The tumor the size of an egg yolk in my father’s stomach was not the same as the astrocytoma on my mother’s cervical spine, which differed still from the adenoid cystic carcinoma on my husband’s parotid gland. My father’s collapse, treatment, remission, recurrence and resignation followed a sequence unlike my mother’s mysteriously painful slide into paralysis, which bore only a passing resemblance to my husband’s extended odyssey in the land of radioactive isotopes, maxillofacial prosthodontists and vertebral column resections. What they shared were blue paper examination robes, endless extractions of vital fluids, nurses alternately harsh and kind, a depleting horizontality and the vague, distracted pronouncement known as prognosis. They were humbled by their bodies: the power, the stench, the simple pleasure of cold pineapple juice. The intimacy of the care shamed them—the spoon-feeding, the washing and wiping. They were patient. They were not patient. Under the spell of abnormal cells, they were transformed. My father became a baby bird. My mother’s hands froze into claws. My husband fell mute. They went from needing everything to needing almost nothing.
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