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Family Practice

As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. — Solomon Ibn Gabirol

I waited in the lobby and watched through the window as the cold rain pelted the sidewalk. I nodded in appreciation of the weather’s propriety like a maître d’ tilting his head in approval of an elegantly dressed couple entering his high-end establishment. Now the dark cloud over my head would be tangible, the chill in my bones justified. On a conscious level, I knew trepidation was a waste of energy, that if I was to be of any help, I had to play the part of the supportive, upbeat daughter. But for all my efforts to remain positive, my inner pessimist prodded me toward pondering the worst-case scenario.

The day before, I had detected surprise and delight in my father’s voice when I told him I wanted to accompany him to the hospital. His actual words were, “I’m just getting the stitches out, but okay.”

“I thought you were supposed to get the results of your biopsy,” I said. Dad told me he wasn’t sure if the lab had already reported to his doctor. “Well, no matter,” I said. “It’ll be great to see you, and this way you won’t have to pretend to read a magazine while hanging out in the waiting room.”

“Good, then,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at 7:30.” I could hear his smile through the phone.

When Dad’s 16-year-old Camry pulled up, I hustled to make it to the car without getting soaked. We didn’t have far to go. Balboa Hospital, the local nickname for the Naval Medical Center, is just over a mile from my place. As we pulled into the parking structure, I took a moment to consider the mysterious randomness of my having resided in Alaska, Rhode Island, and Los Angeles, but ending up living closer than ever to the facility in which I was born.

Once out of the car, we unfurled our umbrellas — Dad’s was large and black; mine was red and white and barely covered my shoulders. “Are you going to need to share this one, since you brought that Barbie umbrella?” Dad asked with a teasing smile.

“I know, it’s meager,” I said. “I got it as a free gift when I bought lipstick. My legs are a lost cause, but at least my glasses should stay dry until we get over there.” I darted across the small road and walkway as fast as the people holding their jackets over their heads. I hadn’t realized how loud the water was until we reached the building, the overhang of which simultaneously sheltered us and shushed the rain.

I was reading my book in the waiting room when Jane (the family’s medical expert by virtue of her job as a pharmaceutical saleswoman) arrived and took Dad’s empty seat. “How is he?”

“Fine, I think. Been back there for, like, 20 minutes. He wants to go to Bread & Cie after this. You have time?” It was a silly question — we both knew Jane always makes time for her favorite cheese plate.

When Dad emerged, the golf-ball-sized bandage on his forehead was gone and in its place was a barely discernible cluster of butterfly stitches. He smiled when he saw us and greeted his eldest daughter with a hug and a kiss on each cheek. “Well?” I asked. “What’d he say?”

As the smile vanished from Dad’s face, Jane’s and mine also evaporated. “I’ll explain when we get outside.”

It was unlikely the outcome would be different from our expectations. The lab results were in, only to confirm a diagnosis about which the doctors had been fairly certain. Dad had survived melanoma, the malignant kind of skin cancer. At first, it was nothing more than a freckle, a dark spot just under his right eye that his daughters noticed and then monitored. Convinced the spot was growing larger and darker, we pestered Dad until he got it looked at, tested, and ultimately removed, along with a generous portion of flesh in the vicinity for good measure. That was years ago; aside from the thin white wisp of a scar, Dad was no worse for wear.

The cancer detected on Dad’s forehead a few months ago was the milder squamous cell carcinoma. There was no need to worry, the doctors said, it was just a matter of removing the localized tumor. But then the pink splotch on his forehead began to hurt, which indicated the cancer had reached a nerve.

“The good news,” Dad reported to Jane and me as we stood shivering in the outdoor walkway, “is that the tests don’t show any evidence of cancer cells, which means they probably got it all. But,” he let his breath out slowly and inhaled deeply before continuing. “They confirmed that it did, in fact, reach a nerve. So the doctor recommends radiation.”

I bombarded him with questions. When would it begin? What were the side effects? How long would it last? Jane had only one: what was the next step?

“Well, first this has to heal, so nothing is happening before that, and it can take around six weeks,” Dad said. He had an appointment for a month later to follow up with his doctor, who would then refer him to an oncologist, who would then decide when the radiation treatments would begin.

Jane, with all her hospital-insider knowledge, was determined to speed things up. “There’s no reason you have to wait to speak with an oncologist,” she said. I agreed. There had to be something we could do to hasten treatment — an appointment, a specialist’s name…something. Dad was unable to get a word in edgewise as Jane and I hurled ideas as they popped into our heads and marched him back and forth to various departments, each of which was guarded by a receptionist who turned us away in the name of procedure.

We’d covered half the grounds when Jane, in a moment of awareness, turned to Dad and said, “This isn’t helping, is it. We’re not helping, we’re just being annoying, aren’t we.”

Dad didn’t speak, but his answer was in his smile, which burgeoned into a giggle that seemed to say, “Yes, but I don’t mind.” For the briefest of moments, the rambunctious energy that radiates from my father was muted. It must have been a lot to take on; before he’d had a chance to process the news and what it meant for the coming months, we’d been all over his shit with our ill-conceived scheme to accelerate the car before the key was even in the ignition.

The three of us left the laminated floors and medicinal odors of the hospital for the summery colors and the comforting aromas of baked bread at our Hillcrest breakfast haunt. While Jane enjoyed her cheese plate, I my quiche and coffee, and Dad his demi-baguette and tea, we spoke of pleasant things. An hour later, we stepped outside to find that the rain had stopped, and the sidewalks glistened in the warm light of the sun.

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