Sunday, March 15th, 1998, was going to be a day of great celebration…at least that was how I had it planned. The next day, Monday, Phillip would go in for his last chemotherapy treatment. All the testing and x-raying and scanning showed exactly what they were supposed to show—the tumor shrank and shrank and shrank until there was nothing left of it. On Monday they’d zap the damned thing one last time for good measure so, of course, there was reason for celebration. Phil and Ivona had driven down to San Jose the day before and spent the night at his mom’s. They’d be showing up at our house by noon so we spent the morning getting ready for them. Lynn made a big poster that read “Phil 1, Cancer 0…GAME OVER, MAN.” I went to the Safeway and loaded up with everything I could think of that were my son’s favorite’s to eat and drink. Together we blew up balloons and then waited for the two to arrive.
At one o’clock I wanted to call Claudia’s house to see what was up but Lynn said no. “They probably slept in…some people do that on Sundays, you know.” At a little after two I’d just picked up the receiver to make the call when we heard the back door open.
“It’s them,” I said bolting out of my chair, “they’re finally here.” We both rushed excitedly into the kitchen to meet Phil and Ivona but what we saw stopped us both in our tracks. Our son was bundled up in his green Army surplus coat, a heavy woolen neck scarf and a fake fur hunting cap with the ear flaps down. His eyes were those of a weary old man, sunken into his skull with deep purple circles around them. His skin had a grayish pallor to it. When he saw us he made a half smile with what was obviously great effort. Ivona, who looked as though she’d been crying, spoke first.
“Hi, you two, sorry we’re late. Phil…Phil isn’t feeling very well. We had a long night last night. Phil was pretty sick…a lot of pain in his stomach and…”
“But no throwing up,” Phil interrupted, “not once in this whole thing have I thrown up.”
I rushed over and gave them a big hug, one in each arm. Ivona stiffened slightly, Phil felt limp and seemed unsteady.
“Well, you’re here and that’s what counts,” said Lynn, “come and sit down in the living room.”
“I need to use the bathroom first,” Phillip said and Ivona followed behind him.
“So much for Cajun fried prawns and steak fries and coleslaw,” I said after they’d left the room.
“Well, what did you expect? The kid’s sick. All those toxic chemicals, they were sure to take their toll sooner or later.”
“I expected this,” I lied, “I expected EXACTLY THIS. I just didn’t…I didn’t.” My voice trailed off into silence.
“I know, I know,” said my wife in a whisper, holding me now, cradling my head on her shoulder. “We just have to hold out, just a little while longer. If he can do it,surely we can.”
“Of course we can,” I said, “yes, of course. I just, I don’t know why I…” Again, I stopped mid-sentence, now on the verge of breaking down.
“I’ll tell you why. It’s simple. You’re reacting this way because you…we…have only had to deal with the IDEA of Phil’s cancer, at least for the most part. For most of the treatment he’s held up fine…great really. But now we’re at the end, thankfully, and it’s caught up with him. It’s terrible to see him like this, but we are at the end. Now, don’t be moping around, be happy to see them…I know you are, but show it. Let’s make him comfortable and happy to be here.”
So, for most of the afternoon, that’s just what I did in the always-larger-than-life, more-is-better way I do everything. I followed him around the house. “No lunch…okay, how about a little fruit…I bought mangos, your favorite…Burned you a CD of Stanley Brothers stuff, the ‘Complete Columbia Sessions’, let’s go in the study and listen to a bit of it…How about a little walk…Just around the neighborhood, get some fresh air…Oh, I picked up some Snyder’s sour dough, best pretzels in the world, and of course some Newcastle to wash ‘em down…Whaddaya say…Warm enough…I could build a fire…I taped the Clippers-Golden State game last night…Did you see it …How’s your stomach…Are you gonna be able to have dinner…deep-fried jumbo prawns… with golden steak fries…or I could make potato skins…Or, you know, like, ah, stuffed potatoes the way you like…Or…”
“ENOUGH,” he finally said late in the afternoon. We were alone in my study, he still bundled up and sitting in the over-stuffed leather chair, me at my desk. “NO MORE, PLEASE, NO MORE!” There was anger in my son’s voice, no longer weak and tentative, and there was anger in his eyes. We stared at one another for a moment.
“I was just trying to…”
“I KNOW what you were trying to do. Do you honestly think you have to explain it to me? Am I an idiot? Don’t you get that you can’t have your way every single solitary friggin’ time, dad?” His voice had lowered but was strong and steady and angry.
“Yeah, I know what you just thought. You thought you were going to take care of the situation just like you always take care of the situation. Except, guess what—this time you can’t. YOU CANT! I’m really, really, really sick, dad. I feel awful and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Absolutely nothing. Do you understand? Please, can’t you try to understand? I know you love me, I know you’re hurting having to see me like this, but there is nothing in the world that you could do to make me feel even a microscopically tiny bit better.”
“Okay,” I said, “okay.”
We sat in silence for probably five minutes. It wasn’t an awkward silence, or tense in any way. The anger had drained out of Phil and was replaced by a deep, deep weariness. After a while he closed his eyes, and soon after I got up and left the room.
A few minutes later I returned to the study with my leather jacket on. “Here,” I said, tossing him his stocking cap. “Put that on and come with me. I have a quick errand to do. Ride along with me. Will you?”
Ten minutes later we were driving north on 101 in my old Ford pickup truck. It was a cloudless March afternoon, but bone-chilling cold. I’d read the day before that a front from Alaska had settled in over the upper half of California and would be with us for another couple of days.
“So cold,” I said. “Isn’t it odd that we can be affected by Alaska’s weather?”
“Well, it’s not Alaska’s today, it’s ours.”
“Do you remember the last time we were on 101 in the old F-150, headed in the other direction?”
“Ah,” he thought for a moment. “Was it the time we went to Hollister? Last summer?”
“Yep, we were headed toward the Good Old-Fashioned Festival. Just about this time of the day, but with the temperature about sixty degrees warmer. Seems like a long, long time ago, doesn’t it?”
“Well, it was a long time ago. So, like, dad, where are we going? What’s the errand? Is it far?”
“Not too far. Do you remember on our drive down to Hollister, do you remember that you had me feel the lump on your neck?”
“The ganglion?” he said with a chuckle, “yeah, I remember that. It was a good guess, but no cigar.”
“I told you not to worry about it.”
“That’s right, but you also told me to have it checked out.”
“I did, and I made you promise you’d do it right away. And I told you I’d keep bugging you until you had it checked out by a doctor.” My voice cracked and I gripped the steering wheel hard with both hands so Phil couldn’t see they were trembling. I’d waited so long to have this conversation, never knowing for sure whether I’d ever have the courage.
“I know, and I promised I would but instead I waited till school started and I’d be covered by our student health insurance plan…to save money. To save sixty bucks. Can you believe it? Dumb”
“I keep asking myself…over and over and over…why, why didn’t I…”
“Huh? What? Why didn’t you what?”
“Why didn’t I call you the following Monday to make sure you went to the health clinic. And the next Tuesday, and the next Wednesday and every day until you went? Do you know that that could have…” My son interrupted me.
“So, that’s what this is all about? Sure I know, of course I know how things might have been different. You think I haven’t thought about it? If we’d found it in July instead of at the end of September there’s a chance the tumor wouldn’t have gotten as big as it got. And that might have meant the chemo would have been a lot shorter. And that I wouldn’t have to do the radiation part of the treatment. Yeah, I know that…Gordon told me that. But if you’re telling me you’re the cause of that…you know, for not staying on me about seeing a doc, well, that’s pretty much just bullshit, isn’t it? The never-ending Rick Cornish to the rescue scenario…the my-dad-can-solve-everybody’s-problems principle. But you can’t. You do know that, don’t you? Oh, my God, you don’t, do you? “
“Look, I just wanted to get clear with you on this. To ask your forgive…”
“And let me guess what’s next. If turns out that, in fact, the radiation treatments next month do cause me to become sterile…the doc says there’s a thirty percent chance of that…so now you get to take credit for fucking up my entire life, and Ivona’s, too. Do you know how crazy that sounds, dad?”
“Now, wait a second, dammit…”
“No, YOU wait. You followed me around all afternoon. The ‘fixer.’ Well, you’ve been fixing things for me my whole life, you’ve been fixing things for everybody, whether they like it or not. But this time, this one damned time, you can’t fix it. I feel like shit, a steaming pile of dog shit, and there’s nothing in the world that you can do to make me feel one little bit better.”
“Come on now,” I began, but then stopped. Something had changed about my son since last fall…since Cuppa Joe’s. It was gradual, almost imperceptible, but every time I saw him I could sense the difference. The cancer, or more accurately his way of dealing with it, and dealing with the possibility that he would die before he really even had a chance to start his own life, was speeding up the natural maturation process. He was learning and becoming aware and taking on new understanding about life and people and relationships and what is and isn’t important…and, yes, a new understanding of his father…all, it seemed, at the speed of light.
“This is our exit,” I said as I took the Oregon Expressway off-ramp and headed west toward El Camino.
“What’s in Palo Alto?”
“My errand. It’ll just take a second,” I replied without taking my eyes off the road.
We drove the five minutes to Lambert Street in silence and parked in front of an old, white-washed converted warehouse.
“Gryphon’s?” Phil said with more animation than I’d seen all day, “Your errand is at Gryphon’s? Cool, I want to come in with you and look around.”
Gryphon’s Stringed Instruments had for close to forty years been the preferred source of fine instruments among serious musicians throughout Northern California. No one had a better selection of the brands and models of the stringed instruments of bluegrass music…the guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, dobros and basses.
When we walked through the door and into their cluttered showroom brimming with treasures, vintage and brand new, the salesman, actually a picker that both Phil and I knew, approached us.
“Hey, John,” I said, “My boy and I are looking for a mandolin.”
Phillip laughed out loud and a broad smile, the first I’d seen all day, washed over his face.
“The fixer,” he said, shaking his head, “always the fixer.”
The next day my kid had his last chemotherapy session. April 3rd he had the first in a one-month series of radiation treatments. The last week in May Phillip was pronounced cancer free and in remission. The following month we camped together at the Father’s Day Festival and by then his hair had nearly grown back. In September 1998, Phil proudly announced to his family that he’d graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. (I’ve never fully understood how he managed this after dropping out for a semester…extra units he’d squirrelled away as a junior, then some requirements picked up post-illness at summer school.) By late fall, my boy joined the Grass Menagerie and for a blissful eighteen months father and son played every date we could get our hands on. Exactly five years after living through massive doses of toxic chemicals and dangerously high levels of radiation, my son was formally proclaimed a cured cancer survivor, (Phil one; cancer zero…game over, man). In 2005 Phil married Ivona; the next year they bought a condominium, less than a mile from the house he’d grown up in in San Jose’s Willow Glen district, (so much for NEVER leaving Berkeley); three years later they had their first child, a girl named Lexy; then two years and a few months after that they had their second daughter, Ava. I am called Gramps. Phillip still plays the Red Diamond mandolin he picked out at Gryphon’s that cold March day in 1998. He’s tried a lot of other axes, he says, some very, very expensive ones, too, but he’s never played a mandolin that sounds as sweet as the Red Diamond.
Me, I’m still playing my fiddle and still ‘fixing’, or trying to, whenever the need arises. But thanks to my boy, I take it a little slower.