Day twenty of radiation and I’ve come to a startling epiphany. This is not fun.
Add the thirty-three radiation treatments from last summer, multiply by roughly twenty-five minutes a day and so far I have spent almost an entire day of my life with my head bolted to a table.
For the uninitiated, in order to “Radiate Don” they take a large piece of mesh plastic, super-heat it so it’s all soft and squishy, then slap it over my head and squeeze in order to mold it to match the features on my face and neck.
So every day, I lay down on the table, they place the now rock hard mask over my head and snap it into place with little plastic bolts. It’s a lot like if an adult male sat on your chest and tried to smother you with a hard plastic pillow. And there I lay in darkness for roughly twenty-five minutes while the rays of death zap me with their beams of destruction.
The staff does what they can to make the experience as easy as possible. Oscar, Mike, and Derek. Marissa and Kristin. They try to keep the conversation light. Mike tells me about his new motorcycle, Kristin her weekend; Oscar is a big Dodger fan so during this long season of discontent – we hug a lot.
It’s always breezy and light, right up to the point where I climb up on the table and then they hold up the mask, sigh and say: “Ready?” Every day I resist the urge to scream – “No! Of course I am not ready. How could anybody ever be “ready” for this!” But instead I nod take a deep breath and close my eyes.
It always surprises me how tight it is under the mask. My shoulders pinned back, my nose squished to the side, the plastic digging into my forehead. The machine whirls around my head, clicking and snapping into place until finally it stops and the death rays are released.
Radiating Don sounds exactly as you think it would, like a ray gun in a fifties sci-fi movie. You half expect to see an alien monster reaching out for you with thick rubbery arms. The zapping starts and stops as if it needs a few seconds to reload, to arm itself for another attack. An attack you won’t feel until days and weeks go by and its invisible effects start to snowball.
Early on Mike told me to bring in my iPod and they would play whatever music I wanted. I started making radiation playlists. Some days were classic rock, others jazz, some R&B. I try to make a different set every day, some bits of music to pull me through because sometimes, I will admit, it gets dark under the mask.
Bolted to a table, the ray gun blasting God knows what into my body, fear jockeys for position in my head. It works its way up and down the field, the rational and the irrational fighting for possession. Both sides run their best plays, hoping to find an opening, a weakness they can break through and exploit and often when it seems most dark… a lyric or a guitar riff will pull me away from the struggle.
Suddenly, I find myself in “Jungleland” with Bruce, or sharing the “Bushwick Blues” with Delta Spirit or Stevie Nicks warns me of an impending “Landslide.”
Without realizing it, the game in my head is over.
Oh the players will return, perhaps in the middle of the night or maybe during a long drive home., but for the moment their work is done. Their skills no longer needed, their home field advantage stripped from them.
The machine whirls to a stop. The huge vault doors protecting the staff from the horrors they are visiting upon me open and I hear footsteps. One by one, the snaps are loosened and the mask stripped away.
Mike and Oscar make small talk as Derek readies the room for the next patient. There’s a lot of cancer in the world so the machine never stops.
As I hit the front door, I do my own countdown. “Twenty-eight more. Twenty-two. Eighteen….” Now, we are down to ten.
No, life under the mask ain’t fun. It’s just life.