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He Ain’t Heavy

Papers on my desk are covered with numbers in columns that sum to tidy totals.  Step 1 made each page and added it to the stack.  The stack grows, waiting for me to do Step 2 which, if I did, would reduce the stack by one page.  Steps 3 through 6 are done by the computer program, but they wait for Step 2, for me.

I should work on the numbered papers today.  All morning and some of the afternoon hours are quiet and mine.  Clutter and letters and email and voicemails got sorted/answered/deleted yesterday.  I should work on the numbers.

But I want to go where the words are, the ones that dip and swoop in my mind, that swirl into phrases, sentences, like birds wheeling into a flock that grows until it nearly fills the imaginary sky.  I want to watch them appear on the screen, letter by letter, a thought turned into black lines and curves by my tapping fingertips, words that describe my fear, this horror that widens my eyes.  Words like Mayo and masses, lymph nodes and narcotics, aggressive, invasive, surgical, staging.  I think if I send the words through my hands to the screen, I won’t feel the beat of their wings on the inside of my skull.

My brother was the first baby I was allowed to hold in my four-year-old arms.  There is a picture.  A towhead girl with a baby boy on her lap, her hands on him like starfish on a rock.  His almond eyes are the color of caramels, hair like dandelion fluff blowing straight up in the warm Hawaiian breeze, an eager, curious, adorable face.  The little girl is beaming.

If I work on the numbers, there will be order and certainty.  Dollars and cents, checks and balances, totals and remainders.  There are no what-ifs in straight arithmetic.

I loved math and its predictability, the formulas (formulae!) that had precise, perfect results, either right or wrong.  Making lists, being organized, getting the answers right, not leaving messes were all ways of controlling as much of our childhood as I could, carving a safe cave out of chaos, a place where I read my books, shelved according to height one year, color the next, and where I tried to watch out for him.

He grew into a brilliant, thoughtful boy, loopy and hilarious and dry, a natural musician, a wordsmith.  His letters from the road with his band are masterpieces; I’ve saved every one.  He had olive skin and golden brown curls, a nose we teased him about mercilessly, perfect pitch, a voice made for harmonies, fingers for guitar strings and keyboards.

They say this is treatable.  He is calm.  He is accepting and fine with whatever is the outcome of this terrible diagnosis.  I am not.

The words are running now:  transoral, tonsils, throat, three, robotic, rasp, radiation, pain, Percocet.  Feeding tube.  Dad, died, identical.  Get them out, write them down, get them out.

Last night I reached for a package of chicken in the refrigerator, my chef’s knife in my other hand.  The glinting blade, the pink flesh made the chilled air vibrate like a plucked string.

Later today my sister-in-law will dial my number and the phone will ring.  She will have numbers:  what stage is it, how many days in the hospital, how many radiation sessions, how many weeks, survival percentages at five years.

I want to rip these disgusting things out of his throat with my clawed fingers and fling them toward the sun to be eaten by vultures.  I want to shriek:  I am his sister, his rescuer, his protector.  He was my responsibility.  I have to save him.  I’ll do anything.  Please.

But the histrionics will not help, so we’ll go back to the numbers and the plodding sequences of appointments and prescriptions and dosages and dollars.  And I will know that, no matter what the numbers or the words are, what the past was or the future is, he knows how much I have always loved him.

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