Asterisks by Karen Winn

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xray of broken bone

I.  Here; there

My father was on hospice for a short time, just a couple of days.  The sun in Virginia, where my parents had retired, was strong.  I came from Boston where in April it was still too cold to wear shorts.  At the local Panera Bread I bought lemonade after lemonade and drank them like I was severely parched, like the southern sun was desiccating my insides.  At the bookstore I picked up a Hemingway novel, The Garden of Eden, and sat in the family room—now my father’s bedroom—to drink Hemingway’s words, too.  I focused on the words, not on the man beside me.  This man: He slept, woke in pain, and tried to return to sleep.  We were in half-worlds, my father and I. 


II. Away

When my father died, two men came to take him away.  They covered him in a shroud, which they warned could be upsetting.  I was a nurse and had wrapped others in shrouds, so I was not bothered. 

But as they loaded my father into the van, his body slid partly off the stretcher.  And I had to stop myself from pleading with the men—begging them—to be more careful. 

It does not matter, my brain said.

Dad—said my heart.


III.  Before

When I was thirteen or so my father used to take me fishing off the ocean pier in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, where we had a summer home.  We’d go fishing early, the sleep still clinging to my eyelashes, the bitter smell of coffee on my father’s breath.  After threading sharp hooks with worms, I’d wipe my slimy hands on the extra rag my father kept in his orange fishing kit. We’d sit in fold-up chairs, our eyes trained on red striped buoys, and wait. Time would stretch out in front of us, endless, like the vast water.

Soon I’d get antsy.  I’d look around to see if there were any cute boys.


IV. Please don’t ask me that

I was twenty-six when my father got sick.  That’s the phrase we used, though it wasn’t a sickness one gets better from.  It was an incurable cancer.

“How long do you think I’ll live?” my father asked me—the nurse.

 I hesitated before replying, “A long time.”

“Do you think I will live five years?” 

“Yes,” I lied, as a scissor snipped at my insides.


V. Before, continued

My siblings and I sometimes invited friends to our summer home.  My sister and I also eventually brought boyfriends.  During the days we swam, and at night we walked the beach, past the bonfires. When we dined out at the local restaurants, my father would attempt to bribe my sister—the picky eater. 

“I’ll give you a dollar if you try this lobster,” he’d say, pointing to his plate.

“No way,” my sister would reply with disdain.

“Five bucks.”  He’d douse the lobster with butter and hold it up. 


“I’ll eat it,” my brother offered. 


VI. Asterisk

Shortly after my father’s second stem cell transplant, the doctor declared it a success.  My father was nearly in remission, “with an asterisk.” 

“With an asterisk?” my mother repeated, confused. 

The doctor outlined the treatment needed to address the remaining disease.

My father simply nodded from his wheelchair.  He was weak and smelled of creamed corn, from the preservative used for the stem cells. 


VII.  Residue

It would be days following my father’s transplants before the stench of creamed corn lightened.  It would be days following any chemotherapy at all before the smell of food—coffee, even—would no longer make him retch.  It would be weeks before my mother could once again return the coffee machine to the kitchen from the laundry room, where she’d surreptitiously brewed a pot for herself each morning.


VIII.  During*

Time thinning.  Everything significant.  Everything insignificant.


IX. How many is ‘too many to count’?

“Swiss cheese,” a doctor once remarked, describing the X-ray of my father’s bones.  Holes from where the cancer had eaten away. 

Too many lesions to count, stated the official report from one of my father’s scans.  I still think about that. 


X. No.

Before putting the summer house on the market, my parents asked us if we wanted to go one final time to see it.


XI. After

My sister still won’t eat lobster.

Sometimes I catch a phantom whiff of creamed corn.

Hemingway never finished writing The Garden of Eden

I didn’t lie to my father: He lived for five years.

He never finished treatment. 


Meet the Contributor

karen-winnKaren Winn’s debut novel, Our Little World, is forthcoming from Dutton/Penguin Random House in May 2022. She received her MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University and also holds a doctoral degree in nursing. She lives in Boston with her husband and children.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Steve Shupe

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