~This essay was previously published in The Gettysburg Review (2005).
I bring my father a slice of pizza and an orange soda in a grease-stained paper bag. He is the only person in the surgery waiting room this evening. A ghost room. He looks smaller than usual, dwarfed by the oversized sofa, his head slumped toward his chest, as if he were sleeping. Or praying. He eats greedily, and then we make our usual small talk. “How is your car?” he asks. “Your job?” He tells me again what is wrong with the state of health care in America. There are awkward pauses. We go outside so he can smoke his pipe.
“Six hours we waited,” he says, striking match after match as the wind taunts and blows them out. Finally one catches. He holds it to the rim of the pipe, and I see that familiar orange glow of fire. “The surgeon didn’t even call to update us. Six hours after we were scheduled, he just showed up. No explanation or anything.” My father sucks on his pipe as though it were a pacifier; the sound is like fish talking. We sit in silence for a while, on a stone ledge in front of the hospital. The trees appear sinister, their branches reaching out, pointing at us, like skeleton fingers. I pretend I am cold so we can go inside.
When the surgeons finally come out, they look tired. The one my father and I think resembles Harry Potter assures us the prognosis is good.
“I think we got most of the growth,” he says. “There are just a few little dots left. Nothing that the chemo won’t take care of.” He tells us he expects a full remission. Such confidence.
For the next six months, we are all obsessed with the word remission. It is our promised land, our mirage in the distance, our savior.