Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I only cried once

When I walked out of the Customs and Immigration area, I spotted my sister coming toward me from behind a column. I could have sworn I saw my dad there, and that he'd leaned back behind the column so I wouldn't see the surprise. But, she and I hugged and walked toward the parking area, and he wasn't there. I almost cried from the made-up surprise and my need to hug him.

My sister and I had even planned a good ol' cry-fest, which sent her fiancé looking forward to an evening work event. We made some guacamole, turned on the TV to some modeling show where people get criticized and voted off at the end, and drank some white wine. I needed to cry so badly. We'd half-jokingly planned this night after she'd told me she didn't cry at dad's cancer diagnosis. Even when she'd Skyped me about it, neither one of us did. We processed the news with red eyes. We considered the next steps. We questioned and answered and shared information. We moved forward.. calmly.. toward the exit signs as flight attendants signaled the procedure of crossing our hands over our chests. We went feet first. We took command of the lifeboats - hers in the white and grey hospital, mine in the grey and yellow city. She only cried when she got back to her fiancé, holding it together over the long, sad, free distance of the highway. Now, it was my turn. It was my time to let it out. But the TV moved images and the wine sank feelings. It was nicer to go outside than inside.

After the surgery, on the last day with my parents in the small hometown, I had packed the car, we had lunch and I was waiting for a friend to call so I could swing by on my way to Minneapolis. We waited, with nothing new to say. Dad wondered why the reading chair was pulled so far away from the wall. Mom, curled up on the couch with her legs tucked under her, said it didn't need to be. There wasn't anything much to say. He'd showered. She'd already been to the pharmacy the day before. She and I both had been to the nearby farmers' market - the first test of leaving my father alone in the house. And, we all knew I was leaving. It was kind of a drawn out silence. I always hated those. And their house is always that kind of bored silence. Just waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Dad had gone upstairs for a nap. Finally, I got the message that my friend was free. It was getting late. I ran to the bathroom for a last pee. Ran upstairs and hugged my dad, we'd already talked about my promises to come home in a couple of months, and he was already dozing into a sick man's rest. I wanted to cry but it would have cost too much energy. I jogged down the stairs quietly. Put my arms around my mother's shoulders and smelled her sweet, soft skin. When did her skin start changing into an old lady's? I still couldn't cry. Pulled away from the house and waved out the window for the full block, even after I'd turned the corner. It's just tradition. Wave until you can't see them anymore.

The only time I cried was the day of the surgery.

Another role I'd taken on was the documentarian. The first photo: of my sister's face as she drove us away from the airport, along the US highway to her house in the 'burbs. The photos of my aunts, uncle, grandmother, and parents at dinner. The photos of my parents in the hotel room. As my sister had described it from her living room, "There's no modesty. Mom's changing into her nightgown in front of you. Dad's using the bathroom all night. That's why I asked for two separate rooms the night before surgery. It's just too much, really." I'd already brushed these things off. Maybe it was working in health care (albeit the politics of it, but I still learned how to answer imploring, semi-public questions about "What do I do if [insert 'I find a red rash' or 'my boyfriend forgot a condom' or 'I've got this kind of itch' or 'a friend of mine - ahem - thinks she might be pregnant']?"), but all of this stuff didn't really phase me when I imagined the hospital or the hotel room. It was like we were kids again, staying in some chalet at the base of the Alps. Dad and mom sleep in this bed, we sleep in the other one.

And it was just like that. Dad was already in his pjs when my sister and I arrived to the hotel. (After all, I had to wait out a tornado eating a veggie sandwich at the Subway in Hastings. My sister had to hide in the basement with her dogs and cats. And the traffic was miserable between the Cities and Rochester.) He shoo'ed us out for dinner, which he wasn't allowed to have the night prior to surgery. It was a miserable dark, drab, yellow restaurant on the first floor of the hotel (although I did just now almost type 'in the basement' because it was that miserable). The waitress must have been in her mid-twenties, and she shouted everything. I imagine she did this because most of the customers are elderly, although I could tell by the hush in the place that the customers were just fine of hearing. Maybe she imagined the opposite. Or, maybe she couldn't handle the silence of the sickly and their loved ones. Either way, the place was fucking freezing and I had to run upstairs to get a sweater. The wine was already on the table - a horrible white. My sister and mother sat opposite me and we toasted, a little like strangers, a little like family, a little like a family of strangers really. My mother a beedy-eyed, wrinkled, pink and burnt rust, twitchy mess. (I'm sure my ADD comes from her side. I'm still grateful she refused the doctor's orders to put me on meds when I was a tyke, but I often wonder if she couldn't use their assistance. At least I got my father's genes to balance out the mania.) My sister, god, looking at her, I can see the amazing genes of youth in our blood. We don't age. She more than anyone. No one would know she's close to forty. She's a bit more plump than years ago, well, she's leaning toward fat, but it's still a controlled, Aphrodite, roundness. But her skin! In that dark, yellow haze, she looked angelic, Cherubic, like Rubens' Venus.

We got up at 5am and met our parents at 5:35 at their room. Dad was in his track suit. There's a photo of my sister as we're leaving the hotel lobby. A blurred photo with her eyes wide and tongue kind of sticking out, like we're off on a skiing adventure. I suppose that's really the last time we were all a family together, as opposed to angry or hating each other, or adolescents, or for a funeral, or a quick lunch. The next photo is of my father, facing us, explaining something and moving his hand in a hard, chopping motion, as if trying to show he was still in charge, at 5:35am, without any food in his system, facing a full day of surgery, about to lose a major part of his manly innards. I can't remember what he was saying. I think we were debating crossing outside or using the underground tunnel. The hospital entrance was literally across the street.

They weighed and measured him. He'd lost half an inch from his standard height. He's starting to shrink. God. He was changed into a light blue gown. People always write that, don't they? No one really knows what the hospital light blue gown is unless they've seen it. My sister's right. There's this side of the game and the other side. When you're on the non-cancer side, the cancer side seems very, very far and foreign. But once you've landed into the cancer club, there's a secret understanding. It's not a cool place to be, not a club with discounts or two-for-one cocktails. But everyone in this club does, at least, get you. Yeah, the light blue gowns. Sure. I know what you're talking about.

I took photos as we sat there. My mom and sister looking at their iphone or blackberry. My dad talking to the pretty lady nurses, trying to charm them. (Of all the 20 or so nurses over the 9 days only 2 were men, although almost all the techs who irrigated and aspirated were men.) Then, we walked down the hall. He and the nurse turned the corner, and he almost kept on going, but I stopped him. "Hey, give us a hug." "Yeah, Dad," said my sister, "you gonna leave without a hug good-bye?" He hugged us both, kissed our foreheads, and kissed my mom on the lips.

I can't remember how that first day went for food. At some point, my sister or mom went and got coffee for us. Then, at some point, we left for lunch all together and came back and they'd crossed our names off and written "See Desk." He'd now been assigned a room on the 5th floor and we could go there to wait. He wasn't out of surgery and recovery until 8pm. His face was as puffy as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, tucked up over the hospital blankets. At about 9:30pm I offered to call and order in pizza for delivery. Not much would happen the first night. He was too drugged up and wasn't even moving.

They met me over at the hotel room. My sister's fiance had - in his wonderful wisdom - packed us like 3 bottles of wine. My mom - not one to be without her own - had brought 2 small boxes and a couple of bottles. Strangely, she still followed her routine and stashed the wine boxes under the sink. Alcoholics don't change much - anytime, anywhere, I guess. Even after I told her she didn't have to keep it under there. They still never moved until we packed up and left the hotel.

We toasted, a simple toast, "Yay!"

We ate the unimpressive pizza.

We turned on the TV.

I went to the bathroom and was just completely overcome. He hadn't died in surgery. (I had asked him nicely not to slip off into anesthesia land ne'er to return.) The doctors had said he did well. They'd gotten most of the tumorous cells. He was going to be fine. My sister and I hadn't killed each other. In fact, I loved her more now. My mother hadn't driven me crazy. In fact, I was finding myself pitying her less and accepting her more. Things were going to be fine. But I just couldn't help it. Out of nowhere I was sobbing and I unlocked the bathroom door, walked slowly over to her bed, and curled up next to my mother in a ball. Like a little girl.

She patted me and asked what was wrong.

"I'm sad," I said. I didn't know how else to explain it. I wasn't really sad. I wasn't all that exhausted. I wasn't too terribly overwhelmed. I was actually relieved. But that's not how I could explain it.

"Oh, don't be sad, sweetie." She said he was fine. He'll be fine. Why am I crying. There's no need to cry.

My sister, from the opposite bed, said, "It's okay. She's just got to do it. She's finally letting it out. It's not that she's sad really. She's just got to cry.... You know, mom, the day I left the hospital last time, it took all my energy not to break down in the car on the way home. It took Alex hugging me to let it all come out."

She was still patting me. But it was as if she was stroking a dog. There was no movie-style embrace, where the mother rolls over and engulfs her child, shielding them from the world. She kind of kept on watching TV. I know, it's not all her fault. After all, there were many times before and even at least once during this trip that I told her to stop staring at me. But, maybe, she could have been a bit more gentle or caring.

I asked her if she'd cried yet. Or, had she gotten comfort yet. "Well, Jackey and I talk. And Pamela and I meet for coffee and talk. But..." I can't remember what she said between my sniffling and deciding to stop crying. That was enough. That was good enough. In her explanation though, I'd sensed she didn't really either want to talk about this with us or didn't know how. I sat up. Finished for now. Looked over at my sister. "Thanks for interpreting."


Thinking back on it. If it hadn't been that my mother was in the room. If it hadn't been for some kind of pride. If it hadn't been for her forever thinking that she was more of my mother than my own mother was (although she might be right), I would have gone to my sister's bed to cry. And, I know she would have rolled over, engulfed me, stroked my hair, hugged me hard, and told me it was ok. Or, not said anything. She would have just been there.


inspiration from The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

"I don't know. He said once -- this was when I was engaged to Donald Clellon -- he said that a man ought to be happy in his work before he got married, and maybe it was partly that. He was never happy in his work, you see. I mean, he'd wanted to be a great reporter, somebody like Richard Harding Davis, or Heywood Broun. I don't think he ever understood why he was only -- you know -- only a copy-desk man."

And that did it. They had been holding back tears all evening, all night, but that phrase was too much. Sarah started crying first and Emily got up from the floor to take her in her arms and comfort her, until it was clear that she couldn't comfort anyone because she was crying too. With their mother lying in a coma twenty miles away, they clung together drunkenly and wept for the loss of their father.

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