Since the only real writing I’ve been doing lately is for grad school, I thought I’d share some of my better pieces on here. I’ve always been really private about my writing (I wouldn’t even let my mom read my fourth grade papers), but having to overcome my fear of writing workshops has given me a bit more confidence. That said, I’ve never let anyone outside of school read anything I’ve ever written. Since I plan on this blog remaining anonymous, I decided to share one of the more personal pieces I’ve written recently: a memoir essay for my nonfiction class (names have been changed). Constructive criticism is welcome.
For me, the day of my aunt’s funeral begins at four in the morning. I wake up to the sound of glass breaking. My cat has knocked it over. Knowing I need to pick up the pieces so she won’t get hurt, I immediately jump out of bed. Slightly disoriented from sleep, I land directly on the shards, slicing open my foot. It’s a long day, and I’m tired, slightly drunk, and cleaning the blood out of my shoe when my dad first says his stomach hurts.
I don’t feel well either. It could be the stress, the lack of sleep, or the fact that this was my third full meal in over two weeks. But when my sister walks in and says that her stomach hurts too, it’s easy to attribute all of our aches to the bad food we ate at lunch.
A few days later, I feel fine. My dad doesn’t.
“It’s probably an ulcer,” I tell him after I get home from work.
It seems like a reasonable explanation. The stress of the past month has been overwhelming. For two weeks, every day after work, I had driven fifteen miles to sit in the hallway outside of my aunt’s hospital room. And later, when she decided it was time to go home, another ten miles to sit beside the hospital bed they set up in her living room. I had only gone home to shower and sleep, and I felt guilty every time. Every day was her last, until it wasn’t. I’ve lost so much weight that my pants don’t fit, and am just getting past almost daily migraines. But even as my mother and sisters – who took my aunt’s death harder than the rest of us – recover, my dad gets worse.
He starts losing weight. He’s happy he can fit into smaller jeans. He resolves to eat healthier. He says he feels good, but he’s still in pain.
I tell him to go to the doctor. He tells me he doesn’t have time. I wish I could force him.
One Friday afternoon, six weeks later, I come home from work and he’s not there. One thing that hasn’t gone away since my aunt’s death is my paranoia, my uncertainty. I start to panic whenever a family member calls me. And sometimes even when they don’t. A knot forms in my stomach when I can’t find him.
I find my two younger sisters in front of the television. One of them laughs. This must be a good sign, I think. I’ve always worried far too much about everything. I’m sure this time it’s fine. I repeat the lie in my head, trying to convince myself.
“Hey, where’s Dad?” I ask them.
“Mom took him to the emergency room,” one of them says. They don’t even look up from the screen. The TV audience applauds and laughs as I swallow back panic.
“I dunno. Like an hour ago maybe?”
It infuriates me how little they seem to care. Why isn’t everyone rushing around? Maybe they can more readily accept the voice inside their heads that is insisting everything will be okay. I can’t.
I want to yell at them for not telling me as soon as I got home. For making me ask. Instead, I go to my bedroom. I sit at my desk and stare at the black screen of my computer, in which my reflection is barely visible. I can go to the hospital and find my parents. But something inside me balks. If I go, that means this is real. I’ve been strong for months, supporting everyone around me because I was the last one standing when the sadness washed over us. By the time it broke through my shell, I couldn’t fall because there was no one left to hold everyone up. It didn’t really matter, because I was already too tired and numb. Now, I feel the crack starting to form. One tap and I’ll shatter. I can’t make myself move.
I don’t know how much time passes before I hear my sisters in the hallway. They sound rushed. I open my door. “What happened?”
They’re already in the kitchen, dressed and holding purses and keys. “Mom texted us and said we can go see Dad,” the youngest one says.
Thanks for letting me know, I think. Are they intentionally leaving me out of this? I swallow my anger. “Can I come with you?”
“I guess,” is the response. They’re impatient at having to wait for me now.
I run to my room and grab my purse. My sister drives to the hospital. It is only ten minutes from our house. On the way, I check my phone. I didn’t get the message from my mother asking me to come. Logically, I know it’s because she probably thought I was still at work, or on my way home, and she doesn’t want to panic me while I’m driving. But by the time we find her, I’m finding it difficult to look any of them in the eye.
Ever since I moved back from college after being gone for two years, I’ve felt left out. The rest of my family bonded while I wasn’t there. It makes sense, but sometimes, it hurts a little. Mostly, I’ve learned to ignore it. Today, it’s inexcusable.
Finally, the hospital staff lets us back, two at a time, to see my dad. Immediately, one of my sisters jumps up and says, “Mom and I will go first, you guys can stay here.” I want to hit her. Instead, I just stare are the game of solitaire on my iPhone and nod. I find that I’ve been clenching my jaw so tightly that my teeth hurt. I don’t stop.
“He’s staying overnight,” my mom says when she comes back out. “Melanie’s still with him, but one of you can go in.” I let my little sister go first.
The sirens are loud as an ambulance pulls up outside. On the small television in the emergency waiting room, news reporters are covering Whitey’s trial and an Al-Qaeda threat. They announce that Ellen DeGeneres will be hosting the Oscars. It makes me miss my aunt. She loved Dory from Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming.
On the way to my dad’s emergency room bed, I pass a girl with two bullets in her leg. She looks like a typical teenage girl in my town. Track pants and a messy bun. It scares me that she looks like the girls I went to high school with. Later, when I’m lying in bed both wishing for and fearing sleep, I won’t be able to stop picturing her. She somehow manages to smile at her own father as they wait for the doctor.
“I’m fine. Just worried about work,” my dad says when I ask him how he’s feeling.
“Tell them you’re in the hospital,” I say.
He looks uncomfortable as he types the email on his Blackberry. He can’t afford the time off. I have to remind him that he doesn’t really have a choice.
The next morning, I drive to the hospital alone. Everyone else has things to do, since we don’t know how long he will have to stay there. He’s been moved from Emergency to ICU. A room with sliding glass doors in a hallway with lots of blinking lights and beeping.
He’s sleeping when I get there. I pull a book out of my purse and sit with it on my lap, unopened. I’m too nervous to focus on anything. I get up and find the nurse. They scanned the lump in his abdomen. It’s grown in the last twelve hours.
“What does that mean?”
They don’t know yet. Or they won’t tell me.
When I pass the news along to my mom, I tell her “I don’t think its cancer. It can’t be if its grown that fast.” I’m trying to convince myself, but even she barely believes me.
My dad’s awake when I go back into his room. He has to go to the bathroom. I get the nurse. Two of them pull the pale green curtain around the bed and help my dad onto a portable toilet. I stand in the hallway.
Someone shouts my dad’s name from behind the curtain.
They pull it open and call more nurses. I see my dad, unconscious, held somewhat upright by two nurses as they beckon for help. There is a puddle of blood on the floor.
I back up against the opposite wall of the hallway. As I watch four nurses lift my unconscious father onto a hospital bed, it finally occurs to me that I might actually lose him. In the room next to my dad’s an elderly Chinese man is reclined on an elevated bed. He is surrounded by his family. A small boy in a blue and yellow striped shirt sits on his mother’s lap. He sees me and points. His father says something I can’t hear and then closes the curtain in their room, blocking me from view.
It’s only a few minutes, but it feels like hours before they tell me I can go back in. “He’s okay,” they tell me. “He just needs to rest.” I take my nervous energy out on the nurse. She let his hemoglobin get too low. They need to check it more often. She looks annoyed with me, but they check every hour now.
I stay in the hospital until late that night. My dad apologizes for scaring me. I tell him not to worry about it. But I’m still terrified. I get home, shower, and spend hours lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. My mom and one of my sisters stay with my dad.
The next morning, I wake up to my phone ringing. When I see my sister’s name on the caller ID, I immediately know its not good news.
“Dad has lymphoma,” she tells me. “It’s a type of cancer.”
“I’ll be right there,” I say. Throw on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, even though it’s August. I go to wake up my little sister, but she is not there. I panic, until I realize she spent the night at a friend’s house. She sends me a message, letting me know her friend will drop her off at the hospital.
I have the feeling that I’ve forgotten something as I drive to the hospital. Everything looks slow, dreamlike, as if I’m moving too fast. I forget to check in and get a wristband and am stopped by a security guard. I write my name on the sign in sheet and he slips a neon green paper band around my wrist. The adhesive end hangs off and sticks to my skin.
Fourth floor, I remind myself. In the elevator, I push the button for three accidentally and have to make an unnecessary stop. I find my sister on the phone, crying, in the waiting room that separates ICU from the rest of the hospital.
“Grandma and Grandpa are on their way.”
“Rachel says Jessica is dropping her off.”
“You can go see him. Mom’s in there.”
I see my parents through the glass doors before they see me. It hits me just how old they look. Surprisingly, they both seem to be in a good mood.
“You don’t get to leave,” I say to my dad. “You’re going to be okay.”
“I know,” he tells me.
People start showing up. My grandparents. My aunt and uncle and cousins. My dad’s best friend. They bring stuffed animals and make fun of the man two rooms down who has been screaming like Gollum for the last twelve hours. The nurses deactivated the man’s call button because he doesn’t like to be alone. They say he’s not even in pain at the moment. They are all making me anxious.
Doctors come in and out of the room. It is aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Aggressive is good. That means chemo has a better chance. It’s also stage four. In his case, this only means the cancer has affected another organ. The tumor has been pressing on his stomach and a major artery, causing it to leak. This is what was making him sick. Surgery is too risky because of the artery. Chemo will most likely work. They will test his bone marrow later. If it’s spread to the marrow or his spinal cord, they can still treat it. It will just take more chemo. My dad seems fine until the doctor tells him his tight curls may grow back straight if he loses his hair.
The girl who comes in to take his insurance information went to high school with me. We were both stage managers for the school’s production of West Side Story. We chat for a bit, but we haven’t seen each other for years, and I can tell it’s uncomfortable for her. I feel bad, even though it’s no one’s fault.
The next few months are a blur. Most days I can’t remember if I’ve eaten anything. Life has become a series of milestones with nothing but blank spaces in between. A week after my dad is admitted to the hospital, they start chemo. He gets to go home. A month later, the bone marrow test comes back negative. It’s not in his spine. There’s a fifty-percent chance of remission by Christmas. My dad shaves his head. He looks a bit like a turtle, and laughs when I tell him. My little sister takes to teasing him with “turtle, turtle,” an imitation of Dana Carvey’s character from Master of Disguise. After a month, this all feels strangely normal.
In December, they stop the chemo. Take a PET scan. My grandfather passes away and we all forget we’re waiting for test results. Christmas is quiet.
My dad makes an appointment with his oncologist in mid-January. It’s a Tuesday. I go to work and get almost nothing done. Even though I know his appointment isn’t until two, I keep my phone on my desk entire day, except when I take it to the bathroom with me. As soon as two o’clock rolls around, my anxiety skyrockets. I don’t hear from anyone until three.
The cancer is gone. It’s over. We survived.