(photo: Sam Doores)

The Cancer Playlist

Running shoes, headphones, and my father’s refusal to die.

My father is 73 years old now. That he’s alive is enough for me, but he still runs and walks ten kilometers every day, making his way down Siesta Key Beach, or along Sarasota Bay and over the bridge to Lido Key. He runs more than I’ve ever believed a man his age should, and he runs just as much as he did before cancer, chemotherapy and radiation hit him with everything they had, and lost.

I remember calling him in the middle of it all. He was halfway through his radiation treatments and the sessions were burning his voice to a whisper.

“How you doing, Dad?”

“Mister Cancer picked the wrong fuckin’ dude,” he said.

He was right. Five years later, the after-effects still make themselves known, but only just. He can’t taste food as well as he used to, and his throat dries up quickly when he talks at length — which is often. But when he goes to see the radiologist, the doctor tells him, “You’re my healthiest patient. Get the hell out of my office.”

For as long as I can remember, my dad has run to music. Back in the 80’s he toted an oversized yellow Walkman on his hip as he ran his way out of the grief over his divorce from my mother. At the time, he wasn’t much older than I am now.

Five years ago, when the lump on his throat turned out to be something rather than nothing, his first response was to just keep doing what he’d been doing for years. He preached his gospel of “10-K, everyday,” and humped his way over the bridge and back with his personal background music fueling his pace. A former disc jockey, he develops deep attachments to his favorites, from Van Morrison to Jimi Hendrix to Neil Young.

As his chemo treatments kicked in, he slowed his runs down to walks, but still got the miles under his feet every day. In an attempt at solidarity, I started running myself. He would do his walks through my old hometown, and I would run along the Mississippi River in my adopted home of New Orleans. I’d just moved to the Lower Ninth Ward, and doing those runs along the levees seemed the best way to connect with him during his treatment.

When I came back to Florida to check in, he looked great. His energy hadn’t flagged. He still had all his hair. I remarked that he didn’t seem like a man locked in a battle with cancer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think it will be the same with the radiation.”

It wasn’t. His walks ceased and he struggled to make it through a day without throwing up. The treatments left a burn that looked like someone had stubbed out a cigar on his neck. As his activity ceased, mine picked up. His voice shrank and faded and I ran. He had a tube implanted in his stomach and I ran. I didn’t think of it as trying to make up for him losing his favorite activity. I ran because I simply didn’t know what else to do.

When I came home for my brother’s wedding, his eyes were sunken and his hair was a brush of white wisps. He struggled to deal with the noise of crowds. He looked as delicate as rice paper. He was able to keep his seat at the wedding, but I had to take him home immediately afterward. His final radiation session was two days away.

“It’s the last one,” he whispered as we drove home. “If they tell me I need another one, I’m not going.”

It was the last one, but he continued to grow sicker for weeks after the final session. Then, little by little, his health returned. As the nausea faded, he began to take walks. Eventually, he began to run.

My own running sessions faded with my father’s recovery, and my own stabs at fitness were short-lived bursts of erratic activity. In January, while my father could boast of a full recovery from a life-threatening illness, I was the heaviest I’d ever been, and even a half-mile run left me doubled over and gasping. I wasn’t sleeping, and frequently lost my focus in conversations. Then one day I sat up and something let go in my back. For two days I could hardly walk. I felt compelled to make up a story when people asked me how I hurt myself, because if you tell people you threw your back out sitting up in bed they look at you like part of you is about to fall off.

But worse than that was the knowledge that I was half my father’s age and could see myself breaking down — not from a disease, but from neglect. It almost seemed like an insult to him.

I doubt my father knew he was handing me a way out of that trap when he passed me his old smart phone. But once my back healed enough, I began to walk on the levee by my house again, taking his phone with me every time. As my walks turned into runs, I began to add my own music. The Clash. Fats Domino. Muddy Waters. My own playlist tangled with his, and I found myself running not just to my favorites, but to the same music my father listened to as he walked, and eventually ran, his way back into being whole.

These days, I’m running regularly again. And on every run, I have my dad’s old phone in a sleeve on my arm, the headphones running to my ears. I run across the St. Claude Bridge out of the Lower Ninth Ward while, a few hundred miles away, my father is running over a bridge in my hometown. Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” comes on, that piano intro segueing into Young’s strange alto voice that I used to make fun of, and now find so comforting. It’s a sound that reminds me of my father. I push my headphones in and turn my engine over to a mix of my music and his. I put one foot in front of the other, try to keep a pace I imagine him moving at, and think how nice it is that we might be listening to the same song as we go.

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