I’m currently staring at a glass jar. Inside, floating in yellow, viscous liquid, is a lump of cancer cells. The lump is staring back at me. I have wondered for the past few hours if it has a mind of its own. A brain tumor with a brain – how crazy would that be. I made my doctor promise he wouldn’t throw the lump away. Not yet, anyway. Not until I’ve had time to say my goodbyes.
Brain tumors are tricky. Like other forms of cancer, they can present a myriad of symptoms. Dizziness, headaches, seizure – even hallucinations. An individual person’s symptoms depend on numerous factors. These factors include, but are not limited to: the size of the brain, the size of the tumor, the location of the tumor, previous experience with drugs, previous injuries to the head, medical history, and dumb luck. My tumor was located in the temporal lobe of my brain. It measured approximately 1.8 inches in diameter. Or at least, that’s the measurement my doctor gave me. My girlfriend, Brianne, has recharacterized that measurement as “too fucking big.”
There is no history of cancer in my family. Cancer was one of the last things on my mind. Never saw it coming. Honestly, I thought the symptoms were just temporary. In some ways, I was right. In some ways, I think they’ll affect me forever. The first symptom was auditory hallucinations.
“That lettuce is feeling hungry.” My eyes drifted from the head of lettuce in my hands to the grocery store clerk next to me. Her face was turned away from me and towards the mop she pushed across the tile.
“What did you say?”
The teenage clerk turned to look at me. I could see myself in the shiny surface of her nose piercing. My reflection’s eyes looked like they were bulging out of its head.
“What did you just say about the lettuce?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Sir, are you okay? You’re really pale.”
“I’m fine, just mishear—“
Before I could finish my sentence, everything went black. I dreamt for what seemed like hours. In my dreams, I was running through a never-ending expanse of black. Something was chasing me but I couldn’t tell what. Occasionally, I would get a brief glimpse of the creature. It seemed to be humanoid in form but its head was shaped wrong. Eventually, my legs grew too tired to keep running. They gave out beneath me and I crashed into the floor. When I turned to face my pursuer, I saw it was the grocery store clerk, but her head had been replaced by a mouth overflowing with teeth. Her gigantic jaw snapped open. I felt hundreds of small needles pierce through the skin of my neck. Darkness overtook me. My vision was flooded with sterile white light. The steady beep of a heart monitor had replaced the sound of my pursuer’s footsteps. My sides were flanked by a woman in a lab coat and woman in a blue sundress. The former was a doctor and the latter was Brianne, who face was stained with tears.
Their concern for my wellbeing was nauseating. I assured everyone that I was fine. Must have just had low blood sugar or something. “Happens more than you might think,” the doctor said. None of his normal tests had indicated that anything was wrong with me. No one had thought to do an MRI or a CAT scan. They sent me home.
My symptoms worsened from that day on. Every morning I awoke to debilitating migraines. Most nights I was roused from my sleep by a gushing nosebleed that took hours to stop. I kept these symptoms from Brianne and my family. I convinced myself that they were just temporary. Nobody wants to worry their loved ones. Somehow, I thought the nosebleeds and migraines would subside on their own. Reality began to break down around me. The physical symptoms became the least of my concerns. The following is a journal I kept of my symptoms. Keeping it was the only way I had to convince myself that I was still sane.
December 31st – at a New Year’s Eve party, one of my friends turned to me and said, “Follow me, I want to show you something.” I followed him into another room. He turned around and said, “Yo, you want to give me a little privacy in the bathroom?” My friend denied having ever asked me to follow him. No one at the party remembers him asking me to follow him.
January 9th – Brianne was making the bed. I was sitting in a chair watching her. Just as she was putting the sheet on, something fell off her head onto the bed. I only saw it for a second, but it was green and wet. She stretched the sheets across the bed, obscuring the object. When I expressed concern, and made her remove the sheet, we couldn’t find anything. It had never been there.
January 19th – I was visiting an economics professor at my college in his office. We were going over some questions I got wrong on my last test. When I glanced over at his face, I noticed a centipede crawling out of his shirt collar and up his neck. I recoiled backwards, nearly falling out of my chair in the process. The centipede slithered up his chin, over his mouth, and into his nostrils where it disappeared out of site. The professor furrowed his brow and frowned at what he called my “erratic behavior”.
January 30th – The bus ride home was taking forever. We were stuck in traffic on the interstate. While leaning my head against the window, I noticed a homeless man standing on the shoulder of the road. He had a sign in his hands that read “Don’t blink or I’ll end it.”
The strange sign piqued my interest and I stared for a moment. His clothes were practically shredded – I could make out most of his legs and his chest through the gaping holes in the fabric. The exposed pieces of his body were covered in filth. Despite his appearance, he kept a grin plastered across his face. His eyes appeared to be locked on me. I blinked. When my eyes re-opened, the sign was gone. It had been replaced with a sharp barbeque fork. Those bulging eyes remained fixed on me. Without breaking eye contact, the man brought the fork up to neck-level and plunged it deep within his skin. Blood poured onto the concrete. I looked around the bus to see if anyone else was looking at the man. Everyone else appeared to be absorbed in their phones or newspapers. When I turned my gaze back to look at the man, there was no blood anywhere. No body. No man. Nothing. He was gone.
February 4th – Brianne called me while I was walking to the bus stop. She told me that I had forgotten my Macro-Economics textbook on the kitchen counter. My professor would chew me out if I forgot the book again, so I sprinted home to get it. When I arrived, Brianne was nowhere to be found. When I checked my call history I found no calls from Brianne. The book had been in my backpack the entire time.
February 16th – I found a man standing in my shower this morning. He was fully clothed, but the clothes were torn to shreds and soaked in blood. His grin was a mile long, but it did nothing to hid the gaping wound in his throat. It was the man who I had seen kill himself on the interstate. He wouldn’t disappear no matter how many times I looked away or blinked. I couldn’t bring myself to shower. For the first time, I’m beginning to think I’m crazy.
February 17th-22nd – The man from the interstate has been appearing everywhere. In my bedroom, in my kitchen, even in my classes at school. He won’t stop staring at me. But he isn’t the only one. Another corpse starts following me every day. Today it was a little girl whose arm bones had been snapped in such a way that they had become stuck behind her head. Yesterday, it was a man whose nose and eyes had been chewed off. Before that, it was an elderly woman whose spine was bent out of place, skewing her torso towards her left side.
The corpses talk to me. No one else can hear them. I can. They come in short whispers that I can’t stop hearing even when I cover my ears. Since I began writing this entry, they’ve told me the following things:
“Kill yourself.” “Slit your throat.” “Drown Brianne.” “Stab Brianne.” “It’ll be better this way.” “Everyone hates you.” “They laugh at you when you aren’t looking.” “You are worthless, worthless, nothing.” “Die Die Die Die Die Die.”
I think I’m going insane.
My mind was no longer on my side by the time I wrote the last entry. People were constantly asking me if I felt okay or telling me that I looked like I was sick. Paranoia and anxiety wracked my mind. Every time someone spoke to me I couldn’t be sure if they were real or if my brain was just lying to me.
Brianne found me curled up in the corner of my bedroom with a knife in my hand. I hadn’t responded to her texts in hours. I couldn’t respond to them. One of the corpses had taken my phone away. When she found me, I was getting ready to kill myself. I just wanted the voices to stop.
She forced me to go to the hospital. A specialist conducted an onslaught of tests, one of which was an MRI. That MRI showed that I had a tumor in my temporal lobe. My doctor explained that a tumor of this size and location could cause visual and auditory hallucinations consistent with what I had been seeing.
He said that in my current condition it would be difficult to tell what was and wasn’t real. I needed immediate surgery. It was a high-risk procedure. There was a chance of permanent brain damage. Even more terrifying, there was a possibility the tumor had already spread to the inner folds of my brain. If so, it would be next to impossible to remove all of it. Even if most of the tumor could be removed, I wouldn’t know if they had gotten it all. The only way to tell for sure would be to wait and see if my symptoms came back.
I was unsure of how to proceed. When Brianne heard how bad my symptoms were, she insisted I get the surgery. The hospital got me on the surgery list for the next day. I couldn’t sleep at all that night. All I could think was that I was going to face permanent brain damage. I felt like I would never be normal again. Brianne stayed up all night with me. No matter how scared I got or how much I cried, she just kept telling me that it was going to be okay. She was so good to me. No matter how bad it got, she was always patient and rational. I wouldn’t have made it through without her.
Brianne drove me to the hospital the next morning. My heart was beating so fast I thought it might break my ribcage. By the time I laid down on the gurney, I was hyperventilating. Brianne was right there next to me when they prepped me for surgery. She held my hand and told me that everything was going to be okay. When the surgeons came to take me away, she gave my hand a squeeze and kissed me on the forehead. She must have been scared too because I could see tears starting to well in her eyes. The last thing she said to me before the surgeons took me out of the room was, “I love you. Good luck.”
She was the last thing I thought of when they put the mask over my face. As I drifted into sleep, I thanked god that I had her in my life.
During the surgery, I had bizarre dreams. In them, I was walking down a hall way at some cheap motel. No matter how long I walked, the hallway never ended. No one answered when I knocked on the doors to their rooms. I was alone.
I woke up with a splitting headache. A nurse was by my side. I tried to speak to her but my mouth was too dry to form words. She thrusted a glass of water towards me, which I gulped down greedily. When the dryness in my mouths subsided, I found myself able to speak again.
“Did… the surgery go okay?”
“Yes sir. It went fine. Your tumor was removed with no complications.”
I felt immediate relief, like a boulder had been lifted off my chest. It was over. I felt like I had been holding my breath for months and that I could finally breathe again. After a few hours, the nurse told me I had a visitor. It was my mother. Honestly, I was surprised. Although my mother had been notified about the surgery, I didn’t expect her to drive all the way out to my college to meet me. She lives several hours away and she loathes driving. I was excited to see her all the same. Soon after she arrived, my father and several of my friends showed up to visit. Their faces all looked so relieved. I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like it had been months since I had laid eyes on any of them. My mother spoke with my friends, telling them about the severity of my symptoms and joking about how I had been going crazy. Then she said something strange.
“On the car ride here, I thought he was going to have a heart attack!”
Something about that caught me off guard.
“How did you know that?” She looked at me with a curious look on her own face.
“I don’t know… you just looked like you were going to have a heart attack.”
“No, how did you know that I looked like that? You weren’t there.”
“Of course I was. Who do you think drove you?” She rolled her eyes.
A million butterflies filled my stomach. That was wrong. My mother hadn’t driven me to the hospital. Brianne did. My eyes scanned the room. Brianne wasn’t there.
“Mom, where is Brianne?”
She shrugged. She told me that she didn’t know. I asked if she knew where my phone was. She produced it from inside her purse. That was strange – I thought I had left it with Brianne. The next few moments are a blur to me. I looked through my text messages, trying to see if Brianne had said anything to me. Our most recent text conversation was gone. I looked through my contacts. Brianne’s name wasn’t there.
All of my visitor’s faces were filled with concern. I began screaming at the nurse who had brought the visitors into the room.
“Did you see me when I came in this morning?”
“Yes sir. Are you alright?”
“Did you see the girl I came in with?”
“No! A girl my age. Her name was Brianne.”
“The only person with you this morning was your mother.”
Throughout my time with the tumor, I questioned everything I saw and heard. Anything I saw could have been a hallucination. Anything.
I’ve been told that my mother was the one who found me curled up with a knife that day. She had driven over three hundred miles when I stopped responding to her messages. No one remembers ever meeting someone named Brianne. My friends told me that they had barely seen me for the previous few months. They said I had holed myself in my apartment and refused to speak to them.
All that time, I thought I was with Brianne. Countless hours with her. Countless conversations with her. Conversations that never happened.
She was never there. The girl that I loved was just a hallucination. She was never there.
She was never there. She was my everything but she was never even there.
I’m still staring at the tumor in a jar. I’ve instructed the nurse not to let any visitors in. My tumor and I need privacy. Because somewhere in there is Brianne. Waiting for me. Missing me as badly as I miss her. When I asked the doctor if he could put it back in, he just laughed. He thought I was joking.
I feel sick to my stomach. My heart feels like it’s been ripped into little pieces. The worst part is that now that the brain tumor is gone I’m having a difficult time remembering her face. A difficult time remembering our time together. She’s fading.
My only hope now is that the cancer had already spread into my brain. If it did, then the tumor might grow back. Then I might see Brianne again. When the hallucinations began, I had hoped they were temporary. Now I wish they hadn’t been. I’d take all the horrible, haunting visions again just to see her face one more time.
Pray for me. Pray that my cancer comes back.