There are whimpers coming from the bedroom at the end of the corridor.
Whether my stepmom is having a nightmare or unable to sleep I can’t tell, but I trust she’ll appear on the sofa shortly as is her habit if it’s the latter. My father gets up, uses the bathroom, putters around in the kitchen before disappearing back off to bed again.
Looking at the clock, I realize I too need a nap if I’m to remain upright through the ordeal that is the day to come. As usual, I’ve been working through the night so I can be present for my family during the day.
As I set my alarm to ring in two hours’ time and will myself to sleep, I am restless, a mix of fever, exhaustion, and terror. It doesn’t help that all three of us have fallen prey to France’s nationwide flu epidemic despite our flu shots.
Loath to rush and antsy with nerves, we’re all ready to go far earlier than is necessary. After the métro, we try and enjoy the leisurely yet by now familiar bus ride past the Opéra Garnier, the Louvre’s pyramid, alongside the Seine and through Saint-Michel. Paris is a gorgeous city and its architecture a welcome distraction even though we know the 27 bus route by heart now.
It is the one that goes from Saint-Lazare station to the cancer institute. This is where my parents have an appointment with the oncologist who’s been treating my stepmom since last September. Today we find out how she reacted to the first round of chemo and what comes next.
My stepmom can’t stop fidgeting while my father provides an impromptu commentary of the sights to whoever wants to listen.
Meanwhile, I try and draw strength from the Portuguese electro-pop playing on a loop in one ear as my fingers worry a six-day-old crumpled boarding pass in my parka pocket.
A language that breathes life into me and Lisbon memories are all I’ve got right now.
The bus drops us off near the Pantheon and we amble along, glad for the fresh air after being cooped up in overheated mass transit for the last hour.
Chewing furiously on the last of my Canadian cinnamon gum I force myself to take a few deep breaths.
Whatever comes next won’t be good. It can’t be good. Stage IV cancer is a death sentence, something you don’t come back from when there are metastases from your hips to your skull.
Although I’ve known this since the diagnosis hit, it’s still unclear whether my parents are fully cognizant of what’s going on. Based on a joke my stepmom cracked in the kitchen earlier that morning, she is, unlike my father. He refuses to see how tired his wife is, and he refuses to acknowledge how much she struggles with every day life. He chides her for her lack of appetite as I try to explain to him food can sometimes become torture, no matter how much one might enjoy it.
But it’s not that he doesn’t care, quite the opposite.
My father has completely appropriated his wife’s illness to the point when he won’t even let her speak for herself.
Instead, he finishes her sentences and won’t let her have a moment’s privacy on the phone, commenting whenever she’s talking to her friends, of whom there are very many. Her cell phone is always buzzing with texts and calls. She can’t go out without people enquiring about her. “I had no idea people liked me so much,” she tells me once.
I am glad there are so many fellow humans who also value the person my father and I have always cherished.
People having to turn their head away from her for a moment mid-conversation because they have something in their eye is quite common. It happens to me often, too. It is happening as I type this in an attempt to conjure up some much-needed respite and appease the demons within.
Being the buffer between my parents as they argue constantly is taking its toll on me. Doing so without a safety net or support system of my own while still battling major depressive disorder frequently feels like a kamikaze move.
Since landing in Paris, I’ve been shedding my skin. Whatever thin membrane I had managed to grow back since recovering my writing voice in the summer is gone, ripped off anew every day by constant confrontation as my heart breaks a little more each time my father yells either at my stepmom or at me.
While we both know there’s no malice whatsoever in his behavior, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Much as I try and address the issue and urge him not to smother her, reminding him time and again that we’re here to help her and support her, nothing sticks.
Although they’re my currency, I still haven’t found the right words.
Since we’re early for the appointment, we stop for coffee.
As my father bites into a giant chocolate muffin, my stepmom and I wink at each other. The best way to get my father to stop complaining is to feed him something, anything.
I notice he’s looking increasingly somber and subdued. At our small table, shared anxiety is palpable. As I root around in my backpack for more gum, my head starts spinning. But I force out a trademark goofy smile all the same and reassure my stepmom that whatever comes next, we’ll deal with it together as a family.
As we make our way around the Pantheon and past the Portuguese bookshop, she turns to me.
“You know, you can come in with us if you like,” she says.
The coffee I’ve just ingested threatens to exit my body through my mouth, geyser style. This wasn’t part of the plan. Deep breath, stand firm, let’s go.
“Of course, I’d be happy to if you’re sure you don’t mind,” I reply.
My parents both nod.
To defuse tension as we wait for the oncologist I whip out my cell phone and show my stepmom pictures of my cats. Back when I flew out at the end of December, my husband made them each an Instagram account to try and cheer me up. Desperate times call for desperate measures so I deploy the cute and even though my stepmom is a dog person, she relaxes enough to stop dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
The oncologist calls us in and I shake his hand as my parents introduce me. Somehow he becomes aware I’ve come from Seattle and he says he can hear it. I only have a slight anglo lilt in French when I’m extremely nervous, an audible tell that betrays my calm and composed exterior.
As he reviews the latest PET scan results with us and examines my stepmom, I get a better idea of how he’s been managing their expectations. I hear him loud and clear, and when we look at each other, he knows that I know.
This knowledge is heavy.
But I’m here purely as a witness, and at no point do I join in the conversation between him and my parents. The oncologist prescribes a new protocol in pill format and sends my stepmom to a nurse who will explain how it works.
Walking out of the cancer institute, we’re all a bit unsteady on our feet and in need of a pause so we stop at the Corsican coffee place near the Portuguese bookshop. My parents have barely sat down that my father is already scheduling medical appointments into his phone and organizing the new paperwork. My stepmom texts her son to tell him we’ll be on our way to his place shortly for a family debrief. I excuse myself so I can pop in next door and get the grammar book I’ve needed for weeks.
With a cheerful and assertive “Boa tarde!*” I walk into the shop where I spend a few minutes choosing books before timidly attempting a conversation in Portuguese with the owner, a well-known translator and editor. I want to ask him for advice about settling in Lisbon on a long-term temporary basis but my heart isn’t in it and I sound like a chipmunk with an Azores accent. The words tumble out at random but I still manage to leave with a business card on which an email address is underlined.
Granted, it might have been easier in French but the thought didn’t even cross my mind. I go back next door clutching a grammar book, a history book, a novel from the bargain box, and some Portuguese cough drops for my stepmom.
There was a small Dr Bayard display box jammed on the fiction shelf; she likes candy.
A day later, my father waves at me as I’m typing out another piece in the early hours of the morning, earbuds in.
My stepmom has just gone to bed, defeated.
“When you’re done, I need you to come and look at something,” he says.
He hands me the patient and GP blurbs and the medication schedule that came with my stepmom’s new protocol and tells me that, right now, she doesn’t want anything to do with it.
I read everything and my heart skips a beat at the little smiling suns the nurse drew on the schedule. My father seems to have lost all his belligerence and I see a very tired, very scared senior sitting on the sofa opposite me and trying to hold it together. For the first time, he mentions the elephant in the room, the remission we all secretly wished for but which didn’t happen.
So I remind him treatment is a work in progress and that the idea is to stall the cancer’s progression while affording my stepmom the best quality of life possible. The aggressive chemo did make many — if not all — metastases disappear so there’s that. And hopefully this new protocol will enable my parents to go places again and enjoy their retirement. My stepmom longs for sunshine and the ocean…
Dad is reluctant to make plans, any plans, as he doesn’t yet understand how important it is to have something to look forward to even in the midst of chaos.
Little does he know that I’m about to force his hand by moving to Portugal until the end of 2019 so they have a place to escape to whenever possible and no excuse not to. I’m still unsure how I’m going to make it all happen but determination and resourcefulness will have to see me through, one way or another. And fast.
I pick up the little yellow grammar book from the coffee table and hold it to my chest.
What matters is to live.