How to Keep Him Alive

Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia writer and healthcare communications consultant whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, WIRED, Scary Mommy, Next Avenue, The Seattle Times, Brevity Blog, HAD, The Manifest-Station, Many Nice Donkeys, LOL Comedy, and elsewhere. She is writing a memoir about raising a child with a life-threatening illness and her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit

Scour the internet for stories of remission. Remember you work in healthcare and spring into action — who do you know? Find a way to bring it up with every doctor you interview for work. Ask the same questions in myriad ways to unlock new answers.

Call in magic. When the number of likes on an IG post is the house number where you grew up. When that song from the 50s he played on home videos comes on the radio while you’re driving. That’s the Universe telling you he will be okay.

Amplify small victories. He ate the entire piece of salmon your brother dropped off. He took a few sips of the high-calorie vanilla drink you sent him, totally worth the $175 to ship a case overnight though he’ll only open one can. He laughed when the entire family gathered to watch the Three Stooges, his favorite, on what will be your final trip to Florida over Christmas break where everyone will be present and even your mom pretended to like those idiots, as she used to call them, and your love for Curly blossomed tenfold.

Get him an appointment up north at a renowned cancer center and when the doctor tells him he can take chemo pills back in Florida, don’t cry when he hugs her out of gratitude and relief. Wait for the valet with your parents and when he pulls up in your car first, ignore the voice in your head screaming that this might be the last time you’ll hug him. Go numb so your bones don’t turn to liquid and pool on the lobby floor.

Pretend you are staying up north because he doesn’t want you to see him that sick, when it’s you who can’t handle it, who needs a thousand-mile buffer. Pretend you are more useful coordinating things from here plus your mom and two siblings are there. Pretend it’s too late to jump on the next plane because you’ll probably miss the window closing fast.

Tell yourself you said everything you needed to because you made sure to say I love you every time and just yesterday your sister put you on speaker in his hospital room and even though he could no longer respond he definitely heard you because a tear rolled from his eye.

Trust that he understands (pleasepleaseplease) because he always, always told you, any time you were afraid he was mad or disappointed in you, he assured you, he promised: You and I are always good.

Conjure his presence as you buy plane tickets, call the funeral home, arrange for his remains to be shipped up north, notify extended family and friends. Take charge like he did, grasp the loose pieces and hold them tight. Keep us all from floating adrift.

Tell yourself he is still alive, just on another plane.

Tell yourself he can hear you when you talk to him.

Tell yourself it’s like he’s in Florida, you just can’t call him.

Forget you can’t call him.

Look for him everywhere but beware the surprises that strike like a fist in the solar plexus. His handwriting on a birthday card. His photo on Facebook, posted by a cousin. That fucking song from the 50s that torments you when you hear it in the supermarket and can’t escape fast enough to your car.

Collect talismans. His brown loafers. White handkerchiefs worn soft from washing that he’d hand you to dry your tears. Pillage his art portfolios and hang a memorial gallery of his best print ads on your kitchen wall.

Talk to psychics.

Pay attention to the signs. Quarters materializing in random places. Cardinals swooping past your line of vision. The license plate of the car in front of you that says DADDY.

Suddenly flash on the oil painting he made back in art college that hung in the basement when you were a teenager and forgot existed. Race to the house, still winter-empty, and frantically search the playroom, the basement. Hoist the garage door, stiff with unuse, step carefully through the maze of cobwebbed three-speeds, dirt-crusted shovels and mildewed cardboard boxes, and in a daze lift a paint-dappled tarp off the canvas propped against one wall.

Lay the painting with reverence in the back of your Subaru and take it home. Wipe the dust off gently with a dampened cloth and place the canvas on the fireplace mantle you never could accessorize to save your life despite being an artist like him and see now that it was waiting for this.

Abby's father's abstract painting of a man on a chair. He's wearing boots and looking down. The painting is on a white mantle above a brick fireplace

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