At 11:00 p.m. Monday night I drove down our street away from our house, turning left at the stop sign onto 7th street. I slowed as a mule deer caught my attention; she stood in the middle of the street surrounded by a soft, hazy strip of white from a single streetlight above. She didn’t move. My hands, slightly trembling, fell from the steering wheel to my lap as I sat still, watching her, my foot held on the break, waiting. She inched forward a few times, her gait slow, wandering, and then she stepped into the grass. There, another deer stood with a fawn. I watched them as they stood together for a few minutes and I imagined the quick, red muscles of their hearts beating.
“Mommy I’m scared but I’m brave,” Raine had said to me repeatedly that evening. He had said it while he gripped my neck when I carried him from room to room; after he first saw the truck with the red lights pulling into our driveway; before he asked me, “What if daddy doesn’t come back?”
I imagined those beating hearts again as the deer remained still. I heard beating that could echo into the bones of their slender brown frames. Aren’t they us? Aren’t we the same? Protect our young. Survive. I switched my foot to the gas pedal and the car crept forward. The sound of the engine stirred the three of them into a hustle of perked ears, chins raised, a few hooves lifted. Then they rushed into the darkness behind the hedges toward the black dampness of the creek.
I kissed Raine and walked out of his bedroom earlier that night, leaving him to play games with daddy on Dan’s phone. At one point, Raine came running into the living room to ask me a question. As we talked, I heard Dan making odd, loud and long grunts from the bedroom. Raine ran back to his room and I assumed the sound Dan was making was just part of a silly thing they were doing.
But the sound persisted. It occurred to me that maybe they weren’t playing and something was wrong. But that also seemed a little outrageous for me to think.
When I was in elementary school I remember being taught the words predator and prey. We learned the distinction of one creature eating another creature to survive, and that every creature essentially held their own precarious spot in the great chain of life; a circle full of black and white sketches of insects, mammals, and amphibians. In one assignment, I took a newly sharpened pencil and circled pictures on a sheet of paper where different animals were depicted with bright stock photos. I selected the predators, enjoying the satisfaction of pushing the new lead tip and seeing grey specks pool on the paper. The ash of the pencil smeared as my left hand moved across the page: cheetah, bear, eagle, shark. On another page, I repeated circling as I identified prey. Sometimes you had to think about it–sometimes a smaller creature wasn’t prey. Be careful. The photos of a snake, owl, and coyote were left untouched.
“LEAH!” cried Dan desperately. I jumped up and crawled across the couch as fast as I could, pushing with my calves off of the arm with all of my might to try and leap through the air– a thrust of an adrenal buzzing blur.
I found Dan sitting on the edge of Raine’s bed, hunched over, slack jawed, trying to talk and tell me what had happened but his words were slurred. I dropped at his feet and grabbed his legs. He was only in the shorts that he wears to bed and his flesh was so pale in the bright light of the hallway. His face was red and his tender grayish blue eyes–like the soft cap of a gnatcatcher–were terrified. He had lost control of himself; his body seized by an error in operation while he remained conscious and felt his head and limbs jerking. He repeated over and over again he didn’t know what happened, he didn’t know, he didn’t know, he didn’t know…
“Can you hear me and understand me? Can you grab my hands? Can you feel me touching your feet? With your sight, can you follow my finger moving?” I asked questions rapidly like I knew what I was doing but I was desperately making things up. I grabbed his cell phone on the floor and dialed 9-1-1. Raine hung over my right shoulder, burrowing into me like a fox forcing a tunnel into the earth. Raine’s tunnel was searching for attention.
“Raine, daddy feels sick. Can you help me and daddy? Can you go get daddy a shirt to wear?”
I alternated listening to instructions from the 9-1-1 dispatcher and giving Raine items to locate and bring to daddy.
Keep him on the bed. Don’t move him. Don’t give him water or food. If he has another episode, don’t try to stop it. Raine can’t reach daddy’s coat in the closet. Raine can get a chair from the dining room to stand on. The ambulance is on its way. I need to call the oncologist. Raine can’t find daddy’s shoes. Try opening the door to the garage and looking at the bottom of the steps. Dan worries about affording the ambulance. He worries that he caused this; he over-exerted himself exercising and doing yard work the past two days. I rub the back and top of his head, the newly shaved shafts of brown give easily under the weight of my massaging fingers. Uninterested in letting go, I keep working over and down to his neck and shoulders. His skin is hot. He put his shirt on. Raine drops Dan’s shoes on top of a small pile of clothing he has collected. There is a knock at the door.
I turn left from 7th Street onto Hendricks Road. Raine is tucked into bed, asleep in clean, white sheets, safely at our neighbor’s house. There is a knot in my stomach but my heart is beating steadily.
“Do you want me to sing you a song?” Raine and I had held onto each other as we lay in his bed after the medics left with Dan. I sang three songs. Then Raine sang a song to me. And I sang one more.
“I didn’t see daddy sick,” he worried.
“Mommy didn’t see daddy sick either.” I ran my hand back and forth across his back. “But daddy talked and told us he was sick and then we were able to help him. You were such a good helper!”
“I ran as fast as I could, mommy. I ran so fast! But I didn’t get daddy his hat. He doesn’t have his hat!” Raine frowned, struggling in his consideration of what was forgotten. We were in our warm stretch of February, no need for big coats, hats, or gloves.
“You brought him his favorite hoodie and he can use that if his head gets cold,” I pointed out. That satisfied him and he was quiet. The lids of his eyes met briefly and then parted. He would be asleep soon.
Hendricks road took me into the black night of the country, through darkened vineyards, orchards, and farms, to reach the hospital at the foot of Rex Hill where Dan waited. I found him awake and alert but with bloodshot eyes, laying on a stretcher covered with safety pads. He was like a horse who was demoralized to be stabled at night when the air was so warm and the moon was full. I suddenly understood the deer earlier, stirred and busy, keen to explore.
We would learn days later that some of Dan’s brain tissue had become swollen near decaying lesions; the irritable ghost of cancer spreading disruption.