The Scientist

Ever seen the moon so bright
Burning up this starry night
Looking like a Silver Sun
Shining till the day’s begun

 
Peeking through the clouds and twilight
Never dwindling from our sight.
Casting awe throughout the sky
Spreading a joy that makes us cry

 
Like a rift this portal seems
A gateway to some Realm of Dreams
Igniting wonders that inspire
Desires within that burn like fire

 
Always loving, always aching
Always giving, never taking
Watching over while we sleep
Forever the night this moon will keep

I remember that poem as I peer out the window, forgetting my work. I wrote it for my daughter. A clear full moon is shining through the storm clouds, reminding me of the little rhyme. The rain is coming down hard outside, pattering against the windows. The beeping of my watch had woken me up, reading 3:00 a.m. I had fallen asleep in front of the monitor again. I take a sip of my strong, black coffee; the caffeine-induced awareness is the only thing that keeps me going. I seem to be the only one in the dark lab, the computer monitors acting like electric nightlights. It’s too late to be working; even the gerbils are fast asleep in their cages.

My thoughts are interrupted when someone walks into the room. “Joshua?” asks the young woman standing by the door, her thick auburn hair tied back. “You’ve been here for the past three days. Have you even left campus? You need rest.” She pauses before saying, “Your daughter needs you.”

“You know what’s funny,” I say, still looking out the window. “It’s that sometimes I forget why I’m doing this. I keep thinking I can save her. It’s distracting.”

Sympathy softens her face. “That’s alright. I believed that too. We all did.”

“Seeing her breathing, smiling…” I turn and look at her. “Sorry, was there something you wanted to tell me?”

“Um, yeah, those samples you wanted, they came in earlier today.”

“You mean the jellyfish?” I ask.

“Yeah. They’re downstairs. But I have to leave now, Joshua. I have a presentation tomorrow- well, today. Did you need anything?”

“No. You can take off.”

“I’ll see you Wednesday.” She turns and walks out. I could hear her footsteps down the distant halls until they fade.

After a brief stretch, I head down to retrieve the live specimens. Jellyfish. The species Turritopsis nutricula. Who would have thought that this tiniest of marine invertebrates was the key to finding a cure and saving millions of lives? The irony of life is what my colleagues use to argue the existence of God or some higher power. I’ve been convinced otherwise. A violent sound of thunder shakes me. I go back to the window and look out only to find that the moon is no longer there.

The next morning I leave the lab for the first time in three days. I step outside to discover a vast carpet of snow covering the entire campus. A silent snowfall must have crept down during the night. So itll be a white Christmas after all, I think to myself. The drive is quiet and long, but falling asleep at the wheel a couple of times makes it seem shorter. Luckily, there was’t too much traffic on the highway and the snow ploughs had made the roads nice and clear.

I slowly drive through a neighbourhood admiring the Christmas lights that adorn the homes I pass, imagining how brilliant they must look at night. Soon I arrive at the house, and as I look upon its own decorations, I chuckle at Stephanie’s sad attempt to compete with the others. Even her Jewish neighbours have more impressive decorations somehow. Two cars are parked in the drive way as I pull up, so I leave my BMW at the side of the road just outside the house. I stand by the front steps, reluctant to go inside. After what seems like ages, I finally muster up the courage to ring the doorbell. I hear footsteps coming towards the door before it opens. The familiar smell and warmth of home are the first to greet me. The second is Timothy, my ex-wife’s husband. “Hey,” he answers in his tenor voice. “Glad you can finally make it.” I walk into the spacious foyer and remove my coat, letting it hang on my forearm. “Any progress?” he asks slightly looking down at me with his arms crossed.

“Of course,” I answer. “Progress is my job.”

He nods his head silently.

“How’s your book coming along?” I ask.

“I’m done.”

“Ah,” I reply. “So is this your fifth one?”

“Sixth,” he answers.

“Oh.”  I silently nod my head as I look away.

“Stephanie’s in the kitchen and Tévia’s upstairs sleeping.” He heads down the hall, leaving me in the foyer.

It’s early in the afternoon and I’m sitting across from Stephanie at the kitchen table, enjoying a lunch in silence. The small 17” TV set atop the cabinet drowns out the sound of Timothy shoveling the snow outside. I watch my ex-wife eat her pancakes and scrambled eggs, trying to remember the last time we had actually spoken. Not chitchat, I mean actually spoken. She looks so much like our daughter Tévia, or should I say the vice versa. Her oval face that tapers into a not-so-prominent chin, and a nose, which unlike her eyes, doesn’t draw much attention to itself. Those large dark eyes, they’re like something out of Japanese anime. I forget the breakfast she had prepared for me, which is already getting cold. I catch her staring at a small picture of Tévia on the fridge. Finally, she says, “Her leukemia has gotten worse.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask, taking a bite from the plate in front of me.

“Sorry,” she says. “I forgot how optimistic you used to be. You and your research. Your jellyfish.”

“What are you saying? You still think I’m wasting my time?”

“You’re a dreamer, Joshua,” she says. “You’ve always been. You always talk about these things you were trying to achieve that just couldn’t be done. And when you came back to reality I was always here waiting. But that was all you ever did. Our little girl is dying and all you did was dream.”

“Who’s saying anything about dreams,” I object. “I was trying to create a reality.”

“You’re an even bigger dreamer than Timothy,” she continues, “and he’s a writer.”

“Say what you want. But I’ve been working on this project for three years, and I don’t care if it takes me another ten. I’m not doing this for myself anymore. If I can’t save Tévia, at least I know that what I’m doing can save others down the road.”

“So now you’re trying to create a legacy,” she says, “one your own daughter won’t be around to enjoy.” For a moment neither of us say anything. “What did you get her?”

“Just a little thing,” I answer, allowing what she had just told me to sink in slowly, like the food in my mouth.

“I wasn’t expecting you to show up today.”

“Figured I’d spend as much time with her as I can.”

“Nice that you’ve finally added be a father to your child to your to-do-list.”

“I was trying to save her, Stephanie, instead of sitting back and allowing this to happen, relying on false hopes, and giving her medicine that does absolutely nothing. Why can’t you understand that?”

Timothy comes back into the kitchen, which signals my cue to leave. It was obvious he could sense the tension between Stephanie and I as his eyes shot back and forth between the two of us. “You still haven’t answered my question,” Stephanie reminds me, trying to lighten up the situation.

“What question?” I ask.

“What did you get her?”

“Oh,” I cough as I clear the food out of my throat. “Just a little thing. I think I’ll give it to her now.” I excuse myself from the kitchen.

I head over to my jacket pocket and pull out the gift before heading upstairs. When I reach Tévia’s room, I’m puzzled to discover an empty bed with only rumpled sheets. I hear a television on across the hall in the guest bedroom. I head on over and find her inside sitting cross-legged on the bed, watching an old Disney movie. Her blanket is draped over her while she hugs Sally, her giant stuffed bunny rabbit, against her chest. “Hey,” I say to her. “Why aren’t you in bed?”

She looks up at me and smiles with a perfect row of tiny pearly whites, her black hair tied back into big puff ball. “I’m not tired.”

“Not tired?” I sit down beside her. “Shouldn’t you be resting for your big day tomorrow?”

“Please, Daddy, after Nemo? It’s almost done. Wanna watch the rest with me?”

“Of course I do,” I answer. We watch the rest of the film. But for the duration of it, I pay more attention to Tévia than the movie. Stephanie was not kidding when she said that her illness had worsened. Just a year ago Tévia’s cheeks were plump with the last few remnants of her baby fat. Her cottony hair fell down to her back- before the chemo. But now her skin sits too closely to the contours of her face for a girl her age. Her hairline had receded noticeably. I note some petechiae peppered on her arms; and she has lost a frightening amount of weight. As much as it pains me to see this, I nevertheless put these thoughts aside and continue to enjoy the time I’m spending with her.

When the movie ends I carry her back to her room. As I walk down the hall I ask, “So are you excited for tomorrow?” She nods her head repeatedly with a smile.

I enter her room, carry her over to her bed, rest her down gently, and tuck her in tight. “Are there gonna be a lot of people tomorrow?” she asks.

“There sure will. And all your friends are coming too.”

“Can Sally come?”

“I don’t know, let me ask her. Sally, do you want to go to Tévia’s birthday party?”

“Oh, I’ll be the first one there,” I say, making a sad attempt at ventriloquism.

“But right now Sally would really like for you to get some rest,” I continue. “That way you’ll have the energy to have fun with all your friends.”

I look at the IV stand by her bed. It captures the cold winter sunlight from the outside and traps it in the intravenous drip. I watch as the light dances and glistens in the clear liquid. I reflect on this, knowing that it’s this synthetic crystalline blood that’s now keeping her alive, and I wonder why the blood that she was born with, my blood, is now killing her. And as I realize that all this life support is only delaying the inevitable, a tear breaks free from the confines of my eye and escapes down my cheek.

“How come you’re crying?” she asks me.

“Huh? Oh, it’s- it’s nothing,” I reply, coming out of my trance. “Oh, I almost forgot…”  I pull out her gift. “Here, take it. It’s yours,” I say handing her the neatly wrapped, small box.  “But don’t open it until after 5:00 a.m. tomorrow. You know why?”

“Why?”

“Because that’s the time you were born. Well, actually it was 5:23. But that won’t matter because you’ll be asleep, right?” She nods her head in compliance, looking up at me with the same anime eyes she shares with her mother. “Good girl.”

“Are you coming tomorrow?” she asks.

I smile at her. “You can count on it.” Then as if cast under a spell she closes her eyes and falls asleep. As I watch her sleep gently, an intense sorrow swells within me. It’s agony to look at her now, knowing that she’s going to die. It’s a pain that I can’t describe; the scientist in me wants to classify it, give it its own taxonomy. But this time I fight back the tears. And before I leave I kiss her softly on her forehead, and I hold it there for six seconds, a second for each of her years. My jaw quivers as I once again remember that poem I wrote for her. But with Timothy being a bestselling author, I could scarcely imagine what magical dreamscapes and adventures he had created for her, and that makes everything I’ve done seem insignificant.

As I walk out and close the door behind me, I turn to see Stephanie standing by the room, waiting. “So you are coming tomorrow?” she asks.

I nod my head.

She leans on the wall with her arms crossed, giving me a sour look. “This time don’t disappoint her.”

“I won’t,” I respond. With a sigh, she turns and heads back downstairs. I know she can’t stand to see me, not like I could blame her. My mother always said you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry, and everything I loved was leaving me. And with that thought I take my own leave.

I get inside my car and release the tears that have been fighting to get out. I start weeping as the steering wheel leaves an imprint on my forehead. There is nothing left between us, Stephanie and I. All I’ll have left will be the memory of my daughter to drive me. As a father I’ve failed miserably. I wasn’t there for Tévia and I couldn’t save her, no matter how hard I tried. But I won’t fail again. I will finish this project and I will find this cure. I’m too close now. This is my job, my life, my purpose, and I can’t let anything stop me. Not even my own guilt. If anything, guilt will be why I must end this disease so that the time I didn’t spend with my daughter won’t be in vain. I gather myself immediately after, re-establishing the man of logical propriety. I start the ignition and look at the small picture of my daughter that I keep nuzzled in the rear-view mirror. Then taking my eyes off of it, I look forward and begin the long drive home.

End.

 

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