“A light here required a shadow there.”
—Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
The dream is always the same. He imagines a book lying on a table, the spine cracked, the pages still. Then across the room — an opened window and a square of light. A breeze beckons, just the slightest of gusts, but it’s enough to make the shadows shudder, enough to brush his dry, cracked cheek.
It’s like a kiss that breeze, a tingle and a tease. One minute he’s tethered to his hospital bed, his skin yellow, his breath labored, a line puncturing a vein. Then a world within a whorl. A most delicious, unexpected coolness. The pages of the book toss and turn, one chapter sweeping into the next, while all around him life swirls. The door creaks. Curtains billow. And as that last breath leaves his lips, his body somehow stands. He watches the breath flip and flutter. And after passing through the window, it comets toward the sky. How light, how unencumbered he feels! Like stones dropping, the weight of it all is behind him, the deed done.
The nightmares come while he’s awake. The walls are green, the machines relentless. Once again, the doctor is explaining the procedure. He sees the mouth move but the words ring dim. It’s the fingers that intrigue him. They’re the long, manicured hands of a surgeon. They’re like dancers, those fingers, like ballerinas, the way they lift and loop, lassoing the air.
“The cancer,” says the surgeon, “is confined to the head of the pancreas.”
His granddaughter is only twelve. In tutus since she was three. Soon she’ll dance on point, they tell him. The French words, once so languid on his tongue, now evade him. Allongé. Jeté. Plié.
“Here at Sloan Kettering,” says the surgeon. “We perform a Whipple. We take out the tumor, part of the small intestine, the gallbladder, the bile duct. Then with chemo and some radiation, you’ve got a fighting chance.”
Was it twenty years since his mother died? She was also seventy-five. He figures it’s as good an expiration date as any, his shelf life predetermined by bad genes and worse luck.
The doctor sighs and thrusts out the clipboard. “If you sign here, we’ll get you on the board tomorrow.”
But it’s hard to focus. The pain gnaws like a tooth, chewing its way from his front to his back. And here’s a truth they don’t tell you: the drugs don’t dull the pain. They just muddy your mind so you don’t care.
Still, he rallies. His thoughts converge and his muscles clench. From somewhere deep inside he spews the word. “No!” he shouts.
There was a time when time had meaning. It advanced in soldierly progression just like a Sousa march. Boom! Boom! Boom! But now everything’s fluid. Instead of moving forward, time pours like sand. And soon he’s thinking of another hospital room and another bed.
Just the thought of his mother brings tears. The woman was a conundrum. A blank page. A black hole in a distant galaxy. An existence merely inferred by the people who orbited around her. She cleaned the house, cooked their meals, raised the children. At night, she kept her husband company while he watched TV.
Looking back, he neither hated nor feared him. A swollen paunch bursting through a tee-shirt. A pair of purple balls slipping past a boxer leg. The man he called father would sit in the armchair while his mother took the couch. Her hands were always busy. How the knitting needles clicked! A sweater. A cap. A scarf. She would glance up at the screen, feign interest for a moment or two, then start clicking her needles again. Nod. Click. Nod. Click. Nod. Click.
He is startled when the doctor sighs again. Clipboard in hand, he has perched himself at the foot of the man’s bed. Once, the places were reversed. Once, he was the one sitting. Once, he was one sighing. Her skin was already gray — her wrist, her arm, her neck — as cold and veined as marble.
She coughed her smoker’s cough and when she finally spoke, it was as if the conversation had already started. As if her brain had volleyed the words back and forth many times before.
“Surely you noticed? Your father and your brothers. The way they talked, the way they walked. They liked you well enough. But they weren’t like you.”
“My God, could you be more different? Your two younger brothers hated school. And they never worked a job that had a desk. But you were different. Button-down shirts. Slide rules. You and your la-di-da degrees.”
The story she told him took ten minutes tops. A soap opera sandwiched between commercials.
“It was World War II. Manhattan was filled with dance halls. We packed a lifetime’s worth of loving in a nighttime’s worth of drinks. We danced. We talked about the sun and the moon and the stars.”
Her eyes wandered. She looked up at the ceiling as if it had all the answers.
“He was a soldier. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. We only did it once. A strange guy. Spoke like he was reading from a book.”
Then her skeletal hand clasped his. “His name was Ben Sturgis. S-T-U-R-G-I-S. Of, course, I wrote him. But when they returned my letters, I figured he was dead.”
A cough like a machine gun. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
“Then another man in another dance hall. An older guy. Bad foot. Tricky ticker. Took me and my swollen stomach in. Sure, he treated you different. After all, you weren’t his.”
Two days later he got the call that she had died. He was at the university running tests in the engineering lab. The nurse was pure business, checking items off a list.
“You’re our local contact. You need the name of a funeral parlor? We got social workers if you want them. There are two others, right? Two other sons?”
In all the months his mother suffered, his brothers never made an appearance. Now they flew in like vultures and swept through her house. After emptying the refrigerator, they took an inventory, stuffed their pockets, and flew out once more. The man hasn’t seen them since. The funeral. His brothers. More stones.
Lauren, his daughter and only child, is wild with grief. A clock is ticking. Every day her father delays surgery lessens his chances and assures his fate. She has already lost one parent. Damn if she’s going to let that happen again.
Her mother’s decline had been a horror. A victim of early onset dementia, her mother was stricken while still in her fifties. Though the burden had been on Lauren’s father, the pictures stay etched in her head. In the end it was like taking care of an infant. The bibs. The diapers. And the worst part was the hopelessness, the utter finality of the disease. It was like boarding a plane that was doomed to crash.
Now Lauren makes a plan. First, she corners the nurse at her station. Since it’s a week before Christmas, the place is filled with phony cheer. A plastic tree. A plate of sprinkled cookies. It isn’t Lauren’s nature to be pushy but sometimes pushy is the only way to go.
“My father needs antidepressants,” she demands. “He’s not in his right mind. If he was thinking clearly, he’d take the treatment.”
She calls her husband on her cellphone. Frank is a lawyer. He’s 24/7 busy, preparing for the biggest trial of his career. Still, she’s not deterred.
“I need the number of one of your investigators. When? Like today. Like an hour ago. You’ll do it, right? You’ll do it today, right?”
That night, her family goes without dinner. Her husband sleeps alone. Her daughter skulks to bed. And for the rest of the evening, Lauren sits at the computer, searching for the trace of a man named Ben Sturgis.
A week later, even Lauren is amazed at her success. Though Ben Sturgis is no longer alive, he survived the war, married, and became an architect. His family is huge. There are three remaining children and boatloads of cousins.
Her next step is to contact the aunt who lives in Brooklyn, a mere borough from her own neighborhood. Soon they’re exchanging photos, and once again Lauren is shocked. The uncle in Cincinnati has her father’s crooked smile, the one in Milwaukee his thick, wavy hair. Her father teaches Mechanical Engineering. Two of his half siblings are engineers as well.
Meanwhile every minute counts. Her father has made arrangements to leave the hospital. He has called the hospice people and his estate attorney. He’s tying up loose ends. With no time to waste, Lauren pushes for a family reunion. She sends plane tickets to the out-of-town brothers. She creates a Facebook page where all of cousins can connect.
She can’t remember the last time she felt so useful, so important, so accomplished! Once, she could count her relatives on the fingers of one hand. Now her family is exploding.
All roads, of course, lead to her father. She draws up an Excel sheet with their new and improved family tree. She orders DNA tests for herself and her aunt’s three children. The plan is simple. By the time they get the results, her father’s surgery will be behind them. She imagines a circle of relatives that will grow and grow and grow.
Though there are glitches, they are easily overlooked.
“You mean you’re just going to spring these people on him?” asks her husband. “You sure he wants to meet them? Your dad’s a smart guy. And he’s known this secret for what — twenty years? You don’t think he could have looked them up in the phone book? You don’t think he could have made a few calls?”
But Lauren wants to wash away the sadness. She can still see her mother’s final days. The way her head lolled on her shoulder. The way her eyes looked at Lauren without a hint of recognition. The train has left the station, she tells her husband. Her newfound family is loving and kind and only too eager to help.
Looking back, she could have stepped on the brakes. Looking back, she could have asked a few more questions. Instead, she hurls herself forward. She’s thinking I will save him I will save him I will save him until it’s too late to stop.
There is no beginning and no end. No start and stop. One hour simply bleeds into the next. The hospice nurse pays him a quick home visit, replenishes the drugs, then leaves. It takes every ounce of strength for the man to just sit in his armchair. His head is groggy, and his vision blurred. He can’t read. He can’t sleep. He can’t eat. All he has for company is the boob tube and since he hasn’t paid the bills, three fuzzy channels loop. Then suddenly the front door opens. In the hallway, footsteps pound the wood floor.
“Dad,” says his daughter. “Do you realize you’re watching static?”
His ears buzz while little lightning bolts zoom past his retina. Of course, there’s static. The whole world is static.
She plants herself in front of him, bends down, and puts her hands over his. “Pops, I have a surprise for you. A big one, Pops. Remember Ben Sturgis? Remember Granny telling you about Ben Sturgis?”
Hiding a few feet behind are her husband and daughter. Their faces are frozen with fake smiles, their hands clenched like they’re glued together.
“Look! I found them, Pops! Not Ben. I’m sorry to say that Ben’s passed. But you’ve got two brothers and a sister. And between the three of them ten kids. I’ve got ten first cousins, Pops! Can you believe it!”
Ben Sturgis? All at once the room spins. The man’s dizzy with mental gymnastics. Sometimes drugs do that. One morning he looked in the mirror and swore he saw Elvis. Now his thoughts are ricocheting up and down and sideways. His mother was mean. She ate meanness for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was always an ulterior motive. Kindness, when offered, was merely subterfuge. Ben Sturgis? He had filed that story ages ago.
But before he can protest, before thoughts form and words gel, his daughter opens the door. Three people walk in. They’re sixtyish. The woman’s holding flowers, the men a pile of magazines.
“I’m Ben, Jr,” says one.
“I’m Sam,” says the other.
In a blink, the woman barrels past the other two. “I’m your little sister Kate,” she booms. She’s bouncing on her heels and clapping her hands like there’s a party. Like someone’s going to sing Happy Birthday, and boy, does she love cake.
The man glances at the window. It’s closed. He’s sure he closed it. Still, he feels windswept, as if a hurricane had spun into the room. Once the woman named Kate starts talking, she can’t stop. She’s an engine on full throttle. She’s eight cylinders blazing. She’s a perpetual motion machine.
He’s so stunned he can’t speak.
“We’ll be right back with refreshments,” says Kate. Then she grabs Lauren’s hand while his granddaughter trots two steps behind.
A vacuum has been left, a gaping maw that screams. Everyone fidgets. The man named Ben starts fiddling with the rabbit ears while the other man starts whacking the TV.
Miraculously, a picture comes into focus. All the whacking and fiddling actually work. The son-in-law’s been standing in the corner playing with his phone. Suddenly, he’s paying attention. One glance and his eyebrows jump.
“How’d you do that?”
The two men are gesturing to each other. Then they disappear and boomerang back. They’ve lugged two chairs from the dining room and proceed to watch the newly fixed screen. There’s a soccer game on, he believes it’s the finals, so people are shouting like idiots.
Time passes. The air is still. The static stopped. Slowly, a cloud of calmness settles over them. The man thinks maybe, just maybe, his daughter is right. Maybe, just maybe, these people are his people. Someone’s cast a spell he doesn’t want to break.
He admits they look achingly familiar. The men are tall but stooped, thin but ropey. And as he watches them watch the screen, it’s obvious that they have absolutely no interest in the program. They’re just polite—old-fashioned polite—making themselves small, trying not to intrude. Other than the introductions, they haven’t said two words. Then all at once they speak.
“You hear that drip?” asks Ben.
“What drip?” asks the son-in-law.
“The drip that sounds like Niagara Falls,” says Sam. “The one that’s been driving me crazy.”
The man feels his skin crease, feels the formation of a smile. It’s a surprise when it happens. “It’s the bathroom sink,” he hears himself saying. The noise has been bothering him for weeks, but he’s been too weak to fix it. “The tools are in the shed.”
Within minutes, the strangers are in the bathroom splayed on the floor, a wrench in one hand, a plier in the other. The man’s too sleepy to watch, but the son-in-law follows them in.
“Can I ask you a question?” he says.
“You must be the lawyer,” one replies.
“Why are you doing this? I mean, what’s in it for you?”
The one named Ben sits up and blinks. “Suppose someone needed a kidney. And if they didn’t get a kidney, they were probably gonna die.”
The one named Sam dries his hand on his pants. He’s huffing and puffing as he tightens the valve. “You’d give him a kidney, right? Well, this is a whole lot easier than giving a kidney. Don’t you think?”
The rest of the day moves in and out of shadows. A wheelchair materializes. They prop the man up and tour the house. Those rain gutters are sure busted, they tell him. You’ve got a roof leak on the third floor. These windows need caulking. They’re like a sieve, these windows. The rain, the elements. It’s like camping.
He thinks he’s dreaming. Is he dreaming? Though everything’s wooly, it all feels wonderfully real. Someone’s packed him into an SUV. The next thing he knows they’re in the hardware store, all four of them, like a parade, marching up and down the aisles. The two men are loading the cart while his son-in-law tags behind. You think we bought enough felt paper? Should we go with the silicone or the grout? It’s a love song, like music to his ears, a symphony of sympathy. Boom. Boom. Boom.
At the end of the day, he’s outvoted. All he wants is to wallow in hopelessness, to be swept where the winds want to blow. Instead, he’s pushed forward. Though he’s terrified of the procedure, soon he’s back in the hospital again. The surgeon’s assistant (a medical student who looks like he’s in high school) takes an hour to explain what will happen. Even if they get all the cancer, even if they’re able to cut out the tumor, there’s a chance of infection, a risk of cardiac failure, a possibility of bleeding out.
The next thing he knows he’s on a gurney heading down a long bright hall. His body starts to shiver while his hands clutch the blanket at his sides. Death, he reasons, is a high probability. With a presence of mind he’ll later find amusing, he says his goodbyes.
Past the nurses’ station: Flowers! If only he’d taken the time to smell the flowers! Chrysanthemums! Roses! Flowers!
Past the pretty blonde-candy striper: If only he’d been nicer, friendlier, funnier! If only he’d been kinder to his wife!
Past the vending machine: Pork rinds! If only he had tasted pork rinds!
The rest happens too quickly. A bright light. A mask on his face. His surgeon’s crinkly eyes. Before he can protest, before he can halt the progression, the universe is consumed by darkness.
Eight hours later he’s awake in the recovery room. His stomach is wrapped like a mummy. He’s hooked up to machines. But to his great relief he’s alive.
Day turns into night. His heartbeat slows then spikes. Nurses hover as he wakes from a fog. Once again he’s wheeled into a corridor, but now a sea of faces lines the walls. Lauren. Her husband. His granddaughter. And haloed by fluorescent lighting is the woman called Kate. Everyone’s crying. Why are they crying?
We love you, Dad.
We knew you’d make it!
You’re gonna be just fine!
Despite her best efforts, Lauren’s plans veer off track. Her father’s recuperation does not proceed smoothly. They pump him full of antibiotics and poke his veins for blood. And the pain! He never expected such pain. Every movement is like a knife. But after two weeks, the doctors seem pleased. Despite a multitude of both major and minor setbacks, they announce he’s ready to go home.
The logistics are daunting. Lauren hires an aide who can lift and bathe him. She keeps track of round-the-clock medications. She takes him to doctors’ appointments. Lauren is so distracted by the big stuff that the little stuff slips by. It seems a lifetime ago that she sent in the DNA swab. She’s not a little surprised when she opens her computer and sees the results.
As expected, they’re a family of mutts: a little bit British, a little bit Irish, a smidge of Mediterranean blood. But as she scrolls the computer page, the names she’s looking for are shockingly absent. And all at once she realizes that she’s made a huge mistake.
She forwards the results to Kate. Then she stares at the screen. Soon Kate and her children have exchanged their results as well. It doesn’t take long. Within hours, fingers all over the country are punching keys. As time progresses, one point becomes abundantly clear: Lauren and the Sturgis family are genetic strangers. One hundred percent unrelated. Apples and oranges. A short-lived dream.
Lauren is crushed. Her father is facing months of grueling treatment. Now she has no one who can help her help him. Meanwhile her husband basks in self-righteousness. Her daughter cries and cries.
Ben. Sam. They looked like family. They acted like family. And suddenly she pictures those babies left in hospital parking lots or dropped on a fire station’s steps. How empty and hollow they must feel! Abandoned. Orphaned. Alone.
The calendar flips another year. Once again, Christmas has rolled around. The man is plopped on a couch with tumult all around him. Flowery curtains. Gingerbread baking. Kate’s house.
Pivoting his neck, he absorbs every detail. A nine-foot tree is draped with tinsel. A dining table teems with sweets. Like the flash of a bulb, a group of children dart by. Sneakers. Pigtails. Teeth. They are laughing and crying, giggling and screaming. His granddaughter, now on the cusp of womanhood, follows gracefully behind, her posture ballerina perfect.
She leans over, brushes her lips against his cheek, and whispers. “Grandpa! I love you so much!” Then she lifts her arms and performs a pirouette. “From The Nutcracker, Grandpa. Remember!” He smiles, he’s sure he smiled, but soon she’s off and running, joining the throng in the next room.
The men named Ben and Sam appear next. As they bend down to greet him, their knees creak and crack. The two of them have many, many children, each and every one a clone. Plaid shirts. Chinos. Please sir! Yes sir! Thank you very much! Though their words are sunny, their faces are clouded with pain.
We hear they’re starting you on a trial.
A new protocol! Tailor-made!
You’re in our prayers, Buddy.
You know we’re here for you — any time, any day!
Then he notices his daughter. Over the past year, she has rarely left his side. From across the room, he sees her huddling with Kate. Their chins nod in his direction. When they notice he’s watching, they grin and wave before they go back to huddling.
He has no idea why this family of strangers has embraced him. But after living a long life, he has learned a thing or two. Receiving is harder than giving. And learning to love is the hardest lesson yet. Looking around, a fullness courses through him, a feeling of contentment that swallows him whole. So this is what it looks like! This is what it feels like! And when the pain shoots through him, zipping from his left arm to his chest, no one’s more surprised than he is.