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Julius Harris was exhausted as he sat in his car at eight in the morning. He hadn't gotten a full night's rest, and he felt awful. He reached forward, pulled the visor down to take a look at himself in the mirror, to see if he looked as bad as he felt.
What he saw was an unshaven, sixty-year-old man, who looked more like a one-hundred-year-old man. His hair was short and uncombed, dark circles hung under his tired, bloodshot eyes, and as he dropped his face in his hands, rubbing the graying stubble on it, he asked himself, Was he losing weight? Was he shedding pounds without even trying? He sank a thumb into the waist of the wrinkled trousers he'd pulled off the back of his bedroom chair that morning, and gave them a tug. He could've sworn he'd lost weight, but every time he asked his wife about it, she simply smiled and said that he was being ridiculous.
Julius left his pants alone, flipped the visor back into place, then looked toward the window. He smeared a circle in that foggy driver's-side window to reveal a fuzzy image of the small medical center across the street. He had a view of the parking lot, and as he focused his attention there, cars started to roll in.
He wished that he weren't alone at that moment, wished that he could reach across the car and feel his wife, take her hand, and gain strength from her, as he was used to doing. Cathy had wanted to come with him, begged him to let her come, but he wouldn't do that to her again.
He remembered five years ago when they'd last come to see this doctor, she was destroyed sitting there beside him in the doctor's office. He could practically feel the life leave her, her body falling limp in his arms after they had received the news. Julius had decided he couldn't subject her to something like that again, and he knew that would be the kind of news the doctor would have for him.
"The cancer is back, and it is more aggressive than ever before," the doctor would tell Julius. He wouldn't even have to run any tests, because he'd be able to see it seeping out of Julius's pores, his posture weakened by the damage the disease had already done to his bones.
Julius brought his face nearer to the window, his attention caught by a silver Jaguar slowly pulling into the parking lot. He watched it as it took the closest space to the building. The driver's-side door opened, a foot was placed on the pavement, and a man stepped out, a thin, graying man with glasses.
Julius, his eyes narrowing, recognized him immediately. It was the doctor, his doctor. His doctor popped open an umbrella over his head and took casual steps toward the building, as if it weren't raining at all.
With that, Julius reached across the passenger seat, picked up his umbrella, and made his way out into the rain himself. The clouds drenched everything under them, sending down a perpetual sheet of rain on the city. Julius dodged through the cars that skimmed across the rain-slick street, stopping once to avoid getting splashed by a wave of water thrust toward him by a passing car.
Julius saw the doctor disappear behind the tinted, double doors of the building, which made him pick up his pace. He took the stairs as fast as he could, pulled the door to the building open, and ducked inside, his umbrella still open, dripping rain onto the dark carpet. The waiting room was filled with patients, most of them older, their bodies naturally deformed by age, silver sprouting from their heads, sad expressions on their faces. A TV droned on, mounted high in a corner of the room, no doubt there to take the patients' minds away from their illnesses and how long it would be before they could see the doctor, just so he could go about putting their illnesses back on their minds.
Julius looked left, then quickly right, and saw his doctor disappear behind the door of his office. He walked briskly after him, almost running, but was halted by a young, thin receptionist. She got up and leaned over her desk just a bit, as if to reach out and snag Julius by his collar and yank him back if he continued to move in the direction of the doctor's office.
"Sir, can I help you?" she said in a tone that actually said, "You can't go back there."
"Yes, I'm here to see Dr. Phillips," Julius said, not looking at the receptionist, but at the closed office door, as if he was afraid the doctor was slipping out the office window as they spoke.
"Okay, yes, fine," the woman said, pulling a scheduling book in front of her, keeping an eye on Julius.
"And your name, sir?" she said, her finger resting at the top of the page.
"Mr. Harris," Julius said.
It only took her a moment, to say, "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't see your name on the list. Are you sure it wasn't for another day?"
"I don't have an appointment," Julius said, now giving his attention to her, "but I still have to see Dr. Phillips."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Harris, but all these people have to see him, too, and they do have appointments."
Julius looked over his shoulder at the half dozen people sitting in the chairs behind him. Their eyes were on him, as if they had been listening to his conversation with this woman since he'd started it. He sympathized with them, but his case was more important than theirs. At least it was to him, and that was all that mattered.
Julius turned, placed both palms on the woman's desk, and leaned into her, speaking softly.
"I understand what you're saying, but I really must see Dr. Phillips today," and Julius even gave her a little smile after his request, thinking it might make some bit of difference.
The dark-haired woman looked up at him from behind her glasses and said, "I'm sorry, Mr...."
"Your sorrow does nothing for me!" Julius said, pounding the desk angrily, sending a tremor through her Garfield and Odie trinkets, making them do a little dance, then fall to their sides, playing dead. "I have to see him now. Please!" Julius said, softening his tone, trying to appeal to this woman.
The receptionist stared at Julius sympathetically for a moment, then said, "Hold on. Let me see what I can do." She picked up the phone, dialed the doctor's office.
"Dr. Phillips, there is a Mr. Harris out here to see you. No, he doesn't have an appointment, but I believe you might want to see him...Okay...yes...all right," she said, all the while looking at Julius. Then she hung up the phone.
"He'll be right out to see you, Mr. Harris," the receptionist said, smiling.
"Thank you," Julius said, softly.
A moment later, the doctor's office door opened, and Julius turned to face that direction, watched his doctor walk down the short hall toward him, a phony little smile pasted across his face, which Julius knew was meant to appease him long enough to get him out of there.
His hand was outstretched, and his demeanor seemed more that of a car salesman than a man of medicine. "Good morning." He grinned. "Mr...." and he looked down briefly to his receptionist, who said softly, "Harris."
"Good morning, Mr. Harris," the doctor said again, keeping his hand out for Julius to shake. Julius stared down at the man's hand as if he had just yanked it out of his ass. The doctor lowered his hand, his smile shrinking a bit with the movement.
"What seems to be the problem?"
Julius stood in front of the man, expecting to see something in his eyes, a glint of recognition, something. But there was nothing. Julius was a total stranger to him. But Julius didn't care that it had been five years since he had last seen this man. He should know me, he thought.
"I need to speak to you," Julius said, then turned to see that he still had the attention of every patient in the waiting room. "In private."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Harris, but as Susie told you, you'll have to make an appointment."
"I don't need an appointment for what I have to say," Julius said, and now he was speaking loud enough for the oldest and deafest man in the room to hear him.
"I am a patient of yours, and you misdiagnosed me, filling me with a lot of pain, anger, and fear, telling me I was going to die a long time ago, when anyone can see that I'm still living." Julius turned to the waiting room, as if it held a jury, and he was an attorney making a case. "And considering that, I'm wondering how many other people you've given false information to, causing them to..."
Before he could finish, Julius was led quickly by the arm into Dr. Phillips's office. The door was shut behind them.
"Who are you, and what the hell do you think you are doing?" the doctor said angrily.
"You know my name. Susie told it to you, remember," Julius said, sarcastically.
"And?" the doctor said, bewildered.
"You don't know who I am?"
"I was a patient of yours."
"I have hundreds of patients," the doctor said, on the verge of erupting.
"Look at me, Dr. Phillips. Take a long look," Julius said, and the doctor did that, but Julius saw that the doctor was still clueless.
"Maybe this will help you." Julius took a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk, the same chair he'd sat in when he was diagnosed with cancer five years ago.
"Now look at me."
"That still doesn't..."
"Five years ago, I sat here with a woman. You came in here, pulled open a file, and from that file, you casually told me that..." but Julius stopped talking, because he could see the doctor's eyes grow round with recollection.
"I told you that you had terminal cancer, and only one year to live," the doctor said slowly, softly, as if he had made this realization all by himself. "I expected that you would be..."
"Dead," Julius said, finishing for him.
After an exhausting battery of all-day testing, including a thorough physical, blood work, and CAT scan, Julius returned the following morning. He was sitting in the exact chair he'd sat in the day before, the exact chair he'd sat in the day he was diagnosed five years before. This thought all of a sudden crept into his head, and he was overcome by a need to get out of that seat. He quickly leapt out of it and sat in the one next to it. Not that he was superstitious, but something told him, had been telling him, that he would need all the help he could get on this one.
Dr. Phillips was not in the office. He had gone out to gather all the test results, so they could find out exactly what was going on. He was a lot more caring than he had been early yesterday morning, Julius noticed. He was a lot more willing to listen, and willing to do whatever it took to get to the bottom of this huge mystery.
The change had happened the day before, just after the doctor realized that he was staring at what he thought should have been a dead man.
"Why didn't you come in here sooner?" he asked, astonishment on his face. "And what makes you finally come in now?"
"The chemotherapy I had didn't work. It just made me sick, just made my hair fall out, and made me think that what was supposed to be the cure would kill me before the disease did. And then the radiation therapy was embarrassing and demeaning, but I told myself I'd be willing to endure almost anything, just to have a shot at my life."
"But if you remember," the doctor said, taking his glasses from his face, "I told you your cancer was terminal. I told you that there was a very slim chance that you would respond to any treatment, but you insisted, so I allowed you to follow that route."
"Well, you were right," Julius said, swallowing some pride. "It didn't seem to work, and I decided I wouldn't make any more efforts to cure myself, nor would I continue to think about it killing me. I just gave up all together. But then, for some reason, when I went to bed at night, I just kept on waking up in the morning. After a while, I didn't have any pain. As a matter of fact, I felt like I was in perfect health. Sure, every now and then I'd get a muscle ache or a runny nose, but it was gone the following day."
"But now?" Dr. Phillips asked, sensing there was more.
"But now I have this cold, this fever, and I've just been feeling like hell for the past two weeks, and I can't seem to shake it. I'm worried it's the cancer again," Julius said, sadly looking down at his folded hands.
"Well, we'll find out what's going on, one way or the other," the doctor said, walking over to him, laying a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "We'll get to the bottom of this."
Now here was Dr. Phillips standing just inside the door with a manila folder in his hands. There seemed to be no emotions on his face, and if there was one, it was of a man making an effort to hide the true expressions he was actually feeling.
He took soft, cautious steps across the thinly carpeted floor, holding the file in his hands very gently, as if he were carrying Julius's life, and if it slipped out, the man before him would perish that very moment.
Dr. Phillips sat on the edge of his desk in front of Julius, setting the file down gently beside him. "We have the results now. They're right here in this file, Julius."
He had started calling him Julius. He had never done that before, and Julius suspected it was because he feared Julius would tell his patients about the major fuck-up the doctor had made in his diagnosis. Or could it be that he was just a nice guy after all, and he truly wanted to make Julius feel more comfortable, considering all he was going through? He didn't know, and really, it didn't make much difference what the motivation was, because it did make him feel better, as if he weren't in this all by himself.
"I went over them quite a few times to make sure, that's what took me so long. I even called over to the lab, to make sure these were the right results, and not anybody else's."
And now Julius was on the verge of a breakdown. He could feel himself becoming anxious, could feel a cold chill shoot through his spine and a flame ignite at his brow. The results in that file were probably so bad the doctor couldn't believe it. The doctor couldn't believe that a man who was so filled with cancer could actually walk into his office, not aided by a wheelchair or a stretcher, let alone raise enough hell to cause a scene in the waiting room.
"I called and verified everything. Twice. Even went to look at your CAT scan myself," Dr. Phillips said, picking up the folder and letting it fall open, the flaps of either side draping across his open palm.
This was it, Julius thought. He was staring at the doctor as if he were death, as if he had the ability to take his life right there, and even though that was not the case, even though he was just the deliverer of the news, Julius still feared for his existence. So much so that his heart stopped right there, or at least it felt as though it did, because there seemed to be nothing happening within him. His legs, arms, were numb, not his own, and all he could do was close his eyes and listen as the doctor spoke.
"The tests show that your cancer seems to be in remission."
Julius felt as if all of a sudden his heart started beating again, and then he slowly opened his eyes. "What did you say to me?"
A long, thin smile lengthened across the doctor's face.
"We can't seem to detect any trace of cancer throughout your entire body. How does that sound?"
Julius wanted to jump from his chair, leap into that man's arms, and kiss him. How did that sound? All the bad things Julius ever thought or said about this man, he was taking back at that very moment.
Julius took the doctor's hand, and pumped it vigorously, thanking him over and over again. They both smiled and laughed, and then Julius said, "But what about how I'm feeling? That's not the cancer?"
"I'm afraid that's just a case of this persistent flu that's going around. I'll give you some antibiotics for it, and you should be better in a few days."
"But how could this have happened? You said then that the cancer had invaded other parts of my body, my spine, my pelvis, and now you say it's gone?"
"It may have been that you had a delayed response to all the treatment you received. Or, even in rare cases, people with advanced cancer may experience spontaneous remission."
"So what does that mean? I'm cured?"
"No. I don't think we can say that yet."
"But you said you couldn't find any of the cancer."
"I know, but..."
Julius grabbed the doctor's hand and shook it, cutting him off from what he was about to say. "I want to thank you for everything," Julius said, smiling. "I'll be seeing you," and then he was turning toward the door.
"Hold it, where are you going?"
"No more cancer. I'm going home to my wife."
"Julius, a remission means the cancer may only be gone right now. There could be a single cell lurking that may cause the cancer to come back. You need to come back for scheduled checkups."
Julius walked back toward the doctor, a sly smile on his face, shaking his head, waving his finger. "No, no, Doc. Last time I came back for one of your checkups, you cut the amount of time I had left in half. Don't take this personally, but I've managed to live an additional five years staying away from you, so I think I'll just continue what I've been doing."
Dr. Phillips was smiling again, obviously happy for the man, regardless of what route he chose to take. "Please, just come in every so often just for a blood test?"
Julius smiled with his doctor. "Sure. I can do that."
Julius didn't go home right away to give his wife, Cathy, the news, even though the thought crossed his mind as he drove away from the medical center, a smile on his face, a feeling of rebirth in his heart. He wanted to be alone with that feeling, wanted to fully thank whoever, or whatever, it was who had given him back his life.
He ended up at the ocean. It was where he went when he needed time to himself, when his thoughts got too jumbled and twisted in his head. This was the place he could let them all out onto the water's surface, and let the waves carry them away from him.
He was sitting, his legs crossed, on one of the large rocks that bordered the water. The gray clouds had cleared, allowing the brightness of the sun to cast down upon him. He lifted his face to feel its warmth, and thought of all the days like this before him. He looked at the water, then closed his eyes, breathed deeply, exhaled, and with that breath came the words, "Thank you."
For so many years, he had not known how much time he actually had to live, did not know if he would drop dead while having dinner, his face landing in his bowl of soup while in mid-conversation with his wife. But now, with this clean bill of health, he felt like a normal person, felt the way he had before he even had cancer, as though he could start living again, start making plans to do something next year, or two years from now. That was something he had never done over the past five years. And when Cathy asked about going on vacation, or commented on a holiday, or his birthday when it was more than a month away, he'd just turn a deaf ear to the idea, because he knew there was every likelihood that he would not be there to celebrate it.
Now things are different, he thought, the huge smile still on his face. But then another thought crept into his mind that made the smile start to disappear. Why had he gotten the cancer in the first place? He knew then, had always known, that it was a punishment for abandoning his wife and three sons twenty-five years ago. He had known that the moment the doctor had told him, and, although devastated, he hadn't been all that surprised, because he was expecting something terrible to happen to him, he just didn't know what. That moment, sitting there in that chair, receiving the news that he would die soon, he realized what a grave mistake he had made, never contacting his sons after leaving them so long ago.
So at that moment, he had decided to change that. Yes, he knew that it was only fear that motivated his actions, that his sons would see that, recognize the coward that he was, searching them out only because he didn't want to die alone. But he would make the attempt.
He'd flown to Chicago and located his sons. "Who in the hell cares that you're dying!" he'd figured his sons would say if he'd told them about the disease. But the main reason he hadn't told them was because he hadn't wanted them to take him back just because they felt pity for him. So he'd kept his illness a secret.
He'd gone to them asking them to take him back, telling them that he was sorry for ever leaving them, but they'd denied him, both his middle son, Marcus, and the eldest, Austin. Marcus had grown to hate Julius by that point, and Julius could understand why. On the other hand, Julius knew Austin would've taken him back had it not been for Marcus, for they had always been close, but he chose not to betray his brother's feelings, rejecting his father as Marcus did.
So there would be no life with his two oldest sons, but he had one son left, Caleb. The son he had never had time to build much of a bond with, for he was so young when Julius had left. The son who, by talking with his other sons, Julius had found out, also hated him passionately. But Julius would go to him, he decided. He would go to him groveling, asking for his forgiveness. It was his last hope, and his decision to do that changed his life.
Now, Julius looked down at his hands, and there lay an envelope, one deep crease in the middle where it had been folded so he could carry it in his shirt pocket, where it had been since he'd received it two days ago. The letter had been sent from Joliet Prison in Illinois.
Julius remembered being there more than four years prior, in that state prison, seeing his youngest son, now thirty-two years old, behind that thick penitentiary glass. It was his fault, he told himself. His fault his son was there, because Julius had abandoned him, left him without someone to keep him from making the mistakes that landed him behind bars.
He wanted to make that up to his son, needed to be reunited with him before he took his last breath. Because Julius was now desperate, he decided to tell Caleb of his illness, that he would be dying within a year, and of his need to redeem himself for abandoning him.
"Is there anything I can do for you, get for you, son?" Julius asked, looking at his son through the thick prison glass, speaking to him over a phone.
"I don't need anything from you."
"But what about your son?"
Caleb's girlfriend, Sonya, and their son, Jahlil, were left now without a man in their lives, the man that Julius knew Jahlil so desperately needed. He would not allow what happened to Caleb to happen to Caleb's son. In an attempt to make some kind of connection with Caleb, Julius promised he would take care of Sonya and Jahlil while Caleb was in prison. He would move them out to California, where he lived, allow them to live with him, and care for them till Caleb was free.
"But in return for caring for them, I want us to have a relationship. I want to write you, and have you write me back. I want you to know that you have someone out there thinking about you, waiting till you get out. Someone that loves you."
Julius knew it was a lot to ask of his son, considering he had not seen him in twenty-five years, knew the painful feelings that his son was harboring. But Caleb accepted not because he cared to have a relationship with his father, but because he was desperate, because he was thinking of the welfare of his girlfriend and child.
"I think Sonya will wait for you," Julius said, before he left, not knowing if he truly believed the words that were coming from his mouth. But it was what his son needed to hear, and Julius vowed to himself at that moment that he would try his best to keep Caleb's family intact for him for when he returned.
But after two years, Sonya wanted to leave. She said she couldn't take the restrictions, the feeling that she was being held prisoner until Caleb was released, so she packed her things, and Julius's grandson, and left.
As Julius stood in the front of his driveway, watching the cab pull away, carrying Sonya and Jahlil to a place he did not know, he realized just how much this would hurt his son Caleb. This would take whatever desire he had to make it out of prison away from him. This would make him want to roll over and die, and Julius would not allow that to happen.
Even after Sonya moved away, the letters continued coming from Joliet Prison as they had every week. One letter for Julius, one for Sonya. Julius responded to his letters as he had every week since he had visited his son. Julius knew the letters he wrote his son gave him strength, told him to endure, that his father loved him, and that if there was anything his son needed, he would do everything in his power to get it to him.
Although bumpy at first, Julius and Caleb managed to build quite a relationship through those letters, and Julius could feel his son developing a dependence upon him. In the sixth month of letter writing, Caleb started asking questions about his father's health. How was he feeling, when was the last time he had seen the doctor?
Julius wrote him back, telling him he was done with the doctor, that there was nothing the doctor could do for him any longer. And when Julius received Caleb's reply, he could feel Caleb's anger and disappointment through the words on the page.
They screamed of his concern for his child: "Who will take care of Jahlil?" Of his worry for his girlfriend: "And where will Sonya live?" And finally, of his feelings for his father. "You have to keep seeing the doctor to make sure you're okay. I don't want to lose you if I don't have to. Please, Dad, go see him."
Julius had sat in his den, reading that letter, a small lamp burning a dim circle of light in the blackness, as he stared down at it. He held it in both his trembling hands, his eyes concentrating on the word "Dad." This was the first time his son had called him that, and even though it was written and not said, it held just as much meaning. Julius had his son back, at least one of them, and the boy cared, truly cared, about what would happen to him.
Julius had opened his desk drawer, pulled a blank sheet of paper out, and started to write on it.
You no longer need to worry about my health. I will be here for you. No matter what, I'll be here for you when you get out. That I promise.
It was the only thing he wrote on the page. He stuck it in an envelope and mailed it that evening.
After Sonya had left, her letters from Caleb piled up on the table in the hallway, right near the front door.
"You have to tell him that Sonya is gone," Cathy said, standing over the letters, speaking softly, as if the words in the letters Caleb wrote could somehow allow him to hear what was being said.
"And what good would that do? There's nothing he can do about it, and all it would manage to do is drive him crazy. I can't tell him."
"So you just want to keep him in the dark, let him think that everything is the same?"
Julius nodded his head, ashamed, for there was no other course he could take.
Cathy picked up the letters, stuck the nail of her thumb in the top of one, and started to rip it open.
"What are you doing?" Julius said, rushing to her, trying to take the letter.
"I'm going to write him back."
"But you can't do that."
d"You said you want him to think everything is the same. I'll pretend it's Sonya writing the letters. Unless you want to tell him the truth."
"No," Julius said, helpless. "But what if she writes him from wherever she's living now?"
"She won't do that. If she meant what she told me, she never wants to speak or hear mention of Caleb again."
So now, still sitting on the rocks of the ocean, Julius pulled his son's letter from the creased envelope, his eyes dropping down to the bottom, and read the final paragraph.
Thanks for the plane ticket you sent me. I'll be released next week, so I'll be there soon. I can't wait to see you, Sonya, and my son.
Next week, Julius thought, folding the letter and smoothing his fingers across the crease. The letter had come two days before, and it had probably taken three or four days to get there. He quickly added the days and realized that, give or take a day, his son could very well be getting released that very moment. How would he go about telling his son that he had lost his family? After thinking a long moment, he realized there was no way other than to tell him the truth, and although he could risk fracturing, if not breaking, the fragile relationship they had built, he would tell him.
Copyright © 2001 by R. Marcus Johnson