When it’s quiet, I climb through my bedroom window out into the early October night. I hold a bottle of my dad’s dark brown beer in one hand while pulling myself onto the roof. I wobble from one foot to the other and sit down. I begin taking small, timid sips of the beer trying to drink it like the 16-year-old adult I have become. But I never liked the taste of beer, even now, and I throw the bottle into my neighbor’s yard when there’s still a couple of ounces left. The bitter liquid warms me as it settles in, the night around me becomes slightly blurry, and I lay my head back. I lay here thinking about her, the day she left, and I wonder how everything would have been if she were still here. I can still smell her perfume as she hugged me goodbye, before sliding through the front door dragging that bright red suitcase behind her. I picture her smiley face and close my eyes.
Rays of sunlight peak over my neighbor’s house and I open my eyes to find myself still on the roof. My feet dangle off the edge, and I look into my neighbor’s yard at her small rat-like dog that is showing quite an interest in the last of the beer I threw. I watch the small beast for a few seconds before I’m interrupted by my little sister, Taya, calling for me from inside the house. Inside, I hear Taya beginning to panic as she looks for a letter she wrote to mom. She yells to me, “Rylie, where’s the letter with the drawing? I need it.” I quickly search my drawers – through all the letters Taya has sent – and find the most recent one. I grab it and run downstairs. “Taya, I found it,” I say.
She runs to me smiling as her backpack swings from side to side. “Thanks,” she says, quickly grabbing hold of it to make a final drawing on the envelope before we send it. She hands it back to me, “Okay you can send it now, please,” she says.
“Alright. I will,” I say, “And Taya, we leave in 20 minutes for school.” Her brown curls of hair dance around her face and she looks up at me with her clear green eyes and asks where breakfast is. I quickly set out her cereal and head upstairs to check on dad.
It was April, almost 7 months ago, when my dad came home early from work. He was holding doughnuts and Thai food, hoping that they would somehow fix the conversation he was about to have with us. The conversation where he’d tell us how he had gone to the doctor that day, how they had found cancer in one lung, and how it had already spread to his lymph nodes. He would then try to reassure us that he wouldn’t go down without a fight, that he’d beat this thing. But I looked it up. There is a 53% percent survival rate with Stage II Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer patients.
He’s lying in his bed near the window curled up reading a book when I walk upstairs. He smiles when he sees me. His frail frame looks thinner, and dark raccoon rings lie around his eyes. He tilts his bald head up at me. “Hey, Kit Kat,” he says – his nickname for me since my 5th birthday when I choked while shoving Kit Kats in my mouth.
“Hey, Dad, how’re you feeling?”
“I’m starting to feel better,” he says, even though I know he’s lying.
I hug him. “Taya and I gotta go to school. The nurse will be here soon though. Love you.”
“Love you too,” he says, and I walk back downstairs.
I call to Taya and we get into my red Subaru, Ruby the Subi, which my friends call The Lawnmower. She drives awkwardly, like she’s underwater, the speedometer still not working and I wonder if I’m going 30 or 45 miles per hour as I drive us to the elementary school a few minutes away.
It’s 10 minutes before Taya’s 4th grade class starts and I hug her goodbye, smelling the coconut conditioner in her hair. She jumps out of the car. “Love you,” I say, as she walks up to school. She looks back at me and around at kids nearby, embarrassed by what I said, and I laugh to myself thinking of how I’ve truly taken on my mother’s role.
There are 30 minutes until my classes start, and I sit in the parking lot at my High School writing back to Taya. The letter is short but I know it will be enough for Taya.
I am so, so glad that you are doing so well in school. I am so proud of you for winning the art contest for your grade, that’s so amazing. I loved the drawing you sent in your last letter to me. You are becoming such a great artist. I hope to be able to come back and visit soon. I miss you so much. And don’t worry too much about your dad. He is very strong. He’ll be okay. I love you so much, sweetie.
I hold Taya’s most recent letter to mom, the drawing she made is folded twice to make sure it’d fit in the small envelope. I pause and think about writing my mom another email trying to explain how much I need her to come home, but I think better of it. I know she will respond the same she always does: “I will so soon. I’m just finding myself here in Paris right now.” There’s always more to her emails about how she loves us, but I can usually never get past that first line. I put the letter for Taya in an envelope and head to my classes.
In the middle of my Pre Calc class, I get a phone call. It’s my dad’s nurse. I answer in class and then leave. He’s in the hospital again.
I put Ruby in reverse and quickly back up. The car lurches slightly, and my back bumper comes into mild contact with the car parked behind me. I think about how nice it would be to leave a note on that car as I drive to Taya’s elementary school. Driving to pick up Taya and then to the hospital is too familiar. Once in the car, Taya sits quietly, drawing, she doesn’t cry anymore, and I think about how much stronger she is than me.
The nurse at the hospital tells me she called my mom a few days ago when he started to get worse. I laugh out loud. The poor nurse doesn’t understand that my mom would never show up. But my laugh dies when I look outside my dad’s hospital room. That bright red suitcase is sitting there looking like it finally came back home. I choke on my breath in disbelief and look up. My mom stands there the same as two years ago. “Hey,” she says, and I can tell she thinks that’s enough.
And it just might be.