On Cancer Time

Harry had to sit with him. That was part of the deal. He, his sister, their aunt and their cousin were trading shifts. The plastic tray of meds was intimidating and complicated. For those times when the old man could actually eat, which was seldom, maybe once a day, his diet was strict and chock full of supplements, energy shakes, aloe vera juice, fruits and chopped onions. He threw up most of it. He was severely, humiliatingly constipated.

Harry watched the nurse take Norman’s vitals, measure his heartbeat and blood pressure.

“Take a deep breath,” she said. 

Harry’s father shudderingly obliged.

“Okay, once more. Very good.”

She spoke to him as someone would to an infant. It was hard not to talk to him this way, having to explain and encourage every little action. Indeed, Norman’s mind was going as well. Oh how on Earth were they ever going to file his taxes?

“Okay, thank you so much, Mr. McCormack.”

Norman nodded while the nurse stood up.

“How did I do?” he mumbled.

“You did so good. So good, Mr. McCormack.”

Harry couldn’t tell if his father knew that she was patronizing him. Even despite it all Norman maintained the same aura of mystery he’d always had, something Harry in his twenty-five years hadn’t learned to emulate. The old man had always lived in his own world, to the exclusion of his progeny, and Harry had never exactly felt welcome in his presence.

Harry rose from the footstool to follow the nurse down the hall into the dining room and kitchen, tables and counters piled with orange white cap prescription bottles, papers and dirty dishes. It was proving difficult for Harry to keep ahead of the household chores. He found himself walking back and forth with stray objects in hand, always sure that there was something to do yet unsure exactly of what. And then sometimes his father would rise from couch or bed, and all else would be clumsily suspended while Harry followed him and held him through the apartment as his father clung to shelves and tables and dressers for purchase, until he sat down again somewhere else, invariably defeated.

“He’s been disoriented a lot recently,” Harry said to the nurse while they were in the kitchen and she was packing her bags.

“When did that start?” the nurse responded, dethreading the stethoscope from around her neck.

“About a week ago was the first time we noticed he seemed confused.”

“Confused about what?”

“He got up in the middle of the night and wandered around the apartment. He thought he was going somewhere in a car. I had to help him back to bed.”

“I see. And that’s happened more than once?”

Harry nodded.

“And when did the fainting start?”

“The first time it happened was a few days ago, as far as I know. You’d have to ask my sister,” he said.

The nurse nodded.

Harry restrained himself from going on, from complaining about how everyone expected him to wait on Norman hand and foot, he who was still as unpleasant as he’d always been. It wasn’t fair. Norman had never made space for Harry in his life, so why should Harry do that for him?

“It’s worrisome,” the nurse said at last, meeting Harry’s eyes. Harry feared she would notice his thoughts, so he looked away.

“It’s a sign his body is shutting down,” she said.

“What is?”

“His fainting.”

The nurse zipped shut her bag.

“It’s going to happen soon,” she said. “It could be a matter of days or a matter of hours. It’s hard to tell exactly, but I would be surprised if he lasted two more weeks.”

The first thing Harry thought, in something of a panic, was that that wasn’t enough time. His father would leave a half-finished Harry behind.

“There’s nothing we can do?” he asked.

The nurse shook her head: “We can make him as comfortable as we can.”

The news came with a blunt, emotional thud. Harry couldn’t tell if he was feeling what he thought he should be feeling: grief.

“When are you coming back?” he asked.

The nurse slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder.

“We’ll have another nurse come back later in the week.”

“As many times as you can.”

“Speak with hospice. I’m sure we can schedule something.”

“Three times a week the last I heard.”

“That’s right.”

“With more good news I suppose.”

The nurse smiled at him, then said, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

Funny, I thought you just told me my father was dying, he thought.

Harry walked her down the stairs and locked the door behind her. He re-ascended the stairs, re-entered the apartment. Back in the kitchen he wasn’t ready to face his father with the knowledge he now held, the truth that they were on no one’s time now but the cancer’s, and it was up to the illness what last impressions they would leave on each other.

But there was no time to reflect. It was after noon, time to fix Norman’s lunch. There was plenty of food in the fridge, thankfully, since Harry wasn’t much of a cook. There had been many a guest bearing a wide variety of soups. Harry could make some for himself while he was at it, but first he would have to see that his father took his antacid pill. Harry had forgotten this before and received an embarrassing dressing down from his sister as a result.

He located the appropriate pill vial, opened it and picked one out.

Harry walked into the living room. His father’s eyes were closed, mouth open, head leaned back against the couch, feet propped up on the chair in front of him. The TV wasn’t on. It was the cancer’s normal for his father to be sitting in the living room without the TV on.

“Pops,” Harry said, touching him gingerly on the shoulder.

Norman’s eyes opened. They were distant, staring, but slightly irritable, communicating to Harry that his father wasn’t all gone yet.

“It’s time to take your antacid pill.”

His father closed his eyes as if calling upon deep reserves of patience. Harry wondered if he’d understood. He had come to suspect that his father feigned irritation at everything his caretakers said to him.

“Come on, here it is,” he said, opening his palm and displaying the tiny oval pill.

He brought his hand closer to his father’s face.

“I don’t need any medication right now,” Norman said.

“You need to take your meds, Dad.”

“I don’t need to take anything. It’s a scam, these pills they’re pushing on me.”

So maybe he was still sentient. Unpleasant old man.

“Are you serious?” Harry asked.

His father gave no answer. There might have been a trace of glee in the corners of his smirk. How the tables had turned from twenty years earlier. Now who was doing the responsible thing and who was being childish? But what was Harry to do? Was he to accept Norman’s petulance?

“Dad. You need to take the pill.”

But there was no response at all. Maybe it had been an act all along, these symptoms of confusion, designed only to make Harry’s life harder. If Beverly were here would she let it go? Would Norman listen to her just because she was a woman? Harry suspected that his father was playing favorites even on his deathbed, but of course this was mere speculation.

Harry retreated back into the kitchen, defeated, to cook lunch.

The problem was, he realized, putting the pill back in the bottle, that he could so easily imagine life without his father. If he ever had children would the same thing happen to him? Would he relegate his children to the periphery, or would he over-compensate by showering them with affection? Both thoughts were unnerving.

Harry ladled a bowl of soup into a smaller pot and heated it on the stove. He felt dazed and confused in his failure. Would he kill his father by feeding him without the antacid pill? If so at least he could tell himself that it was Norman’s own fault.

About three minutes later he poured the soup into a bowl and got a spoon from the silverware drawer, in this kitchen he knew so well.

He took the bowl into the living room. His father was awake again, had managed to prop himself up amidst the pillows on the couch. He looked consumed with a painful, fiery misery.

“What’s that?” he demanded as Harry pulled the chair up to the couch.

“It’s soup, dad.”

“Of course it’s soup. I can see that it’s soup. But what kind of soup is it?”

“Pumpkin spice I think.”

Harry’s father shook his head as if even this response, like everything else about Harry, was disappointing.

“You should have taken the antacid pill,” Harry said, carefully transferring the bowl to his father’s lap.

“Don’t worry about it,” came the response.

Harry watched his father grip the spoon with hands weak and quivering, and he felt a flash of uncertainty that he should be feeding his father himself, that the spoon was too heavy and would inevitably fall and leave a stain on his father’s shirt that the whole family would see.

But the spoon made it miraculously from the bowl to his father’s mouth. Then again. And, agonizingly, again. After perhaps six or seven spoons the old man looked exhausted. The spoon landed in the three-quarters full bowl.

“You’re done, Dad?” Harry asked, and watched his father nod.

“We’ll just leave this here in case you want more,” he said, transferring the bowl from Norman’s lap to the little table by the arm of the couch, which was cluttered with half-full glasses and crumpled napkins.

“Hey, Harry,” said Norman, eyes closed.


“If it takes something like this to bring us together, don’t blame yourself. It’s always been my fault.”

Was this delirium speaking? Harry had never heard his father speak so candidly about the distance between them. It took him aback, and he wasn’t sure how to use it. He could have enjoyed more, but a few moments later his father appeared to have drifted off again. His breathing was labored through his nose, whose nostrils were packed with grey hairs.

Harry started to clean off the side table, piling the trash onto an empty plate. He took some of the glasses with him into the kitchen and emptied their remnants down the drain, then scraped the plate’s contents into the garbage.

Some hour and a half later Harry had cleaned the entire kitchen and re-organized the pill bottles. Beverly arrived, and Harry left the apartment freshly assured of their rivalry as she looked askance at what he had accomplished in her absence. He left to continue his life elsewhere, away from the cancer, knowing that he had been tried and found wanting, but that outside the apartment he could pretend like it didn’t matter. On the cancer’s time everything else was a relief, a break from the memories of his childhood and the lack thereof. Norman, after all, had always had other priorities.

Harry chain smoked half a pack of cigarettes by the water in Jack London Square. Midway through he realized that he’d forgotten to tell his sister the nurse’s news. But he wouldn’t go back there today. If they would act like they didn’t need him then he would act the same way towards them. He was a man, a young man, yes, but still a man, and that was despite his father, not because of him. He wondered, briefly, and found that he even hoped that his father’s refusal to take the antacid pill was causing him discomfort.

When his phone rang and it was his sister, Harry didn’t answer it, as he was certain that it would be some clarion call of confusion or for assistance, as she’d discovered something that Harry had done wrong. The call went to voicemail. It was only when he deleted the message that the thought came to him that it could be something else: it could be the end of cancer time.

Harry felt a deep, welling sense of sorrow when he admitted to himself, behind a cigarette, that it couldn’t come soon enough.

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