cancer · people

How Phil Got Cancer

scapegoat-Jesus-570x340He fell, his machine finally stopped, with the clamor of a mess tray and a final tintinnabulation of cutlery. A fork dropped at Phil’s feet and came to rest at the heel of his boot. Phil looked down at the fork.

The kid dropped to his knees as if in some final act of contrition, then slumped sideways with arms akimbo like a discarded marionette. The mess hall grew silent. Private First Class Dicknose was dead.

“Motherfucker,” someone behind Phil said, either a last epithet, or commentary on what had just happened. Phil looked at Dicknose and nudged him with a foot. Dicknose’s body moved slightly, but remained prone.


PFC Dicknose had a mustellidae face, weaselly, with a broad forehead yet a needly and aquiline nose. The DS had given him the unfortunate nickname, likening his delicacy of feature to a a teenage boner, but his real name was Arnie. Arnie Armstrong, hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, bluegrass country. He didn’t stand a chance in the Army, wasn’t even deployed before the other men had made him a punching bag for their own and varied frustrations. The coroner would find Arnie’s torso beneath his shirt a  long and continuous bruise, one that extended from below the collar line to just above his kidneys.

He already had pneumonia, which would be his downfall. He became the goat cast figuratively into the desert, the one for Azazel, starved for compassion and left to die among the sands of the training grounds. With the pneumonia, he couldn’t keep up with his platoon and was the cause for numerous push-ups.

“Thanks, Dicknose,” the soldiers took turns punching the shit out of him nightly back in the barracks. “Fuck you, Dicknose.”

And PFC Arnie Armstrong died among the spilt mashed potatoes and with a glassy look of dead-goat motherfucking defeat.

The entire platoon was courtmartialed, Phil included though Phil had always been light with his punches. “This’ll hurt me more than it does you, Buddy.” Phil even saved Arnie a few times like that time Arnie was locked into a locker with a buckful of fulminating bleach, when Phil like some fatigued Simon, released him from his misery. (Phil received a few punches for that one himself)

The platoon, duly courtmartialed, never saw the bush, but were instead relegated to an arms factory where for a few years they rubbed phallic missiles with lubricants and noxious chemicals, the better to shoot you with was the joke, Turns out the chemicals were far more toxic than even the Orange deforesting the Nam countryside. Breathed in, breathed out, the vapors lined Phil’s lungs and set upon deforesting his alveoli with a vigor that later invited the cancer to set in. He would survive the War, but penance killed him, killed his fellow soldiers, like they killed Arnie, and with the crashing of a mess plate, the day the scapegoat died, a whole country of men signed their own death warrant, to rest in pieces in their own beleaguered manner. Somewhere, Arnie lies content.

cancer · neighborhood · people

How To Put Down Anger

Anger is my sometimes default mechanism. Generally speaking, I am patient. Comes from having to stare at hospital walls for so many hours. But I can be angry, and a few days ago I let my anger out. On the mechanic. My car has been put in the shop and has remained so for nearly a month, which is absolutely and fucking ridiculous, but.

Marcelino, who runs the shop, is a kind man. I trust him. It used to be that we were just transactors, interlocuters, but now—as he said—“We arefamily.”

I got mad at Marcelino.

“Prioritize this,” I yelled, pointing to my car. “It’s been a month.”

And he took me into his office and closed the door so we could talk.

I told him that I need my car for my recovery, that I need to make it into meetings. That I’m tired of walking everywhere. I walk so much my feet are blistered and my thighs chafed.

“I need my car, Marcelino.”

He responded by saying to be positive. He has had a mechanic who has fallen ill, and another one with a busted hand. My car is being worked on by a one-handed mechanic.

“You see this?” and Marcelino lifts up his shirt to show me his scars. He was literally gutted by cancer the other year, and had his insides lifted out and put on his person while the doctors scraped away the disease.

“We need to be positive.” And he thanked me for the patience I wasn’t in the moment demonstrating and for my compassion.

I wound up thanking him, for I don’t want anger as my default mechanism, and want only to be kind.

We hugged, with his shirttails untucked.

cancer · childhood · people · Uncategorized


Jason fell down again and again in football practice.

“What’s up with you, Son?” the coaches would ask.

“I dunno.”

I saw Jason at high school orientation. Hadn’t seen him for a coupla months. He was on crutches.

“Didja break your leg?”

He shrugged. “No. I’ve got cancer.”

I told my mom upon coming home.

“Oh, Honey,” she said, “That means he’s gonna die.”

I just slumped against the refrigerator and cried.

She was right, though. He did.

I held a basin for him at his fourteenth birthday party so he could puke. Green bile and chemo medications.

“Thanks, Thom,” he said, wiping his mouth.

I washed the basin out in the sink. Everyone else in the house was asleep.

Jason had the couch; I was in a sleeping bag on the floor. He had one leg at this point, the other having been amputated from the knee down.

Interminable silence. It was 2 a.m. but we were both awake.


“Yeah, Jason?” He sensed that I was awake.

“What do you think the music will be like in heaven?” and he adjusted himself on the pillows.

“I dunno, Jason.”

“I think it’s gonna be awesome.”

“I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be.”

And we stopped talking. Then we fell asleep.

Jason died two weeks later.

I’ve outlived him now by three decades. His mom called me on the day he was dying.

“He’s on morphine now. He’s comfortable.”

In the background, a wavering voice: “I love you, Thom.” Jason on the couch.

I never said ‘I love you’ back.

I was twelve.

I never said ‘I love you’ back.

I didn’t know how.

I helped carry his body out of church. He asked me to.

There are days I can’t outlive the hurt. There were days in high school I had fantasies of being stricken dead. Cut off my leg, kill me. I wanna hear the music in heaven, too. One beautiful and sonorous note to fill the ever-expanding hole, one note to make sense of it all. An organ blast, something.

“Hey, Jason.”


“I love you, too.”


“Sorry I forgot to say that.”

“It’s okay, Thom. I knew.”



“Yeah, Buddy?”

“Just keep living, okay?”

“Alright, Kid. I will.”






cancer · childhood · family

Bees in the Pergola

My Uncle John is going to die today. I think he was John VanBerkel the second, maybe the third. I forget. My grandfather was the John VanBerkel before him.

Entering into my grandfather’s house, just past the bee-infested pergola of bougainvillea, there was a framed and calligraphied certificate in the foyer. It proclaimed, I think, my Uncle John’s birth. There were numerals behind the name at least. That’s all I can remember.

Maybe it was a diploma—who knows?

At some point the family tree is just a gnarlsome briar patch rather than something steadfastly oak. There was my Grandpa John, my Uncle John, my cousin Johnny. I literally have three hundred unmet cousins in Holland, many probably named John as well; Cayden, meanwhile, is the last of the family line on the Hofman side.

We’re all Dutch, regardless.

Over the last couple of generations, we’ve outgrown tulip fields. These days, we swing at windmills rather than building them. We’re emigrated, re-established, and generally have way fewer kids. I’m now married to a Scandinavian: red-hair is the Mendelevian new. Delft-blue eyes persist though, like some ghostly genetic memory having recently resurfaced.

I look very much like my Uncle John, especially with age. In fact, the last social media post I saw from John involved him remarking to his sisters how much I resembled my grandfather. Two aunts agreed.

“He looks like Pop!”

The other aunt said: “He looks like YOU.”

They were all correct.

I’m not the third or the fourth or anything. My name is not John. But it could be.

Uncle John’s son Johnny was my hero. He had a spartan bedroom—a mattress, basically—and shelves that were lined intermittently with books and records. Nothing else. Tons of LP’s. He was the DJ at his college radio station.

In high school, Johnny was known for being the slacker kid in the back of the room, always with headphones on. He’d play Mozart and Metallica at random with a cracked Phillip K. Dick book in defiance of every teacher he met. If a teacher tried to best him—call him out on his inattentiveness—he’d stand up, remove his headphones, and school the teacher with an improvised lecture that bettered whatever dullness was stenciled on the chalkboard.

He’d then sit down and reapply his headphones.

He died early—27? 28? Somewhere in that Joplin-Cobain-Morrison range.

He had Marfan’s disease. So when he stood up at the back of the classroom, he was 7’2”, with an uncomfortable back-brace. Imagine Lincoln without the stovetop hat, but rather long black hair. Coke-bottle glasses and a Social Distortion t-shirt.

“You’re wrong, Mr. Fields. Paul Revere was forced to resign out of the army after the Penedscot Expedition. And the ‘Redcoats are coming’? He never said that. Don’t get me started about the horse ride. The British captured him and he confessed to everything. American hero? Maybe, but this Longfellow poem you’re teaching is ridiculous.”

It’s no wonder that in most photographs I see of Cousin Johnny, he’s extending a middle finger, made even more expressive by virtue of his Marfan’s. Longest bird you can imagine.

I’m like my cousin Johnny. I’m like my Uncle John. I’m like my grandfather John. Just in different ways.

Uncle John’s heart was so calcified with plaque that a stint failed last night. His aortic valve literally cracked, and he bled.

My cousin, my uncle’s son, was in front of a grocery store in Sacramento—’93 I think—and he collapsed suddenly on the sidewalk, in front of what I imagine a melon display because I like to make shit up. Could’ve been apples. We get facts wrong.

A tousle of black hair on the sidewalk, a long torso. Johnny’s aortic artery had separated from the heart. His stepmother, in an act of grave coincidence, was there to see it, once the ambulances had arrived.

It’s common for people afflicted with Marfan’s, this sudden aortal separation.

Hank Gathers, another Marfan’s sufferer, and a collegiate leader in scores and rebounds at Loyola, 1990, did one last slam-dunk before falling on the court dead. Proof you can literally die of a broken heart. His aorta separated, too, somewhere between air and floor.

At my Uncle John’s house, years ago, I was playing basketball with Cousin Johnny and he was ironic before I even had an inkling of what ‘ironic’ meant. He passed the ball back and forth to me, though he hated when everyone asked him: ‘Do you play basketball?’ He happened to be a foot and a half taller than everyone else, and would flip a bird to anyone that asked about a perhaps basketball career. He had good retorts, too. He was caustically smart. He housed a Wildean wit that was sandpapered with a gritty touch of Carlin.

(“Wow—you’re tall! Think about basketball?”

“You’re fat. Think about Weight Watchers?” )

Still, he would gentle the ball to me, then do a feet-on-the-floor dunk in deference of his ability. We’d get purposely bored and retire to his room to play records and Dungeons and Dragons.

Fuck basketball.

Johnny would clear half the bookshelves and send me home with a grip of sci-fi novels, an occasional record.

“You need to read this,” he’d say, selecting a book, “Oh—and this, and this one too.”

Like I have to do now, he’d look through the bottom of his bifocals to read the spines. His retinas were in the slow process of detaching because Marfan’s has a way of not keeping things together.

Johnny smoked with my Uncle John, also my grandpa. Uncle John, at some point, was smoking four packs of Winstons a day. A pack before work, a few sundries on the way to the office. He worked at CalTrans, was the guy in charge beneath the gubernatorial appointee. All his meetings were held outside. As he’d say: “I need to get a breath of fresh air”, while lighting one up.

My grandpa, too, had the nervous habit of always reaching into his front pocket, looking for a smoke. He started smoking when he was nine, working on the dairies and milking cows with a pipe dangling from his lips. Stooled behind a cow’s haunches, yanking cow tits, exhaling blue smoke upwards into the hayloft. He had a sense of humor and a love of animals. The barn kittens would parade in, and he’d squirt them in the face with yellowish sow-milk until the cats started arriving in coteries.

Later in life he had half a lung removed.

My Uncle John saw my Grandpa be taken away, institution-bound. We still don’t know how. It was supposed to be in secret.

Uncle John said it changed everything.

My Grandpa was flown from California to Bethesda in Denver, Colorado, for a spell. He had local places, too, where he personed the white rooms, briefly, before escaping out windows. He’d arrive home with nonplus and a cane. Then resume where he left off.

No one questioned anything. Or maybe they did. What the fuck do I know? I’m just left with my own particular shades of John, and with three Johns currently gone who is left to properly ask?

I just know it was hard for all parties, that there’s rippling consequence. ‘Sins of the fathers’ is the proverb, but sickness is not sin; it’s not a chosen thing. Especially since all parties involved sat in straight-backed pews at the Dutch Reformed church where pre-determination was Calvin’s guiding doctrine—when exactly do you get to choose your choice?

I don’t know who even to ask about myself: it’s all a sort of an inside-out Mobius, where I’m just left with me at the end of the strip, ad infinitum.

I played chess with my Uncle John years ago. I was eight. He looked like I do now, with a white beard and signal wrinkles around the eyes. He was amused that I’d battle him at chess, and we did in the great room, with my grandfather’s chessboard on a table draped in woolen damask. He was drinking a Pepsi, quick to finish, so that he could ash in the can. He was a Berkeley graduate, had his dad’s smarts. He harbored a lit cigarette in between his thumb and forefinger, the cherry just shy of the palm. The smoke would pass through his curled fingers.

“Your move.”

I moved my pawn—k-chunk—and he chuckled.

He moved his bishop.

I pushed a knight.

He kept moving his pieces into my territory, but I fought him off with pawns. It’s how young kids strategize, unless you’re something Fischer. The family gathered.

I used to play dice games with my Grandpa, which was less of a spectator sport. Roll the bones—did you get twelve? My grandpa would touch the tip of his tongue to his nose, I’d laugh, and we’d keep rolling dice on the green velvet board he stored near the television. Six, snake-eyes, the somehow rare threes. We’d play dice not looking to win. No one can win dice; no one wins Tic-tac-toe. My Grandpa would say something in Dutch and I’d pretend to understand. We’d just roll again and again and there was no competition, only the throw of the bones, the muted sound of ivory on velvet.

Uncle John fought me hard, though, in this particular chess game, he ashing his Winstons into a Pepsi can, chuckling the whole while. The game took too long and the ash of his cigarette got equally exaggerated, the errant tobacco drifting like spent moth-things as he poised over the board, hand unflickingly still over the damask.

Uncle John—I look like him, down to the stubborn genetic fact that our moustaches and goatees refuse to communicate with the rest of our beards. They retain color. We’re VanDykeish by default.

Van because we’re Dutch, not Von. Von’s are German, and my Grandpa VanBerkel used to—in occupied Holland—sneak out at night with his friends and sabotage the Messerschmitts parked beneath the windmills. I’m not exactly sure how, but he’d stay out late enough to have to hide in trenches, curfew expired, waiting for morning till he could run home unnoticed. Life and death amid the haystacks.

My uncle extinguished his last cigarette and I forget who won. Szzzz. I just remember him smiling impishly, and pushing back from the table.

In one version of memory, I won. Sometimes I’m convinced of this. Then I reconsider.

He most likely won.

I just remember the side conversation, the family watching, and me fighting up the board with my pawns, sitting cross-legged on a chair too big for me, and me actually making it into my Uncle John’s territory, a victory in itself.

Again, I’m no Fischer.

But we’re Dutch, we’re stubborn. You have to earn your win, else tilt at windmills in imaginary triumph. No one’s allowed an easy victory.

I’m sure my Uncle John beat me, his black bishops cutting up my defense.

Meanwhile Cousin Johnny asked me: ‘There’s a demon guarding the corridor—what do you do?’

Grandpa rolled threes. “Yah—you need a five, now,” while swiping for a cigarette, while I shook the ivories.

What are my chances? A kid elbow-deep in the damask, second-hand smoking with a view of the sea figs and eucalyptus just out the window, spent pawns toppled, a blindness to the mirror? I need a five, a king left standing, a demon vanquished. What are my chances? How do I win? Can I win?

I roll the dice; I tell Johnny—“I’m casting a ‘magic missile’.” It misses.

I roll the dice. I get snake eyes, and my grandpa lights a cigarette.

I roll the dice; I fold my king.

All three gambles lost.

All Johns say, “Sorry.” I lose I lose I lose.

My grandfather died one year before the Challenger blew up; it’s how I remember the date. I saw my Uncle John one year later at his home in a Sacramento suburb. It was a long drive for a nine-year old and I pissed myself while climbing the stairs, his Pekingese barking at my ankles. I hid in a closet, my uncle the now patriarch, with me scared that I had ruined his carpet having accidentally stained the stairwell.

I was given reprieve. My uncle was celebrating with a cigarette, his recent radiographs white between the ribs.

“Totally clean!” he exclaimed, ecstatic at the doctor’s latest report. And we got to celebrate with him, and I got to not be in trouble having dribbled up the upstairs.

My grandpa died with COPD, one and a half lungs and black x-rays. My uncle, meanwhile, had luminary radiographs, a gamble won.

Cue Sinatra: “Luck be a lady tonight!”

I was forgiven the piss, but I was scared of my uncle, regardless. He wore a brown leather jacket, which crinkled like his eyes. He was clean like an open chess board, a chess board where the bishop can make a sweeping and diagonal take of a pawn.

I was nine years old in wet shorts, ashamed, and even the dog was barking at me.

Cousin Johnny was upstairs playing records. I was nervous around Uncle John.

But fast-forward a number of years.

“Uncle John—I think about Johnny often.”

“I see him in you. You know, of all the kids you remind me most of Johnny.”

Cancer got Uncle John in the ass, a double procedure on the prostate, which must be one of life’s jokes. Blow smoke up your ass, out your ass—whatever—but have clear lungs after four packs a day? That is a lottery dubiously won, just simply re-mapped. A cartographic flip of the north-south.

I used to bang on my Grandpa’s pump-organ, and he’d tell me that—wow—I’d just played ‘How Great Thou Art’.

My cousin would emerge from his room, loping like some cryptozoological beast, black-mopped and long-fingered, having needed his spine to rest. He would get a glass of water and take a cigarette.

They’d have their smokes on the patio, the three of them.

One time, Cousin Johnny pretended a joke, in which case he collapsed on my Grandfather’s lawn, south of the jade and in the sun, tousled black hair untied and falling in his face. He bit a blood capsule, a Hollywood effect, and pretended to die in the grass, rivulets of red streaming from his lips. We tried for fifteen minutes to revive him, until we actually got scared.

He popped upand proclaimed, ‘Boo!’ with a red mouth and stained t-shirt. He tickled us and wrestled us to the ground, and we laughed in the shadow of the pepper tree.

“You remind me of Johnny.”

“He looks like Pop.”

“He looks like you.”

Johnny. John. John.

In that chess game, I fought my damndest. Weren’t we all playing chess, no winners. John saw my grandpa taken away, which is the worst way to lose your king.

Johnny had red smeared on his face and grass on his cheek.

“Boo!” he said with fingers outstretched like a Kreskin, suddenly coming back to life while I fell, surprised, onto my back, short of breath, a car slowly descending the driveway, and there meanwhile being bees in the pergola where my Uncle John smoked and smoked and regarded the fresh air.


cancer · Cayden · death · family · favorites · grandma · parenting

Hats and the Funeral Parlor

I brought a hat to my Grandma’s service in order to keep my hands busy. It matched my outfit well, with a purple grosgrain ribbon, and with Grandma having loved purple. There was not enough time to get my hair cut (and it’s been six weeks since I’ve seen a set of clippers), so I wore long hair to my grandma’s funeral, just slicked back with hair-paste and–despite the wax—a bit unruly. But you don’t wear a hat in situations that demand respect. Restaurant dinners don’t count anymore, nor other indoor activities where in years past a donned hat would’ve been as conspicuous as an open umbrella in a crowded room. Tally the hatted patrons in your local eatery and consider how times have changed.
Times have changed except in mausoleums and churches, so I fingered the fedora’s brim and turned the hat counter-clockwise by habit, not thinking to place it to my crown. The inside of the hat is dull with wear and the straw is forgiving. A hat is necessarily defined by its creases—it’s what makes a fedora a fedora and a pork pie its own thing—yet the creases, necessarily, soften with age and over time lose definition.
I didn’t wear a hat to my Grandma’s funeral, just purple, which she would have liked. Her closets were filled with every shade of violet.
There was a luncheon after my Grandma’s memorial, but before her entombment, and I didn’t know exactly where to sit.
I resolutely sat with my dad at the front of the chapel for the service, and Cayden sat a few seats down, this being a certain catenary chain of fathers and sons. Cayde did well, administering hugs in his usual and occasional fashion, a bow tie clipped to his collar. It was our intention to not hide him from this, exposure not always leading to frostbite. Sometimes it results in the opposite.
Cayde was warm, hugging the line of monuments—Jenn, my mom, my dad—and he held my thigh when we were singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ which, despite me being irreligious, has a religious effect on me: within the hymn is the common G that descends to an unlikely Am7. It’s an unobvious chord progression, but perfect in its unexpectedness. The minor fall and the major lift, another song says.
I tousled Cayde’s hair, which he swore he washed the night prior. He still smelled like ‘boy’ though, which I noted before he darted off to rejoin his mom sitting an invisible number of seats away. He was almost giddy, and there’s a rehearsed quality to his pretend understanding of all this. Play-acting, maybe, like when he iterates and most likely seeks approval in saying, “You know, Daddy—GG may be gone but she’s alive in our hearts.”
I believe this, but I don’t believe Cayden for a second. It’s a pantomime of empathy; he’s seven. He’s on the right track, but still just seven, which is old enough to understand the gravity of things, but too young to even nascently understand that gravity is a fall, which ultimately ends somewhere. He smiled throughout the church service; the pews and flowers and overhead fly-beams being something new; the drama new; the fact that anyone with a wet face would couch him in an arm not new, but yet a fantastic thing. We’d all like to be held close, unconditionally, and to have everyone grab our little-sized hands to feel better about our guilty and big-sized hands. We’d like to forget how we’ve exactly grown up.
To me, the church smelled like a church and there were five bouquets footing the cross.
It came time for prayer, one of three liturgical moments, and the pastor predictably wore white. Even the irreligious should bow their heads in church as, similarly, you should not wear hats. When Cayde pressed his blond head to my hip and purred his particular ‘I love you,’ only then did I tear briefly, the tears lubricating the insides of my glasses, my head being downturned.
My dad patted my thigh once during the service, this being important, too.
I didn’t know where to sit at the luncheon, most seats having been taken and the room complicated. I tossed my hat onto a chair as place-saver, and considered the buffet. I attempted some macaroni salad on a Styrofoam plate and my second cousin heartily laughed when one forkful had me searching for a discreet trashcan.
Ice water sufficed, and having collected my hat, I found a place outside with my cousins, and in the sun. There were latticework chairs surrounding a low table and we talked. Marshall and Peter and I talked a lot about quilts, and the blankets and afghans and beddings we’d received from GG over the years.
“I think my receiving blanket was washed to shreds,” Marshall said. (It was his security blanket for years).
“Grandma made me a new quilt. Didn’t have heat in the house, so she made me something simple to use as blanket, so I wouldn’t use the good one.”
“Grandma gave me what she felt was her best made quilt,” I say, “And she said there was a mistake in it.” (Still haven’t found it).
Cayde scampered about. He was munching on endless celery sticks, the only agreeable thing he could find on the buffet table.
Occasionally he’d disappear behind a column, crunching a celery heart. “HEE-he,” he would say before moonwalking into notice. His Michael Jackson thing. He’s all over the place.
Talk turned toward Grandma’s wit, which I always appreciated, because clever’s clever, and ever better than never.
Upon seeing Jenn: “How are you GG?”
“Better now, seeing you.”
Upon seeing me: “How are you, GG?”
“Up and taking sustenance at least.”
The cousins and I were giddy, and Peter had a new beard; we grew up together. There were all these jokes and the sun was nice. At one point, I leapt up onto the latticework table.
(I used to walk with Grandma on the beach, and one time she found a piece of driftwood. She was wearing a floppy hat. She stepped up on the knotted log).
I reproduced the moment, pointing with my hat, and standing atop the table:
“I come before you, not behind you!”
“I’ve come to address you, not undress you!” I throw my arms out because that’s what my grandma did, being magnanimous to this invisible audience.
My grandma was funny despite the non-Duchenne smile and all. We would find sand dollars, and one time, early, there were all these furry purple sand dollars washing ashore, 6 a.m., and we didn’t collect them since they were still alive.
Cayden asked: “Will she have a Dracula coffin?”
“What do you mean, Dude?”
“Well, she could have a Dracula coffin, or—like—that coffin with two latches and with the roof being like this—“ (and he makes a sign suggesting a dome)—“And, where you can lift the lid which goes from here to here (he places a hand on both his head and his heart), and where the rest of the body is here to there (midriff to toe). And, is she naked inside?”
I paused.
“It’ll probably be the one with the latches, and—no—she’s got clothes on.”
The mausoleum is more ornate than I remembered. My Grandpa rests there, too. There are white statues and roseate marble, reproductions of the Pieta and more stargazer lilies than the nose could want.
My grandma didn’t like the stargazer perfume. I don’t blame her—it smells, truly, like a mausoleum.
Inventory: upon passing, my grandma kept few flowers, or fewer than when she was vital. Kalanchoe, African violet, peace lily, autumnal fuschia, Easter lily, plumbago, honeysuckle, rose, aeonium, apple blossom. I would water her plants when she convalesced from a broken hip..
The workers that shoved my grandfather’s casket into the wall wore keys during his entombment, which is a terrible jangling memory. My mom forbade keys when my grandmother was likewise buried.
No keys. My grandma was pressed silently into a wall, as silent can be, there always being the rough sound of concrete with workers pushing and pushing a casket to rest.
Cayden cried. I held him, Jenn held him. My mom also held him and she pointed out the flower reservoirs where later Cayde can leave his offerings.
A quilt was spread over my Grandma’s coffin. It was one of her first, and one that everyone remembers. It’s brown, and characteristically complicated.
Cayde said simply: “I don’t want to her to be gone so soon.” Faced with a coffin, he cried, things not being abstract anymore, but solidified in something that is both solid and veneer. The sudden fact of what we are dead in, and how we dress the vessels in which we’re remembered.
We were first to lay hands on the casket. I held my hat behind my back.
Cayde cried.
I returned to my seat. Everyone soon was gone and, when looking down, I saw a black shoe and a neatly tailored slack leg. Looking up, there was my brother. My uncle, saddest, sat to the right of me. Front row, casket gone, there was a stained-glass window with an upwards view of the parking lot, we being on the basement floor. Above the stained glass were the bottom-sides of tires, and there was a different catenary as people shuffled out, and when I sat alone with my brother and uncle. The stained glass said, “Let us pray,” and my uncle remarked how my grandma would pray, daily.
I spun my hat in my hands, looked down. Eventually I needed to check on my son. I stood up, briefly placed a hand on my uncle’s shoulder and looked over at my brother.
“I’m leaving—need to check on Cayde.”
My brother sobbed; I put my hat on my head.

I find my kid with my cousins. Cayde asks, and in front of a statue:
“Why do we still have mythology?”
I adjust my brim, wearing a hat indoors. (Peter will tell him later all about Hercules and the twelve tasks). I say: “I dunno,” which is not my real answer.
On the rid home, I mention my grandma. I also mention, and Cayde having cried at the realness of everything: “You know we have a quilt. We have a quilt—her hands knitted it. That’s all, I guess.”
He wipes his eyes: “Ok.”
“Grandma’s still alive in our hearts,” he says again.
“Sure, Dude.” I don’t believe him, but I also do, at the same time.

cancer · Cayden · death · grandma

On Telling Cayden

BLOG-Mrs-Lot-Salt-Shaker“She will not get better,” I correct my wife Jenn, when talking to Cayden about my grandmother.
I’m not being unkind. “May not” is at this point just inaccurate. A nicety.
“Would you like to see her?” I ask my kid.
We’ve just made the best scrambled eggs ever, me and Cayde, salt being the final ingredient.
Salt is something you rub into a wound, else pour into a healing bath. Cayde is too young to know the difference.
One time he specifically requested ‘sodium chloride’ to season his dinner: ‘Dad, can you pass the sodium chloride?’ He’s precocious, and it’s salt—sodium chloride—that he thinks finishes everything.
Like Lot’s wife. Like scrambled eggs that are done perfectly, the curds all wet and yellow. Sometimes, though, salt is somewhere in between, neither first nor final. Season as you go.
“Do you just want to remember her happy?”
Cayde places his head in my lap. He says ‘No.’ He then says, ‘Yes.’ He can’t decide because he’s seven. We’ve just told him about tumors and cancer.These are things he already knows about—we’re not teaching him anything. We alert him to the recent metastasis, that family’s on its way.
(My friend Jason: he died over the phone, him saying “I love you, Thom,” when he was fourteen and missing a leg and in far-retreat. His mother said the morphine was keeping him comfortable. I didn’t say anything back).
I haven’t seen cancer again until just recently. I’m relieved when Cayden says, “I just want to remember her happy.”
On the drive to my Grandma’s house, there’s a blue heron that conspicuously lands a number of feet beyond the freeway exit. It floats up and beyond the sea fig, which invariably lines the asphalt. Where the exhaust settles there are dead tendrils, where the flowers refuse to phosphor.
Cayde says before I get into the car, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
He also says: “I hope she recognizes you, Daddy,” because we talked about what happens in the end, and—true to everything, and what it means to die—the jaw goes slack and pupils pin. I see my Grandma’s gold bridges because her mouth is agape and she has strawberry stains on the creases of her mouth.
We feed her strawberry mash–which is in season and unreasonably red—and mango sorbet, which houses her pills.
My grandma does recognize me, and we hold hands briefly.
I kiss my grandma good-bye. There are strategies to move her onto the commode and it means navigating the three stairs into her recessed bedroom where the bed is something of percale and where perhaps she can be more comfortable. I leave before any indignity.

Outside that window, that one above the antiquated linen, I picked green garlic on her urging and it’s where the pigeons shit and where I watered her plants. Always that one stain on the concrete where the birds sit on the eaves and in between houses, cooing.
She: “Can you water the front?”
Me: ‘Sure.’
She mouthed something when I left. She had thin hair. I could’ve pinned a blossom to her skin, it being paper.
I don’t know what she said.
I tell Cayde: ‘She recognized me.’
He again says ‘sorry.’ He’s seven. But he hugs me and there is the weight of his head on my lap and I rest my hand on his skull, which I invented, and I very much believe him.

cancer · death · family · Findlay · food · writing

The Dying Man Says Only: ‘Red’

The man with the goiter and the one half-mast eye takes my order at Pho Nam Cali. I’m due at my Grandma’s house within the half-hour.
“I’ll have the ‘41’,” I say. “And—excuse me—how exactly do you pronounce that?” I ask, referring to the Vietnamese subtitles. I’m earnest in my inquiry.
(C’om bun tom nuong, mind you, is the ‘41’).
The man pronounces the words carefully but not condescendingly, and then points to each of the individual words in turn.
“C’om is rice,” he says gesturing to the accompanying photograph, “Then ‘bun’: it means pork—or meat—and ‘tom’ is shrimp.” He circles the picture with a forefinger. “Nuong means grilled.” I nod my thank you as he disappears into the kitchen and while Finn in the meantime tries to climb into the lap of another restaurant patron. The patron is wholly amused and laughs as Finn ineffectually tries to navigate the man’s calves. Finn ultimately finds no purchase.
I hoist Finn into my arms and bounce him up and down to settle his busyness. Finn’s eyes find the TV, which is broadcasting an early afternoon news segment. A tongue-tied anchor interviews a transgender military colonel; the anchor cannot keep his identifiers straight. He/she. There are apologies.
The man with the half-mast eye casually returns from the kitchen, glances up at the television, then back toward me. He’s been thinking about my question.
“Vietnamese is very much like French. The first words—‘c’om’, ‘bun’, ‘tom’—they’re modified by the last word, ‘nuong’. ‘Grilled’. The pork and shrimp are grilled.” He has his arms casually crossed behind his back, and I like this exchange. I explain how I’m familiar with this manner of modification, Spanish being something similar.
He takes a rhetorical left turn while I wait for the bun nuong–the shrimp already done I’m sure–and the rice something to be ladled from a pressure-cooker in back.
“Imagine a dying man,” he says, “Knifed in the back and bleeding. And you crouch down and ask him: ‘who did this to you’? If he responds in Vietnamese, it is: ‘the man,red-haired.’ Imagine he dies after one word. You at least know it was a ‘man’. If he responds in English, you only have the word ‘red’, which might mean him referring to his own blood.”
(On the television, I hear another apology and the military colonel doesn’t flinch).
Grammar is not generally this mortal, but it’s an interesting conversation and once given my c’om bun tom nuong, I nod thankfully, tip extra, and carry a now tired-eyed Finn back to the car. There are wafts of fish sauce and I belt Finn into the seat; he’s smiling, albeit with purpled eyes.
At my Grandma’s, everyone is there but–most importantly (to Finn at least)–my uncle, who has frites. French fries. Jack in the Shack shit. I give Finn some shrimp and some spoonfuls of rice, but French fries ultimately win, there being something of historical tongue-in-cheeked-ness at play here. French colonizers governed Vietnam for years.
(A recent restaurant I went to served frites with nuoc cham).
My Grandma’s uncomfortable.
This is the signifier I allow myself: ‘uncomfortable.’ ‘Pained’ is certainly more appropriate, but I use tame words as the necessary analgesia; I’m actually the uncomfortable one, the one not in actual or marked pain. Such are semantics. My Grandma, meanwhile, has a chart with many check marks next to medicines like ‘hydrocodone’ and ‘morphine’. The times in between administrations have trended shorter and, when my grandma tries to sit up, I understand why.
She doesn’t smile for the entire hour I’m there, except when Finn taps the velour footrest of her La-Z-Boy and tries, for the second time, to climb into someone else’s lap. Grandma couches her packet of French fries to playfully tease Finn; she then neglects to uncurl her fingers in recent forgetfulness of her own body. Finn can’t find the fries, yet still hugs Grandma’s thighs in some reverse apology. He rests his head on her knee. All’s well even as the fries grow cold.
We shouldn’t be unhappy if some have a lot and some have a little, or vice-versa: it’s just semantics.
(That’s most certainly a lie; I haven’t yet convinced myself).
The RN arrives and I shrug on my jacket and interrupt the nurse.
“I just wanna say good-bye real quick, ok?”
“Of course, Honey,” and she has on colorful scrubs because that’s the required uniform.
I kiss my Grandma just above her mouth and tell her that I love her, then atop her head where she is now white and on a scalp that used to be red. There are scattered hairs on her shoulder, chemo-sheddings, and I illogically kiss her temple and feathers of her white hair stick to my upper lip; all this while the dying man pools in his own mortality, and in which case the dying man says only: ‘red.’

anxiety · cancer · family · grandma

Upside-down Flowers

flowersudI sit with my Grandma in her living room and we discuss Mother’s Day because that’s when my brother’s supposed to visit with his new daughter. My brother is estranged so my parents will not be attending dinner with the whole of the family. They will instead noncommittally meet for a Mother’s Day something or other with their new and only granddaughter–surely it will be just formality–and my mother will fear being hurt as she has since she was six and when my grandfather disappeared for a month and without reason. This is to say, there is no blame: running from hurt seems hereditary, and why I’ve learned to instead love everyone.
My grandma and I agree there probably will not be a lot said or repaired, while my grandma talks and has cancer. The clock rings twelve and I can’t hear her because the tumor presses on her vocal cords.
“Should I tell your brother? About the cancer?” My Grandma is 89; I’m 37. It is strange to have a person twice as lived ask for advice. We consult.
Finally: “He should know before he gets out here, I think.”
I have a McDonald’s cup of coffee in hand because, anxious, I drove past my grandma’s house on the first run and found myself in a foreign parking lot, so why not buy coffee. It’s decaf. There’s that. Wouldn’t want to trigger any nerves.
My grandma points out a quilt that she’s displayed in her front room forever.
“That’ll be yours. There’s a mistake in it, though.”
She proceeds to tell me how she’s made these errors in all her quilts, some that she’s painstakingly corrected with scissors, needles, and thread before her retinas finally gave out.
She says she misses hand-quilting and I say that I get it. If you took writing away from me, I would be empty and how dare life grant you a passion and take it away so that you die with your hands tied behind your back or that your nose be given a needle, or that you must hold a nib between your teeth.
She tells me, forgivingly, that she knows I see things different, but that God’s carrying her through this. I was the only one crying. With a fucking cup of McCoffee. Which is far less poetic than one set of footprints.
I tell her that in every Persian rug, the crafter makes exactly one purposeful mistake. That perfection belongs to God or something and how arrogant to make something perfect.
We are excusing imperfection and there was that time I took care of her garden when she broke her hip and I under-watered her plants.
(She is Stage IV. I know this already. The doctors will tell her this two weeks away from today. She has headaches. Really bad headaches. I know it’s Stage IV–I’m sure of it).
I tell Jenn I don’t want to cry in front of Cayde yet. My grandma says she’s not panicked and that she’s 89 and has had a long life so crying would be betrayal.
I work with birds, and panic causes myopathy, in which case trauma shunts blood to the core, and wings and limbs turn white and lose their use. Blood rushes to the heart, which once protected by blood, eventually gives up because of too much blood and then the heart breaks and it stops.
I take off my glasses at some point and my grandma tells me that all will be ok. There’s no one not dying in my family that would say said same. And can you imagine that?
I will inherit a quilt and stitched into it is a flower patch that is unerringly and certainly upside-down.

anxiety · cancer · Cayden · cooking · depression · family · favorites · Findlay · food · grandma · grocery · parenting


Fresh-Thai-Basil_FreshThaiBasil-1Norah Jones is singing ‘Happy Pills’ and last night I weathered things ok. My chemistries are able to drive Cayden to school.

When you receive bad news, there’s sometimes the fact of not eating.  As you get older, blood sugar becomes something more of a thing.

Cayden and Finn are both in the backseat and I’ve decided bahn xeo is for dinner. It’s good I’ve decided on food this early. Breakfast is that thing everyone seems to skip, me included. Lunchtime often requires a reminder. Funny, this all coming from someone who reads cookbooks as if they were paperback novels.

(No, really. Chang’s ‘Momofuku’ is one of my favorite reads–there’s that plot device on page 52 where eggs are slow-cooked in their shells. When you crack the shell, out comes a perfectly poached egg. That’s way the hell better than ‘David Copperfield’).

Cayden used to say: “Daddy—I feel the burps in my tummy that tell me I’m hungry.” A two-year old’s logic, yet it applies. I’m bodily relieved when I’m hungry. If there’s a craving that accompanies the hunger, I’m at its whim. This is why, more than once, I’ve made soup in the summertime while it’s measuring ninety degrees outside and the broiler’s meanwhile set to ‘hi.’

One time Kat and I drove an hour in what Google Maps insisted was a twenty-minute drive. This all involved a craving for Singaporean food and a strip mall in Pasadena. The place didn’t have a liquor license so we bought Asahi from the market next door even though Kat doesn’t drink. We ordered the Hainan chicken rice (which is actually Malaysian); we also ordered the calamari even though I’d just heard an episode of ‘This American Life’ claiming most calamari is just up-sourced pig rectum. You are what you eat? We had salad just in case.

Kat, typically, picked out the onions.

Cayde’s in the backseat. He has on untidy hair and a uniform polo I’ve finally convinced him to not button up all the way. There are wardrobe rules, like how you never button all three buttons on a three-button suit. He layers like a clueless seven-year old, or maybe some sartorial genius, with interesting sleeve and color combinations.

Cayde has the habit of shaking the hair out of his eyes even when it’s not in his eyes, and who cares if he has a part. He’s a boy. To prove it, he’s wearing scabbed knees and mismatched gloves. Michael Jackson’s his current thing, so usually he sports the one trademark glove round the house. In Cayde’s repertoire, though, he has two gloves to choose from: the black one with the skeleton-fingers all done up in dimensional paint, or the other one with the sequins and gossamer threads (the one that got taken away from him in class last Tuesday; oh how he cried). Cayden wears both gloves today as if school were all just an elaborate bank heist.

I drop Cayde off at the curb and there’s always the certain gymnastic involved in him getting out of the back seat. It’s a negotiation of straps–seat belts, backpacks, drawstring lunch bags. Like father, like son, getting all tangled up. I can commandeer a sauté pan and set off a contained fire–I can do all the restaurant tricks. Seriously: hand me the brulee torch. Give me a car seat, though, and finesse is something absent. It’s a wonder I got the brassiere off when making Cayde in the first place.

The Norah Jones song is over. 91X is playing ‘House of Pain’ and I manage to continue listening. It’s a reminder that we grow more tolerant as we get older.

Cayde climbs out the car and–with mittened hands–grabs my face and gives me a peck on the lips. This is something that’s become scarcer of recent; I don’t know why we kiss in different ways as we get older. We just do, while the ‘Y’ chromosome does its near radioactive decay into an impassive mid-life. (One time as a kid I refused a good-night kiss from my dad and he slapped me so hard on the ass that it left a stingingly-red handprint beneath my pajama bottoms).

“Bye, Daddy! I love you!”

Finn has snot caked in his nostrils because he’s teething and everything is leaking. He waves bye to his brother: ‘By-ee!’ Everything ends in the ‘double-E’ these days. I wave to Cayde while idling at the curb. I used to walk Cayde to class and wait as he climbed the stairwell to rm. 7. Every morning, I’d hope for him to turn around that one last time to blow me a kiss. The entire first month of kindergarten, the school bell was Pavlovian and I welled up every single day atop the hopscotch squares.

Cayde turns around and blows me a kiss, touting an oversized backpack and with tousled hair he refuses to have combed. He’s wearing a sky-blue polo and a red graphic tee, all of which are un-tucked.  I figure the mismatch  a sign of good parenting, in which case I’m not being the slightest bit ironic.

I submit to traffic. It’s departure from the norm, but bahn xeo is for dinner and that means I have to drive north to where the Asian markets are. Let’s see: I need Thai basil, I need daikon. I’m suddenly nauseous because coffee disagrees with me of recent. It’s alright, though. It’s ok, even, when that guy cuts me off on the 163. Finn and I were conversing; I give the white truck a curt honk of the horn and we keep driving on this freeway which used to be our freeway before we moved to the other side of the mesa.  Now we have the 805.

Finn tells me a story from the backseat. Spoiler alert: it involves drooling. That tooth on the right side is coming in which will finally even out his smile. People on the Down Syndrome website say: ‘Ok—what’s with the shark teeth?’ Finn sports a few jagged incisors and it used to bother me. You get more tolerant as you get older I think I already said. I like Finn’s little jagged teeth and he smiles with eyes winced. It’s the goddamned cutest thing.

The slowing trafffic is only convenient because I can turn around in my seat now, continuing the conversation that otherwise would’ve been interrupted by uninterrupted motion. Finn’s hairs are kinduv long, in need of a trim. Similarly, the palm trees decorating the roadside have recently been debrided. They look like the arboreal equivalent of shorn sheep. It’s a slow crawl past the Cabrillo Bridge but the commute becomes faster once the palm trees disappear into the rearview and as we pass through the Valley.

There’s the Children’s Hospital and Mary Birch, where we spend a good amount of time. Jenn’s getting an IUD inserted currently, at the campus I’m now passing, and I consider I need daikon. Can’t forget the daikon. Also, I’ll probably get oyster mushrooms because I’m not a fan of enoki.

There’s this fact of a perhaps other kid. But there’s also the meantime. In the meantime we don’t predicate a lot of sentences.

Pulling into the 99 Ranch parking lot, I think the store’s closed. It’s 9am. ‘Closed’ is certainly a possibility. The backside of the store, though, is lit with a neon sign saying: ‘Open.’ The backside is where the produce lives so we push through in a dilapidated grocery cart and Finn is momentarily surprised by the turnstiles. We pause at the nmgaio bin which looks like daikon but is not.

Anything can and should surprise us. Turnstiles. Cancer. Things. The goldfish swimming in his bowl is most likely surprised by the castle every time.

My grandma is 89. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the the malignancy suddenly cancelling her voice.

I ask the guy for Thai basil because Thai basil is important for bahn xeo and that’s why I sat in traffic. For fucking Thai basil.

He checks the same shelves I just checked, the shelves I already checked because I know where the Thai basil is supposed to live. (We do this thing where we make superfluous gestures, to rid ourselves of guilt).

“Sorry,” he finally shrugs.

In line at the meat counter, I’m guest number ‘00’. Says so on the red digital read-out thing. I’m usually ‘87’, or ‘323’ and usually I have to elbow my way in alongside the Laotian grandmothers, while wishing I understood Cantonese. But it’s still early.

I wish I was at least ‘1’ though. Being ‘00’ is fucked. up.

I need a pound of ground pork because I’m changing the recipe in my head. My order is pretty unremarkable. Sometimes I order ten pounds of bones and I get a smile which is affirmation that I’m hungry, that the butcher knows I know how to cook. You can make stuff from bones. I’m not as fond of the aquarium displays down the aisle. Fish are far less substantial.

Finn destroys the receipt in front of the smiling cashier since everything is metaphor these days. We go home and, since we are hungry, I later make lunch.

cancer · death · people

Sun Will Set

I listened to Zoe Keating last night, purposefully. I like Keating, mind you, and I saw her a few years ago at a poetry summit. She plays cello, but has at her disposal a confusion of technology—pedals, mixers, the digital gamut—which elevates her into a virtual one-woman orchestra. Amazingly she has only one bow to rosin.

I listened to Zoe Keating because I know that three weeks and five days ago her husband died having had twenty-four new tumors discovered in his brain. I know this because that’s what Oren reported last week.

Oren has since died, and in similar fashion to Zoe’s husband. Metastatic sickness.

“I’ll be dead soon,” Oren wrote. That’s a weighty sentence to read when you otherwise have an expectation of deferred mortality. Forty-something shouldn’t be a viable, die-able age, until suddenly it is.

If you do the math, it’s scary. Not the years part, mind you, but the days. Oren wrote the most existentially heavy sentence he perhaps could’ve written just five days before he passed. “I’ll be dead soon.” He was right. We’re generally not predictors of this.

I saw Zoe Keating at a community college. I had picked up my friend from the airport and I got us lost on our way to the event. It was nighttime and my eyes are bad. We were at the back of the auditorium when Zoe played. She’d play a measure, reach to her left and switch a dial, else tap a pedal. She created layers of sound with just one instrument.

Everything about the cello suggests warmth. The rosewood, the rotund base. Drawing a bow past the strings is in itself a poetic gesture. (In ASL, the sign for music involves stroking the forearm with an upturned then downturned palm. It’s a beautiful sign).

Zoe played until she stopped. “Excuse me,” she said. Her bank of computers had momentarily failed and her orchestra was reduced to one player. In attempting to begin again, she sawed the chorus for ‘Sun Will Set’ a few times over while pressing at buttons.

In interviews, Zoe says that ‘Sun Will Set’ is embarrassingly simple. It’s beautiful nonetheless and I liked the interruption of simplicity when her set faltered. It was gorgeous.

The internet is stupid and all. I know that Oren liked Zoe Keating. I read it on his FaceBook page. How we know these things about each other without knowing each other at all. He said ‘”Heaven is on earth” and I think of Zoe frustratedly playing a very few and exact notes and it being perfect.