Flowering Walrus

Scott Skinner

 

My wife chopped off the stems of these innocent white roses about two weeks ago. She put the dozen of them in her favorite glass vase and filled it up. She hasn’t changed the water once, and now it’s murky and growing algae. It looks like the Heather Farm pond that turned green that one year, except it’s not green. It’s just super dirty looking. She thinks flowers are pretty. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive; she just has to have them in the house.She made me go to the store and buy baby’s breath the other day. Helluva name for a filler flower, but, honestly, I get it. I put them on the dining room table when I got home and didn’t think of them again until I was yelling at my wife about the horrid smell they inflicted upon our daughter’s room. I never thought about the smell of a baby’s breath before, which makes me think I probably never smelled it much, which is strange because my four-year-old was a baby at one point. My mind can get lost like this, you know? My next thought can actually be a question that every father asks themselves from time to time: am I a bad dad? And it’s all because I can’t remember what my baby’s breath smelled like. These damn flowers; they stink up my house and shine a light on my inadequacy. 

Do you know how many houseplants my wife and I have murdered? It’s a lot, but don’t judge me; think of yourself. You must have failed a plant before. Nobody’s perfect. And if you haven’t, then that means you’ve never had a house plant, which means you’re probably one of those people whose home’s aesthetic is missing green.

Yes, plants and flowers, they’re all around me. I went to the UC Botanical gardens with my seventy-two-year-old mother. She knew nearly every flower in the California, New World Desert, and Mexico/Central America regions. This was startling; that’s like half of the grounds, and the others are obscure. Really, who among us can name a flower from Australasia or tell us what the hell that word means anyway? That’s what is so amazing about botanical gardens; you’re guaranteed to have your mind blown. There are eight different types of magnolia tree flowers; how else could one experience such a thing without the gardens? Online? 

***

I’m in the dentist’s chair, and directly in front of me is a floor-to-ceiling window that opens up to a small garden. The only thing obstructing my view of it is the dental light arm hanging from the ceiling above. But it’s easy to ignore because there are tulips around. They’re purple, marron, and yellow. They’re all in bloom, more irresistible than any reality TV or app could ever be.

“How long have these been here?” Dr. Liu, DDS, asks. 

He’s talking about my sores. They’re on my tongue and on the very back sides of my mouth before you enter the cave. Have you ever looked that far back in your mouth? Neither had I until the pain brought me there. 

I tell him they’d been there a month at least, and he looks concerned. He has my tongue on a tissue paper and is gripping its sides with his pointer and thumb. My tongue has never spent much time outside of my mouth, and I imagine it as a walrus basking in the rays of the dental light. My walrus is not well. It has become unattractive and annoying. Its attributes are bubbles of crimson red surrounded by ghostly gray. 

Damn the things you do in your past.

***

Today’s the first day of spring. I got a biopsy done two days ago. No, I didn’t tell my wife; I didn’t tell anyone. Telling someone something like that only serves to fuel its energy. Cancer is a slumbering giant that can take any one of us with its massive claws, which come from behind, seize your chest, and pull you to a place that’s darker than your shadow. Have you read the literature on cancer? You must fight harder than you ever thought you could to merely crawl your way back to life. 

I’m at my mom’s house. It’s around three in the afternoon, and I’m there to pick up my daughter. My mom’s front yard is colored with neat rows of open flowers. There’s pinks, creams, violets; it looks delicious like two dozen miniature cupcakes; multicolored, each row a different hue of beauty. I park the car in the driveway and just stare at them, praying that by looking hard enough, I can extract whatever they have at that exact moment – that vibrance, that life – and put it into me. They look like health. Spring is when things are born; it’s an excellent time to feel hopeful, but I can’t. I’m too stressed. All I want is to learn if it’s a yes or a no.

My daughter’s hair is long enough to braid now, and she likes wearing it like that even when she’s not dressing up as Elsa. My wife buys these delicate bows to put in her mini-me’s hair. The bows all have one thing in common; they’re long, so that with each step my daughter takes, the ribbons bounce behind her, weightless like a flower’s petal. 

She pulls me to the backyard, where my mom is waiting, with a huge smile on her face. The air outside is sweater weather, but my mom is not like most people, and she stands on her deck, in the shade, holding a glass of iced tea. I frown when I decide to take note of my daughter’s outfit; she’s in a T-shirt. For a split second, based on my long sleeve clothing, I think I’m more responsible than both of them, but that doesn’t last. My mom’s talking to me about the flowers in the backyard. Where was my responsibility all those years ago when I was chewing tobacco every day? Where was it last year when I went on a bender and was crushing a can and a half a day? 

Yes, I think they’re both more responsible than me.

My mom tells me I have to get closer to the crocus. 

“You have to look up close at one of those petals.” She says with a teasing grin. 

Of course, she’s right. The flower is gorgeous. It’s almost like two flowers because of its thick orange pistil in the center and the tip that looks like a coral reef. But its main feature is the lavender petals; the color is so vibrant that it makes observers feel like painters. Spring is shoving life in my face, but I still can’t for a single minute ignore the walrus. 

And somehow, I’m still having a conversation with my mom. She’s telling me about how great my daughter was today. She likes to tell me what I was like when I was four, so she can tell me how my daughter is better. She’s taller than I was and weighs more too. God willing, she’ll be better than me in every way; she won’t make the same mistakes. Isn’t that what every parent wants?

There’s an easter egg hunt happening in my daughter’s world. She’s carrying a wicker basket and searching all around the yard for pastel-colored plastic eggs. There’s nothing in them, my mother explains. It’s just for practice. My heart skips a beat when I hear this. 

“Look how good I am at practicing Easter, daddy.” 

Our eyes follow my daughter with unabashed pride. My mom has this superpower where she turns the eight hours she spends with my daughter into the best moments of their lives. Still, I think of the walrus. 

***

Dr. Liu calls when I’m driving home. I don’t want to take the call on the car’s Bluetooth, which plays through all the speakers, but the car’s too new, and you can’t even turn it off. I tell my daughter that daddy’s going to take a call. She gives me one of her cutest exaggerated smiles and says, “Ok. Daddy. I’ll just stay here with my bears because baby bear likes looking at all the cars.” 

I have this feeling that my world is about to change as I click the button on the steering wheel to take the call. 

“Mr. Cragg?” 

“Hello. Dr. Liu?”

“Yes, uh, hello. It’s Dr. Liu. Your test has come back. I wanted to call you so we can talk about it. Ok?” 

“Ok. Yea.” I say, but it doesn’t feel like me. Instead, it feels like I’m watching me. I’m there, but life is being lived on my behalf, like I have become a little person existing in the theater of my mind, observing the picture from the last row. 

“So, uh. We got the test results, and you do have a small number of cancerous cells in the affected area. So, that’s what the test said. I want you to know that 90% of patients, when we detect it this early, 90% of them recover fully. They have no more cancer. So, this is bad, obviously, but it’s good we’re catching it this early.” 

I don’t know why but in between the moment Dr. Liu finishes delivering the news and my speaking, I blink a bunch of times. 

“Ok.” I say. 

In the back seat, my daughter complains that she’s hungry. I know I can get away with ignoring her for a little bit, so I don’t respond. Now that I have the news, I need to know what happens next, and whatever comes after that is my burden to bear; karma for all that I’ve wasted.

“So.” Dr. Liu continues, “We’re going to have you come in as soon as possible for the, uh, surgery. We will cut out the affected areas and sterilize. And this will be the first step to rid the cancer.” 

“Ok.” I say. 

“Do you have any questions?” 

“No. It’s…” I pause, thinking I should at least ask a question. “Is there anything I can do in the meantime?” 

“No, not really. Try not to worry about it too much.” 

“Try not to worry about what, Daddy?” 

“Nothing.” I say. 

“Ok, I think I will let you speak with Kim now. She will book your appointment.” 

Dr. Liu transfers me to Kim.

“Worry about what, Daddy? Daddy, worry about what?” 

 

I book an appointment. I’m going to have to take the day off, but the procedure itself doesn’t require me to be put under, which means I can drive myself there and back. The recovery time is about a week. I wonder if I could do all of this without my wife ever knowing. I think about the logistics of it. I’m the one that cooks. I probably won’t be able to eat solids for a couple of days; I wonder how long I could get away with feeding my wife soup. It crosses my mind that she and my daughter might not even notice. I can’t remember the last time they commented on my food. This plan might actually work.

I drive home, ignoring my daughter, who keeps asking that same question over and over. I hope that by ignoring her, she’ll either tire of asking it or forget about it entirely. It’s the same tactic parents use when their kids randomly start dropping f-bombs after they overhear a fight between mommy and daddy. I hope it works. While driving, my attention is on the pavement’s appearance, the brands marketing to me on the billboards, and the names of each street written on the signs of exits I pass. It’s like everything in front of me is clear now; I’m taking it all in, just like I was supposed to. The monotony of life blinded me of each moment’s uniqueness, but now I can see.

***

When I pull into the driveway, I see my wife hanging a spring wreath on the front door. We’ve been married for five years, but our bank accounts are still separate. We’ve never discussed the heart of the matter, but I imagine part of why we don’t share bank accounts is so my money isn’t spent on things like seasonal wreaths. But we’re married, and when I’m out of the car with my daughter, and we walk up to the front door, I tell my wife the wreath looks great. 

“It’s so pretty, right? I love spring!” She says. 

“It’s pretty cool.” I say, walking away from her and my daughter.

“Where are you going?” 

“I have to go potty.” I tell her, entering the garage. 

I’m on a mission to stick my tongue out in front of the mirror in the downstairs bathroom. I have an urge to inspect my walrus now that I know it’s cancer for sure.

Inside, resting on the dining room table, beside the dead white roses, are canary yellow primroses, still in their sealed bouquet sleeve. Next to them are pink and white weigelas; the spring bloom has already opened them, and each one looks like the bell of a trumpet. I’m surprised that they’re there, that people are already tearing spring flowers from the ground and using them for decoration. People cut flowers as soon as they reach the glory of what they were born to do; they put them in water in the most beautiful vases they own, but they’ll never be as good as they were outside. I wish things just stayed the same, like a flower that never dies. 

Walrus skin is over 1.5-inches thick and covers a layer of blubber that can be double that in diameter. Elder walrus carry maps of scars on their skin, wounds from disputes during the mating season, and everything else that wanted to, or could, leave a mark. 

My walrus has fresh lesions. 

“90% chance.” I say.

Outside the door, I hear my daughter and wife. They’ve just come in from the garage.

“Knock, knock.” My daughter says. 

“Who’s there?” My wife replies.

“The animals that dig up the ground and eat all the pretty flowers.” She laughs. 

“Did you learn that from Grandma?” 

“Babe.” I shout from the other side of the door.

“Ya?” 

“I think I want to go on a soup diet, for like, a week.” 

***

Sometimes the saddest parts of life are in the what-happens-when moments. You know, like a, “What happens when you get cancer and die?” moment. No, I don’t want to discuss my diagnosis with my wife, especially not on the first day of spring. 

In bed that evening, after we put our daughter down, my wife shares her plan to make her own seasonal flower arrangement. She shows me the instructions she’d follow to put one together; she’ll need hypericum, eucalyptus, kalanchoe, hydrangeas, blush roses, and stock pink flowers. It’s going to be expensive, but I tell her, “That’s cool, babe.” 

She gently smiles as she accepts the praise.

I wish I could share in her excitement for this time of year. I wish I had been more appreciative of all of the first days of spring I’ve already lived. It seems to me that I let them all pass without respecting their power. This day symbolizes growth. Everything is in bloom, and I can’t marvel at it. The only growth that occupies space in my mind comes from the slumbering giant, which gets closer and scarier with each passing moment. 

“Did you talk to a doctor today?” My wife asks.

“Huh?” I’m startled.

She tells me that when she was tucking our daughter in the last time, the child asked, “Why did Daddy’s doctor tell him not to worry?” 

I could drop the f-bomb, but that would give me away. 

“Oh,” I say, “It’s probably from her and my mom playing doctor or something.” 

“She’s so imaginative.” 

“Totally. Hey, can you pick her up on Thursday? I have a big meeting that day.” 

“Sure.” She replies, “What’s the meeting?” 

“It’s just something for Dell.” I answer, “But there will be a lot of people on the call.” 

“Ok, no problem.”

There is no call with Dell; my surgery is on Thursday. 

 

That night my wife goes to bed long before me. My thoughts are riddled with the fear of the unknown. There’s a 90% chance, but it’s the 10% I focus on; I imagine that I’m the only one who has this much dread on the first day of spring. Change is usually celebrated on this day, but I can’t get behind the change that might happen in my life. I hope that I can have more time with my daughter. I tell myself I’ll be better if I do. I have no idea what will happen on Thursday and the days that follow, but I know one thing will be consistent. Whether it’s good or bad, I’ll be surrounded by flowers. 

 

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