Self-Diagnosis

Five days left to live
Illustration by Peter Arkle
Illustration by Peter Arkle

My friend Grant had five days left to live. I gave him fewer, of course, because I planned to kill him myself if the “advanced stomach cancer” panic he’d been worrying me with all week turned out to be full of crap. But still I was concerned, because Grant never goes to the doctor.

“I’m at the doctor,” Grant phoned me.

“What’s wrong?” I cried. Grant at the doctor is like a tree at the lumberyard—already cut down.

“They found a mass on my x-ray,” he said.

A mass? What does that mean? Grant answered by texting me a slew of graphic images of stomach cancer close-ups, which, I want to emphasize, were not images of his own stomach cancer. “Why are you sending me this? Send me your own x-ray!”

“I don’t have it to send you, but this is exactly what it looked like when the doctor showed me.”

“Get off the Internet, you total bovine!” I said, aiming to keep things upbeat with my signature form of flirting, but I could feel the panic welling. My friend Lynn recently lost her mother to stomach cancer. “You don’t know you have it until you’re already dead,” she said.

“Grant, these are color images taken during surgery,” I said. “You were shown an x-ray. That mass could be an air pocket or a shadow or that nickel you swallowed when you were six.” But Grant was already infuriatingly at peace with his self-prognosis and had lapsed into a far-off voice ruminating on the wonderful life he’d lived; the many things for which he was grateful; how his bar in the Old Fourth Ward, Sister Louisa’s Church, would be left in good hands; blah blah blah. I wanted to reach through the phone and slap him until he panicked like a proper neurotic.

Because I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I am the designated hypochondriac in our group. Usually a day doesn’t go by when I’m not certain I’ve swallowed a tapeworm or contracted SARS or something. “Five days left to live” is practically my catchphrase.

The last time Grant went to the doctor was nine years ago, when he woke up a few days after a fender bender to find he could hardly move. So he called our other friend Lary, who is not a doctor but is known for fixing things. Lary came over immediately and took Grant to a yard sale, where he propped him against the truck to ensure Grant got a good view as Lary rummaged through the junk. This was because Grant had assured Lary he was perfectly fine as long as he stayed still while slanting at a precise angle—that way he could “almost breathe.”

Even when it appeared paralysis was setting in, they did not call a doctor. Instead they called Lary’s ex-girlfriend, a nurse, who berated them with terms like “lacerated liver” and “collapsed lung” until they promised to get Grant to an emergency room. There, an x-ray showed that Grant had broken a few ribs, which caused swelling that formed an obstruction in his intestines. Grant, it turned out, was literally full of crap.

So nine years later, Grant was in the hospital again and certain he had five days left to live, holding my hand and making me promise to pick up where he’d left off with his eBay search for a postmodern urn so his ashes could match the Scandinavian decor of his loft. Much later, when I was called in to be updated after the procedure, I found Grant loopy from residual anesthesia, and a smiling doctor who handed me a folder proclaiming Grant’s clean bill of health. The mass was either a shadow or a clog created by Grant’s secret addiction to fiber capsules. Either way, it wasn’t a death sentence.

“Imma live,” Grant said. His grin was groggy.

“Not if I kill you myself.” I put my hand on his chest and he covered it with his. Right then, you would have thought I was looking down at Grant’s big smile and being damn relieved he didn’t have stomach cancer after all. You would have sworn I was thanking Jesus Christ that my friend was alive, fine, and full of crap as usual. n

Hollis’s latest book is a young adult novel called Unaccompanied Minor. You can find out more about it and her writing seminars at shockingreallife.com

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.

 

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