From the beginning, I knew that terror is a god. But now, I also believe that what might sound like a death rattle is merely the echo of ancestral song.
If my granuloma had appeared in a vacuum—that is, if my father hadn’t also been dying of cancer—I would remember my tumor and its two removals only as a painful and deeply unpleasant part of a painful and deeply unpleasant pregnancy. Instead, my benign tumor gained outsize significance. Or rather, I imbued it with significance. When my father and I joked about our respective tumors, I latched onto the word our, holding on to the plural for as long as I could.
My father’s first tumor, the one we were told was not cancerous, was removed in 2003. That part is true. Afterwards, the story went, he kept the tumor floating in a Mason jar on his desk. For years, I imagined a pink-tendriled jellyfish twirling suspended in clear liquid, a beam of light shining through the glass. I thought about it so often—what this piece of my father must look like—that it played the starring role in an essay for which I won a prize. But I never saw it; I thought he’d kept it in the office of his medical practice before finally throwing it away.
The story broke down slowly. When the tumors returned in 2017, when we discovered that they were actually cancer and that the cancer was actually terminal, I finally saw what they actually looked like. After an operation, my father’s surgeon showed me and my mother an iPhone photo of my father’s twenty tumors arranged neatly on a tray. The largest one was the size of an orange, the smallest ones tinier than blueberries, all of them red and pulpy, nothing like the dazzling phosphorescent blob I’d imagined. In response, I updated my old tumor essay, incorporating a new section about our imagined truths versus reality.
Under questioning, as I write this in 2020, my mother informs me that he never kept his tumor at all. He wasn’t allowed; it had to be sent to Johns Hopkins or Mayo Clinic or somewhere for testing. “Where did that story come from, then?” I asked her. But she didn’t even know the story I was talking about. What I had thought was family apocrypha was instead a story of my own imagining, re-encoded in my memory every time I rewrote it. In the end, I was only talking to myself.
What is verifiably true, however, is that before the tumor even departed his person, my father named it Tommy. Thereafter he referred to it as a him. “This is Tommy the Tumor,” my father would say, “the son I never had.” To this, my mother would roll her eyes in exaggerated fashion and say Charlie; they’d been doing a variation of this bit their entire married life.
In the years between 2003 and 2017, when we thought that the tumor was something In the Past, I would laugh while repeating the Tommy tale to new acquaintances—My bizarre family!—squishing us into a box the size of that Mason jar.
In the two months between my baby shower and my daughter’s birth, my tumor took up increasing space both in my mouth and in my mind. But parasites have always terrified me. The idea of something inside you, you but not you. How could you prepare for such an attack from within? How would you know it was there?
My father was the only one in the family group chat who wanted to see my mouth tumor as it developed, who was willing to talk to me about it. Like me, he loved the gross and grotesque. I suppose being a doctor requires a certain fortitude, one I did not generally inherit, though I loved the visceral and the viscous. My reaction first: Don’t show me! Then: Show me.
Granuloma, Even the word is gross in the mouth. Saying it sounds like bits of sand lodged between your teeth.
My tumor grew so intrusive that I had it removed by an oral surgeon. Afterwards, it grew back even bigger, reaching the size of a small grape. It looked like a knob of uncooked chicken breast limned with fat. Once, I accidentally swallowed part of it, thinking it was pulled chicken that had gotten trapped behind my teeth. Only afterwards did I realize I’d chewed up the edges of the tumor itself.
We moved at a similar pace then—me with a belly full of baby, my father with a belly full of cancer. Both of us were slow, cautious. But we were moving in different directions. My tumor died when my daughter was born. My father’s died when he did.
These days, my two-year-old loves when we wear matching clothing. When I let her try on my white patterned Uniqlo shirt while I’m wearing the matching black one, she shrieks with delight.
“Mama, me. Mama, me,” she says, pointing back and forth at us. I understand her impulse, the need to be the same, if just for today. I understand the desire to have something that says we belong together, even if the similarity can be removed as easily as when my daughter, tiring of her game, steps out of my shirt, letting the garment trail behind her before she kicks it away.
According to folklore, to remove the three corpses you must make a concoction of root and liquor and flour and yeast, and thicken it until it looks like caramel. Or you must make a tincture of cinnabar. Or you must use a special breathing technique while swallowing in a certain way. After thirty days, you will excrete the lower corpse (the worm of your belly). After sixty days, you will excrete the middle corpse (the worm of your heart). After one hundred days, you will excrete the superior corpse (the worm of your head). If you do this, you will be free. If you do this, you will not die.
The things he tried: de-bulking surgery, chemotherapy via pills, chemotherapy via infusion, radiation through his veins. And the tumors came back and they came back and they came back. Every week, my ama drove over in her white Cadillac with food she thought could heal her son: purple potatoes, pudding cups, cooked broccoli in a plastic bowl.
But what is a purple potato against the tenacity of the Three Corpses who seek their own freedom? What is a broccoli floret against the Three Worms, who know that when their host dies, they may roam the world as ghosts, eating and drinking from family altars as they please?
After my father died, I feared the worm of the heart. I feared that I would be lulled by the siren song of the past and stay there, calcifying, the titular character in Faulkner’s story who sleeps beside her father’s corpse. How seductive to remain in a life already lived, one where the outcome is known, not the one unfolding in its uncertain paths.
But this fall, I go to the dentist after avoiding it for two years, traumatized from the pain of my mouth tumor surgeries, and fearful of the needle. I prepare as much as I can: I talk about it with my therapist. I plan to have my husband come with me. At the last moment, he can’t, because our babysitting plans fall through and he has to watch our daughter. But I do it anyway. I get there forty-five minutes early, so I can take half my Xanax, then fifteen minutes later, my other half. The nitrous oxide does its job, and when the needle jabs into my gums, I feel it only a little.
If I ended this piece there, it would end on a moment of hope: of grief abating, changing, of being able to do things you weren’t able to do before. Of life moving on. Instead, I’ll tell you this: The dentist cannot fill all my cavities. You need a root canal, he tells me, showing me enormous photos on an enormous screen. I have never seen such photos before. There is my tooth, cavernous and open. He points at a little speck. That’s your nerve ending, he says. It’s too big to fill. I’ll need a root canal and a crown to fix it. Be careful, he tells me, or they’ll keep growing.
How seductive to remain in a life already lived, one where the outcome is known.
Only later, when it begins to hurt, do I understand that the tooth that needs the root canal is the tooth next to where my mouth tumor grew and grew and grew. A cavity is an absence. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Before he died, my father paid for his own cremation using my credit card. He QuickPay-ed me the money right after, but he wanted to make sure I hit the minimum spend on my new Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select credit card—as in, the card’s minimum amount of purchases I need to make during the first three months so I receive the bonus of fifty thousand airline miles. He wanted to make sure everything was orderly: for his death, for my future plans, travel included. (“I told the cremation people, if you don’t take a credit card, I’m not dying with you,” he joked.)
Later, after the man from the crematorium left our living room with his slick brochures and his attache case, after my father had lain on the couch to rest, as was his custom in those days when his energy had to be meted out by the teaspoon, I asked him why he chose cremation. He was wearing the heavy knit beige cardigan he wore at least every other day. His body had no fat to it. He was always cold. It was his cocoon.
“Then my body is everywhere,” he said. “It can be one with the atoms. I don’t want it to be in the ground, getting eaten by mice. It’ll be their revenge, after I trapped so many of their brothers.”
(Almost two years after my father’s death, he finally appears on the page in scene, in high definition. Finally, he speaks. After two years, he has solidified: I can speak of the way he was as a person, instead of as a ghost. He is dying in reverse, appearing slowly through the fog of grief.)
After explaining his decision to me, my father closed his eyes to take a nap, his thin parched body curled on our green suede couch.
From the beginning, I knew that terror is a god. But now, I also believe that what might sound like a death rattle is merely the echo of ancestral song. For there he is, singing a hymn off-key in the balcony of our church. There he is, whispering “Chouchou, my little chouchou,”in my newborn daughter’s ear. There he is, holding my mother’s hand as they walk in the woods behind their house. There he is, kissing my sisters’ and my foreheads before we go to bed, calling us his precious treasures.
And there he is, sleeping on the couch. I watch the man who shouldered me all of my life, watch his hollow chest rising up and down as he breathes. Rest, Papu. Rest. You are so small now. But because you are so light, I can move your legs to sit next to you. Because you are so light, I can carry you always, wherever we need to go.
Jami Nakamura Lin is the author of THE NIGHT PARADE (Mariner Books/HarperCollins and Scribe UK 2023), an illustrated memoir that uses yokai & other Japanese , Taiwanese, & Okinawan folklore to investigate what haunts us. A former Catapult columnist, she's written for the New York Times, Electric Literature, and other publications.
Jami has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts/Japan-US Friendship Commission, Yaddo, Sewanee, and We Need Diverse Books.