My younger brother Ben and I sit shoulder to shoulder on the worn leather couch in our family room.
“I promise you both Dad is going to fight this,” my mother quietly says. Her eyes meet mine, and I see her fear.
There is an inoperable shadowy mass, tucked and wrapped around my father’s celiac artery. It isn’t a stomach bug like he’d thought. It never was. It’s pancreatic cancer. My mother say words I’ve never thought about before — chemo, ports and a grim survival rate.
“What do we do now?” Ben asks.
The question hangs in the air between us like smoke. I look to my mother, desperate for an answer, for her to tell us everything is going to be fine, like she often says about calculus tests, petty disagreements with friends, even college. Instead, I’m met with deafening silence. And I’m scared.
It’s no longer about my upcoming high school graduation or our summer vacation to Cape Cod. Summer vacation is cancelled. Life as I know it is cancelled. It’s all about cancer. This wretched disease infiltrates and ravages my father, making him weak and exhausted.
I flounder between guilt and anger. I should be buying stuff for my dorm room, not picking him up more medicine from the pharmacy. I should be driving with my friends to the lake for a day at the beach, not driving my father to chemo because my mother can’t take any more time off from work to go with him.
Life moves on without me. I curl up on my bed on a Friday night. My new normal. I don’t want to be the girl whose father is dying from cancer. I don’t want to explain to a thousand people, because everyone in town knows, how I’m doing, how my father is doing. I don’t want to lie and tell them everything is fine. It’s not. My father is vomiting in the downstairs bathroom, and I hear my mother’s soft voice. “It’s okay, Gil. Everything will be okay,” she says. She tries so hard to protect us. I guess that’s what mothers do.
On a humid morning in August, I drive my father to his chemo appointment. He looks frail in the passenger seat with his head against the headrest. We ride with the radio off because the medicine gives him a constant headache, and the windows are down because he’s always nauseous.
“How are you, Bug?” he uses my nickname.
He turns to look at me. I get my green eyes from him. “How are you really doing?”
My grip on the steering wheel tightens. “I’m fine, Dad.”
“Molly…” he says. “Please, pull over.”
“Your appointment is at 10.”
I ease the car onto the road’s shoulder.
He sighs. “Molly, I’m sorry for this. For all of this.” He looks out the window and then back at me. “I want to take you to college in a few weeks and one day walk you down the aisle. I’m doing my best to get better.”
Tears roll down my cheeks.
“If something happens… if I can’t do those things, promise me you still will.”
I shake my head. “I can’t,” I mutter.
“I promise, Dad.”
He smiles faintly. “That’s my girl.”
The sea of black umbrellas swirls and ebbs around me as mourners spill up the steps and into the tiny church. I follow the tide. The priest speaks somber words on a day that should be filled with joy as I move into my dorm room. My younger brother, wearing the grey suit my mother bought him the year prior for his middle school moving-up ceremony, sits alone in a pew at the far end of a black sea and he doesn’t wade in. His hands folded, I hope he prays for what is left of our family.
Aunt Jodi, with her mascara-smudged eyes and tear stained cheeks, shooshes my mother while gently rocking her back and forth in her arms. My mother, her heaving shoulders draped in black, weeps into the chest of her sister. Her familiar perfume wafts past my nose. I close my eyes and pretend I’m a little girl. I want to hold her hand, but I don’t reach for her. I want to ask her why he didn’t fight harder to stay and how we survive being left behind, but instead of her soft comforting voice I only hear her guttural sobs drowning out the voice of the almighty priest. The wooden casket is drenched in flowers. His warmth evaporated. My green eyes no longer have a reflection. He’s gone. I will be his eyes now. I will keep my promise.
Emily Marcason-Tolmie says: “I’m a proud military wife, mama to two adorable little boys, writer and a prospect researcher at a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York. I’m a Flash Fiction Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine, an online literary magazine. In 2018, I won the Scintillating Starts Writers Advice Fiction Contest. I’m published in Flash Fiction Magazine and The Penman Review. I’m a graduate of the prestigious New York State Summer Writers Institute. I earned my BA in Journalism from St. Michael’s College and my MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.”