I had leukemia, okay. I had it and now I don't and that should be that. Only it's not. It's a memory that won't go away. Not a haunting memory, not a slow motion replay of a rear-end collision where you find yourself clenching your arms against the seat, looking back over your shoulder for the too-fast car that isn't there. No. Leukemia is vague with occasional flashes of coherence. It is a constant hum.
Back in the summer of 1992, I would be sitting on the back porch with Dad and Jane, all of us sharing sections from the thick Sunday paper, arguing over who would get the comics first, when a palpable memory would surprise me. I would not be expecting it, and the memories were still so fresh.
Perhaps one of my legs had fallen asleep, or the coffee had cooled slightly, a tight bitter taste. Something: a glint of sunlight reflecting off of Green Lake down the hill. Anything.
There would be a sudden flash in my brain, telling me that the tingling sensation is exactly the way my legs felt after seven weeks in a hospital bed, emaciated, weak and thin. They throbbed when I tried walking up the stairs at home. That exact sensation would come crashing down on my head: sitting in a comfortable chair on the back porch, warm morning sun, good coffee, all of that, but my legs are weak and tired and in so much effing pain.
I'd stare through the newspaper.
And then I'd be tasting the chemo again, tasting it bad like it was during the first round. Or maybe I'd feel a sudden rush, a hot spurt in my veins of something, I don't know what or why, and I'd be flat on my back in a subterranean hospital room, one of many faceless nurses standing at my side. She is pushing iodine into my bloodstream so the images from the CAT scan will be clearer. effing mystery fevers out of nowhere again, again, only this time we're pretty sure they're coming from somewhere inside my skull.
These had been real. It's not fair to call them memories. It'd be an early summer morning in 1992, pretty much two full years since I'd last been in the hospital, but the colors would be so clear, the smells, the sounds, that nasty metallic taste, the quiet effing tears that need to be blinked away before Dad or Jane might notice.
The constant hum of leukemia would transform into a brief shout.
Pay attention, it says. Do not forget me. I can make your body remember, even if your mind wants to forget.
Maybe it's 1992; I would be talking with Mom. We'd stand in the open kitchen at the new house, the cleaner, newer, more spacious house that she and Paul had moved into after Laura and I had gone away to our respective colleges. Mom is working on a grocery list, standing in front of the refrigerator with a small notepad, opening and closing cupboards almost at random. I'd be leaning up against the corner by the double sinks, swishing a glass of water around, listening to the ice clank against the sides, asking her what she thinks about insurance. We've talked about this fairly often since graduation: it concerns me, my inability to find insurance with such an ominous pre-existing condition. COBRA won't last forever. What am I supposed to do when I finally get a real job?
I'm not even paying much attention to what I'm saying, just random questions for her to field. She's The Mom, the solid, strong business woman. She knows these things. But suddenly she'd start crying. Real tears, running fast, and they would make me uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry," she would say. "It still surprises me how quickly they come. Just when I think I have it under control..."
"Don't be sorry, Robert. It's me."
Her memories, I think, are much more vivid than mine. Or perhaps they are simply that much more painful. More painful to be on the outside looking in, unable to do anything but worry, unable to dab peroxide on a skinned knee. Cancer is one thing that a mother cannot kiss and make better.
But not for lack of trying.