Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hardest Hitting Safety in the Land

Washington Redskins safety Sean TaylorMuch like other Washington Redskins fans and non-fans living in the DC Metro area, I was deeply saddened by the loss of our star safety, Sean Taylor, early Tuesday morning. This community seems to be in a state of mourning – Sean was the front page story of The Washington Post both yesterday and today. I never knew him, spoke to him or saw him, and probably never would, but somehow it still feels like I lost a friend.

This is the saddest I can remember being in a while. That in itself sounds a little crazy. I mean, he was just a football player, right? Correction: he was just a former All-American safety with a combination of speed, leaping ability, strength and hitting power that we’ve never seen before, right?

Washington Redskins safety Sean TaylorI can’t speak for why the thousands of other fans have taken his death so hard. I can only speak for myself. And to be honest, this is a new experience for me. In the past I’d feel bad certainly, but I wouldn’t feel the kind of sadness I do now. In fact, I’d probably laugh at the hundreds of fans who gathered at Redskins Park for a candlelight vigil. I’d probably want to punch each and every one of them in the face for being such a pussy. Now, I just want to join them.

And I think that’s where the answer lies. Sean Taylor and I are somewhat similar, even aside from the fact that he was born only nine months before me. From the hours of coverage I’ve watched and listened to since he was shot, what struck me the most about Sean was his maturation. His teammates and coaches all say how much Sean matured over the past 1.5 years, after the birth of his daughter. Unless the employees at the sperm bank have been messing with my frozen samples, I’m fairly certain I don’t have a child of my own. However, I have matured much like Sean over the past year or so. After all, it takes loads of maturity to accept that Jack Bauer is fictional. After six years I finally came to grips.

Washington Redskins safety Sean TaylorSean was perceived by others and most likely himself as invincible. How could somebody fly through the air catching balls and crushing skulls the way he did without possessing that trait? He even lived for an entire day after getting shot in the femoral artery and his heart stopping twice. The way I survived my illness made me think I was invincible, as well. Sean and I also shared similar shy and quiet personalities.

When I had cancer seven years ago I watched just as many sporting events as I do now, if not more. I guess they acted as diversions from the real world. The games allowed me to enjoy a few hours of my time in the midst of short bursts of chaos. Sean’s passing does just the opposite – it brings the safe and innocent world of sports into the cycle of life and death. It makes us realize how one individual’s life, however much a stranger to most and meaningless to some, can have such an enormous impact on others.

Washington Redskins safety Sean TaylorI will have two lasting memories of Sean. The first will be when he punished Terrell Owens with a monster hit. Owens then whined to the refs and tried to persuade them to call a penalty. He was terrified of Sean thereafter. The second memory will be when Sean catapulted Brett Favre to the number one spot on the list of interceptions thrown, picking him off twice and getting his hands on another four. It was like he knew exactly where the ball was going to be before it was even thrown. If he had successfully caught the other four passes it would’ve been the single greatest defensive performance in history, but was pretty awesome as is.

When my brother raved about Sean on daft day back in 2004, I thought he was exaggerating his ability. But, he wasn’t. Sean Taylor was an unbelievable talent with a limitless potential whose life was taken at the shockingly young age of 24.

Washington Redskins safety Sean TaylorFor the first time in a lifetime of Redskins games, I will watch them play this Sunday without much care for the final score. I will simply enjoy watching. I just wish the hardest hitting safety in the land was out there.

Keep reading:
A Gladiator at Heart

Leia Mais…

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bombs Over September (Part I of II)

Continued from “My Cancer Story": Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part III of III)
Read "My Cancer Story" from the beginning: The Golden Age (Part I of III)

My radiation nurse gave me a Hershey’s chocolate bar and a hug on my last day. I’d miss her a little, knowing I'd never see her again. That was her job—to send people on their way back to normal life or on the road to death.

The nursing staff and doctors on my clinic and hospital floor wished me luck with a congratulatory banner. Some of them made a major impression on me and I hoped I did the same to them. I didn’t want them to ever forget that I was the teenage patient who physically and psychologically annihilated bone cancer to the extent they’d never before seen.

I always found it interesting that I became cancer-free one year after learning of my tumor, almost to the minute. Not symbolic, just coincidental. My friend, RiddleMeThis, invited me over to his house that night. I had always thought RiddleMeThis was a cool dude, but never hung out with him outside of school. It turns out my group of friends had been spending time with him on many Friday nights. I wondered when this had happened, and where was I?

When I arrived they were on his deck listening to Outkast’s "Bombs Over Baghdad." When the verse “Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS” played, PepperoniNip turned the volume all the way up. “That one’s for you, buddy,” he said.

Everyone congratulated me including one of the more popular kids, Mr. Clean, who gave the most thoughtful compliment. I wondered when I earned the privilege to converse with him, and thought it was cool that he knew and cared about my freedom.

Other things had changed. Some friends had begun drinking and most were dipping. I had been unaware that one of my good friends was sent across the country to rehab until he already left. I didn’t know he was coming back home until he already arrived.

Veronica Varekova Sports Illustrated coverAunt Marchi sent me a $50 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse for being done with treatment. I saved it for a special occasion, like taking Veronica Varekova out on a date. I ended up using it three years later for my anniversary of surviving cancer. Veronica Varekova wasn’t there.

During an editor’s meeting in journalism class our pregnant teacher mentioned her morning sickness. “Oh yeah?” PepperoniNip butted in. “Well, Ben just beat cancer.”

“You win,” my teacher said.

My port—a device surgically implanted in my chest to make chemotherapy easier to deliver—was removed earlier than usual, by my request. Removing it was like eradicating everything cancer entailed. It was the last piece of physical evidence that proved I ever had cancer. I left the disease in the BIOHAZARD receptacle right alongside my port.

Ports are usually kept for a year in case of recurrence, similar to buying health insurance to mitigate the cost of getting sick. I gave cancer recurrence a zero percent chance and wanted the port out of me. My head doctor authorized its removal, showing that I wasn’t the only confident one. Besides, if my cancer did return then having my port surgically implanted a second time would be the least of my worries.

Keep reading: Bombs Over September (Part II of II)

Leia Mais…

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Second Atlantic City Trip

Read this first:
The First Atlantic City Trip

Atlantic City's the Borgata hotelMy second visit to Atlantic City was spent quoting the comedian Dave Chappelle, talking shit to Hamburgers for bad directions, and worrying about the “Check Engine” light that was lit in Froddy’s car the whole ride. We also stayed overnight this time at the Borgata, again without prostitutes.

For weeks I told my two friends how casino buffets are amazing and how we had to eat at one. Those of you who have been to Las Vegas know exactly what I’m talking about. Anyway, they bojangled for too long, probably on purpose to spite me, and by the time they were ready to eat the buffet was closed. Coincidentally, the next time Hamburgers went to Atlantic City he ate at a buffet and loved it. I’m still bitter.

At midnight we went down to the food court because that was the only place open. While waiting for my order, an obviously crazy and homeless man approached me and asked to see my hand. I looked over at Hamburgers for guidance in regard to the strange request. He was baffled and actually thought the dude might hit me. Not knowing what to do, I showed him my left hand which happened to have an “AGE 21” stamp on it.

“You know, back in my young days, we used to rub our hands together to spread the stamp around.” The man grabbed my hand and began pressing it against the back of his. “We all used to get into clubs when we wasn’t supposed to ‘cause we rubbed our hands together.”

I hadn’t seen anything so strange since the times I rode on the New York City subways. Once while with my parents, a homeless man asked if he could live in our house. A different time an Asian man was trying to sell dolls. He gave everyone a demonstration of what made the doll unique. He pulled a chord in the doll’s back. When he let go, water started streaming out of the doll through a fucked-up looking penis.

When the crazy dude stopped touching me he said, “You have weak hands,” then walked away. What the fuck does that even mean?

Hamburgers ordered a chili dog which he would later describe as, “The most disgusting thing I have ever consumed in a lifetime of fast food and frozen shit.” It was shriveled and discolored. Neither I nor the Italian man sitting near us could believe he ate it. The Italian man cracked jokes about the chili dog for the next 10 minutes. He was possibly the funniest person I’ve ever met. Out of the blue, he stood up and walked away. Hamburgers and I looked at the guy sitting across from the Italian, whom we assumed was his friend, and asked where he was going. “Heck if I know,” he responded. “I don’t even know the dude.”

That night Froddy and I shared one of the two beds. In the strangest awakening of my life, I found myself huddled in a tiny corner of the bed with Froddy literally hovering over me, propped up and positioned just centimeters away. If it were a movie, you would’ve wondered how long ago I dropped the soap. He was all up in my grill. I looked up to see what the deal was. His eyes were wide open and he was staring directly at me. But he was asleep. I just hope he wasn’t dreaming about me. I bet he was.


Postscript: If this wasn’t funny then I blame it on our numerous inside jokes. I apologize.

Leia Mais…

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The First Atlantic City Trip

Atlantic City's Tropicana hotelExperiencing casinos is almost a rite of passage for 21 year-olds, so two years ago C-Smoke, Big Easy and I took a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. After two poor excuses from them, I got stuck driving. That didn’t stop Big Easy from complaining about my music selection, but that’s neither here nor there.

We were supposed to leave at noon, but those two are worthless and we ended up leaving at 2:00. If you don’t believe they’re worthless, keep reading.

C-Smoke didn’t have any money with him, so he made us stop at his brother’s to borrow some. He expected $50, but only got $40. “You’re seriously going to Atlantic City with only $40?” I asked. “That’s not nearly enough.”

“Don’t worry about it; I’ll be rich in no time. And after I am, the hotel room and hookers are on me.”

“I brought $40, too,” Big Easy said, laughing. “And I can’t afford to lose it.”

“You morons better not complain when you’re broke after an hour.”

Big Easy told me to take a short cut, which actually made us lose 30-45 minutes. It also put us in rush hour. After two short stops for food and to urinate in corn fields, we made it to the Tropicana around 9:00.

Those casinos are unbelievably huge. When we finally found the poker room we put our names on a list and waited 30 minutes for a no-limit Texas Hold ‘em table. Still far down on the list, Big Easy then suggested that we sit at a $1/$2 limit table, which had plenty of open seats. We had never played limit Hold ‘em. Not only did we not know the rules, we didn’t even know it existed. But we were so tired of waiting for a no-limit table that we gave it a shot.

It was a stupid decision. We quickly realized we had no chance at winning money, so we played extremely conservatively just to get a few free drinks from the well-endowed and barely dressed waitresses. When three spots opened, we left that game for a no-limit table hungry for money and glory. In order to even have a shot at competing, the two morons needed more starting money. I lent them $25 each.

It turns out our confidence was much more bountiful than our talent and luck. We were out of chips before we knew it. No chips meant they had no money, which meant no hotel and no prostitutes.

Just as I had suspected, C-Smoke and Big Easy wanted to drive back home after gambling for only four hours. Correction: they wanted me to drive back home. I declined, and instead took a seat at a $25 minimum blackjack table. I would’ve preferred a $5 table, or $.05 table for that matter, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I got advice from the older woman sitting next to me, who coached me to instant success. I got up to $100, then $200, then $250. That’s when Big Easy foolishly thought his blackjack skills were on par with mine, and when I foolishly lent more him money. But without an older woman, my older woman, he had no chance. Several hands later I was up to $325 and Big Easy had lost $125 of my money.

When I dropped back down to $250 I decided to get out and go home. Exhausted, I focused as hard as I could on the road as C-Smoke and Big Easy slept. On several occasions I actually fell asleep and was awoken by the rumble strips on the side of the road. Not wanting to die, I had C-Smoke take over driving duties at a Maryland rest stop.

I walked into my house at 7:00 AM. 10.5 hours of driving, 1.5 hours of walking and 5 hours of gambling. Big Easy still owes me $60 for this trip and another $40 for reasons I’d rather not say. If I was a bookie and had some legbreakers I might see that money, but since Big Easy is in debt to just about everyone he knows, I kind of doubt it.


Postscript: I am totally joking about wanting to get prostitutes, or at least 95% joking. I wouldn’t be surprised if C-Smoke wasn’t joking at all.

Keep reading:
The Second Atlantic City Trip

Leia Mais…

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part III of III)

Read these first:
Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part I of III)
Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part II of III)

I didn't understand why I had to get more chemo following surgery—almost twice the number of cycles as before my surgery—since the tumor was completely dead and had been entirely removed. Actually, research on different protocols showed that to be the proper amount.

After surgery, my friends always knew where I was because I couldn’t go anywhere. The one time I visited my surgeon, Zeke and PepperoniNip came around back to my porch expecting to see me sitting in my La-Z-Boy through the window. When I wasn’t there they thought something was wrong.

I was going out by the end of winter. One morning I got blood work, and then ate breakfast at IHOP with my mom. It snowed on the way home and for the rest of the afternoon. I spent my day playing a snowboarding game, SSX, on PlayStation 2 and staring out the window. What a sight. Zeke was supposed to come play, but didn’t want his car getting stuck. I wished I could sled, or walk across the woods to Zeke's house and toss the football. Maybe next year. During the blizzard of ’96 while walking from my house to his, we each had to pee. “There’s too much snow!” I complained. “I can’t whip it out; it’s up to my belly button!” Height was never my strongest attribute.

Rehabbing became a part-time job after surgery. Fortunately, I had the best physical therapist, Formula-6. He pushed me to my limit, and then beyond. Once while exercising on the horizontal leg press, I used so much force that I squeaked one out. Weeks later while visiting my surgeon I was performing leg extensions. I was showing off my tremendous progress and Dr. M&M was showing off his great surgical work to his fellows. I put all my energy into one huge leg lift and it just came out. I couldn’t help it. I got some giggles and one comment: “Too much pressure, huh?”

Before walking on land I walked in the swimming pool, without the full force of gravity. I rehabbed at my local pool twice a week. When I told my leg to move, it responded through a significant range of motion. When summer came around, PepperoniNip’s family allowed me to use their pool. When those hot summer days began I knew it would be over shortly.


And just like that, it was all over. I finished chemo and several weeks later my radiation. The doctors sent me on my way, not to return for a month. One minute I was the perfect cancer patient with the Superman-like ability to battle one of the world’s nastiest diseases, and the next minute I was just another one of the millions of cancer survivors.

My goal that year had been to become cancer-free, and I reached it. I had expected something dramatic to accompany the freedom, but nothing really changed. Having cancer was similar to not having cancer—they were both part of the gradual and linear path known as my life. Over the years I’ve noticed that to be the case for a lot of things. Events take place, milestones are reached, and life just keeps moving along seeming not to care about our individual accomplishments and tragedies. I think I understand now that it’s the journey that matters.

Continue reading "My Cancer Story": Bombs Over September (Part I of II)

Leia Mais…

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part II of III)

Read this first: Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part I of III)

I despised how people always asked, “How are you?” because I knew they were really asking about the cancer. Some people asked in a manner that suggested, “I’m glad you’re not dead, but I won’t be surprised when you are.” This often happened at Temple, where people knew me as the guy with cancer whose name was on “The List”—the names of ill people the congregation prayed for.

“No, I’m great,” I would respond.

“I’m so glad to hear that. Keep it up.”

Someone questioned me that same way just this past summer. I’d been cancer-free for over four years. I politely responded that I was doing fantastic, about to graduate, healthy as an ox and strong as a bull. But really, I wanted to break her fucking neck.

Since the age of eight I’ve saved every card people have given me and stuck them in my desk drawer. A couple weeks ago I read through and organized them. I noticed a few trends. Aunt Flojo always apologized for sending late birthday cards. My parents always wrote, “You are a great son and we love you very much.” My brother always finished with his signature logo, “JD Products” written inside a baseball diamond. And Zeke’s handwriting was always terrible.

I stacked them in two piles: cancer cards and everything else. My cancer stack was almost as high as the one for everything else, which included 15 years worth of cards for graduations, birthdays, Hanukahs, my bar mitzvah and more.

At the time I hated receiving the get well cards. I didn’t need or want the pity, support, or whatever it is that compels people to send those kinds of cards. I usually stuck them in my desk drawer without reading them. I appreciated that people cared, but I didn’t want them to think about me. Why aren’t they thinking about JD? What’s the difference between us? Nobody meant to upset me—they just didn’t know what else to do. I guess if they knew I was Superman then they wouldn’t have thought the cards were necessary.

Bill Clinton signature cardMaybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but when I looked through the cards two weeks ago, they meant something to me. All those people cared enough to send their thoughts and wishes, and in the case of some people like Zeke’s parents or my math teacher, a dozen or so times. My mom’s friend, who volunteered at the White House, sent a card signed by the president. It was automated, of course, and President Clinton probably wasn’t even aware of it, but still pretty cool. Zeke had my friends sign a card when I was first diagnosed. My older relatives sent what few thoughts they could muster. My young cousins even sent me some of their artwork.

Many of the cards were either words of encouragement before my surgery, a show of admiration afterward, or praying and pleading that I successfully make it through. Those were the most personal and touching. Although I didn’t entirely know or act like it, my surgery was a big deal. When I finally was sent home after two weeks, some friends came over to see me. One told me years later that after she left my house she began shaking and crying. I’m glad nobody photographed me directly after the surgery. I have an idea of what I looked like, but it’s nice not to have that visual image. Too bad some people still have it.

Keep reading: Welcome to the Cancer Life (Part III of III)

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