You said you were on the beach with your wife that morning. You might have lounged in one of those wood and canvas beach chairs, or you might have been lying on your stomach on an oversized striped towel from Land’s End. It might have happened like this: You would have been engrossed in the latest issue of the New Yorker, maybe, or something local, the morning edition of the Nation or the Bangkok Post. One of your feet might have dug absentmindedly into the sand, that unbelievable sand, soft as sugar mixed with flour, white as the moon.
You would have worn a T-shirt to protect your sensitive skin from the sun. It was December, after all, and you’d only been away from Chicago for a week. Your wife Tamara lay next to you, her skin a more burnished tawny than your own. She might have worn a black maillot with the thin straps pushed down over her shoulders. Her book discarded on the sand beside her, her eyes closed behind her expensive, oversized sunglasses.
I wasn’t there that day and I’m not you, but I can see it: how the fine particles of sand would have sifted into the crease between the pages of your magazine, the way the print would have smeared from the sunblock on your fingers. You rub your fingers on your towel as you continue to read. Tamara sits up to sip her Starbucks latte, bought at the shop on the beach. Starbucks in Thailand, imagine that. But no, you’ve been to Thailand several times, you told me that yourself. You’ve traveled to so many countries. You wouldn’t be surprised by the mainstream creeping into every place, eventually, no matter how remote. It would be more surprising if there were no Starbucks in Thailand. Particularly in Phuket.
As you lie on the sand, the backs of your legs feel cooled by the swaying shadow of palm branches. You were lucky enough to find a little shade that morning. Many people are just stretching awake in the Sea Sands Resort, the Hilton Phuket, the Sawasdee Village Hotel, and all the other resorts, bungalows, and guest houses along the island’s west coast. The locals, Thais who feed and house and pamper the foreigners and keep the wheels of tourism turning, have been up for hours. If you pause the moment long enough to examine it, you might feel a rush of gratitude, you and your still-gorgeous wife. Your college-age sons, together, on the most beautiful part of the planet. (Though at this moment, technically you are not all together. According to the news stories, your two sons were still in their hotel room, sleeping in.)
You all got a kick out of the novelty of Christmas in Southeast Asia. “Let’s get away this year,” Tamara had urged. “We’ve all been working too hard.” She might also have spoken of “reconnecting,” of how there might not be too many years left before the boys got married and there would be in-laws and their accompanying holiday traditions to compete with. This is the year, before things get too complicated. We’ve talked about this trip for a while. This is the year we’re doing it.
You don’t take your wealth for granted, though you are one of the top-ranked pediatric neurologists in the country. You give generously to charities. You play basketball with inner-city kids. Your house is large, but not a mansion. Though a landscaping crew comes to mow and blow the leaves off your half-acre of lawn every week, you would prefer that they didn’t, but you don’t have time to care for it yourself. Your house is filled with beautiful and unusual things you and Tamara have collected on your travels. You’ve skied the Alps and scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef and safaried in Kenya.
So I imagine based on our brief conversations. We talked mostly about my son, Luke, of course, and what was wrong with him. How to help him. I was so afraid during those months you were in our life. I cannot now picture your face without recalling that deep, maternal fear.
Your own sons are healthy and intelligent and—as far as you know, anyway—happy. You have seen enough hardship in your line of work to celebrate their well-being: kids who can’t talk; kids whose knees, when they stand, touch as if there were magnets imbedded between the skin and the kneecaps; kids whose food dribbles from their mouths, whose hands contort into strange stiffened shapes; kids who walk on tiptoe and spin around the room until they crash into the walls and shout at things only they can see.
The parents of these kids cry in your office every day. Or they sit stoically, arms folded across their chests, refusing to look at the box of tissues strategically placed on the corner of your desk. Over the years you have learned how to maintain that delicate balance between empathy and professional detachment. But sometimes a particular child will get to you. You will care so much about that child your teeth will hurt. You take your work home with you sometimes, working on difficult cases, crafting those detailed reports that mothers of special-needs children all over the Chicago area rave about to their friends: “We’ve had good luck with Doctor Cameron. He really took his time to think about Evan’s issues. He cares. You don’t find that much with neurologists; they’re all so busy.”
You feel it’s the least you can do. The gods have been kind, your boys are normal. And when you do need a break from work, the gods are kind in the area of recreation, also, because here you are, relaxing under tropical skies, the cold, gray clouds of Chicago not even a passing thought in your mind.
At this moment, Tamara is brushing away a Thai woman who has quietly approached. “Just had one yesterday, thank you,” she says, turning down the massage, smiling her friendly but no-nonsense smile. She turns to you, still smiling. You smile back. Your wife is tough. She runs her law firm, and your household, with intimidating precision. She can out-argue anyone, anywhere. She ran the Chicago Marathon last year and beat your time of three years back.
You return to your magazine. Out of the corner of your eye, you see something moving on your beach towel. A small sand crab, not much bigger than a dime. In the sand near your towel, more movement. Crabs by the dozen scuttle past you, away from the water, as if gripped by some primitive migratory urge. A few crabs scrabble onto your beach towel, picking up speed as they get better traction on the terry cloth. You feel a tugging on the hairs of your left thigh and flick the crab back onto the towel. Where are they going? All at once. So many of them.
Four days ago, in Krabi, on a beach shaded by the overhang of a limestone cliff, you and Tamara and the boys laughed at the antics of these pale crabs, which scurried back and forth along the tide line and ducked suddenly into little holes, only their beady black eyes protruding from finger-like stems. “They look like wheels when they run,” Josh had said, and they did. You tried to study them to see exactly what movement created this illusion, but the legs of the crabs moved too fast to be scrutinized. Like rolling coins, just before the moment they slide and slap flat on the floor. Coins spilled from an overflowing purse.
These crabs, though, are different. There is something urgent in their movements, as if they are fleeing a predator. You look back over your shoulder. Then sit up fast. The bright turquoise band of water is gone. In its place—wet sand, dark brown, nearly a mile of it. The sea crept quietly away while you were turning the pages of your magazine. And far out past the dark sand, instead of bright blue, a white line of water rolls forward. It almost looks as if it is bubbling. You stare, transfixed, trying to make sense of the sight. You are too far away to know for sure what’s going on, but you look down at the frantic crabs on your towel, your wife in the sunlight, and suddenly you know. The water is coming back. It’s coming.
Three months prior, in a patient room with my son and husband, I notice a Thai spirit house sitting on a high shelf. A wave of bittersweet memories hit me full force. The spirit house resembles a miniature temple, white with tall columns and a steep, orange-tiled roof. “Look.” I nudge John with my elbow as we shuffle into the room. He nods, smiling slightly. Maybe it’s a lucky sign, I think but don’t say. I’m not superstitious. I don’t think this reminder of our past, happy life means the doctor will tell us our son’s brain MRI is clear. That he has nothing more than what we already know: autism and mild physical disabilities. That his headaches will pass. That nothing sinister lurks beneath his skull, inside his brain.
Luke, our five-year-old, the reason we are in this room at ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning, doesn’t notice the spirit house. His dark blue eyes are focused on a small, red box fixed to the ceiling. He tilts his head, spells out the white letters marching across the box. “F. I. R. E. There’s a fire alarm in here, Mom,” he says.
I wonder vaguely when he stopped calling me “Mommy,” but mostly I am listening for the cadences of his speech. Listening for signs of slurring. Confusion. “I see it, sweetie,” I murmur, as John and I try to get comfortable on the hard plastic chairs.
“Is there anything in this room that would be likely to ignite?” Luke’s vocabulary is sophisticated for his age. His Early Intervention preschool teachers tell us, with the best of all intentions, that when they need some adult conversation during the day—they talk to Luke.
“It’s just a precaution, sweetie,” I say. “It’s probably a requirement that every room in the building have an alarm and a sprinkler.”
“I wonder why it’s right in the middle of the ceiling,” he says. In the last exam it was closer to the door.”
“I don’t know how you remember these details,” I say. “You are amazing.”
He smiles. Five years and counting, even after everything I know about him and the things I dread to learn, I love looking at his face. So beautiful. Like the sun blazing behind a perfect white cloud, or the symmetrical face of a cat. The face of God. He was the sort of baby strangers stop to admire. They would gaze down at him as he observed the world from his stroller or shopping cart, and compliment me on my good-looking boy. As if I’d sculpted his face myself. As if I’d had any control.
“So what would we do if the hospital building ignited?” he asks. John turns to the legal pad full of questions we plan to ask the doctor when he finally shows up, grins faintly.
“Well, we’d have to get out,” I say.
“How?” He pounces on that. “We couldn’t take the elevator, could we?”
“No we couldn’t. You’re right. It’s not safe to use the elevator in a fire.”
“We’d have to take the stairs.” He assumes a businesslike tone. “The closest stairs are down the hall to the left of the waiting room door.” He pauses. I can almost see the wheels turning in his perfectly-shaped head. “Do those stairs lead to where we parked our car?”
“I don’t know, Luke. I think so.”
“But what if they don’t?”
“What if they don’t?” My stomach tightens as irritation bursts out. Two years ago, I sat with Luke on our living room floor, urging him to blow whistles and bubbles through a wand, exercises his speech therapist recommended for strengthening Luke’s facial muscles. Two years ago, I pored over books on sign language and websites on speech disorders, desperate to have a verbal conversation with my son. By the time Luke’s speech kicked in at age three, he and I knew almost two hundred signs. Some of the mothers in the apraxia support group I joined told frightening stories, stories of their children who, at age eight or nine, still couldn’t talk, who had to use mechanical devices and computer programs to stay in school. Two years ago, I wondered, Is that the path we’re headed down? It was not. I feel guilty for tiring of the sound of Luke’s voice, and often what I long for most of all, is silence.
“I don’t know. Then we’d come out someplace else.”
“But where?” Luke, growing restless, paces around the room. He tears at the paper covering the examining table. He pulls off a long jagged piece the shape of a tooth. “And how would we ever find our car?”
“Sweetie,” John breaks in, “if there were a fire, we wouldn’t need to find our car. We’d just get away from the building quickly and worry about the car later. But there isn’t going to be a fire while we’re here. Okay?” Our eyes meet over the top of Luke’s sleek, brown head. I cling to John’s words. There isn’t going to be a fire. The three of us will not have to stumble out of the room, then crawl across the waiting room floor toward the exit, gagging on a wall of smoke. The doctor, when he comes, won’t have anything of interest to report. Just a routine follow-up.
I glance at the spirit house. The Thais believe their country is inhabited by pesky ghosts. They place spirit houses outside their homes, businesses, hotels and hospitals, filling them with offerings—incense, food, flowers—so the ghosts will stay sated instead of making mischief. I’m not superstitious, but if I were, I might believe the spirit house is an unlucky sign. I might believe that the doctor, in an attempt to brighten this bland space, has inadvertently invited ghosts, and their accompanying bad luck, right into the room.
There are things you will remember later. Other things, many things, will be forever erased. One memory that stays with you is how beautiful Tamara looks as she lies on the sand. Tamara might agree with your assessment; she might not. She has grown more relaxed about her appearance over the years, though. On a previous trip to Thailand, you teased her about not going topless on the beaches, where Western women, some far older than she, bare their breasts without a thought. She argued it was disrespectful to the modest Thais, and besides, her boobs didn’t need to be tanned, did they? Didn’t they look all right the way they were? Grinning sideways at you while she delivered this line. You assured her that without a doubt: her boobs looked just fine as they were.
Tamara is funny and self-confident and doesn’t take herself too seriously. She is a near-ideal travel companion. But she also has a stubborn side. She likes to relax as hard as she works. Which is why, though every nerve in your body is shrieking at you to move and blood surges into your arms and legs, preparing you for flight, you hesitate. Only for a moment. A few seconds, no more. Then you nudge your wife’s soft, smooth shoulder.
“Tam. Tam. Wake up.”
Her body gives a little jolt and then she stretches languidly, arms over her head, and sits up. “What?”
“Look.” You point to the sea, what’s left of it. Tamara pushes up her sunglasses and rubs her eyes. She squints at the horizon. Other people have noticed the receding water and many—Thai and Western alike—stroll along the exposed strip of sand, moving toward the distant boiling wave. Some people bend down to pick up—what? Shells? Crabs? Long-lost treasure? Others laugh, as if the sea has spread out a picnic blanket and invited them to a feast. The oval shapes of fish dot the dark sand blanket. They flop and flash silver in the sun.
“Low tide?” Tamara says, that vertical crease appearing between her eyebrows. She slips one strap of her bathing suit back over her shoulder, then the other.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” You stand, shake sand out of your beach towel. This is one detail you will remember later. How you actually thought you had time to shake out your beach towel. The monstrous arrogance of that act. But it is so easy to second-guess yourself. How could anything awful be barreling down on you under a perfect cloudless sky? No sirens blare. No alarms sound. There is nothing but the gentle whisper of wind through palm branches. The words sound almost silly to you, but you say them anyway. “It might be a tsunami.”
“Tsunami?” The crease in Tamara’s brown deepens. “A tidal wave? How could that be? There hasn’t been a storm.”
Later, of course, you will learn much more about tsunamis than you ever cared to know. You will come to understand this particular tsunami was born off the western coast of northern Sumatra by an undersea earthquake. You will reacquaint yourself with plate tectonics and you will learn about something called the Sunda megathrust—“Sounds like a Tantric sex technique,” Tamara might have joked—and how the rupture of this megathrust set the whole thing off, caused the seabed to rise straight up, shoving all that water up and out and forward. You will learn that while you were shaking the sand out of your beach towel, nearly two hundred thousand Indonesians were already dead.
“I don’t know, Tam, but look at the crabs. Look how they are fleeing.” She glances down at the crabs with little interest. “Why take a chance? Besides, it’s almost time to meet the boys for breakfast.”
She shakes her head. “This doesn’t make any sense. It’s got to be some sort of benign tidal pattern. Surely the locals would know if it’s a tsunami.” Tamara is most comfortable with hard evidence. Facts. She doesn’t like it when pieces don’t fit. She will pounce on anyone who tries to make what she considers a fuzzy argument. Women are supposed to be the more intuitive sex, you muse, but often it seems to you as if Tamara has squelched her inner voice. You on the other hand, have learned to listen to children. And, in listening, you have somehow connected to that deep inner part of yourself that is now screaming at you to follow the crabs.
Three Thai men stroll past, towards the street that runs parallel to the beach. They are barefoot, dark cotton pants rolled up to their knees, T-shirts damp. Each one holds a fish the size of a newborn. Their white teeth flash as they laugh.
“Looks like they’re set for breakfast,” Tamara chuckles. She raises her arms for another stretch.
“Tamara, come on,” you say, a little too sharply. Your beloved wife shoots you one of her death looks before she lowers her sunglasses over her eyes. For a split-second, you forgot your wife cannot stand to be “handled,” as she puts it. Her parents were over-controlling disciplinarians, and as a result, Tamara will be controlled by no one but herself. You can suggest. You can argue your case. But you cannot order.
Your mistake will cost several more seconds.
At least now she is standing up. At least she, too, is shaking the sand out of her towel. She picks up her paperback novel and shakes it out too, then drops it into her beach bag. She rummages in the bag for her cell phone. “I’m going to call the boys, see if they’re up.”
“Do it while we’re walking,” you say. You no longer care whether she’s angry or not. You are the one who is angry now. You are only trying to protect her.
Luke sits on John’s lap, a granola bar in one hand, his battered, much-loved Beanie Baby chick in the other. Chickie-poo has seen us through many stressful doctor visits, therapy sessions, the arrival of Luke’s baby sister five months ago, Luke’s trip to the ER when he became dehydrated from the flu. Chickie-poo is Luke’s lifeline. The board book John reads is another. We all know the words by heart. “In the great green room, there was a telephone . . .” John begins. I feel my fear melt into fatigue. The baby is teething. I can’t remember the last time I got a full night’s sleep.
I gaze at the spirit house, my eyes losing focus. It seems a lifetime ago that John and I lived in central Thailand. He was an engineer who oversaw petrochemical plant startups in developing countries. I’d happily chucked my boring public relations job shortly after John and I were married. Thailand, our first overseas job together, had come to us like a gift. Living there felt like lifting one mysterious treasure after another out of a bottomless box. “Why did you like it so much?” friends would ask me later, and I couldn’t say, couldn’t boil it down into a few words. I loved the salty, metallic smell of the sea. I loved the taste of kow neow ma muang, the sweet sticky rice and mango dessert that was in season that spring. I loved the way the musky mango slices dissolved in my mouth, and I loved the little bags of coconut cream the street vendors would gave me to dribble over the whole sloppy mess of it. I loved my Thai friend Ong and the rippling musical Thai language I tried to learn. Every once in a while, Ong would say something to one of her children and I would understand. I loved that feeling of belonging, of ease. I loved the night markets and spirit houses and temples. The chanting of orange-robed monks.
“Good night room. Good night moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.” John’s voice is low and soothing, but Luke squirms. I glance at my watch. Twenty minutes past the hour. If the doctor doesn’t come soon, one of us will take Luke back out into the waiting room. I never thought raising a child would mean spending so much of my life in hospitals. I lean back in my chair, letting my head touch the wall as I remember the life I used to have.
The Thailand startup hit a snag halfway through. A replacement part had to be ordered. While the crew waited for it to show up, John and I took off for a week, flew south to Phuket, rented a car, and drove around to see what we could see. On a Sea Canoe tour in Phuket, our inflatable kayaks sidled up to immense limestone islands that rose from the sea like a giant’s teeth. Our guide maneuvered the boat into impossibly tiny tunnels, and we slid through tar-colored air that reeked of guano, the shrill squeaks of bats that hung only inches from our faces. On the other side of the tunnels were the hongs, rooms. These secret lagoons were invisible from the outside, but harbored mangrove swamps and bands of macaques that hooted and scavenged in the trees that clung to the cliffs. It felt as if time had stopped. As if dinosaurs might appear, munching on the leaves of a banana tree.
But it was Krabi that seduced us, Krabi that changed the course of our lives. There was something about the slant of the evening sunlight that made me think, home. In Krabi, we were befriended by a local dog, who sought us out at the same time every evening to join us on our beach walks, exactly like a family pet. In Krabi, I collected shells, and each day, the sea deposited a different type of shell on the beach, as if to oblige me. One day: long pointed shells shaped like the horn of a unicorn. The next: a type of conch, brown and white, edged with delicate, curved spikes. I piled my finds on my beach towel and John laughed at me. “What are you going to do, Meg, take all of them home with you? You’ll need another backpack.” But then he would point out another one to add to my collection.
In Krabi, we made a rare discovery: an open-air restaurant that served Issan—northeastern Thai—cuisine. There we had the best of both worlds, a view of white sand and turquoise sea, and the taste of upcountry sticky rice. The boom box behind the counter played mostly classic rock. One perfect night as John and I were finishing up our ground pork with basil, my lips tingling from the peppers, we heard the opening strains of “Wish You Were Here,” each exquisite guitar note dropping to a sensual silence that hung in the air. I slugged back my second Singha Gold and sang along with Roger Waters:
“So, so you think you can tell
heaven from hell. . .”
Later that night, John and I went back to our tiny bungalow and made love. Without discussion, we skipped birth control. For better or worse, Thailand had imprinted itself on our new marriage. I doubt we would have been so careless and carefree if we’d been living some staid city in the Midwest, but at the time, it seemed like our love was an extension of that marvelous place we found ourselves in, and that place, in turn, was an extension of our love. What could be more natural than to let our sun-baked, salt-encrusted bodies do what they instinctively longed to do? To let life have its way? A few months later, as John and I flew back to the States, John squeezing my hand while I sniffed back tears, homesick for Thailand already, and the flight attendants passed out glasses of champagne to those of us in business class, a tiny, undetected cluster of cells inside me was growing, multiplying, expanding, busily turning itself into Luke. Forming his brain, his body, his hands. His eyes and feet. Later on, maybe, who knows when, maybe when I began to feel the first faint twinges of nausea or later, on John’s assignment in Edmonton, where I spent the first half of the pregnancy, perhaps another cluster of cells began to grow inside his brain, inside his body, inside my own body. Growing, multiplying expanding, busily turning itself into something not-Luke, not beautiful, not healthy. Something that should not be there at all.
“Good night stars,” John reads. “Good night air. Good night noises everywhere.” He closes the book. Luke slides off his lap, drapes himself over mine. I run my fingers through his soft hair. I am back in the room fighting off fear and fatigue. “Just a few more minutes, sweetie,” I murmur to Luke.
“I want to give Chickie-poo a check-up! He doesn’t feel good,” Luke says. I reach for the toy doctor kit I’ve stashed in my backpack. But Luke is already off my lap and climbing up on the examining table.
“Luke, get down.” I stand up, reaching for him before he can grab the stethoscope. “Do you want me to take him out?” John asks.
“The minute you do that, the doctor will come,” I say. At that moment there are two small raps on the door. Dr. Cameron steps into the room. I quickly size him up. His face is open and friendly, still tan from whatever trip he took last. During our consult visit before Luke’s MRI one week ago, we made polite conversation about the Thai bric-a-brac in his office: the brass elephant opium weights lined up in decreasing size on his bookshelf, the shadow puppets on the walls. We shared our love of Thailand, congratulated him on his upcoming return trip over the holidays. He was honest and empathetic and didn’t talk down to us. He never once called me “Mom,” as doctors often do. I trusted him. I still do. Whatever he tells me, I will believe.
“We’ll talk about the MRI results in a minute,” he says quietly. “But first I want to look at Luke. Is that all right with you, Luke?”
Luke nods, sits down on the examining table, flashes his killer smile. “Can you tell me about your bird?” Dr. Cameron asks.
“His name is Chickie-poo,” Luke says, squirming to sit straighter, holding up his toy.
I remember the picture of the doctor’s wife and grown sons that sat on his desk. I imagine he must have spoken to them exactly this way when they were small. “How about you, Luke? How are you feeling? Your mom and dad told me you’ve been having some headaches.”
“Yes,” Luke says, “but only when it’s cold.” John and I exchange glances. The weather turned dank and drizzly nearly a week ago. “Three days ago was the last one,” John says. “They seem to be worse in the morning.”
“Do they wake him up at night?”
“No,” I say. “Or if they have, he’s been able to get back to sleep on his own.” Surely I would hear him, I tell myself. I’m up so often with the baby and Luke doesn’t hide what he feels. Surely he has never lain alone in the dark, silent tears streaking his cheeks.
“Would you say they have gotten worse since the MRI, either in frequency or intensity?”
“No,” John says. “But they haven’t gone away.”
“What about muscle coordination, falls?”
“He’s always been weak and prone to falling,” I say. “But I don’t think it’s gotten worse in the last week.”
The doctor nods, turns back to Luke. “Luke, would you mind doing a few exercises for me?” Luke is, as his speech therapist has often said, “therapy-wise.” He’ll cooperate with anyone who wins him over. He lets the doctor help him pull his shirt over his head. He performs the exercises he has performed in many other examining rooms. He stacks blocks in a pyramid. He tries to stand straight. He walks forward. Backward. He tries in vain to jump, bending his knees and pushing toward the ceiling. His feet never leave the ground. The doctor shines a light down Luke’s throat. His eyes.
Finally he turns to John and me. “Is he allowed to have candy?” I nod, realizing why the doctor is asking. He wants to distract Luke. I help Luke put his shirt on. Once he is settled, his left cheek bulging from a cherry Tootsie Pop, busy with a row of Sesame Street stickers, the doctor turns to us.
“He’s quite a character,” he says, smiling. “I’m glad you brought him in when you did. Sometime when a child has multiple disorders, it can be easy to miss a new symptom.” My stomach lurches. Adrenaline surges into my limbs. I feel a sudden urge to flee. The same sensation I felt a week earlier as waited for Luke to come back to us. Waited for his MRI to end. I can’t look at the doctor.
“I wish there were an easier way to say this,” he says, “but the MRI detected a tumor on Luke’s cerebellum.”
The room doesn’t ignite. The fire alarm doesn’t sound. I hear nothing but muffled hospital sounds. The soft whisper of air from a vent. Murmurs from the hallway outside.
“A tumor,” John repeats. His voice barely breaks a whisper.
“It isn’t uncommon for people to have small cerebellum lesions,” the doctor continues. “You and I could be walking around with them in our brains and we’d have no way of knowing. They don’t grow. They don’t cause any problems. But what Luke’s MRI picked up is a little bit different.”
“Cancer.” I whisper the word. The worst word I know. If I say it, put it out there, brain cancer, then the doctor will say, No, no, not that, not your child, not your brave, beautiful boy who has already endured so much.
“We won’t know for sure until we do a biopsy.”
I start to shake. Everything in the room: Luke on the table, the spirit house, my husband, the doctor, seems to recede. “Given the location of the tumor, and the onset of the headaches, I think we need to move pretty quickly with surgery. Once the tumor is removed, we’ll have it analyzed to see if it’s malignant or benign.”
In a flash I see Luke lying pale on a hospital bed, his eyes shut, his head shaved, a thick black scar snaking around his skull. Chickie-poo resting on his chest. That, for sure, is in our future. If we are lucky, that unthinkable image will be all. I feel a roar erupting from the depths of my gut. I clap my hand over my mouth to keep it back. John takes my other hand. He has done his homework, John has. Later, he will tell me he had a feeling this was coming. He and the doctor continue the conversation and their words grow more complicated: Medulloblastoma. Glioblastoma. Blasts surrounded by incomprehensible syllables. Luke presses a Big Bird sticker on top of Chickie-poo’s head. The spirit house sits silently on its shelf. John squeezes my hand but I can’t feel the warmth of his palm. A wave of terror swamps me. Drags me someplace I’ve never been. Sweeps me away.
At least you are moving off the beach. Many still sleep under beach umbrellas, sun hats covering their faces. The Thai masseuse still makes her way around the chairs and towels that crowd the sand. At least you are heading in the right direction.
But it happens so fast. A quiet sky and dry sand in one instant and in the next, everything is white water and rushing noise. A crystal blast hits you from behind, harder and faster than anything you could possibly imagine, sweeping Tamara away from you. Some detached part of your brain admires the brutal efficiency of the wave, the strong, gorgeous force of it. How it moves as if it knows exactly what it needs. It’s not scary or unpleasant, not really. There is no time to be afraid. No time to think about anything but keeping your head above water, looking for Tamara, looking for something to hang onto.
There are things you will remember. These are a few of them: how the sunlight sparkled on the warm, clear water. How the sky was still so blue.