Daily Archives: July 13, 2009

The Brain Invaders! (Part One)

            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.


The Brain Invaders! (Part Two)

            Andy’s choice for his graduation dinner was Benihana in Santa Monica. During dinner at the shared counter table, I accidentally bumped my bowl of Hibachi Chicken Rice, which flew off the counter and fluttered down onto the silk dress lap of the woman on my left. Later, during dessert, I dropped a heaping spoonful of chocolate ice cream on my lap.

            “Oh, Mom,” Andy said cheerfully, sitting to my right, “Lighten up. Try keeping food on the plate. This isn’t brain surgery.”

            He began to tilt his neck and swing it in a slow curve from left to right. I recognized this as an exercise to relax tight shoulder and neck muscles. He started making guttural moose noises, the first of a series of vocal exercises designed to loosen up throat muscles and help an actor’s voice resonate. As the entire table of  watched transfixed, Andy stuck his tongue far out of his mouth, let it dart in and out several times, then stretched the tongue from left to right, downward out of his mouth, like a frenzied frog or Quasimodo. The Japanese grill chef, who’d been pouring ginger sauce into individual ceramic cups, looked over at Andy and warily picked up a meat cleaver.

            I tried to signal Andy by eye movements that the table patrons were freaking out because he was acting like he had an Abby Normal brain. But, encouraged by the rapt attention of his captive audience, and despite competition from the agitated grill chef who kept flipping shrimp into his 12 inch white chef’s hat—-and missing—Andy transformed himself into Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and launched into his favorite monologue, even as an occasional shrimp inexplicably flew at his face.

            “To begin with, this case should never have come to trial…” I heard him drawl, as I escaped to the restroom.

            The next morning before Alan and I drove back home, we ate at Junior’s, the Westwood deli-restaurant. Parallel to our table sat a stooped-shouldered white-haired woman in her late eighties and her son, a thin, hawk-nosed man in his sixties wearing frameless glasses. We heard him berate his mother at length about her personal finances and her will, and what she needed to do about them. When Son left to use the restroom, his fragile mother picked up the table’s silver creamer and drank the entire cream contents.

            This is what happens when you don’t have a brain tumor removed, I thought.

            I picked up our table creamer and put it on an empty table behind us.

            As I chewed on my corned beef sandwich, I flashed to a scene in the classic film “Invaders From Mars,” where a father with his alien-invaded brain becomes abusive. His horrified eight-year-old son sees Dad has a round red scar the size of a quarter on the back of his head, just above the nape of his neck. This is either where the aliens had performed neurosurgery to control Dad’s behavior, or Dad had picked up a case of scalp ringworm.

            Gosh, Dad, what happened to your head?

            Sheriff, everyone of the people who have those scars behaves strangely!

            Five days later the Chief of Neurosurgery at Kaiser used his medical ice cream scoop to remove my brain tumor. The three-hour surgery apparently went well, and I was relieved to find there was no round red scar the size of a quarter on my scalp, and that I wasn’t behaving more abusively than normal. I did have a zipper of silver staples across the shaved right side of my head and down my face alongside the right ear. My right ear lobe had been painted with a dark blue permanent marker so the neurosurgeon wouldn’t operate on the wrong side of my head. The incision itself—the “zipper”—was in the shape of an eight-inch question mark because an exclamation mark is too narrow and my neurosurgeon hadn’t mastered when to use a semi-colon.

            After surgery, my 24-year-old son Jordan called me Frankenmom. My right eye and the right side of my face looked similar to Marty Feldman’s pop-eyed character “I-gor” in Young Frankenstein. Actually, my husband later admitted, Marty looked better.


             Don’t worry, m’am. We’ll find your husband. There aren’t such things as space aliens.

The End?