1st Round In the Chair: Tattoos, Chemotherapy, and The Red Devil
On Thursday, as we sat in a small office in the oncology suite, awaiting instruction before Annette’s round of chemotherapy, I looked down at my shoes and pondered the nerves throttling my stomach. Breakfast consisted
of a small apple and a half cup of coffee, for me. Annette, always smarter about dietary choices, woke early and ate a bowl of oatmeal. On the drive in, when I asked her how she felt, she said, “Like before a big race.” Which sounds about right for the treatment rounds ahead. We’ve skied long distance ski races and ran the Portland Marathon, together, and I agreed. The feeling of that nervous stomach before a big event, pretty much nailed it --- and those who know her, understand fully well how up to this challenge she is.
But the wait in that office before her treatment, while short, had me thinking about last fall and my first tattoo. I sat in the waiting room of Eagle River Tattoo and stared down at my feet and their cool logo on the floor, and have to admit, I was nervous and a bit scared. I’ve spent several years watching my buddy Roger Sparks tattoo some of the toughest, most badass humans on the planet. Members of elite special force rescue units. Guys who could kill you with your own pinky finger, and then bring you back to life. Men who had been through the grinder of combat and grief beyond measure. Before working with him, I had no interest or need for any ink. Watching those tough guys accept the gift of Roger’s art, something in me began to shift towards also wanting one of his tattoos, but seeing those gritty bastards wince here or there, gave me pause. If it hurt them? Shit. I’d be a whiny mess.
The tattoo Roger designed for me, signifying the brotherhood we’d forged working on Warrior’s Creed, would cover my left bicep and a good portion of my upper arm. I knew the process would be upwards of five or six hours for the first session. I pondered the need for a cocktail or three before, or some sort of painkiller. I opted for neither. I wanted to be present and feel this. I knew from the experience of watching him work that there would be something healing in the process as well.
According to Roger, “Art is always a highly subjective endeavor. Tattooing is not immune from this and often runs akin to metaphysical acts. At the heart of this is the tattoo machine.” As he readied his work space, Roger shared the history of his tattoo machines, gifts from his mentor, the renowned artist Scott Campbell.
Scott gave Roger an old machine he had used. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said that “old one” is the kind of treasure you’d see on Antique Roadshow. Norman Collins originally built and used the machine. Unless you’re a tattoo buff, you wouldn’t recognize that name, but you might know his other name: Sailor Jerry. Another icon, Mike Malone, who later inherited Collins’ shop and legacy, retooled the machine and later at some point Seth Ciferri rebuilt the machine and then it came into Scott’s hands. Scott used that same device through much of his career and then passed the magic on to Roger.
Seth Ciferri crafted the other two machines. Scott commissioned them specifically to honor Roger and his service as a pararescueman in Afghanistan where the two first met. On both armature bars of these strange tools, a liner and shader, you can see a hand engraving,
“For Roger Sparks, That Others May Live.”
The liner has glint tape from a soldier’s shoulder patch and the shader has a Silver Star and Afghanistan campaign ribbons fashioned on and surrounding the coils. One glance and you can see the machines have been produced with exquisite craftsmanship and as Roger put it best, “The machines have a honkytonk feel and aesthetic; however, the context and thought put into them gives a ghostly like presence to them. They ooze juju.”
I knew once Roger waved me into the chair, there would be no turning back from that juju.
I share the story of my first tattoo, because that is how I know Annette and I both felt as we were beckoned down the corridor towards the infusion center. The area where patients receive treatments is open, with large south east facing windows, and a series of partitioned cubicles. She settled into a chair with a view of the city and mountains. Time for a different sort of marathon session. One that also required a needle, and someone highly skilled and wearing gloves, but this time delivering a different sort of chemical to her body. Chemicals toxic enough to kill the insidious beast that is cancer. There would be no turning back, and as real and raw as those nerves were as she settled in for the long haul, this would also be the process that would take us towards healing.
The messages of hope and encouragement poured in from family and friends, literary giants, rock stars, and Roger himself, sharing some classic Roger advice to get her through this battle.
I readied for the pain of the tattoo, but when Roger applied the first needle to my skin, I felt almost nothing. The shoulder, he claimed, is the best place to get tattooed in terms of pain or feeling the discomfort, which I’m sure is true, but what I also think is true is that he’s someone with the ability to remove the pain of others. An empath, perhaps. The horrors and pain he’s endured in his career and life, might give him that ability. Or it might be his healing touch. A six foot eight Yoda, with a lifetime of special operations, hunkering over you with a tattoo gun doesn’t seem to be the image of healing and catharsis, but he is, trust me. Those hours in the chair raced by as if we’d been there only a few minutes. If anything hurt, at all, during that entire time it would be my butt.
And like that time in the seat with Roger, I sat watching Annette, in a similar chair, wrapped in a handmade blanket made by a former patient, get hooked up for the chemotherapy. She’d been coached by friends who had already gone through treatment, some in that same damn chair, so she had an idea of what was coming, but at the same time had no idea.
The first in a series of bags of chemicals the nurse hung would be Adriamycin, also known as “the red devil.” Aptly named, the sack of liquid looked like Tropical Punch Kool-Aid, and of all things, friends warned, would turn her urine red.
We chatted throughout the session. She napped some and listened to a meditation app, while I graded student essays and fielded incoming texts from family and friends. A radiant picture of youth, health, and beauty --- easily the youngest being treated, we were both reminded that cancer does not discriminate. And at the same time, aware how lucky we were to be there, almost one month to the day she found out something was wrong, and receiving treatment. Healthcare in America is something that discriminates, and it shouldn’t.
As everyone but Annette and I expected, she sailed through the first treatment. We donned our Covid-19 masks and strolled in at nine in the morning and rolled out of the infusion center around two in the afternoon. We headed home and both had a long nap, woke up, took a nice walk around the block, and then enjoyed a yummy dinner of enchiladas from friends. Naturally, I kept asking her how she felt, but quit after she ate more than me that first night.
Three days post first round of chemo and Annette is doing really well. We’re walking each day. A steroid comes with each infusion, so the first few days she’s supposed to feel a bit better, and then will become more tired as that wears off. The doctor told her to expect to feel results within the first week. That her breathing will become easier as the tumor melts away. She swears she can feel a heat in her chest, right where the tumor sits, and we’ve decided that is the red devil kicking this cancer’s ass.
Annette is through that first round, and she’s feeling less anxiety and is happy to have started treatment and have the ball in her court now. This is something she can focus on and get through. One week on, one week off for two months. This means three more visits with the Red Devil until her next PET scan to know exactly how well the treatment is working. This will be similar to a complicated tattoo and the time it takes. Each session getting her a little closer to the finish line.
We’re still deciding how we want to celebrate when she’s all done, but she did say that she’s going to pay a visit to Roger’s chair for one of his exquisite tattoos. Perhaps something that pays homage to her Sicilian heritage. At this point I don’t know if she’s sure what that will be, but she’s got plenty of time to figure it out.
In the meantime, she will be taking the wisdom Roger sent her as she walked into that first round of chemotherapy. Two words that got him through one of his first incredible medical hurdles in his life before his career of service as a Reconnaissance Marine and then Air Force Pararescueman: