This is how all of our phone conversations go: I’ll ask my father about a memory from Maine, about something we or he used to do. He’ll bypass the old memories and focus instead on his new ones. He’ll provide updates on laws or places and tell me what has changed. He’ll talk about what he ate for dinner or what he’ll cook next. But he never talks about the past. It’s not that the past is so horrible, but it is filled with lost ambitions and lost selves that we can’t regain, which is a form of failure. For my father, failures aren’t discussed.
I call my father and ask about fiddleheads – young, tender ferns that we used to collect, steam, and eat as vegetables. I want to be given a story, to remember where we went, where we picked them. We only walked in the woods together as a family when we gathered food – fiddleheads, raspberries, blackberries. The rest of the time, my father entered the woods alone, or with me trailing him, while my mother and sister stayed in the house.
“Where did we go?” I ask.
My father ignores my question and instead tells me about the last fiddleheads he tasted. He loves eating them, especially in a sandwich with mayonnaise. “Tastes just like lobster that way,” he says.
I think it’s more like eating grass or mushroom flavored asparagus – something earthy that’s only liked for the idea of its odd indulgence or because of peculiar taste buds, but he says, “I call it a poor man’s lobster sandwich.”
“I don’t think so,” I say. Fiddleheads were one of my least favorite foods as a child. I’d push the boiled fern heads around on my plate, their circular heads and long stems limp, wet, and bitter, and I’d remember how they’d stood firm and erect near a river. I’d remember how their tight, perfectly coiled bodies stood near lichen painted rocks, how their brown husks flaked off like dead skin, and how their newly emerging frond blades would wind down the U-shaped stalks like draped lace. How could something beautiful taste so gross?
“When was the last time you tried ‘em?” my father asks.
“I don’t need to try them again to know I don’t like them,” I say.
I rub my fingers together, trying to recall how they felt in my hands. Maybe if I touched them, I could focus my short clips of disconnected, childhood memories into something longer – if I felt the shaft of fern stem or the scalloped edges of a tight pin-wheeled coil, I’d also smell the forest, going back through time to trees growing light green ruffles on their tips as leaves folded out from buds, while my father cleared brush into piles he’d burn. By remembering wildflowers and grasses poking up through the winter-flattened stems of last year’s meadow, I’d hear and then be able to name the bird chorus my mother loved: warbler migration joining grackles, robins, and sparrows. Ground laurel might even trail pink flowers, and the sturdy stem of a lady’s slipper not-yet-in-bloom could rise out of broad leaves, and I’d be there, abandoning the task of collecting the fiddleheads that I didn’t want to eat, hoping my parents wouldn’t find enough to freeze while I recalled who all of us were when I was a child.
For the past sixteen years I’ve lived between 1,400 and 2,700 miles from my parents. My trips to Maine have longer time lapses between them; I used to return twice a year, but now a space of one to three years separates my visits. This is what I have from my childhood: memories of Saturdays out on the Atlantic in a small fishing boat – just my dad and me – picnicking off the coastal islands where I collected the spiraled casings of abandoned periwinkle shells and – when I was lucky – rocks containing sheets of flaking mica, where I stomped down the mudflats to watch a clam squirt up water – “Here’s one!” – which always made it look like they were peeing, the two of us trying our luck at floundering, filling five gallon buckets with mackerel kept fresh under seaweed, stopping off at all the relatives’ houses on the way home to share what we’d caught. This is what I have now: a voice that has barely aged, and the few things he chooses to share – or make up – none of which tells me anything about who I was, who he was, who either of us will be tomorrow, or how parents and children ever avoid estrangement.
“Not too much going on up here,” my father says. This is how he ends our conversations when I can’t think of anything else to ask or say.
But sometimes when I call, I hit it lucky; I find the right subject to keep my father going for a while. Like the time I asked him about mackerel fishing and he talked for quite awhile about “the only last thing you can do for free.”
Soon, he said, like resident-only restrictions on clamming or lotteries for deer hunting, it won’t be free. The first requirement is a registry for everyone – a phone book of who fishes for what, plus where they fish for it. All who fish, in addition to registering, are supposed to fill out forms reporting how much of what was caught where so that the state of Maine can keep track. “If there’s anything left to catch,” my father first says, then, “I’m not going to tell ‘em what I got anyway. It’s none of their business.”
“’Cause I’m obstinate. I’ll fill out their form but make it all up.”
“What? It’s none of their frigging business. Hard to believe they can out-fish an ocean,” he said, and went on about draggers – commercial fishing boats that trawl the sea bottom with a large, conical net. “They kill everything. Good things. Bad things. If you’re not allowed to have it, they just throw it overboard dead.”
My mother is talkative, and I never have to work at keeping the conversation going. She launches into her news, stringing it out like one long, commercial-free update. She passes on the family happenings from her seven siblings and all their families, the lowdown on my rarely seen sister who lives next door, and what’s really going on with Dad – his trips to the doctors or changes in his blood pressure medication. It’s on the sly and laced with general worries, like, “Your father isn’t doing too well. He just looks, I don’t know, sickly to me. Sickly and pale. He just doesn’t feel good. He used to work for hours, steady, without stopping. He tries not to worry me. He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Has he been to the doctor in a while?” I’ll ask.
“He don’t talk about himself. You know how he is. He has a doctor’s appointment sometime this month. I don’t know whether he went already or not.”
It’s not surprising that my father keeps information from my mother. She doesn’t handle it well. She’ll light a cigarette and start to pace. Her bony fingers will tremble. She’ll hide her head in her arms and sob, her shoulders heaving up and down. Once, when a brother-in-law – June’s husband – was in the hospital for radiation treatments, June called and left a tearful message on my mother’s answering machine, asking my mother to call back and talk. My mother had another sister call June back. “I get too nerved up,” my mother said, explaining.
When my mother has real information instead of speculations, I’m caught by surprise. “Okay, wait a minute. Dad was in the hospital last week?”
“They put some tube up his penis and took some skin out,” Mom says, and because I’m a nurse, the images are instant for me: an aged penis with a black, fiberoptic cystoscope coming out of it, a urologist’s office with Dad on the short table, his body crinkling in a disposable gown made from a material reminiscent of coffee filters, his six-foot-two frame looking ridiculous on the medical examination bed covered with sanitary paper that tears under every small shift, and a young doctor peering through the scope, my father just one of a thousand other bladders the doctor has seen.
“Why didn’t somebody call me?”
“He didn’t want to worry you until he knew the results.”
“But if one of you is having surgery, I’d like to know.”
“Trisha had her appendix taken out and they took some kind of cyst off her tubes, or something like that.” Tricia is my cousin who rents the basement apartment in my parents’ house. “And then that same day your father went in the hospital and had that thing done. I didn’t even know that your father has cancer until a few weeks ago.”
“He has cancer?”
“I guess so. He came home and was all shook up, ‘They think I got cancer.’ I never knew he had cancer until a few weeks ago.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“You know how he is. He doesn’t talk about himself.”
Normally, I fold clothes while we talk or straighten my desk out. It gives me something to do with my hands. For this, I sit down. “But, Mom, you knew and you didn’t tell me.”
“Don’t tell him I let you know he has cancer because he didn’t even want me to know.”
The first time I saw cancer, I’d been a nurse for a couple of years, and after seeing patients slowly die from it – the way weight slid off of them, the fatigue and pain – I was expecting something black and ugly, like charred flesh or gangrene with puss. But when I saw it I thought, “That’s it?” It looked so innocent – nothing more than a blood tinged overgrowth. There was the smooth, mucous membrane tube of colon with a knot of what looked like chewed inner cheek – more of an inconvenience than a malignancy.
“What kind of cancer is it?” I ask.
“Bladder, I guess. They don’t allow you to get off work unless it’s a real emergency so I had Susie go to the hospital with him.”
The day of the surgery, Mom went to her job at the nursing home where she works as a nursing assistant, and my sister, the daughter-who-lives-next-door-but-is-rarely-seen – a secretary – went to the hospital to be a driver and sign the discharge instructions, while the daughter who is a registered nurse, who knows all the right questions to ask, who knows all the right things to look for down the hospital’s polished-floor corridors, was told nothing. I feel betrayed, left out. The distance has made me a stranger.
“But what kind of bladder cancer is it?”
“I don’t know.”
My mother thinks about the details of the day – going to work, my sister driving him home, the coincidence of both my father and cousin unexpectedly ending up in the OR at the same hospital on the same day – and I think of uncontrolled cell proliferation, oncogenes, and tumor grading. I think about bladder anatomy and the basket weave of smooth muscle fibers, epithelial tissue, clustering, what cancer looks like. In the bladder, in early stages, the tumor would look more like a nipple. A slight prominence or a papillae, a nub thrusting out. A tuft-like lesion attached to the bladder wall – the mucosa – by a stalk that the doctor would swing a lasso around and burn through with cautery. Then, he’d extract the soft lump through the scope and send it to the lab for a pathologist to slice, dissect, look at under a microscope. I realize, then, that my father must’ve had symptoms he told no one about – dysuria, hematuria, oliguria; pain, blood, and frequency upon urination – with the nagging knowledge that something is wrong. He’d go to the toilet too often and have too little urine come out for how bad he’d have to go. I wonder if he was curious or scared or just plain irritated by the bother of extra doctor visits.
“You wouldn’t believe what he can’t eat anymore,” my mother says. “He can’t have that orange fruit you take the seeds out of, what do you call it?”
“Cantaloupe. He can’t have coffee, just decaf. He can’t have catsup. This morning he was making himself a cup of hot chocolate and I told him he couldn’t have chocolate. He said, ‘Yes I can,’ and I told him it’s on the list. He looked at the list and said, ‘I can’t have chocolate.’ No onions.”
I picture her sitting at the round kitchen table she keeps covered with checkered and floral-print vinyl tablecloths, her feet propped up on another wooden chair. She must have the list memorized.
“It says no Chinese food, and I love Chinese food. I love that Lipton onion soup on the top of my turkey. Pamela, I love Chinese food! He can’t have spaghetti sauce. I love spaghetti. No tomato sauce. He says he’ll grow some acid free tomatoes this summer.” She laughs.
That night, when he’s home from work, I call him. “How have you been?” I ask.
“What’ve you been up to?”
“Nothin’ much. You?”
Silence. I can hear the TV on in the background, but I can’t tell what show. Normally, I’d ask him what he’s watching. “I talked to Mom earlier today,” I say.
“What’d she have to say?”
“She said Tricia had her appendix taken out.”
“She tell you I was in there at the same time?”
I wasn’t expecting him to be so open, but I’m relieved he is. “What for?”
“I had a couple of tumors in my bladder. He removed one and biopsied the other.”
“Wow. When do you get the results?” I try to play it cool, like I don’t already know.
“It ain’t that big of a deal. He said even if they were cancer it’s a real slow growing kind. Nothin’ to be alarmed about.”
“How come he didn’t take the second one out?” If I had been there for his surgery, I would’ve asked the doctor this.
“He didn’t think it needed to come out.”
We talk more about his surgery, about his bladder, about old age, about being the third sibling diagnosed with cancer, following after his brother’s asbestos-related lung cancer and his sister’s recurrent breast cancer. He tells me he redid his will – I don’t get the land this time; I get the house. “We figure you’ll never live up this way again. That way you can sell it.”
I can’t believe he thinks I’d readily dispose of their property, and I want to say, “But you know that I’ve always wanted the land. I don’t care about the house. It’s the land that means something to me.” My sister is the homebody. As a child, she was never outside like I was, and I can’t picture her now caring about the mosses and trees, the field we hayed and gardened in, or the wild blackberries, raspberries, and pussy willows. I don’t say this, however, because I know it’s not the time. It’s not my decision to make.
“I’ve had a good life,” he says, as if he has just days to live or is down to his last few hours where he has no choice but to make peace, and there’s something in his voice I can’t quite catch. A calmness stretching out across the lines between us that slackens and pulls, slackens and pulls, and betrays the good face he’s showing – he almost sounds like he doesn’t care that he has cancer – with a tinged melancholy I take for proof of his helpless, not-knowing-what-comes-next fear. The slackening and pulling of tension crossing the lines between us reminds me of the time he wanted to extend the pasture into the woods, and I followed behind him as he strung grey wire on yellow insulating spirals for the electric fence. The metal wire came loose in curled rolls and he pulled it taut between the posts, working his body wet with sweat, as I picked at pale field grass, bent it between my teeth or spun it around in my mouth, moved it from corner to corner, pretending I was a genuine farm girl sucking on hay and wondering if I had the look right.
At some point, when we were in the woods that day, Dad pointed out a couple of lady’s slippers to me. “Those are rare, endangered,” he’d said.
I bent over them, simultaneously fascinated and confused. Their pink pockets rounded out like a balloon holding air and looked delicate on their sturdy stems, but I couldn’t imagine any kind of shoe that was so wide and short. I wanted to pick one and keep it forever but feared that as soon as it was picked, it would deflate.
Across the phone lines, Dad repeats himself. “I’ve had a good life,” he says, his voice snapping and falling, trailing down the vibrating wire.
I remember the man who kept me for over an hour at the dinner table while I chased cold fiddleheads around with my fork, hoping that if I spread them out it’d look like I’d eaten more. When I found out, as an adult, that fiddleheads share the exact same geometric spiral as many other structures in nature – spiraled sea shells like the nautilus or periwinkle, hurricanes, galaxies, the arrangement of seed pods or flower and leaf development – I liked to think that, when I was a child, my father was giving me the opportunity to eat pieces of the universe or collect them from the ocean and place the small bits in my bucket. If I could now, I’d gather up all those scraps, line them up in front of my parents, and ask, “Where? At what exact location did the memories from my youth and all the words and hidden meanings from your parenting and adulthood disconnect?” I want to know when and how we decided not to share certain things.
My life experience, even my father’s and my mother’s, isn’t as perfect as nature; there is no mathematical or polar equation, no Fibonacci numbers to go by, no golden ratio to count on – nothing that makes it all match up, because there’s a severed line between the then of my youth and the now of my aging parents. But there is a common thread: that which goes unspoken. In pictures of spiral galaxies, there’s always a bright solid light at the center held by two arms. It’s difficult to tell if the arms are moving out from the center or holding the center in. This is how it feels talking to Dad: he’s holding the center, with everything I want to know protected in a tight curl. He’s spiraling in towards the tight center of hidden truths, while I’m trying to whirl out to where everything is open, known, and perhaps fading away into blackness, dripping out stars from an unanchored tail.