illustration by Glin Dibley

Tim Rogers Finds the Upside of Cancer

If he can't make jokes about his dad's disease, no one can.

This is a happy story about a robot, a snowstorm, a divorce, and cancer. Let’s start with the divorce.

My parents split when I was young, not long after we moved to Dallas from Los Angeles circa 1976. My memory of this time period—really, most time periods—is hazy. But I do remember that it wasn’t my fault and that Mommy and Daddy both loved me very much. They hated each other, though. For three decades, they assiduously avoided all interaction, save for periodic custody arguments over the phone and a chance encounter in 1995 when Dad happened to be in town on the evening that the publication I was working for threw a bash to celebrate its one-year anniversary and Mom got so nervous about seeing him after all those many years that she drastically over-served herself and my ex-stepfather had to schlep her out of the party like a duffle bag full of angry marmots. Mom might take issue with the way I’ve characterized the divorce. Dad might, too. But I’m the one telling this story.

[Note: in the online version, here insert the part of the narrative that we don’t have space for in print. I get married, have two kids, and blossom into full-on manhood. If the stuff about becoming the first gringo to break into professional bullfighting on the Iberian Peninsula feels gratuitous, cut it.]
Next up: the cancer. Dad learned late last year, a few weeks shy of his 65th birthday, that he had the prostate variety. He’s a biochemist and teaches at a medical school on the island of St. Kitts, in the Caribbean. He started reading every study on prostate cancer ever published. Talking to him on Skype, I got the impression that he was approaching his diagnosis like I’d seen him approach our stalled Volkswagen bus when I was a kid. The cancer was a malfunction. He would lift the hood and figure it out. When Dad finally decided to have a prostatectomy, I broke the news to a younger co-worker who’d met him. She asked, “Is he going to have them both removed?”

Which brings us to the robot. As it turns out, St. Kitts isn’t the optimal place on the planet to have a reproductive gland excised. As it turns even further out, there’s a urologist at Baylor Dallas named Matt Shuford who, based on his extensive experience, has authored papers on the upside of using something called the da Vinci robot to perform radical prostatectomies. And, as it turns way out, not only have I played poker with that same Matt Shuford, but he has fiddled with my own personal wedding tackle (in a professional capacity, he’ll claim). Introductions were made, and Dad elected to have the surgery in Dallas. Because I am a good son, I offered to put him up for three weeks while he convalesced.

That leaves us only with the snowstorm. In February, 12 inches piled up in my neck of East Dallas, more than I’d ever seen since moving here, bowing trees and shuttering the city. My wife and I got into a snowball fight with some neighborhood boys that the world will little note nor long remember. But I will. Nothing is more satisfying than tagging a cocky fifth-grader in the face with a snowball from 30 yards and making him cry. Even as you’re consoling him, saying, “You alright, buddy? I’m sorry about that. Take a deep breath,” you’re thinking, “Great throw. Still got it.”

Of course, the power went out—not on my block but all over town. My mother, who lives just a few streets from my house, had no electricity. She knew all about my newly prostateless houseguest. Waddling around my pad in a robe was her catheterized ex-husband—Dad!—whom she hadn’t seen or talked to in years. I’m sure Mom weighed the sweet relief of freezing stiff in her own house against the stress of what it would take to stay alive, hoofing it to my house and confronting Dad and his bag of urine. It’s to her credit that she chose the latter. Mom’s a fighter.

It was a bit awkward at first, but before long, they were catching up, asking each other about mutual friends from back in the day. “Whatever happened to that piano player from the bar? What was his name?” “John Lee! He played ragtime at Disneyland for 20 years, but I heard he had to quit because of arthritis.” They sounded like old friends. It really was kind of amazing, just watching my parents talk to each other. And, now that I think about it, it was the first time that either of my kids had seen their paternal grandparents together.

Then, right before dinner was served, the power went out in my house, too. We ate pork chops in front of a roaring fire, the whole family. And it never would have happened without the cancer, the robot, and the snowstorm.

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