Five days after our son Andy graduated UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, doctors at Kaiser Permanente’s Redwood City, California hospital performed major surgery on me to remove a brain tumor.
The tumor was discovered when I had an MRI to check why my left ear was behaving oddly—notably, exhibiting a high-frequency hearing loss, a little feeling of fullness, and routinely receiving local radio broadcasts from Spanish-speaking stations.
Following the MRI, a Kaiser doctor sent me a brief e-mail (this is modern medicine) that revealed my left ear didn’t show a tumor, but there was “an incidental finding” of a tumor in the right temporal lobe. Next to the doctor’s name he’d added a yellow winking Happy Face.
When I saw the neurosurgeon a week later, he pointed to the MRI film where the tumor appeared bigger than my eye. He gave me the choice of excising the tumor or watching to see if, over the years, it would enlarge.
Now I’m no dummy. I’ve watched all the 1950’s sci-fi movies about men (almost always men) who are arrogant about science and their personal lives, and as a result, when an alien life form comes to earth, it invades their brain and takes over. I didn’t like the idea of the tumor gradually expanding inside my skull. The guys in the movies with the invaded skulls always became automatons, showing no emotion, and forced to carry out the aliens’ unspeakable orders—- like killing people, taking over a town, or voting Republican.
Knowing what I know, from what I learned watching those cautionary tales, the 1950’s movies, I agreed to have the tumor removed.
My first surprise about the imminent operation was that Kaiser didn’t require I attend a class. I’m a relative newbie to Kaiser, but every time I’ve had a medical issue, they demand I take a class about it. When I developed low back pain, I was signed up for the two hour “Back Class.” When I noticed the peculiar left ear sounds, Kaiser ordered the class for “Tinnitus.” (Pronounced “Tinnitus.” Also pronounced “Tinnitus.”) Because my ears were receiving radio broadcasts from Spanish-language radio stations, I was also required to take “Spanish for Tinnitus Patients.”
Thankfully, Kaiser did not mandate a class in Brain Tumors. I did have to wait a month before surgery, which was stressful, but I knew if I mentioned that to a doctor, I would’ve been ordered to take the Kaiser class in “Handling Stress” or the advanced class, “Handling Stress When You Have a Brain Tumor That May Grow to Fill and Crush Your Brain. (Meditation, Exercises, and Helpful Suicide Plans.)”
Alan and I agreed not to tell Andy about my health before his graduation, so he could enjoy the ceremony.
Six days before surgery, we drove down to L.A. The following overcast, muggy day, we joined 250 people as well as an abundance of displaced bees and flies out on the lawn of the UCLA campus to watch Andy and his theater buddies receive their diplomas. I tried to keep focused on the impressive commencement speakers and not dwell on the brain tumor. When the Dean of the Theater School introduced Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer, I was o.k. until he mentioned filming One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I thought about lobotomies.
Actress Ellen Geer delivered a concise speech, wishing the candidates good luck and to “take the first job that comes along so you can afford to audition for movies or plays.” Since few jobs are currently open for college graduates, I knew some grads were thinking about waiter jobs, the classic actor’s employment, or bagging groceries. Fortunately Andy’s nude play experience at UCLA gives him a leg up. He can always find some type of temp work, such as temporary porn roles.
Later when we unrolled Andy’s diploma scroll, we saw it was an IOU for the formal diploma since Andy, like most of his class, still needed to take a couple of courses this summer to make his graduation official. Only five students, in fact, had totally completed all requirements of the School of Theater, Film and Television. They were the actual graduates. The remainder, about 100 students like Andy, on UCLA’s Financial Exhaustion Plan, were permitted to participate in commencement and pretend they were graduates, just as they had for the previous four years pretended they were students.
At the reception Andy made the rounds of friends and professors, stopping at length to schmooze with the retiring Dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television. The Dean awkwardly bid Andy good-bye, and later told the Theater Department’s costume designer that he hadn’t recognized Andy with his clothes on.