“He has about six quality months left.”
“Hmm . . . would you like a glass of water?”
“No. What then?”
“He will lose his speech and, eventually, he will be paralyzed. Would you like a tissue?”
Aby blinked very fast.
“Are you saying he will,” she swallowed with apparent difficulty, “die soon?”
“Look. It’s a brain tumor. The kind he has is very aggressive.”
Sitting in the big chair, she felt pitiful, fragile, knocked down by the sudden news. It seemed to her as if time had stopped for a moment.
Then she wanted to scream at the man in the white coat. But Aby didn’t; a sudden burst of humiliating tears, like a spasm of vomit, choked her throat. Utterly embarrassed, she covered her mouth with her thin, trembling fingers. She looked up and then away, desperately trying to get a grip on herself.
Strangely, gruesome scenes were rushing into Aby head’s, screaming at her as if these details were more important than losing him forever. Naturally, she thought, they will have to shave off his wavy, beautiful hair. How much she loved to play with it! Will they use a drill to open his skull?
She imagined a shallow cavity in her father’s head with multiple instruments sticking out: stimulators, a scalpel, a surgical vacuum. She felt dizzy; everything around her was moving quickly, and she was spinning with it, against the clock, inward, like a headless screw.
Now, looking deep inside herself, Aby finally admitted that for the last half hour she had been stubbornly pretending to misunderstand the doctor’s prognosis. On the contrary, it couldn’t be more straightforward: her father was dying.
In that moment of her surrender to the inevitable, a difficult decision became easy to make: they had little time left together; she would move in, stay with him until the end.
Multiple waves of feelings collided with one another before transforming into coherent thoughts. How would she tell him the truth?
You are dying, Daddy, and there is nothing I can do to save you. I can only help you to be comfortable until the end. I can’t even understand what you are going through. I can only imagine what I’m capable of imagining. This is where the line is drawn for me. And I’m thankful for the line. And I hate myself for being thankful.
She took a deep breath.
“I will talk to him. I’m certain he would want to try every option available, including the operation.”
Her shaky voice broke off. She closed her eyes for a brief moment as if she wanted to hide inside herself. But hiding was an unaffordable luxury.
“If he needs a donation . . . blood. Mine is type O. I can donate as much as he needs. Also, I can donate bone marrow if . . .”
As she spoke, she was looking down. Nervously, Aby was wiping her tears off the translucent rectangular CT scans.
“That will not be necessary.”
If Aby had looked at him at that moment, she would’ve seen deep wrinkles sharply cutting his forehead, as if he had suddenly gotten a headache or was in some sort of severe pain. The doctor shook his head.
She got up.
She picked up her big bag and, with an effort, put it on her shoulder. Before she left the office, she turned around to say something, then changed her mind and quickly left.
She was on her way to see her dad on the second floor in room number 23. All of a sudden, she felt sick. She found a ladies’ room and walked in to find a bald man with a huge scar on the left side of his head standing in front of the mirror.
It can’t be a man; this is a woman’s bathroom. The person was brushing his teeth slowly, splashing water on the hospital gown he wore. The gown was open and revealed his naked back. The skin was damaged; dry, wrinkled. The person looked exhausted and utterly lonely.
Unaware of being rude, she, in a moment of paralyzed stupor, looked at his back until she noticed an old-fashioned bra with a wide, stretched band. Of its four hooks, only the top was closed, which made the band rise and seem uncomfortably crooked. A thin tube was coming through the open sleeve, revealing a flat, scaly breast with a dark brown nipple, hanging low outside the bra cup.
Aby looked away. She imagined this woman sitting on a hospital bed, alone, stretching the bra, consciously applying less pressure on the hand with the needle in it. The effort itself must’ve been draining and tiresome. How many times had her slow, swollen fingers missed the loop?
Finally, the first hook was in – it would do the job; she had to relax.
Skinny, pale arms, like dead grass, hung helplessly from her shoulders. No longer did she think of her underwear as a sexy piece of clothing associated with femininity and sophistication; putting on her bra had become a nuisance, part of an exhausting, necessary morning routine, the same as brushing her teeth.
Her charming, charismatic father, perfectionist, and pendant; how would he deal with his transformation?
How would he deal with his slow disintegration: unescapable, unstoppable, unbearable?
Aby’s mouth curved down. She wanted to drop her bag on the floor and cry aloud as she used to in her childhood.
The woman looked up and noticed Aby in the mirror. She acknowledged her with a short nod of her bald head. Aby bit her lip. She wasn’t feeling sick anymore. She felt scared and had forgotten why she had gone into the bathroom in the first place. She left the ladies’ room and went down the hallway.
The hospital smell was intolerable. The cold fluorescent lights on the ceiling reflected off the shiny tile floor. Out of nowhere, a heavy, confining, forgotten childhood feeling firmly enveloped her: wearing a too-small-for-her-size, tightly knitted wool coat.
Aby remembered the uncomfortable wooden bench, the empty walls of square tiles and the old linoleum soiled with muddy footprints from the rain. People in white coats were rushing along a corridor with many wide, tall doors. Her teeth hurt from a scary, rattling metal sound. She heard somewhere running water quickly falling down into an empty bucket. There was nowhere to hide from the bright fluorescent light on the ceiling.
That night Aby had made a bet with herself that if she didn’t leave the bench even for one single minute, her mom would be all right. Every object around her watched her sitting and waiting: square tiles, soiled floor, the bright fluorescent light. They kept the score of her self-created game. She’d wanted to go to the bathroom, but she was afraid to renege on her promise. Counting was soothing, but she couldn’t concentrate and had to start over and over again because the people coming in and out through the doors without knobs distracted her. She felt the shallow space between her heart and her stomach periodically quivering: she was cold. It was late November.
Eventually, Aby must’ve fallen asleep. She hadn’t seen him emerging from the double swinging doors. But she felt the gentle touch and then saw him standing between her and the light. She looked into her father’s eyes; without him saying a word, she knew she had lost the bet.
So many years had passed, and here she was, going to see her father, feeling like a little girl again. Except that this time she knew the outcome and there was no need to place bets anymore.
Aby looked around. She began to hate this old university building, which had been turned into the hospital’s oncology wing many years before. She found an open window and stopped to get a breath of fresh air. People were going up and down the hallway: patients, doctors, visitors, and men pushing stretchers—some empty, some heavy with patients. A young man was standing by a No Smoking sign, tensely playing with an unlit cigarette.
Standing by the window, Aby watched the tall trees move in a simple, harmonized motion. She remembered how she used to stand in front of her school, waiting for her dad.
Tall white birches, like giant fans, slowly swayed their wide tops, cooling off the air crammed with melted tar from the overheated roofs. He was always late, rushing from work, carrying freshly baked bread wrapped in brown paper. She could recognize his quick walk as soon as he turned the corner by the tram station. He too saw her right away, waiting for him impatiently. “Daddy!” she would cry, running to him once he crossed the street.
He would laugh and bend to catch her in his arms. Still bending, he would wave to her teacher and smile, as if he were saying we are all good now. And off they would go home, deciding on the way what to make for dinner.
After her mom had died, her dad had taken ownership of their tiny kitchen. Sitting on a tall wooden stool with her feet dangling in the air, she would watch him cook, passing him spices or a large spoon, and always playing the role of master chef, tasting the food he had made for the two of them.
Once she hadn’t liked the smell of a boiled meat. He’d added spices, but she still hadn’t liked it. He’d added salt, but by then she’d refused even to taste it. He’d thrown away the entire pot, and they’d gone to sleep hungry and upset at each other.
Later, if she was ever mad at him, she would remember his face in the kitchen that night, a little agitated but mostly disappointed and looking lost.
She recalled a warm April evening. After her homework had been done, she loved to lie on the couch, her head barely touching his legs, while he read a book in an old paper jacket.
“Daddy, what would you like to happen right this moment? What would you like the most?”
“Ice cream,” he answered absently, still reading his book.
“No. You don’t like ice cream,” Aby replied as she eyed a black-and-white photograph standing up inside the china hutch in the corner.
In it, five-year-old Aby was sitting on her dad’s shoulders as he kissed her mom. All three, in their bathing suits, were making funny faces at the camera.
“What is it that you would want to happen now? Really want? Really, really?”
“Me? I don’t want anything when I’m with you, darling.”
He put his book down and did what he always liked doing: stroked her short hair softly, slowly.
“It can’t be! Everyone wants something. To be rich or live in the castle. It has to be something you think about all the time. Or maybe not something, maybe someone?”
He followed her eyes to the picture. The expression on his face changed a few times before he finally answered, with a cheerful smile,
“Well, maybe it’s time for us to think about going on vacation?”
She didn’t smile back. Aby didn’t know why all of a sudden she had gotten mad at him. They often spoke about her mom but never about her death.
He, whose life was nothing but a struggle, hadn’t learned how to let the pain go. He grieved alone, without witnesses or tears.
She and her father were so different. He loved sports, and she loved music. He was a man of few words, and she was highly expressive. He had wanted a boy, yet she was his only child. She couldn’t ever remember them exchanging the words I love you.
In the small city in which she grew up, the word love was given a special meaning. Romeo and Juliet loved each other. A husband and wife were in love before they were married, and after marriage, they cared for each other. Children respected their parents, while parents were devoted to their children. People adored their pets.
But love—love was something secretive, completed in a dark bedroom, accompanied by passionate kisses and romanticized by tickling feelings from the fuzzy wings of butterflies in the stomach.
When they had come home from the cemetery the very night after her mom was buried, she couldn’t go to her father and say, Help me, please. I can’t manage the pain any longer. I don’t know what it is. I know it can’t be love. But then tell me what it is. Why does it hurt so much?
She was embarrassed by her emotions. She sensed her father making enormous efforts to stand strong. She tried to be like him. She locked herself in the bathroom and hid in her mom’s robe, hanging high on the door hook. It was late fall, and the strong winds coming from the Caucasus mountains would often ravage the city, breaking electrical lines, picking up the covers of garbage cans and, with powerful thrusts, throwing them high in the air, like dangerous weapons.
Maybe for the first time in her life, she welcomed the frightening cadence of broken glass and the heavy sighs from a fallen tree. It muffled all the sounds inside her and gave her a temporary refuge from the world she was afraid to enter.
How strange, she had thought, facing the robe, still smelling like her mom, that only a few weeks ago, when the strong blast of wind knocked wildly on her window, she had quickly picked up her pillow and run. The ricocheting of her bare feet on the cold floor had been loud, like the beating of her pounding heart. By the time the head of the spiral gust had turned angrily around, swirling up and down before it smashed against the roof, sending broken blacktop down five floors, she had stood by the entrance of her sanctuary, her parents’ bedroom, waiting for permission to enter.
As always, it was her dad who, without a word, moved closer to the end of the bed, making a safe spot for her in the middle. She jumped right in and rolled up like into warm ball, falling asleep almost immediately despite the uncomfortable wooden frame between the two beds, the steady snoring and frantic seizure of dying autumn, which felt and viciously resisted its approaching end.
Everything had been different the first evening they’d spent alone without her mom.
The frightening, howling cries of a livid storm coming fast from afar to die in the deep cracks of the tattered building, echoed a whole chorus of roaring voices inside her. Like some colossal tide, they were rising and calming down, causing a sensation of nauseating wooziness.
Vanquished, she begged these voices to shut up, but they only intensified their wicked witch’s cackle, morphing into the hundredth unrelated picture, as if in a weird photo gallery. Bright images of real people were moving quickly, playing with her mind until she couldn’t bear it any longer. She found the latch and almost fell from the darkness in which she was hiding.
She didn’t know the entire neighborhood had been plunged into a moonless blackness. A curvy fragile light from a dirty kerosene lamp was quivering on the kitchen window, throwing deformed and frightening shadows on the walls and ceiling.
“Come, Aby,” he had called her. “Have a cup of tea.”
She was afraid he would see her swollen face. She didn’t want the tea. She wanted to hug him instead, but she didn’t. She sat at the table, trying to focus her thoughts on the obscure silhouette of the cup on the plastic tablecloth. But she couldn’t. In that very moment, she felt there was no one else in the world except the two of them, which, by default, made him the closest man on the planet.
It took him some time to find the way to communicate within her private space. Books became the absolute value, plotted on the bridge to a place where words were not necessary. It started with visiting the city every Sunday. They had an early breakfast in an old, half-empty café. He knew what she wanted, and she knew what he would order. They both enjoyed the quietness and understood each other with their eyes. Words were an unnecessary excess of directions; it confused them more than helped them to find each other. They developed their encrypted language unknown to the rest of the world, and that feeling of inimitable comprehension brought them even closer.
The end of breakfast marked the beginning of an adventure both had been looking forward to the entire week. A thrift shop across the street was well known for its back door that led to a room, spacious but crowded with old books. She wandered around the room, touched glued, stained pages, shabby book covers, the furniture, watched through the window how people were rushing to get on the tram. All the time they were in the store she knew her father was watching her, making sure she was all right. He was across the room and yet she felt his occasional glances, she wasn’t alone, he was taking care of her. All the time. It made her feel cozy as if she was at home. She admired him. She couldn’t explain why she was so proud of him.
She loved to watch how carefully her dad was handling the injured pages as if they were parts of old human bodies. He would gently turn ancient sheets with broken or no corners at all. For a moment, discolored paper would hold a position in the air and then silently land, happy that someone was interested in its story.
A little bored, she would fancy how these books were judging the stacks of paperbacks on the floor against the radiator, squished together with greasy industrial rope, choking under heavy dust, heat, and years. Those in her father’s hands, overwhelmed with joy, would become a little melodramatic now, just like people. Listen, with newly acquired sympathy they would whisper to their lifelong rivals, this man’s love and knowledge keeps us alive. May he discover you too.
Aby wasn’t one of those books; she didn’t have to wait for him to discover her. Laying in her bed at night under the heavy cover, she felt warm and safe. She felt privileged. She was finally happy again. No one had a father like hers. He was her wall; she could hide safely behind him. She lived in his citadel of unconditional love and protection. Nothing bad could ever happen to her. Her father wouldn’t allow it.
Unexpectedly, she started reading. Her world was changing right in front of her eyes a few times a month, depending on the books she read. She learned to analyze, compare, think. Then her father revealed a big secret.
He told her that they lived behind the Iron Curtain. The folds of the Curtain, he explained to her, were very heavy. It was dangerous to play with them. Slowly, Aby began to understand how brave her father was.
Once she’d heard the cashier from the bookstore quietly call her father an independent thinker. Aby’s middle school experience taught her how risky it was to be a thinker. To be an independent thinker was probably super dangerous. Aby got scared, sick to her stomach. What would happen to her if her father got in trouble?
Yet, Aby knew that no matter how much her father loved her, he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking. This was who he was and this was why she loved him so much. Changing him would be the same as taking the water out of the river. Then the river would cease to exist and turn into a flat, dry land. If her father couldn’t change, it was she who had to do it. First, she had to learn what it meant to think independently and why it was so dangerous. She asked for explanations. Slowly, her father began moving and widening the walls of her artificial tunnel vision.
Against common sense, he allowed her to listen to the Voice of America, fully realizing that any connection to this forbidden foreign radio station could lead to severe punishment by the local government. She was immensely proud that her father considered her his equal.
Every night they would lock their door and windows, sit close to each other in front of a small radio, tune in to the shortwave station to hear the news from America. They knew they were conspiring against the law, but doing it together gave them courage. By order of local authorities, the program was mercilessly jammed. Grinding sounds and bubbling noises were pushed through the speakers, making the shortwave signals quickly fade up and down.
Her father kept slowly turning the plastic wheel of the radio, tweaking, and tuning, catching and losing the sound. Interference from Moscow’s station on the same frequency was intolerable. Blasts of patriotic music or aggressive, loud voices splashing nauseating propaganda would make her father double his efforts, his fingers steady on the radio wheel.
This was when Aby understood the meaning of the Iron Curtain and its heavy folds. Her father was looking at her, shaking his head. She would do the same. Her eyes were growing darker. She wasn’t scared anymore. She was angry.
Five years after they applied to leave, they were finally allowed to immigrate. A day before they left their country forever, they visited the cemetery where Aby’s mother was buried.
It was a quiet, hot afternoon; the black marble headstone shone under the bright sun. They didn’t say a prayer, not even a word. They knew they would never come back again. Both of them tried to conjure up her mother’s living image from the dead stone, the image they would take with them to a new place.
When they walked outside the heavy iron gates, they held each other’s hands; it was as if they were one person.
People passing by noticed Aby’s fragile figure by the window. Her makeup was ruined. She was a mess. How could she see him like this? If only she could wash up, but she was afraid to go back to the bathroom. She took the bottom of her skirt, knelt, and wiped off her face. Then she mechanically picked up her bag and went slowly upstairs. She stood outside his room for a few minutes, rehearsing. She swallowed, but her throat still felt awfully dry. She moistened her lips. She must go in; he was waiting for her. She opened the door.
“Hey, how are you, Daddy? You look great!”
Her voice was happy and loud, perhaps a bit louder than usual. She sat on the side of his bed, petrified and, like many years before, afraid he would see her swollen face. She opened her bag; there was a whole bunch of new books inside. She was stalling; as she slowly pulled each book out, it became clear to her that he wouldn’t have the time left to read them all. Her hands were shivering. She looked up, and their eyes met.
They had learned to read each other’s thoughts when she was a little girl. There was no use pretending any longer. She stretched out her arms and hugged him.
“I love you, Daddy,” she told him for the first time.
He smiled affectionately, his eyes telling her that he felt and understood everything she was going through and loved her in return, now and forever.
He gently clasped his hands around his daughter as he had when she was a little thing with a pink ribbon in her hair. She hid her face in his shoulder. He did what he always liked doing: stroked her short hair, softly, slowly.
Through the tears she couldn’t hold back any longer, she repeated, “I love you!”