Getting a Deadly Illness & Other Buttfuckery
“Our father, who art in heaven,
And we shall stay here on earth,
Which is sometimes so pretty.”
Until recently I was scheduled to die in 2074, sometime in early March shortly after my birthday. I’d be turning 86 that year, an appalling age—the last, pathetic interlude between endearing senility and mumbling, diaper-clad necrosis. To celebrate this milestone, I planned to start smoking crack cocaine with suicidal disregard. At my birthday party I also planned to shoot up black tar heroin, and as my loved ones watched and cheered me on, I would shove a whole sheet of acid into my mouth with my shaking, wrinkled fingers. If I was going to die, I’d rather do it chasing invisible elves into traffic than shitting in a colostomy bag in a nursing home. I wanted even my final moments on earth to be vibrant and full of adventure. I wanted to sink my teeth through the pith of life and gorge on its sweet, succulent flesh until I choked to death on the pit and my face turned purple.
But in order to do that, I’d first need to survive my twenties.
The virus hit me like a missile. On the morning of November 21st, 2013, in a dirty hotel room in Penang, Malaysia, I sprang awake in a pool of sweat, violent chills shooting down my spine. My head felt like it was being split open with a hatchet. For several hours I lay there in my mosquito net, writhing under a rickety ceiling fan, slipping in and out of white-hot dreams.
“You have Dengue Fever,” the hotel receptionist told me, before referring me to the local doctor.
“You have Influenza,” the local doctor told me, before loading me up on Malaysian horse tranquilizers for my drool-faced flight back to New York.
“You have, um,” Dr. Lopez scratched his head, “…something… exotic…” Which in medical terminology means that Dr. Lopez had no idea what we were dealing with. By the time I reached his office, I’d developed a persistent dry cough and I could barely move my legs.
My first Friday back in America was spent at the hospital, enjoying an endless parade of medical exams. The stool culture test was the silliest. The blood parasite smear was the un-silliest, as my nurse drew enough blood to save the Philippines. At one point, Dr. Lopez instructed me to poop in a plastic top hat, before informing me that I might have Chicken Ganya.
“Is that like Indian food?”
While Chicken Ganya sounded delicious, Dr. Lopez ruled it out with the return of my blood work.
“It doesn’t look good,” he droned.
I had Thrombocytopenia (low blood platelets) and Leukopenia (low white blood cells)—two possibly fatal warning signs of Leukemia, Lupus, HIV, or AIDS.
While I hadn’t engaged in any unprotected sex or lavish heroin orgies, everything seemed to point to HIV—I had a fever, a headache, sore muscles, a dry cough, a low white blood cell count, a low platelet count, and I could barely walk.
Equally terrifying was the Thrombocytopenia, which WebMD taught me prevents the coagulation of blood. It’s a similar condition to Hemophilia: if I cut myself, the bleeding doesn’t stop and I could die.
“We’re going to run more tests,” said the impassive doctor. “I wouldn’t be too concerned.”
“Of course not,” I said, staring around his office in horror. Every pen and pointed object was a dagger. Every creased People Magazine was a death sentence by paper cuts.
That night I tried to preoccupy myself by helping my mother decorate the house for the holidays. We drank beer and laughed, but paranoia consumed my thoughts.
What if I died this year?
Had I lived a full life?
What if I bit my lip and bled out over the gingerbread men?
“Call and cancel your flight back to Singapore,” urged my mother.
“Nah. I’m fine to travel.”
She frowned. “Is there any part of you that wants to be home with your family? Your friends miss you too.” She put down a box of nutcrackers and shook her head. “I don’t want to say this, but if you’re really this ill, they’ll probably make you stay for treatment. You might not be traveling again.”
All people react differently when they realize they have a terminal illness. Some withdraw into denial, as if the truth were too unfathomable to comprehend. Others are suffocated with dread, as if the world were closing in around them like a noose.
For me, it wasn’t like this at all. There was not a feeling of despondency, but of urgency. It was like in Mario, when you eat a gold star and then suddenly you have fifteen seconds to achieve as much as you can before your happy music goes dead. Those fifteen seconds are superlife.
I watched my entire, short existence unfurl before my eyes. I could see the horrible finish line, but I didn’t want to hide in bed—I wanted to rampage into mushrooms with reckless abandon. I had nothing to fear but wasting precious time. I wanted to cram those fifteen seconds with a whole lifetime’s worth of adventures and experiences. I wanted to travel to Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, and the Congo, write a best-selling autobiography about a dying man who faces his own mortality by visiting the most dangerous corners of the globe and showing that humanity isn’t as evil as Fox News makes it out to be—that people are all fundamentally good, whether they live in Boston or Benin or Baghdad. I’d probably win a Nobel Prize. I’d do talk shows; Oprah would weep on my shoulder.
But I only had fifteen seconds to do it.
I started packing my backpack that night.
That same evening, my Uncle Jim passed away. His body was hastily cremated and three days later we held a service for him in a grim, echoing church that reeked of frankincense and tile cleaner. I’ve never identified as religious, and until that point the only thing I’d learned from church is that eye-rolls can be a unit of measurement.
His daughter was the first to speak. Shifting her weight at the podium, she blandly recalled her father’s interest in golf and watching sports. She then stepped down and the microphone was handed to a man I hadn’t met, who gave a vague diatribe that related little to Uncle Jim, and had more to do with selling faith in Jesus Christ.
Only a couple times in the service was Uncle Jim’s compassion or character ever mentioned and the whole event felt oddly impersonal—perhaps because the room was nearly empty; almost nobody showed up.
“He was a good brother,” my grandfather told me, before we had our way with the cheese and cookies table.
I tried to imagine how many people would attend my funeral. I had countless friends in countless countries, but I’d been horrible at keeping in touch. I hadn’t lived in one place for more than seven months since I graduated high school. I’d never had a meaningful relationship. Mine was the life of a drifter. Mine was a life of impermanence—of one-night stands and five-minute friendships, of moving from city to city, from adventure to adventure, cutting personal ties as casually as I might cut my hair. I’d seen the world. I’d followed my dreams. I’d “lived life to the fullest,” yet oddly I didn’t feel fulfilled. In fact, sitting in the empty funeral chapel, all I felt was isolated.
Travel is an opiate, an unbeatable high. It amplifies the experience of living—but it doesn’t really define it. It is merely icing without cake. And at the end of the road, it’s not the most important thing. Nor is golf. Nor is watching sports. Nor is Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, or Lord Ganesh.
Friends, family, love—people are important. Relationships are important.
I could hear my mother shouting as she barreled down the stairs, clutching a letter. She stopped when she saw me, her eyes wide.
“Your results came in,” she said breathlessly. “I’ve got bad news.”
I closed my eyes.
“You have Dengue Fever.”
“You have Dengue Fever”, she said—a painful tropical virus with no cure and a 10% fatality rate.
I had Dengue Fever. I was overjoyed. I wanted to write it with jet trails over a sunny beach. I wanted to sing it from a glorious mountaintop:
“I HAVE DENGUE FEVER!!” “FUCK WEB-MD IN THE BUTT!”
The finish line suddenly receded into the distance. The universe had given me a Mulligan.
A few days later I skipped my flight back to Singapore; I decided to stay and spend the holidays with my family and friends. I drank wine and eggnog with my brothers till sunrise. I built a bonfire on a winter beach with friends I hadn’t seen in years. I passed out in my chair at a number of bars and restaurants because, well, I guess I had Dengue Fever. I also spent time submitting some of my work to Vice, Esquire, and National Geographic, and I’m happy to announce that I’ve been working on a TV project.
On New Years Eve I flew back to Asia, and as I watched Chinese rockets whizzing and whistling through the Taipei night sky, I made a resolution:
In 2014, I will finally hang up my backpack. In 2014, for the first time in my life, I will attempt to settle down like a real person, to find a place to call home, to stop spraying Axe into my backpack and calling that laundry. I want to find something that feels permanent.
At least for a couple years.
Or for as long as I can tolerate.
Perhaps I’ll get Leukemia next year. Perhaps you will. Perhaps we’ll all get our own cheese and cookie table someday, and perhaps we won’t expect it when it arrives. Until that happens, all we can do is try to live more urgently. To love more deeply. To build more bonfires. To reach out to the people around you, shake them by the shoulders, and yell, “Let’s drink wine and eggnog till sunrise.”
I want my funeral to have a bouncer. I want there to be Indian food instead of cookies. I want all of my friends and family to be there, standing around eating samosas and saying, “I’m sure gonna miss that old geezer Steve; he was a real shot of life. Right up until he smoked bath salts and punched an elephant.”
“But I thought he died choking on the pit of life?”
“Oh right, he did. I heard he turned purple.”
“Wow, good for him.”
“Yeah… Good for him.”
To hear why I chose a life on the road in the first place, check out the genesis tale of Backpackology, “Stepping off the Edge”
If I ever have to write a commencement speech regarding life philosophy, it would probably sound something like this: “To Go the Other Way”