“No man is an island.” In my family, we were all islands. We were individuals, sometimes crossing paths for a moment, but then quickly drifting away. We loved each other, but we weren’t very good at showing it. Being an island was easier than being a continent, at least until the day our islands sank into the ocean.
I wake up, get dressed, make my way to the kitchen where my mom is scrambling eggs and talking on the phone. I listen to the sizzle of sausage in the pan and faint laughter floating from the TV screen in the other room. I bid my mom and dad good morning, and receive quick nods in return.
“What are you watching?” I ask my dad.
“Can’t remember the name.”
A few minutes later, we eat breakfast together, my mom taking a break from the phone, my dad taking a break from TV, me wondering how to make this brief summer vacation worthwhile before summer semester starts. After breakfast, the three of us swim to our islands, parting ways.
“Your dad has a doctor appointment,” my mom calls from her room.
I look up from my laptop. What? I walk up to her, watching her put on shoes and makeup. Why are you going with him? My dad is a very independent person. He rarely goes anywhere with other people, unless it’s out of obligation. I can only recall one time my mom ever accompanied him to the hospital – when he had a never-ending nosebleed that landed him in the emergency room.
I was a tiny kid at the time, watching the blood pour out of his nose and crying because I thought Daddy was going to die.
“He’s going to be okay,” my mom said, but when I looked at Daddy’s nose, I thought, this is it. Little did I know that over a decade later, I would again have that thought. Little did I know that Daddy was going to face something much more difficult and dangerous than a bloody nose and that his little girl was going to cry far more than she ever thought possible.
Right now, I shouldn’t be too suspicious of something as normal as a doctor appointment, or something as inconsequential as my mom accompanying my dad, but lately, I’ve detected an abnormality on both of my parent’s islands. They talk with their bedroom door closed in hushed tones, as if trying to keep a secret. My mom glances at me occasionally, with something that looks like worry, and I don’t know why. My dad walks slower than he used to, and I’m not sure if it’s normal for a 57-year-old. Sometimes, his face contorts in pain when he lifts himself from the couch, and I don’t think it’s because he carries 240 pounds. Yes, there’s definitely a disruption in our normalcy, a storm inching its way towards us.
I wish I could freeze time right here, before the storm gets too close, but I can see my dad out of the corner of my eye, tying his shoes. I study him, noticing his once brown hair is grayer and thinner than it used to be, speckled with pepper, and a bit of salt. The crow’s feet around his green eyes have deepened. I rarely detect much emotion from my dad, and he reveals even less emotion, but in this moment, I can see he’s not okay, and that it’s too late to freeze time.
“See you later,” he says, and this is the final time I will hear his voice before the storm arrives.
“Bye, Dad. See you later.”
My parents shut the door, and I hear the whir of the garage opening slowly. I want to pull them both back in here and not let them leave. I know this isn’t a routine appointment they’re going to.
Four hours go by, and I can’t think of anything else besides my dad. I think of everything that’s been going on lately. Yesterday, he complained about chest pain. He mentioned it the day before that too. I’m terrified, because I have a feeling about what the truth is and I so desperately don’t want my fear to be confirmed.
A regular check-up doesn’t take four hours. At a regular check-up, the doctor is supposed to weigh you, check your blood pressure, ask you about your bad habits. They’re supposed to chastise you for drinking or smoking, while they look at their watch, waiting for their next smoke break. You are not supposed to be away from your worried child for four hours, not after talking about chest pain, not after cringing in pain every time you stand up, not after walking twice as slow as you used to.
I feel sick. I’m sprawled out on my bed, devouring every WebMD article that mentions any of my dad’s symptoms. Chest pain. Inflammation. Fatigue. Confusing medical jargon mixes with simpler, more frightening words. The one that scares me the most is cancer. The more I read, the more I want to vomit, but there’s a tiny bit of hope I’m holding onto that’s keeping me tethered to sanity.
For all I know, I’m overthinking, I’m worrying too much. Maybe they’re taking so long because the doctor scheduled too many appointments and fell behind, or maybe it’s because they stopped for lunch after the appointment. My dad certainly likes to take his time when it comes to Chinese buffets. Perhaps our islands are still peaceful and I have nothing at all to worry about – palm trees swaying in a warm breeze, azure water lapping gently against the sand, and the three of us – my dad, mom, and me, relaxing without a care in the world.
Then the storm comes, a torrent of rain whips into the trees, lightning strikes them down, a violent wind tosses the water into monstrous waves, while the three of us run, until Poseidon slams his fists into the sand and we fall, swallowed by the sea.
Suddenly, I hear the garage door growl open. My parents are home; Poseidon has spared them – I hope. I wipe away the tears that have already fallen and take a deep breath, bracing myself for the impact of my parent’s words.
My mom emerges from the garage first, and her eyeliner looks smudged, her face slightly pink. She sniffles, and already, I can tell I’m not going to hear good news. Of course not. They were gone for four hours. And it wasn’t because they stopped at a Chinese buffet.
My dad appears a moment later, and though he’s just as stoic as usual, I swear there’s nervousness in his face. He doesn’t say anything to me; instead he walks over to the couch, dropping a folder of papers onto the coffee table. He turns on the TV, and for a second, I wonder if he’s going to pretend that his island hasn’t been hit by a hurricane. I wonder if he’s going to start watching some show, drowning himself in the fictional lives of characters more fortunate than he. But he points the remote at the screen, muting it, and then he turns to me.
I’ve already sat down, ready to confront him, or rather, not ready, but knowing it has to be done. My mom stands in the doorway, watching us, and her face is pinker, eyes red with fresh tears. No, no, I’m not ready for this.
My dad hands me the folder of papers, and as I scan the words, disregarding the nonsensical medical speech, I can only focus on one word: Cancer.
“So, it’s official,” my dad says, “I have cancer.” The way he says it, he might as well have told me what he ate for lunch, but this is not insignificant. This is the moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
This is the moment that replays in my mind the most, that I can never forget no matter how much I try. This is the moment that still haunts me, still keeps me up at night, still makes me want to escape to a real island where I never have to feel pain, where I never have to feel anyone else’s pain, where suffering does not exist.
I stare at my dad in shock. No amount of preparation could have made me ready for this moment. I knew it was coming, but I had hoped so badly that I was wrong. Before I can even really process what my dad has said, I’m sobbing uncontrollably, tears blinding my vision so that I can’t see him properly. I don’t want to see him properly right now, I don’t want to see the pain he must be feeling. I’m only eighteen years old, far too young to lose him. What words can I even say? Somehow, “I’m sorry” doesn’t sound nearly sufficient enough, so, through a blubbery mouthful of saliva, I say, “I don’t want you to have cancer.”
Nothing else can be said. Our hearts are broken. My mom wraps me in her arms. My dad hugs me too, more lovingly than he ever has before. The three of us sit in silence together, thinking about the future, thinking about how to move on. We must be a continent now, and it’s us against the hurricane.
Kendra Nuttall is a current creative writing student at Utah Valley University. She has previously been published in Folio, Salt Lake Community College’s literary magazine. “Island” and “The Girl in the Mirror,” are two pieces that examine what it’s like to have a family member diagnosed with cancer.