I don’t know what I clicked on on my (very old) laptop this morning, but I suddenly found many of my old papers that had been written during my time as a Creating Writing minor in college – fiction, nonfiction, scientific – and was amazed. I don’t have much to share with you in my current life – so here is a look into my past writing. I hope you enjoy.
“Your family is in our prayers.”
Another neighbor, another casserole, another hug, another prayer. I came home to watch my younger brother, not to play shrink to the 14,000 people that live in Meadville. They all come bringing food, advice, and their speeches of God and praying. Neighbors that I didn’t know existed, friends that I hadn’t seen in years, and the entire Meadville Bulldog hockey team seemed to think that I need to do nothing but eat and pray. I took the dishes and handed them to my growing, and very hungry, brother. I accepted the hugs and swore that I would wash the smell of Chanel from my clothes the following day. But I just couldn’t withstand the prayers.
You see my dad was diagnosed with leukemia two weeks ago. Not just leukemia, AML – acute myelogenous leukemia – the type that kills you. There were no symptoms to warn him that his body was killing itself. No bruises, no nausea, not even a stuffy nose. He felt tired. Tired! Everyone else feels tired and takes a nap, but not my dad. My dad’s a surgeon, valedictorian of Boston University Medical School, he knows his shit. He’s also athletic. Basketball, baseball, football, track – you name it – he did it. Between sports, surgery, and trying to control us kids, he just doesn’t have time to be sick. The last time he was bed-ridden was from tearing his Achilles tendon trying to out slam-dunk my brother. One routine blood test reversed his entire world. He went from the surgeon to the patient, from the provider to the invalid, and from the person in charge of his body to the person whose body had full control.
The phone rings. It’s my Uncle Bob.
“You know Carleigh, if you need anyone to talk to, we’ve all been through this before. We have the answers for some of your questions.”
I hang up.
I knew that my family had been through this before. I was there. I read the fucking eulogy. My Uncle Doug had also been diagnosed with leukemia after getting a blood test because he felt tired. He too was sent to the seventh floor of West Penn Hospital, the exact place where my dad lies hooked to the central line that drips poison into his blood. Same doctors? Check. Same nurses? Check. Same treatment? Check. Same prayers? Check. The only difference is that my Uncle Doug died. I was ten years old when my uncle died, and yet my family seems to forget that I even existed. I remember his bloated face, I remember his bald head, I remember his pain, and I remember his death. I remember when the doctor tried to comfort me by saying that he was now in a better place; heaven. So I guess there’s another difference – I don’t want my dad in a better place, I want him right here with me.
It is also because of my uncle’s death that I hate hospitals. The smell of sterility, the sound of silence, the lack of warmth in the air, even the pink pastels that cover the walls bother me. Everything that defines a hospital lacks the beauty of life. Pushing past my disgust I had rushed to Pittsburgh when my mother told me of my father’s illness, prepared for battle. Single-handedly I would fight off the obnoxious blast cells that were taking over his body, find new research that would cure him in record time, and find a way to make hospital food appetizing, all in one week. But within seconds of walking into my dad’s hospital room I realized that none of these things would happen – especially not in a week. He looked weak. He looked pale. He looked sad. I slowly set down my purse and walked over to his bed, reaching down to hug him.
I abruptly jerked up and spun around. Having no idea what I was doing wrong, I was shocked and angered at the interruption of my display of affection. I turned to the nurse ready to explain myself when she quickly clarified her actions.
“You can’t touch him without first washing your hands and sterilizing.”
With this simple request, my view of my dad was instantly changed. The strong man that I had leaned on for twenty one years was now weak. And if he couldn’t even fight off the germs that were living on his own daughter, how was he going to resist the cancer that was invading his white blood cells? What if I was the one who killed him? What if it had been the bacteria that came from my body? I quickly walked over to the sink and rolled up my sleeves, trying to “sterilize” as much of my body as possible. I scrubbed my hands and forearms viciously, as though preparing myself for surgery. Suddenly I realized just how reversed this was. For the first time in my life my father was the one needing comfort and treatment, and I in turn was scrubbing in.
I sat down in the chair next to his bed and we began to talk as if nothing had changed. He asked me about school and I lied about my grades. He asked about the Bills and I told him how good Edwards was looking in replacement for Losman. He asked how vet school applications were coming and I told him that I had just gotten into the second round at Michigan State. With every question that he asked I answered in the most positive way I possibly could, trying to bring joy into his deteriorating life. After thirty minutes of small talk the hospital room had almost disappeared and my father was simply that – just a dad. Suddenly I was brought back into reality when the machinery that he was attached to started beeping rapidly. My head jerked in the direction of the obnoxious noise, and I quickly stood ready to hunt down a nurse.
“Sit down Carleigh, it just means my platelets are done. The nurse will come in.”
He pressed the button on his bed that connects him with the nurse’s station, telling them that his monitor was beeping. I looked up at the television screen. Yankees were losing. Pictures of my family covered walls, tables, and any shelf that hasn’t been covered by cards sent from friends. My head turned to the windowsill which is littered with pistachios, peanut M&M’s, and twizzlers – my dad’s menu on days when he’s not dieting alongside my mother. Posters of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas hung on the walls. Looking past the junk food I could see the top of a cathedral; beautiful and ornate, and yet shadowed by none other than the oncology ward of the hospital. Souvenirs of his previous life enveloped my father in his imprisonment, constantly reminding him of two things: what he once had, and what he might never have again.
Cut to four hours later. Exhausted and starving, my mother and I drive the five blocks to our Family Home, a hotel built strictly for the families of patients at West Penn and UPMC Shadyside. The only difference between this place and a hotel is that everyone who stays here knows what it feels like to have your world shattered by a simple blood test. My mom swings her SUV into the only open parking spot within miles and sits back into her seat, the leather squeaking with the shift. I peak at her from the corner of my eye and start to unbuckle my seat belt in slow motion.
“Carleigh, what do you believe in?”
I wanted to reassure her, I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t want to lie. My mom knew that I didn’t believe in God. How could I? He was always brutally shoved down my throat. I answered the only way I knew how.
“I believe in medicine Mom. I believe that the chemo is going to work. I believe that Dad is strong and will pull through this.” My mom looked at me in astonishment before unbuckling her seat belt and off-handedly replying.
“Really? That’s shocking, because I don’t think your sister does.”
My sister was a perfectionist. She was smart. She was pretty. She was going to be a doctor – to hear that she didn’t believe in medicine shocked me. As the only person in our family who wanted to, or was smart enough, to pursue allopathic medicine, she had spent the last three years in medical school learning to do just that. She was also the strong one. Although 5’1, she overcame the size of her body with the size of her mind. She was my role model, my confidante, and most importantly my best friend. Her lack of faith caused fear to erupt in my own beliefs. If she didn’t think that the chemo would work then why should I? Suddenly the thousands of prayers that had been spoken for my father’s health had been deleted solely by my sister’s inability to have faith in the medicine that was treating him. I began to question my own faith as we climbed the four flights of stairs to our apartment.
Let me be honest – I hated the Family House. It was one of those structures in the world that I respected but despised at the same time. Sort of like chemotherapy – it was there to help you, but really it just sucked. Two twin beds, a pull out couch, cable television, and wireless internet all adorn your humble abode. They provided a kitchen to cook in, therapists to council you, and a grand piano to play in your spare time, and all for the price of what? Don’t worry. On top of the 50 bucks you spend per night, all you need is to have someone you love be told they’re dying. It’s a real life-saver in the oddest of terms.
My mom began unpacking, all the while mumbling under her breath about how alcohol was not allowed in the apartments. Living 90 miles north of Pittsburgh had never been seen as a burden for shopping trips or hockey games, but to be that separated from my father was not an option. Her decision to move away from Meadville and locate herself in Pittsburgh had been hard but necessary. Small yet sturdy, she had shown her strength all day merely by keeping it together. Today had been special: it was my fathers 54th birthday. Presents and card were given, sterilized, and then read. A cake was delivered, but nausea overtook the desire to eat it. Friends, family, and doctors all called to wish him a happy birthday from afar, proof that his cancer had officially consumed his life. And yet when we asked him what he had wished for after blowing out the mock candles, he gave us the same answer that he had every year.
“That the Buffalo Bills will win the Superbowl.”
We laughed. The doctors thought he was kidding. I knew he spoke the truth. That’s just my dad. He has faith in the littlest things with the worst luck. He has stuck with the Bills from one bad season to the next. He even sat through Michael Jackson doing the halftime show. Tailgating in 85° heat in the preseason and sitting through blizzards in December, he had never given up on “his” Buffalo Bills. 2007 was his 17th year as a season ticket holder and for the first time he wouldn’t be at the games. When I asked him whether or not he liked his doctor he had simply said “Well, he’s a Bill’s fan, so I guess he’s a good guy.” A “Bill’s fan” is strong. They don’t give up when times get tough. They stick around even when their team is 1-15.
I’m a Bill’s fan too – I learned it from my dad. He taught me the names of the wide receivers, the yardage in a first down, and even how to throw a Hail Mary. Game after game, I have sat beside him in absolute wonder at just how bad an NFL team could be, and time after time I drove the two hours home with him in silence after a big loss. I grew out of jerseys just as quickly as the Bill’s traded quarterbacks.
That’s what brought me here. After getting to see my father for a few days, I was forced to come home to babysit my 18 year old brother. He wasn’t handling my dad’s cancer very well, and being the stereotypical teenager, had locked himself in his room. As I sat down by myself to watch the Bills get crushed by the Cowboys, I began to wonder why I never cheer for the winning team. I love football. I also love to win. So why do I like the Bills? Wait. I watch in astonishment as Wilson intercepts the ball. Bills 7 – Cowboys 0.
“NICK! Get down here! The Bills just scored!”
My brother races down from his room. He stares wide-eyed at the TV screen. He smiles for the first time in five days. This can’t be happening – the Bills don’t win. And the Cowboys are good, like real good. Interceptions, blocked throws, floundering kicks, with each play my cell phone lights up as my father calls.
“Are you watching this? Can you believe this?”
He is excited. He sounds happy. He sounds alive.
At the end of the game the Cowboys pull through in the last 20 seconds, beating us 25-24. Its 11:30 at night, but my exhausted father still has the energy to make one last call – to me.
“That was awesome,” he says breathlessly.
“But Dad, we lost. And if only Jauron had run Lynch, we could’ve held ‘em.”
My dad laughs. He is always amused when I throw out names and stats.
“Don’t worry Carleigh, we’ll get ‘em next time.”
He was right. There will always be a next time. After every game, the score is wiped clean and we pick ourselves up and begin again. I know that my dad won’t go before seeing his beloved Bills win a Superbowl, and luckily that won’t be anytime soon. Because my dad’s a true fan. He’s strong. He doesn’t give up when times are tough. That’s why I know my dad will beat this. I may not believe in prayer – how could I when I don’t believe in God? But I have faith even through the bad times– I have to – I’m a Bills fan too.