The tiniest of things
He grabs my seven of diamonds, lays down a clean run, and I’m in trouble.
“The cancer society website says: the effects of treatment can vary.”
At two o’clock in the morning, something outside makes the dogs go crazy. I stand at the window, waiting for a shadow to appear at the wooden farm gate, unable to distinguish anything in the darkness. The night air carries the smell of dew, wood and animal pee. Our three short-haired mutts of dubious pedigree howl so loud and for so long, I convince myself they’re protecting us from evil. Driving away the ghosts.
“You might need a break from work and family commitments. Plan for it.”
My father wakes up — his slippers scuffing on the floor announce his presence. There’s no light pole on the road, and by “the road” I mean a sandy path that opens amidst semi-arid vegetation. Mandacaru cacti and leafless flamboyant trees praying for drizzle. Here, only juazeiros remain green year-round, its roots searching the deepest layers of soil for water. The wind heaves sand that settles into my hair and sticks to my skin. This is our part of the world, a farm in northeastern Brazil. Call it agreste. The drylands. The air is always stuffy, even at night, and the only thing more ubiquitous than sand is the ghosts.
“Primary treatment's goal is to remove the cancer cells.”
With my hand filled with wildcards, my best strategy now is torpedoing to the pot, playing it fast. He won’t even know what whacked him.
“Combined adjuvant treatments kill the remaining cells.”
Deia, our neighbour, tells me there are no spirits haunting our house. I don’t buy it — another thing the spirits want us to believe. My whole body swivels. Deia says the dogs were going nuts because a stray mule ran down the road. Mules are stubborn and this won’t let me sleep. Every morning it sets the dogs off while the moon is still low over the juazeiros. I think my father might enjoy a little equine barbecue and I wouldn’t mind creating another ghost.
It’s been a month since I came back. A month in which sleeping became harder than a super-sized obsidian rock. It’s me and my father now. My sister left to focus on her dancing. My mother left to escape the heat, the dust, animal hair — her allergies had locked her inside her room, making her leave only to cook and eat and shit. My aunt died. I came back because I needed to.
“Surgery removes the tumor.”
In the morning, dad has a doctor’s appointment. Leaving home doesn’t mean just taking a good deodorant with you, because you know, the heat bordering the equator line. It also means hauling folders so choked with tests and exam orders and prescriptions that we have to knot them closed with shoelaces. Given the choice, he’d rather have the bottoms of his feet raked with broken wine bottles than go to the doctor, so I don’t know who used what witchcraft to convince him this time. He insists on opening the gate himself. This must’ve been some super strong supernatural powers, because he’s even taken off his usual shorts and slippers and is now wearing pants and moccasins. He’s put on perfume — a citrus cologne that smells of mint, lime and vetiver. Something fresh to cover up the sweat.
I drive. I’ve got dark circles under my eyes and still have to check if chickens have laid eggs next to the wheels. No one wants a half-baked chick smearing around on their tires.
“From a certain age, no doctor advises surgery.”
When I got out on my own, at the age when I could pound vodka and tequila and beer and wake up the next morning without a trace of a headache — coming back here was like returning to childhood. Just like that, snap. Rewind. I hated it so much I once volunteered to work during holiday season. Nobody around me could deny a 20-year-old an opportunity to earn some extra spending cash.
A co-worker took such pity on me she invited me to spend Christmas with her family. The party got so boring, though, I went to the bathroom to masturbate. That’s right. I ditched my entire family on Christmas to masturbate in an acquaintance’s parents’ bathroom and work the next day until my fingers got sore to make an extra 300 bucks. Is that what winning looks like? You hustle, you grind, and you allow yourself only the tiniest pleasures, far from enough to not resent those going to the beach. People doing anything that doesn’t involve work. Working on your dreams. Working for money. Working to help your family. The constant’s always been work, work, work. Working until your neck gets stiff and your shoulders scream for a break.
“Chemotherapy uses drugs.”
My father can’t tie his shoelaces. Though arthritis stiffed his shoulder blades, he sits on the couch and he always reaches out, insisting and moaning before asking for help. Diclofenac potassium pills masquerade the pain for a while, as do pungent eucalyptus ointments and rank herbal supplements, yet the simplest stretch routine still makes him scream. His voice cracks when he needs a hand — as if a simple set of steps would distract me from the time-clock chained around my neck, the side effect of grinding out a career. It doesn't.
Pinch the laces, then cross them.
Make a knot.
Make a loop.
My body’s been adapting to his rhythms: instead of walking, I drag my feet now. Instead of guzzling, I take bird-like sips. The simplest things might take a while, but that’s ok: no need to hurry.
“Cryoablation kills cancer cells with cold.”
With my wildcards, I lay down three sequences and snap that pot. Problem is, he’s got half a deck in his hands, so it doesn’t matter much which card I discard, he goes for the pile to make a dirty run this time.
We both know what’s at stake here, so save the pep talk. I’ve been preparing for my father’s death since I was a kid. That’s what you do when the man raising you keeps joking he won’t be able to see you grow up. I guess having kids at 53 is a bitch. What I wouldn’t give for regular dad jokes, not the ones that hint I need to grow up fast. The ones that pile the pressure on a punchline at a time.
“Immunotherapy uses your own immune system.”
When I’d come back here — in-between college semesters, then in-between boyfriends, then in-between careers — the voices of my failures grew louder. My failure to become everything I always wanted. To be free. To seek experiences, relationships, people. To transcend amid drumming, ayahuasca drinking primates raving about how they’ll change the world, only to find out they couldn’t go any deeper than their belly buttons.
Okay. Not everyone was like that. To be honest, I can be a fuck nut. Not because I want to, but because I expect others to be. When you leave rural Serra Caiada, a town of 10,000, and move to a major megalopolis in Latin America, “community” stops being a group of people you call by name and becomes an abstraction. Damn. Your neighbour becomes a concept. At least concepts don’t tell you to beware of ghosts.
“Radiation therapy relies on energy beams, protons or X-rays coming from a machine or a device inside your body.”
The other night, my father and I sat on the porch listening to samba and Bossa nova. The sun was sinking behind the flames of the woods, bathing everything in an orange glow. Some moments may be perfect, but they don’t last. We saw a moth on the wall, and he greeted it. Called her Antonia, my dead aunt’s name. The aunt who used to live with him. She appeared to him in a dream one of those nights and said, “I’ll come for you soon, brother.”
“Radiofrequency ablation uses electrical energy and heat.”
Before my aunt died, she vomited blood. She spent a night sweating through her sleeping net and gritting her teeth while a knife fight raged inside her. We were silly enough to believe when she pretended it was gas. She even cleaned the toilet before laying back down. That’s how tough she was. By the morning, she was gone.
“To use higher doses of chemo, your doctor needs a bone marrow transplant.”
When you die in the drylands, we believe you come back as part of the environment. That serra over there? That’s my great-great-grandmother. My grandfather is a fig tree. Here, people don’t just call you by your name, they call you by your lineage. “That’s Paulo’s daughter.”
But no one tells you that, growing up, you’ll see your parents as children in need of care, and they’ll go to war to prove you wrong. In moments like this, you wish you could travel through time. Push a button. Rewind.
Go back to that day my father taught me how to make milk liqueur. A family recipe. Mix 2 parts of whole milk and 2 parts of vodka. Add sugar, chocolate, and one splash of orange juice.
Go back to a time before he became a father. When he’d go out to dance and his feet swirled faster than the cha-cha-cha rhythm.
“You might harvest your own stem cells and get an autologous transplant.”
Last night, when we were both awakened by the ghosts, we spent the wee hours playing Buraco, a canasta-type game, swapping stories and lies. Tales from other times, like the cousin who died from drinking too much soda and not enough water, which corroded his liver. Don’t believe everything my dad says, but always play along.
“Targeted drug treatment focuses on abnormalities that allow cancer cells to survive.”
Somehow, coming here is like coming home to a place inside of me I don’t visit often. A place where greetings turn into conversations, where smiles last longer, and where you can spend two hours at the dining table with homemade bread, cheese, and Pinot noir.
I want it to stay like that.
I want ease.
I want calm.
I want to relearn to live in this world where people call birds by name and recognize every green bush tearing up the earth. No need to mention the snakes.
Anyway, is that the key to a good life? Is it more essential than, say, filling your days with novelty and art and culture? There’s always something to do to make time move faster.
“Clinical trials investigate new ways of healing.”
Back in the present, at the farm gate, my father stares at the sky while I wait, the car’s engine running and first gear engaged. He doesn’t move. Whatever witchcraft made him go to the doctor is wearing off. I put the car in neutral, pull on the handbrake and get out. Still standing, not looking at me, he says “I don’t want to go”.
“Keep a cancer journal.”
No one told me that, so let me tell you. When faced with the realities of adulthood, ask yourself the important questions. Can I save my father in a crisis? Am I going to screw up the water tank system during dry season? Is it okay to “parent” him by betting on card games? If I win, you go to the doctor. If you win, we spend all Saturday playing more card games and watching movies from the 60s.
Dying, like a pregnancy, can be a process. This is your last chance to be curious.
“Between chemo sessions, write down what you’re eating, how much sleep you’re getting, and how you’re feeling. This helps your medical team decide the best course of action.”
Who am I to tell the man in front of me how to spend his old age? He’s entitled to his own experience. Who. Am. I. To choose his life for him?
We’re still standing by the gate, the ancient Peugeot humming in neutral. A chicken approaches and gets under the car to lay eggs. Someone comes by on the road, snapping me out of my thoughts, and reminds me I’m my father’s daughter.
“Palliative care addresses the person, not just their disease.”
Dad wants to stay home, so we come back inside. We can’t turn back time. The only way is to stand with both feet in the present. In the drylands.
We’re left to deal with the mule and our ghosts, lulled by the idea we’ll see each other again as woman and chalk-browed mockingbird. Or woman and burrowing owl. With his bird-like sips and frail body, that’s how he’ll come back. Now I call any bird by name. So be it. My father doesn’t want doctors to explore his organs with a camera that snakes through a buttonhole they carve in his stomach. He doesn’t want needles thick as mechanical pencil lead threaded into his veins for blood draw after blood draw until they dry out and collapse. Bled dry for weeks by twenty-one gauge spikes. But alas, I’m not ready to let him go.
So we shuffle the cards, deal a new hand, and play. He’s got the advantage, but that means he can only lay sequences down when he has 75 points. When you get to a certain level, playing Buraco becomes harder. This time, I’ll grab pile after pile until all cards gather by my side of the table. What else could we do?
We cling to the tiniest things. We put flowers in every corner of the house. We make food our love language, with him getting me avocados from the local fair, and me making him green beans stews, ’cause he likes to gulp those with a fruity white. We drink wine on sleepless nights. And when fatigue overcomes us, I put him to bed and I always say: “see you tomorrow.”