July 31, 2015 by The Citron Review
by Ani Tascian
My dad had just finished what would be the first of three full rounds of treatments for Stage IV lung cancer. It was July 9, 2009 and this was his surprise birthday party. I pinned the rose boutonniere, carefully ordered two nights before, on his lapel. The multi-zippered jacket he was wearing was more Euro-looking than I was used to on him, most likely my mom’s purchase. “I’ve lost weight,” he said, rubbing his ribs with both hands and smiling, trying to make a joke but falling short. I smiled back and kissed him on both cheeks, “Happy Birthday, Baba.”
My younger sister Stephanie wasn’t speaking to me. “What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you helping? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Your father has cancer and you can’t help throw him a party? I don’t care if you have three-year old. We’re all busy.” My sister had yelled into the phone like I was the one giving my dad the cancer. We were born seven years apart, she blamed me for not playing Barbies with her when I was a moody teenager. Today, she blamed me for not helping her and our family friend, Silva, throw the party at Silva’s house in San Francisco. By the time we arrived, my dad had already been surprised by the fifty or so guests, a sort of This-Is-Your-Life gathering. My husband Kyle retreated to the furthest back room with our son, Ian who had just turned three.
I called my mother for support. This would be only the second time my mother heard me cry like this and I thought she understood. I say, “He’s my father, too. He’s my father, too.” She told my sister to leave me alone, but she didn’t know the reason. It was still forming in a lab somewhere in the East Bay.
Dad was sixty-six. He seemed happy, standing near the doorway, greeting late-coming family friends, all of whom were at my baptism, birthdays, and graduations. He slapped his friends lovingly on their shoulders. Some he’d known his entire life from his boyhood days in Turkey. An uncle who is really no relation saw me passing through the hallway. “You look just like your mother when she came to this country,” and it was the first time I wasn’t upset to hear that. My hair was dark and blown straight and I was wearing a muted gold Catherine Malandrino top that fit again because the baby weight was finally melting off. I looked like my mother during her Cleopatra phase in the late sixties with straight dark bangs and black winged eyeliner and I was glowing with news.
I was glowing with a sarcoma in my right breast. I was determined not to ruin my father’s last birthday. My two best friends begged me to tell my family to alleviate the pressure of the secret, but I couldn’t do it. I knew my mother wouldn’t be able to handle it and would cancel everything. So I didn’t tell them about the lump that I found after taking off my black sports bra, three weeks before. Or the visit with the gynecologist or the mammogram, sonogram, and resulting biopsy. I didn’t tell them about the appointment with Dr. Greif where I rubbed my hands raw on my skirt. Instead, I smiled and tried not to talk to anyone for too long. Especially my parents.
I watched my mother as she tried to pretend this was just like the parties before, tables brimming with puff pastries and hummus, French feta and pita bread. And there was Raki, 80 proof. I had two shots, the sweet licorice burning my tongue and throat. The smell of the coals and steak on the barbeque snaked inside. Kyle left Ian with an older cousin who was not a cousin and followed me from room to room. I let him. “Are you okay?” He kept asking. “I’m alright,” I said. I was okay because my mind was somewhere in the near future where I could tell everyone I wasn’t a bad daughter, or sister, that I wished I could have been more help with the party. I had cancer, too, you see–sorry to be such a burden.
Each time I passed my dad in the hallway, which was becoming narrower as people filed in, he looked at me like he didn’t want to stop looking. And each time, I smiled at him. We all took pictures with him like he was a celebrity, in front of a heavily designed butter cream cake that I never would’ve ordered. How strange to throw a birthday party for someone who was dying. How strange he must feel pretending everything’s fine. I stood next to my dad for a picture. The flash of the camera and it hit us: This was a goodbye party.
Ani Tascian writes from a typical Berkeley bungalow on a farm table built by her father. She recently published a poem addressed to Wallace Stevens about monks flying down a hill in The Buddhist Poetry Review. A VONA/Voices workshop alum, she also recently graduated in creative nonfiction from St. Mary’s College of California. Ani is working on her first memoir, “Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear.”