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Clementines

by Alexa Colvin

          Far below where I was sat, a fair few folks ramble about. They checked closed shops, small and unaware that they were being absently observed by some seldom-seeing, harried not-god. The conversation that they made was indistinguishable from the ambient noise of a nearby television. There was some droning dialogue and, while I suspected it might have been an episode of Friends, my gaze wouldn’t flick to it to check.  

          Far above them, I was perched. The arm of the chair that I occupied dug awkwardly into my bent leg and my shoulder ached in some dull, constant way; the position I’d contorted myself into wasn’t comfortable in the slightest. Infrequently, there was a chill that tickled the nape of my neck from some clugging AC system. It wasn’t enough to stir me from my restless throne; but, I had drawn my hoodie tighter over my shoulders and looked back to what I had been trying to focus on. My fingers hovered over well-known keys, but not a single one was pressed.  

          The screen of my laptop transitioned to a revealing black as it timed out and I was confronted with myself, once again.  

          My hair was falling from my haphazardly assembled ponytail. Lines were carved gently under my eyes. There was a ghoulishness to me that I hadn’t bore witness to before. It would have made more sense if I was the one in some stiff bed, listening to the ever constant hums, haws, and beeps of some machine that was smarter than I was. But. I wasn’t. 

          I wiggled the mouse, and the static light of an illuminated screen greeted me. The hospital Wi-Fi had been fighting me since I initially tried to connect to it. The attending nurse in my dad’s ward had told me that it’s spotty, sometimes. That it can be tricky to hold a connection to. He wasn’t lying and I’d tried, then, to remember his name. Maybe it was Pete or Pat  

or something like that. I know, somewhere, I had that written down. I don’t know why I would ever need it, but everything felt important. 

          In another room, in a different wing, my dad was having his biopsy done. There was a tumor the size of a clementine nestled against his temporal lobe, snug against his optic nerve. When the doctor who was going to perform the biopsy was telling us about what she would be doing, she had said that she was surprised my dad was still walking, talking.  That she hadn’t seen something this size in quite a while, and definitely hadn’t seen it in a man who was upright and cognizant. Her revelation wasn’t as relieving as she had probably hoped it would be.  

          It’d been a week since all of this started, but I can remember that day clearly. I had been coming back from a date with my then-boyfriend, full and content to curl up, to watch some forgettable movie as had been our plan. My phone had rung, and I’d fumbled it out of my purse, rolling my eyes immediately at who the caller was. My brother’s girlfriend’s mother’s name was cast in bright letters over the screen, and maybe that would raise red flags for others, but this was a semi-regular occurrence.  

          Tracy was a very talkative, very concerned woman who I was accustomed to speaking to through no choice of my own. I was just the only person who could be suckered into answering her calls. Which she made frequently: before, she’d called me about my brother’s potential infection with the flu, about whether he needed emergency dental care or not, about how confused she was about why he hadn’t been to their house in some odd number of weeks. I’d assumed that this call was more of the same and knowing the barrage of text messages that I would receive should I ignore it, I’d answered.  

          She thanked me for responding and promptly asked why my brother was at the hospital because she and her daughter were very worried. Which, you know. Hadn’t been a question that I anticipated. Maybe something about my brother leaving his bag, or her wanting to know what to get him for his birthday, or literally anything else. But. It was just: “Logan said he was at the hospital, is everything alright? I haven’t—” Then white noise.  

          As I would come to find out, my dad’s scheduled scan at the ear and nose specialist got him a ticket directly to the nearest hospital. They wouldn’t tell him why, claiming they didn’t have clearance to, but apparently the hospital would. Which isn’t super comforting news, for obvious reasons, and is all the information that I’d been given after I’d managed to get Tracy off of the phone. It was delivered via my mother after some prodding; apparently, her calling me once they were redirected to the nearest hospital seemed like an “overreaction” to her. I wouldn't have even been told if my brother, in his infinite wisdom, hadn’t texted his girlfriend, “at the hospital, ttyl.”  

          Regardless, I’d arrived. I’d waited with my family in some cold, dark room in nervous silence. I’d curled my fingers into a clementine sized fist as we were shown scan after scan. I’d eaten shitty crackers and laughed awkwardly at well-meaning nurses. I’d played cards with my dad after, while plans were made around us. I’d wondered if I’d ever seen him look scared before today, and I figured I must have; but I’d never seen him look so small. Dwarfed by machines, lost to wires and freshly laid blankets, framed by curtain walls, and washed out by harsh overhead lights. He’d smiled, joked with nurses and oncologists and chaplains, but there was something so young and small in his eyes that I don’t think I’ll ever unsee.  

          My dad used to be a boy; I think that’s what I saw him as then. Just a boy in a forty-nine-year old’s body. A boy who was fully capable of being scared of things like doctors and odd sounding machines and the concept of death.  

          I didn’t cry until I was sat up on the second story, staring at a blank email addressed to my federal government professor, trying to figure out how to stop feeling as small as the people down below me were. As small as my dad was in that hospital bed. Jargon had clouded my mind, I couldn’t find a way to untangle myself from it as I tried, in vain, to find  

the words to explain that I won’t be able to be in class for the rest of the semester. You don’t really realize how hard it is to find those words until you have to claw them out of your head. It was like pulling teeth.  

          In another tab, I had opened my notes from the day; desperately typed ramblings over what information we had gleamed. “Vision will not return to how it was before. (Ask her if it's on the optic nerve later),” “Review of family medical history --> Grandpa's 3 cancers, Great Grandpa's kidney  cancer, Peter's cancer, diabetes,” “CT to check for metastasis growths,” and schedules flooded with disorganized spew of information, purged and lain out in the stark white of a too-bright page. Things that I couldn’t keep in my head, lest they choke out any other thought. The Google docs tab that they were in would be their grave, a final resting place for a documentation that I could only regard as numbly interesting.  

          Later, after we received a proper diagnosis, other notes would join that page, that mass grave for information that I couldn’t carry.  

          Glioblastoma, which is the form of cancer that my dad had, has a survival rate of 6.8% after five years. The most successful treatments for it can extend life expectancy by a few months. Which, when the average life expectancy upon discovery is eight months, seems more hopeful than it is depressing. Only marginally, but still.  

          I hadn’t known that, then. I hadn't known that my dad would actually be one of the lucky ones— that he would have sixteen months instead of eight. It seems like a blessing, but the knowledge that the time is borrowed, stolen from a disease that will inevitably call due, makes it feel like a curse. A monkey’s paw. I hadn’t known that I would watch him pass, two weeks after “Glioblastoma Day,”; I hadn’t known that I would be navigating indescribable grief during a global pandemic. I hadn’t known so much, but I could feel the weight of it on my shoulders. It had pressed against the back of my eyes, it had worried a hollow in the pit of my stomach. It had anchored me there as I stared at the unkind mirror of my laptop screen.  

          I had stared into the abyss then, and it had stared right back.  

          I also hadn’t known, though, that from that abyss would crawl love. Aching, writhing love. Timeless, present, and persistent. Grief is such an odd, inherently personal thing. It’s isolating. But…  it’s simultaneously, paradoxically unifying. I would be met with such an overwhelming outpouring of community, of compassion, of that wry, desperate love, that I scarcely know what to do with it even now. That even years after, upon reflection, I still don’t know how to articulate the way that love possessed me, the way that it kept me moving. The way that it still keeps me moving.  

          I peel clementines in my car. I ache with love. I am and will continue to be until I am not. Just as my dad was and had been until he wasn’t. I am my father’s daughter and I understand this no better than now; when I am just a girl, in a twenty-five-year old’s body, faced with the concept of life.

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