Dad was reclining in his favorite blue chair, staring at the flat screen television, absorbing the national news of the day. He was seventy years old then, balding and paunchy, and in his ninth year of retirement from the airline company.
Dad had suffered some serious health scares recently. It was one crisis after another, and then another one after that. The most recent scare took place a month prior, requiring that he spend an entire night in the hospital. Age was catching up to him despite all that he’d done to preserve himself — he’d lived a very clean life. The sharpness of his youth, once embodied by his chin and cheekbones had been dulled away by time. Still, he remained secure in his position as the unquestioned leader of the household.
Mom, who was about to enter her sixth decade of life, was in the kitchen putting the last touches on the preparation of my absolute favorite meal — fried plantains, spiced vegetables, and chicken — when remembrance illuminated her eyes. She scurried off in the direction of the stairs. As she disappeared behind the wall, I sighed. Right then I held the same opinion as my father would so often espouse: mom shouldn’t busy herself with trying to complete a multitude of chores at the same time, especially when my stomach was rumbling from hunger.
The food’s aroma floated over to me — the thirty-six year old son — clung to my nostrils, and then forcefully pulled me up from the sofa. Dad, eyes still fixed on the flat screen, his mind wrestling with the implications of the news being read from the teleprompter by the anchor, didn’t notice me as I arose from my spot on the couch.
I loomed over the three plates of food that had been arranged on the kitchen counter, and inhaled with all of my might. My salivary glands secreted enough saliva to make my lips moist. I smacked my lips in anticipation of the meal that was to come. And then I inhaled some more. After a few seconds of breathing in the smell of cooked plantain, the aroma was quickly becoming too much for me to resist.
I was one hundred percent certain that these plantains would be so ripe and tasty. The thick slices were shiny and their color was a lighter shade of brown. Plantains are at their most delicious when they are fried after becoming just ripe. Mom liked to buy the plantains from the grocery store when they were rock hard, and then she would store them in a designated area of the kitchen, where she could manage the ripening of the plantains until they were ready to be fried in oil. When mom combines fried plantains, the spicy chicken, and the spinach, she has created a meal that is worthy of remembrance.
Unable to control my urges, I made the decision to partake in the habit that I had been trying to break: pilfering food before it was served. I conducted a quick sweep of the living room and kitchen area. Dad was still sitting on his preferred spot, completely taken with the cable news anchor. And mom was nowhere to be seen.
My hand was hovering a few inches above the plate when the phone rang, causing me to freeze in mid-clasping formation. Dad reached for the handset that had been left prone on the living room table. He said “hello” and asked who was calling at this hour. The caller announced herself as a nurse from Kaiser Permanente, calling to confirm an impending hospital visit with dad. My ears pricked to listen as I inched my hand down toward the plate. I was going to be able to multitask in this instance. I was about to pilfer a particularly thick slice of plantain between two fingers when I heard my dad utter the word “biopsy” as he was making the final arrangements for that hospital appointment.
I dropped the slice of plantain onto a spot on the plate, before turning my attention to my father. Of course I knew that a biopsy was a type of medical procedure, but I was still unsure of its exact medical purpose. I probably would not have given the mention of “biopsy” a second thought on any other day, except that this time the word was spoken between my father and the nurse who’d thought it necessary to call him on that particular late afternoon. I gave into my first instinct, which told me that Dad’s health was in danger.
My pulse was drumming in my ear, an indication that my system was being overtaken by fear and stress. Right after Dad hung up the phone I rushed to the living room to confront him, as I was eager for his confirmation of what I know I’d heard. He’d been guilty of hiding bad news from his children in the past because he didn’t want us to worry. For instance, few years before, he’d undergone radiation treatment for prostate cancer, and he had managed to hide this from all of his children. He wasn’t going to be able to hide his condition from me this time.
After hanging up the phone he went back to watching cable news. I sat on the adjacent sofa and I asked him the question without preamble: “Did the nurse say that you were going to have a biopsy?”
Dad eyes remained fixed on the television as he prepared to speak. “Yes, Eze. I will be going for the appointment tomorrow.”
“Why do you need biopsy?” I asked. “What is going on?
“What did they say?”
Dad turned to me, then leaned forward. The bottom of his forearm was pressing down on the arm of the sofa. “I don’t know for sure,” he said. “But it looks like they may have found something in my blood.”
My eyes widened. “What did they find in your blood?”
“I don’t know,” he said shaking his head. “I just know that I went for blood tests a couple of days ago and now they say that they want to see me. That is all that I know.”
No. I hated being left in suspense, especially in cases where I was made to wait to hear potential catastrophic news. I pressed both of my fists into the couch and scooted forward. Then I interlaced my fingers and rested my forearms on my legs.
“When is the appointment?” I asked.
“In two days,” he said.
“I’ll go with you then.”
“You don’t need to come,” he said. I can go there myself.”
In the not too distant past, a firm “no” from my father would have been the end. Although he was eight years retired, less physically imposing, and thirty-three years older than I was, he was still my father. Disregarding an order from father would be absorbed as a sign of disrespect not to be tolerated, and worthy of punishment. But I knew that I was going to have to defy him this time, as every cell in my body was telling me that I would need to be at that appointment with him.
“I’ll go with you,” I said. “We’ll drive my car. I want to be there with you.”
“No. It will be better if I’m there. Please.”
Dad sighed. “Alright. The appointment is two days from now.”
We sat down for dinner as originally planned, but the phone call siphoned the joy of eating dinner away. My anxious feelings over dad’s health acted as a block against my taste buds. My stomach was full after having consumed less than half of my meal. When it became clear to me that I could eat no longer, I was anxious to leave the table.
“I’m going to go and do some research on the computer,” I said while cobbling together the food and utensils for storage.
Mom and dad both stared at each other and then at me, eyes wide with shock. It was rare thing for me to leave the table before I’d finished a meal.
“You’re not going to finish your food my dear?” Mom asked in a hushed tone.
“I’m not really hungry tonight,” I said.
Dad was giving me a knowing look. “Eze, take some more time to try and finish your food,” he said.
“I don’t want to eat right now.”
I wrapped my leftovers in tinfoil and threw them into the refrigerator. After closing the refrigerator door, I turned to my parents, extended my hands forward against the space that separated us so as to hold them back. They were still staring at me, now seemingly at a loss for words. “I need to go upstairs,” I said. “I’ll see you guys when you come up.”
While the family computer sputtered to life my sense of dread would compound like interest on a student loan. When the google home page appeared, I typed in “biopsy” in the search box. The search yielded a multitude of results, with all of them attached to a common thread: cancer. They performed biopsies on people that were suspected of having cancer. For hours I clicked on links, frantically reading and fretting about all of the mentions of cancer, and seizing upon any string of words that elicited hope for a good outcome or a different diagnosis. I suddenly became very afraid for my father and my family, more so than I had in all of my life. I went to bed that night thinking that we may soon be faced with something that was truly existential.