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WAKE UP, WORLD!
My dad had turned into a nocturnal creature. Some rare half-owl, half-lemur, with a majestic wingspan but bloodshot eyes, shedding gray wisps of himself everywhere.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he said when I walked into my parents’ bedroom with his morning coffee. No matter how many hours he’d been up staring at the shadowy walls, Dad never let on how lonely or exhausted he felt. Only his slow, red-rimmed blinks gave him away.
“Are you really watching this?” I asked.
Dad shrugged. The prehistoric twelve-inch TV on the dresser usually served as a shelf for Mom’s dry-cleaning pile. But today it was cleared off and actually showing signs of staticky life. Dad had on some morning talk show with three ladies discussing their aha! moments while perched on hot-pink stools.
“Apparently, peach pits are the new drug of choice,” Dad said. “Orders from the Sergeant,” he added, nodding toward his night table. On it was a stack of political biographies, a ziplock baggy full of trail mix, and a take-out menu for Peking Mountainside. Mom (aka Sergeant Nutbags) had left for work extra early that morning, but had jotted down in the margins between noodle dishes:
sprouted almonds with acai
must watch Wake Up, World! with Wendy Wackerling (special on naturopathic remedies!)
Coming up next was Chelsea Diamond, slightly renowned guru and author of Cancer-Free and Fearless, Thanks to My Peaches. I instinctually groaned. Not that I wanted Chelsea Diamond, slightly renowned guru and author, to contract more cancer or fear. But I was officially done with Mom’s theories about how to outsmart uncontrollable cell replication with pits and seeds.
My older sister, Emma, was actually the one to crown Mom “Sergeant Nutbags,” and I think Mom took pride in her sergeanthood. She carried around these little baggies of walnuts, almonds, and chickpea-flaxseed-macadamia-cacao kibble, telling us we had to eat them because they could make us live forever or grow new skin or some other miraculous nutty trick. And because Mom was always doing ten things at once and ran around like a wind-up toy on steroids, she tended to bark orders like a drill sergeant and talk in a storm of words instead of pausing for useless things like air.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot already,” Dad said with a wink. Leading into Chelsea Diamond’s segment, there was now a string of commercials about finding freedom in feminine hygiene products. “How about we get this over with, huh?” Dad handed me another bag, which the good sergeant had filled with four alcohol swabs, two pairs of latex gloves, and a preloaded saline syringe.
“Woo-hoo,” I answered weakly.
“Yeah,” Dad said. “Sorry, kiddo.” Which made this whole thing even worse.
I hated that Mom had left this for me. I’d never done the saline flush solo before. Everyone else my age was comparing hickeys or posting sweet sixteen dance videos, not injecting their dads while watching floating douches.
Dad had just hit the year mark since he was diagnosed with metastatic rectal cancer. It was exactly as ugly as it sounded. In the past 365 days, a team of surgeons had pulled out pieces of his abdomen, rewired his colon, and closed up his butt. Then they outfitted him with lots of tubes and a colostomy bag that he hid from me at all costs.
For the first few months, Dad acted like the whole cancer thing was just a bad-hangnail kind of annoyance. He took some sort of chemo that came in pill form and popped it in his mouth like a gumdrop, then chased it with toast and coffee and headed to his usual 7:23 commuter train for work—he was a partner at a patent law firm. A few times he went in on the 8:05. Once he skipped going in completely, but he said that was because he had a lot of conference calls and they were easier to do from home. I chose to believe him.
Things got more complicated after his first operation. They opened him up the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and then announced that Dad was banned from turkey and all other solid foods until further notice. Which led to a second operation just a month later. After that, he started carrying around the bag I was supposed to not see and he couldn’t sit for very long without a special butt pillow packed with ice.
Once he was mobile, he started taking the train into New York City again—the 9:03 or the 10:38. I don’t know how he managed the trek to his midtown office or what he actually got done at work without his ice pillow. His dark hair never fell out. Instead it just clung to his head in damp, tired clumps.
Mom, Dad, Emma, and I celebrated New Year’s Eve in the emergency room because he was in so much pain he couldn’t talk. That’s when the doctors found new metastases in his lymph nodes. They started a supersonic blitzkrieg of chemo, pumping him with miracle venoms every two weeks and then giving him a couple of days to catch his breath before starting all over again. Everything fell out then, including his eyelashes. He didn’t even have to get his parking validated at the hospital because the guard saw him so often.
Two months ago, on his last overnight chez Urgent Ambulatory Care, Dad got a chest catheter installed so he could do more of his treatments at home. It took me three weeks to get up the guts to glance at it, even though it was under his skin. It looked like they’d planted a silver dollar just below his right clavicle. Only as he got thinner, the catheter poked out more and more.
There was a divot in the middle where all his shots went. I made sure to be far away when that happened. A visiting nurse came on Tuesdays to administer the heavy meds and check vitals. Mom took care of keeping the catheter clean and giving Dad horse-pill-size immuno-boosters the rest of the time.
Except for today, of course. It was the first Friday in May and finally felt like spring, though, like Dad, I hadn’t slept much the night before. Partly from pre-syringe jitters and also because we were rotating through the third of four lunar eclipses this year and I’d been researching the theory of all life ending after the blood moon sequence.
The bright side was, dawn came.
Mom abandoned us extra early today because she was in session hearing some controversial indictment about noise pollution at our local mall. She was one of the supreme court justices of Westchester County, New York. I had a hard time being impressed with that because they had never been able to curb fracking or stop the county from hosting an annual gun show. Also, whatever this noise pollution verdict was, I knew Mom would find something else to keep herself overscheduled soon enough.
She was constantly rushing around like the day was about to disappear, leaving a trail of nutbags in her wake. She worked sixty-plus hours a week as arbiter of all things judicial. She also was on the board of five thousand different charities—we called them all “the sisterhood” because she only ever told us about the women at her meetings. One was for an animal shelter and we were currently sponsoring a guinea pig she named TinyGinsberg (after United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg). In Mom’s spare time, she was training for a triathlon with an obstacle course. She swore that at age forty-eight, she was in the best shape of her life and she owed it all to the power of going raw.
Going raw was Mom’s newest theory about how to cure cancer and save the world. Before that it was eating cloves of garlic and trashing our microwave. Before that it was getting rid of all wheat, meat, corn, sugar, and laundry detergents in our house. At one point we boiled all our water and turned off all our electronics (that lasted exactly three hours). Mom had read so much about cancer research and hidden carcinogens that my brain got achy even looking at the latest article she’d clipped and posted under a refrigerator magnet.
I knew it was her wonky way of coping with Dad’s insides turning into a battle zone, and I appreciated her efforts. I just hated feeling like finding the right legume was going to fix everything. It gave me too much hope and a false sense of control that ultimately came crashing down and/or gave me indigestion. My sister, Emma, was finishing her first year of state college four hours away and constantly texted me pictures of the stews and waffles in her cafeteria so I could see the world of cooked food. Emma used to be the one who could tell Sergeant Nutbags to chill out. Now we were rudderless. I was afraid of all things related to conflict, so I spent a lot of time silently seething, and Dad laughed a lot as if Mom were a well-meaning but misguided puppy. Which, in many ways, she was.
As Chelsea Diamond took the TV’s stage blowing air kisses to her viewing audience, Dad set down his coffee and opened the top two buttons of his pajama shirt. I didn’t mean to whimper, but his chest looked so bare and bony. He used to have sprigs of dark chest hair. When we went swimming at Wahonsett Bay he’d get seaweed caught in it and pretend to be the Loch Ness monster. There was not a single strand there anymore. Just this tender, splotchy skin.
“I know!” squawked Chelsea. “So simple, right? I’m living proof!”
I officially hated her and the peach pit she rode in on.
“It’s okay,” Dad said quietly. “Just read Mom’s instructions and I can walk you through it.”
Mom’s scrawled notes on catheter sterilization were in the wonton section of the take-out menu. I had to thoroughly clean the skin around Dad’s clavicle, wait thirty seconds, then stick the saline syringe into the magic divot to flush the valves underneath with a cleansing rinse. Hopefully without either of us fainting or screaming “Help!” at the sky.
“Got it,” I whispered, pretending I wasn’t shaking all over. I took out the four alcohol swabs I needed and lined them up on top of his book stack, tallying, “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.”
“Hey,” said Dad. “You’re gonna do great.” He tried to take my hand, but I was shoving it inside a latex glove, so we wound up swatting each other. I lined up the swabs again. And again.
“If it helps, Wendy just agreed to plant a peach tree in the third-world country of your choice,” offered Dad. It wasn’t fair that he was trying to cheer me up when he was the one broken.
“Let’s do this,” I said, putting on a second pair of gloves just to be extra sterile.
I ripped open a swab, wiped down Dad’s silver-dollar-size lump and counted to thirty Mississippi. “Nice, nice,” he murmured. Then I uncorked the saline syringe and lined it up with the little dip in the middle. Which really was a gaping hole leading into his fragile body, and I was about to dump some preloaded syringe that could’ve been filled with arsenic or glue or hairspray. I had no idea. I was just trusting blindly. Trusting my absent mom. Trusting the new developments in immunotherapy. Trusting whoever invented chest-catheter ports and decided saline was any kind of solution.
“Ready, set, go,” I mumbled through clenched teeth. I pressed the needle into his chest; it made a horrible pock sound. We both gasped as I felt Dad’s whole body tighten. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Still good?” I asked in a tiny voice. He didn’t answer. “Dad!” I yelled into his scrunched-up face.
“Yeesh,” he said, trying to smile.
“Sorry,” I whispered. “I just—are you okay? I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’m—”
“Pull it out. Please.” He was sweating along his pale top lip.
We both panted while I took out the syringe and wiped another alcohol pad over his skin. Then I watched closely to make sure his chest was rising and falling. As opposed to oozing or collapsing. I wanted to run so far away and smash everything that made this moment. I wanted to hurl that syringe and suck the alcohol swabs until my insides burst into flames. Instead, I restacked Dad’s untouched books. “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four,” I repeated. It was the only thing that felt certain. One plus one was two. Three would always be followed by four.
Dad’s breath slowed down a bit. I offered him a sip of juice but he shook his head, eyes still closed.
“Amazing!” Wendy Wackerling cheered. The television sputtered with applause. “How can we get more of these extraordinary pits in people’s hands?” she marveled. I threw two of my four latex gloves at the screen. They barely cleared the end of the bed and landed with a chalky outline around them on the navy carpet.
“Dad, I’m gonna turn off the TV, okay?” I didn’t want to touch him again, so I did an awkward snap by his ear.
“Yeah,” he said, clearing his throat. His eyes roamed around the room and then landed on me wearily.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Do you want me to…?” I didn’t know what I had to offer. I didn’t even know what I’d done. In the past year my dad had been through so many grueling treatments, operations, bouts of radiation, implants, and items of unsolicited wheat-free wisdom. And now I was sure I’d sealed his fate with one swift needle jab, just sloppy enough to puncture an artery or lung.
Dad closed his eyes again and whispered, “Go. School. Fine.”
“Okay, but if it does something or you feel funny, please call me.”
“Mmmmyup.” He was drifting into what I hoped was a diamond-studded nap.
You’re just napping. You’re just napping. It’s good to nap. You’re just napping.
I mouthed those words twenty-five times while I watched him inhale and exhale. My dad detested naps. That was probably my hundredth clue that something was very wrong that first Friday morning in May when the world was erupting into either spring or everlasting darkness.
I scooped the syringe and wrappers off his night table and dumped them in the garbage. It took another five minutes to peel off the other two sweaty gloves I was still wearing. I went to the bathroom down the hall and turned on the faucet as hot as it would go. I shoved my powdery hands under the scalding water, watching them turn pink, holding on to the hurt as long as I could. No matter how hot it got, I couldn’t scrub away all my ugly thoughts about coming home to Dad crumpled on the floor or shoved in a coffin and Wendy Wackerling shouting at him to wake up.
When I got downstairs I dialed Mom’s number. As expected, it went straight to voice mail. This is Naomi Rosenthal-Hermann. Your call is so important to me—
Which was bullshit. Because what could be more important than her sixteen-year-old daughter possibly murdering her beloved husband of twenty-three years with a shot of saline to the heart?
Mom always said if she was busy to call her clerical assistant. Her name was Pippi and she was obnoxiously chipper. I couldn’t handle her squeaky optimism right now. So I called Mom’s voice mail again and left her a very passive-aggressive message about Chelsea Diamond’s riveting story and hoping she was having a fun day and she should maybe check in on Dad since the saline shot had been fairly traumatic for both of us. Then I washed my hands one more time before grabbing my backpack and jacket and closing the front door behind me.
My best friend, Julian, was parked outside. His Volkswagen Jetta was leaking something all over our driveway.
“Sorry. How late are we?” I asked, climbing in. Julian was consistently five minutes early for everything. I was consistently five minutes behind. Today, I’d added an extra ten for possibly life-threatening needle procedures.
“Late enough to skip first period,” he answered. We both had study hall first period, so it barely mattered. The Jetta started up with a ferocious cough; the front seat smelled like a forest fire. Julian had added about twenty-five new pinecone air fresheners to the rearview mirror but I could tell the cigarette in the ashtray had just been snuffed out.
“You know my dad’s dying,” I said, holding up a butt.
“Still?” Julian asked.
I punched him hard on his shoulder and he said, “Sorry! Sorry! C’mon. I’ll treat you to free toast.”
I didn’t want to bawl before school, especially because I’d just started my liquid-eyeliner-makes-you-look-older campaign. So I cranked up Julian’s newest Europop dance mix until my skin was throbbing. We didn’t say another word all the way to the Unicorn Diner. Instead, I stared into the side-view mirror and tried to decide if the objects were larger in the mirror than in real life or larger in life than in the mirror.
Text copyright © 2017 by Abby Sher