Five Points, Vol. 21, no.2
Like Normal People
The autumn my father’s cancer returned was not really autumn at all. Late September, 2018, and still the ghastly globes of hydrangea withered and drooped in the heat. We could almost watch it all from the sunroom, an invisible force pulling the blossoms inevitably over, then down.
The diagnosis came after back pain had rendered him nearly inert, almost bedridden. “He’s literally crawling on the ground to get around,” my sister had said the week before. She wanted me to call him, urge him to go to the hospital. “On the ground,” she repeated.
That autumn, our cat went on a hunting spree, chipmunk after chipmunk dead on the kitchen floor, front porch, back deck. Others he brought in live, then let go. Gwen said that doing so combined two of our cat’s favorite pastimes: hunting and doing nothing inside. When the scared thing scurried behind a dresser or under the washing machine, our cat waited a while, groomed a bit, then called it a day. We then had a live chipmunk in our house. “Your turn,” Gwen said, a day or two before I called my father, when we pulled in the drive, and our cat loped into the garage, chipper in his maw.
The week before my father’s diagnosis, when I called, he said the pain was terrible. Deep and dull. “Terrible,” he said, which, if you had known my father, would seem remarkable, never one to complain about the body, even to speak of it, particularly its weaknesses. I told him he needed to go the hospital. “What?” he said, the television too loud in the background, the cellphone coverage spotty, all those waves bouncing off towers in the middle of north Texas.
He thought it was the same old sciatic nerve problem he had suffered through before, just normal (if terrible) pain. He said he was waiting to see if his doctor would prescribe him better painkillers, was waiting for a call, waiting it out.
My father was always waiting: waiting to take a trip to see his sister in California; waiting for me or my sister (on either coast) to visit him or for him to visit us; waiting for my brother, a half-hour away, to come for dinner, to bring his daughter down; waiting for the weather to turn, the rain to stop, the Cowboys to win; waiting to get over the loss of his cat Mikey earlier in the year, or my mother’s death years ago, and to be okay with it. Waiting for the pain—in this case and many others—to go away.
“Don’t wait,” I said on the phone. He hemmed and hawed, something about his back feeling slightly better that day. “Don’t wait,” I repeated, but by then I was talking to myself. Tell your father, I said, what he must do. Become the father here, you dolt.
Instead I talked about a Peace Day celebration in my small town in Georgia, how a friend had asked if I would play drums for a big sing-along at the community center. “Why not,” I said. “Sounds like fun,” my father said, and I pictured him reclining at an odd angle in his chair, three states away, positioning for a position with less pain, which is also what I was doing.
And that is how, with my father agonizing, not yet knowing the cause was cancer, with a cat we called Scourge of the Chipmunk, decimating the local fauna, I chatted with my father about drums, which is essentially nothing, which, under those conditions, I am very good at talking about.
That autumn was also the autumn of Vontae Davis, cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, who, in the middle of a game against the Chargers, simply quit and walked off the field. He told coaches and teammates earlier that he didn’t feel like himself. “I’m done,” he declared at halftime. Then he dressed into street clothes—probably an expensive suit, some designer shoes—and walked out. Coaches and fellow players seemed mostly surprised. “I never have seen that,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “Pop Warner, high school, pros. Never heard of it. Never seen it.”
I had never heard of the word Junetember, never seen it, though I recognized instantly what it meant when a friend complained of that unrelenting heat, that indefatigable August: no real autumn, just summer extended, the worst part of it anyway, the hot, wet stink of it. “Walking outside,” he said, “it’s like walking into a dog’s mouth.” Our air-conditioner kicked on even in the middle of the night with its high-pitched ring. Under those weeks, a low rumbling, an electrical static.
Gwen said I was crazy to ride my bike. I told her that I wouldn’t be beaten by the weather, wouldn’t let it dictate what I did. Besides, I thought, wouldn’t it make me tougher, to acclimate, get used to it? In the gym sometimes I see football players for the university wheezing through tight-fitting facemasks designed to restrict airflow, to accustom them to less oxygen, so that on game day their lungs soak in the rich air, and they become better versions of themselves. I told her all this, that we can get used to pain, that maybe we ought to. “Okay,” she said, in a falsely cheery lilt, clearly signaling her complete disregard, “suit yourself.”
When my father’s PSA levels rose—which they discovered a week after I called, after I told him to go to the hospital, which he finally did and got the tests—I knew what it meant, though the words themselves are unimportant. Sometimes what they stand for is what we’re after. The cancer had returned, the numbers said, and that was it. Originally in the prostate and radiated all to hell, obliterated, it had returned, metastasized in the bone. It’s what the numbers stood for.
I love you, I said to my father in a dream that I wanted to think was a dream but was just a wish. This was after the diagnosis. This was after the bike ride I was crazy to take, before the Peace Day celebration. I wanted to say that I loved him so much that I could overlook his stance on the environment and state’s rights; that I could, if called upon, rip the cancer right out of him. What I really said, when the diagnosis came, was that we should wait to hear from the urologist, the radiologist, the oncologist: specialists, we call them. That we should gather all the data before forming a game plan.
I think I actually used the words game plan, which bothers me now.
Cycling in Georgia, in summer, is a kind of game, too. How long can I go and with what kind of supplies? How much water I bring takes into account distance, time of day, humidity, and my own stubborn sense of routine. “You’re crazy,” Gwen said, the day before I spoke with my father, before we knew it was cancer, as I strapped on my bike shoes. “Just go to the gym.” She pointed to the ceiling fan above us. “Inside. Like normal people.”
The sensible thing to do, for sure, and I found it difficult to explain to her my desire to bike outside in the hot, wet stink of that Georgia summer, especially one that had bled deep into September. I argued that we had just returned from a vacation with her family (true), and that a week of overeating, overdrinking merited this penance. The logic was flawed, I knew: I wanted to overexert because of overindulgence. I wanted to punish my body for my mind’s bad decisions.
That autumn, after the family vacation, after the bike ride, after I had packed the drums in my small truck with the crooked bumper and pulled out of the garage, I noticed a small lump lying on the concrete between where the truck wheels had been. A chipmunk, dead maybe a day, ants busily assessing the work at hand, teaming up. Not wanting Gwen to come home and find it, I tried to flick the chipper on a dustpan but ended up just shuffling it across the garage floor, the ant crew perplexed but somehow focused, a black line following it all.
When I finally had the chipper on the plastic scoop, I was struck by its weightlessness, how little it all cost, in the end, how little exertion it took to hoist that complicated thing, with ants presently dismantling it, to place it inside a bag and dispose of it as one might the remains of a lunch.
“He didn’t say nothing to nobody,” Lorenzo Alexander said after Davis quit the Bills and walked out of his former life. “Just completely disrespectful.”
How singular an event and yet how pedestrian, how utterly normal and every-day: the act of quitting, giving up. I do it all the time. Little quits and givings up. Professional football, though, is constructed of the uncommon, feeds on its own exceptionalism.
“I left everything the league wanted me to be,” Davis later wrote, “playing for my teammates while injured, the gladiator mentality.”
I thought of that phrase gladiator mentality, itself a cancer, a growth that begins to eat away at its host. I watched our cat sit patiently with a chipmunk under his paws, under the heavy branches of the Bloodgood tree. I thought of how pedestrian dying is, too, how utterly mechanical in its systems. One swipe of claw, one bite.
Gwen and I go back and forth on the topic. Are we heartless monsters, letting our pet ravage the chipmunk population? Or are we just normal people, respecting his instincts, his taut, eight-pound body a kind of miracle, shaped by domestication, by us, exquisitely designed for a single purpose, a perfect killing machine?
“Are you with the band?” people asked me, one after another, as I carried the drums around the community center’s back wall, by the potluck tables and plastic forks and potato salad. This was after the bike ride, after the chipmunk dead in the garage. “Everybody, he’s with the band.”
People moved chairs out of the way, smiling their blank smiles of privilege and leisure, all the while fanning themselves with copies of the song lyrics. “Can you believe this heat?” someone said.
On stage, the musicians had gathered: an accomplished guitar player from town with his legs kicked up on a metal chair, noodling with the sound off; a bass player fussing with his amp, left arm resting on the instrument’s neck slicked in sweat; a keyboardist who also catered events in town (muffins, artichoke dip, petit fours); and a djembe player named Hank, whom I instantly liked. Burly, bald, and jovial, his smile cut deep into his doughy cheeks. “I didn’t make this one myself,” he told me, pointing to his drum, “but I got two of my own at home.”
The crowd milling about mostly comprised middle-aged women in yoga pants and sensible shoes: Danskos, Keens, Birkenstocks, and Chacos, all manner of Chacos: sports sandals with fabulously colored straps. “Rich hippies,” Gwen often calls the women who wear them, the parking lot out front filled with their Subarus and Priuses. White women with sensible shoes and pension plans and the air of those who live the good life, who need not struggle, for whom a Peace Day celebration is a chance to celebrate openly their ability to celebrate, even in the pleasant burning down of a ridiculously hot afternoon (their only sacrifice).
The lyrics were hokey, of the can’t we all just get along genus, the drumming—all the music, really—rudimentary and repetitive. Running through the tune a few times, I couldn’t take my eyes off the footwear. Whatever else may have ailed these women, they would not—could not—suffer from sore feet. They would be damned if they’d tolerate sore feet. Life’s just too short, too good, too normal, too insurable against risk.
That autumn, before the hokey Peace Day celebration with the caterer-keyboardist and jovial djembe player, before talking to my father, after Gwen said I was crazy, I took off on my bike. The route was an old standard, not too long, not too short. A few weeks since I had ridden seriously, a few pounds heavier from vacation, I turned a mile stretch along a traffic-heavy road into a time trial. Gearing down on the hill, I settled back in the saddle, dropped my hands to the curled bars, and dug in. Exhilarating, I thought, the wind in my face, a kind of hot wind, sticky and still rich with kudzu, as I passed by a barn slowly being digested by the unstoppable vines.
I pushed hard for almost the entire mile, until my normal left turn approached, where I let off the pedals, rose to the top bars, and threw my arm out to signal. I had noticed the truck behind, slowing—it seemed at first—to wait for me. I coasted as I started my lean left (the same route I had ridden a hundred times), when that truck, traveling at least fifty miles per hour, passed me on the outside left.
The shock of wind. The smell of metal and friction. I came within inches of its passenger side, of the body of the truck, of dying on my road bike with the fancy red paint and carbon forks
One of the chippers we discovered in the back bedroom after a couple of weeks, after my father’s ’s diagnosis, after Vontae Davis quit, after I nearly died on my fancy bike with carbon forks. Emaciated, his mouth was slightly open, teeth showing, eyes closed in a forceful way, pulled inward. Being torn to pieces, rent, in the biblical sense: even that seemed elevated, noble, compared to starving to death in a seldom used spare room, under the bed, next to Gwen’s archival supplies.
I thought of James Dickey’s poem “The Heaven of Animals,” how he imagines their paradise as not devoid of danger and death but rather one in which those states are sanctified, made part of their animal desires. Not the angelic predator leaping from its perch in the tree onto the bright back of its prey; not when it tears the prey to pieces; but rather the prey’s recognition that it is prey, that it is somehow fulfilling its spiritual rite, reinforcing its existence by being devoured.
It’s their “reward,” as Dickey puts it, “to walk under such trees in full knowledge of what is in glory above them.” What’s more, they feel “no fear, but acceptance, compliance.” These soon-to-be-mauled will not—even in their own version of paradise—deviate from their calling. Heaven is a sundering, again and again, for eternity.
Hank accentuated each downbeat of my bass drum on his djembe. He smiled broadly, head tilted toward me, desperately synched, in touch with some untouchable—at least it seemed to me—spirit of world peace. That’s what djembe means, anyway, though I doubt Hank knew it: djé from the Bambara verb for gather; bé from the noun for peace.
I want to think Vontae Davis experienced some moment of peace that day against the Chargers, that he looked up at the crowd and suddenly, perhaps (though I can’t be sure, and I can’t be sure of his own explanation), felt a calm overcome him, even in his tightly fitting pads designed to protect, inside that helmet, those cleats, all the gear it takes to play the game. “It all just popped,” he said, “And when it popped, I just wanted to leave it all behind.”
I do not believe in moments of transcendence, but I believe that others do. I believe in the elasticity of belief itself; that, like an electrical current, it can bend, and, by the power of our own minds, be bent itself.
And though I more than once apologized to friends for my father’s nerdy obsession with light bulbs and electrical currents, I did so as a cat lover does the scratches on his arms, as a father does the loving capriciousness of his son. Once, when friends from Italy visited and my father insisted on taking them on a tour of his lab (nothing more than a table in an upstairs room, replete with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, transistors, and bins of vintage light bulbs), when they returned and I apologized, they said that I shouldn’t, that they had enjoyed it. “Your dad,” they said in the limited English they possessed, “he’s calming.” Odd how linguistic impoverishment often leads to richer sentiment.
I wish I could say the same for myself when I spoke with my father before the Peace Day celebration, after he had heard the news, that the pain was not the same old pain, the same old problem, that it was cancer returned, a Lazarus.
It had returned, and so had I: returned to a boy, unable to make informed decisions; to talk to him about it all, how he felt, really felt; to say that I loved him. I bent the current of my language, returned it to a jumble of evasions and home-maintenance queries, talk of air filters, engine compression, and water lines, all the ways that pressure builds and can be dangerous.
Seven years ago, long before the cancer’s return, before our cat (who is now six), before the sing-along, before the rest of my life, when the doctor originally told my father about the prostate cancer, about how treatable it was, how targeted the radiation would be, “a pinpoint strike,” still my sister and I fretted. “Not this,” we thought, “not now.” Our mother had died a few years before that, complications after an ulcer surgery, sudden and unreal. “I can’t deal with this,” I remember my sister saying, “not now.”
My father, however, was calm, said his doctor was confident of the treatment plan and of the cancer’s responsiveness to it. “This won’t be,” the doctor told my father, “what finally kills you,” a line my father repeated, like the tag to a film. I think he liked the sound of it, the absoluteness, the clearly defined limitations of the killer. But did the doctor consider, I wonder now, the chances of its coming back, risen from the dead? Did his statement account for the ways in which a cancer travels, calls it quits in one place just to continue its work elsewhere? Isn’t that what cancers do? Isn’t that normal?
The music was hokey, yes, at the sing-along, yet the feel of falling into a tight rhythm—a groove, musicians call it—of letting go, felt somehow pleasant, as if I were carried along without effort, part of a current much larger than myself. That was, after all, the advertised aim of the event, the point: get a bunch of people together, stop talking, stop posturing, listen to the music, and sing.
“Great playing with you,” Hank said, as I packed up my drums, “and don’t worry about your dad. He’ll be fine.” The second part was a wish, which I read in Hank’s broad smile, disarming and ebullient, excessive in its cheer. I imagined him saying that, because I wanted to hate his optimism, the optimism of that entire afternoon, that slightly conceited, if well intentioned, privileged, self-satisfied, sing-along afternoon. I wanted to hate the keyboardist-caterer. I wanted to hate all those rich, white women in sensible shoes. I wanted to hate the weather, the hot, wet stink of September.
And I wanted to rip the cancer out of my father with my bare hands like our cat does the life out of a chipper. I wanted Vontae Davis to suit up, get back in the lineup, damn it, violence begetting violence. What I did, though, was simply say my farewells to the other musicians, like normal people do, get in my truck with the crooked bumper and drums stacked in the back, and drive home.
On the way, I thought about my father agonizing. I tried to feel what he must have felt, but it was impossible. I tried to feel what Vontae Davis must have felt—not in quitting and walking off the field but in those moments in which he walked on, in full knowledge of what might happen to him, the incredible, theatrical, acrobatic violence implicit in a normal game of football.
I thought of our cat, too, whom I love more than I should, particularly given his behavior, which we can’t help but think of as cruel, even though that gorgeous, eight-pound cat knows full well it’s his normal behavior, what he was designed to do.
I thought of the exquisite architecture of a cancer cell. “Your own body,” a doctor friend once told me, “rebelling against you.”
I thought and I thought until I entered what I can only call a calm, with the low hum of my tires on the asphalt meditational and soothing. I thought of the end of Dickey’s poem, the climax, really—the point at which the prey is attacked, yes, ravaged, but simultaneously empowered, ennobled, made part of a great chain, a continuum.
“Fulfilling themselves without pain at the cycle’s center,” Dickey writes, “they tremble, they walk under the tree, they fall, they are torn, they rise, they walk again.”