My father knew that he was going to die at the age of 62. He knew because the doctors at MedTrust Hospital ran a multitude of tests on him and all signs pointed to an untimely demise.
When the nurse came to the lobby, my mother’s hands tightened around mine and began to tremble. Four months, she struggled to repeat after the nurse. In four months my father would be 62 and dead. And I just sat there next to my mom trying to understand the words spewing out of the nurse’s mouth: “stage four,” “inoperable,” “chemo.” These were words we had heard before, but they immediately became alien echoes bouncing around the walls of my head.
He was a conservative man. He drank three beers a year. He made frequent dental appointments. He never missed an anniversary. And yet his entire adult life was pockmarked with various maladies, including bouts with depression in his early thirties. And of course, at the age of 62, his stomach was riddled with cancer.
I immediately started thinking about what he would eat. If your stomach has cancer, wouldn’t eating anything substantial yield immense pain? And when exactly did he get cancer? Does one just “get cancer” or is it more of a gradual shitstorm? If it is really just the proliferation of mutated cells, shouldn’t there be a way to signal these cells to stop dividing? What are these scientists and doctors and lab technicians doing, anyway, if not trying to find a cure for my ailing father?
“He’ll eventually have to be fed through a tube,” Nurse 1 relayed.
What kind of food?
“Well, it’s not really food per se. It’s nutrients—iron and vitamins and folic acid—so that he doesn’t have any major deficiencies.”
I can tell that you really care about the wellbeing of your patients.
“We’re doing everything that we can.”
Sure. And after we finished talking to Nurse 1, Nurse 2 came to the lobby to tell him that a burn patient somehow got rolled over onto the bad side. The whopping 300-pound male required the attention of two nurses.
The doctor was making his rounds to those in the lobby, but it seemed as if he swung his semi-circle of consultations toward and then away from us. After an hour we hadn’t talked to anyone except the nurse. The whole time my mother was wringing her hands raw. Mine were occupied by a Styrofoam coffee cup that I was stripping the outer layers off of. When I looked up at the clock it was past midnight. It’s just food poisoning. It’ll go away. My dad isn’t going to die because of some bad seafood.
He was starting chemotherapy today. They would put him in a La-Z Boy chair, hook him up to sacks of fluid, and try to make the cancer go away.
Dad didn’t want us to come in. He said that he would meet us in the car after it was over; in the interim, we should get lunch and try not to worry. We watched him walk through the automatic doors of the hospital without turning back. Mom swerved the car into a “Dr. Rivera’s” parking spot and locked my arm in a death grip, somehow managing to pull my obstinate body into the hospital lobby with her.
We walked down the hallway into the chemotherapy ward. We stopped outside of Ward 35 where we could see dad through a small window, getting his chest outfitted with an IV. The medicine in the drip was a deep, rusty red. It looked like the sticky sap of a tree, slowly incorporating itself with my father’s flow of blood. His wedding ring looked tight against his skin, but the rest of him looked slimmer than usual. I hadn’t noticed in the car, but his cheeks were cavernous and the form of his body was barely visible underneath the thin khaki pants that mom dressed him in this morning.
He was surrounded by other men and women, all hooked up to similar machines, all with cancer, all trying to get better. Some of them had their family members with them. They were talking, holding hands, some were even laughing together.
Dad’s eyes were focused up at the ceiling. He could probably see us out of his peripheral vision, but he didn’t want to cause a scene by telling us to leave. Instead of turning his head he simply let a little trail of saliva slip out of the crease of his mouth. Somehow I figured that this meant he was okay. It was funny- seeing my father drool in a pallid chemotherapy room should have made me upset and sympathetic, but instead I could only pull my mother in close at my side and impart a soft sigh on the top of her head.