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“Really? You…you have…cancer?” my father studied my solemn face as I stood on his front porch, gripping my diminutive suitcase. I nodded stiffly as his wide eyes searched mine for a glimpse of his old daughter. I gave away nothing, just steadily held my gaze.
“Oh, Jen,” he cried, pulling me into a hug. His spicy scent was something that I had missed without realizing it. It smelled like home. “It’s just that…you haven’t visited in years, but I never thought…” His eyes clouded and threatened to spill tears any second as he ushered me inside.
I had decided that during my last few months, I’d make my rounds and visit all those that I hadn’t been in touch with since graduation. My father was last on my list, as it was estimated that I wouldn’t live longer than a couple more weeks. Already, I could feel my body pushing forward in time, becoming weaker and weaker. I felt as frail as an old lady.
When I had phoned my father, from whom I had become isolated the last few years, he expected horrible news – which he got, although not until I finally saw him in person. Instead, I told him over the phone that I needed to come see him, stay with him a few weeks. Reluctantly, he agreed, and here I was, stepping slowly into his small townhouse.
“W-what…kind of cancer is it?” he asked cautiously, shooting a worried glance over his shoulder as he walked ahead of me down the narrow hallway.
“Lung.” Most people couldn’t bear to discuss their illnesses, but I had no desire to disguise it. I’d be gone soon anyway, just a whisper of a memory in the hearts of my loved ones.
My dad looked bewildered. “How’d you get lung cancer?” he blurted.
I shrugged. “Smoking, I guess.”
“Yup. Still do. I’m an adult, you know, Dad.”
He looked disappointed and a bit hurt, but he simply picked up his steady pace and led me over the creaking, hardwood floor to my old bedroom. I sighed softly as my expressionless eyes took in the eyelet lace curtains, the pint-sized oak desk and matching miniscule chair, and the pink, patterned bed with the wrought-iron bedpost.
“Wow, it really hasn’t changed,” I remarked flatly. My father smiled.
“I know, I cleaned it up when you told me you were coming.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I muttered as I threw my suitcase into the tiny closet and threw myself onto my old comforter, exhausted.
The next few days were spent lounging in my ancient, pink bed, my father hanging over me like I could keel over any second. Of course, I guess I could. On the fourth day of bed rest in Dad’s house, I was awakened by the shrill ring of the telephone. Rubbing my bleary eyes, I groggily propped up my head on my pillow and listened to my dad’s side of the phone conversation.
“Hello? Mr. Bennett, good morning…uh-huh…now? I don’t know, my daughter is…oh, really? Well, okay, I suppose.” I listened to the click of the phone being hung up, followed by my dad’s loafers slapping down the hallway to my room.
“Hey.” He cracked open my door, looking guilty.
“Hey,” I croaked, sitting up in bed.
“Listen, Jen, my boss needs me in for a meeting. I’ll be back in a few hours. Gosh, I hate to leave you here alone. If anything would happen…”
“Dad,” I demanded. “Go to the meeting – you’re not getting fired because of me. I’m twenty-four. I can be home by myself.”
“But you’re – “
“Go,” I ordered firmly. He sighed and stomped out, down the hall and, grabbing his old leather briefcase and keys, out the old, paneled white front door. I chuckled and climbed out of bed, heading to the meager kitchen to make myself a pot of hot coffee. Hobbling through the narrow hallway, I didn’t even notice the string hanging from the ceiling until it smacked me in the face. I blinked, and then twisted my head back to examine it. The string was attached to a small trapdoor on the ceiling, and when I tugged on it, a short flight of steps tumbled down to the hardwood floor.
Wow, I had no idea that there was an attic, and I had grown up in this same house. Unable to resist my brazen curiosity, I bounded up the steps into the cramped, musty attic. A wave of warm, dusty air rushed past and ruffled my tangled hair as I gazed into the dark space. Boxes upon boxes were stacked and stuffed into the low corners of the room, leaving a small, empty space near the stairs. I stepped into that space and ran my hand over a thin, graying box.
The lid of the box felt so papery, light, as if it would crumble into dust if I pushed on it. Quickly, before I could regret it, I threw the lid off of the box and peered inside. Worn stacks of photographs lay facedown, just waiting to be looked at. I picked one up and gasped. It was a picture of my mother and father, looking gorgeous and handsome and all dressed up in their finest clothes. They were linking arms and grinning, him in a sharp tuxedo and pink carnation, her in a long, slinky white gown with silk pleats and a tight bodice. It must have been their wedding day.
I blinked back tears as my finger traced over my mom’s glowing face. She had died when I was two years old of a heart attack; I didn’t even have a wisp of a memory of my beloved mother. My father, an emotional man, refused to talk very much about her. It took me years to even find out the cause of her death.
The picture fell from my shaking fingers as I reached down and shuffled through the rest of them. There were pictures of my mother, holding a small, sleeping baby – me, I imagined, and my mother and father at the beach, rock climbing, at the movies. They must have gone on a lot of vacations before I was born.
I gently returned the pile of photos back to their box and rifled through the rest of it. Something blindingly white caught my eye, and I rummaged through random piles of pictures and letters to reach it. Something about the way that the white of the object shone against the dull piles of paper mystified me. With a gasp, I lifted up my mother’s silky wedding gown, which she had worn almost twenty-seven years ago. It was a mystery how it stayed so clean and snow-white, up here in the dirty attic that held lost memories and forgotten souls.
The creak of the front door disrupted my hazy thought of Mom. Dad was home. Hastily, I folded up the dress and tossed it into the box, slamming the thin lid shut. I hopped down the stairs, shut the attic door and raced into my bedroom just as my father stepped into the hallway.
“Jen? I’m home!”
During the last eight days of my life, I was in the attic as much as possible. I’m not sure that the dirty air was good for my tired lungs, but I didn’t mind. I was happy, in the attic with my mother. Or, at least, with all memories of her.
Daily, I practically forced Dad to fetch me different things from the store; Diet Sprite, a new blanket, a pack of cigarettes (he refused that one). Then, while he was off running errands, I would stealthily sneak up to the attic, where I could be in touch with Mom. I’d read all of her diaries, dating back to 1979, seen childhood pictures of her, and even discovered random articles of clothing – a sweater, clogs, a fancy evening gown. I never disturbed anything, just ran my bony fingers over her past belongings, trying to hold on to some symbol of her.
Finally, the last few minutes of my life came, a grim event that seemed to last decades. My cousins, who I hadn’t seen in about ten years, sister, and father gathered around my old, pink, flowered childhood bed. The doctor had decided that I did not need to come to the hospital – there was nothing that he could do anymore. I had decided long ago that harsh chemo was not for me, and I wasn’t about to start now. Although the people around me cried silently, gripping my cold hands and wishing that I had had a better chance in my short life, I was at peace.
Although I was leaving these loving members of my family behind, I’d soon be reunited with another member, my mother. One day we’d both become forgotten souls, only remembered when someone unsuspecting and innocent stumbled upon our belongings and photographs, up in the attic.