This is a Solo performance piece in the vein of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman play, And God Said, “Ha.”
A minimal bare stage dressed with a few flat pieces which will alternately serve as chairs, operating tables, x-ray equipment, and restaurant tables. Lighting, the actor’s evocative skill and the audience’s willing imagination will create the play’s environments.
When my daughter was three she asked me one day, Daddy, do all men have penises?” We were up in the garden. I was trying to think of a way to tell her that her mother and I were getting divorced but when your daughter asks you about penises, you put aside anything else you thought was important, and you give her the best answer you can. You don’t want her spending the rest of her life doing personal research, if you know what I mean.
I said, “Yes, Honey, all men have penises. In fact, the males of all species have penises. Dogs, cats, squirrels, goats. Having a penis is what makes a man a man.” I pictured my answer playing on a PBS special on “Great Moments in Parenting.” But my daughter was not interested in squirrels or goats. She said, “Dad. Does Mister Rogers have a penis?”
Our deal was I’d always tell her the truth. So I said, “I’ve only seen him on TV just like you. But I’d say yes. Mister Rogers has a penis.”
She thought about it very carefully and then said... I think Mister Rogers is too nice to have a penis.”
Think what she understood about men at the age of three!
But to the matter at hand. The penis. Since it has only one eye and thus no perspective, it thinks that he is the star of the play. But no. The real instrument of manhood resides backstage, deep beneath the body’s infrastructure, buried in a pungent little prune-shaped glob of a gland called the prostate.
Most of us could draw diagrams of the high profile organs—the heart, the lungs, maybe even the kidneys. But the prostate? It’s like Bulgaria. Nobody knows where it is or what goes on there. But it is in these lightless mushroomy caverns, under a steady drip of testosterone, that sperm cells are weaponized. It’s a thankless crappy job, especially knowing that somebody else is getting all the strokes. Maybe it’s the bitterness over this injustice that turns hardworking prostate cells cancerous.
I see a few some doctors saying “No not even close.” Ok, so maybe that’s not the reason. But even you highly-educated, well paid, good looking medical professionals cannot tell us exactly what causes prostate cancer.
What science can tell us is that the chances of getting it increase with age...Which suggests that the best method of prevention would be to die earlier of something else.
Which is what my father and my uncles did in their 40’s and 50’s. (HEART) To counter my genetics I avoid tobacco and red meat and try to stay active—all the paper umbrellas we hold up against the safe that’s been falling at us from the 90th or 80th or 70th or 60th floor.
And why I’m here at Dr. Davis’s office for my annual physical.
[PUTTING ON GOWN]
It’s 14 years after the Mister Rogers day in the garden. We’ve survived divorce. [HOP ONTO TABLE DEEP BREATHS]
Dr. Davis reminds me of Jimmy Stewart type. Tall, kind of folksy. He pumps and prods and presses and palpates. “How’s it going doc?”
Heart sounds good. Blood pressure good. Your weight hasn’t changed in the year. I like that. Neither has your height.
Same lame joke every year. But I give him the laugh. Because... he hasn’t found anything!!!!!! The warrantee is still in effect.
I nearly have a clean getaway-- one foot out the door when he says, “Say when was the last time we checked your prostate?
“I don’t know. A year probably?”
He checks the chart. It’s been two. He’s putting his gloves back on. –Why don’t we do a digital exam?
[TRUDGES BACK IN TO TABLE]
When Dr Davis says “Let’s do a digital exam” he is not referring to an examination of the digits. But an examination by the digits into a realm beyond the digits’ easy reach.
“Easy back there. It feels like you’re trying to get a quarter out of a sewer grate.
-I feel a roughness on one side, he says.
Suddenly the world starts to spin, my chest tightens and I can’t breathe. Was this ever here before?
“How the hell do I know?” But he knows and I know. It wasn’t there. My heart and blood pressure go ballistic. Let’s not get upset until we see the results of the PSA.” He takes some blood and says he’ll call in a few days with the results.
At this point, I am so ignorant of my body I have never heard of prostate specific antigen. PSA is still Public Service Announcement or Poetry Society of America. I say nothing to Angie when I get home. She’s grown into a bright and beautiful rebellious 17 year old. Being a man means solving my own problems. And being a father means being her external kidney filtering the world’s trouble out of her life.
Dr. Davis calls the next day.
Well your PSA has come back 11.8. I try to hear some relief in his voice: Is he saying “Whew. You had us worried for a second you little rascal. But it’s just 11.8. Or is he saying “Write your will.”
“What’s normal?” I brace myself to hear nine, maybe eight.
“For your age anywhere between two and three. Above four we’d be a little concerned”
“Do I have cancer?” Words clatter out of my mouth like teeth onto a marble floor. He tells me not to get upset and gives me the name of a Urologist who’ll do a biopsy. And that really calms me down! What could be more reassuring than the prospect of a biopsy.
For those of you who’ve never had the personal pleasure of a prostate biopsy, picture a bratwurst on a barbecue grill. Now picture a spring-loaded steel fork jabbing through its skin to see if its juices spatter. Think of this happening twelve times. Now think where that bratwurst is. And that’s still better than what happens next.
[BRING STOOL DC]
Doctor Fitch is 45, compact build. He sits across his desk from me, and says the words I will never forget. You’ve got quite a bit of cancer there. Cancer of nine of the twelve cores. Your Gleason score is seven, five being the least aggressive cancer, eight being serious cancer. This cancer is treatable. If you had to get any kind of cancer, prostate cancer is the best kind of cancer to get.
I wonder if he could say the word ‘cancer’ a few more times. But I’m not worried! I know in a moment his nurse is going to burst into the room all flustered, [RUSH IN ALL FLUSTERED] waving the fax she’s just received from the lab that says Dear Recent Biopsian… Boy are our faces red. There’s been a little mix-up and it’s not you, but some other poor bastard who has to face his mortality. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and hope you’ll continue to think of us for all your cancer-screening needs.”
[RETURN TO STOOL] But this does not happen. While I’ve been zoned out Dr. Fitch has been talking about the efficacy of surgery and the risks of radiation. I’ve had enough. I want to go home. He’s but he’s already scheduled a bone scan and MRI. I’m having trouble with language. Words don’t penetrate. Now. You. Downstairs. He practically has to herd me out of the office. Hal, he says. With your numbers, there’s an even chance the cancer has already spread. That I hear. I hear my daughter losing her father at the same age that I lost mine.
[LONG ARC ALL THE WAY AROUND STAGE] The sub-sub-sub-basement is like a bomb shelter. Thick cement walls. All orange. In a blind trance of obedience, I follow the signs pointing to NUCLEAR MEDICINE.
A pair of male technicians pushes me up against a cold flat slab of glass. The machine whirrs and I imagine thousands of Roentgens pulsing through my body. I think the dark-haired one from El Salvador may be flirting with me. His eyes flash like a flamenco dancer. “The migration patterns of prostate cancer are as predictable as Ospreys. They seek out the femur, the rib cage.
The one not flirting with me says -I’m seeing a lot of hotspots. They hold the panel up. It looks like Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night.” Constellations of glowing gasses. Doctor Feetch will call with the results, my young suitor tells me. But he can’t look me in the eye. We know what we’ve seen.
[REPLACE ROBE UNDER TABLE. FOLLOW SIGNS TO EXIT.]
It’s a late fall afternoon when I return to the outside world. I feel like I’ve been gone for a hundred years to a distant galaxy. Everything looks similar but alien. The sky is cobalt blue with streaks of reddish orange and I have cancer. People stroll across the promenade making small talk and I have cancer. Their kids run before them, erratic and thoughtless and I have cancer.
I remember being their age on an autumn evening like this in Brooklyn out alone after dark carrying home a loaf of rye bread still warm from the bakery. There are no kids out. The streets are filled with men coming home from work in their topcoats and Stetson hats, briefcases filled with adult concerns. I want to be back there, small and invisible, a loaf of warm rye bread under my jacket, cool fresh air with the smell of burning leaves in my nose, knowing that when I get home there will be a bowl of hot soup waiting for me.
Patty calls from work to find out how it went. We’ve been dating for about a month. She’s a cool Catherine Deneuve type. Fifty but looks 35. Just out of a bad 20 year marriage. No kids. I tell her the two benefits of not having kids are you keep your figure and...you don’t have kids. She’s not strong in the humor department. We have almost nothing in common:
-Playwright. UCLA Prof.
-Not so new Honda
I guess we’re exotic figures to each other. Maybe that’s the attraction. I galvanize my nobility.
“Listen to me. Patty. You have to walk away from this right now.”
-What do you mean, walk away?
-“From me. From this. From it. It’s cancer.”
-I don’t want to do that. I want to be there for you.
-“Listen to me. You endured twenty years with the wrong guy. Love means enduring an ordeal to you but it’s not! You need to party and dance and sleep with and as many management consultants as you can!”
-Don’t put words in my mouth. You keep trying to make me into someone I’m not.
-“Patty! I’m trying to be Bogart at the end of Casablanca. Take the exit visas!!!!”
She won’t be scared off. And I should be grateful but I really don’t know if she’ll be wings or ballast. It’s too new. She doesn’t know me well enough...and she’s not good at getting into the marrow, and that’s what I’m going to need. In an odd way Patty’s more like a man and me like a woman.
Angie’s been up in her room doing homework. A minute after Patty hangs up she barges in like Wyatt Earp. Tears shooting from her eyes. -Are you going to die?
-“No, Honey. Why would you think that?
-“It’s not a serious kind.
-Are you telling me the truth?
-Of course. That’s our deal. It appalls me to lie to her
She sits on my lap. She hasn’t done that in years. Performs her own bone scan of my soul. I feel like there’s a big letter L flashing on my forehead. LIAR LIAR LIAR.
Were you ever going to tell me, or one day just not be there. Like when you left mom.
-“Wait...That’s not how it happened. And how do you know about--
-Daddy, don’t you know I snoop on your phone calls?
She laughs at my outrage but she’s still crying. It’s like a sunshower.
Dr Fitch’s office calls the next day, tells me to come in for the results.
“You can’t do it over the phone? Oh jeez.”
Really?... There’s no possibility of it being misinterpreted. Verified by two sources? They’re positive about all those hot spots? Every one of them? They were all old athletic injuries? So there’s no--? It hasn’t spread?” It’s all inside the capsule? THANK YOU!
I never thought having prostate cancer could make me so happy!!!
Euphoria fades fast.
I have to decide between have surgery and radiation. And every minute I delay I imagine the thing gorging on me like a those guys in the hot dog eating contest.. I consult my friend Big Paulie. Big mug of a New York guy. But he’s a sweetheart and a self-proclaimed expert on anything. I give him all the reports, the books, the internet printouts.
-“So Paulie what do you think?”
-“Dja read any of this shit? (nods NO)
“Let’s review. Door Number One Prostatectomy.” They cut it out and throw it away. Sounds good except that they have to cut you open. Side effects-- erectile dysfunction and incontinence! You can’t fuck you wear diapers. Fuggedabout that one. Next case Radiation. They microwave your ass. Side effects. Erectile dysfunction and incontinence. And if it doesn’t work they’ve already fried your prostate so they can’t take it out. No way. What’s next??
-“That’s all they got
-No Door #3?
“The first casualty of cancer is all the easy choices”
-This is like when we used to take freshmen up to the roof and tell them they had to answer this question right or get thrown off. The question was: If you’re buried up to your neck in a vat of wet horse dung... and somebody throws a pail of vomit at your head, do you duck? (Serious for a second). So what are you gonna do?
-Getting thrown off the roof doesn’t sound so bad.
[TO AUDIENCE. DC]
It turns out for me there WAS a Door Number Three. It was called Hormone Blockade. Intermittend hormone deprivation therapy.The older brother of an old friend has gone through it and takes me to see his guy. Dr. Mark Scholz is tall and lanky and reminds me if a well-brought up farm boy. We talk for an hour about what’s important in my life. What’s going to happen afterwards. For the first time somebody looks at me as a healthy person not just at my disease. And for the first time I think I’m going to be OK.
Paulie is skeptical.
-A couple of pills every night and a shot once a month? That’s gonna kill cancer?
-It doesn’t exactly kill it. It starves it and shrinks it down. After a year you get radioactive seeds injected. What’s cool is that it does to cancer what cancer does to your body. - Let’s hear the downsides.
“Well...the hormone it stops your body stops making…is testosterone. 9 out of 10 guys you lose their sex drive. You become, don’t laugh--a chemical eunuch. I said don’t laugh! You body chemistry starts to resemble a woman in menopause. I said don’t laugh,
“All I want to know is if you grow tits, can I date you?
I decide to do it. I fill the prescriptions. Thirty blue Proscar. Ninety white Casodex. They sound like Greek heroes. Noble Proscar. Faithful Casodex. I become a cancer patient.
Is this what it means to be a man? I’m not through being a boy yet.
[ON FLOOR PUSHUPS. FACE AUDIENCE]
I hate regimens but I am determined to be the one guy out of ten who doesn’t lose his libido. Soy shakes every morning to combat the hot flashes. Pushups, situps and weights to combat loss of bone density. Yoga twice a week. Pills every night. Shots every month. Patty and I have our regimen too. On Saturday nights I take my other blue pill--the one that rhymes with a waterfall in upstate New York-- And in the morning we have our “Blue Sundays.” But as my testosterone level decreases, sex becomes more aerobic than erotic.
–“Let’s go boys. Crank it up.”
(High pitched squeaks) –We’re trying.
Illness is measured in milestones of loss. One day I notice the hair under my arms is gone. Then it’s gone from my chest and my legs. A ring of fat accumulates around my middle. At a Chinese restaurant one night, the room temperature suddenly goes up 25 degrees and my entire body is dreneched in sweat. The women we’re with smile knowingly. My first hot flash.
Next day jogging. I pass a workout center. A group of women in leotards comes out, their young birchy bodies crackling thunderstorms of pheromones. The way their hands move, their arms, flashes of exposed flesh. Flirtatious looks they give to the hot guys. I see it but it has no effect on me. They could be nuns at prayer. It is like being taken backstage at a puppet show. You see how all the tricks are done... but the magic is gone.
And then...one night I wake up at 3 A.M. and realize I had neglected to take my Viagra. Patty is asleep alongside me wearing a lavender nightgown. Her body is warm and accessible. The pill and a glass of water is on the nightstand. I reach for it, and stop. The thought of sex makes me slightly nauseous. My libido is gone. The thing that has made me a man is gone. I remember asking my junior high school science teacher where all the light goes after you turn off the switch. I wonder now where my light has gone and if it will ever return.
Even weirder than the physical changes are the emotional changes. I’m driving—and you know how we New York drivers are-- what you people call “road rage” we call courtesy. A woman in an SUV is putting on makeup, talking on her cell phone, totally oblivious. Cuts me off. And then gives ME the finger. Instead of ramming her into oncoming traffic I tell her to a nice day. I want to be Jack Nichoilson but I’m turning into Alan Alda..a man too nice to have a penis.
But the treatment is working! After 9 months my PSA is down from 11.8 to 0.003. This will be over soon. I am about to book my flight to Seattle to have the seeds implanted when the comes setback.
My initial high numbers “support the possibility” that some undetected cancer cells may have breeched the prostate capsule. Before I go to Seattle for the seed implants they want me to have 6 weeks of radiation. The idea is to create a kill zone-- a ring of fire around the prostate that will vaporize any cells attempting to escape. [CROSS TO TABLE SHOW SHIELD. PUT IT ON.]
A large plastic sheet is placed in a vat of hot water and made pliable, then molded to the contour of my body. Six weeks. Five days. Six blasts each time. I’m bolted down onto the table. Eight seconds blast. (BAAAAA) Machinery clangs. Table rotates. Ray guns move/. Two second blast (BAA) Clank Whirr. Change Eight second blast (BAAAAAAAA)
With each week the internal temperature builds up. After three weeks my plumbing is so inflamed, I’m up every night every hour. I barely sleep. I try to play tennis. I’m exhausted after one rally. EIGHT SECONDS (BAAAAAAAAA) In class in the midst of my own lecture I get the furious need TO PEE.. I race out to the men’s room. Wait and nothing. I’m like a new bottle of ketchup on a winter day. And in the urinal next to me some 19 year old sounds like he’s pouring a bucket of water into the ocean. TWO SECONDS (BAA)
Driving is the worst. Again the sudden and furious need. I can’t hold it in. I have to pull over on the exit ramp of the freeway. Sirens and lights flash.A cop car stops. “YOU! PUT THAT THING AWAY/” Eight seconds (BAAAAAAAAAAAAAA)
This one seems like a long time. (BAAAAAA) Hey! Hey in there. This thing is going on too long! (BAAAAAA) Hey. Is anybody there?” (BAAAAAAAAAAAA) (PANICS) HEYYYYYYYY!
Finally after nine months of hormone blockade, after 300 soy shakes, 10,000 pushups 50,000 sit-ups 30 doses of conformal beam radiation, I’m FINALLY on my way to Seattle. [LOOK OUT PLANE WINDOW] A mantle of snow glimmers off the crest of Mount Rainier as you fly in. The Bangladeshi cab driver finds my hotel easily. It’s an old Victorian in a place called Hospital Hill. Junkies call it Pill Hill he tells me.
I don’t know why I didn’t let Patty come with me. I know why I said she couldn’t come.
-“Oh, Patty. We’d have to get a nicer hotel. You’d pack too much.”
-“You’re always accusing ME of being afraid to get close. That I won’t give you my “marrow.” Maybe you’re the one who can’t handle intimacy.”
In my hotel room I prepare two enemas and the bottle of something horrible I have to drink. They need to have a clear view tomorrow.
I wake an hour before the alarm and walk the three blocks to the hospital. And now, after time had moved so slowly all those months suddenly everything is moving too fast. I am told to undress, given a hospital gown, brought into a prep room, strapped down onto a table, given an epidural, numbed from the waist down, wheeled into the operating theater. The anesthesia takes effect and I go into twilight sleep. I hear murmurings of sounds as the doctors go to work. I encircle myself with images of friends, their arms linked, all of them smiling at me. I see Patty in outside the circle, trying to look in.
I realize what a selfish jerk I was to shut her out. It wasn’t for me it was for her! She earned it. True, we’re the wrong people for each other and we won’t last but, that’s nobody’s fault. Love stories have no heroes or villains only casualties of friendly fire. And I want to run to her and tell her I’m sorry.
(LEAPS OFF) But this would be a HUGE mistake, as I’m still on the operating table with a catheter up my dick.
An hour later it’s over. The anesthesia wears off, and the first time I pee, it feels like I’m giving birth to a porcupine through barbed wire. But I’m walking under my own power and take the flight back to Los Angeles that night. My treatment is finished. That chapter of my life is over.
[WALK GINGERLY TO CENTER]
I must have dozed in the taxi. I find myself at home. Lights are on. I open the front door and I am surrounded by a warm rich aroma that permeates the house. Patty is there. She has made me hot soup.
She has also gathered up the few items she keeps here when she stays over. Her contact lens solution. A pair of glasses. Hair dryer. A French sweater. “I’m glad you’re all right, she says. “Take good care.” And that chapter of life is over too.
[PUSHUPS BETTER THAN BEFORE]
One year later. I pass the first milestone of recovery. PSA is still down at 0.003. Unfortunately that’s also the total number of my erections. But there are faint hopeful hits of my libido returning. The worst seems to be over. (STOOL DL)
Patty and I get together on the second anniversary of our first meeting. Closure, I guess I you call it. She looks beautiful. Her divorce papers have arrived that day and she is officially free. We both have ended the journeys we had begun when we first met.
We drink some wine She nestles against me with undefended familiarity. I remember the erotic geology of her body.
-“I had cancer,” I say. “I’ve had cancer.”
-“Yes, baby. I know.”
“You went beyond the call of duty. I never really thanked you”
-You can’t make a person into someone she isn’t.
-I get that now.”
Even if you have cancer.
After a while I walk her out to the parking lot. She’s met someone she’s thinking of marrying. I’m happy for her. I watch her get into her new Mercedes and drive west. I get into my Honda and drive east.
And that would be the end of the story except that Angie is waiting for me I get home. Her teeth are bared like a jackal. “I hate you.”
-“Sweetie. What happened?
“Asshole Jason broke up with me.”
“Baby, I’m sorry. But what does it have to do with—”
“He’s just like you. He wouldn’t know love if it hit him over the head. You should have died. I’d be better off.”
I stand there dumb. Is this why I fought so hard to live so the person I love most in the world can wish me dead? A few minutes later she knocks at my door. -Sorry about before. She plops her head against my shoulder for a second. A second is all I need. Mothers have a child’s love whatever they do. A father has to earn his by explaining and making safe for his children a world that still frightens him and that he’s never understood.
And I think this is the moment prostate cancer make a man of me. Because I realize, its life, isn’t it that I want. Every part of it. Every taste. I’d rather be alive hearing her wishing me dead, than dead and her wishing me alive.
It’s weird to think of cancer as a gift but maybe that’s what it took for me to understand a few obvious truths: - That women are not just to sleep with but to be awake with. -I’m no longer petrified of growing old. In fact, I want to keep doing it as long as possible. I hope some of this stays with me when my testosterone fully returns and we’re not just products of our chemistry.
I want to watch every moment of Angie’s beautiful chaotic life unfold. And I still hope that the one person I’m waiting for is careening through the maze toward me, that I haven’t missed her, and that we’ll recognize each other and say, “Oh, there you are.”
But right now I have to pee something fierce.
Hal Ackerman has been on the faculty of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television for the past twenty-two years and is currently co-chair of the screenwriting program. His book, Write Screenplays That Sell…The Ackerman Way, is in its third printing, and is the text of choice in a growing number of screenwriting programs around the country. He has had numerous short stories published in literary journals over the past two years, including New Millennium Writings, Southeast Review, The Pinch, Storyglossia, and Passages. His short Story, “Roof Garden” won the Warren Adler 2008 award for fiction and is published by Kindle. “Alfalfa,” was included in the 2006 anthology, I Wanna Be Sedated…30 Writers on Parenting Teenagers. Among the twenty-nine “other writers” were Louise Erdrich, Dave Barry, Anna Quindlen, Roz Chast, and Barbara Kingsolver. TESTOSTERONE: How Prostate Cancer Made A Man of Me concluded its premier theatrical run in Santa Monica, CA and is currently being mounted for a New York production.