Cold sore 2Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar sensation, or what, for me, is a familiar sensation: a tingle in my upper lip. A slight, hair tickle itch. Fizzy, like I’ve rubbed my mouth with the skin of a habanero pepper. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light, unconcerned about burning my eyes with the sharp, sudden brightness. In the mirror, I saw the faint irritation lining a section of my lip about a quarter-inch long, barely noticeable. From experience, I knew it would erupt in the next few hours. A cold sore.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

My father’s urologist projected the CAT scan on his computer screen, pointing out the major organs like battle sites on a Civil War map. My father’s body, my homeland. Bladder. Liver. Intestine. Spleen. “Here’s the right kidney,” he said, using his pen to mark the perimeter. “You can see its recognizable shape, a healthy shape and size.” We nodded, my mother, my father, and me. We knew pointing out normalities meant an abnormality was coming. Dr. Petroski inhaled. “And now here’s the left kidney,” he said, moving his pen to a dark area that did not mirror its right-hand counterpart. It was as large as my father’s liver, but misshapen, a bulge in the center like a football. “You see the difference in the shape? That’s a tumor. That’s the problem.”

My father died on November 12, 2012. The date matters. My mind clenches the details, hugging tight the hairpin curves of my memory. I am the cartographer of this map. November 12, 2012.

Though it was a heart attack that ultimately killed him, my father was facing terminal cancer, and so our grief had been underway for weeks before his death. As the grim test results piled up, I shuttled my father to and from doctor’s appointments, picked up his medicines, stocked his fridge with the foods he needed to cleanse and strengthen his body. I did this mostly on autopilot and very little sleep. When I did occasionally break down—in the car, in my office behind closed doors—the ferocity of my keening frightened me. The pitch of it. The way it overtook and then left me, a funnel cloud suddenly curling back into the sky.

You may have read this story, the one about 62-year-old Don Doane of Ravenna, Michigan. For more than forty-five years Mr. Doane was a member of the same bowling team. He and his teammates competed in a local league at the local lanes over at Ravenna Bowl.