Authors: Paul Acampora
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For Mom & Dad
The Queen of England Is in Our Bathroom
My mother’s wheelchair does not fit through the bathroom door, and I don’t know what to do about it. I pull the chair back an inch and then roll it into the door frame again. The
makes Mom sit up straight. “You have got to be kidding me,” she says.
Actually, these are not her exact words. I am not allowed to repeat her exact words.
worry,” says Dad, who stands inside the bathroom, ready to give Mom a hand. “We’ll figure something out.”
This is the first time my mother has been home from the West Glover Hospital in over a month. They only let her leave because she promised to stay off her feet for at least forty-eight hours. I put my hand on Mom’s shoulder. “What if we turn it around and back it in?”
“Lucy,” Mom says to
me, “width is not a function of vector.”
Mom studied math in college. She’s a professional photographer now, but she’s always finding ways to work things like vectors and differentials and Hilbert curves into conversation. I rarely know what she’s talking about.
“We don’t have vectors in our math,” Elena calls from the kitchen.
“We’ll get to them in high school,” says Michael, who is in the
Michael Buskirk and Elena Vallejo are my best friends. They were both on the front lawn waiting to greet Mom when we got back from the hospital. The three of us met back in kindergarten when Elena was a black-haired bulldozer in a pink dress and a leg brace, and Michael was a quiet skinny boy in short pants and Space Invader T-shirts. Now we are all in the eighth grade at St. Brigid’s
Catholic School, where my dad is our principal.
Elena sighs. “Vectors and high school,” she says. “I can’t wait.”
Elena is certain that high school is going to swallow us up, spit us out, and crush us like bugs. It’s because she still looks like a little doll that Santa Claus would leave beneath a Christmas tree. I resemble one of those gawky stuffed giraffes that nobody ever wins at the carnival,
but Michael is over six feet tall. He’s strong and easygoing with dark hair and brown eyes that match the color of his skin. I think he’s the best-looking boy in our school. He lives just across the street from me, so I see him enough to know that I’m right.
“Elena,” Dad shouts from the bathroom. “Please stop worrying about high school. It’s months away, and it’s going to be fine.”
“How do you
know?” she yells back at him.
“It’s one of the things they teach you in principal school,” he tells her.
“He’s got you there,” Michael says to Elena.
“In the meantime,” says Mom, “I still really have to pee.” A few wisps of thin, brown hair have escaped the paisley scarf wrapped around her head. Dark circles beneath her eyes make it look like she’s been punched in the face. Cancer will do that
Dad examines the doorway leading into the bathroom. “We’ll get another inch of clearance if I take the door off the frame.” At school, I’ve seen him unclog toilets, mop up vomit, set a broken bone, and rescue a wide variety of rodents, snakes, amphibians, and other classroom pets without even loosening his tie. Popping a door off its hinges is not going to be a problem.
off the kitchen counter. “I’ll get the toolbox.”
“There’s a screwdriver in the junk drawer,” says Elena.
The two of them know where everything is. They’ve pretty much grown up in our house, and sometimes we’re more like family than friends. I love having Elena as a sister, but lately I’m thinking it might be nice if Michael were a little less brotherly and a little more friendly. That’s another
door I don’t know how to get through.
“How about we just do this?” says Mom. Without waiting for an answer, she places both hands on the wheelchair’s armrests and pushes herself into a standing position.
“Whoa!” I say.
Dad quickly reaches an arm around Mom’s waist then takes her hand. “May I have this dance?” he asks.
Mom takes a breath. “Lead me to the toilet first.”
My parents say it’s
the everyday moments—folding laundry, washing dishes, pouring each other a cup of coffee—that make their marriage a good one. I know they’re right, but I’m hoping for something a little more romantic than a stroll into the bathroom one day.
With Dad’s help, Mom takes a small step forward. “Are you okay?” I ask her.
Mom takes another step then places a free hand on the sand dollars and sea fans
and junonias that decorate our bathroom wallpaper. “I’m happy to be home.”
“And cancer free,” says Dad.
She nods. “That too.”
A year ago, the doctors explained that Mom’s disease—something with a name that sounded like
—was rare, aggressive, and generally fatal. In other words, she had a roughly zero chance to live. Even
understood that math. A week ago,
those same doctors announced that she was cured. “How is that possible?” I asked.
The doctors shrugged. Sometimes, they told Dad and me, it just happens. Afterward, one of Mom’s nurses found us in the hospital corridor. “God heard your prayers,” she said. “That’s how it happened.”
It’s true that we’d been doing a lot of praying, but until now it didn’t seem like anybody was really listening.
“I don’t know about that,” I said.
“God heard you,” the nurse said again. “It’s a miracle.” And then she burst into tears.
Neither Dad nor I backed away. I think it’s because we both spend our days in Catholic school. That’s where you learn that faithful people can be a little insane sometimes. On the other hand, is it more sensible to accept that everything is random or is it better to believe
that God can step in occasionally and repair your T cells? I don’t know.
Either way, Mom is on her feet now. She’s moving forward with Dad on her arm as if they are about to meet the Queen of England in our bathroom. Mom even offers dainty royal wrist waves as she exits the hallway. This should be funny, but I don’t laugh. I suppose this is the result of even more Catholic school stuff filling
up my head. We’re taught that sometimes the world is a puzzle waiting for us to solve it. Other times it’s a mystery to appreciate and accept. Right now I think my family, my friends—maybe even my whole life—are a whole lot of both.
What Would Fat Bob Do?
After a few days, Mom can use the bathroom by herself. After a few weeks, it’s clear that she really is getting better. Before I know it, the last day of eighth grade has arrived. Miss Caridas, who is our English teacher today and will be our English teacher again next year at St. Patrick’s High School, scratches a list of book titles onto the board. “These are
your summer reading choices,” she announces.
Miss Caridas recites each title aloud as she writes it down so that the list is revealed in a weird kind of slow motion.
“War of the Worlds
The class sighs.
I’ve already read most of these books. Michael
has, too. Elena’s probably read all of them twice. Her Uncle Mort runs a used bookstore in the center of town, and we’ve been helping out—and sometimes just hanging out—in the shop for as long as I can remember.
Elena lives with Mort in an apartment above the bookstore because her parents died in a big car crash when she was just a baby. Elena was in the car crash, too. Obviously she survived,
but that’s why she used to have the leg brace. Except for a very slight limp, which you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it, that part of Elena’s life is ancient history. According to her, it’s a book that nobody wants to read and she doesn’t want to open. “But don’t you miss having parents?” I asked Elena once.
She just shrugged. “I have Mort,” she told me. Mort was her mom’s big brother.
“He gives me food. He gives me shelter. He gives me love. He gives me all the free books I can read. What part of the parenting thing am I missing?”
Miss Caridas finishes writing. She replaces the marker on the ledge and claps her hands together. “Any questions?”
I have a question: Why do teachers think that shoving summer reading lists down our throats is a good idea?
I turn to St. Brigid
whose picture hangs on our classroom wall. She’s our school’s namesake as well as the patron saint of dairymaids, chicken farmers, and children whose parents are not married. I don’t fit into any of St. Brigid’s categories, but I mutter a little prayer to her anyway. “Please,” I say, “can this school year be over now?”
St. Brigid says nothing. Of course nobody else is speaking, either. Around
me, my classmates hardly move. I’m not sure that any of them are even awake.
“People!” our teacher shouts. “
Miss Caridas grew up in Puerto Rico, and she pulls out the Spanish whenever she really wants to get our attention. She’s been with us for most of the year, but I still think of her as a substitute. Dad hired her after our first teacher, Mr. Robert “Fat Bob” Nowak, died in the
line of duty.
Mr. Nowak was as big around as a Volkswagen. He started every day by printing W.W.F.B.D? (WHAT WOULD FAT BOB DO?) in giant letters across the top of the whiteboard. He died in the St. Brigid cafeteria just before Halloween. I was standing beside him on the day it happened. He was paying for his lunch, and the cafeteria lady at the cash register asked, “Do you want fries with that?”