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The Warmth of Ice Cream
I was inspired to write this piece seeing a close member of my family numb themselves from pain with the help of a drug. When I thought of the idea, I was eating an ice cream cone, and the rest just kind of fell into place.
Do you know that feeling you get right after something terrible happens? The feeling you get before you crumble to your knees and slam your fists into the ground. The ever so present rock that might as well be a terrestrial planet buried deep inside your throat. The moment that causes the unintentional quiver of your bottom lip. The darkness that cascades over your entire body until you're composed of it. Well, in my life of tears and tissues I've managed to avoid that feeling in a quite effective, yet tragic manner.
On December 14th, 1991, I was sitting on my mother's favorite green dusty couch, next to my
Little brother, Kol. We were watching some cloudy cartoon that Kol had chosen. My eyes began to glaze over as the colorful show danced on. And just when my deepest sleep began to drag my eyelids over my green oak eyes, I was jolted awake by the loud, synchronized noise of the slam of a door, and a loud sob. My mother rushed to the couch where Kol and I were sitting, and I could see through her broken mascara and cemented eyebrows, lied a distraught women.
“Mom, w-what is wrong?” I told her through clattered teeth. She looked at me and whispered my name without moving her lips.
“Harden...” She then called for my older brother and sister, collecting us all onto the couch as she stood over us. Through ocean sunk eyes and a sidewalk cracked voice, she told us,
“Kids...Your...your father was in a terrible accident...” That was when my vision started to blur. I saw the shape of my sister fall to the floor, and the outline of my older brother's fist hit the wall. And when my sight was nothing but darkness, I ran. I ran, without stopping might I add, all the way to Mr. Conwell's Creamy Ice Cream Parlor. I opened the door and walked straight to the cashier. I ordered a vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles, my father's favorite. I ate that cold treat until my hand was holding the cold, stiff air. As I stared at my empty hand, I couldn't catch my breath. This is when I started crying. Crying so hard, they had to call an ambulance.
I was thirteen years old when my father was killed by a faceless man in a semi-truck. I was thirteen years old when I lost the left corner of my heart.
At seventeen years old, I was proud to be Harden Vardell. Completely and utterly original. Every day, I would pass by my father's picture that hung in the living room, right above the dusty green couch. I would look at my dad's face, and I would see myself. I saw my light hair that no one could ever distinguish as blonde or brown. I saw my crooked jaw and full crimson lips. Whenever I looked above that ugly green couch, I saw my dad, then I'd turned my head, and he'd be gone. In the year of 1995, my paperback friends convinced me to enter my high school's annual art contest. Besides listening to Cobain and chucking flannels over my thin shoulders, drawing was what I enjoyed the most. Weeks I spent on that piece of art, weeks I spent stabbing my pencil onto the blank canvas until I created the perfect portrayal of my father. And when I was finally finished, I placed the portrait on the kitchen table, and ran to the yellow bus stop for school. In class, I bragged and bragged about my artwork, and how it would for sure take first place. But when I got home, my picture wasn't on the kitchen table. I searched and searched for my creation until my mom arrived home. I sighed and asked her,
“Mom, have you seen my drawing of dad? You know the one I'm entering in the contest for school?”
“Oh, baby girl, I am so sorry. Your little brother got a hold of it and drew over the whole thing, completely ruining it. I threw it away, sorry love.” and with that she walked away as if she had just told me what we were having for dinner. She walked away with my bloody heart pulsing in her palms. She walked away, and that was that. However, I did not shout, I did not cry, but I drove all the way to Mr. Conwell's Creamy Ice Cream Parlor and ordered two scoops of rocky road.
By the time I was twenty four years old, I was quite the accomplished artist, peacefully residing in the magical city of New Orleans. They told me I was extra special because I became successful at such a young age. I never thought age mattered as long as your talent was strong enough, but I wasn't complaining. Life was good, and I had long thrown away the vague memories of Fincastle, Virginia and began creating new ones in New Orleans. The environment was very extraordinary to me. I moved in with my best friend Theo, and we tore through the city. Theo, a talented young saxophonist, was always so vibrant and full of life. He was a great man, and I believe he never stopped being great for even a second in time.
Unfortunately, Theo was involved in a terrible snowboarding accident. He shattered a couple of bones in his wrist, ceasing his sax playing. I still remember our last conversation and it haunts me every day.
Theo was sitting on our purple arm chair with a journal in his lap and a hanging head. He wrote so fast that I could hear the pen engraving its ink into the poor innocent paper. I remember staring at him, wondering where the magnificent man who carried girls on his back and wore old torn up baseball caps on his head disappeared to. The man that was obsessed with Christmas Stockings and insisted on hanging them every holiday. Theo crumbled the paper he was working on, threw it in the trash, and dragged his body to his room. The curiosity was burning through me, I had to see what was on that paper. I reached into the gray bin and unrumpled the mysterious note. In clean print, it read:
I hope, that up in the skies, the stars form a picture. I hope they are not just scattered into meaningless patterns. I hope, there is one thing, tangible or not, one thing that has control. I don’t want my life to be the sad effect to a tragic cause. But I cannot fight these demons living so casually in my heart. I hope that the lives of us all are sitting amongst the stars, ready to explode, to turn into a supernova, to burn out.
I hope to god, I hope to the universe, I hope to whatever is out there. I hope that our lives and thoughts and minds and bodies are being carefully played by wise old gray-haired women in a game of chess. Not in the hands of careless children, placing the pawn where the queen should be.
After reading this letter a thousand times, I imagined what I would say to him.
“Theo, you do know that the saxophone wasn't the only thing that defined you, right? You have a nose but you are not a nose. You have fingernails, but you are not a fingernail. It pains me to see you dying over something that was only a part of you. It kills me to see the black and blue bags under your eyes and the bloody scabs sprinkled across your knuckles. So you know what buddy? We're going to conquer these demons together. I am not going to let you think that losing one amazing thing about yourself drains every other amazing attribute you have. I will not let you be another hole in the ground. Theo, I love you, let me help.” And after my epic monologue, he would say to me,
“Harden Rose, let's put the pieces bag together.”
But when I saw him sobbing into his pillow, I froze, and walked away. I walked away from my suicidal best friend because I didn't know what the f*** else to do. I walked away because there was no part of me that knew how to deal with pain. I walked away from him, and the final image he had of me was the back of my neck.
A week later, I found Theo, hanging like a Christmas stocking, in his room. I did not cry, I did not yell. I took a plane back to Fincastle and drove to Mr. Conwell's Creamy Ice Cream Parlor and ordered a hot fudge sundae.
In the summer of my 32nd year, I found a consistent strand of happiness. I had a comfortable career, a happy guard dog, and an apartment that fit me like a glove. Theo had long disintegrated from my everyday thoughts, and the memories that we made went with him. It wasn't until the following spring pain sunk its fangs into my neck. I'd began losing weight and I had terrible fatigue and frequent fevers. I remember ignoring all the symptoms, denying I was sick until the day my secretary found me in my office, covered in my own vomit.
I remember the time so clearly, so vividly. I was sitting at my desk, skimming through some boring work papers when a cough struck my chest. Then that cough turned into a gasp, and that gasp turned into gag, and that gag turned me into a beggar. On my knees with my hair in my face, shouting to god, shouting to the universe, shouting to whatever was out there. I screamed, in between vomiting, at nothing, and that's how Margo found me.
That day, I was diagnosed with Leukemia, and my mouth mimicked the dry Sahara.
Although, I did not shout, I did not cry, but I took a plane all the way to Fincastle, and drove to Mr. Conwell's Creamy Ice Cream Parlor. As I parked my car in the familiar drive way, my eyes were met with a bank, not the parlor.
I opened the doors that were once painted red and white, only to find dull gray floors and chairs filled with dull gray people. Tentatively, I made my way to the bank teller.
“Hello, can I get a plane vanilla ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles? It was my father's favorite.” I told her with a sunshine smile on my face. She looked confused and said to me,
“Um, Ma'am? This is a bank, not a...ice cream shop. Would you like to make a deposit or...?”
I remember the utter denial running through my veins, to my head, as if my blood was trying to tell my mistaken mouth the truth.
I threw my fist into the nearby wall and screamed.
“I need to speak to your manager, miss. Where the F*** is Mr. Conwell?! Where is that red and white striped door and where's all the happy f*ing people eating their happy little ice cream cones?! Where is my happiness, miss? Where did it all go?!” I cried and screamed and fell to the ground. My hands flew to my head and sealed my ears. I didn't want to hear it, I didn't want to hear the world. This is when I understood Theo's pain. This is when I fully felt my own pain for the first time in my life. It was like all the knives I managed to dodge came attacking my skin all at the same time. All I remember after that was crying. Crying so hard, they had to call an ambulance.
A year after I was diagnosed, I was forced to lie peacefully on my death bed. I could barely move without shots of pain going through my body. The hospital I was in simply made me sad. The windows captured pictures of Virginia, when I longed to be in New Orleans. My mother had forced me to stay with her, saying we, “didn't have much time together.” To her, I was dead before they even stuck an IV in my arm.
On the days that I thought were going to be my last, I slept and slept, wondering if my eyes would shut for the final time. On one of the disappointing days where I actually woke up, I remember, through foggy vision, seeing the tears of my mother as she grasped my hand, and my littlest brother Kol sitting in the nearby chair, with a bowl of raspberry ice cream.
Today, I am at my “I survived cancer party.” But it doesn't feel like I survived anything. A year ago, I was at the mercy of my disease, bowing down to any command it had. I am not alive because I fought so hard during my battle. I am alive simply for the fact that my sickness let me live.
This party, held at my childhood home, is filled with pastel yellow and pink decorations, banners and candles. This party is filled with people who are proud of me and people who thought they'd never get to see me again. This party is filled with my doctors and nurses, my band-aides and scars. This party is filled to the brim with relief, and I am drowning with my friends and family mindlessly watching.
But, although I cry every night for my father, for my Theo, for my comfort, I can feel a curtain of relief drape my shoulders.
My mother turns to me with a bright smile on her face and says,
“Oh, Harden Rose Vardell, my sweet, sweet baby. I am so thankful I had to buy a “Beat Cancer” banner.” I laughed at her comment that was so very her.
“Mom, do you really think I'd leave you alone with all alone with no one but my childish siblings?” I smiled and glanced at my littlelest brother Kol, talking some girl up in the kitchen. She shook her head and chuckled.
“You know Harden, your father would be so proud of you right now.” I looked at her and thought immediately, why this? My father wouldn't care about my artwork or successful business but he would be proud of me not dying? Do you know how much effort it takes to not die when you’re already dying? None, zero, nada. When your hole has been dug that deep, it isn't your hands and legs that fight their way up to the light. What gets the sunshine back on your face isn't yourself. It isn't anything really. I guess its luck, and I guess I'm pretty damn lucky. I don't say any of this to my mother. I only raise my head up and bite my lip.
“I love you mom.” The women that raised me looks at me with ocean-deep eyes and a side walk-smooth voice and says,
“I love you too, Harden.”
I walk away from my mother and make my way into the kitchen. A tap on my shoulder turns my body around to an unfamiliar face. It's a man with shining brown eyes and tousled light hair. He looks at me and smiles this impossibly perfect smile before saying,
“Harden right? I'm Dr. Ulrich's son, and I just thought I'd introduce myself.” He tells me his name and his eyes bounce just like Theo's use to. After hours of splendidly meaningless conversation, we make our way to the table filled with food.
“Do you want ice cream, cake, or both?” I stare at the coldest dessert lying in its carton. Pictures
of Theo flash through my head. The pain wrenches at my heart and twists my insides. I shake my head and stare at the new man in front of me. I look at my options and say,
“I'll just have the cake.”