I don’t remember a whole lot of that summer. Maybe it’s a self-preservation thing. I don’t know. There’s just a general haze of upset. Trying to call up a timeline is impossible. I’ve labelled everything in my mind with variable markers that are relative to other markers that are just as easily second-guessed or proved wrong. Here’s what it feels like, though. I think summer of 2005 and my usually impeccable recall abilities turn into a rotating canister, akin to the rock tumbler my sister got as a gift for Christmas one year. And my memories are the rough minerals that came along in the box. They are subdued and jagged bits of hurt that are getting endlessly tossed around, colliding with each other. And every now and then, I can reach in and grab a bit of a train of a thought that’s been in there long enough that it’s almost been polished down to something that’s not totally terrible to look at, to re-live before it slips back into the grinding morass.
I remember walking into the living room of our house one afternoon upon waking and seeing my mom sitting in front of the big picture window, backlit by the sunlight coming in through the opened curtains. But she was clutching the cordless phone and crying.
“Hey Baby,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Oh, it’s…it’s nothing.”
“I just got off the phone with my doctor.”
Terror. Sheer terror. I froze.
“I had a test shortly before we left to get you. And my doctor said it could possibly be a sign of cancer. And then he went on vacation for a week. And so, I’ve just been waiting for this call. Worrying about it.”
“What are you saying?”
“Oh, they called to say it was negative. I’m fine. I’m just so glad.”
“Me too, Mom.”
“I know. I just kept thinking that’s the last thing we need. And oh my god. The kids. They’d just kill themselves.”
“I definitely told him not to do that to anyone else. Not to make someone else wait that long.”
And then there’s the time my mom woke me up one afternoon, clutched my arm as she stood over my bed and said, “Allie. Please. Start exercising.”
“I just…you have high blood pressure. And you need to exercise. I blame myself for that, for your high blood pressure.” Tears. “Please. Just let’s be healthier, okay?”
It’s not a strange thought. When someone you love is ill, it’s okay to want everyone else to be as healthy as possible. Even if pancreatic cancer is what your dad has and that’s one cancer that’s pretty much a gamble. There’s no evidence that pancreatic cancer is genetic. My dad having it does not increase my chances of having it. It’s a bad-luck roulette spin. It’s also not a cancer that is easy to detect early. My dad had been seeing an internist for a few years for being “pre-diabetic.” What a fucking pathetic joke. It wasn’t until a PET scan of his abdomen was taken (the second that year?) that they noticed the tumors on his organs. And that’s not uncommon. It’s a cancer that very often doesn’t get diagnosed until it’s too late to do anything about it. A 1/5 chance that you might eke out a few more years of life after you destroy yourself with chemicals.
But the one thing that we knew in our family was that our dad had very obviously not been well for quite a while before he got checked. And who knows how long he’d been invisibly ill before that? We waited too long to confront the fears that his dramatic weight loss was not something to be celebrated. And then the fears became reality really quickly.
I remember my sister going through rush week at the local university. My brother and I could not understand why this was the time she chose to try her hand at being a sorority girl. We thought it was a terrible idea. We thought it was frivolous. And I told her that. She bought three new outfits. She left the house every morning and returned those evenings, enthusiastic about the day’s events. She was well-liked among the houses, it seemed. And then on Thursday, when she came home I asked her how it went. And as she picked at the cold cuts laying on the counter in the kitchen, I could feel from her terse answers that something was different. “I got cut from tri-delt,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied. “So, it’s all over?”
“No one wanted you?”
“God, Allison. No. I still had interest from one house.”
“But you’re not interested in them?”
“I dropped out, okay?”
And she started crying at that point.
“There was one girl in the house. And she was talking about when her father died. And how her sorority sisters were really there for her. They became her family.”
“And I started crying. Because I sat there thinking what am I doing here? I have a family. And I need to be with them right now. So I quit.”
My brother hugged her then. And when she went to her bedroom for a nap, we breathed a sigh of relief.
I remember food. I remember deliveries from church ladies. I remember one brought a large casserole dish full of spaghetti. My dad was sitting in an armchair in the living room when he asked for a bit. He took a few bites. And then he asked if there were bits of bell pepper in it? And then he puked when we said yes. The only other thing I remember him eating after that was vanilla ice cream his cousin made in her kitchen. Sometimes my mom could put some frozen berries on it. Blueberries. Because they were rich in anti-oxidants. Which prevent cancer.
But the food was non-stop. The agreed-upon stand-out was from the Clarks, the family I’d seen in the airport the morning I flew out to Oklahoma. Mrs. Clark made us a pork roast, accented with herbs she’d grown in her own garden and magnificent mashed potatoes. We all agreed that it was the best meal. My personal favorites were from a church lady named Ms. Connie who made delicious courses and dropped them off once a week for the whole three months my dad was ill. We still have a ceramic bowl in our cupboard that she’d sent full of spinach salad, saying she’d like it back when we got the chance. Some things you mean just don’t get done. And then it’s too late. When she went out of the country to visit her married daughter in South Africa, she arranged to have the best Lafayette restaurants deliver obscene amounts of food to us once a week in her stead. I remember that as being one of the best gifts anyone did for us, for me, at the time. Because the food was good, it was familiar, and the act of providing it for us made me feel cherished. Here was someone that we spent a few hours with every now and then, and she was extending herself so much, in such extravagant ways. There was only good Christian charity behind her. But she did it in a way that we couldn’t refuse, that didn’t make me feel like a pity case. Just someone that needed something. And she was someone that was, remarkably, helping to provide it.
And that’s it. Those are the only pebbles that I can grasp at from that time in my life. I slept thirteen hours a day and didn't shower much and I didn't get out of the house much. I read books I’d read before so I wouldn’t have to spend mental energy on them. I refused to unpack my suitcases from Oklahoma until I’d spent four successive days in dirty clothes. I missed freshman registration for Tulane. And I just kept thinking "if I stay in bed for the rest of the day, of my life, I'll never have to sort this mess out."
I became the queen of cognitive dissonance. I knew I wasn’t reacting well. I knew I was mastering avoidance. I didn’t even sit in the same room as him. I refused to answer our landline after one morning the church music minister answered my declaration that my Dad was “fine,” with, “Has he vomited today? Then he’s not fine, is he?” I kept odd hours, soaking in the time that my dad was asleep. The time where I could pretend that it wasn’t happening. That my dad wasn’t dying or ripping himself apart from the inside and crossing his fingers and hoping that the chemicals would destroy the bad stuff along with his immune system.
I knew I wasn’t okay. And yet that’s what I told myself and everybody else. Because comparatively…
I didn’t have cancer. And that was the new standard we measured ourselves against.