not the strength, not the weakness that ran in my veins. Then I, in turn, couldn't see it in their lives either. What might I be missing if I could understand the emotions behind the eyes of others?
We all have a story. Some sell better than others, but that doesn't make it any more worthy than another story. The best we can do is take that moment to see those around us, ask questions, and truly listen.
P.S. Perhaps I'll tell more about "my adventure" someday soon, but today, it felt like too much to write and stay interesting.