Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My mother wound a dish towel around her left wrist, pulled it tight, then unwound it. My father sat waiting for something, smiling slightly, looking across the kitchen table at me and my sister, Kim. Then he took a breath, lowered his eyes, and told us that he had a tumor “in a gland called the prostate.” The cancer had spread to his bones where it couldn’t be removed or treated. The doctors weren’t sure how long he would live — maybe a year, maybe five.
Kim’s eyes filled with tears, and she leapt up to hug him; I walked out of the house. In the back yard, surrounded by abandoned farmland, I was suddenly terrified. I looked around wildly, half expecting a tornado to drop out of a black cloud. But the sky was blue and the air still; a cicada was rasping. I hurried back inside.
That night in bed I thought about what Dad had said. I was fifteen and to me five years was a long time. In five years maybe they would find a cure for cancer. I fell asleep remembering the time my father dove from a motorboat into Chautauqua Lake. He slid down through the greenish water, becoming first a glimmering shadow, then disappearing. I wondered if he would ever come up. He finally emerged on the other side of the boat, gasping, squinting, and grinning; he triumphantly waved a small stone over his head, the wet, white surface glittering like a miracle in the sunlight.
The next morning I began training for football season. I ran and ran: east to the Methodist church and back, barking dogs nipping at my heels; west, the Keller boys hurling stones at me as I crossed through their neighborhood; north and south, through fields and ditches, thistles and briars scratching and gashing my legs. I sprinted up the hill behind my house. I pounded up the cellar stairs. I ran in place, shaking the bedroom floor. By the end of July, my stomach taut, thighs and calves bulging, I could run several miles without resting, always keeping one step ahead of my pursuing shadow.
Since to speak of Dad’s cancer made it more real to me, I didn’t tell my friends Leon and Bob about it. That summer we were daredevils. Leon lived near a bridge spanning the Erie Canal, and on hot days we would dive from the railing of the bridge, heedless of the dangers of speedboats and floating debris.
One night, while drinking beer in the storage loft above Leon’s garage, we saw a car leave a driveway on the other side of the canal, cross the bridge, and stop near a telephone pole. We watched the driver place something in a metal box attached to the pole. Then, after the car crossed back over the bridge, another car stopped by the pole and the second driver removed the contents of the box. Convinced we had seen a drug transaction, we wanted to examine the box, but each time we made our way over to it, the first car roared out of the driveway and over the bridge, sending us running back to the loft. Finally the car stopped beneath our hiding place, and from inside a man yelled, “We know you’re up there.” After that, Leon fetched a shotgun from his house and kept it on the floor of the loft. We drank more beer and forgot about the drug dealers.
Later that night, each of us wrapped his arms around his chest, held his breath, and squeezed. By turns, we passed out and came to, laughing. It was like dying and coming back to life.
On some mornings Dad would wake without pain, and several moments would pass before he would remember that he was dying. But those mornings were unusual. It was as if wherever he was, the sun shone on his back, and his shadow walked ahead of him, taunting.
The previous summer he had begun building a small hunting cabin on land he had bought in the Allegheny Mountains. Now he was in a hurry to finish the job. On weekends he and I shingled the roof, sided the walls with plywood, and installed the doors and windows. In late July, during his one-week vacation from his welding job, we started work on the fireplace and the concrete floor. In August, when the floor had hardened, we began cutting and laying the fireplace stones.
Whenever Dad’s pain became too severe for him to work, I cleaned the tools and machinery and stayed with him until he fell asleep on a cot, drugged on Darvon. While he dozed I trained on dirt roads, dammed forest brooks with sticks and stones, and lay down in meadows with sunshine on my face. Is it possible for a boy with sunshine on his face to imagine life otherwise?
What I recall most about that year of my life is football season. It’s not that I recall football more clearly or truthfully than other events, but rather more forcefully — like a rushing, dizzying, sunlit river.
I still can’t drive past a football field without flooring the gas pedal. The white yard markers blur; the end-zone green deepens. I hum the fight song of the Starpoint Central School Spartans. When the car passes the goal posts, I’m trailing memories like a string of tin cans tied to the bumper. I can no more repress the memories than I could avoid hearing the cans.
The scoreboard shows a tied score with one minute left in the fourth quarter. We’re in the huddle, the steam of our breaths clinging to the ground, our uniforms grass and dirt stained. Our quarterback calls the play. We break the huddle with a clap and take our positions; the quarterback barks signals. The center snaps the ball. The linemen grunt and clash, their shoulder pads clattering as I start toward the line of scrimmage. The ball is shoved into my stomach. Lowering my helmet into the chest of the nose tackle, I feel hands and arms slip down my hips and legs. I accelerate around a linebacker and sprint into the open field — all the way to the end zone. There I toss the ball to a referee and turn and look into the bleachers. Dad is in the top row, cheering.
It seems impossible that this moment could pass.