2023 Short Story & Essay Contest: First Place, Adult Essay Contest

Credit: Illustration by Ard Su

“Are you going to make it to the appointment tomorrow?” I ask my dad, who is hidden beneath a paper mask and hospital gown. His left hand, which has been squeezing my right, tightens. “I have to!” he exclaims, almost offended I asked. “If I don’t, I’ll be a dead man.” His eyes dart to the ceiling as he kicks his legs like a child underneath the blue-gray blanket covering him from the waist down. “I don’t want to be a dead man.”

I nod and squeeze his hand so hard it seems they might melt together. My eyes glaze over; I don’t want him to see me cry. He has already told me the worst part of his illness is not the debilitating pain, loss of appetite and energy—or, worst of all, his independence—but the anxiety his condition is causing my sister and me. 

It’s only been two weeks since we found out his cancer had spread to his lymph nodes; only six since they’d found cancer at all. He didn’t want me to be on the televisit with the oncologist, so I listened from another room and heard only snippets, such as chemotherapy would be too hard…immunotherapy…30% chance of success. 

“Let me go find an ATM so I can give you money to get home,” I finally say. My mom, happy for a break in the hallway, told me the medical taxi they use is $7—cash only—and I only have $5. I step out of the room and pull the curtain closed behind me.

A kind nurse who spotted me in the lobby and took me to my dad sees me and asks what I need. After I explain, she tells me to follow her, and we wordlessly make our way through hallways and double doors until we arrive at an elevator that takes us up three floors. She waits as I retrieve a $20 bill, then calls for the elevator so we can make our way back downstairs. 


“So, they’re letting him go home?” She asks this gently, trying to mask her surprise. “Yes,” I reply. “He has cancer, and he needs treatment. He’s just in pain today…that’s why he’s here.” 

“Good,” she replies, offering a small smile. “That’s good.”

What I won’t realize until later is that this nurse already knows what I don’t: that my dad won’t—can’t—get better. That his illness is too advanced; untreatable…and he will be back here again—first on her floor and then upstairs—then at another hospital, and another. That sooner than any of us think, and against the bravery and strength he has exuded since I was a child, my dad will be a dead man.


But I don’t know that yet; not any of it. So as I exit the elevator and walk back to give my parents the money, I am grateful for her kindness, which allows him to get home safely for at least tonight.

Cecilia Ferrara

Lives in: Rockville
Age: 36


What she does: Associate director of education for a local nonprofit  
Favorite place to write: “My sun-drenched dining room table—I love to look out into the yard while I write.”
Favorite author: Elizabeth Strout
How she got the idea for this essay: It came from one specific evening in the ER with her beloved father. “During such a traumatic time, I was touched by the nurse’s kindness, which was punctured by her surprise that my dad was allowed to go home. It’s universal—to not realize something until it’s too late—some more painful than others.”
Up next: “I plan to continue processing my grief through writing. I am also working on my first novel, which explores complicated family dynamics.”