by Ariana Kelly
Lying in bed, drifting off to sleep, I thought about how my father was losing his driving leg and that the best conversations we had when I was a kid were when we drove together, just the two of us, first to do errands, then to travel to and from boarding school and college. Scattered around the cab of his Toyota pickup, receipts for building supplies intermingled with cassette tapes of jazz. I can still hear Bill Evans’ introspective piano notes hanging in the air against the white noise of moving sixty-five miles an hour through space. Alone in his truck, cocooned in a glass and metal bubble where we were together but didn’t need to look at each other, my father made optimistic statements about my future—which always seemed tenuous to me—as assured as if issued by a Delphic oracle.
Once, on the drive back from Yale for winter break, the sky a leaden silver, my maroon duffle bag in the cab of the truck holding my personal effects (every time I left Yale’s campus it felt as if I might never return) being rapidly encased in a layer of ice, I asked him why he’d become a carpenter.
“Low barrier to entry,” he replied.
My head was resting against the window, and I could feel the pavement thrumming through my ear. When I looked, our speed seemed to have italicized the landscape, identifying it as something significant. In my efforts to excel, I’d lost fifteen pounds over the past six months and hadn’t been sleeping more than a few hours a night. My collar bones cast shadows on my chest and veins protruded from my arms like a river system in a topographical map. When I was too tired to focus on my schoolwork I focused on my veins, running my fingers up and down the delicate streams bringing me the sustenance I was also trying to deny myself.
“Makes sense,” I said, letting my eyes close without making the futile effort to reply more conversationally, lulled by the sound of the road passing beneath us as we drove north, back to the woods, as effective a sedative as any I’ve ever taken.
It began as a sore on his calf that wouldn’t heal. His GP, Dr. M., staring fixedly at his computer screen as he checked a series of boxes, thought the abrasion might be a symptom of diabetes, which had already caused neuropathy to send shooting pains through my father’s feet and legs. Then Dr. M. theorized that the prolonged wound might have originated from a blocked artery, an outgrowth of his ongoing heart trouble, because my father had been suffering severe dizzy spells that periodically knocked the wind out of him. Dr. M. sent him to get a coronary angiogram, but the results didn’t reveal blockages or abnormal levels of plaque. Nevertheless, in another six months, he was finding it difficult to get around. Traversing the few feet from the living room to the kitchen became excruciating.
“You know Dad’s walking with a cane?” my brother Ian texted me after going out to Oregon for a visit. My father is a man who had scaled houses for forty-five years, balancing on four-inch diameter ridgelines with ease, his toolbelt casually slung along his slender waist, the man I had, when I was little, called an Indian Chief, not knowing anything when I was seven about cultural appropriation. In school, when I’d learned about the Abenakis who first settled the area in New Hampshire where we lived, I wanted to be one; with his tanned skin, muscular ligature, and long hair, I thought my father was one. As I grew older, I heard my father compared to Christ, the ur-hippie long-hair, and a carpenter to boot. To think of him with a cane was unthinkable.
It’s a text, tone inscrutable, but Ian sounded as Ian always does: relaxed, unalarmed, as if he was talking soccer stats over an IPA. I marveled, once again, about how my brother is as moderate as I am extra, his realistic sense of what he can and should take responsibility for seemingly innate, while I, if left unchecked, want to be Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. True to form, wherever it is you’re not supposed to go when you get disquieting news, I went there, immediately, and then further still.
I’d gone out to the Oregon coast to see them a few months before Ian. At the time my father had said he was experiencing discomfort, but this was customary. Over the course of his life, he’s developed a high pain threshold and has been able to endure many experiences that would have destroyed another person. It’s a capacity he’s passed on to me. We spent most of our time watching the eight-hour-long Beatles documentary Get Back, Peter Jackson’s restored footage of the making and recording of the group’s final album, in 1969. In another year The Beatles would dissolve.
To watch the documentary, I’d signed up to be a member of Disney, a conglomerate corporation my family has a visceral disgust for and that is, by virtue of its existence, responsible for death and harm, but that also, in the Catch-22 of capitalism, provides remedies for the death and harm it causes in the entertainment it produces. I sat between my parents on the couch holding the laptop, and we huddled together over our make-shift campfire while the coastal winds whipped around the house and rain slanted against the windows. Every night, for several hours at a time, we hung out with John, Paul, Ringo, and George, marveling at the way Paul pulled songs out of thin air, appreciating Ringo’s apparent lack of ego and “king of feel” drumbeat, and identifying with George’s desire to be out from under the shadows of Paul and John. Peter Jackson’s restoration of the footage made it seem as if I were watching the antics of my most precocious students. I’ve taught every single one of these personalities, I thought. In 1969, my parents were seventeen and eighteen and within a few months of meeting each other.
“They look so young,” my mother said.
“That they do,” my father replied.
In the final scenes of the group performing on the rooftop of the recording studio, much to the chagrin of the staid but dutiful police officers attempting to control the situation, I cried, unwilling for it to end. Sure, John is a heroin addict, Ringo is high out of his mind, and George is still seething with jealousy, but they work it out enough to make a great album and give a few fortunte Londoners a memorable experience.
I’ve always I felt closer to the 60s and 70s, the idealistic and louche time that my parents grew up in, than to the 80s and 90s, when I came of age. The music and the politics of those earlier decades seem more fundamental to how I understand myself than the “greed is good” of the eighties or the “globalism is good” of the nineties. In contrast to protest marches, my parents’ decision to go back to the land was a form of activism against the capitalist-military-industrial complex that put something genuinely at stake: our lives. Most of the people who tried living off the land returned to the cities and suburbs a few years later. My parents stayed.
When I was born the three of us lived in a basement that barely kept out the cold and disintegrated in the heat. We had no money, no friends, no family nearby. We lived without health insurance or any sort of safety net. Instead of spending time with other kids, I listened to Astral Weeks and Blue on repeat, reading the newspaper rather than Black Stallion. Before I was enrolled in kindergarten, I self-identified as a bleeding-heart liberal. It wasn’t a conventional or healthy situation for a child, but it bound me to my parents in a way I’ve never been able to undo. My brother, who was born eleven years after me and grew up in the house my father eventually built, does not feel the same inextricable attachment, nor is he political, preferring to keep an ironic distance from the chicanery. Now, in middle-age with no children of my own, I wonder if my closeness to my family of origin perhaps came at the price of not creating my own.
By the time my father received a final diagnosis—Stage 4 cancer—he was way beyond preliminary treatment. Out of more than two million cancer diagnoses per year in the US, there are only two thousand cases of my father’s type, a sarcoma that had already eaten into a sizable amount of the muscle and bone in his leg. It doesn’t respond well, if at all, to chemo and radiation. “Even if those methods did work did reduce the tumor,” the orthopedic oncologist, Dr. R., told my father, “there wouldn’t be much of your leg left after we removed the mass.” All the advances made in cancer treatment such as cell therapy, immune checkpoint inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies, and immune system modulators meant nothing in his situation. This is a diagnosis that does not change according to second and third opinions; my father’s doctor is one of only a handful in the United States who specialize in this kind of osteo-oncology. Unlike lung and breast cancer, which have impressive survival rates now, this cancer puts us back in the medical Dark Ages. “The only solution,” my father texted me and Ian, “is to amputate my leg.” He went on to say that the surgery had been scheduled for the next week to prevent the cancer from spreading.
“Hey there,” I said to him in our first conversation a few minutes after he sends the news.
“Hey yourself,” he replied, an unexpected and soothing lightness in his voice. In fact, he proceeded to crack a series of jokes I can’t remember—gallows humor, to be sure— because most of the conversation immediately disappeared into some sort of black box in my mind, to be found floating in the ocean after the wreckage is sorted, then poured over for what information it can provide about how the tragedy occurred. He said that he would be in the hospital for three to five days, and that he could start thinking about a prosthetic between six weeks and four months after the operation, depending on how his leg healed. As he talked, I didn’t see the grey wall of the condo I recently bought, after twenty years of saving. Instead, I saw the invisible but noxious chemicals my father encountered every day of his working life as a carpenter: the stains, the finishes, the veneers, the oils, the paints, the plasters, the drywalls, the siding, the lead, the asbestos, all swirling around my father’s unwitting, hard-working body for years and years until, I’m convinced, they made his body revolt against itself.
When I began writing poetry in college, I took pleasure in the etymological connection between my work as a writer and my father’s work as a carpenter. The word poet comes from the Greek word poiētēs, itself from poiein, meaning to make or to build. I liked thinking of us each having a toolbox, his filled with saws, wrenches, and nails, mine filled with imagery, syntax, and sound. I enjoyed the association, even though I knew it was a romantic one and that, for most of my adolescence, I’d tried to escape my blue-collar background, surrounded by peers whose parents worked in business, medicine, and law. Moreover, my father did not perceive his carpentry as poetry, nor did he spend time pondering the artistic value of the houses he built. He didn’t have the time or the energy for such musings. Beginning at the age of nineteen, he worked as a carpenter to construct a life that would allow me to do that. From my earliest age, my father was more absent than present, always at work, perhaps hard wiring me to believe that an object of acute love must be unreachable.
My phone vibrated with a text as soon as I finished speaking with him. It was from my Aunt Nora, my father’s sister, who lives in Vancouver, Canada: “His news just makes me cry. Why did it go so far before anyone checked him out? A useless question, but it’s hard to put it aside.”
A few days later, the doctor scheduled the surgery for four weeks in the future.
“I thought he was going to clear his schedule and get you in next week; I thought he was going to prioritize you,” I practically screamed.
“I thought so too,” my father sighed.
“Is there any chance he will move it up?”
“I asked, sweetie, but the nurse said this date fits his desired time frame.”
In the days before the operation, my father spent most of his time planting. Everything he was told would survive in the alkaline soil and high winds along the Oregon coast had died, but he wanted to try again, with new seedlings: climbing roses, escallonia, phormiums, hydrangeas, and lilacs. My mother told me he was keeping busy but also that he was savoring being able to bend down and put both of his knees in the dirt, run the soil through his fingers, patting it down firmly so that roots could take hold and rise out of the earth.
While he was outside, I tried to convince her to get a prescription for sleeping pills so that she could be on the same schedule as my father. At the time, she was up all night and slept all day while he went to sleep at nine and woke up at 7. My mother said “No,” that she has an addictive personality I couldn’t understand.
“But I do understand,” I replied with irritation. “I’m your daughter. Don’t you remember that I made an amends to you? I’ve worked the steps.”
“Now wait a minute,” my mother answered, “Of course I remember.”
She dissolved in tears, passing the phone to my father, who’d come in from outside. “Whatever conversation you were having,” my father said, “it’s not worth it.” An hour later she called back and we hash it out, agreeing once again to work as a team to help this man we both love. I disliked myself for giving my father something else to worry about; I disliked myself more for not extending greater empathy to my mother because our struggles are similar.
That night I dreamt that it was me who had cancer instead of my father. The oncology unit was in an old-growth forest, and the trees were dripping with a rain, moving in and out of view through the mist. When I arrived, I realized that I’d misread the instructions: I was supposed to come for fourteen days straight, not one day for fourteen hours, and I’d already missed the first two days of chemo. The nurse on duty told me we could start that day, but that she didn’t know what kind of cancer I had, or what stage, or what side effects from treatment I would experience. I rubbed my stomach with my left hand. I was pregnant with a baby I’d decided to keep, despite the cancer. In my right I held a small porcelain elephant, one of three my writing group had given me because they were convinced that it was my spirit animal that had made me ill, and that part of my healing should involve changing my animal. This part of the dream evaded interpretation, as none of us was the kind who went in for spirit animals, me perhaps least of all, but the rest of the dream was clear enough.
I flew out to Oregon to help my parents for a week before and after the operation. Ian would arrive the day after I left, setting up the accoutrements of my father’s new life, which would involve a shower ledge and wheelchair ramp. In the small coastal town they moved to six years ago, my parents didn’t know anyone. The only medical transport that existed between their home and the cancer center in Corvallis, seventy-three miles away, cost thirty-nine dollars a mile. “So you must just expect poor people to die,” I said flatly to the woman answering the phone for Ride Line. “Take a deep breath, honey,” she said, her voice emanating kindness through the distance, “I’m going through the same thing with my aunt who lives in the next town over from your parents.”
This meant my mother, who had not driven in years, would need to drive two hours at a stretch back and forth over mountain passes to get my father to and from the cancer center where he would receive rehabilitation and undergo continuous scans to monitor whether the cancer had spread. I obsessed about nightmarish situations in which my mother, disoriented by the overwhelming stimuli of other vehicles, weather, and her own head, veered off the road, managing to stop only when their car was dangling over the side of a ravine, and my father, with his one leg, confined to the passenger’s seat, was unable to steer them back on course.
Perhaps my parents would have been better off staying in New Hampshire, where they had lived for forty-five years in the woods, in a house my father built, eating food my mother grew, but they were rightfully freaked out by the group of Oath Keepers who, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, bought the property adjacent to theirs, walking around the forest packing two guns apiece and using the birch trees for target practice. For the first time in their forty-five years of living on the property with no trouble, they installed shades, suddenly feeling vulnerable in a way they had only felt in the suburbs they left as soon as they became adults. Once encroached upon, though, it’s impossible to regain a paradise lost. Even before the Oath Keepers had arrived, a group of Free Staters, libertarians who wanted to take over the town in an opening gambit at taking over New Hampshire, had chosen my parents’ town as their home base, monopolizing town councils to leach even more funding from schools and other public services. During the day and the early evening, my parents could hear the sharp report of bullets echoing through the forest.
After much deliberation, my parents decided to move, selling their home and buying a piece of property in a town on the southern Oregon coast called Yachats, a word from the Siletz language that translates as “dark water at the foot of the mountain,” erecting a modest pre-fab house on a postage-stamp of land near the ocean. At the time my parents moved, I was living in Los Angeles. Compared to being across the country from one another, living in adjacent states seemed neighborly. Soon after they relocated, however, I got divorced and moved back to the east coast to start a new job, ready to put the west behind me.
The night before the operation I drove the three of us to Corvallis to stay at the Pastega House, a building on the hospital campus for out-of-town families of cancer patients to stay while their loved one, or whoever, undergoes treatment. We were crowded into one room with two cots, but we didn’t mind. No one would sleep much anyway, and it was comforting to be close. Cooking a meal in the communal kitchen with other cancer patients was too depressing to conceive of, so instead we went out to a local Italian restaurant that came highly recommended by Yelp and the woman who ran the front desk.
We ordered shrimp scampi and tortellini gorgonzola and seafood stew. At dinner together we talked about the outrageous pants my father was wearing when my parents met fifty-two-years ago—rainbow pinstripe leisure trousers—and what he thought the future would bring: a convergence of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and bio-tech. “This world will be hard for us to recognize ten years from now,” he predicted.
The morning of the operation we were already awake at 4:45 AM all three of our phone alarms started to blare, each with a different ringtone. The surgery was scheduled for 6:00 AM. Walking outside to the car, the sage-inflected coolness of the high desert morning pleasantly surprised me. I walked at my normal pace and my father lags, taking small, labored steps. In the last week, his leg had started to really hurt, or perhaps he was just not hurrying to the operation that would take it away from him. At the hospital my mother and I stayed with my father until the last possible moment, watching the nurses shave his right leg and the doctor mark the spot where the incision would be made, uncomfortably high on the thigh. We held my father’s hands, and when he was finally being wheeled away, my mother kissed him three times and I hugged him tight, passing my tears to his shoulders and feeling his head almost imperceptibly convulse against mine.
Time passed. My mother turned seventy and my father seventy-one. Some of the Oathkeepers were charged with seditious conspiracy for their actions during the January 6th insurrection. I idly wondered if my parents’ neighbors in New Hampshire were involved, these people who constitute the modern perversion of the back-to-the-land movement. My father had a stump rather than a leg. The operation seemed to have removed all the cancer, but he’ll have to get scanned every three months for the next ten years. The circuit of nurses who take care of him in the hospital were nice, but clearly overworked. I helped a nurse figure out how to put my father’s stump protector on by studying YouTube videos and talking her through the instructions. Likewise, the hospital was clean but under-resourced. There were no wheelchairs to be found and he needed to share a walker with a patient in an adjacent room. The hospital needed the bed, so three days after the operation instead of the original five, we took him home from the hospital and realized what a monumental obstacle a doorstep can be to a person with one leg, how inadequate pain medication can be against pain.
My mother started to drive again, and she didn’t veer off the road into an abyss. But she rarely slept, too anxious that she would miss a cry for help from my father, and her own medical issues go untreated. Every time I spoke with her, she had fewer words. Ian and I did what we could, but we couldn’t quit work or keep crossing the country. In another few weeks, at the new year, my father got his starter prosthetic and began learning the process of walking again. “The next time I see you,” I chirped brightly over the phone, “we can go for a walk.” No gallows humor here. Just a sigh, then, “I hope so.” Time felt suspended, on the cusp of falling apart. He’d lost his leg and I’d lost the buffer one’s parents create between children and their own mortality.
One afternoon when I was eight, my parents and I came back from a drive to find that the army-green Dodge jalopy my father used to plow the road to our house had been taken out for a joyride by some locals who’d left it overturned in a culvert. This was what passed as fun in rural New Hampshire: theft and destruction. There would be a foot of snow on the ground the next day. We needed the truck to be up and running so my father could clear the road. My mother drove home to start dinner, but I asked to stay so I could help my father. The air was crisp, the sunlight pale. Through the forest, we could hear the plain speech of the sparrows.
“You ready?” my father asked, looking over at me as he positioned himself at the front end, his body strong and able.
“Ready,” I affirmed, holding on to the fender, contributing nothing but my desire to be close to him.
He axed the frozen ground until it flew in arcs across his shoulders, then drove in a winch beneath the tire. After several strong heaves, he righted it enough to maneuver it out of the ditch, then realigned the rear axle, reworked the engine, and repaired the punctured tire. We drove the rest of the way home with our arms flung through where the windows once had been, letting the cold stream through our fingers like invisible streamers.
Ariana Kelly is the author of phone booth (Bloomsbury, 2015), and has essays, poems and reviews published in The Threepenny Review, The Atlantic, Poetry Northwest, Bellingham Review, Hobart, Salon, Lit Hub, the LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essay “Challenger” was selected as a notable piece in the 2020 Best American Essay Anthology, edited by Katherine Schultz. She is a 2023 recipient of a Jack Hazard Fellowship, awarded to help finish her manuscript.
Image source: Elen Sher/Unsplash