Liz scowls at the floor, her arms folded across her oversized gray hooded sweatshirt. Dammit, dammit, dammit, she thinks. Five more minutes and I would have been out the door for a nice, long run. Then they would have had to call Mom and make her leave work. I promised Coach C I would go for a run today. I’ll probably be here all effing day. She glances up at the narrow windows surrounding this waiting room, stares for a moment at a maple tree at the far end of the parking lot. One tiny golden cluster of leaves shines in the late morning sun. She sighs, uncrosses her legs and bends over to retie her running shoes. Maybe while she’s down here in Louisville, she’ll have time to stop at the mall and get a new pair. These are almost eighteen months old. Picking absently at a loose gold stripe on the side of the shoes, she feels a swell of fury rise up inside her. I’m sure he’ll be too tired to go shopping. If I’m going to go, it has to be right now.
When the orderly wheeled her father through the double doors into the radiation treatment area, he had smiled and said they would be back shortly. What did that mean? It’s already been twenty minutes. Who ever heard of emergency radiation treatment anyway? On Saturday? She sighs again remembering how shocked the nurses at the small emergency room in her hometown said when Liz suggested there should be some sort of hospital van to drive patients around on weekends instead of demanding the family do it.
Crossing her arms again and yawning, she heaves herself upright and walks to the far side of the waiting room. A display of black and white photographs of mostly smiling women dominates the room. A legend in large print on the first panel explains that these are all breast cancer survivors who wanted to share their experiences. Liz gravitates toward a photograph of a gaunt young woman wearing a turban. In the photograph, the woman holds a laughing baby over her head staring and smiling at her intensely. The caption indicates that she is grateful to have had four years so far to spend with the child she was carrying when she found a lump A smaller photograph at the end of the display shows the child, now older, but still smiling, sitting on the lap of the woman at least twenty pounds heavier, with a full head of curly, red hair.
Liz walks away. When was the last time her father laughed? Probably the night he shaved his hair off. It had been falling out in clumps for a week. One night Liz heard the vague hum of his electric razor through her bedroom wall. It took a few minutes to realize what he was doing. The buzzing went on and on until she thought she would scream. Then, from downstairs, came her mother’s gasp and her younger sister Heather’s giggles. Dad had giggled too. She heard them all admiring the pale skin and smooth surface of his newly bald head. Liz stayed in her room that night and found a reason to leave for school early in the morning. She didn’t see her father’s head until the next day when she walked into the kitchen just in time to see him retching into the sink.
That had been springtime; now, in mid-September, she finds herself shocked at how little she remembers from the summer. Her father was frequently hospitalized or in his room sleeping, her mother driving him back and forth to appointments or cleaning rooms at the Marriott. On the forty-minute drive from the ER to this cancer center, Liza had found herself shooting glances at her father, hoping he would say something. Instead he sat still, looking out the window or at his hands in his lap. Then, at the hospital, he struggled to get out of the car. She had to give him her hand to help him stand. As they walked, he gripped her arm tightly, letting go only long enough to pull up his jeans. When had he gotten so skinny? He mostly wore sweatpants around the house; she hadn’t noticed the weight loss. Liza thought he would laugh when she told him about her two-year-old brother Chris crawling out into a puddle in the yard in his diaper and getting himself covered in mud. Mom had thrown a fit when she saw Liz taking a picture of him leaning over to drink from the puddle instead of cleaning him up. This was the kind of story they used to be able to share. Instead he just mumbled something about helping her mother more.
Help Mom more. Liz’s hand rises momentarily to scratch at a sore pimple on her forehead, then drops to her side. Mom is so often at work or with Dad or Chris that Liz has been cooking almost every day for at least the past month. Sure, maybe she makes spaghetti too often, but it’s easy and cheap, and everyone who eats it. Everyone who comes home. Heather has been hanging out at her friends’ houses a lot, and Mom has to work most evenings. Liz can’t remember the last time she saw her mother sit down for dinner. Last Tuesday night Liz came downstairs after reading a story to Chris and saw her mother scraping her uneaten plate of meatballs into the garbage. Liz watched her put the dirty plate in the strainer with the dishes Liz had washed, then lean over the counter shaking. Liz had walked back upstairs, and then got up early to wash and dry the dishes a second time before going to school that morning. Now in the waiting room, she catches herself staring at the photos of breast cancer survivors. She picks again at the pimple until she feels it bleed and her eyes sting with pain.
Liz catches a glimpse of her reflection as she passes by one of the windows. “Ugh, white trash,” she mutters, lowering her head and looking away. Last week a well-dressed woman leaned toward her daughter and whispered loudly about those dirty children and their welfare mother buying ice cream and popsicles with her food stamps.
“No wonder those children are so pale,” the woman had sniffed. The daughter snickered as if this was the best joke she had heard that year. Liz feels her face flush in rage and humiliation. She should have screamed that milkshakes and popsicles are the only things her father can eat, and what did they expect her mother to do when his health insurance had been terminated right after his first surgery? But she hadn’t said anything. She had take Chris’s sticky hand and smoothed his curly hair as they walked toward the checkout.
It’s been thirty minutes. Liz sits down and opens The Scarlet Letter. She is thankful she remembered to grab her backpack after the doctor called from the emergency room. She’ll probably be at this cancer center all day. Across the room, two small blonde girls lie on the floor coloring in identical “Barbie” books. Their shiny hair is pulled back into neat ponytails and they wear matching pink dresses. Liz puts her book in her laps and watches the girls run to a woman with bright eyes and coral lipstick. She leans down, puts her arms around them and smiles each time one of them runs to her. The woman must have cancer too because she is wearing one of those flowered head wraps. What did she do to get cancer? It’s obvious with Dad. The whole family had told him for years to quit smoking, but he laughed and called the cigarettes his “cancer sticks.” He quit after his doctor told him he had a spot on his lung, but that seemed absurd. Liz is still staring at the little girls, but she no longer sees them. Damn cigarettes, damn Dad. He did this to himself and he doesn’t even care. All the radiation, all the chemo, the surgeries don’t seem to be helping. He still lies in bed all day, vomits his food, hardly talks to anyone, not even Mom.
“He can’t even thank me for driving him to the hospital on a Saturday,” she whispers, rubbing her eyes.
A gentle cough interrupts. Her father is sitting in a wheelchair next to her seat. For a moment she meets his pale blue eyes, glistening from their dark, sunken sockets. She hadn’t heard the orderly wheel him out. He opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, Liz leans over to stuff the book into her backpack.
“Are you ready?” she asks him brusquely, grabbing the wheelchair.
He looks down at the floor, gripping the armrests. “Yep.”
Liz nods, listening to her father wheezing as he tries to catch his breath. When he remains quiet, she pushes the wheelchair out into the warm September afternoon.