She takes her medicine the way other people take shots. She holds the cup up high, tips her head back so far I think she might lose her balance, and takes a gulp big enough to drown her. I think it makes her feel glamorous – even when the thing she’s drinking is meant to prep her for surgery.
She’s fourteen – almost to the day and I know if she had a different body, the conversations we’d be having at two in the morning would be about boyfriends and binge drinking and not about God and reincarnation. She got this idea in her head after the first round of chemo that she might not make it and she wanted to get as much out of her next life as she’d gotten out of this one.
“I think if I got to pick,” she says, “I’d like to come back as a dolphin.”
“Why’s that?” I ask her.
“Because, Dad,” she says, with her IVed hand on her hips, “they look like they’re having so much fun on TV. And I’ve never seen the ocean.”
“If you were born a dolphin, you’d probably spend your entire life pestering your Papa Dolphin about how all you want to do is see some land.”
She laughs at that. And then they wheel her back for more needles and more tests and our next eighteen conversations are about vomit buckets and pain.
One of the side effects of Leukemia is difficulty breathing. When she’s really out of it, she says she feels like she’s drowning.
“It’s in and out like normal, but everything just feels thicker,” she says. “I’m breathing under water.”
She calls these mermaid moments.
Even when she was a kid, I couldn’t keep up with her. When she was a toddler, I could never catch her in time to stop her from exploring the next room or from breaking out of her crib faster than Houdini ever escaped from anything in his entire career. When she was eight, she started going camping with the girl Scouts and I’d get calls every week about how she had thrown off all her clothes and jumped into the creek or how she’d convinced some other girls to go hiking with her in restricted areas.
She loves rollercoasters. I had to get over my fear of heights because it seemed wrong for a father to sit on a bench while his daughter went round and round on a steel death trap that was apparently perfectly safe, thank you very much old man. She’d let go at the top of the first hill and she wouldn’t put her hands back down unless I made her – because I was scared she’d fly out.
“Dad, you’re being ridiculous,” she’d say once we got back on the ground. “You’re more likely to get struck by lightening than you are to die on a rollercoaster. You should let go, too. It feels like flying.”
All of her favorite activities felt like flying. That was why she liked track. I’m sure it’s what she’d say about pot or binge drinking or some idiot boy named Trevor if she ever got to be a proper teenager. I never thought I’d want my Kelsey drinking and smoking pot with some kid named Trevor, but things change.
I loved to watch her run hurdles. It was one of the few things she liked that I understood. I still had fun pretending otherwise, though.
“Wouldn’t you run faster if they just took those things down?” I’d tease her.
“That’s not the point, Daddy.”
I spent so much time when she was growing up worrying about her drowning in neighbors’ pools and rocketing to her death on rollercoasters, but you know what is more likely to kill your child? If it’s a young child – suffocation. From just stuff you have lying around at home. Your kid is way more likely to be injured in your own damn house than any other place on the planet. I had to take Kelsey to the ER when she was a baby for swallowing a doll shoe – turned my back for one second and bam. She was choking. Goes to show, no matter how hard you try, you can’t protect them from everything.
Kelsey has Leukemia – one of the things you give money to when you buy those bears from mall jewelry stores at Christmas time. Kelsey loves those bears. She’s got about sixteen of them up in her room right now. When she’s feeling really off from the chemo, there’s this special one she likes to cuddle that I got for her when her mom left. Rainbow, she calls it – though it’s about the greyest little bear I’ve ever seen.
After we come home from the hospital, she wants to stay on the couch. She’s having trouble breathing again. I fetch Rainbow from upstairs without being asked.
“I feel like an old person,” she says. “Breathing is like the most basic thing people do and now I can’t even do that.”
When Kelsey first got sick, she made a bucket list. I tried not to get mad at her for it. The social worker said I have to let her process this her way – never mind that even thinking about her death makes me so sick to my stomach sometimes that I have to miss meetings to throw up in the men’s room. There were a lot of things on the bucket list I knew I could never do for her, even if she was well. Even if all the drugs and treatments and copays hadn’t already taken everything I saved for her college. She wanted to do some things like French kiss under the Eiffel Tower and go hang-gliding and ride an elephant. I can’t make any of those things happen for her.
But, I can take her to the ocean.
After she’s done with chemo, I get those Make-a-Wish genies to fly us down to Disney World where she charms one of those really gay Prince Eric actors into giving her a smooch on the cheek under the Epcot Eiffel Tower. I can tell by the expression on her face that she doesn’t love the pity looks she gets from all other tourists and the Disney people who keep going out of there way to be nice to her. She doesn’t love the way the hotel bellhop talks to her bald head. But, she still smiles when the lady working the It’s a Small World ride calls her Princess and when she gets to cut the line to get her picture taken with Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
“Maybe if I can get someone in the casting department to feel sorry for me, they’d let me play Ariel for a day. Think about it. I’ve already kissed Prince Eric and they wouldn’t have to worry about stuffing any hair into that wig.”
She looks at me, expecting a laugh. I manage a smile.
“I’m just saying,” she continues. ”I’m ready to start today. All I need are the fins.”
On our last day in Florida, we drive to Coco Beach, where at last, she can cross swim in the ocean off her bucket list.
She hates that I make her put sunscreen on her head and that I try to get her to wear goggles.
“You could get salt in your eyes,” I say.
“I’ll be fine, Dad.”
More than anything, she wants to go in the water. She hasn’t stopped looking at it since she got here. She says she is feeling strong enough, so I don’t see the harm in it. I go in with her – holding her shoulders so the waves can’t push her over. It’s a Tuesday and it looks like it’s going to rain any second, so there aren’t many other people around to gawk at her bald head, which she likes, but the water is cold, which she doesn’t like and I am afraid it might kill her.
But, she doesn’t stop smiling, even when the shivering starts and I start dropping not so subtle hints that we should go back to shore.
“It’s going to get dark soon,” I say.
She ignores me. “You think I could be a mermaid in my next life? You know. Since I can’t play Ariel in this one.”
“Maybe,” I say.
And then without warning, she plunges her head under water and I lose my grip on her shoulders and I am splashing around, hollering like an idiot – an idiot who shouldn’t have let his cancer daughter go swimming in freezing cold water on a Tuesday and who should have been able to protect her from this one damn thing hollering and hollering her name until finally I see her pop her head out less than five fucking feet from me and thank god, it isn’t today. I don’t lose her today.
“Dad! Watch this!” she says and if you have a kid, you know to dread these words.
She plunges her head back underwater and motions for me to do the same.
I open my eyes. Through the blue green tint of my goggles, I see my daughter breathe – in and out, like normal breathing, but thicker.