Where I've Been, Part 1

Written by Dan Schwartz

If you’ve been interested (and I’m not saying you ought to be…), you’ll have noticed that for the last year, I’ve frequently been missing from these pixels, and Copper has rerun older pieces. I’ve been on—as we tend to call these sorts of things lately— a journey.

It began 16 years ago. I was impervious. I had been through psychedelic therapy several years earlier. I had scaled the mountaintops of my own being. And then, just past mid-2002, my phone rang: my very-hard-to-get-hold-of friend and guitarist Gregg called, asking if I’d heard about our great drummer friend, David. I knew right away that David was dead, his third heroin overdose.

As we talked, Gregg also told me that he’d been diagnosed with cancer. This was extraordinary and very bad news. And the type of cancer, I knew that it wasn’t good — it was exactly the same kind as took down my mother. And in January of 2003, he died. We had been a fantastic trio, Gregg, David, and me. Now I was the only one left.

On July 10 of 2003, for some reason, or no reason, I tried to push in on my abdomen. The left side went in, as normal; the right side was hard as a rock. Unmoving. I knew something was in there and had a very bad feeling about what it was. This would be a great irony: first David, then Gregg, and then me.

The next day was my wife’s birthday, and I kept my mouth shut, but the day after that I was in my doctor’s office. He acted like I was paranoid, saying he couldn’t palpate anything. But we’d get an ultrasound, and if it was at all inconclusive we’d get a CT scan. (Thanks, doc!) That’s when I told my wife.

The following Tuesday, I was laying on a bed getting an ultrasound. I saw the technician’s eyebrows go up. He asked if I had any trouble urinating, or whether I had seen any blood in my urine. I said “Kidney?” He said he wasn’t suppose to do what he was about to do, and turned the monitor so I could see: there was my right kidney, the upper-half looking normal, the bottom half looking like a large globe. It had a 13-cm tumor in it.

We began the process of interviewing doctors and figuring out who took insurance and who didn’t. We settled on the man who everyone told us was THE guy, despite the fact that he wouldn’t take insurance. He made us wait for two hours to see him; he spent 5 minutes with us. But, despite his rudeness, he gave us such confidence in him. He jabbed my abdomen with a pen, saying my scar is going to be like this, indicating an L shape on my gut. The surgery would take four hours, and would take four months to recover from. I would lose 2 units of blood. But he also said, and this might be why I’m writing all this, that a bout of kidney stones 6 or 7 years earlier had likely caused this.

I had known since I was 30 that my blood calcium measured high, and some years later had the theoretical cause confirmed: one of my parathyroid glands had been misbehaving for my entire life. (It would later be discovered to be in my chest, rather than where the other three were, on the thyroid gland in the neck.) The bad parathyroid likely resulted in kidney stones.

All through this time, I only felt fear for one hour: I suppose I might have been naïve, or somehow disconnected. Or maybe I AM that fearless. Who knows? But that hour came as we were waiting for results of a lung scan to see if the cancer had spread there. I can’t explain why, nor do I think it’s necessary, but the morning of July 31st, the morning of the surgery, I felt very light, optimistic and happy, joking around as I was being prepped. And then I was out.

I started waking up as I was being transferred from a gurney to a bed in the ICU, hearing a very large orderly talking about how much I struggled against him, and tried to tear out my “A” line, the IV tube that for some reason I was dependent on.

The next morning, still in the ICU, I could feel almost instantly when a nurse started mainlining me morphine: I started hallucinating grid patterns. My wife gave the nurse cookies and sweet-talked her into diluting the drug.

I learned after a few days what had happened after the surgery. The surgeon came into the waiting room, where my wife and friends were, in street clothes — two hours in, rather than four. My wife said she was about to launch into berating him for being what she thought was two hours late, when he said, “Well, I don’t know what happened, but I’m finished. I’ve been doing this surgery for 25 years and this was the most flawless one I’ve ever done; this guy has no fat on him. I wish I had cameras in the OR — this would have been the surgery to teach from. He lost less than half-a-cup of blood.”

And, sure enough, two months TO THE DAY (rather than the previously predicted four), I went out on my own to see Bernie Leadon perform.

Next: it gets more complicated.

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