(Note: the following is an excerpt from my debut novel, Canswer. It is a work of fiction and based on no one of any note. It is a comedy about death and how society deals with it. It is available as an ebook from Amazon.)
I sit in the doctor’s office and I wait. They love to make you wait. It’s their sick little game. I’ve long been of the opinion that the two areas they focus on at medical school are wasting patient’s time and indecipherable handwriting. They get all the boring medical stuff out of the way in the first semester.
An onslaught of degrees and diplomas from countless educational institutions dominate my view, so prominently displayed on the far wall that I can’t help but feel that my doctor clearly suffers from an inferiority complex of Napoleon Bonaparte-esque proportions. It’s as if these framed certificates are proof positive that Doctor Van Horn is a highly intelligent, supremely gifted individual in possession of a medical prowess so vast that his professional opinion must be taken as gospel and never brought into disrepute.
I continue to wait. The doctor is well educated and widely respected; I barely graduated high school and am respected by no one of any particular note. This appears to be the natural order of things. The Intellectuals keep you waiting while The Uneducated Masses are made to wait and never question the order.
A chronically sore throat in conjunction with spontaneous rectal bleeding – conditions that on their own are enough to cause significant alarm, in combination provoke boundless angst in even the steadiest of dispositions – prompted me to follow up with a doctor, if only to temporarily allay my fears.
From the time I set the appointment until I actually sat down with the doctor almost a week later, I’d managed to talk myself down off the proverbial ledge, to the point of convincing myself that the sore throat was simply a hangover from the rather nasty dose of flu I’d recovered from only recently. And the bleeding rectum nothing more than hemorrhoids, a common yet relatively inconsequential digestive complaint, the result of a combination of stress and a spate of recent poor dietary choices on my part.
I conveyed the aforementioned medical concerns to my emotionally stunted GP who, to his credit, immediately referred me to a specialist. After a three month wait (the bane of the publicly funded patient), the gastroenterologist had me sign countless forms that removed their accountability in the event of injury or worse, I was sedated then poked and prodded in random orifices on my person, and it struck me, I couldn’t quite settle on what was more intrusive: the highly sensitive detail of personal information they required on the meter long hosepipe they shoved up my ass.
I awoke, or more accurately was abruptly startled by a burly nurse clapping her meaty paws in front of my face, snapping me out of my narcotic-induced liquid dreamscape. Bleary eyed and feeling utterly violated, waking to the grim news that I had a condition known as Barrett’s Esophagus at one end and a colonic polyp roughly two inches long at the other (the latter of which was snipped, collected and whisked away for further questioning).
I’d never heard of Barrett’s Esophagus before. My first thought was that I wouldn’t want to be this Barrett character at all, to be associated with the pain and suffering that I can only presume a condition such as this brings.
I was sent on my way, still spaced out from the pharmaceuticals, emergency number in hand in case of complications.
Colonoscopy reminiscence cut thankfully short, Doctor Van Horn finally enters the room, greets me without so much as a glance in my general direction and sits at his desk.
“Mister Higgins,” he says. “What can we do for you today?”
“Just following up on the thing with the specialist last week,” I explain, more than slightly perturbed that he isn’t up to speed with my situation. “He told me to see you for the results of the biopsy.”
“Biopsy?” His eyebrows raise, annoying me instantly. “So they found something then? Strange. You’re not even thirty-five, are you?”
“Nope,” I say. “Thirty-three.”
Doctor Van Horn’s hand hovers over the mouse as he focuses his attention on the monitor of his computer. The palms of my hands are slick with sweat. My throat begins to spasm and constrict. The future of my existence – good, bad or anywhere in between – resides at the end of Doctor Van Horn’s fingertips, a mere mouse-click away.
I study his eyes like a predatory hawk tracking the scattered movements of a field mouse. His eyes narrow, his brow arches. This is excruciating: a sweaty conglomeration of meticulously scheduled torture. He swivels in his chair to face me and my heart skips a beat.
“Alrighty,” Doctor Van Horn says, his voice entirely too upbeat in light of the potential gravity of the situation. “It would appear as if you have cancer.”
Heavy words, so lightly thrown.
I can’t decide which is more disturbing to me: the news itself or the casually flippant manner in which it was delivered. It’s as if he temporarily inhabited the body of a stuffy, undersexed librarian and informed me that I had an overdue book. Clearly, Subtly 101 did not make the curriculum at medical school either.
“But I don’t really feel all that sick.”
“You will,” Doctor Van Horn says, lips peeling back in a twisted and poorly stifled grin. “Trust me. Give it time.”
My mind races frantically while my heart threatens to thrust out of its skeletal cage. The inside of my mouth has that cotton ball feel to it.
“What kind of cancer is it, exactly?” I ask uselessly.
“The kind that kills you within six months,” he replies while checking his email.
I struggle to catch my breath as the doctor swivels in his chair and opens a drawer by his feet. He retrieves a stack of what appear to be pamphlets of some kind and proceeds to fan them out in front of me like a croupier at a blackjack table displaying his hand. I glance down at them blankly and then up at Doctor Van Horn with an equally vacant expression.
“Some reading material,” he explains. “If these don’t help, I’m told that the Internet has a handful of semi-coherent websites that may give you some answers. No doubt you’ll have plenty of questions. I understand that Wikipedia has come along in leaps and bounds in terms of the sheer amount of helpful content on the subject.”
I’m taken aback by the loud and sudden buzz of the doctor’s intercom. A female voice crackles, young and appropriately detached, informing Doctor Van Horn that a Professor Kessler is on the line for him. His face illuminates as he picks up the receiver and cradles it between his neck and shoulder as he scribbles something on a scrap piece of paper. His expression animates as he proceeds to have an excessively loud and excited conversation.
I spend this time ceasing to exist. My thoughts turn to Professor Kessler, a man I have never met and presumably never will. I think about what might happen if Kessler – a man that my doctor clearly holds in high esteem – discovered he was terminally ill. How would the news be broken to him, I wonder? I’d like to imagine that any semblance of tact and sympathy residing in the very depths of Doctor Van Horn’s darkened soul would manage to make an appearance for the man known only as Kessler.
My doctor, clearly agitated at my inability to leave his office in a timely fashion, shoots me a look full of such potent vitriol I’m surprised that I’m not married to him. Apparently I was supposed to have interpreted the receipt of his phone call as my cue to make like a banana and split.
“Hold on a moment, Bob,” Doctor Van Horn sighs. “Just let me get rid of this last patient.”
I shake my head, baffled and unnerved by his blatant rudeness.
“What is it?” the doctor spits as he cups his hand over the receiver.
“I’m not sure,” I manage, on the verge of a breakdown of the nervous variety. “You tell me I’m dying, you won’t give me any details, and then I’m supposed to just skip out of here like everything is perfectly fine?”
Doctor Van Horn sighs deeply, reaches for a notepad with the telephone cradled between his shoulder and ear and scribbles something frantically. He rips the paper from the pad and thrusts it at me, returning to his conversation with a look that suggests he has been most inconvenienced by the whole affair.
I study the note, turning it sideways to try and make some kind of sense of it. I have to privately wonder if it’s even written in English. The doctor clearly senses my confusion and the ensuing thousand-yard stare seemingly only serves to increase his frustration exponentially.
After apologizing profusely to Kessler, he places a trembling hand over the receiver and practically launches from his leather chair, foaming at the mouth and wondering aloud as to why I haven’t left yet.
“I can’t read this,” I reason. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
Doctor Van Horn rolls his eyes and bites down hard on his lip. “It’s a referral to an Oncologist. You’ll need to make an appointment with one as soon as possible.”
I look down at the paper in my hand, still none the wiser and then turn to leave. I actually thank the doctor on my way out, though I have to wonder exactly what I’m thanking him for.