Before we leave Virginia, the doctor calls us from his home. It’s a video call and though he is the head of the clinical trial at Mass General Hospital, he is casual, wears a black T-shirt and sits in front of a window with no shades or curtains. In the yard behind him, I see his wife pass by, can hear his kids in the background. He says the lesions on Daryl’s liver have grown by a couple of centimeters.
Growth, in this case, is never good. My body feels the stress building up like an undertow. The scan, the result, me hanging onto every nuance of the doctor’s response like the superstitious to their omens.
I should be rapt and ready, but as the doctor continues talking, I cannot look him or the information straight in the eye. I hear the words. I take it in: We should continue the trial, so much has been good, has worked, has “given him a year.”
(This year of entrapment, of death, I think but do not say aloud.)
There are still options, he continues. Radiation, other drugs, other trials. I look down at my pants and notice the peanut butter that escaped when giving the dog his bone.
Once you have been given a year, you want more. You don’t want months and terrible side effects. You want the kind of year when you can casually pass by a window while your husband talks to his patient about options for survival. You want to walk past that conversation and be glad it is not you, not your husband, not your “option,” not your year.
After the call is done, Daryl sits in the gray recliner, the one I insisted we buy because of chemo. These days, he sleeps in it, a year out from chemo, when I thought we had a small freedom to breathe.
“Options” live with the things we cannot know or see or predict. Certainty is in the mundane. We still have a 10-hour drive to Boston, the dog to drop off, the car rental to pick up. I drive the dog to daycare. It’s their one-year anniversary, so I hand the owner a gift, then make small talk with the rental car guy, because in these interactions at least, there is certainty.
Lovely view of Beacon Hill and the capitol building from our hotel room. The drive from Richmond feels longer than actual miles. The necessity of survival propelling us onto the roads during a pandemic to get to Mass General, the cancer drugs more important than possible death by plague. We are almost one year into the clinical trial for Daryl’s stage 4 colon cancer, a treatment he began when the chemotherapy stopped working and the tumors came back.
There is little traffic; the rest areas along the Maryland and New Jersey turnpikes are ghost towns. Empty chairs on empty tables, TVs droning silently in the background, time doing wild things.
The news: A woman in New York’s Central Park calls the police on a Black man because he asked her to put a leash on her dog. In Minneapolis, a Black man, is choked to death by police on the sidewalk outside of a convenience store. A young girl films it on her phone.
Richmond was once the Confederate capital, and a block from our apartment is Monument Avenue, a boulevard of statues to Confederate generals and leaders: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis.
I sleep and wake to the sound of helicopters.
In the short year we have lived here, I have watched with fear and anger tickling my throat as the idol worshippers make their pilgrimage to the Davis monument. Men in their sixties, sometimes younger, in baseball caps, light-colored jeans baggy around their flat butts. They carry bulky digital cameras, and there is usually a woman with long Loretta Lynn-hair trailing behind.
Now, I watch as a huge bird flies low across the median in front of the monument, its wingspan a toddler, its torso a dog.
It stalks a Styrofoam container, back and forth, curious. Hungry. Diving its red head inside once, twice. It pulls a limp thing out and hops away. My dog rears up to defend us, barks and growls.
At night, protesters march in the streets, past our window, faces half-covered, arms raised and sweaty.
Last night, a bus burned and melted, a police car went up in flames.
Some words associated with seeing a vulture: Adaptability, Death, Equalizing, Innovation, Rebirth, Renewal, Resourcefulness, Tolerance, Trust.
Low sound of wind blowing through the tree leaves a constant until the beep of a car unlocking, another with a bad muffler rumbling in the distance and the last of the cicadas vibrating their bodies off.
That vibration is here too, in my veins, in my heart. Maybe from caffeine, maybe from cancer worries. I think I need to be an animal who sits quietly and hopes no one notices.
Daryl covets this porch, to sit out here and talk and have coffee.
Today, he is too nauseous to move from the couch.
Today, he is grumpy, too hot on our short walk.
Cancer Baby, I call it, because it is endless in its needs. Strict regimens, halting normal life, hours in the night awake but not awake tending to the fear it has produced. And then, when you think you have answered all its needs, it throws a tantrum of epic proportions and all you have done is meaningless. What it loved and needed yesterday is not what it loves and needs today. When it calms, we reassess, regroup, rebuild and move — our bodies marking time and stress, because there is no end to this that we want to see.
Grateful he is here.
Grateful for the clinical trial.
Grateful for our friends.
Grateful we can still travel to Boston.
Grateful for the health we do have.
Ignore the tanned couple in leggings and fitted T-shirts and sunglasses.
Ignore the little girls who scramble up our front garden singing and wearing cat ears.
Ignore the buzzing cicadas and the man in a suit standing on his balcony across the street.
None of them are here for you. None of them see you.
Ignore the pickup truck with the boat-sounding engine, the driver in narrow reflective sunglasses smoking a cigarette.
Ignore the questions on Zoom calls, the “How are you?” There is no polite answer, only the truth, so I lie.
THE WOMAN WITH THREE NAMES
Richmond houses normally silent except for seasonal flags are now talkative. A “BLM” sign hangs on a door painted a cheery blue. A black fist carefully stenciled hangs in another window. A mansion on the avenue cries “No Justice, No Peace.”
Children’s sidewalk chalk neatly tells us Black Lives Matter, George Floyd mattered.
The houses in solidarity with the truth that has been here all along.
On Monument Avenue, one mansion remains quiet, an Italianate villa, extravagant on an avenue of already-grand homes. Its exterior is a shade of orange, as if burnt by the Tuscan sun. The windows, as tall as men, are now shuttered, an intentional gesture unusual for the mansions of Monument Avenue where curtains are left open so passersby can peer in to admire the lovely, empty sitting rooms. Sometimes, I see a light on in the corner of a room on the second floor. On its rolling green lawn, small clusters of gnats fly up in tiny cyclones, like drops of water.
The owner of the mansion is a woman with three names, Helen Marie Taylor, a widow related by marriage to President Zachary Taylor, father-in-law to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. The lineage of this place is a twisting tangle of names and connections to the Lost Cause.
From the porch of our rental, with its faux columns and rotting wood railing, we have a view of the mansion’s garden wall, a green door with its own address and entrance beneath the vines. How they sit guarding it, those fig and crepe myrtle trees, their canopy of long snaking branches like a sea creature reaching toward the sidewalk.
Here, every house has a story snaking back to the Civil War, family lore and owners to whom this rotten history clings, their stories falling like petals. Houses hold things like they hold people.
Another monthly pilgrimage to Boston, the New Jersey Turnpike, this America right now in a state of fear and paralysis. Blinking signs over the highway warn us to quarantine. Masked travelers stand in lines for fast food at rest stops named after Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Thomas Edison.
Before we get back in the car, I stretch while Daryl rests his head in his arms on the roof of the car, the relaxed expression on his face so like the one in the framed photo I have of him from nearly 20 years ago, our graduate school spring break, on the riverboat in Budapest. Now I notice the fine lines on his forehead and his worried brow.
Back in Richmond, we ride together, ten miles on the Virginia Capital Trail, 60 miles of a paved bike and walking trail that follows the river and cuts through the Virginia countryside. The weather is a mix of choking humidity followed by pockets of fresh and cool air. Hilly, open, green Virginia. Tired legs and sweating, a kind of tired like swimming in that you feel it most after you are finished. I can feel new possibilities, so hard to see up close in the city.
These moments are fleeting, but still here: Daryl feeling good, on his bike, Virginia unfolding in front of us. My novel almost done, so close I can see it. How lucky we are to be alive right now, in a space so quiet the wind zipping through my bike helmet sounds like music.
Timelines run together like wires crossing, like a river disappearing into the ocean.
This summer: humidity, broken glass, plywood, the buzz of cicadas, the placement of foot on soft crepe myrtle petals, cancer, radiation, Daryl asleep, Daryl not hungry, Daryl trying to move forward, COVID, a lack of people, a lack of friends, an abundance of words.
Scrawled on the side of a building a few blocks away, “Love or…” and I can’t remember the second word, something destructive, something with which I agree and want to take a photo, but instead commit to memory and now, an hour later, have forgotten.
The shadows of words remain on the Davis monument, erased, reborn. As quickly as I commit them to memory, to the moment, they disappear.
These shifts are fault lines, fractures leading to what is now an earthquake. Everything seems relevant and momentous until nothing seems relevant and momentous.
Now a vision of the city without monuments, green grass medians rolling for miles with no Davis, no Lee, no Jackson, no Stuart. Soon, we will have pedestals, not statues.
Now, we have new protests with demands for basic human rights: justice, peace.
Now, the woman with three names is in the news, gives interviews about her lawsuit, why the Lee monument must remain. This tiny woman, these old demands. Here the past and the future are touching, I think.
A twenty-something Black man stands at the foot of the six-story Robert E. Lee statue with a megaphone and tells us he will not die like George Floyd; his last breath will not be under the foot of a police officer.
An older Black woman takes the megaphone next. She introduces herself as a grandmother, says she is moved to see so many different people in the street, encourages us to vote, tells us it’s all love and love is what will save us.
White men in baseball caps and narrow-lensed reflective sunglasses stand on the edges of the crowd, scanning, observing.
The next morning, the woman with three names emerges when I am sitting on my porch. Withered and clinging to her nurse, a large brimmed hat hiding her face, she raises her arm and points an accusing crooked finger up above her head to the ivy-tangled garden wall, where there are posters glued to it demanding police reform.
At night, police in riot gear swarm our backyards, our gardens and cobblestone alleys flooded with bright lights from above and below. People are pulled from cars, grabbed, searched, thrown, held in paddy wagons for being out past 8pm.
On Monument Avenue, a narrative is rebuilding a place in real time.
The Davis statue now wears blackface and a bright pink coat.
The Monument Avenue Preservation Society squawks and screams on social media, “The monuments will remain! President Trump has been informed!” They will fight! They use odd words like “arsenery” and “beclowned.”
At night, protestors snake down the streets with signs, with voices, with demands. The police in riot gear march in a line with batons, teargas, rubber bullets.
In the morning, the wealthy white families peer at the statues, circle around in their masks and read the messages left behind. They walk slowly, pointing, tourists in their own city.
Davis is pulled down with a rope and a pickup truck, his body lying on Monument Avenue, one arm raised up to the sky, no past, no future.
George Floyd’s image is projected onto the Lee statue.
Now, freedom is all over the monuments in bodies and words.
No White Supremacy
Defund the Police
Dirty with fingerprints, touched, spray painted, handled, talked to, danced on, gathered around, shouted at, finally brought down.
“I need to start living my life,” Daryl says on the phone, calling me from his room in the Mass General cancer clinic. The CT scan is correct, there is another lesion on his liver, small, springing up in the last two weeks. The drugs and the radiation are no longer working. The doctor says two more months and then we can see, maybe move on to another trial, some other combination of drugs. Hopeful. Hopeful.
I look out the window of the hotel, notice the quaint Boston skyline and think we need to take the last two years and turn them inside out. Make the time we have feel like abundance, not reduction.
Last night, I dreamt I carried a baby, a very important baby. When I went to drop him off, I realized we were both covered in shit. I didn’t realize it because it had been too dark in the house. I cleaned the shit off, except my arm was covered in paint, a pattern of some sort. I scrubbed and scrubbed but it would only come off the right side of my body.
Buzzing, buzzing cicadas, humming as they do every few years, shedding their bodies, leaving the shells behind. Maybe that is what we are all doing, so small and so loud, shaking our bodies to their foundation.
I’m staring at the garden wall of the house of the woman with three names, who will not give up her lawsuit to keep the Lee monument standing. I suppose that’s what happens when you hold on tight to your body and do not shed, or change or grow. You remain like a cicada’s exoskeleton: stiff, unmoved, dead.
Delivered in bodies standing, sitting, kneeling, lying down; in words that say stop, listen, change, see, weep, fuck you. Now, the freedom is unstoppable.
Words scrubbed in the day reappear at night.
Words on buildings, words on the streets, words on signs, words shouted. Movement, destruction and rebuilding all at once.
Words are coming quicker than actions and it’s hard to know which will disappear first.
The Robert E. Lee Monument reborn, renamed and reclaimed for Marcus David Peters, a Black man, a teacher suffering a mental health emergency who was murdered by the Richmond Police Department. He was unarmed, naked on the side of the freeway, during rush hour.
The concrete barricades the police erect to “protect” visitors are bright with spray paint — words of love and condemnation. A basketball net appears in the middle, a shrine of photos to victims of police brutality. Now a space of love, of life, of remembrance.
And yet, there is also anger, twisted white faces shout from cars. We are seeing two things at once, death and rebirth. Not everyone wants change. Not everyone understands poetry.
Today, the messages on the monuments are faded and scrubbed. Tomorrow they will be vibrant and shouting. Nothing permanent, movement without direction.
Watching Daryl in the bedroom, weight loss is here again, his sweatpants loose around his waist. Me doing burpees and squats in the living room. Everything lost, nothing gained.
The cicadas are still buzzing their bodies off; the carcasses left behind like the shells of the monuments. But cicadas leave their skeletons behind and move on. We are stuck between the screeching and the carcass.
I wonder about my productivity, what type of writer I would be if I woke up at five in the morning like those who trick the day to bend to their creativity. But what production is there when the person you love most in the world is fighting not to fade away?
My body not truly encompassing all there is, while I dream of letting my hair go gray and living in the desert. I think of my heart and soul, which may just leave with Daryl. I need to put them somewhere safe while cancer and death snake around and take what they please. I need to put them in a vessel, like a relic of a saint.
Eerie day in the apartment. No Daryl, no dog. This year, these years, too much, too soon.
Last night, in the ER again, hopeful, because it was not a blockage. This morning, the tide changes. The oncologist lays her eyes on the scan and sees more tumors on his liver.
This year. Six months into a pandemic still churning.
A moment of reprieve when the nurse, older, a little scattered, notices I am reading Anna Karenina. We talk about books. She mentions The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I have just read. The universe still delivers coincidence — a book written over a decade ago, about hardship and war and immense loss, children packed up and shipped off to strangers, a writer leaving her name in a book and a man in Guernsey finding it and writing to her.
Just a little life in the airless ER room.
I used to fill notebooks with meeting notes, drugs, doctors, treatments, and numbers, because it forced me to keep my eye on the page.
Now, I bring a notebook but rarely open it, because what can I capture that is not on a chart somewhere? What can I know that the experts do not?
The information overflow of Daryl’s body breaking down is too great to comprehend, to commit to the page.
I remember the lovely oncology nurse with the dewy skin and flowing dark hair giving us terrible news.
I remember the Boston doctor’s Gucci loafers.
I remember the too-colorful silk socks of the colon surgeon in Florida.
I remember eating an apple in an ER with the lights off so Daryl could sleep.
Quirks and kindness, that is what my brain registers now in these moments.
Alone, at home on the couch, I let it all sink in. The crush of not knowing who to call or what to tell them.
The time will come when I will have to commit this all to memory:
The doctor who asks me about Detroit.
The nurse who describes a film about Robert the Bruce.
The rote reciting of ailments, of stethoscopes pressed to chests, of milligrams and pain management, of beeping machines and vitals.
The flow of the narrative of life is hitting the bumps of a medical emergency.
In the end, it is all words, all of it.
Today, the messages on the statue have disappeared, erased with some marks still left behind like a faded tattoo — the upside-down peace signs on either column, faded colored letters on the stairs but all of it now is under the film of erasure.
Today, there is no Davis statue, just the thirteen Doric columns in a semicircle, representing the thirteen states that seceded, a monument to no one, stairs leading to an empty pedestal.
Walking down Monument Avenue, it is quiet; the median does not miss the statues and neither do the houses. But this hatred sticks like a weed, keeps coming back to protect and scrub the monument, to erase what it is becoming.
What to do with weeds we pluck while they still strangle us?
Standing on the pedestal of the remains of the Davis monument, a buzzing under my skin as the cars come close. Fearful the drivers will think I am adding something or taking something away, I quickly record the words in a tiny notebook.
I have not been this close to the monument, examining it like a dead body, a relic that is now alive again, washed off again, written upon again.
I walk back to find the words on the side of the building that I had seen before but forgotten: Love or Perish.
Epilogue: FOR DARYL, FOR THE SUMMER OF 2020
Last winter, before the Commonwealth of Virginia put up an ugly fence around the Marcus David Peters Circle, leaving the community garden to die and the photos of victims of police violence to wilt and bend in the wind and rain, I walked the dog all the way to the fence.
It was sunny, and as I listened to a playlist of yours on my phone, The Pogues’ cover of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” came on while I walked up the median toward the monument, all six stories of one disgraced general. It was heartbreaking and wonderful to hear a song of the futility of war and its human toll and see the pedestal covered with the words of the people and art and color, words spray painted on the sidewalk pulling you toward it to read more, to understand, covered in words of that summer.
That summer. The voices, the pain, the pushing, the witnessing. How it felt to be here for it, to be in it.
Now, the Commonwealth is trying to erase it, to control the narrative, to make it something landscaped and manicured, which is to say, to make it invisible. How many times we marched with others, the first time we stood there, hundreds of us sitting on the ground in a circle.
Now, months later, I stand here alone.
It’s you who held me to my word when we said our world was on fire, that we had to stand up and with others. I think of the spaces where I stood with you and others to bear witness, to support, to throw sand into the gears of this machine. Now, I stand with them alone, but can still feel your hand in mine, your arm around me.
These moments add up so quickly, like waves coming in and washing away the shoreline. Each time something was left of you, but each time it was less. A conversion. I hope you are air and sea and fire. I hope you are in everything.
Born in Michigan and raised in Dearborn, Shannon Fara O’Neill is a writer whose fiction and non-fiction frequently addresses the history and identity of Arab Americans and the cultural divide in American society around issues facing Arabs and Muslims in our shifting political and cultural landscapes. Her writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, Asian American Literary Review (AALR) and Mizna among others. She is working on a linked story collection which traces the history of two families from a small village in Lebanon to the Southend of Dearborn, and recently completed a crime novel, also set in post 9-11 Dearborn.
The featured image pairs “Cicada” National Museum of Natural History with “Page McCarty, The Richmond Daily Times, from the American Editors series (N35) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes” issued by Allen & Ginter (1887) — images chosen specifically for this piece by our Art Director, Meg Sykes.