Could Have Sworn It Was Judgment Day

By William Bradley


I had been told to expect about a month-long hospital stay for my autologous bone marrow transplant to treat my recurring Hodgkin’s Disease. I had also been told that my chances for 5-year survival were about 40 percent. “Of course,” the doctor added, “your chances for survival without the transplant are zero.” So I went into the hospital on December 4, 1998, with just a Walkman, some mix tapes, a stack of comic books, and my mom to keep me company.

I was 22 years old at this point.

After the aggressive chemotherapy treatment and the subsequent reintroduction of my own harvested stem cells into my body, most of my days were spent in tremendous pain that was only somewhat mitigated by a constantly-adjusted morphine drip. I watched Days of our Lives and Judge Judy, listened to Lou Reed, Warren Zevon, and Prince, gossipped with my mom about our relatives. Vomited, pissed in a jug, and cried every so often. There was a chance, I knew, that I would die in this hospital, and not be able to listen to “1999” on New Year’s Eve.

I did not die in that hospital, though, and on Christmas morning, my doctor told me I had tolerated treatments well enough that he could let me go home-- the nausea and mouth sores had begun to fade, my bloodwork looked okay, and I had even begun eating again. “But I can’t let you go while you’re still taking so much morphine,” he told me. So I told him to cut me off-- I could deal with the pain, I figured.

I spent the next night with my parents and siblings in a hotel room, where I began to shiver and started vomiting once more. I became terrified that it was the cancer, somehow, attacking me again once I was away from my doctor’s protective care. But my father knew better.

“It’s withdrawal,” he said. “From the morphine.”

I shivered and threw up periodically on the nine hour drive from the cancer treatment center back to our house, then spent the next few days in bed at home. My mother would bring me water, bread, and soup. Gradually, I regained my strength.

On New Year’s Eve, I got out of bed and walked upstairs. My mother was cooking posole in the crock pot. For the first time in weeks, food smelled good to me. I sat at the kitchen table and played Trivial Pursuit with my family all afternoon, then moved to the living room. We flipped back and forth between the Twilight Zone marathon and the last episode of M*A*S*H, which I had never seen, until around 11:00. I probably dozed through many of these hours, but I saw the important stuff-- Burgess Meredith’s crushed glasses, Hawkeye’s realization that it wasn’t a chicken that the refugee killed at all.

We switched over to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve later, to watch the Backstreet Boys and Barenaked Ladies celebrate the end of 1998, which I had spent in and out of hospitals and oncologists’ offices. I’d seen the doctor about the lump in my neck on January 7th; now, on December 31st, I was celebrating the end of that horrible year.

For several years afterwards, I was convinced that I was living on borrowed time-- my doctor had told me, after all, that the odds were against me living to see my 27th birthday. But I did survive. And I’m thankful for that. But the downside to living, of course, is seeing others dying. My grandparents. My favorite literature professor. A beloved friend and colleague. Lou Reed. Warren Zevon. And now, most recently, Prince-- my first all-time favorite musician, from the moment I first heard “Let’s Go Crazy” and saw the video on MTV when I was only eight years old.

There has been no shortage of tributes, think pieces, hot takes, and listicles about Prince since his body was found in a Paisley Park elevator towards the end of April. As I write these words, we don’t yet have a cause of death, but there is suspicion that he might have died of an opiate overdose, perhaps to treat the pain from a hip that needed to be replaced. Some in the media have seized upon this theory to cast aspersions on his character, but I’m here to tell you, opiates are powerful and-- at times-- necessary drugs. Anyone who argues otherwise has never experienced real pain.

But it’s small-minded and petty to focus on the man’s death. Better, I think, to consider his life, and how lucky we all are to have benefited from his gifts. I know I’m lucky-- I was supposed to have died before the end of 2003, which means I would have missed Prince’s late career renaissance that began, I think, with Musicology in 2004 and carried through his later collaborations with 3rdeyegirl and Art Official Age in 2014. There are those who say that Prince’s best work was created in the eighties, and maybe there is some truth to that-- that work was amazing-- but sweet Jesus, anyone who saw what turned out to be his final, epic performance on Saturday Night Live would have to acknowledge that the man was still a great performer well into the 21st century.

Nevertheless, my favorite experience involving Prince happened in the early morning hours of January 1, 1999. Having said goodnight to my parents and siblings, who weren’t quite ready to turn in, I went downstairs to my bedroom, got under the covers, and slipped my headphones over my ears. I rewound the tape to the right moment, then turned off my lamp and drifted off to sleep content that my party wasn’t over; I wasn’t out of time. It was still an excellent song, though, and the perfect way to begin the first year of the rest of my life.

William Bradley's a collection of linked essays, Fractals was recently released by Lavender Ink. He has published work in a variety of literary magazines and journals including Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, The Bellevue Literary Review and The Missouri Review.