On being young and scared

Writing a novel can bring things back. I’m not usually an essay writer, and so this came out sideways, in third person.

Anyway, here it is.

You will be eighteen years old and watching a sitcom in your boyfriend’s apartment when his phone rings. It’s for you. This won’t concern you— unexpected phone calls won’t yet trip the panic button inside of you.

On the other end of the line a story will come first, some context— how he hadn’t wanted to worry you, hadn’t thought it was anything serious, how the checkup had been scheduled before a dental appointment. You’ll remember the part about the dental appointment later— a sign that no one had seen this coming.

He’ll then continue on, and tell you he was wrong about it not being serious. That it looks like cancer, although tests will have to be done to confirm. Which means it is cancer, because otherwise he wouldn’t have called. He would have waited. Yours are not a people inclined to melodrama or false alarms.

You will hang up the phone and sit in shock, your boyfriend beside you on the couch. You’ll both sit very still. Neither of you know how to handle something like this. You’ve both been lucky that way, that you don’t have a precedent. Minutes, hours, later you’ll still be on the couch when someone rings the buzzer of the apartment, a guy looking for your boyfriend’s roommate. The roommate isn’t home, but the guy will ask to come up and wait for him to show up. Your boyfriend will look at you—a quick decision is needed so you shrug, unsure of how else to handle this, and then your boyfriend buzzes the guy up.

The three of you will all sit in silence in the living room, television still on. You’ll suspect he thinks he’s interrupted a fight, seeing the both of you so tense. You will not know what to say. You will not be ready to tell people yet and besides, you don’t know this guy that well.

Several weeks later, you’ll get another call. This time you’ll be watching the film Almost Famous. You’ll always think of it as the second call even though there have been plenty of calls in between. Initially, you’ll not understand the purpose of it, and you’ll start babbling on about a part-time job you just accepted. Then you’ll learn that the results of the tests have come back early.

The biopsy has confirmed the cancer.
It has spread into four of his lymph nodes.
He’ll say that it’s stage two.

After the call, you’ll go onto the internet and find that with that level of lymph node involvement, it’d actually be classified as falling on the dark side of stage three. You’ll feel that he misrepresented this information, and you’ll be angry about that. He is a doctor. He is your father. It should be him, not the internet, that provides you with the correct barometer for how scared you should be.

Anger will be the clearest emotion you have, a bright light amid the fog of confusion and sadness.

You will never finish watching Almost Famous. You will never watch Kate Hudson’s star making turn. You don’t hold her presence in your living room that day against her—she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the following months, you will have many conversations about him with other people. During these conversations you’ll be either coldly, disturbingly rational or you’ll break down completely. Sometimes you’ll rapid cycle and do both in the course of a short conversation. You’ll prefer it when you remain dispassionate, proud of yourself for being grown up and pragmatic, not realizing how extremely young you must sound.

Never health conscious before, you’ll experience a version of hypochondria, both on behalf of yourself and those you love. Everything is a symptom that should be paid attention to. He is a doctor and yet he misread the signs. It’ll be clear you should have been more on top of things, made a checklist of necessary exams. He’d made a mess of it, getting the test at fifty-one rather than promptly on his fiftieth birthday, when he should have sandwiched it between his morning eggs and his cake in the afternoon. You will not make the same error. You’ll notice everything and save everyone. Especially him. Especially you. You’ll point out the liver spots on his hands, thinking they could be cancer as well, from all those years spent under raw Australian skies. You will talk in too much detail about your own bodily functions until you are gently asked to stop.

You will stop talking but won’t stop looking. There is a history of cancer in your family now—there are no excuses for overlooking anything.

You’ll have these all these thoughts, do these things, and yet simultaneously operate on autopilot, continuing with plans made under very different conditions. You will do a summer internship in another state and then study abroad, in the far north of Scotland. You’ll be unsure of whether a good person would have made such choices.

On one grey Scottish day, after months of being away from everyone you love, you’ll call the study abroad program’s administrator to inquire about coming home early. You’ll believe yourself to be prepared to talk about this in a sensible, matter of fact way. Instead you lose it completely, sobbing into the phone. You’ll end the call, ashamed of your outburst, ashamed of your decision to come in the first place. Ultimately, you’ll stay for the full length of the program.

You’ll be spared the full weight of your guilt, because your father does not die, not when you are away in a grey, castle-filled land, and not after you come back either.

The program administrator, the one who you sobbed at on the phone, you’ll avoid forever, not turning in requested forms after you return.

You will never again be okay with receiving calls at unexpected times.

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