“The following is a contributor column by the Infernal Accountant Mage.”
It started pretty innocuously.
One day before heading to school, I felt a weird “hard” spot in the center of my left palm. This was high school and I was a teenager, so I didn’t think much of it. Lots of weird things happen to teenagers. Teenage me didn’t have a lot of headspace left to navigate them, concerned as I was with surviving daily life as the new kid at a new school with new peers and new classes. I’d just moved back to the States after spending most of my life growing up overseas. This was my first year in an American public school and things were going about as well as they always did – read: poorly. I spent my days looking forward to going home. I didn’t think twice about a weird spot in my palm. It was probably just a blister or a callus or something.
It didn’t go away, of course, not a week or even a month later. At around two months, in fact, it wasn’t really a spot anymore, it was a lump, a sizable and uncomfortable and noticeable lump. At that point I finally told my parents about it. We went to the doctor a week or so later. It was a cyst, they said. They could remove it using a hollow needle, essentially vacuuming it out. They tried. It hurt. The lump remained.
I went back to the doctor later and they did some more tests, the results of which weren’t really clear to me; eventually we’d go to another doctor somewhat further away. There was a lot of bloodwork, a lot of shots and, mercifully in my eyes, a lot of time spent out of class. I gradually got used to having blood drawn. The hospital staff grew to recognize me.
One day I went for what I assumed was going to be yet another session of bloodwork. Instead, the doctor encouraged my Mom and I to sit down. He explained what the issue was: the lump was a case of epithelioid sarcoma. A rare form of cancer, in other words. I’d been walking around with cancer for the past few months. Just sitting there, growing, in my hand. You could see it clearly by then – it was about half the size of a pool ball. My wrist was faintly adorned with what looked like a bracelet of pale tendrils just beneath the skin, presumably blood vessels that were beginning to be choked out by the tumor.
I was 16 or so. Nobody really told me exactly what this all meant. I knew cancer was bad, of course. Today I’ve got a better idea of how dire my situation was: around half of the people who are “fortunate” enough to develop an epithelioid sarcoma will die within ten years, and it’s known to be a persistent and recurring cancer.
Zero point one cases per million per year. Male sex and tumor size greater than two centimeters are associated with worse clinical outcomes – check and check. Lucky me.
Dying wasn’t foremost in my mind. The treatment that was suggested around a week later was horror enough. The doctors planned on removing the cancer, something I know now was necessary to save my life. They’d do this by removing “several fingers, or possibly the entire hand.” Two fingers left – that was the best-case scenario, one I was told was optimistic and unlikely.
If you’ve been following these columns, I don’t think I need to go into detail about how terrified I was over this. Thus far, I had two things: games and writing. 16-year-old me understood that, for all intents and purposes, these would be over once my hand was gone. What’s more, I’d be a freak. Nobody looked twice at me as it was. Becoming a one-handed monster wasn’t going to help matters. All I had loved was going to be gone.
My family did their best to stay strong, but the only time I’ve ever seen my father cry was when the news came. He didn’t want me to die. As for me? I wasn’t so sure. What would be left? What had I done wrong? I’d taken sh-t from everyone my entire life and this was how things were going to be? I was tormented by nightmares; images of a part of my body severed and disposed of haunted me. A piece of me would be removed and thrown away. I would be incomplete forever.
My folks agreed to let me have my birthday present early – a new computer I’d soon be largely incapable of using as I once did. My favorite game during that time, for what it’s worth, was Freelancer. That one didn’t make the list because games lost a lot of their impact around this point. Playing didn’t really feel like a worthwhile use of what little time I had left. I taught myself to tie my shoes with one hand; that’s a trick I’m still able to pull off. I looked into voice dictation software like Dragon so I wouldn’t have to give up writing. I did my best to contend with the gaping hole that was opening up inside of me.
I turned to my peers. I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t. To their credit, they were as supportive as teenagers could be – teenagers who, I remembered, had reveled in spreading nasty gossip about me behind my back not long before. I’ve never believed that people really change, and in my mind when someone shows you their worst, you should probably take it as who they are…but my friends, such as they were, did their best. I’m not in contact with any of them anymore, realizing in my adult years that I could do better, but I won’t deny that they tried.
I couldn’t drive yet. My plans to get my license were derailed somewhat by the discovery of cancer in my hand. A girl I’d considered my closest friend nearly since I’d arrived at this new school, shortly before we briefly dated and she cheated within the same week, offered to take me to the mall to get my mind off things. I knew my mind wouldn’t be going anywhere, but we went, just me and someone who’d betrayed me in about as cruelly a fashion as anyone ever had. Forgiveness wasn’t in my nature, even then, but I didn’t want to be alone.
We went to the arcade, because it’s me, so of course we did. There weren’t many of those left even then. This one had my favorite arcade game: The House of the Dead. It’s a light-gun game. You shoot zombies with plastic guns. I’d played hours of it, spent a massive number of quarters and 100-peseta pieces on it between this arcade and Sega Park back in Spain. We played together. It was nice for what it was.
A few days later, a bunch of us would get together for one last movie night before my operation. We went to see Freddy vs. Jason. Yeah, that probably wasn’t the best choice, but I was able to forget for just a little while. Then the movie ended, the monsters were defeated, the last few survivors were menaced in a post-credits scene and that was that. I went home, told my parents good-night and did my best to sleep.
The following morning was the day and I was numb. Everything was cold. It was the middle of the summer; everything was so cold. I was silent as we went to the doctor; my folks remained close the entire walk through the hospital up to his office. He asked me to sit down when I arrived. He was going to explain the procedure to come.
He’d gotten in touch with another doctor in Texas, as it turned out. My particular variety of cancer was extremely rare, particularly in patients as young as I was, and they’d decided that with this in mind they were going to try an unusual treatment method. Rather than removing a finger, or three fingers, or even the whole hand…they were just going to remove the lump. They’d take it out, they’d leave my hand and then we’d all wait to see what happened.
I can’t really remember how I felt. I can recall being wheeled back to the pre-operating room, put under, and very briefly waking up in the middle of the procedure. I got a good look at what they were doing. It was messy, but my drug-addled mind didn’t really comprehend what was going on, and I was soon put back to sleep. Eventually, I woke up, I’m told while babbling crazily about whether a child I’d seen in the pre-op area next to mine had made it through her own procedure (she had, apparently). I looked down and, while it was wrapped in gauze and completely unresponsive, I still had my hand.
The remainder of that day and the weeks to come were a blur. I began physical therapy; a sizable chunk of my hand had to be removed, but I would recover nearly fully over time. Today you can still see the remains of what had happened – there’s a scar running down my hand, the nerves remain damaged so my palm is mostly incapable of sensation, and the bone of my wrist is clearly visible beneath the skin. None of that really matters. It’s still there. It still works. Later, I’d be contacted by local papers about my story; I’d talk to kids who were about to undergo operations of their own about what to expect; I’d end up walking in the Relay for Life, a cancer-awareness fundraiser, as a survivor; a future girlfriend would refer to me as a “brave little cancer survivor,” a tongue-in-cheek joke thanks to my sardonic commentary about the experience. I didn’t think of myself as especially brave. I still don’t. I think I endured and continue to endure as best I can, and I think that’s what we all do.
A few months later, when the stitches were out, the gauze was off and the physical therapy was largely over, I caught a ride back to the same arcade that the girl and I’d visited. I agreed to meet back at the entrance to the mall at a certain time, then I was alone. I went to the House of the Dead machine. I put in two quarters…then I put in two more. In my right hand I took one gun. In my left – which was still present, if not capable of quite the same precision it once was – I took the other. I pressed the start button on both sides of the machine, then I raised both guns to the screen, fully capable of pulling the trigger on each and mowing down zombies just like before this had all began. My favorite trick, if you were wondering, was rapidly blasting the first boss in its weak points such that it would stumble back and glitch through the wall of its room into the void behind it. I can still manage that, even today.
That’s what arcades mean to me. It’s not a smoke-filled hall full of creeps, it’s not a raucous community gathered around a Street Fighter II machine, it’s a place where I was able to go and exist in my element if only for a little while. It’s Sega Park in Jerez, a bastion of the familiar in a new and unfamiliar country. It’s the arcade in the States where I’d went with that girl who I was able to forgive for just a little while. It’s a House of the Dead machine with both guns in full working order and a clean, uncracked screen. It’s a plastic pistol in each hand, both weapons jerking from the recoil as the guns’ slides kicked with each shot. That’s the arcade experience.
I’ve been cancer-free for around fifteen years now. That’s long enough to say, definitively, that there aren’t a lot of experiences like that anymore.
The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at popzara.com
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Categories: Wednesday Column