“I Am Awake”


Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad, AMC

by Bobbi Lurie

Dying in Albuquerque can be the breaking point for anyone, believe me. Walter White, of Breaking Bad, and I were diagnosed with cancer the same week. I have no idea how long Walter White has lived in Albuquerque but I had only lived here a few months when I was diagnosed.

Walter White, a so-called “mild-mannered,” high school chemistry teacher, sitting in a doctor’s office, was told he had two years to live. Yes, he was alone and yes, Walter’s doctor had a mustard stain on the lapel of his white jacket, but this doctor, apparently from the emergency room, where Walter was examined after passing out, seemed truly concerned that Walter understand exactly what his cancer diagnosis meant. It meant Stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer: two years to live, tops, with chemotherapy.

The doctor on Breaking Bad didn’t say this but Stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer means that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor. It means it may have spread to the main bronchus, the lung lining, chest wall lining, or chest wall, the diaphragm, or the membrane around the heart, and there may be one or more separate tumors in the same lobe of the lung. The cancer may have also spread to the nerve that controls the diaphragm and part or all of the lung may have collapsed.

Hey, wait a minute…I live in Albuquerque and my doctor didn’t even call me to tell me I had cancer. It was the surgeon who did a biopsy who told me. She called me on the phone during her lunch break. “Bobbi,” she said, “I’m sorry but it’s a cancer.”

I was holding onto the wall, trying not to drop the phone. I had so many questions.

She continued, “I hate to be curt but my lunch is getting cold.”

Months later, I heard from the same surgeon: “Bobbi, this is why I love being a surgeon. You have so many cancers and so many types. It makes my work very interesting.”

Oh….

To “break bad” is a term we use in these parts. It means we’re fed up; sick of following the rules.

Walter, a brilliant chemist, though working as a dissatisfied high school chemistry teacher, once worked in the labs of Sandia and Los Alamos, the land of The Manhattan Project. With a new sense of fearlessness based on his medical diagnosis and a desire to secure his family’s financial future, Walter White chooses to enter the dangerous world of drugs: the world where the money is.

Breaking Bad brilliantly explores how a fatal diagnosis such as White’s releases a person from the usual constraints placed on them by societal rules and expectations. Breaking Bad shows us Walter White’s transformation from passive man of pleasantries to kingpin of illegal drug trade.

Walter’s brother-in-law, Hank, works for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Suddenly more curious and willing to leave his life of non-action behind, Walt goes with Hank on a drug bust, where he finds a former student-turned Meth dealer.

The stage is set. His former student, Jesse, flunked chemistry. Jesse is called “The Cook” because he’s been cooking Meth. Walt knows that Jesse’s “cooking” skills have to be sub-par. Walt holds the threat of a DEA arrest over Jesse’s head, forcing Jesse to collect money for the Meth while Walt does the cooking. And Walt takes Jesse on the worst Meth ride of violence Jesse’s ever known.

Walt is a desperate man: desperate to make money for his family, desperate for that thing which comes with a diagnosis of death. This desperation is symbolized by a pink teddy bear in the show; but we’ll get to that later.

Anyone who claims to have syndromes such as Attention Deficit Disorder, (which can, by the way, possibly be cured by watching any single episode of Breaking Bad) can get Methamphetamine legally, by showing their doctor they have a hard time paying attention to things. It is also used as a weight loss drug. So make no mistake about it: Methamphetamine is legal. With a valid prescription under the brand name Desoxyn. Walt doesn’t seem to know that the DEA who seeks to capture him is seeking to capture him for making a legal drug illegally. What this means is: we’re talking about money here.

It’s clear to me why Walter White went through such a strong transformation, turning from his passive life, bypassing the usual passive-aggressive phase many people go through, and heading straight towards aggression: showing off his chemistry prowess, big time, by becoming the greatest maker of Methamphetamine to hit Duke City, ever.

I think of the oncologist, the oncologist the surgeon recommended so highly. She looked scared after going through my chart. She dashed out of her cubicle, after saying “I never saw a cancer like this before. I have to be honest: I don’t know how to treat it. I mean there’s three types and six tumors and it’s already spread… Hold on…”

She went to get her calculator. She multiplied everything by six.

“If we cut off this part of your body and this body part and also this part and we give you a minimum of three rounds of chemo…

I can’t promise you anything….”

This was in Santa Fe. It was after seeing four oncologists in Albuquerque and one in Los Alamos. Also, one in Texas. This was in the beginning of my “search” for a treatment.

Walt’s been to Santa Fe. And yes, it’s true that Santa Fe is a wealthier city and the oncology center in Santa Fe is fancier than the ones I went to in Albuquerque. It has chandeliers, a lovely art collection, comfortable sofas; some very sick people, being held up by a loved one or one paid to feign love. They too give out candy in Santa Fe, just like they do in Albuquerque and in Houston and in Utah and in…

Research has shown that sugar causes cancer to spread and every cancer center I’ve been to in the U.S. has a bowl of candy sitting next to the register where the cashier/ receptionist invariably says, “How are you today,” as a statement, not waiting for an answer.

I shall not mention the foreign lands…but, of course, Mexico is just across the border so there’s no use in me hiding that.


Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad, AMC

A large portion of Breaking Bad is filmed over the border in Mexico.

Mexican clinics don’t give out candy.

Some time ago it was easy to cross the border from El Paso to Juarez. Today Juarez is a war zone. I think of the alternative cancer clinic I went to in Juarez. I was the only patient there who wasn’t Amish. The Amish believe in natural medicine and see the use of mirrors as a form of vanity. There were no mirrors in the clinic. The meals were seemingly healthy: hardly any taste to any of it; but papaya was plentiful.

I remember the sun beating down on us in Juarez.

I also keep remembering Hank crossing the border in Breaking Bad. I can’t forget the horrifying image of the severed head of a drug lord, balanced on the back of a moving turtle, causing Walt’s brother-in-law, to lose it. Hank crosses the border back to the U.S. with PTSD.

“Don’t go out at night,” they said to us then, in Juarez.

Now, I suspect, they say nothing at all.

The drug lords have taken over. Almost 50,000 dead in this drug war so far.

Walt’s been around death so long: he’s exhausted. Once you’ve seen this much death, it becomes more real than life. Once you’re given the diagnosis, part of you is waiting to die. It’s tedious. It’s nerve-wracking. It involves lots of unpleasant events most people don’t want to know anything about. You are expected to get over it, to get back to your life, to carry on…people are persistent, and often cruel, in their admonitions towards having a “positive attitude”—well, maybe it’s never been that way for Walt. Maybe he’s worn out.

For quite a while, Walt keeps both the cancer and his Methamphetamine activities secret from his pregnant, not very believable, wife, hoping she’ll believe he’s been smoking marijuana.

His wife is shocked by the marijuana.

Walt finally tells her about the cancer, after he’s killed a few guys, because the marijuana lie isn’t doing it. His wife, who is very much against marijuana, is eager for Walt to do chemotherapy. Let’s make this clear: the side effects for Walter’s chemo for non-small cell lung cancer Stage IIIA include liver and kidney damage. The side effects for marijuana include an insatiable desire for chocolate chip cookies and the misguided belief that one has brilliant ideas.

People don’t change overnight. Walt agrees to do chemo after smelling his wife’s face cream.

Walter White’s chemo costs him $1,500 a pop. His HMO won’t cover the cost.


The pink bear is a repeated motif in episodes of Breaking Bad

Walter White, by way of the shamans in New Mexico, changes his identity, as he is struck with the realization of the insubstantiality of the ego. He realizes he can invent a new self.

He calls himself Heisenberg.

Werner Heisenberg is the physicist who came up with the Uncertainty Principle. Walter White IS the uncertainty principle.

“I am awake,” I said when my eighth oncologist called three days before my first of many, ongoing surgeries. I was lying, of course. I wasn’t awake. I had been up all night and finally fell asleep. I was sleeping when he called. I wish I never answered the phone.

“Bobbi,” he said, “something terrible has happened. It’s in your liver. We need to do a liver biopsy today.”

Hello?

“I am awake,” said Walter White in episode one of season one of breaking bad. That is my favorite line, by the way.

Television commentators and critics say Walter White turned bad. No, he didn’t. He just stopped trying to be “good.”

The ultimate villain of the whole show is cancer. The gruesome inhumanity of man to man: it’s all part of cancer.

Walt looks death in the eye. He grows more and more accustomed to it. He handles it. He becomes it. He makes it happen.

Walter White, like the rest of us, diagnosed, yet “surviving,” refusing to hang onto the pink teddy bear images of all the phony good Samaritans, is hated and feared by the people around him. He, like the rest of us, loses his ability to follow the sentimental admonitions fed to us by a fake society.

“I am awake.”

Cancer patients grow lean and mean. As my friend Melanie said, “They think you’re complaining but you’re just telling them what’s going on.”

I think of another friend, Maria, walking into the infusion room, angrier than I had ever seen her. It was the only time I heard her speak her mind. “You make me sick! All of you. All of you “nice” and “polite” cancer patients. Don’t you make yourselves sick? All of you. Look at you. You’re all so nice. Even now…you act nice even as you die…you make me sick….”

Maria broke bad.

“Maria,” I shouted after her, pulling the I.V pole with me, “Wait, Maria!”

Maria turned around, faced me, defiantly.

“Will you tell me I will live?” she demanded.

How could I say anything? She was so thin. She could no longer keep her food down. Her skin was yellow. But I didn’t know. How could I know how long she would live? So far, they’ve been wrong about me.  

“Yes,” I said. “You will live.”

“You’re lying.” Maria left, refusing any more infusions of chemically generated treatment suppositions.

I thought back to what Maria was screaming in the infusion room: “You guys are all so nice. SO NICE! And you’re dying! Look at you!  You make me sick!

Maria was right. Maria was right.

Brown, parched earth, against an almost-always-deep, blue sky; a roadrunner rubs against my leg, wakes me from my sleep, shows me his prey: dead mouse today; yesterday it was a lizard.

I never made friends with the desert.

“I am awake.”


About the Author:

Bobbi Lurie’s fourth poetry collection, “the morphine poems,” will be published in 2012 by Otoliths. She is the author of three other poetry collections: Grief Suite, The Book I Never Read, and Letter from the Lawn. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous print and online journals, including Fence, New American Writing, E-Ratio, Counterexample, The American Poetry Review and Big Bridge. Her fiction can be found, or is forthcoming, in The Smoking Poet, Pif Magazine, Noir, Dogzplot, Pure Slush, Wilderness House Literary Review, Marco Polo, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Camroc Press Review and others. Some of her visual artwork can be found on Otoliths, and Tip Of The Knife. Her television reviews can be found on Berfrois.