Life outside Dad’s illness continued with little concern for our needs. Lars and I negotiated our way through the demands on my time gingerly; we didn’t have many people upon who we could call to take care of Milo when I was gone, so I tried to schedule as many of Dad’s appointments for times when Milo was at school. Lars would take a break from work if I just couldn’t swing it, but his own job was ramping up, and more clients were knocking on his door. Lars juggled a full docket while making room for the inevitable hiccups Dad’s condition created. 

At last Lars got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and though he had carved out a career where he mostly worked from home, sometimes Los Angeles demanded he show his face around. Lars packed up ruefully, knowing Dad’s situation demanded more of me than was available. 

Thursday morning, two days after Lars left, I pulled lunch together as I cajoled Milo to finish a poster for his kindergarten class, which, confusingly, he lovingly crafted but didn’t want to take to school. I put cereal in front of him because it was just easier that way.

When you’re six-years-old and your poster is finished, and it’s lovely and sweet and made by hand, and it’s about your favorite bird which happens to be the nightingale—why do you resist taking it in? It had me stumped, so I asked him about it while he was slowly chewing Cheerios. He shrugged.

“Is it because you have to talk about it in class?” I asked.

Milo’s sobs burst like a dam, and I looked for anything to grab onto which, it seemed to me, was levity and a little humor.

"There are people who have to speak in front of other people all the time,” I started awkwardly, “and they get nervous, too. They have ways of dealing with it; one of them is pretty funny!”

You know this part, right? When I explained that the best way to deal stage fright was to imagine the audience in their underwear? Perfect six-year-old humor. A shot out of the park. A home run straight over the fence.

Milo laughed for a second. Then he got really upset. “It’s not funny! I’m going to make Nuclear Bomb Number 11 and blow everything up!” he blurted as he ran from the room, now not just horrified at having to speak in front of his class, but horrified that his mother, that MOM, his champion and imp-slayer, could minimize his terror this way.

This wasn’t going according to plan.

“I’m not making fun at all!” I babbled, looking for ways to make what should have been right—and turned so wrong—right again. “People really do pretend that they’re speaking to a room full of naked people!”

“It’s not funny!” he wept bitterly.

“I’m not trying to be funny,” I said, which was maybe true? Not true? Partly true? What the hell was I doing? “I’m trying to be helpful,” I said, pathetically.

“You’re making it worse! IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!” he shouted.

“Come on, you can’t be mean just because I’m not helping.”

Fly Away , gouache on paper, 1995

Fly Away, gouache on paper, 1995

I coaxed him into a false sense of security by telling him that I would talk to his teacher about how nervous he was, as I corralled both Milo and the poster of satanic nightingales into the car, whereby a Nightingale of Gomorrah had the temerity to fall off the poster and get lost, making me look even more criminal.

I pulled over Milo’s teacher in the hall.  “He’s really…” 

“He’ll get a chance to practice one-on-one before he does it in front of the group,” she replied in her soothing kindergarten voice.

 “…the crying…” 

“I know, these little guys are so amazing. Every year I give them this assignment, and every year they really pull it together.” 

I said, “But the…” 

And she turned around and that was that.

I drove home and parked, where our sprinkler system had commit seppuku and was blasting rockets of water into the air, turning our yard into the Bellagio, gallons of water streaming toward our house, its porous foundation held together by sand and prayers. I went to the basement, turned off the system, which had never—in the five years we’d lived there—worked, and soaked up the water that leached through our foundation, but not before I slammed my head into a bolt under the mop sink. 

It was 8:15 a.m. 

I sat down with a cup of coffee before Dad’s radiation therapy, one of those cancer-specific oxymorons that makes you wonder who, exactly, is naming these treatments? And then I drove to Dad’s.

Dad was flattened, curled up like a tired dog. But I was also tired, defeated before ten in the morning, and not inclined toward much in the way of being soothing or nice.

Which was okay, because he wasn’t either.

“Do you have anything you need done today, Dad?”

“I have a list of groceries at home and we can pick them up later,” he said.

“Just give me the list.”

“No, it’s all right. I have some checks I need to deposit, so I’ll come with you.”

I looked at Dad. I wanted to cut my losses. “I don’t need you to deposit checks,” I said. “I can do it.”

“I need the exercise,” he said.

Dad was gray. He was wasted from the radiation. He didn’t need the exercise, at least to my mind. Plus, I had things I needed to do being pushed further into the recesses of my already crappy day. “Save your energy for taking a walk around the block, doing something you want to do,” I argued. “You don’t need a chore to get some exercise.”

He snorted. “Shows what you know!”

We got him zapped and I drove Dad home, still arguing about whether he should come shopping or not. “I can do all these things. You’re tired, you’re under assault. Go home!”

I’m concerned if I don’t exercise now, I’m going to lose all function!” he spat. “If I don’t keep some muscle tone in my legs I won’t be able to pull myself off the toilet! I won’t be able to walk across my house! I won’t be able to do my laundry!” Dad was curling up protectively but also lashing out; I could sense, for the first time, exactly how vulnerable he felt.

It didn’t make me any more retractable or accommodating, however. I was also exhausted, already spent from a crying boy and broken sprinklers and leaking basements. I still felt the throb of my head where I had smacked it; a big lump had grown there. I was in no mood for it.

“Is this all you need?” I asked when he handed me the abbreviated list. It was pretty paltry.

"No, there’s stuff I need from Trader Joe’s, too. I’ll get it later.”

“Give it to me,” I demanded.

Dad filled out the rest of the list with a petulant glower. It was easier for me to do it alone, but in Dad’s eyes I was being meddlesome and bossy, impinging on what little remained of his self-determination.

Which was just how it was going to be, I guess. I went shopping and to the bank. I brought his groceries home and we barely spoke as we put them away. 

It was time to pick up Milo from school.

I had signed Milo up for an after-school class, and made sure that he was enrolled with a couple of kids he knew as a buffer to his shyness. But his morning had been so raw that I wondered if it was fair to leave him hanging like that, though I needed nothing so much as a break. I decided to see how he was and let the day unfold as it would.

I waited in the hall as all the kids filed out to their parents, Milo crying inconsolably at the rear of the pack. It was the first time he had left his class in tears since the beginning of the year. I took him home, fed him, put him to bed and curled around him, both of us silent and marred by circumstance. All of us were miserable, Dad, Milo and I, but when Lars called that night, there weren’t words to explain.

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