How many different expressions are there for the word "vomit"?
One thousand? One million? When faced with the ugly things in this world, we poor mortals come up with colorful descriptions to lessen their impact. Just look at all the synonms for death.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote a classic science fiction story called "The Nine Billion Names of God," where these monks in Tibet dedicate their lives to compiling a list of all the terms for the Almighty. Once they're done, they believe, the universe will end.
I think there are probably even more terms for reverse peristalsis and I suspect those monks would be very busy if they took on this little project.
How many can you--pardon the expression--come up with? Upchuck, hurl, barf, heave, puke, chunder, Technicolor yawn, praying at the porcelain altar, tossing your cookies, losing your lunch--shall I go on? No, I don't think so.
I got to thinking about this rather unpleasant subject today as I headed back to the office from my lunchtime gym session. As I was walking up Wall Street, I saw a man hunched over a trash bin, assuming the all-too-familiar position of a guy who had just thrown up.
A drunk, drug addict, somebody on the way down; you see a lot of that in a big city and you learn to ignore it because you pretty much have to. But as I got closer, I saw that he was well-dressed for a homeless man and then realized I knew him.
A Friend in Need
He's a co-worker of mine, I'll call him Sam, and he'd looked ready to keel over. His eyes were sunk deep in his head, his face was a terrible shade of white. It was frightening to see him like this.
Sam is a great guy; funny, talented, and helpful. He recently became the father of a little girl and he talks about her often. He pals around with three or fourth other guys in the office in this little crew and their banter is always entertaining.
They go through more pop culture references than a Tarantino film festival--80's hits, gangster movies, old TV shows, they'll find a way to work it into the conversation. Usually these little office cliques can be annoying and exclusive, but these guys will let anyone join in and I never get tired of listening to them.
Sam is also a cancer patient. From what I understand, he's been undergoing treatment for some time now. I don't have all the details as I don't know him well enough to ask him those sort of questions. I do know there's a history of cancer in his family and he's told me about his concern for his daughter's health down the road.
As I was walking toward him, not quite believing what I was seeing, he looked up and we locked eyes. Sam seemed surprised and embarrassed, and you could hardly blame him.
I wished I could have backed up the last few seconds and found another way to get back to work, but it was too late. So I approached him.
"Sam? Are you all right?"
"Yeah," he nodded weakly. "It happens sometimes with the treatment. You get sick."
I asked him if he needed any help and he shook his head, trying to make a joke out of it.
"No, no," he said. "Nothing to see here, nothing to see here."
I took the hint and headed back to the office. No one wants to be seen at such an awful time and the fact that Sam had become violently ill at lunch time in the heart of the financial district seemed particularly cruel.
You might as well put him on the Jumbotron at some crowded baseball stadium. Sometimes there is just no dignity in this life.
As I walked to my building, I saw two patches of Sam's vomit on the sidewalk, a CSI trail of evidence that his guts had betrayed him just as he left the office. Two young men ahead of me made a big show about almost stepping in the puke, yelling, jumping to one side and shaking their heads in disgust.
I wanted to tell them to shut up, that something very bad was happening to one of my co-workers, a good man who deserved better than their scorn. This wasn't some bum on a three-day bender, or some drunken high roller losing his three-martini lunch. This was someone I knew struggling with a horrible disease.
But, of course there was no way they could have known what was going on and I'm sure if I were in their place I wouldn't have acted much differently.
I rode up the elevator feeling ashamed of myself. All the times I've played the martyr, whined about my bad luck and my bad health, and why does this always happen to me.
I've had a lot of problems with my health over the years, but nothing that even begins to compare to what Sam is going through. I suffered from chronic fatigue for many years and that led to some serious depression.
Oh, God, the time and energy I've wasted complaining. And all the pain and suffering I cause my family as they watched me tear myself apart.
I said and thought some pretty stupid things back then, actually wishing I were dead. All I can do is plead insanity, because that's what I was during my worst moments of illness--insane.
Just imagine if you had to go through what Sam is going through right now, I scolded myself. Do you think you'd have half of his courage?
And here's a man who is several years younger than I am, with a wife and child, while I'm single, childless and likely to remain that way. It's like I feel guilty for not being in his place, that he somehow has more of a right to good health than I do.
I know this is unhealthy thinking, a kind of negative egomania, where somehow other people's problems get tied up with my mental state. But I've gotten better over the years and I've been able to turn off the flow of negativity.
I get so nutty about my health that every time I'd hear someone had a cold or flu, I'd instantly pray, oh God, don't let me catch this bug. Last year I tried something different. I tried asking God to help the sick person first, to make them feel better. And that gave me more comfort than my own self-serving pleas.
There's a running bit in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, where no one in the hero's family can actually say the word "cancer" out loud. Everytime the subject comes up, their voices suddenly drop to a whisper. Hell, I don't like even typing the word.
There's a good chance my father may have cancer and we're finally taking in for the colonscopy next week. I'll be taking Tuesday off from work so I can go with him and Mary, his aid, to St. Vincent's Hospital in Staten Island. He's been losing control of his bowels and dropping weight for sometime now and it's frightening to see the clothes hang off him now.
One of the many things he and my mother used to fight about--and it didn't take much to set them off--was my father's overeating. He's had a gut for most of the time I can remember and he's always eaten anything he can his face around. Now he can skip meals and not say a word.
If he does have cancer, there's not much we can do. I seriously doubt that he can stand chemotherapy. But his doctor feels that there's a slim chance that my father's incontinence might be a result of his medication and if we can find out the truth and improve his quality of life, than all the grief will have been for a good cause.
I'm dreading these tests, as I know they will take a terrible toll on my father. And I'd be a liar if I said I'm not thinking about the difficulty of getting to and from the hospital. And whenever the subject of cancer comes up, it's hard not to think about your well-being. There are no rules, no protective force field around you or your loved ones, keeping the disease at bay. It's just luck.
Seeing Sam today reminded me how lucky I've been and how I have to use whatever time I have on this earth in a constructive way.
I hope to God that Sam gets better and that my father does not have cancer. And I hope I'll have the strength to face whatever happens without falling apart or wailing about my luck and doing the poor me routine.
It's not poor me, after all. It's lucky me.