Diarist: Health and Unreason
The Prod That Tries Men’s Souls
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, August 25, 2006
I now know from personal experience what bunker-busting bombs are all about: I had my prostate examined yesterday, for only the second time in what, until then, had been my young life. Young no more, not by any self-delusional stretch. Once the probes begin in that annual search for the only WMDs that finally matter (polyps), middle age’s hymen is broken: there’s no going back, there’s no denying old age’s breath down one’s leathering neck, there’s no evading the obvious that old and grisly Anthony Burgess once so pointedly nailed before he was himself nailed beneath his final cross: “Life itself is lethal but, we hope, not yet.” (John Updike managed a similar though less terminal formula: “We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one.” The difference in finality between Updike’s and Burgess’s is that Updike wrote his line when he was in middle age’s lobby—it’s cited in a book he wrote when he was about my age—while Burgess wrote his when already approximating the shadows of a carcass, and in a book titled for accuracy: “You’ve Had Your Time.”) I put in for an octogenarian stretch when I applied for this life. I never read the small print that warns of the unexpected. It’s always the next guy who’s buying the farm. Morbidity about oneself stops at worry’s edge, which doesn’t mean that hypochondria hasn’t been a mistress of mine since about age seven. But I keep her hidden like a minor shame, an adulterous obsession better kept to oneself. So I’m not one to see doctors, take medicines, follow regimens. I prefer to stick to water and Bach as my daily medicines, to reading a few hours a day for exercise.
But here I was going to the doctor for fear that my last sigh was approaching somewhat faster than scheduled. Odd aches that whispered of tumors, palpitations that felt, in my chest, like postcards from my father, himself stupidly departed at 46 from a massive (as opposed to what, a velvety? A Nat King Cole-like?) heart attack. The one and only time I’d seen that doctor goes back almost two years—as laid back a doctor as I’ve known, the only one I’ve known that I could actually stand, not least because he’s also the only one who treats me as if I’m his only patient: More than an hour’s consultation the first time, almost two hours yesterday. He suggested a full physical. I was in no position to argue. I was seeking him out, after all. And there I was in that flimsy paper gown (blue for boy, I imagine), and him telling me to sit on that thickish plasticky gurney you see in doctors’ offices and lethal injection chambers. I was flashing back to memories of my terrifying first day at Jesuit school in Beirut, year after year, when we had no choice but to have out visite médicale — our physical, which meant little more than walking into a pale bleak room where every sound was tin and every light fluorescent and being ordered to drop our shorts for an ogling doctor to feel us up, usually in front of a jury of nuns and otherwise idle women, sitting there with their arms crossed, their lady mustaches crinkling in the white light from their little orgasmic delights, and their eyes fixed on us helpless cherubs. Oddly enough I don’t remember priests hanging out in that torture chamber, though it seems to me a mathematical impossibility that our school — Jesuit and Catholic, doubleheader of the pedophilic priesthood — wasn’t a little den of collared perversion.
And here was my own doctor, decades later and seven time zones removed, asking me to remove my inhibitions, to position myself this way and that, to relax. The same words, with slight variations, printed on leaflets and dropped all over those towns in South Lebanon, ahead of Israeli bombings. There is of course nothing more vulgar than sharing the stories of one’s medical history, and of all such histories those involving one’s netherlands are the crassest of all. But that too is a sign of old age’s high-speed train rushing at you while you’re strapped to the rails, about to be chopped. I live in Florida, where discussions by nature begin with ear, throat and nose druthers and make their way down, almost always by way of urinary tracts and more scatologically unpleasant trails. From there to eschatology of course, it’s a skip and a plop. Let’s not take the exit just yet.
Let’s also admit that none of us is entirely immune to the debilitating pull of having to speak of one’s scabrous health (after visiting a doctor especially). The reason may not be so hard to figure out, though there’s nothing original about it. In the old days the national religion was religion—the confessional, the Sunday and Wednesday sermon, the five-times-daily prayer if you were among those unlucky ones. The religionists are still around, to be sure, doing their best to give secularism a permanent enema. But these days the national religion is health, and Gray’s Anatomy the Bible on everyone’s conscience. Just like the Bible, no one reads it but everyone unknowingly cites it, or at least derives his angst and anxieties from it. We’re all anatomies of gray, staving off that eternal black with a little color here and there, hopefully more pink than red. One’s colon and prostate, one’s cirrhosis and bunions and brittle bones and hip replacements and splints and Parkinson’s and diabetes and cysts have replaced the book of Kings, Ecclesiastes, Corinthians and Revelations as our go-to song of songs, as our guide to better living, or merely staying alive. Every other story of the nation’s newsweeklies is cribbed from body worship and the Scriptures of Better Health or Lesser Fat. One’s body has really become one’s temple, with results more dismal than when the Temple ruled our souls. Talk about snakes on a plane. At least with religion the literature was fun, the sermons debatable, the theology fit for one’s personal send-ups and millennia of mind-altering philosophy. The religion of health is as grim and asphyxiating as any ER waiting room you can think of. The most imagination you get is shaped in the size of a 20-inch screen screaming the latest re-run, probably of “ER,” until that nurse jacks the door open and yells out another name. Religion as health care: same sham, different method. Is it any wonder some of us would rather not fall for it anymore than we fell for the other kind?
And yet here I am, making a confessional of my day’s prod. My apologies. A brief lapse in judgment, along with my trousers. Time to pull them up and close the curtain, at least until the verdict is in. There may be lethality somewhere. There always is. For now, “not yet” applies.