wordless, full of words

It's just past seven in the morning when my father calls. I'm asleep - we both are. It's the first night A. and I have spent together where I've really, actually slept, and well.

The night before: running together in south central LA, then wandering around the Arts District, shivering and holding on to one another in the late night cold, clad only in t-shirts and sweat pants. "Ok, we've got a budget of $20," he says, peering into his wallet. It becomes an adventure, and we weigh our options carefully: hot soup, to warm us up; bubble tea, in Little Tokyo; Pinkberry; drinks at a lounge where jazz singers are having an open mic session (our first choice, but the menu prices force us back on our way). We choose a tiny sushi joint, ordering the most food we can for $10 - shrimp and vegetable tempura, and soup.

"If you don't charge us a split plate fee, we'll have more to tip you," A. tells the server, with a smile. We're not charged for the split, and the sushi chef even prepares a couple of complimentary tasting dishes for us: savory chicken meatballs that crumble in our chopsticks, and thinly sliced Kobe beef of which A. feeds me the lion's share. Everything tastes scrumptious to me, starving and cold from our long walk, though I refuse to eat the shrimp tails. "Come on, they're fried," he cajoles, but I'm having none of it.

Afterward, we amble back through Little Tokyo, talking about work, career options for me, the who-knows-maybe possibility of living together someday down the line. I tell him how fun and exciting it is to have an artist for a boyfriend. He tells me he's in it - our relationship - for the long haul. I tell him I am, too. He says the thing he's been saying for weeks now, and the way he says it - with that soft, happy smile and slight shaking of his head - makes me believe it: We're so great, baby. We're so great together. He tells me there are no "buts" with me. No problems, or issues, or exclusionary clauses to loving me. Later, I'll tell him how easy it is to love him. That I've never known a man so easy to love, in fact, or who's made it so easy. You cleared out all the obstacles. You made a path for me, I'll say.

We take our remaining $7 and go to Yogurtland, where we guesstimate serving sizes by the ounce, trying to squeeze out every last dime. I'm a novice at self-serve fro-yo, and make my selections cautiously. "There are no rules here, you know." His eyes are bright. "You can even put toppings between layers."

We nearly nail it, coming in at $6.36. "We can still afford another cherry," A. says, half seriously. "Grab one." I push him away from the counter, and we sit and gorge on nearly identical choices in flavors and toppings: dulce de leche, cookie dough, vanilla, cookies and cream, caramel syrup.

On the walk home, I'm asthmatic from the cold. A. wraps his arms around me from behind, lifting my arms above my head and pressing his chest to my back. He instructs me to take slow, deep breaths, holding and exhaling with me while I try to fill my lungs.

Back at his apartment, he tends to his sick dog while I play my favorite numbers from American Idols past, and make him watch Johann Hari's speech about religious fundamentalism. When he takes issue with part of the speech and I get defensive/attacking, he calls me on it. "Don't steamroll me," he says. "Just because I can't formulate my arguments as quickly as you doesn't mean I don't have something worthwhile to say. Someday you're going to talk right over someone who has some great, Christopher Hitchens-esque point to make, and you'll never even get to hear it."

Later, we get silly, looking up the words to the diarrhea song (the condition of which is affecting his dog, terribly) and watching funny YouTube videos. When I nearly fall out of his lap, hysterical, during my favorite Quiznos commercial, he shakes his head in wonder, staring at me. "Who are you," he asks, not for the first time. He shows me a mock-up of four versions of his latest piece, and we're in agreement on which one is the best. We don't go to bed until past two am.

When the early morning call comes, I send it to voicemail without much thought. My dad knows the chances of me being awake at that hour are slim to none; he'll be expecting me not to return the call until later. We sleep until 11, and A. makes us breakfast: eggs, bacon, broiled tomatoes, hummus. I hand grind coffee beans, which he then carefully brews in a pour over, using a drip kettle; he explains how the process keeps the grounds from becoming too bitter. When I help him unload/load the dishwasher, he comments on it, appreciative, and gets excited when he sees I've made his bed for him.

It isn't until after noon that I listen to the message my dad has left. His voice is hoarse, strained. He's in the hospital. Pneumonia. It's nothing to worry about, he says. He's going be sent home within the next day, barring any unforeseen complications. He doesn't leave the name of the hospital in his voicemail, and when I call his cell phone back, he doesn't answer.

I get online and start calling hospitals near the small city where he lives, outside of Tampa. The second one I try affirms he's checked in, and connects me to his room. His room number is the same as my apartment number. His voice sounds strong when he answers, and when he hears it's me, he exclaims excitedly, the phrase he always says when I call, his New York accent still thick and comforting to me: How ya doing, child?

He tells me he's about to be discharged. He tells me he's had three days of tests, at the hospital. He tells me he's just spoken to the doctor, an hour ago, and just gotten his diagnosis.

He tells me he has small cell lung cancer.

He tells me that the prognosis is not good.

He tells me that they want to start treatment immediately. That he told the doctor no one was laying a finger on him until he spoke with his daughter. He tells me he'd like to see me, and my heart splits, to think he thinks he needs to say it. Of course, I mumble, biting my tongue to not cry. I'll be there tomorrow.

Everything after that gets blurry.

He says something about making decisions. I hear the phrases "end of life" and "quality of life", but they sound as if they're coming from far, far away, or through water.

After we say goodbye, I go upstairs. A. tries to hold me, but I'm too angry to stay still. So, so, so angry. There's no correlation, there's no point in tying the two things together, but I do it anyway: I've just lost my mother, less than three years ago. It's juvenile and self-indulgent and I know better than to think there's some force of judgment at work anywhere in the universe, but all I can think, over and over, is it's not fair. Both my parents, before I'm even forty?? It's not fair.

I clench my fists and yell and run to A.'s bathroom where I clutch at towels and cry out in rage. When I come back out, I apologize, and A. shakes his head. "What are you sorry for? You have nothing to be sorry for. You wanna scream? Scream. You want to cry? Cry. You want to hit me? Hit me."

I feel stupid, useless, helpless, self-conscious. I don't know what behavior is appropriate. I'm angry at myself, because my tears feel like they're for myself. Like self-pity, which I have no business feeling. "Let's be productive," A. says. He books me a flight, using his own miles, and necessarily paying for it because he's done so. When I ask him to, he reads to me from his laptop about small cell lung cancer. He doesn't say much, but I can see what he's not saying, in the way he glosses over paragraphs. He finally just looks at me and shakes his head. "Is that enough?" he asks gently, meaningfully. "It's cancer. Even if it's toe cancer, it's never good."

When I break down, he holds me tightly and tells me that it isn't necessarily a death sentence. Options. Treatment. But I know my father. He's the man who always swore he'd put a bullet in his own head when he started to feel his vitality slipping away.

I can't imagine the ways this is hitting him.

A. tells me not to worry about us, but he makes me pinky promise I'll not stay in Florida forever, that I'll be back. I look him in the eye and tell him I may have to stay for a while, that I don't know what my father is going to want to do, or what to expect. He understands, he says. "We'll figure it out." He puts his forehead against mine. "I'm so sorry. No one should have to deal with this. Not you, not him. But you don't need to worry about us. Take that off your plate." He reminds me that I have good friends who love me, who'll help me (W. has already agreed to take care of Chaucer while I'm gone) - that I have a new boyfriend who'll do whatever he can to support me.

He walks me back downstairs, not turning or walking away until I've shut the door in front of him. "There's no reason for you to be alone right now," he says, but that's all I want. I want to write and eat and hold my dog and catch my breath. He doesn't let me go until I promise to have dinner with him tonight, again tomorrow before my red eye, and to let him drive me to the airport. When I object, saying how much I love the Flyaway, he gets genuinely upset. "If you take the Flyaway, I'll never talk to you again. Do you understand? I'm driving you to the airport. That's not open to negotiation."

Once alone, I don't write or eat or do anything until I type the words into the search engine.

small cell lung cancer

Crash course. There are two stages: limited and extensive. I read: The median survival rate (the time at which 50% of people have died and 50% are still alive) is 16-24 months, with a 2-year survival rate of 40-50% -- though only 10% of people with limited stage disease show no evidence of cancer 2 years after diagnosis. The survival rate at 5 years is 14% with treatment.

For extensive stage small cell lung cancer the median survival with treatment is 6 to 12 months with treatment, and only 2 to 4 months without treatment.


I read more: Only about 6% of people with this type of cancer are still alive 5 years after diagnosis.

I stop reading. I hold my dog. I write. I catch my breath, and take a deep one for what lays ahead.