My tongue is temporarily sewn to the floor of my mouth for cancer treatment. “Help, I can’t breathe,” I want to say as I choke on an extra thick blob of mucus. My chest muscles tighten with each attempt to breathe, making me faint with every effort. Help, I can’t breathe! I think silently, before slipping unconscious. I awake and see two pairs of eyes scanning my voiceless shell. Months later I am diagnosed with a painful byproduct of radiation therapy called radiation necrosis, which I will suffer from for over a year.
At my first treatment in a pressurized oxygen chamber for pain relief, a Southern drawl greets me with, “Howdy. Are you ready?” The white technician’s voice reminds me of the not-so-good old boys from my 1950s childhood. We are about the same age, and his accent suggests he too grew up in a segregated America, similar to my experiences in the mid-’60s when I integrated a Maryland public high school.
“Yes, I’m ready,” I lie. My anxiety soars when he opens what looks like a glass-walled, blue-framed iron lung with a submarine hatch–like cover.
“Are you claustrophobic?” he asks, pulling out a small flat gurney bed from the blue healing chamber. “Here, take this. It’ll relax you,” he says in his gatekeeper’s voice. “You should feel your ears tightening.” The pressure increases, and the glass walls hug me tight like slaves packed in the hull of a ship. Feeling the impact of the pill, I drift down those hated hallways where many students relentlessly peppered me with, “Nigger, go home.” I fought their sickness by focusing on achieving academic excellence, to the dismay of some of my teachers who stood behind me while I took their tests.
My eyes flicker, and the chamber shrinks. I recall a haunting high school memory of a moonless rainy night when I drove our family car down a rural two-lane road swallowed up by pine trees on either side. A friend and I were returning from a party, and I collided with another car traveling in the opposite direction. We woke up underneath the Ford, facedown in cold Maryland mud. The ambulance driver and police had rolled our semiconscious bodies under the car, thinking we were safer there. An ambulance had taken away white passengers. We waited for hours before a second ambulance came and took us to the naval hospital. I shuddered at the thought of looking up and seeing one of my high school classmates’ parents treating me.
I twitch and bump my head on the circular glass wall. The technician sees I’m in pain and plays some soothing background music that slowly relaxes me. I fall asleep again, recalling one of my favorite childhood memories, my cousins and I skipping down gravel-covered Workwood Road in Chesapeake Gardens to Grandmother’s house. Kicking stones in one of Norfolk’s 1950s segregated communities, I felt secure.
Grandmother had a smooth concrete walkway from the street to her front door, flanked on both sides by roses, which I saw from their bottoms. Usually, I ran up to the porch, next to those thorny sweet-smelling giant roses abuzz with big black bumblebees. Best of all was opening the door and entering a little kid’s paradise; a living room with three tables with lots of whatnot figurines, although Grandmother’s rule was, “Don’t touch.” All the grandkids played with the brightly painted opaque figurines, and she spanked those she caught. I remember licking their sour-tasting bottoms; it must have been the lead paint.
After undergoing my first treatment, much of it in a dream state, I stand with weak knees, helped by the technician. I meander across the cold floor into the changing room, wearing thin light blue static-proof clothing with matching booties that reduces the potential of a spark and fire while I’m inside the chamber’s 100 percent oxygen environment. Psychologically, I have to distinguish between the technician’s services versus my high school experiences with racism, and in time I will learn to appreciate his assistance.
Neck cancer will visit me a year after that treatment. I still endure post-surgery pain and restricted right shoulder movement. Thirteen years later, prostate cancer will enter my life. I’m torn between cancer’s residual pain (physical and mental), and the emotional trauma of living through American Jim Crow laws. At 61, I have survived it all. Now I wonder if the clutches of a separate but not equal society will loosen before I cross life’s threshold.
Gerald Green’s engineering career path changed in 1995 to cancer survivor and writer. His memoir, Life Constricted: To Love, Hugs and Laughter was published last March, and his work will appear in Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America this spring. He lives in Oakland with his son, Charles, and his wife, Monica.
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