Only three days.
But those three days in which my mother takes her first and only solo trip to upstate New York—to glow briefly, as a tea candle, in the chaotic space of her two-year old grandson Mason—proceeds at her home on the North Shore, near Chicago, with the texture of a blistering sunburn. There, in the ranch house I helped select in her move with my father from St. Louis two years ago, in a house I liked for its furious rejection of stairs—those now bedeviling demons of the able-bodied—I serve as caretaker in rooms adjacent to the insane volume of my father’s many televisions. When my father speaks, though, when the television is not the omnipresent demagogue of 24-hour news, he issues a near-continuous stream running over the same well-worn river stones: the impending start of my new position at Lake Forest College (Associate Dean); the surprise that my family suffers from a series of food sensitivities (Candida, for me) precluding my sharing in his sugar-amped breakfast of orange juice, processed cereal, and preservative-laced cookies; the absurdity that my mother needed to take this trip at all—to visit my sister and nephew—a carefully orchestrated escape plan for a woman, whose frequent migraines have increased in direct proportion to the length of her seemingly perpetual stint as my father’s 24-hour caretaker. His life sentence is to glioblastoma multiforme, terminal brain cancer, and yet he defies it over the last seven years with the Nietzschean willpower of a Babylonian god who refuses—won’t do it!—to recognize a world beyond the fertile crescent. This sentence is also my mother’s, except she will one day, presumably, re-adapt to the outside world, where a visit to one’s daughter need not be seeded and threaded and cast in a series of blown-glass half-truths about the daughter’s fears of travel with a baby that requires her mother to assist on the return trip to New York.
And while Dad begins to discuss this point with great and repetitive suspicion before Mom and Lisa have stepped onto the curb at O’Hare, it’s the second day of three before we enter, inevitably, “that place…we like to go to”…also known as Egg Harbor Café in Lake Forest. This is a restaurant-as-franchise-as-mom-and-pop skillet, a pleasant-enough breakfast-and-lunch spot decorated in a hokey chicken-and-egg motif that once caused my breakfast companion and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu to riff on the beautiful ugliness of the décor from the framed farm pictures that provide, I imagine, enough garish self-aware Americana to satisfy the most jaded Romanian emigrant.
My father is a regular here, although he cannot recall what he orders—Athens omelets, no artichoke, I learn by text from my mother—and he will certainly remain focused enough to ask the waitress to make sure she fills the coffee cup completely. To the brim. Totally. Maybe spilling over. A short pour is a category of serious crime. Although they leave the pitcher for refills, the short pour is only slightly less irksome than his primary culinary peeve: all dishes and hot drinks must be hot, damnit, boiling hot so it burns the throat. If you think you can sizzle an egg on the pavement today, then spatula that section of pavement into a hell-intense blast furnace. Dad is constantly having me send back coffee that would refuse to evaporate in the heat of the sun, mashed potatoes that would make Satan’s tongue singe with erotic excitement. I suspect the intense temperature of what he puts in his mouth must in some small way remind him that yes, he still has an esophagus and a throat. Cue “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” from Hair—“I got my mouth, I got my smile / I got my tongue, I got my chin”—Nina Simone version. He is disabled but not-yet disembodied. The warm liquid pours into the stomach, and yes, this infused bean liquid will be the fire drink of a body, no matter how wracked and traitorous and poisoned, that must submit—still, forever—to the intensity of his will to be burned.
It’s too late. Already.
The wait staff smile widely as he approaches the podium, and I sense the genuine-but-also-cloying looks of those whose business-as-restaurateurs require them to be solicitous in the way one is required to pay taxes, so much so that the young hostess instantly overcompensates and agrees to seat him on the riser area, two steps up from the plane of the entrance way, this crinkled man with cane and “Ye Ye” hat (Chinese for grandfather), pointing toward what passes for the mezzanine. Before I can reach him to protest, before I can signal the hostess with the jerk of my left eye I have perfected as a one-way signaling mechanism—he has brain cancer!—before Dad reaches toward an unsteady table up the riser, and before the table jostles under his weight, and before the pitcher of water explodes in a thunderclap all over his legs, the floor, my legs, and before I fail to keep him from tumbling to the ground in a heap gazed upon by the entire restaurant…it is already too late.
I quickly look around, instinctively searching for my colleagues, and hating myself for doing so. We are three blocks from Lake Forest College, and four of my co-workers will enter within five minutes. For the moment, though, the eyes fixed on him in a slow motion shot worthy of the worst American television moments (the Hail Mary, the bullet at close range) are those of strangers, sympathetic fellow coffee drinkers, in this upper-middle class hall of eggs and nitrate-laden bacon, and they stare at us, at him, as one might view the slow motion atrophy of a leper’s body on a television documentary.
We eat in a sort of time-phase warp speed. Me, at the normal pace, slightly modified in my assistance with his utensils, and my father in a tape-loop of disbelief because he’s been coming here for years and he’s never fallen before and he can’t believe it and he hasn’t been feeling like himself lately and he’s getting worse and his brain, his brain, he just can’t…I blame the unsteady table in a forced refocus attempt, and I smile when the hostess makes a special trip to check on him while portions of the Athens omelet escape from his plate with the jailbreak mentality of my mother. He eats slowly, since each point must be punctuated by his long aphasic-monologues in search of language and understanding. “My brain…shit!,” these begin with and end. He grabs two forks, one that he thinks is a knife. I help. He holds the knife upside down and cuts his omelet in a mess of egg pieces. My coffee is cold now, so cold, but I don’t care. I don’t want it to be hot. I can’t stand anything hot even though I am in my body, this body, for I am the caretaker and if there was a “me” once before, that person is slowly going away.
While Dad finishes, I pay, and the owner asks me if he’s had a stroke. I start to explain, but cut it short: “Brain cancer. He’s lucky to be alive. You should have seen him once before. He went away one day and never came back.”
When we get to the car I help him into the passenger seat, concerned that his frequent unsteadiness might find an arm caught in the door, or that he might repeat his idiosyncratic method of mounting a lounge chair as of late: cluelessly dropping his rear onto the seat arm, his body facing toward the side, and then confusedly shimmying into the seat, as me or my mother or both speak loud instructions while gently lifting his uncooperative lower half: Your legs, Dad, move your legs.
And now it’s the same: Move your legs, Dad, I want to shut the car door. What’s this? Was the floor covered with jelly? It’s all over his pants, and shit we’ve only got 20 minutes to get to my daughter Kallista’s performance in Peter Pan—a 10-minute mess of five-year olds moving under the voice of the over-narrating adult—and so I make a bad decision. Suddenly, my finger shoots into my mouth after rubbing it on his pant leg.
And it’s not jelly.
It’s blood, shit it’s blood and I’ve tasted his blood—cancer fucking blood—brain cancer blood—and my god I’ve got to get it out of my mouth before it absorbs into my bloodstream and how much cancer is in his blood anyway and how much ingestion would it take for me to get cancer? Not how much, but when? And how soon? Not now, of course, that’s stupid, but in years, decades, whatever, I’ll wake up one day and never be me again and never wake up and I’ll never come back and I’ll have forgotten that this is the reason—yes I’ll blame the cigarettes I chain second-hand smoked as a child from his two-pack a day habit with the cartons fuming from their real estate in the refrigerator—but it’s this, really this, his poison blood, already in my blood I just know it as sure as I know that this is my ultimate inheritance. I haven’t the foggiest how absorption works but I know it takes only a minute for blood to completely circulate through your body, and it’s been half a minute and so legs are now that’s fucking right filling with cancer the way post-yoga relaxation is supposed to spread peace through your core and I try to slow my heart, I really do, because a slowed heart must decrease the circulation rate as in the stillness of a long sleep, but that doesn’t work, and my heart is still young and strong and pumping with the sick intensity of a bullet that outraces my thoughts, what am I thinking exactly?, because I have been bullet-splattered at close range with self-ingested cancer blood. It’s swimming inside me, the immortal cells that will kill me, take me from my children and my wife, from my life, and turn me into this walking suffering pill-popping mass of fulminating willpower whose body, in my own sweet time, will stumble and fall and bleed.
Shit, my dad says, my leg.
It’s the scab, I realize. The scab under his pants, dark like a black beetle scarab to which I had been dutifully applying Vaseline each day. The immune system of the cancer patient refuses to clot blood, like a petulant child, and when it does, grudgingly, it turns the remains black and charred and ashen and keeps it there in a sac, a bulbous mass of gurgling tissue that pops, it seems, in an explosion of not jelly at the first opportunity. Don’t worry Dad, I say, we’ll go home, cwean it and bwandage it—my mouth filling up? Burning?—and we’ll get back in the car and we’ll make it to Peter Pan.
Straight on ‘til morning.
At home, I wipe the blood under his hastily rolled pant leg with a wet washcloth. I’ll get a Band-Aid, I yell, but secretly run to the other bathroom and begin brushing my teeth, scouring my teeth and tongue as napalm might brush a Vietnamese village.
“Davis,” he yells, and “Coming Dad, I say” and spit the poison into the sink before running back to the other room. I apply the Band-Aid and I say “I need another one because the cut is big” (it is), and I dash down the hall, and furiously brush my teeth and my tongue. Again and again. I’m squirting toothpaste all over the basin, my arm, and now into my mouth. It’s directly applied to my tongue and I let it burn into my gums as I imagine the lye that will counteract the acidic cancer blood and I am spitting everything now as a rabid animal, in a mass of foam dribbling down my shirt.
We arrive at the Peter Pan venue with two minutes to spare. It’s an old school in Deerfield, IL converted into “Starland,” a kids performing arts space with over-eager director. I idle the car and walk him, nay push him, toward the entrance 30-feet away, because I have to park the car in the neighboring parking lot and then run back, in the next 40-seconds before the show starts, but he’s teetering, he’s unsteady, he’s going to fall at any second. I’ll need to lead him all the way in, through the maze of hallways, and seat him before running back as fast as I can to park and then run again but the cancer is already slowing me down and my head is light and they are waiting for me to start and then I’m standing on the side of the pews watching Kallista as Tiger Lily sing about Neverland, and all I can think about amid the gleaming eyes she throws at me, her daddy, her everything, is that I’ll never be a lost boy.
I won’t stay this person who lifts her as the curtain comes down and twirls her in the air and kisses her cheeks and uses my body, my strong arms, to hold her and take care of her until old age takes me quietly, peacefully, in the middle of a warm spring night.
I’m no Peter Pan.
I’ve tasted my father’s blood.
I’ve learned his lessons well.
I’m already dead.
Nothing like immediate family to make us excruciatingly aware of our own mortality. And fearful of public places.
Agreed, although for me it’s not fear of those places, but a heightened awareness of what it will take for me to navigate those spaces with my father…and what it is always like for him to find that even a simple set of two stairs may prove a major challenge.