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Where to Begin

Dad has brain cancer. Inoperable tumor of the left parietal lobe. The emergency room doctors believed he had suffered a stroke. He is, after all, seventy-six years old. But two days later the diagnosis was changed to ”low-grade moderately-sized malignant brain tumor.” That was nine weeks ago. Today Dad is dying.

I write out of my home these days. While George rushes out the door to teach, I sit in the kitchen, sipping my coffee and talking to our cat.

“Where do you think we’ll be when the war starts? And how much longer does Dad have?”

Obligingly, I telephone my parents. Mom tells me they have two doctor’s appointments today. She knows he is much worse and doesn’t understand why more tests are necessary. I suggest no harm can come from obtaining more information; maybe he can be made more comfortable. She cautiously agrees, sighs and says, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay. Can I do anything to help you? Grocery shopping, errands...?”

“No, I want to do my own shopping. What is it, honey?” She is speaking to Dad; her voice mingling with his over the sound of the television.

Thursday used to be Dad’s day to ride his bicycle with his best friend, Bob. Fifty years ago they met in a fraternity at USC. Dad would begin his thirty-mile trek along the beach bike path to Bob’s. From there they both cycled together, but at a slow speed. Bob suffers from post-polio syndrome, and Dad suggested Bob try bicycling for exercise. Bob began to walk again, and Dad had a companion for his rides.

Once out past LAX they would rest and grab a bite at a small sandwich shop. After leaving Bob’s for home, Dad would “get back into gear” and “let it rip.” Once at home he would spend the remainder of his afternoon at his drawing board.

Now Dad watches television every day. He has seen all the college bowl games and is looking forward to March Madness. In the mornings he listens to an all-news channel. Most of the stories are about terror alerts and bio-weapons. Most of the stories are about Iraq.

Despite Dad’s fatigue and illness, his experience makes him intensely interested in this conflict. Dad is a veteran, a member of that brotherhood that is becoming too quickly forgotten and extinct. In 1944, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday on Guam, sitting in a pup tent; the downpour causing thick mud to ooze under the canvas onto his sleeping bag where he was crying into a can of C-rations. World War II.

Mom finally returns to the receiver, “That man is moving his troops around, amassing them for attack at the southern border.”

“Mom, you didn’t expect him to give up without a fight, did you?”

“It’s grim. Very grim.”

I wash my cup at the sink. Maybe there are medications to relieve some of the symptoms. So he will have fewer seizures, so he can safely stay alone for ten minutes, so he can distinguish the letter ”W” from the letter “O.”

On Christmas Eve, when he came home from the hospital, he pointed to the book on the coffee table and said, “I can’t believe I just wrote that textbook last year. Annie, just last year, I did...” He speaks slowly and quietly, giving an intensity and urgency to his tone.

When the paramedics had arrived at the house to take Dad to emergency, Dad could not remember his name or where he was. Finally he offered, “I am an architect.” Mom assured the two young men that this was, indeed, true. Dad built the house we grew up in, the house he and Mom live in now. He designed for over forty years, taught part-time at the local junior college, and co-authored six textbooks on aspects of architecture. A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Dad sees the work of the current architectural icon, Frank Gehry, as “phony and unlikely to bring positive attitudes to humanity.” As a child I was intrigued when Dad told me he could design groups of buildings, even a city, and the aesthetics alone would make the people who lived and worked in them want to be good.

Tomorrow when I visit my parents and stay with Dad while Mom shops, I will ask him about this new plan for the World Trade Center site. He will doze in his chair with his swollen feet up, his walker positioned next to him, and the television tuned to the news. Hopefully, one of the doctors can prescribe some treatment to help him feel better, speak a bit more clearly, sleep a bit less. It’s possible. Or perhaps the war will start. Whatever happens, we will be waiting together.

Copyright © 2003 Darin Ann LeBrun.

“Where to Begin” is Darin LeBrun’s first published nonfiction piece. For three years, she has been writing micro-fiction. That genre allows her the flexibility to focus on philosophical and psychological themes, while the constraint of the form challenges her to sharpen her technique. She has tried to incorporate these characteristics into her nonfiction.