The doctors stare at the thickening blood in the capped vial with squinted eyes, as if trying to see sickness swimming through the trapped fluid. They shake their heads and the effort moves on to MRI’s and alternative medicine. Months and too much loving anxiety later, we wished they had squinted harder.
I don’t remember the date my father got sick. Maybe there isn’t one. I remember him mentioning once or twice that he didn’t feel quite right. But the sun is hot in August and his back was so freckled from pushing lawnmowers and snipping hedges that he looked rubbed down with dirt – no one feels quite right smothered in dirt. The last few days in August I realized that my father looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, and I was doing dishes every night. Our family is founded on home cooked meals and dinner at the dining room table, but my father’s hands shook fiercely as he salted the potatoes, and soon we all said we liked our potatoes better unsalted.
Halfway through September I realized I could no longer be a child. A girl at sixteen, there was no one else to become the man of the house. I took my father’s battle armor one night and pledged that until my father conquered the parasite that was devouring his nerves, I, too, would be at war.
In October, he would lie on the couch reading books on insomnia. With fingers sucked of their feeling, he would turn worn pages and search for a way to sleep – the body heals best when asleep. I learn how to cook and how to bake. Brownies are best for morale in a house that seemed larger as my father shrunk. I fought against a herd of college level courses, and gained an unprecedented focus. I had planned for my father to be standing at the stove in the evenings when I chose my classes that semester. I was used to being the child that most people are at sixteen. Transformed by this maelstrom of illness, I didn’t blink as I battled Calculus and made sure to hug my mother before I went to sleep. Hours spent trying to find acceleration vectors seemed short compared to minutes my father spent trying to climb the stairs. His vision waned as nerve-damaged eye lids sagged, and my perspective broadened to see the world as an adult. As my father attached himself to a machine for a troubled sleep, I grew strong with my family upon my shoulders; and together we fought his war.
Just as I don’t remember the date my father got sick, neither do I remember the day he started to get better. The doctors had finally squinted hard enough at his blood and found the toxins hidden in the starving cells. They said it would be slow. Nerves take a long time to regrow, and his had become pinched with exhaustion. We have dinner at the dining room table again, and we eat our salted potatoes with a new level of gratitude. I thought that once my father was done being sick, one way or another, that I would collapse in a heap of childish tears, conquered. Spearheading my family’s effort, we won that war. I was shoved into adulthood in a contaminated time, but I have grown into my father’s battle armor. Facing a future brimming with Calculus and hope, I am ready to fight my own war.