My dad belonged to a social group of other Vietnam vets. Members would come over for dinner sometimes. They came in just two varieties: those who only talked about the war, and those who never talked about it. I looked at their hands when they spoke. This seemed more comfortable for everyone. There was a sameness about their movements, the way they cupped a glass of whiskey or mug of coffee, like it was a flame to keep them warm, and even those who didn’t drink alcohol or caffeine held it just so.
My friend tells me about the death of her son. Even though it’s been years, she has no distance from it, so it doesn’t come out like a story. It pours from her in the wrong order, facts and details added too early or too late. There is no arc. It is one long climax of grief.
A storyteller needs distance. But what about the things you never outrun?
I’ve never told her I counseled terminal kids. It’s not a secret, but I’ve never quite gotten it out. It seems disrespectful to interrupt her tragedy with something as insignificant as my own experience. So, she tells me about the monster that took her baby as if I’ve never heard the legends, tells me about the teeth and claws like I’ve never heard them described by a ten-year-old over the phone, late at night, when we’re both alone, and there’s nothing more frightening in the world.
My friend’s British, so the word “cancer” is different when she says it. It seems older than the American version, not as sharp—more stately, more dignified—but no less ravenous. The accent of her mourning is universal, however. As is the lilt of her fear. Terror is the same in every vernacular.
I’m twelve at a slumber party. It’s my first one with anyone other than family. Sophia, a girl in my therapy group, has wealthier parents than I do. Her house is bigger. The paintings on her walls are singular rather than one of a million. Every bathroom has a sink that looks like a Greek column. She’s sick just like I am, though. We all possess the same mortality. Every member of our group is dying. Our parents never speak of it.
Sophia’s dad tells us a little too loudly that it’s so nice we could get together like kids, before he leaves us alone in his daughter’s room. He doesn’t say what we normally get together as. Nor does he worry about sex or drugs, or anything the parent of a normal child might worry about. It doesn’t cross his mind that we might get high or fuck. He only worries that we’ll die. That Sophia will die. His every day is bent to that worry. His back is rounded from leaning over her while she sleeps to check her heartbeat.
We play the board game LIFE. I have two kids, marry a pink partner, never go to college, and become a professional football player. It goes just about as well for the others. There’s no Dying Kids edition.
Sophia’s father snores heavily on the couch outside her room, content in the knowledge that, on this night at least, we are happy, regular children. There are six of us. We take turns sleeping in pairs.
“Tell me if I stop breathing,” Sophia says.
I’m twenty-three. My girlfriend has gone out by herself again. She asked me if I was seeing someone else before she left. I told her no. In a month, she will move to a part of town with a coffee shop within walking distance. We won’t make it.
Why the phone calls?
Just the kids from the hospital.
Are you sure?
Sometimes I wonder if you care more about those kids than you do me.
Sometimes I wonder, too. It seems like a duty. Something important and awful that I was drafted to. Unwinnable, unending: a war on death. Penance for the guilt of my survival.
I talk on the phone to Christian until nearly midnight, barely notice that the girlfriend isn’t home.
Christian has leukemia. Unresponsive to treatment. He’s ten. He still uses his full name. I hope he will make it long enough for someone to shorten it, for intimacy and efficiency to get the better of ceremony. We talk about how Final Fantasy VIII isn’t as good as FFVII. It’s all GFs. There’s no strategy. But Quistice is hot, like a teacher Christian has. I will never play the series again without hearing his voice.
He asks me what it’s like to kiss a girl. I tell him it’s weird. But a good weird. He asks me what it’s like to kiss a guy. I tell him I don’t know.
Would you kiss Sephiroth? He looks kind of like a girl.
Maybe. I’m not sure.
Why not? It’s an easy question.
I don’t know.
Well, I would kiss Sephiroth. He’s just as pretty as a girl.
He is pretty.
He fades as the night drags on. His mom picks up the landline and tells him to go to sleep and stop bothering me. I tell her it’s no trouble. He begs her for ten more minutes. She holds the line open but doesn’t say anything. After twenty seconds or so she adds, “Ten minutes and that’s IT” before hanging up the phone.
He’s so sleepy. Yeah?
Will you tell me if I stop breathing?
… I can’t. This isn’t right for me. I’m not this person. I don’t want to be this person.
Did you hear me, Mr. Adams?
Yeah, sure thing, Chris.
It’s Christian, he stresses.
I visit my old dialysis clinic. Everybody cheers—even the people who don’t know me. They’ve been prepped. It’s been a year. Much longer than I promised. I hug and talk to many old friends. Some are missing. Dead or better? Good news or bad, I’ll hear it a dozen times before I leave.
My doctor parades me around like a Clydesdale. I feel self-conscious about my teeth.
Everyone loves you.
I was the most gifted candy smuggler in generations, I’m told. That goes a long way.
What doesn’t kill you only makes your sweet-tooth stronger.
You’re a success story. People like those.
I don’t feel like a success story.
There’s a group of kids at Children’s. They could use someone like you. They’re all chronics. Would mean a lot if you could come talk to them.
I’m not a therapist.
They’ve got therapists and doctors out the wazoo. What they don’t have is someone like them. Someone who’s been where they’ve been and somehow made it out.
It wasn’t a miracle. I was misdiagnosed.
Doesn’t matter. It’s the hope that counts. You can give them that. Really do some good. Just don’t get too attached, and, whatever you do, don’t give the kids your phone number.
I’m thirty-three, driving my car on the beltway around my city. It’s been almost a decade since I counseled anyone about anything. Sophia is dead. Christian is dead. Dad is dead. The Vietnam War has been over for forty years. Somewhere across the ocean, my future-friend’s child is alive and vibrant. I’m going eighty miles an hour. I want to go faster.
My cell phone rings. It’s a nurse from the hospital. My test results are in. Cancer.
Are you sure?
What’s the prognosis? What stage? Has it spread?
Sir, I don’t have any of that information. All I know is your test was indicative of a type of lymphoma.
Should I come in?
If you’d like to schedule an appointment that would be great.
Can I do that now?
Sir, I’m Dr. Q’s head nurse; I don’t make appointments. If you want to call the hospital’s main line they can transfer you to oncology.
Ok. Great, I guess.
Good! Is there anything else I can help you with today?
…I don’t think so.
Wonderful! If you can think of anything, just give us a call back here at the office. Bye-bye.
I hang up and nothing changes. The cars around me stay perfectly placed, all of us a few feet apart, traveling deadly speeds, in our automated bubbles. I make eye contact with another driver. I want to tell her. I want to tell somebody. But there’s no universal sign for “I just found out I have cancer.”
I look back to the highway. It takes about four hours to drive the loop around my city. I’ve lived there my whole life. I do it for the first time, following the endless white lines back to the spot where I picked up the phone. I replay the conversation in my head one last time. It still doesn’t make sense.
I pull off at my exit and go to tell my new girlfriend the weird rash on my skin is malignant. I hide my relief, the part of me that feels karmic justice has been served.
My friend is finishing her story. She’s telling me about holding her son down as they gave him treatment, about how at the end he was just as worried for her as she was for him. I see my friends at the slumber party, my counseling kids in the hospital lobby eating their donuts and juice like oranges grow on trees. I feel lymphoma crawling across my body, the chemo drugs burning in my veins.
She’s crying. I should be able to say something. All this time, all this loss. I am marinated in it. Surely some sort of wisdom has soaked into me, so I can offer more than platitudes.
I look down at my hands, cancer crawling across my knuckles like ivy, at the particular way I am holding my coffee cup. Just so.
Breathe, I tell her, making her match the rise and fall of her chest to mine, harmonizing the beating of our scared, rabbit hearts. I can hear the rush of air in and out. My lungs. Her lungs. Our lungs. There is peace in it, power even. It is the sound of an engine rumbling, of an open phone line stretching to infinity, beyond the reach of any dial tone.
Tell me if I stop.
—Barlow Adams (Reservoir Road Literary Journal)