(If you need to, read the first half of the chapter HERE first.)
And just like that, we were transported back to square one.
As the silence grew, so did the tension. I realized the weight of why we were together, in every inch between us. I stood beside Ben in the unfriendly hallway outside Dad’s hospital room, praying I wouldn’t need to ask him.
Ben held my gaze for what seemed like hours, trying to find the words.
“How bad is Dad?”
“We’re still waiting on the test results. But Dad’s a fighter. He’ll bounce back.” Ben was forever positive, overly optimistic. My throat throbbed from the stream of questions I couldn’t ask.
I’d escaped that morning to look for tickets to fly back to Charlie and enjoy some time alone. In that infinitesimal space, Dad passed out and fell down the stairs. And with my phone on a blissful silence, it took them hours to reach me.
We weren’t yet sure if it was a full-blown relapse or something minor.
“Dad’s not invincible, Ben.”
“The Superman t-shirt he’s wearing under his gown tells me otherwise. He’s going to be okay, Reese.” Ben thought he looked like Superman. He did look like Superman, so Clark Kent was forever his superhero of choice. He hugged me again, but I didn’t hug him back.
I hated placation.
The air was stale and the insistent beeping of the machines annoyed me at every turn. The movement of nurses and fellow patients bustling up and down the hallway provided a hum of activity for any hour of the day or night.
Bernice and Ben went back to the house each night, but I refused what felt like solace and the cowardly way out. I hadn’t left the hospital since I arrived. I had no concept of time and hovered in a state of exhaustion and constant worry. Night after night, I arranged myself into the blue chair by the head of Dad’s bed. Sometimes I entered some version of sleep, other times I studied my sleeping father and asked myself how we’d gotten here.The long hours I spent staring at my sleeping father were easily the most time we’d shared in the last decade.
Dad looked tiny in his hospital bed, pale and fragile, and the wires crossed over his body were a neutralizer between the two of us and our demons.
Dad stirred. I was the only one in the room and he rolled over and stared at me. He reached his hand across the bed and held mine fast. I wanted to pull away, but accepted the reach of his hand passively. “I need a notebook.”
“I need to write down a few thoughts,” he coughed.
“Fine, I’ll ask Ben to grab one on his way here after work.”
“Fine,” he closed his eyes again.
The one time Dad visited me in Atlanta, he, Charlie and I spent the entire weekend talking about the Braves. Baseball ran thicker than blood in our family, so we went and saw a game which was the solitary highlight of my adult life with my father.
“That was nice,” Charlie stood with me on the street as we waved goodbye to Dad.
“Uh, were you in the same universe as me? That was ridiculous. He didn’t even ask one thing about my life or job here in Atlanta.” I crossed my arms and didn’t look up at Charlie.
“Reese, I think he was trying.” After spending all those years with my family, I was shocked at his ignorance.
It was easier to talk about baseball than it, easier to keep the conversation light than to deal with the accretion of resentments that lay heaped in disarray between us.
And I don’t think Dad even noticed the difference, knew that there was a Before, and After.
It was as if, somewhere along the way, he’d completely disconnected the father veins inside his brain. He could have been the mailman I saw in passing every day. It was as if he’d forgotten what happened between us, as if he was struck with selective amnesia.
When Charlie, Ben and I were little, we played superheroes more than we played all our other pretend games combined. We’d make our visiting cousins sit by the maple tree for hours, ropes flung all around them, while Ben and I fought off the dark villains side by side.
That’s what I thought about on those days as we sat on either side of Dad’s bed, taking turns fetching the paper or helping him walk down the hall. He didn’t need both of us to help, but it made us feel better, made me feel better.
I wished that we – Ben and I – could put on our capes once more and fight off the litany of bad days to give him a whole string of great ones from now until forever and ever, amen. I wished for it with all my might.
The doctors didn’t say much, and I became paralyzed, fixated on the reality of death. It was as if, for the first time, I allowed myself to acknowledge there truly was an end in this life.
The knowledge settled in my bones, seducing me with the notion of staying here, caught in time, of family too, forever.
“We need an army of stormtroopers to rescue Dad.” Ben pushed his glasses toward his face as Dad slept under a blue blanket between us. It was past my bedtime too, but I was wide awake. My eyes hurt and there was a crick in the confines of my neck which I massaged at intervals.
“Well, strictly speaking, I don’t think we’d want stormtroopers,” I offered him a superior expression and shook my head.
“Ummm, I am not turning away any help,” he waved his hand over Dad’s insensate form.
“Stormtroopers are part of the evil Empire, Ben.”
“Wait, what? I thought they were good.” His eyes widened.
“Stormtroopers were only ‘good’ when they were clones in the first two and a half Prequel trilogy movies.”
“Well what happened in the second half of 3?” He kicked off his shoes and placed his patterned socks on the end of the bed.
“Order 66 happened. They turned on the Jedi halfway through 3.”
“So they were bad halfway through 3 until forever?”
“Yes. Do you not pay attention when you watch these movies every year?”
“Who says I watch them every year?”
“You know, May the 4th be with you? Revenge of the 5th? Never mind. They were clones in 1, 2, and 3. The clones were then replaced with recruits and conscripts of the Empire in the Original trilogy. But in The Force Awakens an undisclosed number of stormtroopers are abducted as young children by the First Order.”
“The stormtroopers. Do you really not know this stuff?” He put his hands on his head, his slim fingers stark and white against his dark hair. Ben smirked and gave me a slow wink.
“Use the Force, Reese.” He held my gaze, and I squinted at him. “Because that’s what Dad really needs.” He rolled up his plaid sleeves, a giveaway that he was getting serious.
“Ben, I don’t care. I’m suddenly exhausted.” Ben liked to show off his smarts on any subject and now that I knew he’d been kidding, this wasn’t a hornet’s nest I wanted to disturb.
“Important it is, my young Padawan learner.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I’m just saying if we’re going to make a galaxy-wide plan for Dad, we’re going with mine.”
“Come on Reese. Stay with me. The Force. Dad needs The Force.”
“Hmmmmm.” I steadily rotated my neck back and forth.
“Yoda? Luke Skywalker? Obi Wan? The Force is a metaphysical and ubiquitous power.”
“Luke’s a twin.”
“Yeah, with Leia.”
“Luke and Leia Skywalker.”
“Not really what?”
“Technically Leia’s last name is Organa. And she is a princess.”
“Okay, I knew that. All hail Carrie Fisher.”
“But she is badass because later she becomes a general.”
“I can be badass.”
“She lost everything and was never once tempted by the Dark Side.”
“I can be badass.”
“You already are.” He leaned forward and patted me on the head.
We went to church when we were growing up, some Sundays, most Sundays. It was a fuzzy memory that held little beyond the story of Noah and his boat. But what I vividly recalled was Dad dressing us on Sunday mornings, year in and year out until we were old enough to dress ourselves.
While Bernice declared a coup on the parameters of their bedroom and the bathroom on church mornings, Dad was in charge of making sure we wouldn’t be visiting God with dirty ears.
Dad made a game with us about picking out our clothes. He’d pick an item, then we’d pick an item until we had the entire ensemble in order, ready to march straight to heaven’s gate.
“Well, aren’t you three just pleased as punch,” Mom would say with a shake of her blond head and a pink-lipsticked smile. She pursed her lips at our plaids and patterns, our bright colors and accessories, but she never intervened.
She always wore heels to church, a flowered dress, an extraneous squirt of hairspray to fortify her curls on high.
She smelled differently on Sundays, and I melted into the sturdy comfort of Chanel N°5, week after week. The only other times she brought out the golden bottle was on very special occasions, holidays, or in February on Ronald Reagan’s birthday.
Even after all these years, I would catch a poignant whiff of Chanel from a stranger on the street or at a restaurant and float back twenty years to a sense of love, security, and home.
While she was getting ready, I’d sit on the edge of her bed for an hour straight as she curled her hair with studied precision, adjusted her shoulder pads, applied her eye shadow in carefully studied strokes. She didn’t talk to me, but I didn’t mind. I was mesmerized at how beautiful she was – art breathing, fragile and flawless.
Then I would be called back to my father, to start or to finish my preparations. Namely the hair. When I was growing up, my thick brown hair fell in waves down my small back and on Sundays, it was up to Dad to tame the beast. Dad and I consulted on my hairstyle as well. I went one entire year demanding braids and he’d sit me down for a laborious half hour, swearing and sweating above me as he commanded his hands to weave the sections of hair just so.
The results were generally dismal, but by the time the verdict rolled in, it was too late to remedy the situation and Dad would quickly add another bow or three as Bernice shooed us out the door.
“Carl, we can’t let her go out in public like that.” She whispered, but I heard her, shimmering above me.
“Bernice, it’s fine. She’s five. We can pay for her to go to counseling later, but for now, we can’t keep God waiting.”
“Well, fine then, but make sure she’s walking in with you. Maybe I can do something in the car.”
She spent the entire ride making swats at my hair with saliva-licked fingers. My mom always had soft hands, lotioned and with clean, manicured nails.
I pranced into church between Dad, Mom and Ben, feeling loved, feeling pretty.
Through the years, I often wondered when those feelings of security dissipated. Was it one second at a time over the span of decades, or was it all at once in one moment of anger?
As I watched the lines of Dad’s heart machine, I told myself I may never know.
I waited in the white and blue hospital room, holding hands, saying little and wondering where this road would lead, praying the minutes we had left to fix us would be infinite, that they would guide us home.
I picked up his notebook and reconsidered before opening it. But then again, he’d been writing in it every moment he was awake. I read with it half closed, in case he woke up.
Some thoughts before it’s all too late: When Dr. Robertson told me I had cancer, I didn’t believe him. I walked around for an entire week thinking I was in a dream or in a scene from someone else’s movie.
It was the first time in years that I missed my midweek badminton and squash games. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or their mother so I ordered take-out for days on end and sat on my couch with the curtains closed.
I didn’t tell the kids.
I’d always been fit. I was the star point guard on my basketball team in high school for pete’s sake. I know my desk job as an architect has slowed me down over the years, but not this much.
I knew I’d lost weight, had been more worn out over the last months, that when I gazed into the mirror, my eyes stared back at me pellucid and uninspired. I told myself I was getting old, that was it. But my yearly check-up confirmed what I hadn’t dared envision.
I showed up at Dr. Robertson’s office a week later, without an appointment, and paced in his waiting room until he finally called me back to his office. He gave me five minutes.
I knew I barged in on him but I had to make a plan, had to know my options. I needed to know if I was going to die.
His handwriting went slanty, as if he’d fallen asleep while writing. Then it perked up again.
When my son flew down the stairs, leaping past them two at a time with his hands full of pill bottles, I considered denial.
I listened to his torrent of questions and finally patted the couch beside me.
You weren’t going to tell me, tell any of us, were you?
I didn’t meet his look.
Dad, why? I need to know about this. I hate knowing this, but I’m your family. Your son. You don’t have to do this alone.
So I should probably tell you that I have cancer. I was diagnosed in June. I kept working for as long as I could, first full-time, then part-time as my chemo treatments intensified. Recently my lifetime’s worth of saved vacation days were my lifeline. I was tired, so tired, and couldn’t imagine making it to work, let alone concentrating for hours on end. My boss says I can return when I’m ready, and not a day before.
Oh Dad, shit. He paused for so long I thought the conversation was done. Last June. Okay, we’ve got a long ways to go. But I saw you in November and then in December. How did you not tell me?
You have a busy life. I thought you might propose to Maya at Christmas, I didn’t want to get in the way.
You’re unbelievable, Dad. What are they saying, how many rounds of chemo do you have left? Let’s talk about our options.
Our options, as if he were the one with the broken body, heaving through the night, taking a taxi to and from the hospital because he was too weak to drive himself.
I’m actually on the uphill swing. I’ve gone through most of my chemo treatments, and I’ll be dancing in no time.
Ben never could leave well enough alone. Since he found out The News, we had four days alone together before Reese showed up and then another four before Bernice arrived.
Ben gave me no warning. I was surprised by the former, utterly unprepared for the latter.
It’s been a bit ridiculous having them all here, which is why I didn’t tell any of them in the first place. The whole lot of them annoy me, stomping around, making noises, hovering about day and night. I have a variety of glares reserved for each of them in turn.
We are all grownups and know it doesn’t take three adults to nurse one man back to health.
But here we are. My kids are Hamiltons through and through – none of us do stuff in half measures. It is all or nothing.
Except my sickness. I am only half sick.
I don’t know how long they plan to stay, but they seem single-minded for the first time in ages, united in their desire to nurse dear, old Dad. It would be touching except this group gathering is the first of its kind in nearly 15 years. The upside is it has been years since someone cooked for me so regularly, and I pretend they are my servants.
I am furious with Bernice, and while I wait for her daily attendance I imagine sitting her down and shouting through her long list of transgressions. The anger fuels me, gives me strength. And yet I know I have a list of my own.
But when she enters the room, I see the rage exit, or maybe it is my courage that leaves me without a trace.
I wait for the inevitable moment when she will walk out the door again. She sees my look and beams back at me, pushing back her shoulders as if her charm and smile will mend the thousand misunderstandings between us. She is the optimist, living in a dream world of her own making. I am the realist, looking at the cruel, callous facts.
There was a page of doodling. I scrubbed wet out of the corner of my eyes and turned until I found a page with words.
The first time she left, I came home late from work. I finished up the drawings for one last building before I turned off my computer and drove home fast through the cold and windy spring night.
The house was dark when I arrived, and it took me long minutes to find Reese and Ben in their rooms, wrapped up in their teenager world, inattentive to the muted kitchen and the desolate rooms about them. I asked Reese and Ben if they’d seen her, but they shrugged in turn, oblivious to the panic escalating inside me.
Bernice never worked past five, and I got the answering machine when I called her office. I ordered pizza and told myself she’d be here by the time it arrived, all steaming hot and dripping with cheese. She’d come in with a collection of shopping bags and a laugh to explain her delayed arrival. I nursed a beer as I watched the clock and the door and listened to the sounds of my children far above me.
As the minute hand crept soundlessly along the parameters of the clock, her non-appearance grew louder. Right when I was about to call the police, the Marines, spend the night scouring the streets, I found her note, scrawled in cursive across a pink card. It was on her half of our bed, as if her words could replace her very being.
Carl, I’ve tried, but I can’t live like this. I need a night away by myself to think. Maybe three nights. I don’t know. I feel isolated, overwhelmed, desperate. I can’t do this right now.
It was unsigned, as if the conversation were still open for discussion, as if it was an acceptable way to shred my heart into infinite fragments.
Only it wasn’t.
She looks at me now, as if we are in the middle of something. Something intimate. Like we made love this morning, had breakfast in bed, were hours into a cozy weekend morning in our home of domestic bliss.
Only we aren’t.
“What are you doing?” Dad rustled between the sheets and looked at my hunched form suspiciously.
“Nothing,” I moved one hand to his head and slammed the notebook shut with my other.
“I’m tired,” he croaked.
“I know, Dad. I know.” Me too.