By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
One afternoon when I was in high school my dad told me he had cancer. He said it was looking pretty serious, that he probably didn’t have a lot of time. I didn’t tell people much about my life in general and I kept this to myself too.
He worked two full-time jobs to pay for treatment and keep us in that third-floor apartment on Liberty.
I tried to do things to help, but it didn’t add up to much. There were things mounting in me from a lot of messy years and I didn’t do as much as I should have.
I was failing out of school, roaming, taking off sometimes. I didn’t know how to care for him or myself.
My dad would call all my friends’ houses sometimes trying to track me down. One of the houses I spent time at was P’s. He and I were pretty close. We played music together, made art together, he was better at both, but knowing him made me improve. We did a lot of our growing up together or next to each other.
I was chosen to take part in this thing for “gifted” artists who were still in high school. It was at the Art Institute in a city about a half-hour from where I lived. It meant an excused absence and a day of drawing so I liked the idea. P’s mother worked at the Institute and told me she would be happy to drive me because she had to go there anyway. I rode with her. I assumed she had something to do with me getting picked for the program but I didn’t say anything.
After it was over we met up by the stairway near the exit and walked out to her car together. We sat in the car without going anywhere or saying anything for a little while. I never wore a seat belt but I put my seatbelt on. There was a lot of sun and it was very yellow.
“You know,” she said, “your dad came by the house a couple weeks ago, I think he thought you were there. We had a nice talk and then when he was leaving he grabbed my arm and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this but I have cancer and I think I might die soon.’ He talked to me for a while and told me the whole story.”
I sat there, dug the nail of my ring finger into my thumb, and looked to my right. I looked at the corner of the dashboard, I looked at the side-view mirror, the sun on the fingerprints on the window. My biggest fear was anyone knowing anything about me, had been since I was a little kid. Vulnerability made me feel dirty, made my stomach feel dirty.
“I want you to know that I talked it over with Randy and if something happens, happens to your dad I mean, if he dies, we agreed you could come live with us. We could take care of you. We have the room and the money. I just want you to know that.”
They were stable good people with a stable good life. I said okay, I said that I appreciated it. I sucked at the blood coming from my thumb. I didn’t say thank you though, not in the way I wanted to, not in the way I should have. We started driving and I put my fingernail back into my thumb and we didn’t say much else on the trip back to Concord.
By some miracle of endurance and nature and medicine, my father made it. Time moved forward and P and I got older. We remained friends and his family did other small benignities for me. P and I saw each other through a good deal.
More time passed. Year after year went by and we saw less and less of each other. I didn’t see either of his parents for a very long time.
I remember him telling me when they knew. It was in the kitchen, he was leaning against the counter and she was on the phone. She had been talking for ten minutes or so and she started to look confused like she had just woken up that moment and someone had dressed her, put the phone in her hand, and placed her there in the kitchen among her pieces of life. After she hung up P asked who had called and she said she had no idea.
Her condition worsened. Her mind was on short loops, recall and chronology and comprehension in a discursive tangle. I lived in another country and worried by the time I got to see her again she would be too gone and I wouldn’t have the chance to tell her in a real way what she said in the car that day had meant to me.
When P got married I flew to New Hampshire for it. I finally saw P’s mom and dad again. I stopped them and grabbed her arm and I looked her in the eye. I said what I wanted to. She said she really would have taken care of me. I told her she did, I told her, thank you. Then I went back over and sat down at my table.