How to Remember Father’s Day

by Maura Foley

When my dad started inpatient chemotherapy we’d sit hand-squeezing-hand. I cozied as well as I could into the narrow blue plastic recliner beside the bed. Thank God for small miracles — the methotrexate toxified his piss and left him an immunological tabula raza, so he got a tiny room to himself. We kept our grief in this shoebox. His heels dug into the beeping beige footboard, and my mother complained. He got a six-inch extension piece so he could rest with legs extended — my daddy long legs.

We didn’t think about time in periods other than a day. There was nothing else. They pumped the Simpsons-esque neon green sludge directly into his heart, because the chemotherapy was so toxic it would eat away and collapse the veins in his hands or elbow crook. “I don’t think I’ll die today,” Dad said once, trying to smirk. And then his face crumpled. I watched my dad cry.

“Can we do that, just go day-to-day?” he said. “Like your microbiology class. We’ll go micro, you and me.” He then reached out knuckles to me to nudge fists like cool kids. A quick tap, then we were back to squeezing hands.

In those first nights, a nurse gave him too many drugs that end in -pam (clonozepam, lorazepam) and Dad tried to run away from the hospital. He couldn’t. We, because we could run, stayed.

By the time he’d tested positive for MRSA, the chemotherapy was working, and his brain tumors ate themselves up. I stroked the latex tips of my gloved fingers against the infected bumps freckling his forearms. I told myself I would take a MRSA dad over a dead dad, and our timeframe expanded from six weeks to a year. He was still dying, but slower.

“Your father and I want you to connect with your life, my darling girl,” said my mother. So I studied abroad that summer. I hid behind red wine and steak. I watched mothers breastfeed their new little people in the hospital where my public health program placed me. I felt normal, I handled myself well. I forgot to be sad. I forgot how strange it was that I expected to return and watch my dad die.

Then one Sunday afternoon in Buenos Aires I ran from kiosko to kiosko on Avenida Rivadavia. I shook the black metal security gate of a shuttered internet cafe. “FUCK THE SABBATH!” I screamed in English. It was Father’s Day and I needed an international phone.

“Princesa, calm down, do you forget yourself?!” an old woman called to me in Spanish. But it was Father’s Day and I couldn’t. I sat on the curb and cried. The woman patted my shoulder and walked down into the subway.

With cancer, there is no cure, just windows. Five years cancer-free and you are “cured,” or as cured as you can be with a disease that can come back whenever it pleases. By the time I came back and Dad’s oncologist explained this to us, five years seemed like freedom, a piece of pie. We’d already escaped six weeks, a year, a lifetime of progressive dementia from whole-head radiation. With an allopathic stem cell transplant we got five years with real Dad, not MRSA Dad or dying Dad or vegetative Dad. Five years, and then maybe — “cured.”

Being neurotic, I felt unconcerned about five years of wait and worry. The nurses brought him a tiny cake and sparkling grape juice and I smiled. My dad was alive today and he’d be alive tomorrow.

I have forced myself to forget the name of the man across the hall that day, but the sunk, sallow eyes of his wife still pop out behind my own when I am anxious. He’d been out of chemo for four years and change. Just shy of his cured stamp of approval. And it came back, and there he was — vomiting, hairless.

That man, he got a hospital-acquired C-diff infection and died days after my dad left the floor. Hearing the news my mother scrubbed our house with face-melting chemical wipes. We Purelled like this was Contagion.

The man across the hall became a token, a what-if, a horror story to tell friends and family when they would remark on how sick my dad looked. We needed something to compare our situation to — “that could have been us, but it isn’t.” What a lucky place we were in, trying to forget that one scan would take us back to chemo.

Dad sat up in bed at home, slamming his head against the wall, attempting to dislodge the migraine nestled in his brain stem, the scarred section of brain where the tumors used to be. He banged out the memories of his stem-cell chemical dreams. We scrubbed and Purelled some more, we reminded Dad to take his pills. We made him toast when his stomach felt bad and went out for custard when it was better. At each oncology appointment, CT scan and contrast MRI we reminded ourselves that we weren’t that other family and we forgot the other man’s name, his face.

Now I think: Dad is here and he’s staying here. He needs to meet my future husband and babies and see the Grand Canyon. Forget any other option. Forget what he looked like before, tall and strong with a graceful swoop of strawberry brown hair. Forget each nightmare of drowning in those wispy clumps. Forget what could happen. It hasn’t happened. It doesn’t matter.

I swear, Jesus, he is so close, so fucking close to five years. He’s less than 90 days away. Please let us scrub and hand-wash and frozen custard our way to the finish line. Keep him here and eventually we’ll forget how royally we were fucked.

Today I called him to make plans for Father’s Day. “Oh, you called!” he said. “I think about you every day. I like that you’re thinking about me.”

Maura Foley spends a lot of time using Excel and performing improv in Chicago. She complains about both on Twitter and Tumblr.

Photo via Foxtongue/flickr.