Cancer in Real Time
From my auto-fiction or fictional memoir in progress...
*This is a fragment from an autobiographical novel (or “fictional memoir”) I’m currently working on about my dad’s cancer/leaving New York City. *PLEASE do consider 3 things*:
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By the time they were finally whittling it down to three possibilities, they discovered, upon doing a brain MRI, that Dad also had a cancerous tumor in his brain. This, of course, was terrifying news. A tumor in his lungs was one thing, medium-sized and isolated, but his brain? This was the first time Michael felt near-paralyzing fear. He thought of his childhood best friend Jared, who’d grown up a mile from him in Ojai. The first friend he’d made—in Little League—when they left Ventura and moved to Ojai in 1991, when Michael was a boy of eight. They’d learned to surf together. Had gotten into puck rock and skateboarding together. Had gone on countless surfing trips and had gone perhaps a dozen times as kids to Jared’s grandparents’ cabin in Lake Nacimiento up in Monterrey County. Those had been excellent trips. Good, warm, nostalgic memories sludged down his mind’s corridor like amber going down bark when he thought of these times.
He and Jared had socially and emotionally separated when they started freshman year of high school. They went to different schools—Jared to the public one and Michael to Catholic college-prep. Thus ended their friendship. But, just over a decade after high school—in 2013—Jared’s father got sick with skin cancer. (A rare kind.) He died a year later. Michael’s mom had still been close friends with Jared’s mom. He and Jared emailed each other here and there. Once, in 2009, they’d met up for coffee in Berkeley. They’d both ironically ended up in the Bay Area, Jared for nursing school and Michael for drinking, anarchy and the unconventional Avant Gard culture.
Michael remembered the day he saw Jared’s father, Rick, one week before the man died. He’d recalled all the years Rick had driven the two boys in his Honda Civic west the half hour along Highway 33 from Ojai to Ventura when they attended the same grade school for a couple years. Rick, originally from Santa Barbara, the large, tall, black-haired, red-faced, intimidating Baby Boomer, the man who was a republican church-going sermonizer. He saw in his mind’s eye Rick at the helm of the speed boat in Lake Nacimiento back when they were kids, lecturing them on how to properly drive the boat, or on politics, or on women, or on how to fish right, or on the Bible. Firm, fond memories.
Michael and his ex, Katie, had driven down to Ojai from Oakland. He’d written a seven-page letter to Rick, to be read privately. Everything he wanted to say to the old man, including that his gift to Rick was his sobriety (then three years). But when they got there things went differently. Rick sat on a chair in the living room. The large, 250-pound 6’4 robust man he’d known growing up had metamorphosed into a scrawny, thin, bony, vein-popping skeleton. Tubes ran up the man’s naked chest into his nostrils. The sight took Michael’s breath away. They all chatted for a while, low voiced. Michael’s parents were there. Jared and his brother and sister and his mom. They ate dinner an hour later. The table was absolutely, eerily silent. Not one single word. And not one bite of food eaten. What could you say?
After dinner they all congregated in the living room. Rick sat in his same chair. The Skeleton Man. Everyone was chattering lightly, low-volume.
Suddenly Rick said, “Michael. I want to hear your letter.”
Swallowing, Michael slowly pulled the sweaty crumpled thing from his deep back pocket. He’d assumed he’d hand it to Rick as they left, and that Rick would read it alone, in bed, no one else there.
Michael handed the letter over to Rick. Michael’s hand shook, trembling slightly. Rick held his palm up, indicating no, his blue-veined, thin skeletal arms whispy, close to death. Rick’s whole thin, sunken face looked like death already, as if they were witnessing now not a living being but a corpse which happened to still be able to talk. It seemed sick and miraculous.
“No,” Rick said, almost whispering. Tubes climbed up his naked chest into his nostrils. His chest looked sunken and crushed, hallow and empty, fake. A thatch of dark hair protruded from his chest. His deep blue eyes catching Michael’s, he said, “No. I want you to read it to me. Here. Now.”
“In front of everyone?” Michael said, too quickly to stop himself. It had been automatic. Fear.
Rick nodded authoritatively. Even now, he still carried the vestige of his former toughness. His bald head gleamed from a light above him. “Yes.”
It would be a profound, private literary reading for a small intimate group of loved ones, but still a reading he did not want to give. Not for this. It was too real. Too painful. Too outrageous. And yet, he couldn’t deny that he also felt a little ego-pump. He, the writer, reading his work to the group. Like all writers, he craved attention and creative praise. And what better way to express his genuine love for the man of his youth than this? But he also felt anxious, nervous, afraid.
Michael held the pages in front of him. Last week, back in his tiny illegal North Oakland studio he’d spent days writing and rewriting it. He’d typed it out, all seven pages, and then reread it half a dozen times. Stapled the sheets together. It was good. Polished. True. He hadn’t exaggerated. He’d been honest. But now he felt absurd and immature and narcissistic and foolish for caring so much what it sounded like. But, another internal voice said: He was a writer. True. But now? This? If ever there was a time when it wasn’t about himself…it was here.
Michael looked around the room. Eyes and eyes and eyes. His heart pounded in his chest. The curtains were drawn down all over. The food was still there on the table, untouched. It smelled of spaghetti and lasagna and garlic bread. His favorite. But not now. He caught his former best friend’s eyes across the room. He held Jared’s intense gaze. It was a look of deep thoughtless depthless sadness. His old friend, he knew, was emotionally down in the deepest part of the figurative ocean; perhaps in the Marianas Trench.
And then Michael slowly, scrupulously started reading his prose. He talked about going to church with the family in the early and mid nineties. About those drives to grade school on Highway 33. About the trips to Lake Nacimiento staying in the cabin. The boat rides. He talked about how Jared left his Ojai grade school in eighth grade to join Michael at his private Ventura school, dropping one whole grade just so they could be in the same grade together. That was true friendship. When he got to the part about sobriety being his gift to Rick, Michael started to break down. He kept trying to read through his tears but the ink-print became more and more blurry.
He heard soft crying from others, and then realized he heard Rick himself crying and suddenly he turned to Rick and Rick reached over and grabbed Michael in a bearhug. Michael dropped the pages; they fell, softly, to the floor. Michael and Rick clung to each other deeply, like life vests in the middle of the tumultuous sea. They wept into each other’s shoulders. Rick had a musky body odor which smelled like old skin and armpit. It didn’t matter, of course. He felt Rick’s thin, frail body, his veins popping out. Against his ear, whispered, Rick said, tickling Michael’s ear canal with warm air his mouth was so close, “You’re going deep, Michael. I love it.”
A few minutes later they detached. Michael snatched the fallen pages. Everyone wiped their eyes. He took in a big breath of air, slowly released, gathered his courage, and finished reading.