By Monica Steele
Special to the Times
I am standing in line at Ordean Junior High School in Duluth, Minn. The line is long and my father stands next to me, guiding me forward toward long folding tables holding thousands of tiny white pleated paper cups. We reach the table and I see that each cup contains a white sugar cube but in the center of each cube there is a soft pink drop of liquid. He tells me to take a cup and eat the sugar cube, and I do. I remember I was wearing an odd Sunday hat with a dilapidated nosegay of wilted paper violets attached to the side. I do not remember the drive to the school or the drive home — just the line, the pink droplet sugar cube and standing next to my dad, his hand on my shoulder. We had just been given the gift of the oral polio vaccine. Everyone moved quietly and with a kind of gravity as though we were doing the Stations of the Cross in St. Michael's on Good Friday.
Our family did not go to the doctor unless it was an emergency, like when my brother Joel's appendix burst. We were a family of 12 and the cupboard over the sink held plain aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, iodine and Band-Aids. The best thing about getting the flu was the possibility of, during recovery, being given a jelly jar juice glass of ginger ale. But the sugar cube with the miraculous pink drop was free and all we had to do was stand in line.
The last time I saw a sugar cube was at my eldest sister, Patricia's, wedding. It was a morning ceremony and afterward there was a wedding cake and coffee in the church basement. There were small pitchers of milk and bowls with sugar cubes on a white cloth-covered table. A large coffee urn, cups and saucers were laid out on the table but I returned surreptitiously to the small sugar bowls where I pocketed sugar cubes decorated with miniature candy rosebuds. I hid out in the bathroom stalls, prying the tiny pink and yellow rosebuds off and placing them on my tongue to dissolve as I did with the communion wafer.
It is May. I am standing on the back porch of our family cabin in northern Minnesota. I meet with my brothers Dave and Joel and my sister Madelynne and we prepare the cabin for summer use, which is quite a project with a cabin that was put to sleep the previous fall and has stood on the same piece of earth since my Gramps built it in 1927. There are plumbing repairs to be made, the water system must be hooked up, the docks put in, a screen porch to paint and fallen trees to be cut into lengths and chopped for the wood-burning stove.
Dave is in his second year of cancer treatment. He joins me on the back porch where I sit with his dog, Heidi, and a cup of coffee steaming in the cool May morning air. Heidi sits with her goateed face in my lap but her body is alive with waiting for the early-morning walk. Dave sits next to me and says, "Want to see what a $325 pill looks like?" He extends his hand, displaying a small caramel-colored oval. This is just one of the chemo pills that he will take for 28 days. I say, "For God's sake, don't drop it and watch it fall through one of the slats in the porch!" I've been feeding the chipmunk peanuts and sunflower seeds and I can just see him running off with the pill to store in some underground larder. Dave laughs, takes his pill and says, "Another day older and deeper in debt. This week I got poked for blood work, zapped for cancer, shot with Aranesp for red blood cells and transfused with pamidronate for bone pain and fractures." With a sigh he adds, "But I'm still alive and having a cup of coffee."
After a pause he laughs again. "Only side effects so far are diarrhea, loss of appetite, mouth sores and fatigue," he says. He rubs Heidi's ears. "Heidi girl, my carcass just doesn't like radiation." He doesn't have the strength to walk her anymore and that pains him more than the cancer treatments.
Dave is teaching me how to fix things at the lake, and as he is the eldest son he has always considered it his duty. He stands next to me watching closely as I repair the pipes under the kitchen sink. At the dock, I loosen the bolts and drop the legs while wading in the frigid May lake water. I repair the front canvas awning while he holds the extension ladder. As the Zen Buddhists say, we "chop wood, carry water."
When it's time to leave he hugs me and with his voice catching says, "Goodbye, kiddo." Heidi jumps in the truck first and as Dave slowly follows, lifting himself up, he tells me he plans to have the new shelves for the kitchen cabinets done by deer season. Before he starts down the gravel drive he hangs his head out the truck window and adds, "Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise."
I stand and watch them disappear down the drive through the velvet green of trees new with spring leaves. I think of his oval pills, the cost and the side effects. He has lost 60 pounds and is completely hairless. Though only in his mid 60s, he resembles our great-grandmother Charlotte, who passed away just shy of 100 years.
Fifty years ago I stood in a line next to my dad and received an oral polio vaccine, free and with a spoonful of sugar to boot. I dream of a metal folding table covered with a starched white cloth where nestled in 28 pleated white paper cups are my brother's medications; delicate rosebuds of pink and yellow fondant decorate each chemo sugar cube. My brother stands in line wearing a familiar frayed brown wool Sunday suit with my father at his side, hand on his shoulder, ushering him forward . . . and they are free.
Monica Steele lives in Tampa.