Another hint: It's also about becoming an old writer. Enjoy!
This Is Only a Test
by Me, a Writer
You go in for the results, and the doctor says, “I have good news and bad news.” So you do what a person does when a doctor says that.
You grip the sides of your chair. You suck a breath in through your nose. Your shoulders tingle. Your sphincter tightens. There’s a ringing in your ears. Your ears have never rung before -- it’s actually more of a hum, how about that? -- but there’s something familiar about the experience. A part of your brain knows why, but it’s not telling the rest. The memory is buried too deep.
The memory is this:
You’re a kid watching cartoons and cereal commercials and the screen freezes in a strange pattern and an announcer says something about an emergency. Then his voice is gone and there’s nothing but a droning tone. The tone sounds like the ringing in your ears when you’re of a certain age and you’re sitting in a doctor’s office and he’s just said, “I have good news and bad news.” But you don’t know this, of course. You just know the sound’s eerie, alien, unsettling, and it goes on and on and on. As long as it takes to toast a Pop-Tart, which is forevereverever. But then it stops and the announcer speaks again, his voice infinitely calm without calming at all.
This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news or instructions.
The tone still works. You don’t realize it, but you’re waiting for instructions now, in the doctor’s office, when you’re of that certain age. You’ve grabbed your chair, you’ve sucked in a breath, you’ve clinched your sphincter. What else does one do? Where’s the voice to tell you?
You play for time.
“The good news first,” you say.
The doctor nods sympathetically.
“We can treat it,” he says.
“That’s the good news?”
“We probably should have done the bad news first.”
“What is ‘it’? What can you treat?”
“Oh, god. Oh, god.”
The cancer’s in your brain. You know it. Damn that thing! Your best friend and your worst enemy. It’s finally going to kill you.
“Where?” you ask. “What kind?”
“It’s your ego,” the doctor says.
“They can be cancerous?”
“Extremely. It’s pretty common, actually. My own father had it.”
“And he survived?”
The doctor smiles tightly. He seems to be making a mental note.
Stop mentioning Dad.
The ringing in your ears gets louder. No one’s speaking, and the silence is deafening.
You should have seen it coming when your therapist referred you to a doctor.
“Did you suspect?” you ask the next time you see her.
Your therapist nods. “From the very beginning, I’ve thought your ego was dangerously swollen. Out of proportion for someone like yourself.”
“I remember you sitting there talking about how life had let you down. ‘I expected more,’ you said. ‘I hoped for better.’ Like you’re sooooooooo important ‘life’ owed you something. I heard that and I thought, ‘Uh oh!’”
“I’m just sorry to hear that my fears were warranted. Have you started treatment?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Good. Try to stay upbeat. It’s important to have a positive outlook.”
“Thank you. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. I am going to beat this thing. I am.”
“Well,” your therapist says, “don’t get cocky.”
It’s a strange kind of therapy.
“I’ll write you a scrip,” the doctor had said, and he scribbled on a little sheet of paper, ripped it from its pad and handed it to you.
The paper was about the size of a Post-it Note. STIMIRIL, it said across the top. ASK YOUR DOCTOR FOR DETAILS.
The doctor’s note looked like this:
The doctor snorted. “That stuff? No no no. Just take that down to the pharmacy. They’ll fix you up.”
“O.K. And then...?”
“Oh, I’ll see you again soon. You can make an appointment on the way out.”
The doctor picked up a file and started flipping through it. Something he saw made him giggle.
In the pharmacy, you handed the note to a lab-coated woman who may or may not have been a pharmacist.
“Take a seat,” she said.
So you did. You sat as far as you could from anyone with children and flipped through People magazine’s special tribute to the life and times of Michael Jackson. You started reading a coverless U.S. News & World Report before realizing it was two presidential administrations out of date. You found yourself seriously considering a pumpkin soup recipe in Family Circle. Then you stood and went back to the service desk and spoke to a different lab-coated could-be pharmacist.
“Here you are,” she said after typing your name into her computer. “Looks like you’re all set.”
“I thought I was waiting for some pills.”
“But I’m supposed to be starting some kind of treatment.”
“It’s already started.”
The woman in the lab coat leaned to the side to peer past you.
“Next,” she said.
Something is happening. You’re gaining weight. Your back hurts. Your hair is turning gray, your teeth yellow. You’re not as energetic as you used to be. As sharp as you used to be. As cool as you used to be. You start wearing sweatpants out of the house. For the first time in your life, you have to trim your nose hair.
“Is this normal?” you ask the doctor when you go in for a follow-up.
“Yes,” he says.
“Is there anything we can do about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“The side effects. Can’t you adjust the treatment or something?”
“I don’t think you understand,” the doctor says. “The side effects are the treatment.”
You’re constantly asking people to repeat themselves. You gain more weight and you’re not sure if you care. You develop an inexplicable fondness for puns even as everyday words begin to elude you. You refer to curtains as “those sheer hanging sheety things.” You ask your partner where you left “the little channel-changing button box.” Your work suffers. Your children make fun of you. Your partner loses interest in sex. You lose interest sex.
You tell all this to your therapist.
“That’s the treatment,” she says.
“I don’t like it.”
“Oh, really? You don’t like it. Maybe someone should invent a whole new cure just for you. Would that suit you better? We could call the United Way, see about setting up a foundation. The You Society. Because lord knows no one else has ever had cancer before.”
“No, no. I understand. It is what it is. It worries me, though. I’m going through all this, and who knows if it’s even going to help? Maybe the cancer won’t respond to any of it. Maybe the treatment won’t work on me.”
“Because you’re so special.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Your therapist cocks her head and narrows her eyes, as if trying to decide whether or not you’re a mirage.
“I think it’s time for another test,” she says.
You never knew a cancer test could be multiple choice. Yet when you go back to the doctor’s office, you’re given the same booklet of questions and answers and A-B-C-D bubbles that you filled out weeks before, the first time you were tested.
You wonder: If you make different choices, pick A instead of C or whatever, would that mean you don’t have cancer? You can’t remember any of the answers you gave before, though. That memory’s gone, along with the word for the “wooden writing thingie” you have to ask for and the name of the song playing softly over the speakers in the waiting room. It’s a pop hit from your childhood, something about drinking daiquiris in the rain and making love wearing a cape, and you know you used to hate it but now you’re tapping your foot and humming along as you try to fill in those wee-teeny little ovals.
The questions all seem to be variations on each other.
“Who died and made you god?”
“What’s your problem?”
“Who do you think you are?”
“What the hell?”
“Wanna make something of it?”
One is especially tricky, though. It doesn’t even seem to be a question at all.
23. Well, la di da!
(A) What? Was I being pretentious? I’m sorry.
(B) What’s that supposed to mean?
(C) Yes...well. How about this weather? Beautiful, huh?
(D) And a big la di da to you, asshole.
You choose D. You change your mind, decide C’s the safer bet, but there’s no eraser on your pencil. (Pencil!) There’s no going back.
This time, you don’t get any “good news” like “We can treat it” to soften the blow. You don’t even get an “I have.”
“Bad news,” the doctor says. “The cancer has spread to your soul. There’s nothing more medical science can do for you.”
You grip the chair, suck in a breath, etc. -- the whole bad news drill, including the ringing/humming in your ears.
“You could always try a crackpot,” the doctor says. “If you don’t want to just give up and die, I mean.”
You stop going to the doctor, but the treatment seems to continue.
Your hair begins to thin. Spots appear on the backs of your hands. Your ankles become grotesquely swollen and you share that information with friends, family and the people you meet in line at the bank. You turn to your partner during movies and say, “I think we saw this one before. Didn’t we see this? That guy’s the killer, right? He’s actually the other guy’s half brother or something. That was this, wasn’t it? Who’s that actress? She looks familiar.” You start watching Fox News.
You say goodbye to your partner and your children, what’s-her-name and what’s-his-face, and you go to Tobago. That’s where the most persuasive crackpot is. His website is much flashier than the other crackpots’ websites. His videos on YouTube are very slick. There’s even a movie star in some of them. Or someone from TV maybe. She looks like the lady from that show about those people in that place. From a long time ago. She used to have terminal cancer of the ego, she says, but the crackpot cured her. Now she’s clean as a whistle. You can be, too.
The crackpot’s Research Centre & Healthwellness Spa is in the mountains. It seems very futuristic. Everything is smooth and spotless and white except for the staff, which is smooth and spotless and brown. The staff is also uniformly young and attractive and intelligent and condescending. They wear tight white unitards that emphasize their lean, lovely bodies. You’re given a tight white unitard, too. It emphasizes your lumps and bulges and bloat.
This is all part of the therapy, the crackpot explains.
“For billions of years, Mother Nature kept our egos in check,” he says during his welcome speech to you and the other newly arrived “Healthunauts.” “If your estimation of yourself exceeded your actual abilities, it would only be a matter of time before you were gored by a unicorn or eaten by a giant sloth. It’s all right there in the fossil record. But in the modern world, you can survive, even thrive for a time, while possessing no actual merit whatsoever. You can live your life thinking you deserve love, you’ve earned respect, you’re owed happiness, and there are no unicorns around anymore to show you otherwise. This has led to an epidemic of E.I. -- Esteem Inflation. Trillions of human beings walking around thinking they’re hot shit. But our souls aren’t built to sustain egos that large. They become weakened, crippled...and that’s when the cancer slips in. Here, we work to bring self-image and reality back into alignment through E.R. -- Ego Rightsizing. Our beautiful, accomplished young staff will take you in hand and help you see yourself honestly, at last, as the pathetic bag of crap that you are. And that shall be your salvation. Good luck!”
The crackpot smiles broadly, then hustles away.
You never see him again.
You are assigned a Wellness Partner. She has long, black hair and perfect skin and wide eyes so full of youth and life they practically throw off sparks. The first thing she says to you is, “Whew. Looks like you got here just in time.”
The E.R. process begins with a visit to a full-length mirror.
“Do I really need to say anything?” your Wellness Partner says.
You nod glumly and mumble, “I know, I know.”
“I mean, ewww. Am I right?”
“I know, I know.”
After a while, you move on to an Information Station -- a small white desk with two chairs, a telephone and a computer.
“See that?” your Wellness Partner says. She’s looking at the telephone.
“That’s your Clue Phone. If it rings, answer it.”
“Now let’s start with Google.”
Your Wellness Partner turns to the computer and begins typing.
Google? you think.
This is costing a lot of money, and it starts with Google?
“I’m not getting much on your name,” your Wellness Partner says. “That’s how you spell it, right?”
You look at the screen. She’s right, you see. Both about the spelling and the lack of results.
“That’s me,” you say.
The phone rings. You pick it up.
“You’re a nobody,” a man says.
He hangs up.
Your Wellness Partner tries Bing, Dogpile, Yahoo!, Twitter and (with a resigned “We know how this is gonna go”) Wikipedia. There’s not much to see.
The Clue Phone starts ringing again. You just look at it.
“Well?” your Wellness Partner says. “You want to get better, don’t you?”
You pick up the phone.
“Mediocrity, thy name is you,” a woman says.
“Excuse me? What? I don’t even get that.”
The woman snorts.
“Dense, too,” she says. “You can hang up now, loser.”
She hangs up first.
Your Wellness Partner has acquired copies of all your tax returns, all your employee evaluations, all your college transcripts, all your report cards going back as far as first grade. You spend hours going through them. From time to time, the Clue Phone rings. The voice that speaks to you is always different.
“Not only do you suck,” you hear, “apparently you’ve always sucked.”
“Your parents must be so proud...of their other children.”
“All those people who’ve been more successful than you? They aren’t just lucky. They’re better.”
“Pretty disappointing, ain’t it? But then again, who were you to hope for more?”
Occasionally, you cry. Your Wellness Partner is sympathetic.
“I know. It’s tough,” she says, patting your hand. “You realize now that you’re nothing special?”
You manage to nod between sobs.
Your Wellness Partner beams.
“Excellent. That’s a good first step,” she says. “What you need to accept next is that you’re not even average. You’re pretty worthless, really. Your sole contribution to this planet will be the pile of poop and bones you leave behind when you die. Oh, maybe you’ll have produced a little extra carbon dioxide for the trees while you were here, but they could’ve gotten along without it.”
“At least I loved my children. I did my best to raise them right.”
Your Wellness Partner rolls her eyes.
“I’ve tried to be a nice person,” you say. “I know I haven’t always succeeded, but....”
Your Wellness Partner yawns.
“I sent money to Amnesty International when I could. Before things got tight,” you say. “I gave blood a few times.”
Your Wellness Partner makes a circle with her fingers and pumps her hand up and down.
You finally tire of being judged.
“Who are you to criticize? What have you ever done?”
“I founded a sanctuary for sexually abused street children when I was nineteen years old,” your Wellness Partner says. “In the past five years, we’ve gotten more than two thousand at-risk youngsters off the streets and into stable, loving homes. The United Nations gave me its Hope for the Future Award. Esquire called me ‘Tobago’s Hottie Mother Teresa.’ When I go home tonight, I’ll cook dinner for seven foster children. Before bed, we’ll spend a couple hours canvassing the neighborhood to raise awareness for HIV prevention.”
“Oh. Well. What are you doing here then?”
Your Wellness Partner smiles.
“I just like to help,” she says.
The next day, your Wellness Partner introduces you to some of her foster children. They’ve brought their favorite games, and you’re encouraged to play with them. Over the course of the morning, the children easily beat you at Hungry Hungry Hippos, Connect Four, Operation, Hūsker Dū, Go Fish and something called Don’t Get in the Car!, which they invented themselves. You try to laugh off your humiliation.
“I hope Chutes and Ladders isn’t next,” you say. “I think I’m a little old for kids’ games.”
“How about chess?” asks a boy of seven or eight.
He mates you in six moves.
It’s the third day of Ego Rightsizing. Your Wellness Partner has been busy. Using your Facebook account, she’s friended or attempted to friend everyone you ever dated.
“We’ve got some great messages to go through today,” she says. “People have really opened up. The memories, the insights -- I think they’re going to give you a whole new perspective on yourself.”
Your head is in your hands. Your unitard is soaked with tears. You’re crying so hard you find it hard to breathe. Your words are choked out between ragged gasps.
“Why are we bothering with all this? I’m horrible. I’m shit. I’m not worth saving. Let the cancer have me. At least that would be cheap. I shouldn’t be here wasting my children’s inheritance. I should just crawl off into the woods and die like an animal. I don’t deserve to be cured. I don’t deserve to live.”
You cry a while longer. Your Wellness Partner says nothing. When you finally look up, you find that she’s gone.
On the Information Station desk are two pieces of paper. One is a simple, cream-colored card signed by the crackpot.
“Congratulations!” it says. “You’re cured!”
The other piece of paper is a bill.
You board the plane for home feeling weary, achy, fuzzy headed. But light, too. Unburdened. Free.
It’s not just the cancer that’s gone. It’s expectation, thwarted aspiration, dissatisfaction, fear of failure. Your ego was diseased, but now it’s been burned away by the laser-light of true self knowledge. In its place is something that feels like peace.
Is this “Zen”? you wonder. Is this “living in the moment”?
If it is, you think you might like it. You practice embracing the now, accepting whatever the universe has to offer with no sense of entitlement or disappointment.
The in-flight movie stars Adam Sandler.
You watch it.
At first, your family doesn’t know what to make of your newfound tranquility. Your children seem puzzled and a little awestruck.
“It’s like you left and someone else came back,” one of them says.
“Someone cool,” says the other.
You and your partner make love for the first time in months. It goes well.
At work, you still don’t feel your sharpest, but you’re unflappable, poised, immune to stress. People notice.
“Thank you, cancer,” you say to yourself one day.
You think that sounds like a great name for a blog. Or a book, perhaps. Thank You, Cancer!
Maybe you should share your experience. Other people could benefit from your hard-won wisdom. You’ve learned so much. You’ve come so far. Hot damn, you’re even getting laid! You’ve discovered the goddamn secret of life.
You say it again.
“Thank you, cancer.”
You don’t hear the cancer answer.
You go to your therapist to tell her you won’t be seeing her anymore. You’re doing great. Better than ever. This whole horrible trial was a blessing in disguise.
“Oh,” she says. “Got it all figured out now, huh? A few days in the tropics, and you’re some kind of guru. Well, when are you going to start your cult, swami? Can I join?”
Your face flushes as you turn away from the gaze that saw right through you. And it’s all over, just like that. Your pseudo-zen tranquility vaporizes in an instant. It’s an empty house in the desert and there’s a flash and a sandy shock wave and it’s gone.
You were proud. Proud to have no pride. But you can’t be vain without vanity. Without the diseased ego you thought you’d burned from your soul.
You peep over at your therapist just as her lips pucker and the words start to form. You know what she’s about to say. Where she’s going to send you. What they’ll tell you there.
It's terminal. But hey...what isn't?
You grip the sides of your chair. You suck a breath in through your nose. Your shoulders tingle. Your sphincter tightens. There’s a ringing in your ears. It sounds familiar.
And the memory unlocks itself.
You see yourself as a child sitting in front of a TV, staring at a static pattern, listening to the piercing whine of a test signal. You’re thinking about tornadoes, earthquakes, the China Syndrome, the Death Star, the Russians, Godzilla, Armageddon.
In a moment, you’ll hear a voice telling you everything’s fine. Only kidding. Like we’d do that to you! End the world that way! Psych!
The all-clear will come when the noise stops. You just have to wait for it. It’s all you can do, really. Wait. Like you once waited for information, news, official instructions.
Instructions. Yes. Those would be nice.
So you wait for them.
And you wait.