I was on the phone with my dad for seven minutes. I sat down on the worn, green loveseat, greatly appreciated over the summer. I was not expecting to talk with him that evening, but when he texted asking if he could call, I promptly dialed him back, remembering the rarity of being awake and on our phones at the same time. Two months earlier, I flew up to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, where I was perpetually busy as a summer camp counselor, and perpetually four hours behind my life back in Michigan.
My dad got right to the point: He had cancer. My mind searched for memories that could ground this situation into something I’ve experienced before, and as it descended further into the past, the only thing it could grab onto was Hollywood reenacting a similar scene.
There is a certain drama that is portrayed in American films and television surrounding cancer; a certain weight is given to it, more so than other medical conditions. Saying the word out loud spits spikes into the conversation despite the gentle curves of its letters on the page. My reaction to the phrase when it painfully brushed its way out of my father’s lips, however, felt underwhelming in comparison to what one might anticipate. Perhaps I was surprised at how easily cancer infiltrated my life, my brain numbing to avoid this unwanted acquaintance. Or maybe I ignored it, pretending it never existed.
Seven minutes after the call began, I ended it, and minutes after that, I was in a Jeep rolling through the Alaskan backcountry. While my friends moved with the music and the dirt road beneath them, I was busy wrapped in internal guilt from the recent sequence of events.
Seven minutes? My dad just told me he had cancer, and I only gave him seven minutes of my time to talk? I felt selfish, rightfully so, and immediately brainstormed ways to make up for my subpar consolation. I would text him again tomorrow to see if he wanted to talk. I would be extra helpful and caring when I saw him and the rest of my family in two days. I would be a better son and become a model of good relations with my father. I lingered on my choices and regret and didn’t move on until I was temporarily satisfied with my plan of action.
We eventually parked the Jeep on the side of the trail, embarking on a walk through the woods. The golden light beamed through the trees, the lengthening shadows indicated the day was winding down. Several abandoned cars were rusting in the ground cover, immortalized in their image of vintage decay. The path stopped at a fast-flowing creek and upon arrival, we saw what we came for. Running through the dark, clear liquid were bright pink fish — salmon swimming upstream. Their color indicated that they were “zombie salmon,” a group on their lives’ final journey back upstream to lay eggs and plant the seeds of their next generation.
From my coworkers, I learned that these fish of the living dead instinctually return to the places that they were born, and they will swim for eternity to accomplish their life’s grand finale. Their scales turn pink as fat reserves are slowly depleted throughout their body, and the pigments that once colored their insides move to the outer layers of skin. The fish deteriorate physically and mentally, sacrificing their last days on Earth to the next generation.
Our group of coworkers-turned-friends waded into the fast-moving waters, watching the bright pink rockets whizz past our ankles. All of us under the age of thirty, in what is supposedly the prime of our existence, watched the fish go through the grueling, final stages of theirs. It was easy for us young Americans to question the salmon’s thought process: Why would one save the hardest journey of a lifetime for last? Backed up by images of midwest retirees migrating to Florida beaches, the end of our lives is a time when we should relax, take a final pause and settle down, taking in every last moment before they are gone.
A problem, however, with this school of thought is that many of us cannot choose when or what happens in our final days of existence. As nature’s instinct calls on salmon to return to their geographic origins, depleting and destroying them in the process, our bodies turn against us humans as well. No one, fish or person, chooses when or how these conditions will afflict us, and when or how they might end. The end of our lives, or the end of anything, is simply adapting to the constraints we are given.
Given that these were the last hours of daylight on our final night together in Alaska, we decided to spend it standing in the Jeep, dodging the branches of overgrown brush, bright eyes and smiles reflecting glimmers of light from one to another. A once in a lifetime experience, one might say. In 24 hours, we would head our separate ways, no longer united by the shared goal of caring for youth at a summer camp, but still tied together through the experience. Soon, we would all go home and pick up our former lives where they left off. I wondered if anything had shifted while I was gone, and if my family had changed over the few months they were without me in Michigan.
The social dynamic that I stepped off the plane to was largely the same as before I left. My mom and brother met me at the airport with hugs and questions, and there was nothing strange about the first lunch back in Michigan. But as the hours progressed during that first day back, I began to feel new undercurrents in my parents’ dialogue. A sense of urgency dusted the top of their words. Stress and tension rippled from an invisible, yet still perceptible, elephant in the room. I worried what my next weeks at home would bring, still having almost a month until I moved away again for school. I worried for my parents and brother having to breathe heavy uncertainty for the following months, not knowing exactly what the next day would bring or the potential pains the future might hold. The cascade of doctor visits, medication and consolation created a landscape that felt foreign and strange.
But as new medical appointments began to write themselves on the family calendar, the air became lighter, and a newer sort of normal set in. My parents rolled with whatever news the doctors had for my dad, and the nerves of having a family member diagnosed with cancer began to wear themselves off, relatively. Driving my dad to check-ups became part of a routine, rather than an unfamiliar journey. Receiving meals from friends was no longer a surprise, and Tupperware dinners were enjoyed without question. Taking inspiration from the Alaskan salmon, we just kept moving; swimming upstream to whatever life had in store for us.
Perhaps there is something naive about taking things as they come with little preparation. My call with my father represented a potential pitfall of this approach – talking with him longer instead of feeling rushed to the next activity may have eased my guilt. However, when navigating through the great unknown, especially in a world with an increasingly uncertain future, it might make more sense to only worry about what one sees and to keep moving forward to view the rest. There are only so many ways to avoid the inevitable anxiety that comes with waiting.
With the new semester just beginning, coupled with pandemic complications and being away from home, I know there will be moments when the future frightens and the present is not such a gift. In those times, I will wade into an Alaskan creek and watch the salmon, bright pink with ambition, wiggling their way through trials and tribulations, and admire them for their tenacity on their long journey home. Maybe this time, I’ll dive in and keep swimming with them.
Statement Columnist Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at email@example.com.