the longest summer solstice
My father didn’t die of cancer this summer. There was a moment, mid-July, when I thought he might, but I’ll tell you now that the oral cancer that arrived so suddenly in early July vanished by early August. Technically, the oncologists said it wasn’t sudden at all; the tumor invading my father’s mouth and lymph nodes had probably been growing for months, invisible. When they did notice, the doctors took swift action and planned the surgery within days.
So no, this summer wasn’t exactly dope. It wasn’t hype or tight or dank or wicked, or any of the other answers you’re supposed to give when asked about summer, with long-winded stories of people you met abroad and drunken adventures you shared. When I answer, my voice moves up a nervous octave. “It was okay!” I did meet people and I did have adventures. But my world shifted slightly–and yet, did not flip on its head as much as I might have expected–when my parents picked me up from my summer job in western Massachusetts. They came to break the news they had already been grappling with for a few weeks. “We didn’t want to tell you over the phone.” “We didn’t want your brother to know before you.” They waited with baited breath at home, scheduling doctors’ appointments and speaking in hushed tones, or so I imagine.
Eventually, my parents did come to Williamstown, and they did tell me, and for a time it all felt less like shared suffering than it did a celebration. Saturday night my parents took me out to my fanciest dinner of the summer and we laughed, genuinely, over veal schnitzel and sesame tuna and chamomile creme brulee (our favorite). Afterwards, we stayed in a revitalized set of row houses called The Porches, in North Adams. In the middle of this depressed, industrial town, for 400 dollars a night we drank cold brew coffee in the morning and slept on smooth white cotton and took a hot sauna and altogether pretended like my parents weren’t scared shitless of the uncertainty ahead. Even the cancer ‘reveal’ itself was too beautiful for the occasion: casually orchestrated but not contrived, how my father pulled up a wicker chair on the hill above the inn at sunset and how my parents held hands and cried but did not sob, so as not to scare me.
My parents are very much in love. They have been for 29 years, and the diagnosis made them stumble. They each only found their balance with one another, in their own private world. I glimpsed it when we drove on Sunday back to New York, where my brother didn’t know it but was waiting to be told the news. They played James Taylor in the station wagon and squeezed each other’s shoulders knowingly at Shower the People. In the backseat, I felt not much of anything besides annoyance at their sentimentality, and guilt for that annoyance. They seemed so affected. “We’re reevaluating our life goals,” they told me with solemn faces. Together, they had had time to process the threat of imminent mortality. My father didn’t look or even feel sick, so to me, he just wasn’t. The cancer would not make itself apparent until his neck was carved with a six inch scar, until his taste buds were destroyed by radiation, until his gums were burned, until his hair fell out from chemotherapy.
These were the images that frightened me, even more than the survival rates listed on the Oral Cancer Foundation’s website, which my parents warned me not to browse. These were the images that made me fear for my father and also for myself as I drove alone on Monday, taking the tight swerves of the Taconic back up north to my job. I sped through the entire three hour drive, anxious not to be alone and lonely, yet dreading my interactions with summer friends, who I knew were just acquaintances. I didn’t start to cry until I watched the car to my left veer off the road into the grassy median strip, a blurry scene in my side view mirror in the torrential downpour. Now that I was crying, it was hard to distinguish what obscured my vision more, the tears or the rain. I kept driving, paralyzed in my seat.
I didn’t cry for long. In part, I didn’t have time to. Three weeks after that drive and two weeks after my father’s surgery, all of the pathologies and scans came back, and to everyone’s surprise, my father was cleared indefinitely. No radiation, no chemotherapy. Stage III oral cancer, gone. Hoorah! On the other end of the phone line, I sensed my mother’s frustration at my near-apathy to the news. Where were my tears of joy, my thanks to God? I never fully processed the fact that my father truly did have cancer, so the news that he was cured, at least for now, felt obvious, or even anticlimactic, like someone had just ended a joke in poor taste. As suddenly as my family began living with cancer, my father became a cancer survivor instead. We don’t use those exact words; he never battled, he never fought. He just had cancer, and now he doesn’t.
Summer is over; September has come; my father celebrated his 60th birthday on the 11th. Just as we have since 2001, this year we again rejoiced in his life on a day usually marked in this country by death. The lisp from my father’s surgery has now nearly subsided, his stitches have fallen out, and his tongue has healed, like some strange, red earthworm severed at a playground. The long scar across his lymph nodes sits nestled, almost comfortably, in the folds of his softly wrinkled skin, framed by his new post-cancer beard, more salt than pepper. My father will continue to live his normal, otherwise healthy life, with dandruff and dry knees and slightly high cholesterol and the scar over the place where his appendix used to be and the hair that grows from his ears which my mother sometimes trims, but don’t tell anyone. And although the doctors never called this a medical miracle, my parents consider it their own. We are not religious Jews, but my mother tells me she still accepted a prayer from the old, withered nun that came by to offer some solace before my father’s surgery. I’m glad she took the prayer. If I were there, I would have taken it too.