The Before

Katherine Grasso

There’s no good euphemism for tumor. We’ve tried them.

Growth. Glob. Mass. Spot. Thing.      Maybe nothing.

We stayed at the hotel closest to the hospital. Each morning my dad showered before me and used the mini bottles of sycamore fig scented shampoo and body wash. When I got in after him, the dark green bottles perched on the beige tile shelf, their plastic tops popped, as if at attention.

After our showers on the first day, as a single coffee pod gurgled into a paper cup, my dad asked me to rub his neck. I stood behind him in our silence, smelling the earthy, sweet scent on his still warm skin. I observed his grey-white hair, the smooth baldness only on the top of his head. The dark shadows of sun spots creating Rorschach formations on his scalp. I glanced at my watch, then out the window. This was before we knew about the tumor.

In the days of uncertainty, we wandered around Cleveland. It’s a city neither of us had ever been to, we never intended to go. I took us to Edgewater Park where we sat side by side on a wooden bench, looking at nothing in particular. I circled around the city trying to find a jewelry store for him to get his watch repaired.

On our last day, right after we learned of the tumor, my dad and I went to lunch. I pinched my thighs under the table. He chewed on his right side, the left side of his face slack, facial nerves injured from the hostile growth in his brain stem.

“You didn’t take notes in the meeting with Dr. Arley.”

I chuckled sadly. “I won’t forget anything she said.”

“It’s embedded in your brain, huh?”

I nodded, half smiling, knowing what was next.

“I guess that makes two of us now.” He laughed, the kind of dark laughter you need when you have nothing else.

Learning about this thing felt like a desecration. Of my dad. Of our lives. I considered how it had been under my hands as I rubbed his stiff shoulders days earlier. Under my fingertips when I dragged firmly along the muscles in his neck, his head bowed, sighing in relief.

I pictured the glob in his brain stem, pliable under my fingers like purple play-doh. I worried I might be responsible for its spread.

We spent four mornings wrapped in the warm, humid smell of sycamore fig. Four days shuffling between appointments to various doctors, averting our eyes from the signs that said Cancer Center, visiting different labs to have vials of blood drawn from his left arm, eating quiet meals at brightly lit diners. And every day he was caching the daily ration of bottles of the scented gels and lotions. As if saving them for future travels. Then, he put them all in a spare plastic bag and made sure I took them home.

My dad has a tumor and I have these little bottles of sycamore fig shampoo.

If I pop their tops and inhale, I go back to the room we stayed in before the MRI, before a radiologist stabbed a pointer finger towards a black and gray screen and said there.


Katherine Grasso is an associate professor of communication at a liberal arts college in PA. Her work can be found in trampset. She also has forthcoming work at West Trade Review. She loves cycling, yoga, traveling, eating chocolate, reading, and being a beagle mom. You can follow her on Twitter @klgrasso5.