Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 4

The Diagnosis

Ever have one of those days when it feels like you wake up in the morning as yourself, but by the time you go to bed you’re a completely different person? A day that throws everything into chaos, and leaves you scared to wonder what’s going to happen next?

October 14, 2004, was that day for me.

If my life were a movie, there would have been a huge thunderstorm that morning, with a lot of lightning across the sky. Or I’d have woken up to some scary omen, like a big black crow sitting on my windowsill. Instead, the morning was cool, crisp, and sunny: a perfect fall day. I loved Iowa City on days like that. Dad and I would grab rakes and make piles of the beautiful multicolored leaves in the yard, or pedal our bikes out to the reservoir, or off to the university, or just aimlessly around the neighborhood enjoying the afternoon.

But not that day.

Matt was watching TV and I had spent most of the morning doing homework. Probably math. I loved math. It was neat and easy, and there was always a right answer. If only life were like that.

I knew something was wrong the moment Mom came home. It wasn’t even dark out. Usually she didn’t leave work until right before dinner. Her skin was pale and her eyes were red, as though she had been crying. She walked right up to her bedroom and closed the door behind her. She must be sick, I thought. So I wasn’t surprised when Dad followed her upstairs. I kept doing my homework, and figured that he’d come down and tell me she had the flu or something. We’d probably make her some soup and watch one of her favorite movies after dinner. I was even kind of looking forward to it.

Little did I know . . .

It seemed like forever before Dad came back.

“Your mom needs to talk to you,” he said. His voice was low and dull, like a robot with a busted battery.

My stomach clenched into one big knot. Even though I didn’t know what was happening, I could tell it was bad. Dad usually joked around and made everyone laugh. He was always smiling. But not today, not now. He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently.

Dad stayed back as Matt and I headed upstairs. My heart was pounding in my chest. I could tell Matt was scared too, because we walked really close to each other. We were so close, in fact, that I nearly knocked him down the steps at one point. Normally, he’d have headlocked me or called me clumsy, but he just steadied himself against the wall and kept walking. Neither of us said a thing.

When we got to her room, Mom was sitting on the bed with a balled-up wad of Kleenex in her hand. She patted the blanket next to her, and Matt and I climbed up. She looked at us for a while without saying anything. Finally, she let out a long, low breath.

“Everything is going to be okay,” she said. “You understand? No matter what, everything is going to be okay.”

She sniffed, and I could tell she was trying to be strong for Matt and me. Whatever she said next, I promised myself that I would be strong for her too.

“Your father has been diagnosed with liver cancer.”

I froze.

Mom tried to keep talking, but her lip quivered and a sob broke through. She pushed her hand against her mouth, as though that would keep all the sadness from pouring out.

I had no idea what to do. I felt like I was stuck inside a big glass box, able to see everyone but unable to move. Mom’s voice seemed to come from very far away, and there was a ringing in my ears, as though I’d stood too close to a loud noise. I couldn’t make sense of the words she was saying. Cancer? Dad? That was impossible.

Mom said something about how they had caught it early, and that Dad was going to be fine, but Matt and I just stared at her with our mouths hanging open.

Your father has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Your father has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Your father has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Your father has been diagnosed with liver cancer. . . .

The words kept repeating in my mind on a loop going faster and faster.

Suddenly I realized Mom wasn’t talking anymore. Instead, she was looking right at me, waiting for an answer.

“Sure,” I said, even though I had no idea what she’d asked. Matt nodded too.

Mom smiled and wiped a hand across her forehead.

“I knew I could count on you boys,” she said. She took a deep breath and blinked her eyes. When she opened them again, she was the energetic, no-nonsense Mom I knew.

“So!” she said, hopping off the bed. “It’s decided. We’ll go out for sushi tonight. Now I have to pick up John. Will you boys be okay?”

I nodded, even though it no longer felt like a yes-or-no question. But Mom didn’t seem to notice. She grabbed Matt and me in a tight hug.

“Everything’s going to be all right,” she whispered into my hair. “I love you.”

Then she let us go.

Matt and I ran to our bedroom. I was shocked to see that the sun was still shining. Cars were driving by our window and people were going about their day, just like normal. But I felt as if years had passed in the last few minutes. I was older somehow: not in terms of days or months, but in experience. All of my life would now be divided up—before and after this moment.

Neither Matt nor I said a word. We were both lost in our own thoughts. I guess we’re kind of typically midwestern in that way. My family doesn’t make big displays of emotion. And we definitely don’t dwell on things. When something bad happens, we absorb it and move on, always looking for the bright side and dealing with the dark.

But how were we supposed to move on from this? Dad had cancer. Nothing would ever be the same again.

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