Smoky Vision

“There will be a procedure. They are checking out what is going on in his lungs,” she mentions one rainy April evening.

My shoe heels click as we walk down the sterile, grey halls of the big city hospital. Someone makes a joke to try to ease the tension we feel in our bodies. My family isn’t skilled at conversations. What is truly happening hangs wordless between us like a looming squall. Someone pushes open the heavy metal door to his room as flares of fear run through me. Looming machines make annoying noises and disinfectant odors take over my senses as I glance at him in a blue hospital gown, looking pale and weary. He says, “I’ll be okay.” But his despondent eyes tell a different story.

Back home, right off the kitchen, is a tiny powder room. The carpet is so grungy that the only place you can see the true golden color is in the corners right near the walls. In the mornings before school, this little space belongs to my dad. Like the hospital, the stench of the air overwhelms me. This is a toxic mix that includes Right Guard deodorant spray, cigarette fumes, and other manly smells. If I venture in after he is finished, I make sure to take a deep breath and hold it, getting out as fast as I am able.

I am fifteen and until recently, the biggest concern I had was what I would wear to the upcoming prom dance. But now things are drastically different.

This evening I enter the cramped washroom and I look for something to read while I sit. I pick up a dangerous pamphlet off the vanity next to me entitled, “What you need to know about lung cancer.” You see, cancer came to engulf our home just a few days ago, bringing in a cloud like the pervasive smoke that usually consumes every inch of this bathroom. My body knows something is not well and while my worst fears are haunting me, clear communication has been avoided. My context is informed through my observations. One thing I do know is that our pewter ashtray that screams, “The surgeon general has declared that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health,” seems to mock us all, but especially him. I open the pamphlet and skim each topic. One catches my attention and I read it repeatedly and carefully. Five year life expectancy: Slim.

In this closet room I find myself frozen, confused and alone with all my questions and apprehension. I am not invited into chats or spaces to process this storm that has flooded our home.

In the next weeks, I gather more unspoken data as things begin to unravel. Distress continually spins around in my head, but I am scared to confirm what I think. Sweet dreams are hard to find when I try to fall asleep at night listening to the sounds of the daunting cough and the rasping oxygen tank. They drown out the laughter of Johnny Carson on the TV. Sometimes Dad moans from his “in home” hospital bed. It makes my insides clench up. All I can do is cry. My mind is restless with worries. Many nights, I grab my journal and desperately scribble, “Please, God, don’t let him die!”

Everything seems to lead toward bad, but I deny what might be happening.

Within weeks, my missionary brother returns from Africa. We stand in the bedroom and pray with Dad. In a rare move, my dad, through his tears and affliction, says he loves me.

School is out and it’s fresh summer. There is a hint of fog that only I notice as my friends bring me home after a day at the beach. I dart toward our home, skipping the stair to the entrance. The metal screen door slams my back as I step inside. My brother is waiting on high alert for my arrival. He grabs me by the arms, stares directly into my eyes, and clears the air as he tells me what is palpable: “Dad is gone. He’s dead.”

No one prepared me for this jolt of reality, but my body senses a type of relief. I turn around, run out the door, and I keep running. A waft of smoke seems to follow me as I wonder why I never figured it out.

Or did I?

Maryhelen Martens has been gathering and connecting with others since she was a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. She is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. While her emotions and voice were shut down for decades, she is finding them again and using them in healing groups, story coaching, and writing. She’s always been drawn to water and sunsets and more recently to the desert and sunrises. She’s curious about that. Mother to three authentic adults, Maryhelen lives with her steadfast husband Keith on the shore of Lake Michigan.