Parts of me that I’d never seen before—my stomach and its suburban sprawl of pancreas, intestine, gallbladder, and liver—were on a screen off to my right, positioned so the technician and his assistants could have a 20/20 understanding of my innards.
I stood motionless, trying to peak at my viscera. My periphery, however, extended only to the tech’s face as he guided his machine up and down my body, using the radioactive syrup I’d swallowed an hour earlier as a divining rod. The liquid, the nurse said, would illuminate my guts and allow the tech a much easier hunt for abnormality. Drinking the liquid, the disclaimer read, would give me a 1-in-30,000 chance of experiencing kidney failure. I gulped it down anyway, desperate to know why my digestive system had been barking for the previous six weeks.
I was terrified of what the X-ray tech would find and needed all his attention on the screen; a couple minutes into the exam, however, it became obvious that his concentration was split. Trying to ease my obvious consternation, I suppose, the tech told a joke. A stupid, fucking jest of the a-priest-a-rabbi-and-an-atheist-walk-into-a-bar variety, a joke I’ve long since forgotten. Here I was, intestines feeling like they’d been operated on before the advent of anesthesia, and there he was cracking Groucho. His assistants, who must’ve heard that one before, offered only a few pity giggles.
I wanted to berate him for failing at his only mission, but the worry in me, the emotion that so often overrides all the rest, stopped me. What if I angered him and he missed something? What if he ignored it? Or what if I didn’t laugh—then what? I couldn’t risk a misdiagnosis, so I swallowed my anxiety and anger and pushed out a smirk. He smiled, too, and then said, “Well, everything looks good.”
“Good?” I nearly shouted.
The tech nodded. “Affirmative. No ulcers, no tumors. Everything looks normal.”
I thought he was still joking. My gut told me not to believe him.
The return of pregnancy to our house meant a renovation of the basement was in order. Our daughter would need to move into the boys’ room, leaving them without sleeping quarters. So I gathered hacksaw and hammer, level and square, flat head and Phillips and began to Bob Villa the 850 square feet of basement into submission. Over the course of a year, a small team of relatives joined me in this pursuit, and after epochs of demolishing, framing, wiring, installing, adjusting, and measuring—the present progressive verbs of my off days for the better part of twelve months—the basement neared livable status.
Mudding the drywall then sanding it down were two of the final steps. This was a tedious and messy process. Each time I took to the 60 grit, I emerged looking like I’d cut coke with a chop saw, covered top to toes in white powder. Eventually, I sanded down the final few patches of mud and attempted to sweep up all the dust, which any handyman, novice in particular, knows is nearly impossible. After sweeping three times and seeing that my bristles had scattered more dust than they had gathered, I gave up and swapped broom for mop. Afterwards, I hosed down the floor, squeegeeing the excess water and whatever dust remained into the drain.
I finished at two o’clock on a Sunday. At five, the drain threw up.
For weeks, I was sure my stomach was going to burst. At first I thought I simply had indigestion, and then the discomfort lingered for a month and a half. The slightest pressure to my abdomen caused a tremendous discomfort. I worried mostly about cancer—stage 4 ate up my grandfather from the pancreas out—and diabetes, which has been working in conjunction with muscular dystrophy to nibble away my mother’s strength a muscle fiber at a time. I even wondered if I had MD, too, even though my symptoms didn’t exactly jive with those that people living with the disease experience. I tried everything, but Tums were false hope, Pepto was a placebo, and the homeopaths the Internet suggested were teases masquerading as liberation.
My wife was on me to see the doctor, but I refused, stubborn as the pain clamping down on my guts. Then one night at dinner, I swallowed a glass of milk too quickly; as the vitamin D slid down my throat and into my esophagus, a gaseous geyser roared in reverse and stretched my esophagus to the point of rupture. The pain sent me to the floor, my chest feeling like it was going to A-bomb me into obituary.
The next day I made an appointment. Three days later, the family doc gave me an up-down, took some blood, and sent me to see the X-ray tech, who, after telling his joke and studying my internals, sent me on to the ultrasound technician.
I stood ankle-deep in wastewater, convinced that the dust I had squeegeed into the drain was the root of the problem. I plunged like I was being paid per thrust, the little plunger that had been designed to uncork toilet pipes no match for the sewer line’s girth. The water, chock full of biodegradable pulp, was brown, and it foamed at the drain site as I plunged. Five thrusts, ten, a hundred; after each set, the little whirlpool of success appeared, but lasted only seconds. I wanted to give up, but wanted to pay a plumber the going rate even less. So I plunged and plunged, holding my breath and cocking my head to the side until, mercifully, the drain gave and the water receded. Disgusted, yet content, I went upstairs, showered with antibacterial hand soap and the hottest water I could stomach, and loaded the family into the van to go bowling.
Before work the next morning, I checked the basement and found a shoreline. The plunger, which I’d left on its side next to the drain, floated like a cadaver. I dumped my cup of coffee, lightened with creamer, into the water. It was the same color.
“Now can we call Roto-Rooter?” my wife asked. I nodded, reserving the curse words bubbling in my gullet for the ride into work.
The last time I’d seen a sonogram, I was looking inside my wife’s body. Going in, I knew what I would see on the screen—a fluttering heart, a quartet of budding appendages, a human, essentially, in genesis. My ultrasound technician had no such direction and would be examining my organs with an explorer’s eye, not knowing what she’d find. I knew; I’d convinced myself weeks earlier that whatever was occupying my real estate would be, at minimum, stage 3.
As soon as I arrived in the examination room, the tech asked me to lie down. No small talk, no jokes, nothing but a stunted greeting. She opened my gown and squirted jelly on my abdomen, working her wand around like she was stewing my guts; my organs, black and white Rorschachs, again appeared, this time on a screen I could see. To me, everything was a tumor, each shapeless blob a primeval middle finger. I hated each organ in that moment without knowing which was causing me the following symptoms: bloating, heartburn, lower belly pain, pressure in the intestines, anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches, backaches, restlessness, frequent urination. The possibilities? Crohn’s disease, gastroenteritis, appendicitis, Celiac disease, IBS, cystic fibrosis, diverticulitis, anemia, and a whole list of cancers. A flock of cancers. A herd of cancers. A murder of cancers.
When she finished, I asked the tech if she saw anything. She looked at me, face as young and sweet as a pixie’s, eyes like a coroner’s. “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to discuss what I do or do not see,” she said. She might as well have sent me down to the morgue.
Around lunchtime, my wife called with the details. Roto-Rooter had performed exploratory surgery and come up with three potential solutions: (1) they could jet it clean with water, (2) they could auger it free of detritus, or (3) if those options didn’t work, they could send in their camera to diagnose the problem, which could range from a foreign object blocking the pipe to the pipe being busted somewhere between our house and the road. The last option was the most expensive and would cost us thousands to fix. I assumed that to be the likeliest and continued to do so until my wife called back an hour later with the results.
“You are not going to believe this,” she said.
Tampons. A few dozen, by my estimation, expanding to form a watertight plug in the drain. But here’s the thing: my wife uses the other kind of monthly products. The cotton that had rooted there must’ve been loitering for at least three years—we’d purchased the house about thirty-six months earlier; nary a ‘pon had been loosed into our plumbing in the dozens of cycles that followed. Our wastewater had been flowing past them for years, until one day something shifted and one of the geriatric tampons, only one year younger than our youngest son, Tetris’ed itself into the exact spot we didn’t need it to, causing our sewer to back up into the basement. There has never been a better commercial for feminine products than the one that played out in the bowels of our home.
The results would be back in a day or two, maybe that afternoon, the hospital staffer told me. I dressed, got in my car, and wondered what the ultrasound tech wasn’t telling me.
After they popped the tampon barrier, Roto-Rooter found the real issue: tree roots, which had wormed their way through the dirt to wedge themselves between our wastewater and the sewer. The tampons were more or less accessories to the crime, and the dust I sent into the plumbing was a nonissue.
I’d waited all day for the bad news, stuck in the sewers of my natural inclinations of fret and exaggeration. I knew, just knew, the sewer line was busted. Knew, just knew, it would cost thousands. Knew, just knew, that the worst case scenario was coming to get me. And then it didn’t.
A few weeks later, the boys moved into their new room.
Once the results from both the X-ray and sonogram came in, the doctor called to tell me they’d found nothing wrong. Just to be safe, she had me undergo two more tests. Those results were also negative.
“How?” I asked the nurse who called with the news. I still had the symptoms, still felt like my pipes were busted. When I questioned her further, she assured me that I should consider myself lucky.
“Many of the people who undergo that many tests don’t get good news.” I didn’t want to call her a liar, or an idiot, and the nurse likely wanted to avoid doing the same, so I thanked her for her help and hung up, convinced that the tests were wrong and the worst case scenario was still coming.
A month later, I had a follow-up with the family doctor, who told me that I likely had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is often diagnosed in people whose tests come back negative. It’s a condition of elimination. If it’s not diverticulitis or anemia or Crohn’s or Celiac or cancer, it’s likely Irritable Bowel. This diagnosis is often given to people who worry excessively, who fret obsessively. It’s diagnosed in people like me, who see apocalypse in inconvenience.
The doctor wrote me a prescription for depression meds. The meds, she said, would mellow me out, help me stay calm and even; that, in turn, would encourage the nerves in my stomach to chill.
To loosen up.
To allow all those bad vibes to drain, drain away.