“It’s ok, Dad. The nurse will bring me water soon. She always brings it at 5:35, every day at 5:35. She’s never late,” said James.
“Oh yeah? She sounds like quite a nurse,” I said.
I pressed a cool, wet cloth against his lips. They were exceptionally dry today, peeling, thin lines of cracked red.
“She’s really nice. You’ve met her. She’s a great nurse. She listens good too.”
James smiled. Correcting each other was our thing.
“Listens well. You’re right, Dad.”
He was pale, more than usual. Dark circles sat under his big brown eyes like dried dates.
“Is it Nurse Linda?”
“No, Nurse Brenda! But Linda’s nice too! She’s here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She has two young kids. Nurse Brenda is Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, sometimes Saturday. Her kids are older, in college.”
That made me smile.
“The memory of an elephant…”
My phone vibrated, a text from work, crisis at the office again. I started to respond when I got another one from James’s mom, Melissa, my wife. Be there soon, it read. I started typing.
“Yeah buddy, hang on a second.” I said, not looking up from my phone.
“Dad, can you please put that away?
I stopped typing.
My son, James, was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma six months ago. There were signs, I guess. We just didn’t see them right away. He started playing outside less after school, was feeling abnormally tired; we thought it was the flu. He couldn’t even get through his tennis lessons. James loved tennis. Then the pain in his bones, the fevers; he stopped eating. He lost three pounds in two days so we took him in. James just turned seven last month. The cancer has spread.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry buddy. I was just answering your moth—”
“I know Dad, but she’ll be here soon,” he interrupted calmly.
“You’re right buddy.”
I started to put my phone in my pocket.
“Can you put it over there, Dad?” he pointed across the room. “In the drawer?”
It was the first time I ever recognized my son as a man. He was too young to be a man.
“Sure buddy. I’ll put it in the drawer.”
I walked over to the drawer as Nurse Brenda walked in. She was smiling. I turned around, James was smiling. They were connected. I tried to say something but couldn’t. It was like I wasn’t there. I put my phone in the drawer, went back to my son, and sat by the bedside. I watched them. I listened.
“How’s my man feeling today?” asked Nurse Brenda.
“I feel strong,” said James.
He looked weak.
“Strong like Captain America strong, or strong like your Daddy strong?”
She looked at me. “Hi Mr. Walden! How are you today?”
“I’m good Brenda. How are you?”
“Strong like my Daddy,” said James.
He smiled at me. I smiled back, put my hand on his, and loved him with everything I had. Nurse Brenda remained quiet. Like James, she paid attention.
“A good boy,” said Nurse Brenda.
“My boy,” I said.
“And so cute!”
Comments like that embarrassed James in the purest of ways, such a little boy.
“All right, my bad.”
James smiled at her.
“Well, here’s your water little man.”
“Right on time as always. 5:35. The best in the business,” He turned to me. “See, I told you, Dad.”
Nurse Brenda laughed, gently touched James’s shoulder and gave me a wink. At the door she looked back at James. She was afraid. I think she may have loved him.
“I’ll be back in an hour to check on you, ok?”
“Ok Nurse Brenda! Thank you.”
“My pleasure…handsome,” she said with a wink.
James smiled again. Nurse Brenda left.
Melissa wasn’t there yet. I wanted to text her, just to see where she was. I almost couldn’t help it. I knew she was on her way, knew she had to pick up our daughter, Kayna, at dance. But I still wanted to touch my phone, to gently press the floating squares with round corners, with no true motive. I looked at the drawer across the room. James noticed. I felt pathetic.
“Remember the time we were at the park, and that boy had that go-cart?”
James loved cars.
“I do, yes! That thing was super cool.”
“It was red, my favorite color.”
“That day it was your favorite color.”
We both laughed because James changed his favorite color often. One week it was red, the next week it was blue, then green or purple or something, and eventually back to red.
“You were nervous to ask him if you could try it,” I said in a sort of all-knowing fatherly tone.
“I was. I was afraid to. But I remember you told me that I should overcome my fears, that it would make me stronger. You said it wouldn’t hurt me to ask him.”
“That’s right, I did.”
I was proud of myself.
“Well, I’m glad I did, Dad. Because I would have never been able to ride it if I didn’t ask.”
“Oh, you did? I don’t remember that.”
“I know. You were on the phone with work,” he said as his eyes fell to his hands. “I was scared but I did what you said. I walked up to him, said hi and told him my name. Then I asked him and he said yes. He let me borrow his helmet too. He was nice.”
I remembered the phone call. One of our shipments went to the wrong warehouse. I had dragons breathing fire at me from both sides. I had to take care of it. I just had to. But I wish I had seen James talk to the boy. I wish I had seen him ride the red go-cart. The drawer began vibrating. I looked fast in its direction. James looked at me with a sad hope.
“Sorry pal. I forgot to shut it off.”
I walked quickly to the drawer, opened it, and powered down. I closed the drawer and looked back at James. He was looking down at his hands again. Melissa walked in with Kayna.
“I’m sorry sweetheart,” she said to James. “Traffic.”
“It’s ok, Mommy.”
Kayna walked up to James’s bed. One of her hands was in her mouth; the saliva was shiny in the light.
“Hey Kayna, how was dance?”
“Good,” she said, still with a hand in her mouth.
“Wanna sit on my bed?”
Kayna took her hand out of her mouth and hopped up on the bed.
James had the ability to put her at ease with just a few words. He loved her the way I always hoped he would. Over the last few months he’s developed such a calmness about him. He wasn’t always. The great impending doom of death can either render you inconsolable, or fill you with the power of acceptance.
Kayna started to sing; she loved to sing. James liked it when she did; she knew that. I suppose she had grown up a bit as well in the last few months.
“How are you feeling?” Melissa asked.
She sat on the other side of James’s bed. I stood next to her.
“I’m good! Tired, but good,” he said.
“His lips were dry so Nurse Brenda got him some water,” I said.
“Oh, I love Nurse Brenda. She’s so sweet.”
I didn’t know Nurse Brenda as well as Melissa did. I’d seen her many times, met her many times, but never got a sense of her, of who she was, until today. Didn’t have the time.
“Yeah, she seems great!”
“Dad and I were just talking about fun memories, Mom.”
The comment brought on the quiet. Melissa became sad. She nervously tapped and rubbed the back of James’s hand. Her eyes bulged, and her skin was the color of a rose. James put his hand on her hand. I put my hand on her shoulder. Kayna’s hand went back into her mouth.
“It’s ok, Mom,” he said, while I said nothing.
James turned to his little sister.
“I like your leotard, Kayna.”
She took her hand out of her mouth.
“Speaking of memories, remember Disneyland?” Melissa asked.
We all lit up. It was the best of times.
“What was your favorite ride at Disney?” I asked James.
I couldn’t remember. Melissa could tell. James continued.
“You didn’t come on with us, Dad. Because your boss called, remember? I think your computers crashed into each other.”
Melissa smiled at our son, he still had some seven-year-old left in him.
“You remember why he called?” I asked in disbelief.
“How do you remember that?”
“I was paying attention, Daddy. I think it’s easier to do that when you don’t have an iPhone. I’m glad I don’t have one. I don’t think I would ever want one of those,” James looked down at his hands and continued. “They make people forget things.”
I felt warm and cold at the same time. While I beamed with pride at the calm intelligence, and soulfulness of my dying seven-year old son, I shivered with self-realization. Nothing there but a worn basket full of half-memories.
They kept passing stories back and forth—Camping trips, Legoland visits, trips to Palm springs, Boston, and Tennessee. Story after story I found myself more and more out of the loop. I remember being there, but I couldn’t really smell it, I couldn’t really taste it. The memories didn’t dance for me the way they danced for them. I just kept nodding.
“Yeah, I remember that,” I’d say.
I stepped out of the room, told them I needed a coffee.
I took the elevator down to the cafeteria, stopped short of going inside; I paced the halls instead, sweating and sad. I reached down into my front left pants pocket. My phone wasn’t there. I checked the front right pocket, then both back pockets. I was dripping now, breathing faster. I looked on the floor, turned around, looked on the floor again. I checked my pockets again, looked up at the ceiling, at the walls, and in the waste basket. I checked the empty gurney on the other side of the hall; there was dried blood on the sheets. I caught a glimpse of myself in one of those small rectangular window plates on the door of some lab that decides whether or not your boy is going to live or die. I looked fucking mad. Finally, I remembered. I left my phone in the drawer in James’s room, like he asked me to. My breathing slowed, such incredible relief. Of all the things I could have felt.