Do you want to know how I got these scars – Part four

“Don’t look at that right now.” The doctor placed her hand over the illuminated image on the light box in the wall. She could see that I was transfixed by what I saw. My eyes were locked on the MRI scan, and the prominent dark spot it revealed growing inside my head. I realized in that moment that my life will end too soon, and I won’t be ready when it happens. She must have seen that realization in my eyes, so she simply placed her hand over the dark spot.

Sometimes I can see it in people’s eyes when I’m talking with them, even if they don’t say anything. On occasion they’ll cut through the veil and ask me, totally out of the blue: are you okay, is something wrong, are you upset? They’ve detected something in my face—an unexpected trace of sadness or dismay in my expression.

I can feel it in my face when it’s happening, a kind of tingling or numbness along my cheek and the corner of my mouth on one side. It’s more pronounced when I’m tired, or when I’m feeling stress, or when I’m thinking intently about a problem or complexity I’ve encountered. Most concerning is when it happens for no reason at all.

The neurosurgeon told me that his biggest concern wasn’t the challenge of drilling open my skull behind my right ear. Nor was it the delicate task of slicing through the labyrinth of my inner ear to expose the tumor, or the mind-bending prospect of safely cutting it out and removing from its deeply embedded resting place without damaging my brain. His biggest concern wasn’t even my severely damaged hearing, which is what first alerted me that something was wrong. His biggest concern, he told me—the biggest challenge of my upcoming surgery—was the facial nerve. The tumor had grown completely around it.

If the facial nerve is damaged during the surgery, if it’s stretched, or nicked by the scalpel, or in the worst case scenario, severed, the right side of my face will lose muscle control and my eye, cheek, and mouth on that side will permanently “fall” or slump downwards, he said. He put his hand to the side of his own face and dragged his fingers down down his cheek to demonstrate. His eye and mouth melted grotesquely down on one side, like a child making a funny-sad face in the mirror.

I try and fail to pretend that I’m not a vain person. I’ve come to terms with this personality trait, or flaw, depending how you look at it. I work hard to minimize the worst aspects of it in myself without killing the positive ones, and I do believe there are a few positive ones. It becomes easier to manage as I get older, in part because every day I learn I have less to feel vain about as I once thought I had.

Myles and me on the balance rings in 2004, a few years before my surgery.

I’ve learned that vanity is an especially unbecoming companion as I grow older. Maintaining dignity and pride in oneself and appearance is important, but as we age we should know better than to allow our vanities to go completely unchecked, lest a candid moment in reflection give the lie to our illusions. After a few dozen torrid trips around the sun—and we all make the journey every year—the stamps on our passports become plentiful and obvious. The pages grow more dog-eared and rumpled with each handling. Eventually we all run out of room for another stamp. Eventually we all come to the last page.

Under the bridge in 2017.

Part five coming soon

Do you want to know how I got these scars – Part two

I tell myself that I am a lucky person, because I have figured out the key to my life: F-sharp, or sometimes G-flat, depending on my mood. It’s the tone that accompanies my day, every moment of my waking life, and deep into the hours I spend asleep.

Ten years ago, the living mechanism that transmits sounds from my right ear to my brain was purposefully destroyed. What may be most surprising about this violent and irreversible act is that when it happened and I lost my hearing on one side forever, I was more grateful than I ever have been in my life. This is because it quite literally saved my life.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t still feel the loss. I feel it every day, some days to the point of tears, because I’m reminded of it every day, every second of my life — loudly.

Press play to hear what tinnitus sounds like. Remember to turn up the sound on your device. Be careful – the sound can be loud and irritating. This audio is the best approximation I could find of the constant ringing sound I personally “hear.” My personal volume is set between six and seven. Audio file courtesy of American Tinnitus Association 

It’s true that the mechanism of my inner ear, called the labyrinth, cannot transmit any sound to my brain — not even a nuclear blast would register even the tiniest audio signal in my right ear because my labyrinth on that side doesn’t function. Still, the brain is nothing if not inscrutable at times, and often responds to signal changes in unpredictable ways.

The day my right ear went deaf to external sounds, I began to “hear” a new sound from within. I began to hear, quite clearly and loudly, the sound of F-sharp (or G-flat), ringing true and high above a constant haze of static noise. So far my brain has held that note uninterrupted for ten years. I’m placing my bet that it will hold for the rest of my life. I hope it lasts a long, long time.

The doctor called me the morning after my MRI scan. Her voice was calm and soothing but purposeful. “I’d like you to come in so we can review the results of your MRI together. Does 2:30 this afternoon work for you and your wife to come in? Very good, I’ll see you then.” She said more than just these words during the call. But of all her carefully framed expressions, these left the most vivid and indelible impressions on the canvas of my memory. We immediately made arrangements for my parents to watch our children, and made the journey to the doctor’s office that afternoon.

They’re passé now, but there was a time when everyone wanted a flip-phone. They were the ultimate in hip and sleekness, a major upgrade from the old “brick” phones. Being able to call people up whenever you wanted, from wherever you were in any given moment — that was an awesome new freedom. And flipping it open and shut was such a cool feeling, like having a Star Trek communicator (if you’re into that), or like being an international jet-setter closing million dollar deals from the deck of your yacht (if you’re into that).

Back in those days, I mainly used my flip-phone to take photos of my children and to talk to my wife while I commuted long miles home from work. My boys were very young at the time, and talking to my wife about the events of their day was by far the best part of my long, slow evening drive across the bridge over San Francisco Bay. Back then, there were no “hands-free” driving laws. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, every other driver had a phone stuck to the side of their face, myself included. It was awesome, and more dangerous than anyone knew at the time.

The other awesome (and dangerous) thing about flip-phones was the camera. I loved being able to take as many pictures as I wanted without developing every shot. Plus, I could upload and share pictures with others — that was a completely new and amazing freedom back then. I started my Facebook account for the sole purpose of uploading photos of my kids, because it was the easiest way to get the photos out of my flip-phone and onto a computer.

John and Myles eating apples shortly after my surgery in 2008.

Some people think that cell phones can cause brain tumors. Others have gone to great lengths to assure us that they don’t. I personally don’t think that modern cell phones pose a significant risk of brain tumors. To be honest, I wonder but don’t know how much risk there was ten or twelve years ago, back in the wild-and-woolly days of flip-phones.

One thing I remember very clearly is the warm sensation I would feel deep inside my ear after talking on my flip-phone for a long time. But that may simply have been because the phone was warm, and my ear was warm, and two warm things tend to warm each other up even more, when they’re held closely to each other.

Cell phones are a truly great and revolutionary human invention. There seems to be no limit to the technological advancement the human race is capable of achieving. I hope and believe in my heart that this statement is true. I hope that it stays true, and comes true. If within my lifetime the next great human invention is an actual working time machine, one of the first things I’d use it for would be to go back in time to 2005 and tell past-me to never put a flip-phone to my ear ever again. Just to be safe.

“This is an impressive room,” I blurted out through a murky yet uniquely crisp haze of hospital-grade sedative. The operating room gave me the impression of a space capsule’s cockpit, with densely arranged lights and stainless steel instruments and complicated gauges and monitors crowding the walls and suspended from the ceiling all around, except this rocket ship’s cockpit was the size of a living room and everything was focused on a large white operating bed in the center. The room was filled with at least a dozen surgeons in blue surgical gear and masks, standing elbow-to-elbow each at his or her respective station and instruments. They all turned their heads and faced the doorway when I entered the room clothed in a hospital gown and uttered my comment. They paused for only a fraction of a second before turning their backs to their preparations.

Part three: