GOOD-BYE TO “HOT STUFF”
A EULOGY FOR BILL STARK
1935 to 2007
By Katharine Blossom Lowrie
And so began the sitcom
Bill and I divorced decades ago. So how did I end up folding his boxers, suffering his impatience, relinquishing the remote and sneezing from his cats? Esophageal Cancer. His third go-round. Sixteen years ago, a surgeon carved a tumor the size of a golf ball out of my ex-husband’s throat. Bill’s neck ended up looking as if a pit bull had mistaken it for dinner – his karma, I suppose, for a three-pack-a-day smoking habit. Good news is, they got the sucker out.
Except the Big C struck again in 2006. With a vengeance. Inoperable this time. What began as squamous cell carcinoma bred a tumor on Bill’s vocal chord, and the adjacent lymph glands welcomed it like a lover. “Chemo and radiation are your new best friends,” his oncologist told him. (I soon began to wonder who Bill’s worst enemies were.) Quickly wasted by chemo, he required a feeding tube after radiation toasted his tongue and scorched his throat to the point he could no longer swallow. He lost 60 pounds in a heartbeat, and his blood pressure plummeted to a point where most folks greet St. Peter. When the tumor blockaded his oxygen, a tracheotomy was performed. And so began the sitcom.
Everything transpired through a tube
Here’s the thing. If cancer doesn’t kill you, the treatment is apt to. Which won’t get me on Letterman; then again, you don’t know my ex-husband, who at this point resembled a high school science experiment. Everything transpired through a tube. Since he could no longer communicate, except via Blackberry or handwritten note, our grown daughter insisted on round-the-clock care. He needed someone to drive him to daily radiation appointments; the evil cats needed feeding, the evil litter box scooped of poop, the evil undies laundered…
The caretaker Bill reluctantly hired came recommended by health care professionals and lasted a week. You’d have thought Hannibal Lector had been assigned to eat his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He hated a stranger hanging around and could drive himself, thank you very much. In an emergency? Since our daughter has two kids and a life, well, you see where I’m headed. I’m a writer who is single and works at home, so even I assume I have no life. Which is how an ex-wife ended up volunteering to assist the ex-husband she had divorced for reasons that were still glaringly apparent.
He resembled Smeagol in Lord of the Rings
Not that I’m complaining. When you’re walking around with nothing more serious than minor cataracts and major cellulite, you don’t have a lot to complain about, especially when compared to someone who cannot swallow, speak or breathe and resembles Smeagol in Lord of the Rings. Remember the scary little bald guy who climbed out of Middle Earth?
Then again, life has a filthy way of forcing you to repeat what you didn’t get right the first time. And I sure didn’t get Bill right the first time. In an odd way, my ex and I became something of a stand-up comedy team – only I did all the talking. He wheezed, expectorated, huffed, puffed and blew the house down. I sometimes ran screaming from the room. Take “goobers.”
Unfit even for Fear Factor
People with trachs get stuff stuck in their windpipes, namely phlegm. It has to be suctioned out. Bill had a pump and ordinarily performed this disagreeable task himself. Either that, or he tried to hock the phlegm up, a process that sounded like gurgling glue blown through a tunnel by gale-force winds. Not a pleasant riff. When radiation further damaged the French-fried tissue surrounding Bill’s trach, the crusted tissue sloughed off and merged with the phlegm, forming what my ex called a “goober.” (More than you ever wanted to know, I’m sure.)
A goober is a slimy red plug unfit even for Fear Factor. I called it his “offspring” because fishing one out of Bill’s airway necessitated rushing him to the ER so the little critter could be delivered by means of saline and suction. Even with the help of a surgical nurse, the goober got only so far before Bill had to hock it up. The first time he did this at the medical facility, the goober flew out of his trach hole and hit the far wall like a stray bullet.
On a subsequent visit to the ER, Bill adopted the goober, depositing it in a see-through plastic bottle so we could transport it to his oncologist. I named it “Pete.” Pete sat cradled between us in the cup holder of Bill’s Lexus, me trying desperately to avert my eyes. Screaming from the room? That happened the night my ex called me into his bathroom, ecstatic that he had learned to expel a goober on his own. He wanted to show it off. Like a Pulitzer.
A veritable cyclone of protest blasted from his lungs
Bill could get testy, though, calling upon his various wind instruments to express his frustration, wheezing in disgust when I failed to read his lips, huffing and puffing when I forgot to refill one of twenty prescriptions. In my own defense, I must say I handled things better than I used to (no more hurled china) – but not always. On another occasion, when registering with yet another doctor at yet another hospital, a nurse asked his name, and I said “Bill Stark” instead of “Frederick William Stark” (the name he knew he used on medical forms, but I didn’t.) Anyway, the veritable cyclone of protest that blasted from his lungs nearly blew me over. After a long moment, I turned to the nurse and announced: “Frederick William Stark’s tantrum is a perfect example of why we are no longer married.”
Yet, none of it every really mattered. Not alongside the guy I came to see as funny, heroic and dashing. That Bill was generous to a fault, apologetic and relentlessly optimistic. He blew me kisses and never betrayed a hint of self-pity. True, I didn’t bring as many smiles to his face as his many friends did, especially his many girlfriends; they visited regularly and seemed not to notice his impatience, expectorating or hocking.
No, wait. He did grin big when I brought him a dancing red lion for Valentine’s Day. It sings “Hot Stuff.” Maybe I finally got Bill right. None too soon, as it turned out. He died three months later. (KBL)