The last thing I did before leaving Chicago for surgery was see John K. Samson play. Despite being a Weakerthans fan for nearly two decades, I never got to see them, and I’d only seen John play solo once before. When the show was announced months ago, I bought tickets immediately after getting blood work done at the hospital and then wondered if I’d even be able to go to the show. At that point, I was still trying to make plans as if things were normal, knowing all the while that if I got a surgery date, that’d trump everything else in my life—every plan was tentative. But this was something that I really didn’t want to miss. I’d already wondered if I had surgery the week leading up to the show, if I’d be able to find a safe spot to stand during it. Instead, it was the other way around.
There’s something about John’s songs that have always spoken to me, from his early offerings in Propagandhi all the way through his most recent solo record, the wildly underrated Winter Wheat. But for my money, no record is as good as Left And Leaving. It’s the first Weakerthans record I heard, and still the one I love the most. Perhaps because of it being my quasi-gateway into indie-rock, it’s still what I measure everything else in the genre against and why so much indie music falls flat for me.
That show was magical in ways that probably sound blasé when restated, but there was a palpable joy in that room, and as crushing as John’s songs can be—playing the Virtute trilogy in sequential order is one hell of a move—what’s always resonated with me is how he finds optimism in the most hopeless scenarios. He has a way of drilling into fairly innocuous moments, the kind most songwriters would overlook, to find the heartbreaking honesty inside of them. And more importantly, it never feels cloying or contrived. Instead, a song like “Pamphleteer” spends the opening verse describing the journey of a political pamphlet falling to the ground with such agonizing detail you could ask yourself why he’s putting so much into this particular set-up. But it’s there that the song’s larger point, at least as I see it, is revealed: no matter what your personal pet cause is, most people don’t care. Whether it’s something political or social or even just the act of yelling about some piece of art you like (hey hey, music writing!), most people don’t want to go out of their way for something even if it’s literally being handed to them. They’d step on something precious before breaking their stride for even a second, and that’s something I think about a lot.
I thought about this song on the the drive to Cleveland, and how I almost included “Left And Leaving” as the song at the bottom of my last post, but felt it was potentially too downtrodden when I needed to be more positive and uplifting. Maybe I should have just done it anyway. Even with it being right there, I doubt anyone would have listened anyway.
I don’t know why hospital waiting rooms are always tuned to HGTV, but I’ve developed a three-pronged theory as to why that might be.
It’s vaguely inspirational. Okay, maybe not inspirational in some profoundly spiritual sense, but it’s the type of thing we all hope to deal with at some point. “I am a lot like Jack and Jackie, who want a cottage outside the city but can’t decide if they want something more rustic or modern. I understand this plight on a fundamental level.” It’s the type of thing where you see it and can immediately have some uninformed opinion to throw in, like, “Yeah, that house has a weird staircase. Don’t buy it!!!” or some shit like that. There’s no real narrative, it’s just something to suck you in for however long you’re watching and then completely forget about the second after your name is called. It’s perfect in that way.
It lets you express all your hatred and frustration. The draw of these shows is that, at the behest of producers, the potential homebuyers always have some insane demands that make you want to grab them by the shirt collar and tell them to be a normal fucking person. “I want a fish tank and a place to display my katanas!” is something the guy says, and then his wife goes, “But I really want an open floor plan that faces exactly 38 degrees southwest!” So you just get to sit there and go, “These fucking people” to yourself. It gets your blood boiling just a little bit, so that, when you go into your appointment, you’ve already let off some steam. It’s genius.
It’s maybe the only non-partisan issue everyone has an opinion on. Or, at least, that’s the big link that I’ve gotten from it. I mindlessly watch these home renovation shows and think, “Man, it sure is fucked that they have to completely re-do the basement,” and not that I have seven meetings today that are related to my long-term health and wellbeing or that the world is actively dying. And I’m sure it works the same way for people who I otherwise despise.
Anyway, I was thinking about all that as I sat alone in, as they called it, the sub-waiting room, which is a second waiting room meant solely for patients. It’s like first class for the impaired. It was barely 7 a.m. and I was about to have my abdomen and pelvis scanned to see if there were any tumors hiding on my adrenal gland. It felt weird to be checking this the day before surgery but, hey, better late than never I guess.
As I sat there waiting to be called, a man who, if I had to guess, was either 65 or 70, came in and sat a couple seats away from me. More often than not, people don’t tend to make small talk in these situations, but he did. “What are they checking you for?” he asked, and I gave him the same boilerplate I did in that above paragraph. He made an all-knowing grunting noise in the way older men are wont to do and then let out a soft, “Me too.” So, given that he was willing to get into it, I figured I’d indulge him. “What are they looking for?” He told me how, a year ago, he had liver cancer and beat it. During a recent checkup, they found something else, so now he was back doing this thing all over again. He cracked a little joke about how just when you think you’re about to have some fun, something always gets in the way. I chuckled and said something stupid like, “Yeah, that’s always how it goes, huh?” And then we just sat there. A couple beats passed so I assumed the conversation was over. But, with his eyes fixed on the TV, he said, apropos of nothing, “Human life is really beautiful.”
Then they called my name and filled my body with some warm solution that highlighted all my organs and took pictures of them. I’ll probably never see him again.
The day before surgery, all my appointments wrapped up early—a thing I didn’t think was possible in the medical world—so with an afternoon largely open, we decided to hit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The beauty of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is that it’s the perfect way to bridge any generational divides. Ostensibly, I like rock music, Nina likes rock music, my mom and my stepdad Ed like rock music, so surely there’s a little something for each of us there.
It was a fine way to kill an afternoon, in part because I would otherwise just have been sitting around waiting for a call to come in and tell me what time my surgery would be the next day. For the most part, the Rock Hall (we’re on a first-name basis now) was fine. Generally speaking, I’m not the most interested in museums, especially ones like this. I don’t get my kicks from seeing Bruno Mars’ pants or Katy Perry’s outfit from the Super Bowl halftime show, because those items were manufactured to exist for the express purpose of existing in a place like this. They were designed to be on a person for all of 15 minutes and then be put behind glass for the rest of eternity. It’s sterile and weird, and while I don’t care about the “spirit of rock & roll” or any of that dogshit, I do think it betrays what the whole point of art is supposed to be.
But, in the middle of all of that, there were a couple things that caught my eye. I was shocked to see the Silkworm and Engine Kid split seven-inch in a display about grunge, not just because those bands have next to nothing to do with grunge, but also because I can’t imagine any of the people involved with making that record know, or even care, that it’s there. You can buy it for $4, and it’s two Christmas-themed covers, so, yeah, weird choice all around. But there it was, next to a big Melvins poster and Nirvana’s demo tape. Grunge, in all its glory.
The thing that really stuck with me, though, is one of the few things that I found to be actually genuine. Yes, it was cool to see Bruce Springsteen’s guitar and look at the original handwritten lyrics to Replacements songs, but those are things that are also supposed to be in a place like this, tools and myth-making devices meant for people to go “oooh” and “ahhh” over. The thing that jumped out to me was in a display case about early heavy metal, which was Max Cavalera’s notebook from when he was still a kid, with a rudimentary drawing of what would become the first Sepultura logo and a couple paragraphs he wrote about what his band would be like. Here, next to Bruce Dickinson’s stage clothes and Cliff Burton’s bass, was a notebook from some 12-year-old Brazilian kid who had no reason to believe he’d ever be a superstar, as he was born into poverty and had to make his first bullet belt out of old batteries, just believing that the thing he cared about mattered. There was so much hope in those couple paragraphs, I couldn’t help but think that this alone was worth the price of admission.
I guess that’s why I don’t care much for museums. When it comes to music, and I guess art in general, the only thing I really care about is the work itself, because that’s the thing that would exist whether or not anyone ever paid attention to the artist in the first place. Seeing some kid’s notebook, it was just a beautifully pure expression in a place otherwise wrapped up in artifice. And while that’s all very cool in a distinctly different way, I guess seeing those things don’t conjure a deeper understanding about the people or the work. But I guess it’s not supposed to.
While we were there, I called the hospital to find out what time I had to arrive for surgery the next day. The answer was 5:30 a.m. Now, not to be a baby about this whole thing, but the concept of getting anywhere by 5:30 in the morning feels absolutely ridiculous. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t do my best work before the sun is up. So the thought of a surgeon getting out of bed at 4:30 and then driving to the hospital to immediately cut me open wasn’t the most hope-inducing scenario.
But my surgery was actually at 7:30. I just had to be there two hours early so I could sign away their liability and also get an IV put into my hand. Then I just sat in a room with my mom, Ed, and Nina, and we made small talk until they wheeled me off to the operating room.
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to find much to talk about in those moments. Getting serious about how you feel about people and life and all that just adds a lot of unnecessary weight to the whole thing, especially for the people not being operated on. I’d said it to all of them in the days leading up to surgery, but I had it easy. Given how anxious I can be, if I was on the other side of it, having to sit in a waiting room for three hours and pace around until a surgeon came out and gave me an update sounded like literal torture. And while I would, in some sense, literally be getting tortured, at least I’d be asleep through all of it.
Once I got over to the operating room, I had brief conversations with the anesthetists (none of whom were named Jennings, *baa dumm tiss*) and they gave me a rundown of how it all would go down. They brought me into the room, put me onto the operating table, and three of the people who would be involved in the surgery started making small talk. Which, dumb as it may sound, I actually found strangely comforting. They asked where I was from (Chicago) and if I liked the Bears (I don’t) and then, of course, it turned into them asking questions about my tattoos, which is always my least favorite part of these things. Yes, I have very dumb tattoos and, while they all mean something in the way that everything, cosmically, has some kind of meaning, they don’t really mean anything in a way that would be satisfying for someone else to hear. I literally have the word “whoops” on my arm, which is a tattoo that is making fun of another tattoo I have. Let’s not do this.
Then they started asking me if I wanted to listen to music before the surgery. “You look like you like music,” one of them said, which is both accurate and damning at the exact same time, but I politely declined. But they kept pushing. “No, come on, we can put on whatever you want.” And in that moment, I had an existential crisis. I never thought much about what my “last words” would be or any of that nonsense, but having to think about what I’d want to hear, possibly for the last time, struck me in a way I wasn’t ready for. It made me think about my friend Jeremy, and how his band has a song that I’ve thought about a lot during this process. It goes something like this:
If you fantasize about your funeral
I understand, I've been there before
If there's more importance in the music played
Than who'd attend
We are the same
So when I was hit with a version of that question in real-time, with three people in surgical face masks above me, I blanked. But their eyes were locked on me, and they were waiting for some kind of answer. So I just blurted out, “What’s the most brutal death metal you have?”
I woke up hours later in a daze, as anesthesia is one hell of a drug. And somehow my first thought was: How were they able to wake me up? Like, if I was able to go through surgery and not wake up, but seemingly be woken up by a nurse tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Hi David, you’re awake now,” then modern medicine is truly a wild thing.
I got ushered to my room and was told that everything went well and that I’d be released tomorrow. And while the first part of that is technically true, there was a minor hiccup. Apparently, the tumor was resting up against some nerves, so to not sever those, they had to move them out of the way. What that means is, half my tongue is “bruised” and so are large parts of my face. In essence, it’s mild facial paralysis. I can eat and talk and all that, but I’ve got a pretty noticeable lisp and the left side of my face is much puffier than my right. When I asked the surgeon how long it’d take to recover, he gave me a rather unsatisfactory answer, which was, “It could be a week, it could be a month, it could be a year.” And perhaps what’s most frustrating about it all is that, while nerves seem to be very good at experiencing and articulating the full range of human emotion at any given time, when they are moved even slightly, they basically become Barney Gumble. Apparently, you know they are healing because they cycle between a small range of sensations, which is either being totally numb or imitating a hot, stinging sensation. Let me tell you, getting better never felt so bad.
Now, I know that all sounds very severe, and while it is deeply frustrating, I guess it’s better than any of the really bad alternatives (a stroke, heart attack, or death). As I’ve been telling myself for the past week, “This is the worst it’s going to feel. It’s only going to get better.” But that doesn’t make the fact I can’t speak normally and have to eat food with only half of my mouth any easier in the present moment.
Oh, and that part about being released the next day? Well, that didn’t happen. It took about a day for the anesthesia to wear off, and when it did, I was delighted to learn that I didn’t have a single useable limb at my disposal. They’d put in a second IV into my other hand, I was attached to an IV drip, my legs had these weird air compression things on them to keep blood clots from forming, and I had a drainage tube in my neck. Moving wasn’t easy nor particularly enjoyable. As it would turn out, that drainage tube would be the reason we all got delayed in coming home.
The purpose of the tube was to keep me from developing a hematoma, which is a thing that sounded bad and I didn’t want to experience, so I had to wait until I stopped bleeding so much before I could leave. This would take three nights in the hospital, which was, by and large, fine, but also not something I’d like to do again any time soon. Thankfully, Cleveland Clinic allows visitors to stay overnight if they choose to, so Nina toughed it out with me. Not to get sappy here, but the fact that she was willing to sleep in a reclining chair next to me, and help me get up to pee into a jug in the middle of the night, really said a lot. I hope she knows I’d do the same. It all meant even more when I realized she was being subjected to an even worse version of this experience. I was tired all the time and mostly sleeping, so she just had to sit around in this tiny room and watch Food Network shows without the sound on while I bled into a pouch and smelled increasingly worse. A form of torture all its own, to be sure.
The second day there, I was hit with a healthy dose of perspective as, in the middle of the night, or what seems like the middle of the night when you decide your bed time is before 9 p.m., a new patient was brought into our semi-private encampment. All four of us in this weird college dorm for sick people were ENT patients, but whatever this guy went through had all of us beat, hands down. For one, the only noise he made was the sound of him choking and coughing, and this was because they had to put both a feeding tube and a breathing tube down his throat. He couldn’t move, had an IV in his foot, and was basically just forced to sit there in silence and give a thumbs up or thumbs down to whatever questions he was asked. Occasionally, the nurses would come check on him and administer some pain meds, which would conjure a coughing fit that would turn to a choking fit, and the sound was so horrific that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget it. The next day, I heard the nurses say that his drainage tubes had collected nearly a liter of blood overnight. A liter of blood. I was putting out 15 milliliters and that was deemed too much. So, yeah, perspective.
That same night my compatriot arrived also brought us the arrival of the Night Nurse From Hell. Her shift started at 7 p.m. and ran through the next morning, which was conveniently during my preferred hours of slumber. But she made sure that restful sleep wasn’t something to be had when she was on duty. Aside from banging into my bed every time she entered the room, and seemingly only being able to speak in what I’d describe as the McDonald’s drive-thru speaker turned to 11, she also found a way to bring level of pain to an all-time high.
For most of my stay, I was describing my pain as being about a “three or four,” partially because I have a high pain tolerance and also because the numbness in my face meant I was more frustrated than actively aching. But when Night Nurse From Hell came in to check how much blood my drainage tube collected, she didn’t exhibit much care. Instead, she yanked the collection bag sky high, pulling my neck up along with it, and then proceeded to shake the bag as if she were in a very high-stakes game of craps. She did this three times throughout the night. I had a very bad time.
Experiencing Thanksgiving in the hospital is a unique thing, because the halls were empty in a way that more accurately mimicked zombie films than anything else. Nina told me that they transformed the cafeteria into a kind of Thanksgiving buffet for all the visitors, which I thought was a nice touch, though I wasn’t allowed to go down there. I was able to get up and walk around that day, and I got to see three cops shakedown an elderly patient for leaving her floor to visit someone on the floor I was on. Here’s a song that expresses how I feel about that.
Nina and I got to eat together that day, though, and that was nice. I even got to have pie! What’s more, I could actually kind of eat it!
That night, I barely slept, because I was too anxious. I was worried that I was putting out too much blood and I’d have to stay yet another night. Despite the fact that the people there with me wouldn’t blame me for it, it’s hard to not feel like you’re derailing everyone’s plans when you’re the reason everything is now running several days behind schedule and everyone had to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a hospital cafeteria. I wanted to go home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I didn’t want to deal with the Night Nurse From Hell anymore. I just wanted to feel like things were maybe kind of normal.
As I laid there, I considered getting up, going to the bathroom, and dumping out a few milliliters of blood to grease the wheels. “What’s five milliliters matter in the grand scheme of things,” I thought, knowing that, sure, probably a bad idea, but if it could get me out of there and let all this anxiety go, it probably wouldn’t kill me. But I didn’t do that. The secondary—and correct—thought that followed was that having to go back into the hospital because of my own idiocy would be a much worse punishment on myself and everyone I care about, so I played by the rules and let fate control my destiny. Thankfully, it worked.
The next morning, I was told they’d be taking out the drain and that I could go home, and there was literally no news that was more exciting to me in that moment. I started getting dressed almost immediately, and before long, they came and pulled the drainage tube out of me. Sweet relief! I put on my very cool and not-at-all gaudy Blood Incantation sweatpants and waited for their discharge instructions. First, a doctor told me that I shouldn’t shower for at least a day, maybe two, and that when I do, to not expose my incision to water directly. “You can get it wet, but not totally wet. Let it run down over the incision, but don’t let water hit it directly.” Is this a fucking riddle? And then the nurse came in and told me, I shit you not, that I could go downstairs to the hotel my parents were staying at and shower there right away. So yeah, whatever, I’ve taken a shower and no longer smell like trash. I also got the incision wet, but not too wet. Do with that what you will.
Since getting back, things have still felt weird, but I’m chalking that up to the fact my face is constantly tingling and throwing off other senses too. It’s definitely activated the tinnitus in my left ear to a degree that is deeply annoying and, somehow, makes it so I can feel the hairs inside my ear vibrating. It sucks and I don’t recommend that being a thing you have to deal with. But over the past few days, my left ear isn’t totally numb anymore. The top part actually feels normal sensations, while the lobe is still pretty much dead weight. But even that small bit of progress feels encouraging.
I don’t know what happens next, and I don’t know if I’m better or not, but I do know that I’m thankful for everyone in my life. I didn’t start doing this for any other reason than to work through my thoughts and feelings in a somewhat constructive way, and the amount of people that have reached out and supported me has been both shocking and overwhelming in the best possible way. I considered putting a big “thank you” list here like this the insert to a Pennywise record or something, but have decided to forgo that. Instead, I just want to genuinely tell you all how much I love you and appreciate you. I owe you one. Maybe more than one.
I still have another tumor in me, and I don’t know what I want to do with that. Maybe I go through this again in a year, or maybe I’ll just let it stay there and keep on keeping on. To quote Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten.” Oh yeah, I saw his guitar at the Rock Hall, too. That was pretty cool.