Commuters and Castanets

Still smitten with our beach vacation, I ask my husband if we might consider buying a place on the shore. His arm around my waist, he squints slightly into the setting autumn sun as if seeing into the future. The boys are a few steps in front of us, familiar with the after-dinner stroll.

The baby stops to pick up a rock then throws it into the street. My husband and I simultaneously remind him not to follow. A comfortable silence settles over us while he contemplates his answer, a canopy of autumn leaves overhead.

Our corner of Del Ray is quiet. We almost never see other pedestrians strolling through the neighborhood on our evening walks—a rarity in this town, to be surrounded by solitude. I haven’t decided yet if I like it.

“I think it’s feasible,” he finally spits out, though I know the reason for the delay.

We turn the corner, holding our boys’ hands as we cross the street without a car in sight. I know what makes this a difficult question. It’s the same reason we are not still in Buenos Aires, taking after-dinner walks through the Bosque de Palermo on the expansive walking path that encircles the lake and rose garden. It’s the reason we lived with my in-laws in Springfield for eight months while we waited for my husband to heal, for decisions to be made, for our belongings to arrive. The same reason I am, somewhere buried deep, still scared to death. Cancer.

The uncertainty of the future, the complete loss of control, is not lost on me. And yet I ask him about the beach house in search of a false sense of security. He knows it. “We could do it, and then if we have to move, we’d make sure it’s rented. But we could do it.” He placates me while he kicks a rock down the sidewalk holding a leaf in his left hand, a gift from our toddler: Here Daddy, hold this.

The boys stop to collect some fallen leaves; our toddler points out the red ones, and our baby collects the yellow but calls them pink. I watch my husband as he squats down alongside them to try and determine their origin: oak, maple, cherry. As they study the leaves, I study my husband. The glow in his cheeks and his muscular frame paint a picture of health. No evidence of disease for six months, and yet the evidence is everywhere.

I watch with a smile on my lips as my baby attaches a leaf to a stick, spearing it then waving it around overhead. But my thoughts are on those who hold our fate in their hands: Georgetown Hospital, the Air Force, and, primarily, my husband’s body. The baby starts down the sidewalk once again, stick with speared leaf in hand, and we move with him.

“Daddy, where are we?” our toddler wonders, swinging his blonde hair out of his blue eyes. Haircut, I remind myself, the kid needs a haircut. We are walking our usual route, only in reverse. All the same houses, the same streets, but from a different point of view.

I am surprised at his confusion—the three year old who can tell me how to get to the grocery store. “It’s the same walk as always, sweetie,” I say, “you’ll know where you are in a few minutes.” I’m certain he will recognize the house on the corner, the one he calls the castle.

I think back to a year ago, on a walk to the park after dinner in Buenos Aires. The air is damp and cool, a perfect spring evening. The jacarandas in full bloom proudly wave their vibrant purple blooms in the breeze, sprinkling their petals into lush carpets underfoot. We walk past the guards of the ambassador’s residence, stopping so they can high-five our toddler, who is perched in the front of the double stroller. We wait for the light to turn and then quickly cross Libertador—a busy ten-lane thoroughfare—and then roll our way into the park, engulfed in a sea of people.

To say the Argentines are obsessed with fitness would be an understatement. We are always the only ones who simply stroll, and tonight is no exception. We are passed by runners, walkers of varying speeds, rollerbladers, cyclists, people on unicycles; we pass the nightly street-hockey game at the far end of the lake and the Argentines learning to tightrope walk on the other side of the rose garden between palm trees. A noisy flock of neon-green feathers flies low overhead, squawking loudly. “Mommy, look! Parrots!” our toddler shouts.

The familiar sound of castanets puts us all on alert—we know what this sound means. Suddenly, he appears behind us, and we stop in our tracks to watch him go by. On rollerblades and dressed in his usual black trousers and black T-shirt, his long, dark hair flowing out behind him, he dances toward us, performing a kind of rollerblading flamenco.

His headphones prevent us from hearing the same sounds that so inspire his dance, but the effect is the same: utter joy. His joyfulness, his total inhibition, it’s infectious—everyone takes notice, and everyone smiles at the authentic happiness he exudes as he dances atop eight small wheels. We marvel at him as he rolls by, hands high over his head, stretching to hit the pose. Completely lost in his world, he brings such happiness to ours. “There he goes!” shouts our toddler, clapping his hands and kicking his feet. I squeeze my husband’s hand, happy for our first four months here and not believing that this will be our life for another two and a half years.

And as it turns out, it wouldn’t be.

The sun is almost gone, and I am keenly aware of the change of seasons as the breeze hits my cheeks. What was a refreshing wind a few weeks ago has now become winter’s warning. My husband and I exchange a glance, reading each other’s minds: We’re not ready.

What my husband calls “the dark days” literally were last year—the heart of winter spent undergoing surgery to remove 17 tumors in his groin; three subsequent skin infections, one rendering him septic; a clinical trial for stage III melanoma at Georgetown. Our memories of dark winter days in DC are not ones we often revisit.

But the spring, the warmth, the promise of growth and change: We devour that. I think back to the garden—the first finished project at our new townhouse—the need for my husband to cultivate, to get dirty after so much illness, so much sterility. The days lengthened by sunlight mirrored my husband’s healing, each day a little brighter, until finally, summer. The warm, humid air filling our souls. The joy of watching our boys harvest small cherry tomatoes everyday, picking jalapeños and kale in our urban garden, popping mint leaves in their mouths. Relishing life.

I think back to our warm, summer’s end beach vacation at Cape Charles, a small town where our history wasn’t present, where cancer didn’t exist, where we were free—all reasons I need to go back, need the promise of a beach house, the promise of an escape. A chance at happiness. A way to outrun the disease.

“I’m not ready for winter,” my husband mumbles, zipping up his jacket.

We round another corner on our walk and I break the silence that has befallen us. “I’d like to stay here,” I proclaim, partly because of his trial at Georgetown and partly because I’d like to live in one place for more than eight months, but mostly because I love this city. I hear the metro rails whine as the train slows into the station a few blocks away. So do my boys, who stop dead in their tracks and turn toward the sound.

“I know,” he says, breaking the metro spell by lifting our baby onto his shoulders. The baby grabs hold of my husband’s hair as if it were reins and then giggles, trying to push back against my husband’s hands, which hold him firmly in place. “Me too. I’m glad we came back here for the trial,” he finishes and then laughs, chiding our baby as he continues to giggle and lean back.

We are at Braddock Road, the “busy” street where I force my boys to hold our hands as we walk, listening to the fast cars pass, drivers intent on getting home. A stone wall emerges along the length of a front yard. My toddler sits here every night, just to feel the slick stone, to watch the cars. Tonight, he decides to wave.

I sit with him, half worried about the owners of the home, half exhausted from the weight of too many unknowns. My husband follows suit, and soon we are a family of four, seated on a stone wall in front of someone else’s house, watching DC traffic heading home for the night.

A break in commuters allows us a moment to speak without being interrupted by zooming engines. “Let’s wave at this car,” my husband suggests, making a game of our stop. As the headlights approach, preparing for the sunset that’s only minutes away, we wave. The toddler yells and waves furiously, the baby watches, hand up, frozen in the cooling air. The driver, caught off guard by this waving family, waves back, smiling, laughing. Our baby relishes this game—the cause and effect leaves him giddy: Wave to a passing car, watch people wave back. He erupts in laughter and doesn’t stop.

We wave like this on and on, to both lanes of traffic, under a pink-hued sunset. Without fail, each driver is surprised and thrilled. Some lean over their passenger seats, some look up from texts, all with the same reaction—unrestrained joy. For those brief moments of surprise while the drivers are still trying to understand what they’ve seen, we glimpse the real humanity of this town. Everyone trying to get home, everyone eager for a smile, a laugh. We’re all so similar that way.

We stay and wave and laugh until the sun has finally set, until the drivers can hardly see us. Then we leave our stone seats and waving game behind. “Let’s do that again tomorrow!” Our toddler bounces, gripping my hand, delighted by the happiness he’s caused. He bounds ahead and then stops in his tracks, turns toward us, and shouts, “Hey! I know where we are! We are right here!”

I smile at his exclamation, the wisdom of his simple yet profound words. We are right here. Our life has been punctuated by a cancer diagnosis, but we know right where we are. We are waving at strangers and taking a stroll in a city we love. Because DC or Buenos Aires, it doesn’t matter. We are seeking and creating joy. We, like drivers in those passing cars, are searching for certainty in a sea of unknowns, but tonight, we settle for commuter smiles.

Kate Reimann is a mother of two. She writes—between teaching cycling classes, cooking plant-based meals, and stepping on stray toy cars—from her home in Alexandria. She tweets at @KateReimann and posts stories of life in spite of cancer on her blog,