“How you doing, Benny?” Mom asks, staring down at me while two lab assistants position my legs on the PET scan table.
“About how you’d think,” I answer.
She grips my hand with her own and stays there with me until they tell her she needs to go stand behind the glass like everyone else.
“I’ll be right over there with your father,” she says, leaning down to hug my shoulders and kiss my forehead.
I can’t really return the gesture, what with my head being held in place by pieces of foam and my chest strapped down to keep me from moving during the scan.
“Okay,” I tell her.
Then she’s gone and I’m alone.
What a fucking day it’s been. I woke up exhausted, having barely slept. Mom, Dad and I stayed up until almost midnight talking about all of the things we should have been over the past two years. How Mom and I both hid our depression, how it negatively affected us. How we haven’t been great about voicing anything negative. How we should have been better at sharing our grief and our fears with each other. Our frustration with each other for hiding things, for pushing too much, for pulling away.
Was it a perfect conversation in which we resolved all our issues? Nope. At points, we argued. We yelled. Mom cried. Dad stalked out of the room. I nearly punched a wall. It was awkward and uncomfortable and fucking painful. But it needed to happen. We’re all better for it now. Even though we have more shit to unpack and work through – likely with the help of a therapist – I can already notice a difference. I didn’t hide my early morning phone call to Brian from them. Mom and Dad haven’t hidden their fear from me throughout the day. They’ve butted in to ask the specialists questions until they felt like they had a better understanding of the tests and what to expect from the results.
After getting checked into the clinic a 9 a.m., I met with what seemed like half the staff of doctors. We reviewed the entire battery of tests I needed. They went over the costs in great detail, including what my medical policy will cover and what it won’t. Thank fuck I invested my USFL money well, because even with a lot of the bill being footed by insurance, I’m still going to be out of pocket a large sum. After I agreed to all of this, I signed more paperwork than I did to buy my house.
And then it began.
First up were the cognitive tests. Math. Essays. Comprehension. Recall. They started simple enough and then got progressively harder. Until I felt like I was back in college. Which I guess was the point seeing as how they were trying to gauge my memory and reasoning.
Next were a barrage of physiological exams. They tested my balance, fine motor skills, and even nerve responses. Then I ran on a treadmill for a while with about a hundred sensors strapped to my body and a breathing tube taped over my mouth. Just relax, they had said. You ever tried running with a fucking breathing tube, I’d tried to yell back. It came out garbled. Probably for the best.
Afterward, they moved on to emotional. They pushed and prodded at me to make me angry, and then sad. I still think it was a little unethical to have me watch Zach and Molly’s first dance at their wedding while instruments read my brain waves. What fucking right do these strangers have to my grief? And did the fact that I got sad and also pissed register on their test? Is that an expected emotional response to something like that, or does it count as a mark against me?
That I don’t know the answer and they wouldn’t tell me when I asked isn’t helping my current mental state. Which is already fucked thanks to the shitshow that unfolded during our lunch break.
I got a phone call from my publicist halfway through my meal. Apparently, a paparazzo followed us from our hotel to the clinic, and the pictures of us walking into it have already hit the internet. She’s in full-blown damage control now, and is circulating the story that my parents’ and I are here to inspect the clinic in relation to the charity. That we’re considering donating to it, want to see what tests they can conduct here, etc, etc.
It doesn’t matter. I know how this circus goes. The celebrity gossip mongers will have one take, the mainstream media another, and the suits running the sports networks will probably scramble to put together an entire panel of football commentators to pour over why I’m here and whether or not they should believe the story they’re being fed.
I really didn’t need Mom to point out the fact that me having been a recluse up to this point probably won’t help me out at all. But she did, in an I told you so kind of way that made my usually cool-as-a-cucumber father snap at her.
We’re all pretty close to our breaking point.
It’s almost been a relief to get away from them this afternoon, aside from the fact that that’s because I’ve spent the entire time in scanners. The MRI was up first. They didn’t like the results of the inconclusive one I had the courage for right after Zach died and decided to re-do it with their own specialist. Then there was the two-hour CT scan where they imaged my entire brain.
This one I’m getting ready for is the last test of the day. It’s the one I told Ella about, the new test that might render all of the others moot. I’ve already been injected with a radioactive tracer (which I’m hoping doesn’t give me fucking cancer). Now I get to lay here for another couple of hours without moving, while my future is unveiled to the watching doctors.
“Here we go, Ben,” a woman’s voice comes over the speakers. “Remember, try not to move.”
“Got it, Dr. Souza,” I tell her.
The table I’m lying on begins to move, sliding me into a tunnel so narrow that my shoulders almost brush the sides. It’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic, or the stress of today might have reached heart attack levels.
I still experience a slight moment of panic once I’m fully inside. No one likes to feel trapped. Deep breaths see me to the other side of it, and I try my best to relax while the sound of machinery starts up around me.
Dr. Souza was great about explaining this one to my parents. She went into a lot of detail about how the tracer they injected me with bonds to the abnormal tau protein that leads to CTE and also Alzheimer’s. The key difference in how the diseases manifest is that in the former, the tangles of tau usually appear around small blood vessels and rarely form beta-amyloid plaques, which is what will make this test so critical for suspected cases of CTE. If I have any of those tangles in my brain, they should light up like Christmas trees in the scans.
Please, God, don’t my brain light up like a Christmas tree.
Time passes slowly while I’m in the tube. The seconds feel like full minutes, the minutes like hours, and the hours like a small eternity. Soon, I lose all track of them. Have I been in this thing for twenty minutes? Forty? Three hours? It’s hard to tell anymore.
I try to focus on the clicks and beeps and whirring of the machine’s components to distract myself. It works for a little while. And then the anger of being outed by someone to the media returns. I hope it wasn’t the bell hop. That would feel like a monumental betrayal after he went through the effort of helping me lay low. Then again, he might have seen his chance to make a little money and lunged at it. He can’t make that much in his current job. Hell, it might not even be his only job.
I tell myself this to try to stay calm. It’s a technique Brian taught me to rationalize and empathize with people and their choices to keep from getting angry. It’s not really working right now. Because whether or not it was the bell hop, some other patron of the hotel, or even the admin nurse at the front desk of the clinic, the last thing I need is media attention while trying to get through this.
I can just imagine the questions that will get hurled at me as I exit the building later. Maybe they have a back door or a garage I can escape through. Who knows what my mental state will be like then? I’d hate to lose my shit, punch someone, and make all of this worse.
I turn my thoughts to Ella to try to calm myself down. I’m so used to talking to her every day that it feels weird that we haven’t spoken. Several times I had the urge to text her updates just to keep her in the loop. But what would that do, really?
Hi, Ella. I had to take a math test. Without a calculator. She’d just worry. Or try to make me smile by responding with That is cruel and unusual punishment! What sort of cockamamie hospital are you at???
I hope she’s doing okay. That she’s found some way to deal with her own worry and stress. During my phone call with Brian this morning, he actually encouraged me to use her as a crutch over the next few days. That her humor and her teasing would be good distractions in the face of a CTE diagnosis. I just…I don’t know.
No one but him has been witness to my lowest points. I don’t want to drag her down with me. I don’t want to snuff out her light with all this heavy shit. She should be free and happy and unencumbered by an attachment to a man that might one day develop an explosive temper. Or lose his way while driving and terrify her when a search party needs to be called out. I’ve seen those silver alerts for seniors with Alzheimer’s. CTE can have the same effect.
“All done, Ben,” Dr. Souza says.
Shit. So soon? Once I’m done here, they’re going to go over all of my results and then sit me down for a consultation. I’m not fucking ready for that. Isn’t there another test they can do, some way to delay this a little longer?
“You okay, Ben? Your vitals are spiking,” Dr. Souza asks.
“Get me out of this fucking coffin,” I say, wheezing the words out.
I can’t breathe.
“Get him out!” I hear my mother yell through the glass.
The table I’m laying on jerks forward and slides me out. Slowly. Too fucking slow. I’m trembling from the effort to keep myself still. As soon as I can, I sit up and begin pulling sensors off of my arms. A lab tech hurries in and begins helping me, his hands making faster work than my own, which are shaking.
“Thank you,” I manage.
“No problem. I get it,” he says.
Do you? I want to shout.
My mom comes into the room and over to me, and I can’t look at the open fear on her face right now.
“Just give me a fucking minute,” I say, leaping up from the table.
I need out of this room. Out of this place. But I can’t leave, because the fucking paparazzi. Instead, I flee to a back hallway with windows that face out over the Charles River. Dad follows silently after me, leaning a shoulder against the wall as I pace. He doesn’t say anything, just stays there, offering me the steady strength of his presence and turning away anyone else that tries to join us. Including Mom.
“I’ll pay for that one later,” he says.
I pause to look at him. He’s still tall, still broad like me, though his middle is softening a little in his retirement. Three years ago, his hair was almost as long as mine, but it’s thinning some around his face, so he decided to cut it short. It’s hard to look at him sometimes. Because Zach took after him so much. His skin was almost as dark. He had the same nose, nearly black eyes, rounded cheeks, and slight indentation in his chin. If you compare pictures of them from at the same ages, they look like twins. Seeing Dad now is like seeing the ghost of my brother. Of what he might one day have looked like if CTE hadn’t stolen him from us.
Dad’s eyes are pinched a little, his brow creased in worry. God, what it must feel like for him and Mom? Waiting to find out if your surviving son might one day share the same fate as the one you’ve already buried.
I walk over to him and hug him, hard. He squeezes me back. When I pull away, he has tears streaking down his face.
“Whatever happens, Benny, your mom and I are here for you,” he says, clasping my shoulders.
“I know Dad, than-”
I cut myself off at the look on Dad’s face as his gaze snaps to something over my shoulder.
“Fuck,” he says. He never swears.
I start to turn, but he uses his grip to keep me facing him.
“Don’t look,” he tells me. “Keep your head turned and walk back down the hall and through the doors.”
“Is it someone with a camera?” I ask him, a slow, steady rage beginning to build within me. We’re on the first floor. They might have just caught that whole exchange. They might be close enough to see my dad crying.
He knows better than to lie to me. “Yes.”
“Still frame or a video recorder?”
“Big, TV style camera.”
I stiffen in his grip. “I’ll fucking kill them.”
“No, you won’t. That will only make things worse. Come on,” he says, throwing an arm over my shoulders and using his strength to drag me away, careful to use his body to shield me.
We hide out in one of the doctor’s offices, and I leave Mom and Dad to deal with my publicist while I sit in the corner with my head leaned back against the wall, trying to keep myself together.
An hour later, I fall apart.
The doctors sit us down and tell me that my memory results aren’t great, but that my comprehension and reasoning is normal. They go on to say that I respond to anger stimuli in a way that shows abnormality and will need to be monitored for any signs of outbursts or urges for violence.
Like wanting to physically assault a man with a camera? I wonder.
Mom tries to take my hand, but I put it on my knee instead. I’ll break her fingers if I squeeze back.
Dr. Souza must have drawn the short straw, because she’s the one to tell me that the MRI and CT scans show signs of past concussions and traumatic brain injury.
Dad puts his hand on my shoulder then.
The final nail in the coffin is when she says that the PET scan highlighted tau clusters. They’re not as dramatic as a lot of cases they’ve seen, but they’re there, and in areas of the brain that would explain my bouts with severe depression and anxiety.
It means that at 28 I’m already showing symptoms.
Mom and Dad are both sobbing by the time the doctors move on to treatment options.
I’m…numb. I feel nothing. Absolutely nothing. In shock, I think.
Because this is worst case scenario. My life as I’ve known it is fucking over. I’ll never be the same again.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.