“I’ll be right back, ok Daddy?” she said, standing. She then walked slowly toward the door, never taking her eyes off of me. I managed a smile and raised my left hand. Satisfied that I’d be alright while she went into the kitchen, she disappeared from view.
I can’t believe she’s seeing me like this. Three years ago I was fielding balls in goal as she’d strike them one after the other. To her, I was more than a father; I was an invincible God. She was ten. I was forty seven. We had a perfect life.
Now she sits with me every waking hour she’s at home, and watches as I shrivel away before her eyes. A shell of her father, being taken by lung cancer. Slowly. And too soon.
I looked around the sunlit room from my place on the bed. There was a glass with water, my telephone, and a myriad of pills on a nightstand to my left. On the dresser next to the window was a plush Mickey Mouse. Next to that, a picture from a few years before when me, Sophia, and my wife Lauren were at the beach for one of our annual summer vacations. It was a brilliant photograph. We were all tanned and happy, framed by the glistening ocean.
On the other side of the bedroom door was a bookshelf filled with paperbacks by writers like Hemingway, Bierce, and King along with manuscripts printed from parts of the book I’d been writing for twenty years–marked up for edits that never came. On another small shelf to the right of my bed, was my laptop.
Sophia returned with coffee two minutes later. “I turned up the music. You like Jimmy Eat World. I downloaded their new album this morning.”
I smiled. She placed the coffee next to my water and sat on the edge of the bed. “Ok, I’ve got to go to school. But I have my phone.” She then instinctively picked up my phone to ensure that it was turned on, and up. “I’ll call you after homeroom.”
“And then every hour after that. I get it.” I said, smiling. “Honey, you do not have to do that. I’m not going to die today.” This had become something of a ritual for us whenever she’d have to leave me alone. Promising not to die was the best thing I could say–whether it was true or not. For a child of thirteen, she was mature beyond her years. Mostly because she’d been thrust into maturity as the result of death.
Eighteen months prior, just three months before I was diagnosed, her mother was killed in a car accident just a block from our house. She’d just left for work and was blindsided by a person texting and driving who didn’t see the light change. She died instantly. We heard the crash from inside our house. Somehow, I knew what had happened. I rushed outside and saw her car on its side in the center of a neighbor’s yard. After pulling her from the wreck, I laid in the grass with her body until two policemen physically pulled me away from her as the EMT placed her on a gurney and covered her with a blanket. When I looked back toward our house, I saw Sophia standing at the edge of our yard–staring blankly.
“Daddy, I’m fine checking in on you.” She said as she picked up her backpack and flung it over a shoulder. “Besides, I have to remind you to take these pills.” She then reached down and grabbed two large blue pills, “These. Ok?”
A few weeks ago I took a regimen of pills in an incorrect order resulting in an unexpected trip to the hospital to have my stomach pumped. “Ok, ok.” I said, smiling. “They will be taken.” She smiled, bent down, and kissed my forehead. Then she left.
A minute after I heard the lock turn, I slipped into a dream.
I was boarding the Amazon Belle on the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World with a group of strangers. Mostly adults. The river pilot started cracking familiar jokes as the boat embarked on its journey. We rode past the huge plastic butterflies when the guide asked whether anyone would like to drive the boat. My hand shot up. He pointed at me and called me up, by name. I was wearing a nametag shaped like a cloud with my name handwritten in the center. According to the pilot’s gold-embossed nametag, he was Gabe. And he was from Toronto. I had never driven a boat before, but understood that there were tracks on the bottom of the river and that all I really had to do was spin the wheel. Except, there were no tracks. And the current was strong. I gripped the wheel like Bogart traversing the rapids in African Queen. I then steered the boat around a bend, and instead of a family of animatronic gorillas playing in a ransacked hut on the riverbank, there stood my childhood home. In flames. When I looked over at Gabe, he was focused on the passengers and pointing at the hippos just up ahead in the water. I turned back and an elephant was standing directly in front of the boat. A real elephant. I jerked the wheel to the left, just missing the beast, and crashed into the fake hippos in the water. At that point everything slowed way down. I heard the sound of cracking plastic as the hull snapped the first of the hippos. Then Gabe turned to me with terror in his eyes. He screamed and reached for wheel. More cracking sounds from below. Two people jumped overboard and started collecting the broken pieces of plastic. When Gabe reached the wheel, I’d already had the ship under control and was steering it up river away from the damaged hippos. The people in the water waved goodbye and continued working to gather the floating debris. The river turned again and the scene on the riverbank this time was bus station where I was sitting on a bench outside. There was a green suitcase next to me. Gabe’s voice faded away and was replaced by laughter. I turned to the shiny-faced passengers and then to Gabe who was pointing his fake gun at the me sitting outside the bus station. Except, it was a real gun. A Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver. The passengers started to chant, “Do-it! Do-it!” so I jerked the wheel and Gabe’s shot missed high. The me at the bus station heard the gunshot, grabbed the suitcase, and ran inside the empty terminal. I was peeking through a window as our boat passed to the next scene–which was my daughter’s middle school. Suddenly, tracks grabbed the hull of the boat. “Step away from the wheel, Jim,” Gabe said, holstering his piece. “We’re here.” I jumped out of the boat and started to make my way up the hill to the school when heard laughter behind me. When I looked back, there was only the woods that border the school. No river. No boat. No Disney World. I was now dressed in black. I walked past the front desk and along a corridor where teachers and staff peeked at me from doorways. They all smiled and nodded. I smiled and nodded back. Then I stopped in front of a door, and opened it. Inside were twenty students intently listening to a teacher. Among them, my Sophia. No one noticed me enter. I slowly walked across the room toward my daughter when I saw through the windows that a fog had risen. Standing next to Sophia, I studied her face. High cheekbones splashed with fresh summer freckles. Deep brown eyes. Light brows. Truly a beautiful child. I reached out but stopped just short of touching her golden hair when her expression changed. She sat up, looked around the room, and then reached into her backpack for her phone. I walked to the back of the class and opened the door leading into the fog. I looked back at my daughter one last time and smiled. Then I stepped, blindly. Someone grabbed my hand and began leading me along. After a few moments, the fog cleared to reveal the most brilliant sunlit day I’d ever seen. I was standing at the side of the glistening ocean. And standing next to me holding my hand, was Lauren.