Creative Nonfiction: Cancer of the Mouth
Carolyn Sun is a graduate of Tufts University where she majored in psychology and studied people for fun. Her short stories have appeared in mentalfloss.com and the Asian American Workshop’s “Korean American Anthologies.” She’s written for the Los Angeles Times, Soma and Big magazine. Currently, she’s working on her Master’s in Journalism at New York University and finishing her first novel which she describes as a dark comedy about love and death.
“Cancer of the Mouth”
“There are no black patients at Sloane Kettering,” my father says as we crawl in traffic on 68th Street in his black Honda minivan on a quest for the cheapest parking garage. “The only blacks I see are the people who work there—the orderlies, janitors, receptionists,” he continues. Even though it’s just the two of us inside the car, I still find myself looking around to see if anyone has overheard. I make accidental eye contact with a bookishly attractive Asian woman with question mark eyebrows in the passenger seat of the car next to ours and feel annoyed. As if she’d violated some unspoken rule not to look in my direction while I’m looking in hers. As if in that moment of eye contact, she’d let me know her life was immeasurably better and less burdensome than mine. “That’s great, dad.” I tear myself away from the woman’s imagined gloating. I’m in the habit of proclaiming stuff is great even when I don’t think so. “But, maybe you can cut the racial talk out when we go inside.” “Don’t say sheet,” my father says in his Korean-accented English as he gives up the search and veers the car into a parking garage that costs thirty dollars an hour. At thirty bucks, they should throw in a happy ending. Or a smoothie. “It makes you sound like a low-class street walker,” my father continues. “Then, don’t talk about black people,” I shoot back, “You sound like a racist.”
We slip out of the car, and my father hands his keys over to the valet, a stocky, cinnamon-colored fellow. When we reach the hospital’s entrance, my father immediately disappears into the nearest bathroom to change his diaper. I sit on a bench, thankful I do not have to change his diaper for him. That may come later, a voice inside me whispers. Once I am alone and still, the despair I’ve been so keenly keeping at bay barges in. It’s a selfish despair, for it has nothing to do with my father and his being ill, but to do with the possibility of taking care of an invalid father. One diaper change later, we’re in the waiting room, a generic place made up of magazines and chairs that don’t support the spine and nervous anticipation. I despise waiting rooms. Waiting room lighting is crap and makes a person appear much craggier than in real life. However, I was asked by my mother to accompany with my father, and I couldn’t refuse because of what my refusal would imply about me as a daughter. “There’s a cappuccino machine,” my father points towards it, “go make us a cup.” “Haven’t you had enough caffeine?” I ask him. “Yes,” he nods vigorously, “now go make daddy a cup.” If I was the one wearing an adult diaper, I would not be downing cups of bladder stimulating beverages for the obvious reasons. Only, I am not in the position to deny my father his remaining small pleasures. For all I know, he’s a few days away from death, so I rise and go to the cappuccino machine. The waiting room also has a fully-stocked snack bar with graham crackers, pretzels and cookies, all up for grabs, and the sucker-for-free-stuff in me shoves as much of it as I can fit into my purse while I wait for the hiss of the cappuccino machine to stop. I wish I’d brought a bigger purse. “Are you still going to therapy?” I ask when I return to my seat. My father wrinkles his nose as if smelling something foul and shrugs. “I went twice,” he says between sips. He struggles to open the packet of graham crackers I’d given him. Unable to watch him struggle, I grab the item from his hands and open them. “So why did you stop?” I ask. An expression of fury spreads on his face. “The doctor asked me if I was suicidal,” he exclaims. I lean close. “Soooo—what did you say?” “So, I said to him,” he jabs his finger at some imaginary chest in front of him, “doctor, if you had an uncertain future, how do you think you would feel?” I’m a little let down by his answer. It’s not that I was hoping for my father to admit he was suicidal. But, it would have been the more interesting response. But then it occurs to me, “Dad, we all have uncertain futures. You don’t have to have cancer to have an uncertain future.” His face goes blank. I can see that my words stump him. Then, he shakes it off and slaps my back. “Right! That’s why my own daughter is smarter than the stupid therapist.” My father belongs to a curious category of people who are suspicious of all doctors—including therapists—even though he is a doctor himself. His faith runs towards other professions. “I see a new therapist now,” my father volunteers, “I’ve seen her five times already.” I have a sinking suspicious feeling about this new therapist. “She’s a Korean fortune teller in Queens,” he says. “She’s actually better than a therapist, because she tells me I am going to live until I’m a hundred.” I sigh and roll my eyes. “So how much do you pay her?” “One hundred and twenty bucks for fifty minutes,” my father chortles. It is a well-known fact that the dying possess the ultimate sympathy card, so I refrain from scolding him for wasting his money. “I hope it’s helping,” I state. He nods and adds, “She also told me that you will become very rich and famous.” “Well, this fortune teller sounds like a goddamned genius,” I say. “Don’t say goddammit,” he says. “I didn’t,” I retort. Because I didn’t.
My father’s name is called. A nurse appears in the doorway holding his chart. “Do you want to come in,” my father asks me. I most certainly don’t. I’d assumed I would wait and would resume my daughterly duty when the worst was over. He turns to the nurse. “It’s okay if she comes in?” The nurse nods. Unable to think up a reasonable excuse, I shuffle after my father who follows the nurse who leads us into an examination room where we sit and wait. I’m violently hoping I don’t have to see my father naked. Soon, Dr. Nussbaum, a dark, corkscrew-haired Jewish woman enters the room. She’s not very beautiful, my father had warned me on our drive here. He’d actually sounded quite upset about it. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Well, dad, we’ll see if we can get you a hotter doctor next time? My father is correct. Dr. Nessbaum is not beautiful, but her Harvard degree is displayed clearly on the cream-colored wall. She’s got diseases and malaises to cure. “Nice to see you again,” Dr Nessbaum says looking at me with her hand out. Confused, I look at my father who replies, “Oh no, that was my other daughter, Annie. This is my middle one. She’s just moved here.” Inwardly, I’m fuming. The idiot can’t tell the difference between me and my younger sister? Come on! “Nice to meet you,” she says smoothly offering her hand, “Glad to have you here.” I shake it like a good sport. She launches into doctor assessment mode and asks my father how he’s been feeling, and does he have any new aches or pains? “I’m still alive. Practicing my English. Playing Mega-lotto. Earning two meals a day,” my father chatters. “Good,” Dr. Nessbaum responds and scribbles something down. “Do you know where to go now for your treatment?” Hold up—I want to shout, do you mean there’s more?
There’s more. This is the easy part. “See you in three months,” Dr. Nessbaum calls out as we leave her office. We are headed towards the elevator, where the actual chemo takes place. This system is not streamlined. As we wait for the elevator, my father nudges me. “Go make us another cup of cappuccino.” I start to argue, but then remember not to and go make him a cup.
Sometimes, he is too tired to eat after treatment, my sister had warned me. Today, he says he is not and insists we go to a nearby French bakery, Le Pain Quotdien. Annie had recommended it. I cannot pronounce its name, a name that annoys me, but the fact that Annie had recommended it annoys me even more. “Is this where you usually go with Annie?” I ask when we’re seated at the large, wooden communal table that is supposed to force us to feel as if we’re experiencing something novel in New York—only interacting with strangers has been a common theme in my New York life. I do it on the subway everyday when I shove someone back whose leaning too hard on me in the crowded space. “Why?” my father asks, “Do you want to go to Fort Lee for lunch?” Classic Mixed Signals Behavior, asking me if I want to eat lunch in Fort Lee while we’re in the midst of sitting down for lunch elsewhere. I pull a bulldog face. Fort Lee is a place where part of Korea has been surgically implanted over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey off the Pacific Palisades Parkway. It bustles with Korean restaurants, coffee shops, video stores, hair salons, churches and grocery stores. It’s Korean community overdrive. I consider my parents to be already too much. “No, I’m not in the mood,” I tell him. My father studies the menu and throws it down. “It’s all in French!” It’s not all in French, but I let him think so and when the waiter comes by, I order for us both. The waiter, a handsome scruffy actor-type, trudges off with our orders. I start reading a copy of the New York Post someone has left at the table, half-hating myself for enjoying it more than the more sophisticated New York Times. I am searching for stories about tragedy and misfortune. Nobody’s doing any more stories on Africa which have fallen out of favor as the Third World poster child. Then, I spot a tragedy to share. “Hey, check this out—A baby was dropped out of a sixth floor window in the Bronx.” I shove the newspaper towards him. He gives the paper a cursory glance and then pushes it to the side, out of my reach. A leathery-faced blonde seated at the communal table snatches it up and starts leafing through it. “I’m not a racist,” my father says loudly enough for the leathery-faced blonde to hear and stare. At first, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Then, I realize he’s referring to our earlier conversation in the car. I start to contract him, but he interrupts. “I say black people, I say Jew, I say Oriental—these are not bad words. I am seventy-two and I have cancer. I just say what I am thinking. If people call me racist—“ He shrugs. Oh well. He appears tired and gray. “I’m just teasing, dad,” I tell him. “I don’t think you’re a racist.” “And I don’t think you’re a street prostitute,” he says patting my hand. Because our time is limited, I take it as he means it and blow him a kiss.