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Jack reached for the phone and ferociously punched in the numbers, groaning as he lost signal once again. After pacing the room with much panic, he walked outside, sat next to his son, and pretended everything was fine. Neither spoke, but rather just sat there in silence hoping this wasn’t the end. The lantern flickered twice before dying out and finally leaving the father and his son in pitch-black darkness—at 1:00 in the afternoon.
“Well,” said Thomas finally. “Is that that, then?” His father didn’t respond, choosing instead to remain silent. Frustrated, Thomas made a futile attempt to mask his emotions, and, when it became clear that he was on the verge of a nasty, sarcastic remark, he hastily rose off the ground, and sought shelter in their tent.
Why, why, did it always have to be him? First, it was his parents’ divorce. Then, the cancer. And finally…this? What was “this”, anyway? The apocalypse? Thomas rolled onto his back as he lay on his sleeping bag. It was so much easier to think that way, he reflected. More open. He began chanting the word like a mantra, hoping it would open his mind to find some good in the situation.
“A silver lining on the cloud,” he murmured, wholly aware of the irony. Peering out of the tent flap, he looked up, up, up – but where was up? The dark, stormy clouds that covered the sun offered no sense of direction, and Thomas’ face hardened at his misfortune, transforming into a grimace full of betrayal and hardship far beyond his years. The truth was, Thomas had been through a lot, far more than any 16 year old should have to bear. It dated all the way back to his kindergarten days – that was when his parents started fighting. At first, he sided with his dad, growing defensive whenever his mom set off a fresh round of accusations. As the years progressed, he began to understand where his mother was coming from. He’d started to notice: when his friends’ fathers played football with them, his father was in the lab. When his classmates went with their dads to baseball games, his father was in the lab. When the other fathers had “man-to-man” conversations with their sons, he ended up face to face with his mom, because his father was, once again, in the lab.
And so on. It finally sunk in – his dad was just never there. The day arrived when he had to choose between his parents, and without a second doubt, he went with his mother, leaving his father Jack in the throes of scientific discovery, alone and without a family.
Life never stops, though, not even for a bitter, fatherless third grader, refusing all contact with the man who should have been the most important male in his life. That resentful eight year old soon grew into a shy sixth grader, an introverted eighth grader, a quiet sophomore – and then Thomas’ life changed again. In the middle of tenth grade, he was hospitalized for what he thought was a stomachache. It turned out to be kidney cancer. The doctors told him he had a maximum of three years unless the chemo worked. Once again, his world seemed to come to a standstill.
Here, Thomas’ flashback paused, and a small smile broke his marble façade. It was in that hospital, undergoing horrid chemo, that he met Pushkar. They hit it off right away, cancer patient and cancer center volunteer, both sophomores, though at different high schools. Pushkar’s relentless optimism was the real medicine that Thomas needed to counteract his ever-growing depression. It wasn’t long before they started hanging out together outside of the sterilized, oversight-filled hospital environment. Sometimes it was Thomas’ place, sometimes Pushkar’s, but more often than not, it was the park, where they could sit on the benches, watching the little kids play, silent, but all the more in tune with each other. Soon after that, Pushkar became fully aware of Thomas’ life story, and it was then that he began hinting that Thomas should reconnect with his father. Hints became suggestions, which turned into urging, and finally, a demand that would meet with no refusal. So Thomas called his father, one day out of the blue, both stammering over the phone line, unsure of what one says after seven years of estrangement. Although it was a fragile relationship, it slowly gained ground, to the point where Thomas felt comfortable enough to reveal that which he had hidden – that unless the chemo worked miracles, he only had another year and a half, because by that time, junior year was at its end, summer coming up within weeks. Jack, nerdy scientist PhD Jack, all-too aware by now of what fathers were expected to do for their sons, offered up an idea: a father-son camping trip, up in the mountains somewhere, alone, for a week. Thomas had no reason to decline, as Pushkar pointed out, and so he went.
And landed myself in this mess. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, he thought bitterly, as he retreated into the safety of the tent. Only the second day, and already disaster. What was wrong with the sun? Hours had gone by since the time it was supposed to rise, and not once had either father or son been able to catch a glimmer of light, a flickering ray of sunshine, amid the black night sky.
“Thomas?” Jack called from outside. Reluctantly, Thomas went out to join his father, settling himself back on the flattened patch of grass he’d been seated on before.
“I’m sorry.” Barely more than a whisper.
“For what?” Sighing.
“You know. Everything. Your childhood. The divorce. The cancer. This. Any time I try anything, it seems to go wrong.”
Thomas suddenly felt a rush of pity for his self-proclaimed inept father. “It’s not all your fault. I’m the one that didn’t call for seven years-”
“I could have just as easily picked up the phone. Even easier, in fact. I don’t have homework, friends, a life…” He laughed bitterly.
“I guess. But still, I did kind of lie about the whole cancer thing – I mean, I told you I was fine and everything, when I really wasn’t.”
“Yeah, but that was just a trust issue. I-”
“Look, let’s not make this a blame game. Please.”
Jack had no response to that. They sat there for a few minutes, each trying to fully comprehend the other, yet somehow falling short.
Slowly, slowly, Jack reached out his hand and laid it on top of Thomas’, as they stared at the dark, utterly incomprehensible sky. Was there any way to tell what the sun was feeling?
The clouds parted ever so slightly, and a ray of sunshine peered out…