April 10, 2017

Seven Months

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Ravi Mangla

In a courtroom that doubles as a mobile office for the DMV, my parents marry for a second time. Under different circumstances this would be cause for celebration, a collective victory for all those kids who saw their childhoods undone by divorce. Under different circumstances I might have bought them a blender or breadmaker (or, more conveniently, a custom license plate). Yet we have only the attending circumstances, which cast the proceedings in an altogether different light. My niece sits on my lap as we watch them recite vows and exchange rings: plain, unadorned bands. Once the ceremony has finished and the papers have been signed, we commemorate the occasion with a breakfast at Denny’s.

Two nurses take turns feeling for a serviceable vein. Scar tissue has accumulated from the weeks of chemo treatment, which prevents the needle from advancing. Soon they will insert a port in his upper arm. For now they continue to poke and prod, without any success, while my father seals his eyes, suppressing the urge to wince. “This never happens,” one of the nurses, confounded, says. “Usually I’m much better at this.”

Portraits of grief are cheap. Writing as therapy is taboo.

When the doctor tells him that he is dying, that from now on time will be measured in months, we are sitting in a room decorated in sea tones. There aren’t enough chairs to accommodate the three of us—my father, my brother-in-law, and me—so I am forced to stand by the door. When the doctor tells him that he is dying, I am facing my father, watching his head quietly nod, the news settling in like a gentle salve.

Later that same day he asks my mother to marry him again.

Portraits of grief are cheap. Writing as therapy is taboo. Stories of cancer are passé. A dime a dozen. The lees of serious essay writing. I promised myself I won’t appropriate my father’s pain for my own ends, that I won’t succumb to that lowest of impulse. Because writers seem to believe, out of some misguided hubris, that they feel more acutely than others, thereby entitling them to repurpose the pain of those around them. But this is not how I choose to grieve or hope to heal. This is how I remember.

There is a particular night embedded in my memory. I am five or six and afraid to fall asleep on my own. My mother is out of town and my father is sick with a cold. Despite his poor health, he sits in the doorway of my room, for what seems like hours, far enough away to protect me from his illness, but close enough that I can still see his silhouette.

Cancer, like acts in a story, has only three stages: a beginning, middle, and an end.

Once I was besotted with hospitals, particularly the way their self-replicating corridors simulated the dream state: the clean lines and unvarying design. Each door an enigma, a mystery of purpose. Yet after hundreds of dreams inside hospitals, there is no place more unpleasant to me, no place I would less like to be.

Three nurses are huddled in the corner of a darkened waiting room. This is not the start of a nursery rhyme. This is the room where I go to gather myself after long spells at his bedside. I don’t turn on the lights for fear of startling them. The nurses remain moored in their seats, taking a momentary break from their rounds to watch Maury deliver paternity results.

Months later, I meet with a new primary care physician. Changes to my healthcare coverage have delivered me here, to an office catering to the perennially underemployed. He is younger than my previous doctors, speaks in a unvarnished Bronx accent. He asks if stress could be contributing to my sleeping problems. I describe to him the last seven months. He nods and begins leafing through the questionnaire I filled out in the waiting room. “If I find out you’re a smoker,” he says, “I’m going to smack you upside the head.”

Cancer, like acts in a story, has only three stages: a beginning, middle, and an end.

The hospital where my father receives radiation treatment was once the site of human testing, performed without consent by an arm of the Manhattan Project. Over the course of two years, eleven patients were injected with plutonium, six with uranium, and five with polonium. Official records designate these patients with the letters “HP”—or “human product.” Now the hospital is among the most respected in the state, a leading employer in the region.

A candle is lit and placed on his casket. The act is a religious rite, akin to tossing a handful of dirt into an open grave. Before the body is lifted into the furnace, its final resting place, the director of the crematorium hastens over and politely asks that we extinguish the candle, fearing that it presents a possible fire hazard.

Three months before he passes, his third grandchild is born. The son of my sister and her husband. The boy is healthy (save for a spot of jaundice) and unusually composed for a newborn. My father spends hours with this child, who takes his name as his own, feeding him bottles and rocking him to sleep in his arms.

Agonal breathing refers to the intermittent gasps that happen when the body is not receiving the oxygen it needs to sustain itself. The term—like its counterpart agony—derives from agon, the Ancient Greek word for struggle. The gasps are the kind you might expect from a weak swimmer drowning in some rapacious sea. In most cases these respiratory spasms last for minutes; in rare ones, hours.

His hand is bloated and smooth, like a latex glove puffed with air. He has never asked me to hold his hand before.

Books I finish in the hospital: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Truitt’s Daybook and Turn, Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Why am I mentioning books? Because they are your greatest allies in moments of pain, a buffer against the certitudes of time.

My father wants to make it to his birthday, a date he adopted when he resettled in the country. For Indians of his generation, birthdays are an inexact science. We know he was born sometime in the late spring. Each year I would have to remind myself that the date we celebrated was guesswork.

He asks me to hold his hand. Time has slowed to a crawl. It is only a matter of days now. His hand is bloated and smooth, like a latex glove puffed with air. He has never asked me to hold his hand before. In fact, when I was a child, he spurned physical affection.

At night, unable to sleep, I wander the empty hallways of the hospital. The lights on the ground floor have been turned off. No announcements issue from the loudspeaker; no patients pass on padded gurneys. The gift shop is closed, its menagerie of care animals caged for the night. I search for hallways I haven’t navigated before, but each feels as familiar as the last. This isn’t a dream, though it doesn’t quite feel like real life either; it lacks some essential vividness. I walk with deliberate steps, trying not to break the spell of silence. Soon there will be no more hospital left to traverse, no more corridors through which to pass. My walk will have reached its end, in the way that all things end, and the only thing left to do will be to find my way back.

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies. His essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Midnight Breakfast, Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Paris Review Daily. He lives in Rochester, NY.
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