Sunday, March 13th 2016

I made a really grim joke to myself as I was driving back to visit Tom, and I called my sister Kate to share it. I am bad at navigation, at finding objects, at — speaking of the broadest notion of tasks and abilities that could fall under this label— of sorting + keeping track. One thing that means is that I use the GPS to get everywhere, by way of compensation for the skills I seemingly can’t learn. Often, this leads to unpredictable routes between destinations I frequent as Google Maps adjusts to traffic conditions. I rarely just ‘hop on 95 and follow it until you’re there.’

So, today, I was on the road, heading from Alexandria to my parents’ house south of Fredricksburg. As best I can tell, this took me around the DC beltway into Maryland, then east, then south, through two tolls and over a somewhat long bridge. It took longer than usual, but I was never in traffic, and if the GPS ever threw up a ‘Recalculating…’ message, I missed it. When it said I was 15 minutes away, I realized didn’t recognize anything around me, though the road signs did say I was in the right county.

I pictured walking into the house upon my arrival and saying, “I have no idea how I got here.” (Route talk is an easy way to make chitchat in tough situations.) And then I remembered my mom’s story about taking to the ER a week ago: after they were in the car on the way to the hospital, a few minutes into their trip, Tom asked, “how did I get here?” His sense of continuity and his speech experience peaks and valleys, but in general their trajectory is downward.

Anyway, I pictured walking into my house and saying, “I have no idea how I got here.” And then — humor unbidden — I imagined Tom piping up and saying, “Me neither.” That’s when I called Kate.

The thought (even as I sit here and think about it now) seems really funny. It’s the sort of humor that Tom is known for, and a few days ago, he had been making these sort of jokes — to their and our chagrin — with his nurses.

It was clear by now though that such a joke has been clouded out of his reach. But for those seconds that I thought it, in the world of my mind, the scene fought back against what the cancer had taken away.

For a few moments after I hung up with Kate, just after I turned onto our street, I thought about saying it when I walked in: “I have no idea how I got here.” To give Tom the chance to fight back for real. To make the joke I thought up. But I was worried, confident, that it wouldn’t play out like that. And I didn’t want to take away the memory that it did.

This is a part of a series of essays which I began while my step-father Tom — a good man — was undergoing treatment for particularly aggressive brain cancer. He began experiencing acute symptoms on March 6th, 2016, and passed away nineteen days later.

His family and friends started a college scholarship fund in his memory. If you would like to donate, you can do so at


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