It was late May after my junior year of college and the first really hot day of the year, one of those days where your mouth tastes like sweat and the thickness of the humidity in the air makes you feel like you’re choking. My older sister, Rebecca, and I were cleaning our basement, the heat making the smell of damp wood and sawdust worse, when my dad came downstairs, wearing nothing but his boxers. “I’m getting the air conditioner,” he proclaimed in between wheezy, exhausted breaths.
He had spent all day in bed, laying on his side with his legs curled into his body as far as they could go, facing a tiny black fan resting on the end table that only blew hot, sticky air back onto his face. My parents’ bedroom smelt like what Mom referred to as Dad’s “old man smell,” which was a mixture of the scents of his sweat, cigarette smoke, the sheets from the hospital (though he only had treatment once a week, the odor stuck to his skin like gorilla glue), and sometimes, when you got close enough to him, a hint of the peppermints he carried in his suit jacket pocket.
He was complaining (or whining like a baby, as Mom might say) about how we hadn’t put in the air conditioners yet. Mom told him we could put them in tomorrow, when her knees felt better, and she could make it to the basement. When I sat in the dining room I could hear him yell, “We never should have put the stupid things down there. We should have just left them in the bedroom closet, like I say every year.”
“Ed, you never say that,” Mom tried to explain to him, but he proclaimed he always said that, she just never listens to him.
My sister and I were surprised to see him in the basement; it was Sunday, two days after his weekly cancer treatment, which is the day he always felt the worst, the steroids the nurses pumped through his veins having worn off by then. His treatments left him barely able to eat or stay awake for more than an hour at a time. It was hard enough for him to walk down the stairs, let alone carry a fifty pound air conditioner. During the few times he got out of bed, he walked slowly around the house, looking afraid that if he moved too quickly, one of his organs would fall out of his body. It was only during these days that he really looked like a cancer patient to me. He was fifty-four but seemed much older.
“Mom said we’d do it tomorrow,” Rebecca told him, in a sympathetic but dismissive tone we all used when dad tried doing something his doctors told him he couldn’t do.
“No, I will get it right now.”
“Dad, just go upstairs. Rachel and I can carry it up for you—”
“No, I will wait right here. We’re bringing it up now.” He began sounding less like a stern father and more like a stubborn child.
“Alright, fine. But I’m not going to help you if you talk to us like this.”
“Then don’t help me!” He snapped. “This is all your mother’s fault anyway. If she had just left the air conditioner upstairs like I told her to, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
My sister threw the mop she was using to clean the floor on the ground and stormed upstairs, yelling, “You’re ridiculous,” at Dad as she left. “Rebecca!” I called after her, but before she had even gotten up the stairs Dad was making his way to the other side of the basement to grab the air conditioner.
“I’ll just do it myself,” he said as he kneeled down to where it was resting against the wall, coated in a thin layer of dust, and grabbed one end. I ran to it before he could lift the whole thing up himself, bent down using my back—because I never understood what lifting with your knees meant—and took the other side. I stood up, carrying less weight than he was and began walking backwards. My hands were slippery with sweat and the AC’s metal corners were digging into my palms, but I knew if I asked Dad to put it down so I could get a better grip, he would just take the whole thing himself and probably break his back trekking up the stairs.
I began walking backwards up the stairs, my back and neck hunched forward, and the air conditioner slipping out of my hands a little bit more with every step. We made it about halfway up the staircase when I realized that if I tried moving anymore, my fingers would completely lose their grip. I froze, looked at Dad—his face deep red from heat and exhaustion—and panicked, thinking holy shit, I’m going to drop this AC and kill my father. I imagined the air conditioner slamming into his stomach and thrusting him backwards down the stairs, crashing through the wood paneling and into the cement wall. I even saw the headline: Man with Stage Four Cancer Gets Killed by Flying Air Conditioner–Daughter’s Incompetence to Blame.
“What are you doing?” He yelled, his Queens accent coming off more strongly than before. “Go up the stairs!”
“I can’t move, it’s gonna fall out of my hands,” I told him. “I can’t move, I can’t move.”
“Ugh, Hannah!” he yelled out to my seventeen-year-old sister, stretching out the last syllable of her name. “Hannah, help your sister now.”
She ran to the staircase, looking confused as to why I would even try carrying the air conditioner in the first place, pushed past me and grabbed the edge. “Move,” Dad commanded me in his deep, gravelly voice. Hannah, though thinner and younger than me, was stronger and able to carry the AC upstairs to my parents’ room, where Rebecca was talking to Mom, complaining about Dad. She stopped talking when he came in. Dad and Hannah tossed the air conditioner onto his side of the bed. He hobbled to the window, pulled the blinds up, then pressed his hands against the glass and used most of his bodyweight to thrust the window open. He leaned one arm against the window and his head on his wrist, panting and gasping for air. We all stared at him, wondering if he would collapse onto the hardwood floors.
Mom sat in bed, her iPad in her hands, a smirk on her face. “You’re gonna put that thing in the window by yourself?” An entire day of Dad berating her for not leaving the air conditioner upstairs seemed to have left her feeling apathetic, maybe even amused by the whole situation. He ignored her comment, and with a few slow, jagged motions, grabbed the air conditioner and slammed it against the window pane, making all of us jump. Rebecca instinctively ran over to the window to hold the air conditioner.
“Oh my god, imagine if it fell onto Walt’s car,” Hannah said, referring to our next-door neighbor and his white Toyota Camry. We all laughed, except for Dad, and I visualized the air conditioner slipping out of the window onto the car, its windshield shattering, and Dad muttering fuck under his breath. Then I imagined Walt—the middle-aged neighbor my sisters and I speculated was a hitman because he meticulously washed out the trunk of his car with a garden hose every Saturday morning—banging on our front door, cigarette in his mouth, ready to beat the shit out of Dad. Dad would maybe get a few punches in before he collapsed on the ground from exhaustion, and Mom would be laughing so hard that she wouldn’t be able to call an ambulance.
“It’s not going to fall out of the window,” he said. “Go get me screws, now.” He motioned to Rebecca. With his body hunched over the air conditioner and holding it with one hand, he used the other to slide the window closed. He pulled out the filter from the front, covered in black and brown fuzz, and handed it to me. “Go clean this.”
I took it from his hands and wanted to tell him I had no idea how I was supposed to clean it, but I ran to the bathroom and started running it under cold water, attempting to pick out the clumps of wet dust with my fingernails. I felt so clueless then, watching the sink fill up with all of the specs of dust, thinking about how badly I just wanted this whole process to be over. Eventually, Rebecca came in. “Forget about cleaning it, just give it back to Dad before he freaks out even more.”
After he got the screws and the filter, he secured the air conditioner into the window pane and threw his body onto the bed. He put his hand on his forehead staring down at the ground, droplets of sweat running down his purple and red face. Rebecca left the room, and Hannah and I stood in front of him. He was still panting like before and commanded almost inaudibly for someone to plug in the air conditioner.
“So, has this been worth it?” Mom taunted. “Treating your daughters like crap and hurting yourself just so you could get this done a little faster?”
“Enough!” he yelled at Mom. “If you had just left it upstairs—”
“Oh no, don’t you dare blame me for your actions. I don’t care if you’re sick, you can’t treat us like this,” she began. Her ‘I don’t care if you’re sick’ line was repeated daily at this point.
Dad looked at Mom. “You don’t understand. I’m in pain! I can’t control my actions.”
“I have chemo-brain!” He yelled and looked back down at the ground.
“Dad, come on, relax, the air conditioner’s in now,” I said to him.
“Yeah, everything’s fine!” Hannah added.
“I have chemo-brain. You don’t get it. I have no control over what I say.” Dad was no stranger to outbursts of rage when things didn’t go his way, especially when it came to doing work around the house. But he was different after chemotherapy. It didn’t change or add any new personality traits that weren’t already there—it just amplified them. His patience wore thinner, his outbursts grew angrier. During chemo, every outburst was coupled with a surge of pain to some part of his body.
“Look, let’s just drop it,” I said, trying to ignore the fact that he was only using his treatment as an excuse for berating all of us, rather than as a reason for why he needed help installing the air conditioner.
Hannah turned to me and smiled. “You know, I feel like we’re Mario and Luigi right now. Like, Dad’s Bowser and we keep trying to calm him down.” Dad was regularly referred to as Bowser in our house when he got really angry. Mom laughed at my sister’s comment, and Hannah and I at the same time, without hesitation, began jumping around, waving our hands in his face, and saying, in butchered, high-pitched Italian accents: “Come on, Bowser! It’s me, Mario! Everything’s fine!” I hoped that if we acted goofy and obnoxious enough, Dad would crack a smile, maybe even laugh. We could all escape this tense situation and, at least for a second, forget that this event was proof Dad couldn’t do something he used to find simple anymore without great pain and stress.
But he didn’t smile. Without looking up, he told me, “Just go plug in the air conditioner.” I, disappointed, dropped the Super Mario Brothers’ persona and bent down to plug it into the outlet behind my parent’s bed. I felt panic sweep over me again. Maybe after a year of sitting in the dusty basement, the air conditioner wouldn’t work, and all of this effort was for nothing, and Dad’s head might literally burst open from heat and frustration, leaving us to spend the rest of the night cleaning shrapnel of his brain and skull off of the walls. I stood up, pressed the power button, and felt the first little wave of cold air flow through the room. A wave of relief blew through the room. We all, even Dad, seemed to loosen up our shoulders and jaws that had been clenched so tightly with the tension from the night. Dad rested his head back. I looked at his legs, which were pale green and covered with blue and black varicose veins. They reminded me of what my grandmother’s legs looked like when she was sick and lying in her nursing home bed. He closed his eyes.
“Shut the door and leave me alone,” he said. Hannah rolled her eyes at him and left the room. Mom shook her head and turned back to her iPad, looking relieved no one had to go to the hospital. I walked up to Dad and stood over him for a second. He looked up at me briefly, then folded his arms and closed his eyes again. I like to think that in that moment of eye contact, we had a kind of mutual understanding of how badly we didn’t want to be in this situation: he didn’t want to be so sick that he would have to admit he needed help doing things he used to do on his own, and I didn’t want to admit that I just didn’t know how I could help him.
I wanted to yell at him for being such a jerk all day, especially to Mom. I wanted to chastise him for doing something that was so clearly bad for his health. I wanted to tell him that his “chemo-brain” was no excuse to treat us all like shit. But instead, I just leaned down, kissed the top of his head, which tasted like nothing but sweat, whispered “goodnight, Dad,” and left the room. I stood in the hallway for a moment, listening to the muffled roar of cold air through their bedroom door. If the air conditioner stayed on, at least for the night, everything would be okay.
© Rachel Lauth
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Rachel’s interview]