All that matters is that you’re better now

May 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

On an ageing couch in the Ward 8 lounge the father sleeps with a dated copy of The Lancet blanketing his lap; the newest issue will soon be collecting dust in the family P.O. Box. He took out a subscription seven months ago with the help of a doctor friend, who also helped him subscribe to the MJA, the BMJ and the Journal of Paediatric Haematology/Oncology

“Sir.”

– And possibly the New England Journal of Medicine. Just for some semblance of control. Some way to help his helplessness.

Sir.”

When he’s not quietly cursing the word-tangled articles and wondering about paraproteins and p-values, when he’s not giving ward staff the cynical eye and popping cans of Sunkist from vending machines –

“Sir?”

– He co-owns a less than thriving luxury upholsterer, Conroys and Oost, which operates out of Elanora Heights and boasts clientele as far north as The Entrance, down low as far as Scarborough and westwards to the Blue Mountains, out Katoomba way.

Mr Oosthuizen, sir.”

A cold hand on the arm stirs him and though he is out of it he stands with a cartoonish sense of purpose. The older-than-she-looks nurse informs him that Dr Gunn would like to speak to him and Mrs Oosthuizen. That Kip is now awake and that he has just had something to eat, something light.

He is led off down the hallway busy with people seemingly idle, the back of his shirt rumpled and untucked and The Lancet left lying limp and in an odd way on the floor of the lounge while a soapie plays – muted – on the TV.

A joke must have just been shared if the three tired smiles are anything to go by. They all turn to look as he enters but it is Gunn alone who speaks.

“Mr Oosthuizen.”

“Doctor.”

“Sir, have a seat,” Gunn says, slowly letting go of his smile.

“Champ. How are you feeling?” the father whispers to his boy as he settles into a chair near the back of the room.

“Fine,” says someone other than Kip or the doctor.

He’d hardly noticed her on entering, and he knows it and Lydia Oosthuizen knows it. Man and wife stare at each other as though oddities each to the other.

“So he’s eaten then,” man says to wife.

The wife, now as the mother, looks at the boy, who gives a lethargic nod to the man. “Good,” says the father to the son. “That’s good.”

The doctor proceeds to hack at the itching silence with talk of 70% cure rates, outpatient treatment every four weeks, vinblastine, chlorambucil, and the risk of permanent infertility. But Gunn couldn’t be more pleased with the prognosis, the finally clearing horizon.

It all sounds good, Lydia guesses, content that all she can do is nod and guess to herself considering Graham most likely isn’t hearing a thing…considering the blankly smothering gaze he’s fixed upon their son. Despite the ‘I understand’ glances he throws – on occasion – at Dr Gunn.

Once the spiel is over they thank the paediatric oncologist, who then reassures Kip in a quasi-private manner clearly meant for show. He finally sweeps out after quick handshakes with both parents, who then sit if not collapse upon the cheap vinyl chairs. The late afternoon sun saturates the room in a haze of warmth and light, seducing Kip to slumber and tricking the adults into blinking a lot more than they normally would, so much so that they forget what it is to speak; to think.

*

Kip remembers little of the day of discharge. Only that he felt a weirdness on leaving that was thankfully not coupled with some melancholy desire to return to that place of ruin, that room with its machines. It was strangely low key, and satisfyingly so. No applause. No slow walk through a tunnel constructed from smiling hospital staff in their unflattering get up. Just a quiet departure from the place he’d come to regard as home, an exit dignified in its anonymity.

But if that place was not home then he is not sure where home is. One week on and dad has been oddly absent, not counting the afternoon he took some freshly done laundry – dried but unironed – and disappeared. Shirts for the office and shirts for play. Pants too, and some books and things. And for all the keenness in his eyes he simply could not stay to watch the Tahs and the Crusaders collide on the big 50-inch. The Tahs. Their Tahs.

He just left.

“He comes home when you’re sleeping,” mum assures him as she chops the carrots more viciously than he remembers.

“Why’s he always working all the time? What about on the weekend?”

“Things are hard, Graham, things aren’t getting easier,” she snaps, as she does the asparagus ends.

“Mum, you said Graham.”

“I said Kip.”

That night Kip stays awake with little effort but he hears no car pull up to the garage; sees no car as he stands in the pitch dark living room, staring out at the unlit driveway. It’s sobering how quickly he seasons to a house without a dad. How dumbly he comes to accept that his father doesn’t sleep in mum & dad’s bed anymore, doesn’t live at home any longer. Though the words ‘dad’s moved out’ never quite occur to him. And why should they?

So mum isn’t quite as gifted a carpooler as dad was. Can’t quite work an audience under the age of ten. Can’t quite bring herself to marvel at the awesomeness that is Transformers, the single greatest treatment he remembers receiving on the wards. Besides, the pool’s down from five to three, driver included: just Lydia, Kip, and this other boy Lance.

Ghosh’s parents, Brett’s mother, both very sorry, both very grateful for the offer. But six months is ample time for alternative arrangements to become permanent arrangements. Ghosh has moved schools anyhow, and Brett never cared much for Kip, a feeling fairly mutual.

Lydia watches the two boys toddle off into the bustling quad at St Augustine’s, Kip’s daffodil-yellow cap standing out almost as much as his egg-bald head very soon will. She then slips out the station wagon and steals into the head office, filling the secretary in on her appointment with the headmaster and taking a seat as she is told to please do.

Why the hell would you go private?

The words still sting, variations of which spat forth from every friend’s mouth at every mention of Kip’s lymphoma and of their plans for its destruction. It had been like a reverberating chant, a Greek Chorus of sorts really. No one understood their reasoning nor seemed to want to. But Lydia and Graham were adamant, stoic, and perhaps – in retrospect – daft as shit. They’d researched and they’d decided…what had they decided? They’d thought and thought and finally concluded that…what had they concluded again? Lydia massages her forehead skin as she juggles half-formed thoughts in her jellied mind, hoping she doesn’t mistake this meeting for the interview she will be having at 1:15 this afternoon, during the lunch break of her current job which she is damn intent on keeping.

Kip was never a presence, magnetic, the class Clooney or school Connery. Not anywhere, certainly not on the ward. But never before has he felt so anonymous, egg-head notwithstanding, despite eyes like wet cats in shallow grottos, a gaze pale and famished. One would think he’d never been absent at all, that he had not swayed on the verge of being an absentee forever. That perhaps some doppelganger filled in for him these last few stolen months.

He wouldn’t have thought it but he quietly yearns for the occasional tease, to be called baldilocks or Charlie Brown or Peter Garrett or something equally lame, and to be pointed at. Even a look of pity which comes naturally to some of the teachers might be refreshing coming from some of the boys. Anything other than nothing. Something to assure him that these last six months have meant more than just needles, tears, bad food, hair loss and vomit.

*

Graham is thankful to have his son for the night. At least before Kip starts spending evenings and nights with the neighbours, the Petits, while Lydia prostitutes herself at some college for adult education, putting her English major to nocturnal use and teaching immigrants phrases they will never use in the real world. Not once did he believe the mother of his child would be working two jobs, like a minimum-wage-earning bum, or a too-young mother, not the wife of a moderately-successful self-employee struggling valiantly to pay for half a year that has come and gone like lottery money, or the mildly talented sales manager that she appears to be.

He sighs into his pasta and carbonara sauce and sighs once more when his son asks him if he is ever coming home.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, sweetheart.”

“But how come? It’s been ages and you’re always working and mum says you come back at night but you don’t.”

“Kip. Kip, listen. Some things were never meant to happen. See. Sometimes it takes something really really big for you to realise that those things were never ever meant to happen. Ever. But hey. All that matters is that you’re better now. Isn’t it.”

They eat in silence. Not an awkward one, but a beautiful, snug-like-the-quilt-Nan-made-me one. Kip pops a mouthful of penne, puts down his fork and chews. Halfway through chewing he smiles and Graham smiles back. The man then looks around at the tiny flat and the few remaining, unopened boxes and thinks to himself, what a shitbox, what a dump. Fuck.

He washes up while his son watches TV, hopefully something appropriate for a nine-year-old though you can’t be sure about seven o’clock programming these days, these crazy days and times.

Man and boy sit on the sofa together after the washing-up’s been done, son cuddled up to the father who kisses the hairless head at his chest and strokes the once-withered shoulders just below.

Memories of promises he once made flood him out of the blue as though he were a dying man, a bystander shot suddenly through the heart or thereabouts. Promises of a sister or brother for Kip, of another life upon which he and Lydia could dish out love. Promises of a ski trip to Switzerland in the coming Sydney summer, perhaps with a cheeky Italian detour to Lugano, maybe Milano, savings for which he fought to preserve until they simply had to be eaten into as the chemo snowballed and Ward 8 became the place where their hearts grudgingly were.

Has the room gone cloudy and hazy all of a sudden? Graham slyly stubs the inner corner of his eyes with his finger tips, rubs them up and down and sniffles.

“So. Champ. What d’you reckon about Narrabeen Public?”

Kip is slow to answer. “Am I moving?”

Christ, Graham thinks in calm exasperation. That woman. That Lydia.

“No, nothing,” he says to Kip, “dad’s just a little tired.” So fucking tired. “How are things at school?”

“Okay.”

“No one being silly, being an idiot?”

Kip lifts his head from his father’s chest and shakes it three times.

“Good.”

Graham attends to the knock at the door and grants Lydia entry with hardly a hello. Kip begins packing his few things with the longsuffering of a production-line worker, as though it’s a job he’s been doing for decades. Slow and joyless.

Lydia says, “Have you had dinner?”

Graham says, “Of course. It’s quarter to eight. What, aren’t you working tonight?”

“After I drop him off at the Petits’.”

“Why not just let him stay here?”

“Graham,” she says with the weariest groan.

“Fuck, he’s your son, take him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she manages to say through lips contorted with disgust.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I know anything anymore.”

“I just want him to be close to home, Graham. I trust Clara and Dale.”

“Whatever. I’m not arguing. I need sleep.”

Only then do they notice that Kip is hanging about in a ghostly manner, his backpack hitched up high, him pretending not to have seen or heard anything though one can’t question the heaviness that must be clutching at his throat.

“Night, champ,” Graham says as he watches Kip shuffle past him and out into the stairwell, eyes on no one, followed out by his mother in her long wool coat.

“Okay then…” Lydia says in a moment of limbo. Then she turns and heads down the staircase, adding an extra two beats to the helter skelter echoing of Kip’s descent.

Back inside and alone again, Graham aimlessly wanders the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, sweeping crumbs onto the floor, looking in the fridge and being disappointed by the lack of Coronas and cubed ice. Ignoring the Manila envelope that wasn’t on the kitchen top prior to his wife’s arrival a few moments ago.

*

Patience is not a gift of hers and however much of it she might have once had has been depleted so much so that she’s now in the red.

That Colombian bitch, she thinks. And that Angolan prick. And that Taiwanese whorebag, and that Dutch dick who is clearly in no need of late-night English tutoring, the filthy sleaze.

She locks up and makes her exit on tiptoes as some classes have only just commenced, at ten thirty on a Friday night. In the car she takes a moment to breathe not having planned on sobbing much less bawling, head first upon the steering wheel – BAAAAHHP! – And then against the window. How did it come to this? How could something inside a sweet little child turn out to be such an undoing? Undoing everything. Unless nothing had been done up to begin with. And even if there had been nothing to begin with, at a time there had been at least ignorant bliss.

How hard will Kip freak when he comes home to find that his beloved big screen is gone, pawned off for a measly, ordinary 27-inch on which SpongeBob will look so much less than ordinary? The mountain bikes too, exchanged for hard fast cash, as was the tumble dryer, the lawnmower, and a stash of old records and miscellanies. Besides, where they’re going, these things would have been mere redundancies.

They are expected to be out of the house in a little over a week to make way for the new owners, and her sister and her sister’s husband are expecting them any day now, anytime. Whether Kip would understand the very tightness of money is anyone’s blind stab. But it’s for his sake damn it. For the boy to continue living he cannot live as he once did.

Lydia starts the car and careens through a tight angry U in the parking lot, coming to a jolting halt were the gravel meets the road and its steady stream of headlights.

*

“What’s cancer like?”

Karen.

Eleven-year-old Karen Petit jumps at the hollow sternness of her mother’s voice. Kip gives her the plainest look, and if a face could pull a shrug then that is what Karen’s face has just done. She stands oddly and skedaddles, leaving Kip alone with the television, all noise, all colour, bugger-all purpose.

Clara Petit calls out from the kitchen: “Honey, your mum won’t be much longer now.”

Kip cares precious little. Tomorrow he returns to Paeds for his first round of outpatient chemo and who knows how that will go. He might sleep through it, or drift off in some dreamy stupor, or he might throw up every inch contained within his skin. Right now all he sees are visions, like a colour-saturated montage from a movie reel. Road trips with the folks out to the country to see Nan and Pa. Trips to Thredbo and slapdash outings to Palm Beach to picnic by Barrenjoey lighthouse. Nights when mum would sit beside him as the fan swept across his sweat-drenched body, as she iced his forehead and sighed, gently cooed. Days when he was so fatigued he could hardly breathe, when dad would read him Watership Down till he dozed. How mum wouldn’t force broccoli on him because he really truly had no appetite. How he would catch them on the sofa, barely touching, watching M*A*S*H wooden-faced and silent, and tell them – with tears in his eyes – how it felt like there were fire ants beneath his skin.

There are visions. Then there is a feeling, guttural, deep down and unwilling to be found. A dull pang, a sting of nostalgia blade-sharp yet murky as a long dead lake; a feeling he cannot articulate to himself. The kind mankind must have felt prior to its very first words, its first meaningful grunts. Words which – on uttering – would go along the lines of “things were so much better back then. Back when I was getting sicker.”

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§ One Response to All that matters is that you’re better now

  • Isla Tovell says:

    No melodrama here. You created a very specific and consistent tone where mundaneness saturates a potentially dramatic set of events. I was given the feeling of realness; when a child gets cancer and the parents separate there is no glamour, there are no background musical scores. In the real-world, life simply goes on. And these characters were doing exactly that. Thanks.

    Like

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