I’m waiting in the drive-thru for the sandwich I’ll need to split with the hungry, screaming toddler in the back seat when I get this text from my mom: “DAD IN ACCIDENT. TAKING LIFE FLIGHT TO OP REGIONAL. POSSIBLE INTERNAL BLEEDING. ON WAY NOW.” I pull up to the window, hand over cash, take the sandwich, and race out of the parking lot, passing half the sandwich to my son with one hand and trying to call my mom with the other, maneuvering the wheel with my knees like Dad taught me to do.
Of course I can’t get through. Mom probably sent the text, as she always does with every text, to everyone in our family: my three sisters, her mom, her three sisters and four brothers, and who knows who else. So I can’t get through because everyone else is trying to call her at the same time, which means no one can get through to ask for the full story, get a sense of the urgency, gain the slightest bit of nuance that’s lost in the fifteen, all-capped words of the text. I begin calling my sisters. No answers. Finally my wife — who is spending the day with friends in Lawrence, Kansas, thirty minutes away from our home in Kansas City — calls me and says she finally got in touch with one of my sisters, who had somehow successfully called Mom. Mom was now driving north on I-35 at only 40 miles an hour due to one long and torturous construction zone, driving from the retreat center where they were spending the weekend with some friends, driving to the hospital an hour away. The Life Flight helicopter would deliver Dad to the ER thirty minutes before she could get there, and could anyone else get there sooner?
Ten minutes and a dozen calls and texts later, I’ve pieced together most of the story: At the retreat center, the rest of the group finished eating breakfast inside while Dad went to the woods so he could set up the zip line before everyone else came out. The property owners put him in charge of the zip line since he alone had observed before how to set the bungee brake at the line’s end first, then how to strap the leg harness on at the top of the line. He did a test run, placing his left leg in the harness and grabbing the rope. The moment he stepped off the platform he realized he never set the brake. Fifty yards away he saw the tree he would hit zipping twenty miles an hour. Hanging onto a rope fifteen feet off the ground and nothing to do to stop the inevitable, he braced for impact by turning his left hip downhill, ducking his head into his neck as much he could, thinking turtle thoughts. When he hit, he took the impact all along the left side of his body while his arms still gripped the rope. But his free right leg kept zipping forward then whipped around the side of the tree like a piece of licorice. He started to fall but the rope caught him by his left foot. So he hung there upside down, swinging and bouncing into the tree, his unintended target. He dangled there, wrecked and half-conscious.
I’m a child of the 80s and the son of Evangelical Christians, so Dad made sure my sisters and I were raised right: prayers at dinner, bi-weekly church attendance, and a regular dose of Star Wars. In episode five, Luke Skywalker wakes up in the cave of the Wampa, a fictional snow monster. The Wampa sleeps on the other side of the cave from where Luke hangs upside down, his feet packed in the snow roof, apparently to keep his body fresh and preserved until the Wampa’s dinner time. Quietly so as to not wake the Wampa, Luke tries to dislodge his feet but is too weak to bend his torso enough to reach his legs. He tries once, tries again, and then lets his body go slack to dangle once more in a moment of giving up. Then he spots his light saber on the ground below, tries to reach out for it a few times before he remembers Obi Wan’s words: Use the force, Luke. The Wampa starts to stir. Luke closes his eyes, squeezes his gloved hands, then reaches out with one arm, palm opened and eyes closed. The soft soundtrack music signaling The Force crescendos. The light saber shifts. Moves. The Wampa opens his eyes. And, just in time, The Force goes into full effect, the light saber zings into Luke’s hand, he frees himself from the snow, falls, then stands just in time to saber the Wampa.
This is the image I get when I try to visualize Dad dangling there, realizing he is in trouble, then finding the inner strength to reach up and free himself from the rope, dropping his half-limp body to the ground, where he lies mostly still except for his left arm. He reaches for his cell phone, grabs it, and dials 9-1-1.
I ask my wife to hurry back from Lawrence so we can all head to the hospital immediately. We won’t make it there before the helicopter arrives, but enough family members have volunteered to get there sooner. I drive home to wait for her and to finish the sandwich and to take lots of deep breaths, causing my son to look at me quizzically. My wife is home in twenty minutes and we’re off again to the regional hospital in Overland Park.
During those twenty minutes at home, I finally get through to Mom. I’m scared for Dad and want to know if everything is all right, but for a brief moment I’m tempted to yell at her for using a cryptic text to tell us about the accident. For not communicating clearly how urgent this is. For not explicitly saying whether it is life or death or something less frightening. For giving me the severe and helpless panic that I wouldn’t see my father alive again. For using an emotionless, nuance-free form of technology to hint at this possible death. I bury my anger and ask if she is doing alright.
She’s shaken. She tells me that after breakfast she had just started wondering what was taking Dad so long, so she stepped out on the porch and heard a faint voice calling, “I’m down here! I fell!” She ran down the stairs, down the hill, and crouched down next to him. The ambulance arrived soon after that, and the paramedic decided that Life-Flighting to Overland Park was necessary, in case of internal bleeding. Just in case. I tell her everything will be fine, partly to comfort her, partly to confirm to myself that my father was not dead yet.
An hour later we’re at the hospital. After getting a CT scan to check for internal injury, after an examination from the doctor, Dad is now awake and eating the french fries my aunt picked up for him. My wife and I stand at his bedside. I’m holding my son in my arms, reassuring him that papa is all right and is just resting because he hit a tree and hurt himself and needs a Band-Aid and a nap. That’s the best I can come up with.
Dad can’t move his legs very well, but he is laughing. Partly at himself: He says he is mostly just embarrassed that he nearly killed himself with such a stupid mistake, embarrassed that everyone is so worried that he might be dead or dying. But mostly he is laughing at this: the three-centimeter mass on his kidney, discovered by the CT scan.
Another hallmark of any good Evangelical home: the collected works of C.S. Lewis. The book Mere Christianity is so revered among Evangelicals it might as well be a lost epistle of Paul. But for us children: the boxed set of Chronicles of Narnia. We loved the stories of Aslan the lion, the children, and the wardrobe, and as we grew older we learned why our parents and their friends continued to cherish the books. All of them, Dad especially, prefer allegory to metaphor. So in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, when the children dine with the beavers and speak of Aslan the lion, Dad was in on the secret meaning. In the book, the messianic figure is Aslan — a lion who has returned to the magical kingdom of Narnia to reclaim it from the evil snow queen. Young Lucy asks Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe, and he replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
I’ve heard Dad retell this part of the story many times. He was born again as a teenager, so he is frequently invited to speak to youth groups. He shares his testimony and gives them a picture of what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has meant to him. And to him, it has always been not about rules and dogma and safe piety. For Dad, it has always been about a good adventure with Jesus.
He’s released from Overland Park Regional two days later with an appointment scheduled to see an oncologist for a biopsy. He stays home from work on bed rest for a week. But if there’s work to be done, Dad can’t sit still for seven minutes let alone seven days. Four days after the accident, he is on his feet and moving furniture so that the wood floors can be finished the following week while they are visiting friends in Colorado. But before they leave town, Dad goes in to get the biopsy of the mass and learns that it is stage one kidney cancer. Malignant.
For some reason I can never keep straight malignant and benign. I confuse the two, thinking that malignant is the good one, benign the bad. Don’t the names just sound that way? Malignant: magnificent. Benign: bad is nigh! So when Dad calls and says the word malignant, I nearly blurt out words of relief. Oh good! But I catch myself, remind my brain that I always get this one wrong, and try to shift my visceral reaction from relief to sadness. This is cancer. The real cancer. But stage one? What the hell does that mean? He tells me that we caught it early enough that he simply needs to have an operation removing the mass and one of his kidneys, and that should be that. No big deal. A benign malignancy. Makes me feel better, but doesn’t help my confusion.
is the subject line of an email from Dad. He is writing to family and friends to update everyone on this particular adventure of his, like a letter home during a summer backpacking in Europe. He caught the cancer like a train: just in time. Renal cell carcinoma begins as a small tumor on the kidney but within a few years can extend beyond the kidney, infecting nearby tissue and lymph nodes. Eventually the cancer moves on to the bones and liver, the brain and lungs, eventually taking over the body. Dad doesn’t regularly visit the CT scan chamber, so who knows when — or if — he would have known otherwise.
Because we caught the cancer at stage one, it’s no big deal at all. The original plan with his urologist had been to remove the mass along with the whole kidney, just to be sure that none of the cancer remains on the surface of the kidney and then reappears in the future. But he met with a different urologist who says he could go into Dad’s body with robotic arms, remove the mass and just a sliver of the kidney’s surface, safely getting rid of all the cancer while leaving both kidneys in tact. And anyway, the doctor says, with Dad’s history of adventure, he might need both kidneys somewhere down the road. And Dad, thankful that there at least is a road to keep going down, says okay.
Or how about waves as a metaphor: If you wade into the ocean deep enough, it only takes one big wave to completely knock you down and under water. However many waves come after, no matter how much they hold you under and keep you from finding your footing, they are never as powerful as that first wave. Only the first wave truly knocks you off your feet.
So after my family’s panic and fear from the cryptic texts and life flights and internal bleeding and zip lines and close calls, a little bit of cancer seems like nothing at all. If you have just been submerged in the sea, what’s a little more salt water up the nose?
Accident. Luck. Fate. Fortune. Miracle. Blessing. I’m sure I could count ten ways to interpret these events, but only two interest me right now: my father’s and my own.
My parents were teenage Jesus Freaks in the early 70s, then morphed into Reaganite Evangelicals by the time my sisters and I showed up in the 80s. When I was in college years later and struggling through a crisis of faith, I remember asking Dad, Why Jesus? When you were my age, what turned you to Jesus? Because, he said, many of his friends had tuned in, turned on, dropped out, and he had then watched their lives slowly fall apart. Jesus just made more sense to him. Jesus was more attractive to him than anything else being offered.
I try to remember this whenever my skepticism turns its gaze toward the faith of my father. Because for all of my problems with church and dogma and bigotry and magical thinking and theological gymnastics that are part of the Evangelical worldview, I, too, remain somewhat drawn to this obscure carpenter’s son from Nazareth. His teachings, his compelling narrative. But I no longer find it possible to filter every moment of my life through the lens of a personal relationship with Jesus. That part no longer makes sense.
So when I open my inbox a week before his surgery, I’m not surprised to see the subject line: THE TREE THAT SAVED MY LIFE. The email recounts the whole story: zip lining into the tree which led to a random CT scan which revealed kidney cancer in its earliest stages which can easily be removed and thank God. A God who not only saved his life by the tree at the end of the zip line, but who also saved his soul by the Tree made into a cross two thousand years ago.
I groan out loud.
Then put my face in my hands and cry, not only for the gladness that Dad is not dead — not yet, thank God — but also for my own inability to make sense of it all in such simple a way as his. Luck. Fate. Fortune. Blessing. Who can ever really know. But in this small instance I envy the boldness of Dad’s belief. I admire his willful acceptance that this is God’s mysterious love. And for a moment I think I feel that love, but the moment is gone.
Dad goes into surgery at 1p.m. on a Wednesday in late November. I’m able to drop by the waiting room for a half hour before I need to pick up my son from day care, but I promise Mom that we’ll be back later in the evening.
So five hours after the surgery, my wife, son, and I are on our way to the hospital to visit him in recovery. As I drive we’re listening to some comedy program on public radio and are laughing at a joke so hard that, once we calm down, we agree it a good idea for my son to memorize it. For the rest of the drive to the hospital, we repeat and rehearse the joke with him, laughing all the way.
At the bedside, Dad is pale and half-conscious from the drugs, but in a decent mood and smiling. He’s going to be fine. So we don’t worry much when my son blurts out, “It was raining cats and dogs outside, and I stepped in a poodle!” Dad starts laughing so hard that he leans forward and grabs his side from the shooting pain and begins to cry and holds himself so tightly and so joyfully and so painfully that he finally lays back, wipes his eyes, and risks a laugh again.
ANDREW JOHNSON lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in Sonora Review, The Pinch, MAKE and New Letters, and is forthcoming in Confrontation, Crazyhorse, Saint Katherine Review, and Passages North.