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Catch and Release

by Chris Malcomb

Dad taught me how to catch lizards. When I was five we lived near the U.S. Naval base in St. Lucy Parish, Barbados. Island life was sun-baked and leisurely. I spent days splashing in a plastic pool, gnawing on fresh sugarcane, and watching black widows wrap up insects under our porch.

When he wasn't tracking submarines, Dad helped me locate the best blades of grass, tie sturdy slipknots, and coax loops over lizards' necks. He often held my wrist as I jerked the noose tight. We left Barbados after a year, but Dad found new things to teach-how to pitch a tent, clean a trout, refinish furniture. During my teenage years I often sought his counsel on life's problems while we weeded the garden, camped, or shoveled ourselves out of a Massachusetts snowstorm. But by my late 20s Dad and I had grown apart. My parents' divorce, the spilling of unsavory family secrets, and Dad's re-marriage to a much younger woman had left me hurt and angry. The "new" Dad seemed both artificial and distant, someone whom I no longer liked or trusted. Unable to express my feelings, I simply checked out, letting the emotional gap widen.

Then I got thyroid cancer. I was 29 years old.

At first I kept Dad out of the loop. I made my mom break the news, and even requested that he not fly out to Berkeley for my surgery, at total thyroidectomy. He showed up anyway. His brief visit was awkward at times, but deep down I was glad he'd come. At least one of us was acting like a grownup.

When Dad returned home to Boston, he got more bad news: his young wife was leaving him. Ironically, this provided us a bittersweet opportunity. He was tumbling into the heartache of yet another divorce; I was confronting a life on synthetic thyroid hormone and the reality of being a cancer survivor. He started calling me more frequently and I noticed how bantering about sports, travel or the people at his church actually soothed my own inner turmoil. As weeks passed, he opened up and revealed more of his pain, confusion and regret. This illuminated another "new" Dad: a fragile, vulnerable human being like me. I learned to listen with compassion, to hold his pain without judgment. Although we never discussed how I'd pushed him away, I knew that providing this support was the first step in our reconciliation. In addition, it was a welcome respite from my relentless fatigue and emotional struggle with having lost a part of my body.

Three months after my surgery I returned to Alta Bates Hospital for my radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment. RAI, one of the most common and effective thyroid cancer remedies, capitalizes on the thyroid gland's role as one of the body's main iodine processors. Four weeks earlier, the doctors had ordered me to stop ingesting iodine, inducing an "iodine-starved" state which they hoped would help the RAI destroy any lingering thyroid cells, cancerous or not.

I arrived to the Nuclear Medicine wing, popped an almond-sized 120-mCi pill of RAI and spent the next three days sleeping, urinating, and vomiting behind a door decorated with the black-and-yellow radioactive symbol. When nurses brought me food, they wore lead aprons; twice a day, a doctor checked my radioactivity with a Geiger counter. Any books or magazines I read were then tossed in the "contaminated" pile.

I spoke to Dad once. "It's a blast," I said, sucking on a lemon drop to preserve my salivary glands. "You should come out here and try it."

I actually did want him to come. My final test-to determine if the cancer was gone-was in two weeks. A "clean" scan meant I was cured. I wanted to share that moment and the moments leading up to it. Dad agreed.

The morning of the scan, we took a sunrise walk on a winding trail in Tilden Park. At one point we stopped at a bench overlooking the Bay and watched a lizard scurry out of the grass to lap up ants near our feet. I laughed. "Didn't I used to catch those in Barbados?"

"You did," Dad said. He rose from the bench, plucked a thin, bright green blade of grass and inspected it like a small sword. "Once you caught one, you were hooked."

"What did I do with them?"

"You don't remember the Walren's monkey?" he asked, tying a neat, round loop the size of a quarter at the end of the grass.

"Vaguely," I said.

"You loved that part." He smiled, handed me the lizard-catcher, and wandered off to inspect a eucalyptus tree. I got up and crouched directly behind the lizard. It was stout and healthy, with tawny, wrinkled skin, thick brown stripes and a head shaped like an acorn. I lowered the loop in front of its dark beady eyes and began rotating it in small circles. The lizard followed the motion, its head bobbing up and down as I glided the loop over its neck until the grass grazed its throat. I gave a swift jerk.

The lizard reacted as if struck by lightning, stirring up a small cloud of dust as it twitched, jumped, and flipped. It stopped after a few seconds, its abdomen heaving, eyes darting in panic. I reached towards its back, trying to hold it still so I could loosen the loop. Instead, it recoiled and began thrashing even more violently. When it stopped this time, a small amount of reddish yellow liquid was leaking from the pale blue skin on the its throat. My heart was pounding.

I suddenly remembered what I'd done with all those lizards I'd caught in Barbados. I never set them free. Instead, I'd cinch the loop and carry them to the Walren's patio. The monkey would reach between the bars of its cage, grab the wriggling reptile, and toss it around like a toy. Then he'd eat it, slowly, ripping off appendages as he went.

I tried to free the lizard again. I failed. By the time Dad walked over, I was on the verge of tears. The lizard was laboring for breath. "What happened?" he said, kneeling down next to me.

I waved at the ground and bit my lip. "Can't get him out."

"Want help?"

I nodded.

Dad reached down, gently cupped the lizard's body, and in one swift motion pinched the loop free. The lizard shook its head and darted into the grass as we got up and started heading back. We walked in silence for several minutes before two small lizards chased each other across the path in front of us.

"I'm ashamed of what I did to those lizards in Barbados," I finally said.

"Yeah," Dad said, squeezing my shoulder. "I've thought about that." He tossed the broken grass onto the ground. We walked in silence to the car, and drove to the hospital. My scan was clean.

Chris Malcomb lives in Berkeley, CA, where he teaches workshops combining mindfulness meditation and creative writing. This fall will mark the tenth anniversary of his being cancer-free.