The day my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, I decided to go and find him a miracle. My family had already spent a good part of that September chasing medical options, and what we discovered was not hopeful. Given the odds, a miracle cure was our best and most reasonable hope. A few weeks earlier, while I lay in a birthing center having my daughter, Grace, my father had been in a hospital across town undergoing biopsies to determine the cause of the spot that had appeared in his mediastinum, which connects the lungs. Eight years before, he’d given up smoking after forty years of two packs a day and had been diagnosed with emphysema. Despite yearly bouts of pneumonia and periodic shortness of breath, he was a robust sixty-seven-year-old, robust enough to take care of my son, Sam, to cook, and to clean the house he and my mother had lived in for their forty-seven years of marriage.
We are a superstitious family, skeptical of medicine and believers in omens, potions, and the power of prayer. The week that the first X ray showed a spot on my father’s lung, three of us had dreams that could only be read as portents. I dreamed of my maternal grandmother, Mama Rose. My cousin, whose own father had died when she was only two and who had grown up next door to us with my father stepping in as a surrogate parent for her, dreamed of our great-uncle Rum. My father dreamed of his father for the first time since he’d died in 1957. All of these ghosts had one thing in common – they were happy. A few days later, my father developed a fever as the two of us ate souvlaki at the annual Greek Festival. The X-ray they took that night in the emergency room was sent to his regular doctor. Nine months pregnant, I arrived at my parents’ house the next morning with a bag of bagels. My father stood at the back door with his news. “The X-ray showed something,” he said dismissively. “They need to do a few more tests.”
For the next month, he underwent CAT scans and -oscopies of all sorts, until, finally, a surgeon we hardly knew shouted across the hospital waiting room: “Where are the Woods?” I stood, cradling my newborn daughter. “Hood,” I said. “Over here.” He walked over to us and without any hesitation said, “He’s got cancer. A fair-sized tumor that’s inoperable. We can give him chemo, buy a little time. Your doctor will give you the details.” He had taken the time to give my father the same information, even though as he was coming out of anesthesia it had seemed like a nightmare to him.
When someone died in our family, my father pulled out his extra-large bottle of Jack Daniels. It had gotten us through the news of the death of my cousin’s young husband, my own brother’s accidental death in 1982, and the recent deaths of two of my own forty-something cousins, one from melanoma and one from AIDS. That late September afternoon, my father pulled out the bottle for his own grim prognosis. As the day wore on, we’d gotten more news: only an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation could help, and even then the help would be short-lived, if it came at all. “Taxol,” the pulmonary specialist had told us, “has given some people up to eighteen months.” But the way he bowed his head after he said it made me realize that eighteen months was not only the best we could hope for, but a long shot. My sister-in-law, a doctor, too, was harsher. “Six months after diagnosis is the norm,” she’d said.
Sitting in the kitchen that once held my mother and her ten siblings, their parents and grandparents, every day for supper, I did some quick math. Was it possible that the man sitting across from me sipping Jack Daniels would not be alive at Easter? A WASP from Indiana, he had married into a large, loud Italian family and somehow become more Italian than some of his in-laws. At Easter, he was the one who made the dozen loaves of sweetbread, the fresh cheese, and frittatas. He shaped wine biscuits into crosses and made pizzeles that were lighter than any my aunts produced. At six-foot-one and over two hundred pounds, cracking jokes about the surgeon, he did not look like someone about to die. He was not someone I was going to let die. If medical science could only give him a year and a half tops, then there was only one real hope for a cure. “There’s a place in New Mexico with miracle dirt,” I announced. “I’m going to go and get you some.” “Well,” my father said with typical understatement, “I guess I can use all the help I can get.”