The phone call from her older brother came a few hours before
Janice had planned to leave for her noon therapy appointment.
She sensed the walls of her Union Square apartment thicken with
the sound of Donald's voice, her lungs clench.
She left early for the appointment, hoping some time in the spring
sunlight might help clear the fear from her mind. Exiting her
building onto Eighteenth Street, she settled onto the speckled
granite saddle atop the white brick stoop facing the sidewalk.
The sun's warmth vibrated through the yellow and purple blooms
on the daisies and tulips at her back. Tickling her hair on the
way, a mild breeze reached for the quilt of new green leaves and
pink blossoms covering the branches of an adjacent dogwood. Bicycle
bells hinted of an ice cream truck from her childhood.
With khaki skirt open to mid-thigh, Janice's legs revealed a figure
her friends said looked much younger than her forty-five years.
Face resting on palms, tears leached through her fingers as she
replayed the conversation with Donald about their eighty-seven
year old father.
"There's a problem, something in Dad's colon, a blockage.
He needs surgery."
"Where is he?" she had asked. "What do the doctors
"Sarasota Medical Center, admitted last night. Gastro Surgeon's
supposed to be one of the best in west Florida. They're scheduling
"What kind of operation? Should we get another opinion?"
Donald's phlegm hock told Janice that he hadn't asked the questions.
She had learned to interpret his three languages: body, tone and
quirk. She ground special lenses to sift the clues: sighs, a stretch
of the neck, the scratch of a certain spot on the scalp, finger
sniffing, voice modulations, winks, taps of the feet, crook of
a wrist, narrowing the space between the eyes, pruning the hairs
from his nose.
"Dad's Internist says the surgeon knows what he's doing,"
he said. "Sit tight, let them do what's best."
"I want to talk to the surgeon," said Janice. "Let
me have his name and number."
"I'm not going to tick him off with second-guessing. I'll
take care of it." Donald-speak for "Fuck off."
"I'm getting the first flight to Sarasota," she said.
"Promise me I can talk to the doctor before they operate."
"Can't promise anything. It's up to the doctor."
"Then give me the number."
"I've taken care of everything down here," Donald said.
"It's all under control. I'll call you when the operation's
* * *
Wendy Miller's office was in a two-room suite on Third Avenue.
During their first therapy session seven-years ago, Janice described
her life as "neat and satisfactory"; it took a while
to get to "passionless and disconnected". She and her
ex-husband were NYU Professors, their marriage aloof, inaccessible
and childless. They divorced five years ago. A few months later,
Janice estranged from her parents and brother. The time parallel
was not a coincidence. The relationships wore the same fingerprints.
Therapy enabled Janice to connect the experiential dots of her
life, revealing the sketch of a woman about whom she had known
little. Wendy helped her use meditation and old photographs to
ride memories and images back to childhood in search of secrets
hiding in the dirt. They collaborated as archaeologists, digging
up emotional relics and removing the venom.
Janice began this day's session with a report about Donald's phone
"What's your plan?" asked Wendy.
"Plan? What the fuck does it matter? I'll get to Florida,
the operation will be over, I'll never get to talk to the doctor
and 'Que Sera'."
"Why are you angry?"
"My father's dying, I'm in New York, they're all in Florida
and I have no say."
"Are you angry because your father's dying or that you have
"I guess it's both," said Janice. Wendy passed the tissues
with a gentle wave of her hand, staying quiet to let Janice experience
"Those are reasons to be upset," Wendy said. "But,
why are you angry? Remember, you chose to leave them."
"I feel like I'm being flung back into the world of my father
"Then it's not your father's illness? It's about facing them
"Where are you going with this?" asked Janice.
"You're concerned about your father, I get that. But maybe
this has stirred up some of the other things we've talked about."
"Like the little girl hurt so badly by her brother, the little
girl whose father didn't protect her and whose mother didn't comfort
her. The little girl who must now deal with all three of them."
Wendy handed photographs to Janice. "Maybe the imagery can
be a bridge to your feelings."
Janice looked at the pictures from her childhood:
- Mom laughing as
she watches seven-year old Donald splash a frightened three-year
old Janice with a water hose in the rubber baby pool in the
backyard of the family's Arlington, VA home.
- Twelve-year old
Janice being tickled on the ribs by her father during a dance
- Six-year old Janice
in a ballerina costume, crying as Donald, dressed up as Davie
Crockett, threatens her with a toy Bowie knife.
- A family portrait
from Donald's Bar Mitzvah party of Mom and nine-year old Janice
in crinoline gowns between Dad and Donald in tuxedos. Everyone
- Pubescent Janice
askew on a hill in the front yard, dressed in a skirt and alone.
"Use your breath to quiet your mind," suggested Wendy.
A siren from the street, pictures of tigers mounted on the bamboo
cloth wall, a white chamois sofa facing a leather chair on an
oak plank floor. A cool sensation at the tip of the nose, the
blood a little warmer now, the warmth spreading to Janice toes,
calves and thighs, back, shoulders, neck and head. Tingling fingers
washed by channeled breath. Mind open, belly awake.
"Where are you?" asks Wendy.
"Our home, Arlington."
"What do you see?"
"My room's being painted. Mom says I can't sleep there tonight."
"How old are you?"
"Ten. She tells me I've got to sleep in Donald's room. 'But
can't I sleep with Dad and you?' I ask. 'He's got two beds, you'll
be fine,' Mom says."
Janice breathed deeply, making a sound like the chug of a distant
locomotive not quite moving full speed.
"How do you feel?" asked Wendy.
"I feel frightened. 'But he touches me sometimes and it scares
me,' I say. 'He doesn't mean anything by that. It's just his way
of making fun,' Mom says."
"Then it's nighttime. He comes into my bed, lies next to
me. He puts my hand on his cock. I don't want to touch it but
he pushes my hand. He laughs, then holds his breath and puts a
hand over my mouth as I struggle. I hate what he's doing. But
there's an excitement like dressing up in Mom's clothes and hearing
Mom and Dad through the door on Sunday morning. He pulls down
my underpants and I try to scream but he's strong and big and
hard and he pushes and I bite his hand but he pushes more and
I feel him inside me and it burns and I stop thinking and cry
as he shoves and touches and laughs and hurts me. And then I'm
alone in the bed and Dad's at the door saying he can't go to sleep
because of the noise, warning me I'll be sleeping on my floor
with the paint cans if I don't get quiet. And I hate them and
The crumpled Kleenex pile had soaked up Janice tears. But the
asp was out of the tomb.
* * *
After the announcement that Delta 75 from La Guardia had reached
its cruising altitude, 5:15 PM ETA to Sarasota, Janice reclined
in her seat. She sat in 16C. 16A and 16B were empty ... a good
opportunity to be with her thoughts. She heard Wendy's words at
the end of the appointment: "Glacier's been moving for a
while. Today it started to melt."
She drew evenly in and out, bringing her attention to phrases
gliding along each breath, reconnecting whenever her mind wandered.
'May' - in.
'I' - out.
'accept' - in.
'things' - out.
'May I be happy, healthy and free'.
'May my father and mother be safe, healthy and free from suffering.'
'May my brother be healthy and liberated.'
* * *
"Your father will be in Room 601A after he's released from
ICU," said the woman behind the patient services desk at
the main entrance to Sarasota Medical Center. "You can wait
for him there if you like."
Janice took the pass. She never felt the elevator move but exited
when the rear door opened after the number six lit up on the strip
She passed the Nurse's Station in the center of the floor and
walked into 601A, the first door on the left. A black woman, hair
in cornrows, sat in a chair next to the bed reading "I Know
Why The Caged Bird Sings".
"I was told this is Sam Hastings room. I'm Janice Hastings."
"I'm Marlene, your Mom's aide. She and Donald are havin'
dinner." Marlene spoke with a soft Jamaican accent, her smile
as natural as the tropical colors of her dress. She appeared to
be in her forties and Janice sensed a genuine ease.
"Doctor said it would be a while before there's news,"
Marlene continued. "Been in surgery couple of hours already."
"Didn't know Mom had an aide. We haven't ..."
"I know all about that." She hadn't interrupted Janice
as much as she spared her the pain of saying something painful.
"Been with your Mom and Dad in their house since they diagnosed
the Alzheimer's last year," she said in a voice conveying
the gentleness of a loving caregiver. "Doin' alright though,
and she'll understand everything you say. Sometimes can't finish
her thoughts when she speaks, but I know she'll be happy to see
A knot tied tight in Janice throat. The simple act of Marlene's
kindness tempered the guilt of not knowing of her mother's illness.
Yesterday's bread was stale. She flashed back to Delta 75's preflight
instructions: "In the event you are traveling with children
or others requiring care and the cabin loses air pressure, pull
the oxygen mask toward you to start the oxygen flow, put your
mask on as quickly as possible and help children and others with
their masks only after yours is secure."
"What about my father?"
"Frail and getting frailer," said Marlene. "Not
the robust man your mother talks about, not even the handsome
elderly man I met last year. Always worryin' about your mother,
even though I'm there to see to her."
"What about the colon problem?"
"Started complainin' last week, no appetite, bloated, couldn't
move his bowels. Cramps kept getting worse, so bad the Internist
put him here three days ago."
"But I just got the call this morning."
"And only then 'cause your mother insisted. I was set to
call but Donald said he would do it."
"What's the operation about?"
"MRI showed a growth, but they held off surgery. Been so
weak they didn't know if he could get through it."
Janice walked a few steps down the shiny gray and white linoleum
floor to the Nurse's Station. Three nurses were tethered to telephones,
a fourth set down a tray with meds in cups labeled with room numbers
and patient names. Janice felt a tap.
"Janice Hastings?" The embroidery on his scrubs read
'Richard Kandel, GI Surgery Unit'.
"Your Mom's aide said you might be here today. Just moved
your father from the OR into the ICU."
He led Janice to a small lounge adjacent to the Station, an open
area with a grouping of sofas, bound chairs, a coffee table covered
with magazines and a television mounted on the wall. Gunmetal
gray temples peeked below his OR cap; late thirties she thought,
good looking and alert. He leaned forward from a straight back
chair and spoke to Janice sitting cattycorner on an orange leather
"Your father survived surgery. We removed several centimeters
of his colon; a tumor had pretty much closed it off. We were able
to do a resection and there's a good chance the tumor is benign.
Janice mind wandered through the doctor's blur of words, trying
to locate feelings that were not present: no racing heart, sick
sad sentiment or sense of impending loss.
".... he was so weak when they brought him in. The operation
was always a long shot. Your mother seems to understand what's
going on so it will be tough...."
"Can I see him?"
"That's up to you," he said. "But he's hooked up
to oxygen and other life support, isn't conscious and looks like
hell. Sure you want to see that?"
The ICU was on the third floor. Janice pressed the red intercom
button and identified herself to the husky voice on the other
end. The double doors swung open revealing a stage of beds, patients,
intravenous poles and bags, nurses and doctors, voices and hustle.
It was chilly, smelling of antiseptics, sweat and waste. The beep
of life support and push/pull of respirators reminded her of a
waiting room at an auto tire shop on a late autumn day with snow
in the forecast.
A nurse led Janice to a stainless steel framed bed. Her father's
head and chest rested on the elevated end. The liver spots drew
her attention, so numerous they created the impression of a cover
worn to conceal his identity. A mask connected his nose and mouth
by thin clear hose to an outlet in the wall behind the bed. His
legs, waist and chest were overlaid to the neckline by hospital
sheets. Both arms were exposed; stents attached bags of clear
fluid hanging from poles. Eyes closed, face bearing the expression
of a blank canvas, his body jerked with each surge of oxygen.
"May I accept things as they are," she repeated to herself.
"May my father be free from suffering."
Her left index finger brushed his cheek: cold like the room, but
moist with perspiration. She leaned her head to his. "I'm
here because I wanted to be," she whispered. "I wanted
to see you, let you know I'm OK, and try to help you think sweet
Janice felt a shot of warmth as though back on the stoop outside
her apartment that morning. She gripped her father's hand and
took a last look, then turned away, walked to the ICU exit and
pressed the button to open the double doors. Donald stood on the
"Mom waiting in the room?" asked Janice.
"I'm fine, and how are you?" he said.
"Spoke to Dr. Kandel. Dad's in rough shape. I'm going up
to see Mom." Janice didn't want to be diverted from seeing
her mother. She moved passed Donald and into an open elevator,
relieved not to hear his voice again as the door closed.
Ann Hastings sat in a chair next to the bed in 601A, Marlene standing
at her side when Janice came in. She looked pretty much the same
as when Janice last saw her five years before, though her skin
had taken the texture of a pear left too long to ripen on a windowsill
and her hair had thinned and reddened. Janice went to her, bent
her knees to bring their eyes to the same level, and brought her
hands to her mother's face. They stared for a few beats before
Janice put her cheek on Ann's.
"I've missed you Mom. I care about you. Seeing you again
makes me happy."
"Misssssed yoooo tooooo, Jan." Her words came with the
sigh of Alzheimer's.
"Dr. Kandel just left us," said Marlene. "I think
Janice looked back at Ann. "I want to stay for a while with
you and Marlene. It's important to me, hope it's OK for you, too."
Janice recognized Donald's cough, rose and faced him at the door.
She placed her hand on his shoulder and turned him toward the
lounge where she had spoken to the doctor. They sat across from
each other. His sunburned face resembled a rusty mask pulled tight,
nose scaling like the back of a fish, the corners of his lips
"You should have left your attitude home," he said.
"Time to focus on Dad."
"According to the doctor, it may be time to focus on Mom."
"It's a tough time for all of us." Donald snorted through
his throat and angled away from Janice.
"Look, I'm going to stay here for a while with Mom, help
Marlene care for her. Want to get to know Mom again, help ease
the sadness that's coming her way."
"You just don't get it, do you?" said Donald. "You
disappear for five years, say 'fuck you' to your family, bury
yourself in New York, then think you can come back and pretend
nothing is wrong. Forget it. Stay for a day or two 'til we see
what happens with Dad. Then go back to New York. Maybe after a
while I can talk to Mom and see how she feels about you being
around. I'll let you know."
Janice pulled her chair next to Donald, put her face up to his
and spoke in a low voice with full control.
"I'll say this once. You're a sick fuck. I'll never let what
you did to me slide. And I'll never let you speak for me with
Mom or anyone else. I am going to be here just like I said, going
to be here to see Mom. If you're not around, all the better -
perhaps we can agree on that, brother."
She pinched his cheek, got up and went back to 601A. Time to see
her Mom, time to feel, time.
Satsky studies writing at Gotham Writers Workshop.