Between Brie and Cheddar

My father moved like a ghost through the house. During the three months he was home after his brain surgery and before he went into a nursing home, the tumor was growing and regathering strength. After dinner we sat together on the long blue couch. It used to be that his silence was filled with astronomical calculations; he’d take out an envelope and start to make notes, a complicated mosaic of numbers and Greek letters. Now he had nothing in his hands; his green-gold gaze was off-center. His calculations were different this time, an internal calculus of cells dividing and multiplying.

Before the diagnosis, one of the first indications that something was wrong was that he got lost in Charlottesville, in the mile between our house and the University where he had taught astronomy for thirty-five years. And he couldn’t remember how to button his shirt. The doctor suspected Alzheimer’s, but sent him for an MRI just to be sure. They found a lesion, part of his brain showing up in the image as two rings. The space between the rings were bright because the tissue was eaten away and the radio waves, the same waves he studied emitted from the stars, shone through unimpeded.

In the words of the medical report, my father’s tumor was “extremely large” and “highly malignant.” Halfway through the surgery, samples of my father’s brain were sent to the pathology department to determine the kind of tumor he had. Pieces of his brain—the brain that had made up stories about Four Stripe, the chipmunk that lived in our front yard, and that composed songs so we could remember the names of the stars in Orion’s belt—were touched by strangers’ hands.

His surgery lasted four hours and they took out 12 square centimeters of his brain, mostly tumor. But they did not get it all. Some tumors are discrete or round, but others are spidery, with long, horror-movie tentacles that grow between the brain cells seeking blood vessels to fuel their growth. My father’s tumor was all over the place, swift and rare, like him.

Right after surgery, my father had a spurt of adrenaline. He dictated the beginning of a new paper to my sister Annemarie on the magnetic resonance of asteroids. Three days later, he had to be reminded to put deodorant under his arms rather than on his face. The first morning back home he stayed in the shower for half an hour.

“Sam, are you all right?” my mother finally called through the bathroom door. She went in to check on him. He remembered how to turn the shower on but he couldn’t remember how to turn it off.

After dictating part of a paper to Annemarie, my father did not do much in the way of scientific work again. He kept a notebook near him so he could keep track of things and make notes for his article. But he rarely wrote in it. Maybe he forgot to write things down but, more likely, he no longer knew what he was forgetting.

His vision was affected, and he couldn’t cross the street on his own. One day I walked with him to his office at the University to fetch a notebook he wanted. He sat in the familiar chair and looked around. His books and papers were there, but he didn’t pick any of them up or turn on his computer. He pulled the notebook off a shelf and we left after just five minutes, without saying a word.

We felt his absence even as he was there. My mother, father, and I sat down for dinner and watched the news as we always had when I was growing up. For most of my childhood it was just the three of us because my sisters are so much older than I am. When the “in depth” portion of the news came on, my father did not mock the 2-min broadcast, as he used to every single night, grumbling about the amount of analysis that passed for depth. My mother talked brightly about her day and quietly changed her life. She quit her piano group and no longer played the piano at home in fear of bothering my father, even though I had never heard him complain about her music. She did not work outside the home, but stopped her volunteering activities, and took care of my father.

My mother took my father for radiation every day. It became his job; it was their last job together. Afterward they would go out for coffee and a pumpkin muffin. My parents liked to go out to coffee together at Greenberry’s, but after radiation they went to a different cafe. Maybe my mother was protecting herself already; she knew that she would want to return to Greenberry’s after my father died.

I was still afraid to talk about my father’s death. Annemarie had the nerve to ask him if he were afraid. I wasn’t brave enough to ask. I was twenty-three, hardly an adult. I would not have been able to deal with his pain. Not only was I afraid to ask my father how he felt, I became almost afraid of my father himself. Before he got sick, he was so transparent. I could read every mood on his face. I knew half of the stories he was going to tell before he even told them. But now he had become strange, distant, a new person. I couldn’t tell what he still knew and what he did not. He became scary in the fact of his dying.

 

My father could be loving. When I got ready to go back to college, he would look at me and say, “Ah, Ellen, I miss you already.”

But he could also be illogical and angry. He pouted like a child over the smallest things, like my mother not cooking him meat often enough for dinner. When I was a teenager, if he thought I had been on the phone long enough—which for him was approximately ten minutes—he would hang up the phone for me, his thumb depressing the switchhook.

My father and I argued a lot. When you’re an astronomer, you have so little evidence about what you are studying, that by necessity you have to extrapolate to get any work done. But my father carried it over to his personal life as well. My father liked to make sweeping generalizations about anything from the habits of engineers to the relationship of Jews and Catholics. Every time I shot him down.

He said something disparaging, yet again, about college students and I would retort, “How could you say that? Your very own daughter is a college student.” I was seven, defending Janet, who was my next oldest sister. As I got older, our arguments got more sophisticated. Sometimes they were angry, such as when my father would set arbitrary rules that I disagreed with. But other times they were just a way to pass the time. We argued over whether we’d go back to horses and carriages when the world’s oil supply ran out (I argued that we’d move forward and come up with something new), capitalism, and the atomic bomb. After one of the arguments he’d say, “You are so logical. You should be a lawyer.” I couldn’t explain that I was only that way with him. I couldn’t argue that way with anyone else. This was partly because no one else made these grand generalizations that I was so good at poking holes in. But it was also that I had complete confidence when talking to him. I could see the appreciation in his eyes as my arguments became smarter and more incisive.

After the brain tumor, he got sweeter, his stubborn anger never really manifested itself. Doctors would ask him how he was during checkups.

“I have four wonderful daughters and a beautiful wife. I can’t complain,” he’d say. He also joked that he no longer had to worry about taking responsibility for his mistakes.

“I’ll just tell people that the doctors took the wrong part of the brain out.”

I held on to his jokes, the quirky things he said. I repeated them to people who asked me how my father was, as if it were proof that he would stay. The doctors told us that the location of the tumor had brought out his gentleness, and as it grew he would just become sleepier and sleepier until he no longer woke up at all.

 

From the moment they opened his scalp, the surgeons knew he had very little time left. Brain tissue should be pinkish because of all the blood vessels, and the brain’s consistency is harder than Brie, but softer than cheddar. But my father’s brain had soft yellow-gray necrotic tissue. The doctors recommended palliative radiation, which was 30 doses of radiation just to keep him alive for a few months longer. Even the surgery itself was palliative. The purpose of debulking a tumor, or taking out as much of the tumor as possible, was to “improve length of survival.” There is no talk of improving the chance of survival.  His brain had been sliced with a knife and placed on a glass slide as if it were a pat of butter.

Pathology found that the cells were dividing like crazy, intent as my father was on his work in the last two years of his life, as if he knew he didn’t have much time left. My mother was pleased that he was still working but still rolled her eyes. “He’s up there again,” pointing toward his office over the garage. He was always working, harder than he had as a professor. My dad decided to retire when he felt that the teaching was getting in the way of his research. He was working on the orbits of geosynchronous asteroids. After he died, one of his colleagues told us that it was work that a computer could do today.

There were two different kinds of cancerous cells in the tumor. One was shaped like spindles and surrounded the astrocytes, which are cells shaped like stars. My father had an astrocytoma, or a tumor in the astrocytes. Maybe it was caused by genetics; but maybe it was years of working as a radio astronomer among receivers and amplifiers that damaged the cells, pushed them toward mutation. My father was killed by the stars growing in his head.

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