December 11, 2019

On My Mind

The hardest part about writing about brain radiation is writing the words "brain radiation." I assure you that I’m OK. It’s my fingers that are typing these words on my computer. It’s my thoughts that are deciding which of the Yip Harburg lyrics from the Scarecrow’s song, "If I Only Had a Brain," I should use later in this piece.

After 14 sessions in which I received 250 rads each, I’ve met some great people — since so many great people get cancer. And I’ve solidified some terrific friendships, since it takes terrific friendship to drive a person to Cedars-Sinai and sit with one’s own doubts during a friend’s treatment.

Other than that, the only part of my reality that has changed is that my hair, which had grown back into soft brown poodle curls, is once again gone. At 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Radiation No. 13, my head was expelling poison like Love Canal. Hair was everywhere. I got up, found my lady’s razor and took care of business.

Nevertheless, it is true. I’ve just completed three weeks of brain radiation.

Like every Jew alive, I believe that the brain is the seat of the soul. It matters not at all if you’ve never heard an Orthodox take on spiritual biology, in which the brain is equated to the Torah, while the "heart" is divine service. The beit hamikdash, God’s residence, is described as, "The brain of the world."

The brain is the big act; it’s us at our very essence. It’s where we make up puns and drive ourselves crazy with guilt, must-haves and might-have-beens.

You can take out a hunk of my lung, and I’ll still want chocolate chip cookies.

You can burn the daylights out of my cells with chemotherapy, and I’ll still love eggplant parmigiana.

But when an MRI suggested that tiny lesions in my brain would eventually create a problem, I turned myself into Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind," drawing pictures on stained glass. Except I’ll never create a new market theory.

I pleaded with my doctors, say it isn’t so.

But lung cancer has a great propensity for metastasizing to the brain. Act early and we have a chance.

Full-brain radiation is no one’s first choice, but it doesn’t have to be awful. My worst problem was my imagination, having been primed by movies like "The Snake Pit." The imagination, too, is in the brain, along with quantum physics.

In moments of trouble, the soul becomes dogmatic. Maybe that’s because the soul is located in the brain, which is also where the "Pharaoh" resides. According to one theory, "Pharaoh," is located in the back of the neck, lodged in the brain stem, part of the essential dogmatic taskmaster that won’t let us go.

I brought to brain radiation all the same obsessions and skills that I’ve used all my life. Which means, I was determined never to be merely a number, a cog in the wheel.

"I would not be just a nothin’

My head all full of stuffin’

My heart all full of pain," sang the Scarecrow.

I still had a brain.

My first day of brain radiation at Cedars-Sinai went like this:

I showed up at 6 p.m. accompanied by my daughter, Samantha, her friend Heather and my friend Diane. My name was called over the loud speaker. The four of us stood up, held hands and said a prayer.

Tim, the radiation tech, met me in the radiation room, with its giant version of the machine that takes your teeth X-rays. He handed me my personalized facemask, which I can now use for Olympic fencing, and gestured for me to hop on the treatment table.

"Wait," I said. He wore a cross around his neck. I felt safe going into my spiel.

"This is my brain we’re working on here," I said, looking him in the eyes. "Do your best."

And it went fine. The mask fit snug, and the cross hairs lined up perfectly, so only the right areas got hit. The whole procedure took 90 seconds on each side. He took good care.

The next day I moved to the morning shift. Over 13 more days in a row excepting weekends, I would also meet Christine and Joanie and Kimberly.

From inside the mask, it went like this:

After checking my mask, Tim left. The room was silent. I’m alone. Tim calls my name over the intercom. I begin to breathe deeply.

How will I get through this? Dare I pray for myself? Why the hell not!? I’d say the "Misheberach" for you, if roles were reversed. Why is the universal "Om" better than the direct appeal?

So against the purr of the radiation, the glare of the white light and the antiseptic spray of ozone, I prayed for a refuah sheleima, a full and complete recovery.

You can radiate your brain without losing your soul.