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Camels and Birthday Balloons

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I stare dully at the white bed, the cleaned bed, the stripped bed, the bed smelling of Lysol and disinfectant, the bed my father died in. Yesterday it was a deathbed, with people crowded around it in the beginning, but in the end there was only my mother and I sitting there, holding his hand as the tumor slowly ate through his lungs. Now it is an empty bed, the sheets stripped, cleaned and ready for the next person to come and lie there hopelessly. He was brave at the end, I was proud of him for that, the gentle rasp of his voice whispering words of comfort to my mother, his then bright eyes staring intently at me as if to say, take care of her. It took everything I had not to scream at him, but you could have taken care of her yourself, this was your choice!
But was it really? The cancer I knew, wasn’t. But in the end, smoking three packs a day for twenty-five years, he was the only one surprised when the spot on his lungs turned out to be a tumor. I never hated him for it; it was hard to be angry with a man lying in a hospital bed, especially when that man was your father. But I hated them. I hated them for destroying my family, for giving my father an addiction more powerful than the hug I gave him when I returned from school or my mother’s banana pancakes. For forcing me to realize that at my wedding there will be no father to walk me down the aisle and no father-daughter dance. I hated them. So, when this morning my mother took the pack of Camels sitting on the nightstand, the pack he had smoked up until the day he died, and tossed it out the hospital window, I felt nothing. Even when I heard a small yelp come from the ground below, I didn’t care, my pain felt so much greater than a pack of cigarettes falling on my head.
Staring at the white, white bed, I think back to the day I found out he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was sprawled out on the La-Z Boy recliner in our living room when I returned from school, a cigarette clenched between two fingers; smoke curling around his black hair like the mockery of a halo.
“Hey Dad,” I said nonchalantly, slinging my backpack into a chair, “What’s up?”
He kept his blue eyes fixated on the refrigerator door. “I have a tumor.”
I thought I had heard him wrong. “Sorry, I thought you said you have…”
His voice cracked. “A tumor, I have a tumor.”
Disbelief running like lightening through my veins, I stared. “Is that like cancer?”
“Yes, Cassie, it’s like cancer. It is cancer.”
“Lung cancer.” I said the words as a statement, not a question.
My father didn’t answer me, just took a long drag of his cigarette and sighed.
“And you’re still smoking?” I cried. “Haven’t you seen the studies? If you stop while you have cancer it can add another two years to your lifespan and it can also-“
Although I swore I saw a tear leak out the corner of his eye, his voice came out surprisingly even. “Cassie, when you give up chocolate, I’ll give up smoking.”
Standing up from my cramped position next to the bed, I finger the bit of blue ribbon still tied to the bedpost. Today would have been my father’s fiftieth birthday. The balloon my mother had tied to the bed felt like a prayer yesterday, but today it was a taunt and I felt relieved when the nurse came in and took it away. We had tried hard to be cheery, fake grins plastered across our faces like clowns at the circus. But it’s hard to be cheerful when the shade of the blue Happy Birthday balloon matched the shade of my father’s face. It’s hard to be cheerful when you know that in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be a fatherless child, that you’ll have to stop referring to him in the present tense, that when you fill out those forms for summer camp the “Father’s Information” section will have to be left blank.
Leaning against the bed, I hear my mother call me. “Cassie, it’s time to go.”
I take one last look at the room and the bed that will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life and follow my mother to the elevator. The ride down is silent, both of us not yet accustomed to filling the silences my father’s hearty laughter used to occupy. We walk out the doors, into the lobby and through the sliding plate glass into the sun.
At the entrance I see a forty-something man with dark hair leaning up against a granite column, smoking a cigarette. Something about him, whether it’s the easy, practiced way he holds it in his hand, or the now blissful look on his face as he revels in his vice, makes a deep down part of me snap. Running over to him, I snatch the cigarette right out of his mouth and grind it out on the pavement in front of him with the heel of my shoe.
His face purples with outrage, “What in the hell did you do that for?”
“For your daughter.”





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