The worst thing I ever saw in the hospital was a birthday party. It was one of the nights that my father shared a room with three other men. Curtains were drawn, but you could easily peek past the orange and brown stripes to the other beds. In one corner, a few tufts of white hair waved out from a lump under the sheet; in another, a gray-bearded man gazed at his electronic heartbeat as if it was a lava lamp; and diagonally, in the fourth bed, a young guy had his nineteenth birthday party.
His stubble-covered head was shadowy with sprouts of longer, darker hair. He had friends, cake, and balloons around the bed, like a little kid’s party. They couldn’t light the candles because of the oxygen in the room, so he made a wish and pretended to blow out the nonexistent flames. His mother offered cake and soda to my sister Alex and me.
“Thanks,” we said, and she served a slice to each of us. It was a grocery store cake with yellow layers like a dish sponge and thick globs of icing that tasted like marshmallow and lard. I picked at it, thinking that I better eat it, considering.
His mother touched my elbow. “I’d like to find a doctor while I’m here,” she said. “If you know what I mean.” She had a thick Brooklyn accent and gesticulated as she talked, her gold bracelets jingling.
I tried not to stare at her son, but my eyes kept darting back to him.
Alex asked her, “Do you need a checkup?”
“He can do what he wants.” She laughed. “See if they know you, then you got it made. Then you can trust them. If you’re married to one of them, you get the best service. My friend Patty, she has a cousin in Vegas who’s married to a doctor and always gets a private room. It’s about connections. Look here. If I was married to one of them, we’d be in a private.”
I glanced at my father. He’d never had a private.
“You know in street clothes though, they’re not so good-looking. I saw the oncologist, Dr. Kornovoy — I saw him on the corner of 34th and he had this green sweater on with these huge purple dots? Oyoyoy. You’d think with their kind of money he could buy a nice-looking sweater.”
Her son, in the bed, rolled his eyes.
She introduced herself — her name was Gigi Backus — and her son, Sasha (a girl’s name, I thought, though he didn’t look girlish, even though he was thin and pale with blue eyes and jet-black lashes.) Gigi’s eyes were lined in smeared charcoal, her lips glistened with gloss, and her hair was whipped into a yellow froth. She looked too young to be his mother.
She lowered her voice. “They’re flushing out his system.”
I pictured a huge toilet with hoses or some hulking vacuum cleaner.
“Mom,” the boy said. Gigi went over to him, and he whispered something in her ear.
I knew I should wish him a happy birthday, but I couldn’t. A part of me wanted to be extra nice, and another part thought I should ignore him — he wouldn’t want my charity. And what could I say? Happy birthday! says the healthy fifteen-year-old girl. Many happy returns! Thanks for the yummy cake!
I felt sort of sick from the whole thing, stunned by the whole soap opera traffic-accident scene of the young guy dying. But in a soap opera he’d get up at the end and walk away and live. If he died, it would be because he was a dispensable character, unimportant to the show.
When we left the hospital that night I told my sister, “I feel bad for him.”
“That guy — Sasha.”
“You know. The cancer guy.”
“Oh. The cancer guy.”
After that, we referred to him as the cancer guy. As in: Be quiet, the cancer guy is sleeping. And: I saw the cancer guy in the hallway, he’s looking better. And in my diary: I think the cancer guy is kind of cute.
Four months later, after my father was home from the hospital and had recovered from bypass surgery, I was still thinking of the cancer guy, wondering if he was still alive. He was in my mind even as we waited at the Port Authority bus terminal with my sister, who was about to leave for college. Our father was going on about having to give up smoked fish.
“Sable. Lox. Kippers. Sturgeon,” he incanted, as if in a trance, as if reciting some kind of smoked-fish poem.
My sister rolled her eyes. She shifted her purple knapsack on her shoulder and stared down the dirty red-and-beige-tiled corridor.
“What about nova?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “Nova. Still too salty.” The saltiness was the problem: he was prone to fluid in the lungs, which was aggravated by salt.
My sister took her knapsack off and stuffed her Curious George even deeper inside, though he didn’t entirely fit and part of his head poked out. He’d been slept on so long he looked like he’d been stuck in a flower press.
She’d received a scholarship to Cornell and was leaving early for her summer orientation program. My father had wanted to drive her to Ithaca, but she preferred to take the bus.
The driver approached the line and started taking tickets. “Well, bye,” my sister said, and hugged us quickly.
“You have the calling card?” my father asked.
“Call when you get in,” he said. She nodded and gave her ticket to the driver. She loaded her duffel bag into the luggage compartment, waved, and disappeared behind the tinted windows. Just like that, she was gone.
My dad said: “Well.”
We kept standing in the corridor. “Let’s wait till it takes off,” he said. We moved to the uncomfortable swing-down bench (invented to stop homeless people from sleeping on it, my father declared) and waited. Neither of us mentioned my mother. She had died eight months earlier, nine days after she’d been diagnosed with metastasized melanoma. She would have insisted on driving to Ithaca, I thought. She would have made Alex pack an extra duffel filled with brand-new towels and sheets. My father had told Alex to take her old Snoopy sheets with her; they were good enough.
The bus groaned, exhaled, and squealed off. We got up and headed toward 39th Street, where the car was parked.
The air felt heavy and strange now that my sister wasn’t with us — the streets looked unfamiliar and wrong. My father walked in front of me; he wore shorts in the August heat. Frankenstein-like scars ran down the insides of his legs, where they’d removed arteries for his bypass surgery. The scars mortified me — why did he flash them for all to see? Most things about my father had begun to mortify me. He wore T-shirts splotched with coffee or mustard stains and didn’t notice. He chewed with his mouth open. He had bad teeth — horrible teeth that had been capped when he was little, and now the caps had worn through to rings of silver and gold and raw beige aging tooth.
“I wish you’d just wear pants,” I said.
“It’s hotter than hell out here. The street’s melting.” He got in the car, unlocked the passenger door, and I sat on the hot velour seat.
My father said, “I want you and me to go on a vacation.”
“What?” My mind was deluged by disturbing images of sitting on a beach beside my father in his Gilligan-style sunhat, or driving to the Grand Canyon in our Mercury Zephyr, spending untold hours listening to his beloved Willie Nelson tapes (who could spend his whole life in New York City and love Willie Nelson?).
“I have a job. The Queens Burger needs me,” I said.
“It’s a diner — they don’t need anyone. You can take a week off.”
He took a return envelope from AT&T out of his shirt pocket; he liked to use garbage as his daily planner. “It’s the Healthy Heart Week,” he read off the torn flap, “hosted at the Green Springs Health Resort, sponsored by Virginia University Hospital. A companion is suggested for attendance. Also, it’s underenrolled, so they dropped the price.”
“I don’t want to go to Virginia.”
“You’ll love it. They have a swimming pool.”
“I can’t swim!”
“You’ll take a lesson.” He tuned the radio to a country music station, to some man crooning about his bruised heart or burnt-down house or dead dog — I could never tell the difference. I pictured my sister’s bus barreling up the highway to Ithaca. Where was Ithaca, anyway? She’d shown me on the map, and I couldn’t even remember. It seemed so far away it could’ve been Nebraska or Idaho. It seemed even farther away than Virginia. I pictured the college’s castle-like buildings and gorges, its campus paradise.
At home in Queens, my father went about his business as if nothing had changed — he turned on the air conditioner and poured himself a glass of caffeine-free Coke. I wished I was the one on that bus.
“Look at this.” He handed me the Green Springs brochure.
THE HEALTHY HEART WEEK
FOR THOSE AT RISK AND THOSE WHO LOVE THEM
Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. Are you or your loved ones at risk?
Learn how to modify diet, stress, and exercise habits to increase your health, longevity, and happiness. Our program has three pillars: Diet, Stress Reduction, and Exercise. Take a cooking class, learn tennis or tai chi, and acquire the ability to relax even under the most stressful circumstances. Physicians will be on hand for personal evaluations.
Because your family deserves a bright future
Beneath this was a picture of two parents, a son, and a daughter frolicking on a hillside. The rest of the pamphlet delved into a range of subjects from HDL, LDL, triglyceride counts, and artery plaque to beneficial cooking oils and relaxation techniques. I knew all about these things. I knew my triglyceride count (145), and I knew the benefits of monounsaturated fats versus polyunsaturated, saturated, and hydrogenated. I knew the difference between isoflavones and bioflavonoids. I understood these things because my parents had amassed an impressive library of health books over the years, and in the past few months I’d begun to make my way through them. The library included, but was not limited to, volumes on heart disease, assorted cancers, autoimmune conditions, intestinal disorders, and the meaning of vague symptoms — basically, everything that could go wrong with the human body, and a plethora of theories on how to fix it.
My sister, my father, and I used to think that my mother was a hypochondriac because she kept buying and reading these books. She always thought some strange thing might be wrong with her; throughout her life she kept going to the doctor with notebooks of her symptoms (I found them after she died — ulcers, cluster headaches, random aches and pains, indigestion, a swollen knee, canker sores.) We thought she was insane. We rolled our eyes and whispered that she was crazy for worrying so much over nothing.
That was what made me feel queasy now to even think about. What if we’d taken her complaints seriously? Her first pain from the cancer had been a stomach ache. A stomach ache! “Your mother comes in with a stomach ache and finds out she’s a dying woman!” the gastroenterologist had said to us in the hall soon after her diagnosis. (How could you say that to a family in the hall?) But what if we’d known about melanoma earlier — had known that it even existed? She hadn’t even been in the sun that much, but we should never have let her sit on a lawn chair in our tiny yard at all.
The disease books also gave me a strange sense of companionship — we weren’t the only family who’d been blindsided. It was astonishing how many diseases could be lurking in you without your knowledge, how many health hazards were waiting to sneak up on you. My father’s Health Now newsletters were the scariest. They were filled with terrifying stories of people who’d died from eating contaminated radishes, or from a blood clot that they’d gotten from sitting too long and which had traveled to the lung. All sorts of cancers took people by surprise. My mother hadn’t been the only one to die in a week from what seemed at first to be nothing.
My father saved all his Health Now back issues, and I read them like a Stephen King novel. In addition to profiling little-known diseases, the newsletter blew the whistle on the worst cancer-causing, heart-disease-inducing foods in articles like: “Ten Foods for an Early Death.” “A Sure Path to a Heart Attack.” One issue had stories of E. Coli and salmonella, and a tale called “Death from Eating a Hamburger.” Another issue focused on “Candy: Trick, not a Treat” which informed me that “just one Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar looks innocent enough — but are thirty seconds of pleasure really worth half your day’s saturated fat? To your heart, it looks like a Quarter Pounder. Call it the death snack.”
Death snack? I’d stared guiltily at a Twix wrapper poking out of my book bag.
July was the carcinogen issue, with its never-ending list of foes: burnt toast, shampoo, cleansers, grilled meat, peanuts, water, air. One article ended by stating: “People everywhere are unwittingly causing their own diseases – staying out in the sun too long, eating the wrong foods, being exposed to unfortunate chemicals.”
Right after my mother died, my father took us to a dermatologist to have our skin checked, just to be sure the bad genes we’d inherited weren’t already proliferating, that it wasn’t already too late. I’d lain on the dermatologist’s table as he gauged an atypical nevus (a.k.a weird-looking mole) off my stomach. I could feel the blood dripping painlessly (he’d shot it with anesthesia) and felt almost comically lackadaisical: Eh, who cares. Whatever. If I die, I die. So what. Dying didn’t look all that bad.
Because, then, for a brief period after my mother’s death, when I thought of that specific nanosecond in time, it had seemed almost calm. It had seemed strangely quiet, almost peaceful, in retrospect — it seemed, really, like passing. She was there, and then she wasn’t. Her body was hers, and then it was something she’d left behind.
Bashert, my mother used to say to herself, to comfort herself when someone died, like our elementary school principal, Mrs. Kouliadades, who died of breast cancer, or Mrs. Hamish across the street, of diabetes. It was Yiddish for fate, for meant to be, for there was no point arguing about it since there was nothing you could do, she’d said. It seemed like a word for coming to terms with things and accepting chance. Not to dwell. To move on and forget.
I said bashert to myself after she died, but it didn’t make me feel any better. And that feeling of calmness surrounding her death hadn’t lasted long — the memories of the horrible parts won out. Her suffering and vomiting, peeing the color of coffee; my sister screaming and crying; the feeling of machines inside me, grinding my inner organs to a pulp — that’s what was most vivid to me now. What were the stages in that grief book my school guidance counselor had given me? I couldn’t remember, but I was sure that Worry should be one of them.
The mole turned out to be benign, but I got scared. I started examining my moles closely and keeping detailed notes on them, as the dermatologist had instructed, on the lookout for suspicious growth or changes. I memorized the ABCD’s of Melanoma pamphlet he’d given me.
Then I met the cancer guy, and my worries increased. “He was tired — that was the first sign. He had to lie down in the middle of the day. Then he had these red spots on his legs,” Gigi told us in the hallway one afternoon, remembering. “It happened when he was fifteen. I called the doctor and he said to come in right away. He knew what it was right off the bat, I could tell from his face. But he ordered tests before he said anything. The tests came back, and sure enough: acute lymphocytic leukemia. Next thing I know we’re in the hospital.”
Now, leafing through my father’s Green Springs brochure, I felt tired. I checked my own legs for spots.
The thing was: I hadn’t known I’d ever felt a sense of security until I lost it. I wasn’t conscious that I’d had any sort of confidence or firm foundation to rely on. Such as taking for granted that I’d live a reasonably long life (say, to thirty, which seemed very long at the time). Or that a death from cancer might be precipitated by a sign worse than a stomach ache, fatigue, or red spots. Or not occur in nine days. Or not appear at age fifteen.
I was losing trust in my body. I was afraid that something could be in me too, ticking away, ready to strike at any moment. Or if not a disease than an accident, coiled in the future like a cat waiting to spring. I’d lived all my life not worrying at all — never once had I worried about my mother having melanoma and dying in nine days, or fifteen-year-olds catching fatal diseases. What an ignoramus! What a naïve, unknowing, sheltered newbie.
The cancer guy had spoken to me once. It was in the solarium, the day after his birthday party. He said, “I like your dad. He’s funny.”
“Thanks,” I said, and stared down at my book. Cancer guy was talking to me. To me! Why me? I tried to see myself in his eyes. It would probably make him happy to have a healthy regular girl talk to him. I mean, what girls did he meet in here? Cancer girls?
A wave of shame engulfed me. Shame that I was thinking these thoughts, that I kind of liked him, and I was afraid that the thing I liked was his cancer.
I’d watched too many Lifetime Original Movies — I’d always felt sorry for those main characters — and now here was one in front of me. Dying. He was dying. Of cancer. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. He was only four years older than me.
He was kind of cute, though, despite the baldness and pale skin — he was handsome.
He hovered beside me, waiting for me to say something. I forced myself to speak. “Did you, um, have a good birthday?” I asked. My voice sounded like an ad for Cheer laundry detergent.
“It was splendid,” he said.
More shame, hot and sickening. I was such a doofus. To think that I found his cancer appealing, that I felt attracted to his horrifying tragedy like a gnat to light. A rubbernecker, that’s what I was.
I was disgusting. My face flushed; I gazed at my book.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
It was a romance novel entitled Larissa’s Love Royale, which I’d bought in the hospital gift shop. It wasn’t one of those subtly-covered romance novels which try to pass themselves off as ordinary books, either. No. This was all luscious bosom, gold embossed letters, and tanned male chestage, set on a Renaissance pirate ship. Why hadn’t I brought “The Canterbury Tales,” which we were reading in school, instead?
Perhaps because it was hard to lose myself in Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages in the death ward.
“Um,” I said. “Nothing.” I kept gazing at my open book, maneuvering my arms to shield the page from his view. I was afraid to look at him. I tried to think of how to slip the novel into my bookbag smoothly and non-embarrassingly when he said, “Well. Bye.” And he walked back toward his room.
That was it.
I didn’t even say Bye! back. I didn’t call after him — Wait! Sorry! Or: Get well soon! Or: Actually, I really like you!
I replayed, rewrote, re-imagined the scene in my head many times after that, developing it into further interactions with plot twists and revelations. In one version cancer guy said he was in love with me and wanted one last hurrah before death. In another, he helped me with my homework while I consoled him with understanding Florence Nightingale-esque gestures and an assured knowledge of the afterlife: I’ve seen death too. Don’t worry. It didn’t look all that bad, really. After a while I almost believed we’d had this connection, that I’d helped him. I wanted to help him, I told myself. Secretly, though, I was nervous every time I stepped out of the elevator and walked toward my father’s room, afraid to see an empty bed, afraid not only for my father’s life now but for cancer guy’s too. I was relieved when, the next day, my father was transferred to another room.
My father and I packed our suitcases. I used a flowered one that my mother had bought but never used; I clipped the Bloomingdale’s tags off it.
“Alex is on the phone!” my father shouted just before we left. We phoned her in Ithaca every day; usually she was out. She’d sent us a postcard that said ITHACA IS GORGES. She seemed to be having a grand old time without us.
“What’s up?” she asked me.
“Nothing. I’m a little nervous.”
“I know — a vacation with just you and Daddy. Sort of weird.”
“Also, on long drives you’re at risk for deep vein thrombosis, which could lead to pulmonary embolism and you could die. The only symptom is an achy calf — and sometimes there are no symptoms at all.”
“You’re insane. Stop reading Mommy and Daddy’s disease books. I have to go,” she said. “Have a good trip.”
“Do you miss us?”
“Yeah — everyone’s leaving for breakfast — gotta run, see you!”
We loaded up our ailing blue Zephyr. My mother used to criticize my father’s driving — he drove too fast, too close to trucks, he passed too much on the BQE — and now he seemed to drive more cautiously, out of a sudden regretful respect. He also seemed curious of me in a new way, as if I was an odd foreign being. “Who are these musicians?” he asked when I popped in my Go-Go’s tape as we drove over the Verrazano Bridge. I told him their names.
“Belinda,” he nodded. “She has a nice voice.”
He glanced at the “Beauty and the Beat” tape case resting on the dashboard. “What the hell’s all that paint on their faces?”
“It’s not paint! It’s a mud masque!” I shook my head. “Haven’t you ever noticed me in mud masques? I’ve been using them since I was twelve!”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I watched New York Harbor blur by. I didn’t want him to like my music — it felt as if he was peeking in my room. A few minutes later he belted out, “Everybody get on your feet, we got it!” in his gravelly, off-key voice.
I pressed the stop button.
“Don’t turn it off,” he said.
“No more Go-Go’s. But we’re not listening to any country.”
I picked up Duran Duran but after imagining him crooning “Hungry Like the Wolf,” I put on Judy Collins instead. My mother had been crazy about Judy Collins; she had all her records. I liked her voice — it was strong and sort of soothing and reminded me of my mother.
The city evolved into trees and towns and farmland, and I did my ankle exercises when I remembered. After we’d exhausted three Judy Collins tapes we decided to stop for lunch — we wanted to find something healthy to eat, to start our week off on good footing. When we saw a Wendy’s sign I yelled, “Pull over!” He headed into the exit lane. “They have a new grilled chicken sandwich I read about in Health Now,” I said.
We parked, waited on line, and ordered two grilled chickens with dry baked potatoes on the side. “No fries,” I instructed.
“She’s the boss,” he told the cashier.
We settled into a shiny lacquered table by the window — my father wanted to keep an eye on our car in the parking lot. He took a bite of his sandwich. “Not bad,” he said.
“Kind of yummy,” I said.
“Could use some butter,” he mumbled over his potato.
“I should’ve brought the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”
“The I Can Believe It’s Not Butter? That stuff is bleh,” he said.
I’d bought it after reading a Health Now feature on it. “It’s not bleh. It tastes just like butter.”
“You need to change your attitude,” I said.
A man at the table beside us eavesdropped and laughed.
I glanced around the Wendy’s and wondered what these people thought of us. Who did they see, looking at us. This isn’t us, really, the two of us alone, I wanted to tell them. We don’t know how the hell we ended up here by ourselves.
We took our Biggie iced teas to the car, but as soon as my father started driving again I fell asleep. An hour after I woke up, we approached the Green Springs driveway.
“I guess this is it,” he said.
The driveway was lined with stone walls; a guard poked his head out of a wooden both in the middle of the road. “Healthy Heart check-ins?”
“That’s us.” My father told him our names and he compared them to a list.
The resort looked like a mansion that had hired the cast of the Golden Girls to decorate. Inside was all big pastel flowers and gilt moldings and overgrown ficuses.
We registered at the front desk and received two green folders and HELLO MY NAME IS stickers to put on our shirts. The receptionist pointed us toward a banquet room, where an entire “Golden Girls” convention seemed to be taking place.
My father and I hovered by the food table, wallflowers at a school dance. I filled a plate with grapes and what looked like a hunk of cheese but tasted like an eraser.
“This is lot of old ladies,” I said, scanning the room. It was old-lady summer camp, all bouffant hair and honey-thick perfume.
“What’s this, hoomis?”
“Hummus. It’s hummus, Dad.”
“Tastes like creamed sawdust.”
After a while a man moved to the front and asked us to take our seats. He introduced himself as Dr. Milken.
“Welcome. We’re so glad you came to Green Springs.” He launched into a “health, happiness, and longevity” spiel, which suspiciously resembled the Healthy Heart brochure, and began to introduce about twenty different doctors and explain their specialties. As he droned on, my mind shifted to the cancer guy. I wanted to ask him if he ever thought about what might have caused his disease. Had he grown up near power lines? Was there something bad in their water? Pesticides?
Had he ever read Health Now?
I felt a sudden chill and knew for certain that I couldn’t ask him. I knew that cancer guy had died. I felt it, the absence. He was gone — somehow I was sure of this. In my mind I watched his body being wheeled away like my mother’s, Gigi picking up his hand, kissing his nose, his forehead, leaving the hospital with the plastic bag emblazoned with PATIENTS BELONGINGS in purple letters. A friend would pick her up and as she was waiting in the lobby she’d almost want to stay in this hospital where she’d spent so much time over the years, with its familiar rush of visitors, almost like a busy office building, except for all the hope and dread. And now when she walked out that door: only dread.
She’d sit in her friend’s car and talk about how it was over finally — a relief? Relief. Not the right word. The friend would discuss the traffic on First Avenue, the weather, it was time for dinner, she must be hungry.
She wasn’t hungry.
Had she eaten?
Not really. (An orange on Tuesday. A packet of Saltines.)
She should eat. Did she feel like Chinese?
Chinese would be fine.
At the Chinese restaurant she’d think the whole time about the bag of belongings in her friend’s car, that she shouldn’t have left it there. She’d regret leaving it on the backseat throughout the entire dinner. What if someone broke in and took it? She’d never forgive herself if that happened.
I looked up — green folders were flipping open all around me. Dr. Milken asked us to take out a card inside that divided us into groups called “families.”
“Are you okay?” my father asked. “You look lost.”
I tried to find my voice. “I’m fine.”
“We’re in Family Three,” he said, and he led me toward the designated room.
There were seven members of Family Three plus two doctors, Dr. Marcy Fishbaum, a red-headed psychologist with a bowl cut, and Dr. Henry Jackson, a cardiologist in a blue sweater with a metallic sheen that had a certain Liberace-ness about it. You’d think with their kind of money he could buy a nice-looking sweater.
Dr. Fishbaum asked us to go around the circle, introduce ourselves, and say what brought us to Green Springs. She asked Nikki Glimcher to start.
Nikki and her husband, Tommy, resembled two giant human dumplings. “We’re in our 60s now, and I kinda had to drag Tommy here — he didn’t wanna come,” she said. Tommy examined the ceiling. “Six months ago, he had a heart attack.” Her voice cracked; she took a deep breath.
“But no way am I gonna eat rabbit food,” Tommy said.
Next was Cindy Curry from Florida; she’d come with her mother, Alva. “My husband died four years ago during a routine angioplasty,” Cindy said, her friendly, seahorsey face bobbing. “And my dad died of stomach cancer five years before that.”
“We have high cholesterol — runs in the family. We’re on Questran,” Alva said.
My father took Questran also, that chalky powder he stirred into his orange juice every morning.
Shelly Petra shifted in her seat and tugged at her gingham headband. She was the youngest person in the group besides me. “I came here from Chapel Hill. I’m a professor of anthropology at UNC.” She pushed her purple-rimmed glasses back on her nose. She opened her mouth and paused for a long time — Dr. Fishbaum seemed unsure whether to move on to me, or wait for her to speak — but Shelly finally continued. “I came here by myself because Ron, my husband, passed away last year. He had a severe myocardial infarction and he was thirty-five.” Long pause.
“Do you have high cholesterol or other risk factors yourself?” Dr. Jackson asked.
She shook her head. “No. But I eat a nearly fat-free diet. I’m very careful. I saw an ad for this retreat in Health Now, and I decided to take the plunge.”
“We’re glad you’re here,” Dr. Fishbaum said, and nodded at me.
“Um, I read Health Now too,” I said. “I’m here with my dad. My triglyceride count is borderline high — 145. I have a genetic predisposition for heart disease. And melanoma. I mean a predisposition for melanoma — I don’t have it of course, ha ha ha. My mom did — she died. But my father and I are eating well. We’re doing really good.” I sounded awful; I should’ve rehearsed what I’d say while the others were speaking.
Alva clucked her tongue, and Shelly and Cindy nodded sympathetically. I couldn’t believe all these people had lost someone as well. What a sorry lot we were. But people died every day, didn’t they? Every minute. While we’d been sitting here hundreds of people had died. Hundreds of families were getting their hearts torn out. I couldn’t fathom it. I wasn’t sure how it was possible, really, all these people all over the world quietly grieving. You’d think that if everyone was going through this, you’d see them all on the street in a communal howl. There’d be grief riots, Healthy Grief Week, and grief spas. Grief mud masques. Grief nail polish.
My father was saying, “I’ve had two heart attacks in my life now, and triple bypass. Well, as my daughter said, my wife died in January. My health is good! I’m in good shape. My daughter’s watching my diet. We had a Wendy’s grilled chicken on the way down — no fries — and the chicken wasn’t half bad.”
“I’m glad you brought up the subject of healthy eating,” Dr. Fishbaum said. “We’re going to start with a simple exercise tonight, to begin the process of examining our lifestyles closely, to make room for change.”
We were supposed to recall everything we’d eaten in the last three days, to the best of our memory. I felt virtuous, writing it. No Twixes, fries, or burgers for me of late. Even at the Queens burger I’d been eating simple pastas and the vegetable plate after my shift.
Nikki Glimcher whispered to her husband, “Don’t lie! You had three Big Macs!”
“What’s in the past is in the past. We’re making room for change in the future,” Dr. Fishbaum said.
“Thing is, I’ll eat the rabbit food and make myself miserable and then I’ll probably get sideswiped the next day by an eighteen-wheeler on I-78 like my Uncle Jarvis,” Tommy said. Nikki glared at him.
But I thought he had a point. In the end my father’s death would probably not come from a heart attack, and I wouldn’t get melanoma — no, that would be too expected. It would be something else — a staph infection, an aneurysm, pneumonia. I’d read of people who’d died unexpectedly from all these things, how their families were shocked by the cruel twist.
Dr. Jackson had an answer: “Wear a seatbelt and drive cautiously.”
That night, while my father was in his initial stress evaluation consultation, I unpacked my things in our room. Then I picked up the phone and dialed information.
“What city?” the operator asked.
“A residence — Gigi Backus.”
“There’s a Gigi Backus on Degraw Street in Brooklyn.”
“I’ll try that.” I could picture her house with plastic-covered couches and embroidered wall hangings and a hairy white cat.
I wrote down the number. What did I want to say? That I was sorry about her son? That I was sorry I hadn’t said bye to him? That I just wanted to make sure she was okay? Maybe I’d tell her that I’d liked him.
I was still deciding what to say when the answering machine clicked on.
“This is Gigi! Not here right now ’cause I’m out on the town! Please leave a message — don’t just hang up! I hate it when people just hang up.” Beep.
I hung up.
I glanced at my bare legs: no spots. It was crazy to worry so much; I knew that. But the loss of control galled me. You simply got picked to die. It seemed no different than in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” — a public stoning.
Worry was something to do, an occupation at least. A part of me actually felt it might help. If only I had worried before, maybe we could’ve prevented some things. Maybe now we’d be on the lookout for staph infections, aneurysms, eighteen wheelers.
Maybe worry could save your life. And if it didn’t — if you didn’t catch the disease early enough, or avoid the oncoming truck — if you could prepare for the worst, maybe it might make it a little easier. Maybe worrying, thinking about these diseases, would make you feel more ready. You’d expect it. You wouldn’t feel so sideswiped, so surprised. You’d have control — even if only a tiny, tiny bit.
We quickly fell into the routine of Green Springs: whole grain breakfasts; the morning Family Meeting, during which we discussed the obstacles we faced in lifestyle change; exercise classes (my father swam, I did step aerobics); then afternoon and evening health lectures.
My father was a gung-ho student, taking copious notes in all classes on everything from gingko biloba to the benefits of craniosacral massage. He used to hate that kind of stuff. When my mother’s friends had called with tips from alternative medicine books and New-Age newsletters, suggesting everything from watching sitcoms to sprinkling cornmeal on our yard to make my mother better, he’d scoffed. He’d called it their woo-woo advice. (Woo-woo said with a wave of the hand, a fruity expression.)
Now my father leaned over to me during the Alternative Supplements Workshop and said, “Maybe Mommy should’ve tried the shark cartilage.”
At meals we were encouraged to sit with our Families, though my father and I quickly discovered we preferred to eat by ourselves, without the others’ incessant complaining. They all kvetched about the lack of butter and alcohol, the strange foods and fibrousness. Discussions frequently centered on everyone’s “daily eliminations” — as in “Due to increased fiber intake, your eliminations may be substantially larger than you’re used to,” Dr. Milken announced in a lecture our second day. “My elimination was WAY, WAY larger than I’m used to!” Tommy said at dinner that night. My father and I preferred not to discuss the quality and quantity of our eliminations. Plus, I liked the food. I was in Health Now menu heaven. Best of all, every meal was included in the price, so I could have whatever I wanted off the menu without guilt.
I was on my second dessert — a chocolate chip oatmeal flax cookie — on our third night when my father said, “Uh oh. “Golden Girls” Alert.” Alva and Cindy were walking to our table, clucking their tongues.
“I just love watching you eat! Where does it go? Oh, I used to eat like that when I was fifteen, just like you, and not gain a pound,” Cindy said.
Alva shook her head. “At fifteen you were bigger than a ’69 Caddy.”
Cindy ignored her. “Just don’t get too used to that appetite or you’ll have a hineybumper the size of Alaska in ten years!”
“You bet your bippy I won’t,” I said. I’d collected these words, hineybumper and bippy, from Alva and Cindy, and I was determined to use them whenever I could.
Cindy laughed and they left the dining room. I glanced around the tables. I’d begun to actually like being around all the old people. There was something comforting about their makeup and pastel leggings, flower-printed tote bags and big hair. They gave me an odd sort of hope. You could live a long time, you could endure; not everyone had to die young.
I woke up early on our fourth morning and took a bath. In the tub, I noticed a mole at the edge of my armpit had turned black. It was bigger, too. Was I imagining it? I got out of the bath, put on a towel and studied the mole in the mirror. I was definitely not imagining it. It looked reddish black and bulbous and different from every other mole. I hadn’t brought my mole notes, but I was certain it had changed. I fished out the measuring tape from the complimentary sewing kit and measured it — 7 mm.
Holy fucking shit.
Asymmetry, borders, color, diameter — those were the melanoma ABCD’s. This was asymmetrical, its color was freakish, and it was fucking HUGE.
My father was already at breakfast; I sat down and showed it to him. “Don’t worry yet,” he said. “Let’s talk to Dr. Fishbaum.” My father didn’t seem too nervous — just quietly concerned. He was probably used to disease now, after his two heart attacks and our mother. It was old hat.
“I’ve been really tired lately, too,” I said, breathing deeply. “Fatigued.”
“Eat some breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Try some oatmeal.” He pushed his bowl toward me, and I took a few bites. Then I convinced him to leave breakfast early and look for Dr. Fishbaum.
We found her in her office, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper.
“Excuse me,” my father said. “We’re sorry to interrupt. My daughter found a strange mole, and we’d like to see a dermatologist, if that’s possible.” He sounded so calm; I was almost in tears.
She gave me an empathetic gaze. She knew the details of my mother’s melanoma and quick death from our Family Meetings. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
I tried not to think about it. It’s nothing, I told myself. Then: This is it. It’s over. Would it be nine days, like my mother? Or years, like cancer guy? I’d known this would happen. That’s what life was — you’d be going along fine, and poof! It was all gone. There was absolutely nothing that could ensure that you’d be okay, that you’d be lucky. That’s what it all boiled down to: luck, or lack thereof.
I’m not ready to die, I thought. I can’t do it. But who was I to expect to be spared? I wasn’t safe or protected, and that tiny, tiny bit of control didn’t exist — it was just another scrap of delusion. I spaced out during Family Meeting, at the Cooking with Seitan demonstration my hands were shaking, and in aerobics class I messed up all the moves. I’d start to panic about dying, then convince myself I’d be okay. hen I’d panic again.
At lunchtime Dr. Fishbaum came over to our table and said I had an appointment with Dr. Morris at 3 p.m. at the Green Springs Health Annex, and later that afternoon my father drove me to Dr. Morris’s office. “You should get back,” I said. “You’re missing the soybean lecture.”
“No, I’ll wait.”
I hugged him. I braced myself as the nurse led me into the examining room and I put on the huge blue paper gown. A few minutes later Dr. Morris appeared and introduced himself. “Nice to meet you, Miss Pearlman.”
I nodded and tried to breathe.
He read the questionnaire I’d filled out. “You have a growth that’s causing you concern?”
I nodded again, and showed him the mole under my arm. “What is it?” I rasped.
Dr. Morris took one glance at it and smiled. “There’s no reason to be nervous. It’s benign.”
I squinted at him. “Are you sure?”
He inspected it again. “Have you had it for a long time?”
“Yeah, but it’s changed. It never looked like that before.”
“Did you shave under your arms recently?”
“I — I guess so. Maybe.”
“You most likely nicked the mole with the razor and didn’t realize it. Don’t worry — I’m positive it’s benign.” He put a cream on it and placed a Band-Aid over the spot.
I felt limp and almost relieved, but I didn’t entirely believe him. “What about my fatigue?”
“Have you been sleeping well?”
It had been hard to fall asleep at night with my father snoring. “It’s just — I worry that I have it undetected, like my mother. One of her doctors said it could’ve been growing undetected for twenty years. And I’ve read about people getting melanoma really young. A girl who was 16 died from it — and a guy who was 19–”
“It happens,” he said.
It happens? Is that it?
“You’re fair-skinned and have a high number of atypical nevi, but just because your mother died of melanoma doesn’t mean you will.”
“What can I do to prevent it? Beyond staying out of the sun?”
He shrugged. “Eat broccoli?” His frown unfurled like an umbrella. “There are some things beyond our control, unfortunately. You’re doing a good job keeping away from the sun,” he said, surveying my so-pale-it-was-almost-see-through skin. “The link between melanoma and sunlight isn’t even definitively proven — but it’s a good idea to keep doing what you’re doing, to prevent squamous and basal cell carcinomas as well.”
Great. More cancers to worry about. He closed my folder, and I thanked him and returned to the waiting room. “It’s fine,” I told my father. “I — um — I cut it shaving, I guess.”
He grinned and hugged me, then paid the bill without a peep about the expense. Dr. Morris popped back out to hand me a catalogue of sun-protective clothing. The clothes resembled astronaut suits.
My father said, “Do they make that in a miniskirt?”
I was thankful that everything was all right, but as we drove back to the spa I cringed, feeling humiliated. I’d become a hypochondriac. A big ball of fear and worry and stupidness. I used to read my sister’s National Geographic magazines and dream of doing exciting things like climbing mountains and traveling to Madagascar and Australia and petting koalas — and now my dream was just not to die young. What kind of a dream was that? How would that look on my college applications? An essay about hoping not to kick the bucket from cancer or meningitis or flesh-eating bacteria, about the benefits of Omega 3′s and polyphenols?
Back in our room alone, before dinner, I tried Gigi’s number once more. “Hello?”
I wasn’t expecting her to pick up. “Um, hi…this is…I’m not sure you if you remember me…this is Mia Pearlman. My dad — Simon Pearlman–”
“Oh! Of course I remember you! How are you? Oh no. Oh God. Did your dad–?”
“No — he’s great, he’s totally fine. I’m just calling because — I was thinking of Sasha and–” I paused. How could I say it? I hated the phrase I’m sorry. So sorry about your son. It was such a stupid expression. Why had no one ever come up with a better one? Such as: What a fucking load of crap you’ve been dealt. Really. Then I remembered.
“Bashert,” I said. “About Sasha.”
“It’s this Yiddish word for fate. My mom used to say it.”
“I know! How did you hear? Did Dr. Kornovoy tell you? Did you run into him? I couldn’t believe it myself. It’s crazy. I know. Your father must think I’m off my rocker for letting him go. But Dr. Kornovoy gave his permission. I even paid for the Eurorail pass. I know, I’m crazy to do it. I tried to convince him not to. But you only get one life, right? That’s what they say, right? I’m making an album from his postcards, I’m going to add the pictures when he gets back. Paris, Venice, I got so far. Amsterdam. He’s in Amsterdam right now. I wish I was there with him but he’s nineteen, he can’t have his mom by his side all the time, you know, right? Anyway, so you ran into Dr. Kornonvoy at NYU?”
“I–” I didn’t know what to say. I paused, speechless. “Yeah.”
“I’m so happy you called. I wondered how your dad was doing. Not that long ago I said to Sasha, ‘Remember that nice Simon and his daughters?’ Sasha liked your dad so much. You spend time in that hospital, so intense, right?And then just disappear and not know what’s doing. Anyway, give me your number, we’ll keep in touch. Please give my love to your dad. It was so nice of you to call.”
“I will.” I gave her our number.
Three days later, when my father and I were back home, I looked up bashert in one of my parents’ Yiddish dictionaries. It meant “predestined” and “fate,” but it had another meaning as well: “the person with whom you were meant to be.” A soul mate, as in “I have found my bashert,” the dictionary said. And it seemed right that the same word could be used in instances of both love and death.