A few weeks ago, my sister sent me a txt at 6:30 announcing, “An earthquake woke me up this morning.”
On February 10th, a 3.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the Illinois house where she lives with my folks. Eileen said at first she had no clue as to the source: a truck crash down the street? Did a tree fall on the house? Being asleep seconds earlier, she could not reason what could make the entire house shift from side to side.
Later in the day, Mom reported that the quake woke her up as well and she sat up thinking, ‘earthquake.’
Dad slept through it.
But he sleeps through many things, and we tease him about his nap-taking. He likes to hook his wrist watch over an arm of his glasses while he naps, sitting upright in his recliner. The relentless beeping next to his ear is is pretty much the only way to wake him. Once we photographed him with his watch dangling across his face and showed it to him.
Upon seeing the picture, his eyes opened wide and he said, “Am I really that handsome?”
A little later on Earthquake Morning, I was not surprised to see my Mom calling my cell. I thought perhaps there was more news on the disaster front. I was right.
“Dad’s doctor wants him admitted to the hospital right now, today. They’re going to run some tests.”
“What kind of tests?”
“Tests. Something’s wrong.”
On Friday of that week, the doctors started throwing around the words ‘widespread cancer.’ For various reasons, it took almost a full week before we got the official diagnosis: stage 4 colon cancer, metastasized to his lungs, liver, and other tissue.
I probably won’t write much about his cancer on my blog.
I feel comfortable writing about the world from my perspective and details from my life. But this cancer is his story, our family story, and not exclusively my tale to tell. I can share the big picture stuff: we all cried. We held hands. We sat vigil with him in the hospital room for a week and a half and we cried some more. During non-upset intervals we did crossword puzzles, and also yelled out answers during Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, trying to beat each other and cheat each other, because that is also part of our family story.
(Dad most often gets the Jeopardy answers right, but we don’t give him credit because he doesn’t phrase his responses in a question format. We are sticklers for rules; our Wheel of Fortune battles are awesome to behold.)
Regardless of how his chemo turns out, I can’t help but wander around dizzy, aftershocks of the world going upside down. I mean, sure I thought this day would come, but I had planned on my being 98 and him being 132. That was the plan, and a damn good one in my opinion.
How could he consider leaving us?
One of my favorite Wordsworth poems is We Are Seven, in which a creepy old man relentlessly grills a small girl. Despite the fact that two of her siblings are dead, and he practically verbally assaults her with his maniacal insistence that those two are DEAD AND GONE, she keeps repeating, “We are seven.” Ah, with great poetry like this, who needs Harry Potter? Wordsworth’s subtle-like-a-hammer point is that children grasp a reality adults cannot fathom.
My parents, siblings and myself: we are six.
Sure, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “We Are Seven,” but still. I can’t imagine the world without all of us yelling at Wheel of Fortune or secretly photographing each other sleeping in hilarious couch-draped poses so we can show each other drool photos.
Whenever I call home for cooking advice (twice a week, three times max) I have to go through Dad.
“Hi Dad. I need help. Put Mom on.”
“I can help.”
“It’s about cooking. Put on Mom.”
“Can I substitute milk and a little butter instead of 1/2 & 1/2? I don’t want to buy 1/2 & 1/2 it because I won’t ever use it again.”
There is silence on the other end.
Finally, he says, “Hang on. I’ll get Mom.”
Every damn time, he insists I ask him my questions for him and every damn time, I do, because he’s one of the funniest guys I know. I love listening to his answers: “If you don’t have any eggs, just skip ‘em.” Or perhaps, “I’m sure baking powder is the same thing as baking soda.” Sometimes I hear Mom yell in the background “DON’T TELL HIM THAT.”
Once in a while he will remain quiet for an extended pause after my question, prompting me to clear my throat.
He will say, “Hang on, I’m thinking. I’ve almost got it.”
On my birthday, if they can’t reach me on one of my phones, Mom and Dad sing Happy Birthday into my voice mail. Mom always counts softly on their end, “1, 2, 3…” so that they can begin singing at the exact same moment. I always re-save the message every 180 days, listening to it when I need a boost. I love that both of my parents still want to celebrate the day I showed up, even after knowing me all these years, and how I turned out.
It’s not over; I’m still anticipating my next birthday’s voicemail message. My Dad is strong and he never took a sick day from work in his life, so who knows? Chemo may work. I have faith in Bolinas.
I called home the other night to see how he’s doing and get the daily report. We covered how he ate, how far he walked, and that day’s oncologist visit. There was a pause in the conversation, perhaps as we both contemplate this new dimension to our phone calls, our discussion of his daily vitals and subtle changes to his sleep and diet. Our landscape has been shaken.
He said, “Do you have any cooking questions?”
I was actually making a slow cooker pot roast that day. Do the vegetables go under the meat or sit on top?
“Dad, just put Mom on.”
“You can ask me. Go ahead.”
What can I say? I like his answers.