Eastbound and Down

We were supposed to be on the road at 7 a.m. Sunday morning so of course my three year old, who woke up dry and had yet to pee, was half-pirouetting, half-skipping in our kitchen at 7:25, softly singing "Let It Go" to herself rather than going potty so we could leave.

She was very excited about stopping at the Crossville Buc-ees, even though all we ever do there is hurry into the bathroom. I had her stand in front of me while I peed and I changed her pull-up. We each picked a milk from the cooler and hit the road again.

I talked to her about why I did things as I drove. I noticed this week that when she got a "driver cart" at the grocery store that she turns a steering wheel like an old pro. It always surprises me how close she's paying attention.

There's almost always some accident or traffic on the descent to the Clinch River bridge so we talked about mountains, and how it's easier to go too fast going down hill.

As we got closer we talked about my dad.

"His tummy hurts," she said. "They're taking care of him. He's going to get a medicine and then we can't see him for a while."

My dad has pancreatic cancer. Six months of chemo is supposed to start tomorrow. A rearrangement of the GI tract called a Whipple procedure in there somewhere, if things go well. So I drove three hours there and three hours back the same day to let my parents soak up snuggles and her tiny, sassy voice before … well, before. I lied about feeling good about the impending plumbing repair or the removal of our retaining wall, things I'd usually be seeking his advice about.

Both of his parents didn't take care of themselves and still lived to their mid-eighties, as did most of their parents and grandparents. We didn't address that subject directly. Instead we talked about the genealogy stuff we've learned in just the past few years, skirting around that so many of those ancestors were long-lived, for so far back.

In his last visit to Nashville in January, he said he'd recently weighed the most he ever had, and he wanted to change that. I offered to be an accountability partner. One of my own goals was to make a point to get enough sleep; I was revenge bedtime procrastinating a lot, which I knew he understood because he did it a lot in his thirties and forties. I'd text at 7 a.m. Then I caught a daycare crud about six weeks in and stopped updating, but he didn't. The weight was melting off, at a pace I couldn't have sustained even when I was a broke 20-year-old measuring out portions to ensure they'd last until the next paycheck. I was convinced he wasn't eating enough, that he was exercising too much.

Now I wonder, would a smaller man's cancer have been caught on the weight loss alone, before the elevated liver enzymes showed up in routine bloodwork, the same week the GI symptoms started? Another worry in my bouquet of them.

It was only 6 p.m. back home but I was exhausted to the point I was becoming concerned about making it home. So we slowly packed up a unicorn water table and our backpacks, I grabbed a handful of peppermints, and we migrated toward my SUV.

By the time I was back on I-40, on my second peppermint, I was more awake. I stopped at the exit for a college roommate's hometown, as I wasn't going to quite make it to Buc-ees, and filled up the tank while my daughter slept in her carseat. A red sunset, hazed over with smoke from the Alberta wildfires, dipped below the mountains. Then it was just the dark interstate, music from twenty years ago and more fun road trips on CarPlay, and me wide awake as midlife unfurled ahead.

← Back home