I JUST WANTED TO LEAVE that claustrophobic exam room. Surely if I just left, everything would go back to normal. Those horrible words with their gruesome image would go away. “We feel you have a 95 percent chance of having your right foot amputated due to the reoccurrence of the tumor.” I tipped my head back and looked at the bright lights above, shocked into silence in a way that I had never experienced before. Tears quickly began to well in the corners of my eyes. The pit of my stomach tightened, and I almost shook with emotion. I thought, I am not dealing with this. I am not going to go back to this hospital. At that, I started feeling a tiny bit more in control. How can this be happening to me? I wished so much that my mother was with me. I felt so alone.
I was a teenager in the summer of 1969, and the summer heat baked the streets of a small desert city in west Texas, cooking the tar in the road until it began to bubble. The brown grass yearned for the cooling rains. When the rains finally came, the grass grew lush and green, creating summer fun for my friends and me. We treasured the rain and the simple pleasures it brought. When the rains came, we would run to the park and watch as the water came slithering down from the top of the majestic rain-soaked light brown mountain, forming a pool on the playing fields.
My friends and I would take our shoes off and run as fast as we possibly could—jumping and sliding, hydroplaning over the thick dark-green grass, falling, rolling, and getting soaking wet. I will never forget the sweet smell of the wet grass in the park as I inhaled it with my nose close to the ground, the air heavy with the scent of the wet desert sand surrounding us, saturated like musk. It was wonderful. One day, I ran and jumped and slid, but my life began to change and spin way out of my control. I was exhausted that day, stopping only after smacking my right foot into a small flat rock just under the water’s surface. I sat down and saw that the toe next to my big toe was swollen. I’ll tell you it hurt like hell, but of course, I had to hide that from my friends. After all, we were only sixteen years old and very tough. When the initial pain subsided, I pretended that I had to get home.
I walked the one block home, looking forward to resting in my bedroom. I studied my toe for the next few days and learned to walk in such a way that it didn’t hurt too much. However, whenever I forgot, my toe eagerly reminded me with a shooting pain. I came to the conclusion over time that I had broken the bone that attaches the toe to the foot, because it stayed swollen. The swelling remained even after it finally stopped hurting. However, being sixteen, I ignored my swollen toe.
There were so many things that were more interesting—the desert, for one. It was so intriguing, containing so much nature just down at the end of our street. My friends and I often went on all-day hiking trips. We would look for fossils of ancient ocean animals that died millions of years ago. Most often we only stumbled upon faded, colored pieces of broken Indian pottery that were hundreds of years old. Holding those bits of history in my hand was a wild experience for me. I felt a physical connection to life in the near and far past. Exploring the desert was something I enjoyed very much and arranged to do often. The desert sounds of grasshoppers as they flew off when we startled them and the constant buzz of the cicadas created our rhythm as we investigated our surroundings. All around us were wild animals: lizards with ringed tails in all different sizes and colors and lonely coyotes that trotted a long way off in the distant horizon. Doves, quail, jackrabbits, and roadrunners were as common as the cool breezes. Scorpions, rattlesnakes, and other strange, poisonous creatures crept along the brown desert ground. Although contact with those poisonous organisms was always a possibility, we tried to avoid them.
We navigated through the millions of mesquite bushes in bunches everywhere. The bushes with their dark-gray branches and tiny deep-greenish-yellow leaves clustered in small bunches added a beautiful contrast of color in our desert. We loved to go out deep into the ever-expanding desert wilderness and forget all our problems, especially during the winter months. When the winter days grew short and the weather was cold, we would cook out in the desert. Yes, we would bring water, a cooking pot, salt, pepper, matches, and enough eggs so we could each have two. Boiling up those eggs over a mesquite wood fire, arguing over who was going to get the cracked ones, and feeling hungry and anticipating our exceptional meal were wonderful. Eventually, we actually ate the eggs while we sat in the brown desert sand. We enjoyed them so as they were always excellent. There is nothing like eating desert-cooked boiled eggs in the winter desert of west Texas.
Winter turned to spring, and months later, I was watching TV one morning with no shoes on when my mom saw that there was a bump at the base of my toe that extended to my foot. Mom said, “Look at that toe on your foot, your right foot!” “What are you talking about?” Mom’s brows knit together as she bent forward for a closer look. “What happened to your foot, Kevin?” “Mom, it’s nothing!” I roared. I think she was upset that she hadn’t noticed it earlier. I pointed to the toe. “The bump here must have been caused when I kicked a rock a while ago playing in the flooded field. This is some type of a delayed reaction. It’s nothing, Mom. It doesn’t even hurt.” My mother was not accepting any of my explanations. “We’re going to the doctor, and that foot is getting checked,” she decided, and to the doctor we went.
After the exam, Dr. Goldner, whom I had known since I was ten, agreed with Mom. In his unusually soft voice, he said, “Kevin’s toe looks like something could be going on in there. The x-ray revealed a cavity or hole in the bone. I want Kevin to see a specialist—an orthopedic doctor—to find out what happened to the toe.” As he spoke, he looked at Mom. We then immediately saw Dr. Bassett, whose office was in the same building. After one look at the toe and the x-rays, Dr. Bassett, who was a big, heavyset guy, directed his attention to my mother. “We need to perform surgery in order to go into the toe bone and scrape off samples of the bone tissue to test.” That will definitely hurt, I thought. A wave of anxiety started developing, a rush of heat enveloped me, and I started to sweat. What the hell is this doctor talking about? How do I prepare for this bone scraping? Why is it so necessary? What is going on? Surgery was set up immediately.
I remember getting wheeled into the operating room area while lying on my back. I saw my name on a board up high on the wall with an L with a circle around it next to my name. I called a nurse over and asked her if that L meant my left foot and proceeded to explain that the problem was in my right foot. She seemed to ignore me as they had already given me a shot of something to relax me, and I probably didn’t know what I was talking about. I apparently kept on going about it, because Dr. Bassett came into the room all dressed in green and looked at both my feet under the bright white sheet. He then ordered that the notation above be corrected. I think someone must have gotten in trouble for that little oversight.
After surgery, the doctor told my parents that he didn’t like the look of what they found although there was no cancer present in what they tested. He wanted us to go see some experts on this type of phenomenon to make sure that everything was okay and my strange-looking toe wasn’t hiding anything sinister. We were sent to Houston to see the specialists at the cancer center. I was sure that these experts would figure it all out and tell my parents that what had happened to my foot was really nothing serious, as I had known all along.