It Takes a Worried Manby Brendan Halpin
“When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, I joked that I couldn’t decide between alcoholism and overeating as a coping strategy. My wife suggested I write about it instead. She is always right. I couldn’t write a cloying, sentimental story of inspiring courage, so instead I wrote what was real to me—fear, lust, annoyance, love, fatigue,… See more details below
“When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, I joked that I couldn’t decide between alcoholism and overeating as a coping strategy. My wife suggested I write about it instead. She is always right. I couldn’t write a cloying, sentimental story of inspiring courage, so instead I wrote what was real to me—fear, lust, annoyance, love, fatigue, resentment, existential terror, horror movies, alcohol, and country music. It’s not pretty, but it is real. I hope you like it.”
This book is a horror story and a comedy, but, most of all, it is a love story. It is the story of what happens to a man who fears that his best friend might leave him forever. Feeling helpless, angry, and scared, Brendan Halpin sat down at his computer late at night or early in the morning and wrote. Pages poured out of him whenever something struck him as funny, whenever he was annoyed with a medical professional or family member, whenever he was terrified, and whenever he couldn’t sleep—in other words, every day. What came out is sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, but always honest—a journey into the head of a man whose wife is critically ill.
This book will take you to the depths of fear and despair. It will also make you laugh until you feel sick. If that sounds contradictory, well, start reading.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.22(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.59(d)
Read an Excerpt
Kirsten told me I should write it all down. I think she thinks it will be good therapy for me. I have noticed that the stuff written about my situation is usually a line or two in the cancer books: “This is a tough time for him too.” So maybe there is some room for my story. I begin this on October 7, 2000. Tomorrow is our sixth anniversary.
Somehow, as much as I wish he weren’t, the Troll feels like part of this story. We lived for four years in a condo over a childless couple: a Grizzly Adams–looking, dyspeptic folk singer and his wife. We’ll leave the wife out of it, though she was a pain in the ass too. The husband, hereafter known as the Troll, is a loudmouth bully—one of those guys who is angry all the time and never stops to consider the possibility that maybe it’s not everyone else in the world who’s an asshole.
After our daughter, Rowen, was born, he became convinced that we were torturing him by allowing our daughter to walk. Honestly. This despite the fact that his favorite hobby was rattling our floors with his own special brand of 1970s wuss-rock. His response to our completely unreasonable practice of allowing our offspring to move freely about our home got increasingly loony, culminating in him pounding on our door one Sunday morning and running away and then calling Kirsten a “stupid, ignorant, tight-lipped bitch” in front of our daughter the next day. He did his best to make selling our condo and moving out difficult, including squeezing 175 bucks in bogus “fines” from the condo association out of us. Our infractions included vacuuming at 9:00 a.m. and“heavy footfalls.” Our lawyer told us the fines were bullshit and he’d be happy to fight them for us for two hundred dollars an hour. We paid the fines and sold the place for two and a half times what we’d paid for it. The Troll wrote “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA” on the back of the canceled check.
I never tried to take any revenge, figuring that getting into a lunacy contest with someone who has such a large head start is bad policy and that, you know, living well is the best revenge.
This has two implications for my story. One is that I took comfort in the knowledge that this hateful fuck would remain a hateful fuck and continue to find that the whole world was against him, while we would live happy lives in our new home.
The other implication is that we were busy moving all summer, and Kirsten decided to wait until her annual checkup in August to get those lumps in her right breast checked out.
The had painful lumps in her right breast. A year earlier, she’d had an ultrasound for some other lumps and been told that they were nothing. So it was easy for her to blow these off and wait.
It wouldn’t have been easy for me. I am a terrible hypochondriac. I worry constantly that every pain I have is a sign of a deadly disease, that my vision is blurring, that I have mad cow disease, that my pee is too bubbly, you name it. I also get chronic testicular inflammations. I had three ultrasounds on my nuts within six months because I was convinced I had testicular cancer. I mean, if your right nut feels like a bowling ball, that must mean something serious is wrong. Right?
Wrong, as it turns out. Sometimes my epididymis, which is a tube that carries sperm out of the testicle and sort of loops around it on the way out, gets inflamed. No big deal except, you know, my balls hurt a lot. C’est la vie.
Kirsten is always the steady one in these situations. She reassures me that I don’t have testicular cancer, that I don’t have mad cow disease, that my kidneys aren’t failing. She is the voice of reason.
So when she said that those lumps were probably nothing, I didn’t, you know, insist that she bust her ass into the doc’s office because it could be serious. She wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t concerned.
My Crisis of Faith
My dad died when I was nine. He fell over dead for no apparent reason. Kind of like a grown-up version of a crib death. He was thirty-five. I’m now thirty-two. Now you know why I’m such a hypochondriac.
My parents had been raised Catholic, but had lapsed. I grew up with a terrible fear of dying and a kind of vague fear of hell informed mostly by my five visits to mass with relatives and some horror movies.
My mom returned to the Catholic Church when I was in college. I still remember getting this letter one day in which she said, “I have been going to mass every day.” I was convinced she had lost her mind. Even Catholics think it’s weird to go to mass every day. Nobody does that except for the priests, who have to, and old ladies.
Well, she hadn’t lost her mind, and though now she only goes to mass weekly, the church has been a very positive force in her life. While she could return to the Catholic Church, I, who had never been in it, could not return. (I mean, yeah, they got me baptized just in case their parents had been right, but they stopped going to church about a week later. It doesn’t seem like it counts, though if the Catholics are right, this ought to be enough to get me past limbo and into purgatory, assuming I don’t do anything horrible between now and when I die.) I didn’t know what to do. I had vague religious leanings and too much skepticism to profess belief in Christ’s divinity or resurrection, both of which seem to me to be kind of beside the point of his message anyway, which I know is some kind of heresy. So, naturally, I became a Unitarian.
I have been going, more or less regularly, to the Wednesday night prayer group at my church. This is an unusually Christian kind of activity for Unitarians to engage in. We’re much better at petition drives and protests. Not only do we say the “Our Father and Mother” (we are still Unitarians, after all), we also sort of chant the 23rd Psalm at the beginning, without even trying to correct for patriarchal language. The 23rd Psalm, by the way, is great. Thinking of yourself as a sheep being led around by a benevolent God is a pretty comforting thought when things are tough. I also like the end: “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We’ll see.
Though Emerson, the man who sort of runs the prayer group, is a spiritual superhero, and I do love everybody there, I found this summer that I was going less than I used to. While I like to pray, I need to go to group because I am too lazy to do it by myself. I started to have doubts, though. I know prayer makes me feel good, and I believe it’s effective, but if God can intervene in the world, I guess I wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. If God intervenes, where was he in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, etc. etc. etc.? Therefore God doesn’t intervene. So why am I asking him to look out for people, or grant healing to people, or to bring somebody home safely? What am I doing? Does it matter? I think I have now officially become a Unitarian. I am too tied in knots intellectually to pray.
This crisis of faith comes before—before, mind you—the Diagnosis.
Kirsten went for her annual physical. When she came back, she said that her doctor had recommended that she go for another ultrasound. So she went. Rowen and I went too. We walked around the pond near the doctor’s office looking at the geese and feeding them. Rowen picked up a stick and announced that it was a magic wand. There was goose shit everywhere, so we imagined that she could make it go away with her magic wand. “Zoop! No more poop!” she’d say. It was a beautiful summer day and I was happy.
Later I heard that they had found a dead bird carrying the West Nile virus very near to where Rowen and I had been walking. I worried about West Nile. Had I been bitten by a mosquito that day? Had Rowen?
The ultrasound came back inconclusive. The doc said something like, “It doesn’t really look cancerous. It doesn’t really look benign.” Apparently it was round on one side, which is cystlike, and nubbly on the other side, which is cancerlike. So they set up an appointment with a surgeon who is some kind of breast specialist.
Weeks went by, as they always do when you are waiting to see a specialist. We unpacked, worked on the new house, stripped wallpaper, and made a million trips to the Home Depot.
The breast specialist looked at the ultrasound and decided to order a mammogram and a “needle biopsy.” Here’s where it started to get scary. But okay, you can still talk to ten women and probably five of them have had an ultimately benign lump in their breast biopsied.
I didn’t go with her to the biopsy. It didn’t seem important. It’s just a formality. When they described the procedure to her, they said it was basically sticking a needle into the lump and sucking some cells out.
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