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We’re Just Fine

He had a habit of giving her bad news in public. In line at a Smoothie King he ha told her about the first few white spots on the scans. He’d dropped by the Starbucks nearest to her college with the results of the biopsy. It was a caramel macchiato with a bleak prognosis on the side. And in late November of her junior year, she was missing class to wait for him. He had been up most of the night and had scheduled an appointment that he hadn’t needed in months. The technician and doctor invited her in to the examining room, as they had done before, but this time she followed. She took his hand as they waited for his results. The doctor removed his glasses and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. His CT scan lit up like the twinkly Christmas lights he had hung on the house for so many years. Little white splotches strung across the image, like icicles.

“So how long do I have this time?”

“Three months at the most Ben, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you Dr. Valentine, for everything you’ve done,” he said as he placed an arm around Annie’s shoulder.

They made their way down the whitewashed halls into the waiting room. Annie left her head against his shoulder, covering her eyes from the people who remained in the stiff armchairs. She sat in the driver’s seat but couldn’t put the key in the ignition. Annie had known after the first diagnosis that he probably didn’t have very long, but this time it seemed surprising and surreal. She’d read about it so many times, the father or the boyfriend or the best friend dies expectedly or suddenly and the rest are left to grieve. She also knew that in those same stories, those people kept going. They picked themselves up and they moved on.

“How do you feel about a milkshake?”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” she said as she looped her arm through his.

For a while, they had hoped it would get better. But she had never been able to predict what would happen next. It was a lot of waiting and a lot of pain. Annie pulled into the Steak n’ Shake and held the door open for her gently aged father. It was strange, how much older he’d gotten just in the last two years, how frail he now seemed.

He would’ve been sixty next July, she thought. She found a booth with sparkly red patent leather seats, and reached for a couple of menus.

“Annie, you’re going to be just fine.”

“I can’t believe it’s only been two years. It wasn’t enough time, they didn’t give you enough time,” she said as she watched her father spoon the chocolate malt shake.

Almost two years ago in January, Annie had come home from Starbucks, drinking the leftover foam from her chai tea latte with the smell of coffee lingering on her clothes. She could see the orange and red crackling in the fireplace as she opened the door, her dad moving back and forth from pot to pan in the kitchen.

“Well hello! I didn’t expect you back so soon,” he said, lifting the noodle out of the boiling water.

“Yeah, I only needed to be there for a few hours. I got some stuff done. Here let me see that.”

She threw it through the air and the two of them watched as the wiggly noodle stuck to the cupboard. It really only meant the pasta was done cooking, but they’d done that together since she was little.

“Looks good to me.”

She moved into the living room where the card table sat directly in front of the TV. The dining room had sort of become a thing of the past, and her father preferred to answer Alex Trebek’s Jeopardy questions between chews, rather than to sit in silence. The wooden chest was lined with pictures of their family collecting dust, a black and white photo hung on the wall, her mother’s arm draped over her father’s shoulder. She wasn’t sure when they’d stopped looking so happy. Her parents had divorced almost thirteen years ago, but their separation hadn’t affected the family dynamic much. Only after her step-dad, Stephen, came into the picture did Ben finally move out. He had said he didn’t want to live alone, and no ne made him leave. So he’d stayed in the basement with the cats, Angel and Scooter. Annie could remember waiting behind the door to her bedroom while her parents spoke in the kitchen.

“Ben, this is totally ridiculous. I can’t have Stephen spending the night here with you sleeping in the basement. You’ve got to find a new place to live. I’ll help you look for an apartment.”

She cracked the door open to see her father staring blankly into the floorboards. He seemed to wish he could fall through them.

“Susan, I don’t see what the big deal is. You saw us together last night. I drank a Natty Light with Stephen and we watched some Jeopardy. It was fine. We’re all fine.”

But he left. He moved into an apartment complex down the street, really only five minutes from their average sized brick home. Susan had to commute for work and Stephen was an airline pilot, so Ben was the family man. He tried to be. He made dinner most nights but his repertoire only consisted of hamburgers, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and occasionally chicken nuggets and fries. Tonight wasn’t an exception with the pasta cooking on the stove and the hamburger meat and Prego sauce brewing in another pan. As she turned to go toward the kitchen, she heard the creak of the glass door and cowboy boots stomping along the wood floor. Cullen moved swiftly into the living room, a smile draped across his face. Her boyfriend of about a year now was as southern as they came. His demeanor was almost distracting, so confident yet so calm.

“Hey Cullen, we’re in here,” she said, pleased with his surprise visit.

“Hey, Mr. Richards! How’s it going?” Much like every time he came into their house, he shook her father’s hand and came to her, to place a kiss on her forehead.

“I’m fair to midland, how are you Cullen?”

“I’d say I’m doin’ pretty good,” his normally mild southern accent sounded stronger to her.

Cullen had lived down the street since they’d moved from Tennessee. He appearance was effortless, and his personality was still immature and lively, just as it had been so many years ago. He had changed so little and there was something oddly comforting in that. She watched as he was interrupted by her father shouting, “What is, Pygmalion,” at the screen. He knew all of these strange, unimportant things. The kind of things that few people understood and fewer wanted to talk about.

“What is, Medusa,” he said, a proud expression drawn across his face.

“Mr. Richards, where did you learn all of this Greek mythology?”

“Oh I don’t really know, probably a book I read in college. It may…” he covered his mouth and began to cough. It was a sort of shallow cough, one that gave him pain. He removed his hand from his mouth, a few little spots around the edges. But he didn’t look surprised.

“Daddy, what is that?” she said as she looked from his mouth to the palm of his wrinkled hand. She wanted to believe it was spaghetti sauce, it was the same deep red, but it hadn’t been there before.

“It’s just a little blood. I’ve probably got a chest cold or something.”

“Have you been to the doctor?”

He sort of chuckled, the nervous laughter she had known for a very long time.

“Why haven’t you been to the doctor?”

“There was a twenty dollar copay that I didn’t want to deal with.”

She turned toward Cullen, unable to form a sentence. How could such a brilliant man make such stupid choices? Looking back toward her father, she saw that in his other hand he held a Peter Rabbit dish, peas floating over Peter’s floppy ears. She could remember the picture they’d taken years ago, him seated beside her, spooning cheerios from the bowl into her almost toothless mouth. Her grey-blue eyes began to well with tears as she felt Cullen’s arm around her back. She believed he loved her more than any 25 year old could love.

For close to two years after that night, she drove her dad to the nearest treatment center. These visits had become their closest moments together. He was normally somewhat awkward and uncomfortable, but sitting next to her in the waiting room they could talk about anything. He’d bring along a word puzzle from the Sunday paper, removing it from the back pocket of his jeans as they sat in the waiting room. In the top right-hand corner the word “arrest” was depicted in bold letters above “you’re.”

Arrest

                                                  ____________________

You’re

“You’re under arrest. That was way too easy,” she had said with a bright smile.

Her mother had gone with her to the first round of chemo. They sat on either side and tried to steal his attention while the liquid ran up the tube and through his deep blue veins.

“They say I’ll start losing hair in the next couple of weeks. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have much to lose. Annie, you’ll have to get me a nice toupee.”

The three of them began to laugh until tears reached the corners of their eyes.

“Can I have some water?” He said to a nurse who looked busy with another man. His hair had fallen out, but he seemed pleased with the bandana he wore, black labs running across his forehead.

“Daddy I think she’s with someone else, I’ll get it.”

Annie got up and began to walk to the water fountain with a paper cup as her mother followed her.

“Isn’t it strange? Being here with your ex-husband?”

“I’m not going to be able to come to every treatment. Because of him, I had two beautiful children. A part of me will always love your father, Annie.” She moved a piece of chocolate brown hair across her shoulder, avoiding the tears that wanted to roll down her face.

And she was right. She hadn’t been able to come to many of the appointments, but she had tried. They’d been married for 11 years before the divorce and Annie knew they shared the same pain. She’d been married to Stephen for almost three years and initially Annie had done everything to keep him out of her home. His chain-smoking made him especially unappealing. He did well as a commercial pilot but she found few redeeming qualities in his bold personality. But during the treatment, he’d been supportive. Annie gave him credit for making a conscious effort to avoid replacing her father. He knew he wasn’t there to fill an already taken position.

She watched him finishing the chocolate shake; he looked happier and more relieved than he had been in years, even before he’d gotten sick.

“I want to show you something,” he said, wiping whipped cream from the corners of his mouth.

Together, they drove past the house she’d grown up in and past the high school she’d graduated from. He told her to pull into the parking lot of a church she’d been to with her father a few times. The stained glass windows glistened in the cool winter sun as they walked toward the wooden doors. Annie had grown up in a home with a Baptist mother and an agnostic father. She could remember going to church when she was little with the belief that someone had to be watching over her. But as she’d gotten older, and especially with the divorce, they had stopped going as a family and she had stopped believing. Her father continued to go alone to sing in the choir, but he rarely went to the same church. She wasn’t sure if it was self-exploration or the compliments he received from the elderly women that kept him going. This was the church her father had sung in for the Christmas Eve service. They needed a tenor for Carol of the Bells and he was quick to volunteer.

“Annie, you remember Pastor Pillow? He’s going to preach at my funeral. I wanted you to be the first to know.”

“Hi Pastor Pillow, it’s nice to see you,” she said, unsure of how she should feel.

“You’ve grown up to be quite lovely. I’m sure your father is very proud. Know that he has a wonderful place waiting for him in heaven.”

She knew he was attempting to comfort her, but she wanted to be alone with her father. She wanted more time with him and she wished for those silences in front of the TV, with Jeopardy playing in the background. She wanted to go home and play endless games of Scrabble him and let him win each and every time.

“Thank you Pastor, but I think I want to go home with my dad. Thank you for everything.”

Her brother Daniel was sitting in the living room when they finally arrived at the house. He had made a fire, that same red and orange crackling, the smell of burning kindling filling the air. He’d always been quiet and sort of elusive. He normally ate dinner in his room, glued to the television, avidly watching ESPN. He’d come through the living room every once in a while to reach into the fridge for something else or to grab the saltshaker from the counter. Annie wished that he was too young to understand but he was 17 and knew full well that their father didn’t have much longer. She took a seat next to her brother on the couch and began to sift through the socks in the laundry basket. Her dad pulled a chair across from her and held two mismatched socks out for them to see.

“Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that one day blacks and whites would be equal. I really just want my socks to match,” he said with a hoarse laugh and a quirky smile.

Annie looked at her brother and could see, as the same smile moved across his face, the tears beginning to form. He had such a strange sense of humor but he could make them laugh in a way that made the sadness seem to disappear.

On February 15th, they left their quiet home for River Ridge Presbyterian church. She could hear the bells begin to chime as she took Cullen’s hand, walking into a sea of black. Her mother sat beside her with her brother not far down the pew. Pastor Pillow mentioned his brilliant mind, his sarcastic sense of humor, and the deep love he had for his children. But the service was small. He hadn’t been one to have more than a handful of friends. After the service, a woman from the congregation placed a bony and wrinkled hand in hers. It was strange to see someone more fragile than her dad had been in his last days. She told her everything was beautiful, and she was happy he could finally be at peace and free of pain. She told her all of the things she desperately wanted to believe, but she missed her dad. Her mother came from a small crowd of strangers and took her hand.

“Are you ready to go, sweetheart?” she said, struggling to utter even a few words.

“Just give me a minute.” Annie went to the pallbearer who had been closest to her father; her uncle John, her godfather.

“Uncle John, can I ask you to do something for me?”

“Of course, what is it?”

She placed a small piece of paper in his hand. Finally finding the words she said, “It’s the final Jeopardy question from last night’s episode. I need you to give this to him. Put it in his hand.”

He could hardly respond and instead read aloud, “What 20th century author wrote, ‘It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone’?”

“Who is John Steinbeck,” she said softly.

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