There’s a Dunkin ‘Donuts on Brookline Avenue across from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute which is run-of-the-mill and just like all the other Dunkin ‘Donuts in Boston except for the fact that I ate there almost every day for two weeks in a row in the spring of 2019.
I would park my car out front (if I was lucky and there was a spot), pay the meter and walk inside to order a blueberry or strawberry iced donut and iced coffee with almond milk and without sugar. I would go out, check and recheck every sign on the block to make sure I wasn’t going to be ticketed or towed, and would wait for a break in traffic before running across the street. I clenched my jaw and gritted my teeth as I watched the doctors and nurses suck cigarettes on their breaks. It had been almost a year since I quit, so coffee and donuts should do the trick.
The drive from the car to the entrance to the hospital was only a few hundred yards. Sometimes I felt like it didn’t take long at all – a dissociated body fueled by caffeine and carbs with a rote understanding of how to get to where it needed to be, a version of time travel, but to nowhere good – and other times it feels like an eternity – it takes a lot of effort to move our bodies in the direction of a parent who might be dying, or may -be already dead.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a relatively rare blood cancer that is seen more often in children than in adults. Children have much higher five-year survival rates. It moves quickly and quietly and, if not diagnosed, can kill a person in a matter of weeks.
Around Thanksgiving 2018, my dad was feeling exhausted all the time. The bags under her eyes were darker, and her legs and back were more painful than normal. He didn’t sleep well, and when he slept, he never woke up feeling rested. He was coughing a lot, but it wasn’t allergy season. A person in their mid-60s can be expected to feel tired after 45 years of work; someone in their mid-60s who lost their partner in their mid-40s may feel a little more tired than most. Yet this new exhaustion seemed different, its cause more internal and invisible than external and obvious.
I got a voicemail from my father before Christmas. His tone was serious but his voice was shaky. He told me I had to call him ASAP. I had already experienced all of this with my mother; I knew exactly what he meant.
My father was too ill to spend Christmas with the family at my aunt’s house. His wife Barbara and my older brother Sean went there, and I stayed home to make sure he had company and to get him to the hospital if his condition worsened. He, Barbara, and my brother were living in a drafty rental in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire that winter, having suddenly been moved from their old home after their landlord told them he was selling it.
The living room walls were paneled with polyurethane-varnished pine slats, and the mantle over the functionless fireplace supported a collection of knick-knacks that could be described as “vaguely New England kitsch.” The kitchen countertops were a yellowish beige formica and were chipped by decades of other people enjoying themselves during the summer vacations.
We watched a few basketball games and I made us something simple for dinner, although I can’t remember what exactly. My father has not eaten. I thought about being 5 and sneaking into my parents’ closet in the days leading up to Christmas to take a look at my presents. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film camera. A Hulk Hogan doll. A Game Boy. I imagined my mother baking cookies in the house where I grew up; later I helped my dad piss into a bottle when he was too weak to get up from his chair.
Nothing in this strange vacation home was ours. Not the pots, not the coffee cups, not the kitchen table, not even the Christmas decorations. I should have carved a turkey at my aunt’s house, and my dad should have laughed as I mimicked the scene from Christmas holidays when the golden carcass of the bird splits and smokes and shrivels as Clark attempts to serve his guests. Instead, we shared an unforgettable meal together watching a basketball game that neither of us cared about. My dad entered the hospital a few days later for the first of what would be many stays over the next year.
You don’t know what you’re going to step into when you sign the guestbook in a cancer department, and that’s mainly because people typically aren’t admitted to cancer departments if their treatment is working as intended. When my father was admitted to Brigham and Women’s in the spring of 2019, months after his initial diagnosis, he was suffering from exhaustion and muscle pain in various parts of his body.
It was soon revealed that he was suffering from a blood infection, which his doctors treated with a cocktail of drugs that caused fluid to build up around his heart, causing him to go into atrial fibrillation, which lasted about a week. While being treated for afib, my father went into a delusional state, which also lasted for about a week. His doctors have assured me that this sort of thing happens all the time; these assurances did not change the fact that my father did not remember his own birthday, or the names of his two sons.
As a rule, there is never anything good to eat in hospitals. It is a cruel irony, because few people need a decent meal more than those who care for our sick and mourn our recently deceased. I didn’t eat Dunkin ‘Donuts every morning for almost a month because it’s filling – I ate it because McDonald’s, Charleys Philly Steaks, and the room temperature broccoli cheddar soup from the attached Au Bon Pain. in the hospital lobby sounded much worse.
Then one day, as I was walking through the Longwood Galleria – a sort of hybrid space between food court / drugstore / bank inside the hospital campus – I noticed a kiosk with a sign saying ” Noodles King ”. I didn’t get much sleep then; the bags under my eyes were so dark they could have been mistaken for bruises, and I’m sure my clothes were wrinkled, if not too dirty to wear in public. It was lunchtime, I wasn’t ready to see my dad, and Noodles King’s menu featured one of my favorite things: hand-drawn noodles with vegetables in Chilean oil. .
I ordered a bowl and a Coke, and ate bent over a purple top that was both too high to sit comfortably and too low to stand comfortably. The noodles were incredibly good – chewy and dripping with hot chili oil. I had to eat the entire bowl, which contained what looked like a pound of noodles, in under five minutes.
A bowl of noodles – no matter how good they are – cannot save a life or alleviate the pain and fear that one feels when crying or preparing to mourn the death of a loved one. Of course they can’t. But a bowl of noodles can provide some comfort, even fleeting. I had been living on coffee and donuts for weeks; the noodles – tangy and chewy and tasty – were right there, right under my nose. I don’t remember much from that time (I chose to forget most of them), but I vividly remember eating these noodles. I have eaten them several times since, and I imagine I will eat them several times in the future.
There is a certain and specific disposition that we manifest when we mourn the loss of a parent, or when we believe we are on the verge of having to do so. An atmosphere builds up around them, in layers like that which envelops the earth. In the layer closest to the body, one can breathe normally, go to the post office and drop a letter, to make sure that the plants are watered. As one comes out of this layer – against one’s will, most often – the air begins to become scarce and it becomes difficult to breathe, and almost impossible to water the plants. At first it’s very cold, then it’s very hot, and then there is nothing, or all, a vast expanse that can swell endlessly, or maybe heaven. It is inside this void that we linger, like a cosmic waiting room, our eyes fixed on some vague horizon. The troposphere does not disappear – it is still there, we can even see it – but it is still inaccessible. If you’ve been there before, you can usually recognize when others are inside.
My dad is in remission now. He still has days when he feels very sick, but he has just the same when he feels well enough to play with his grandchildren or host my wife and I for dinner. As for me, I’m no longer in a vacuum – but I recently went to Longwood for these noodles and saw a lot of people who were. I hope they will come out one day.