By, Brittany A. Hermansen


Washoe County is Nevada’s second-most populous county. It was created on November 25, 1861 and was the first county seat in 1861 until it was replaced by Reno in 1871.

I hear the man rummaging around in the master bedroom. Dresser drawers are yanked open and then either slammed shut or tossed angrily to the floor. I hear the metallic-clatter sound of chain jewelry being moved about. The man stumbles over to the nightstand and pulls those drawers free, upending the contents on the neatly made bed. It sounds like my stepmother’s nightstand, based on the sound of the contents that are spilling out. Small bottles of lotion or moisturizer, rattling pill bottles, a hardcover book.

Because my eyes are squeezed shut and buried in a throw pillow, these are the sounds I’m hearing. Imagining. Creating a narrative in my head about what’s happening in the other room, to distract me from what’s happening in this one.

Metastatic brain tumors are caused by cancers that originated from another part of the body. It is also referred to as secondary brain cancer.

July 26, 2009. I have just finished a video shoot with several friends for a community project. It’s hot and I’m sweaty. The six of us stop at Burgermaster in University Village for milkshakes. My cell phone rings, and it’s my father. It’s not unusual to receive a call from him in the middle of the day, even though it’s been over four weeks since I last heard from him. Our relationship has never been close, and our monthly phone calls were perfunctory at best.

The first man tries again. Where. Are. The. Guns. He spits out the words one by one. I told you, I don’t have any guns, my father says calmly. They should be here! He said they were here! A man bellows from the kitchen. Check all the rooms, the man with the gun on my father calls.

In 1985, the hillside letter “S” at Sparks experienced some controversy. After 50 years, the new landowners altered the symbol to resemble its own corporate logo for Salomon-American, a ski manufacturer. After much community protest, Salomon-American apologized and returned the S to its original shape.

It is September, 1997. I’m visiting my father and stepmother in Sparks, Nevada. Sparks is brown, flat, and ringed on all sides with dull, brown mountains. A giant S is carved into one of the low mountains on Sparks’ eastern side. I can see it from my father’s backyard. It’s a Monday afternoon, and my stepmother is at work.

The pain started in his back. After a long career at British Petroleum, his retirement included a handyman side business. I created business cards for him once. Honey-Do Handyman, the cards read.

He always complained of back pain. He chalked it up to the reality of a 64-year old man doing handyman work. One day, on one of our infrequent phone calls, I heard an old but familiar sound: a pause and then exhale. Did you start smoking again? I asked. It’s the only vice I have left, he protested. But his old habit brought with it a hacking cough.

I should have paid more attention.

Cancers that are known to spread to the brain include breast cancer, skin cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer.

A banging on the door interrupts me from my web-surfing. Concerned, I leave the back bedroom and approach the living room where my father is about to open the door. Not typically a cautious fellow, he opens the door and steps out on the porch. After a few terse words that I can’t quite comprehend, my father walks backward into the house with his hands held up. Three men followed him inside the house, two of them with shotguns in their hands. The guy without a gun heads to the kitchen.

One of the men points his gun at my father and shouts at him to get on the ground. My father kneels down slowly and lays on his back. The man stands over my father, pointing the gun down. Where are they, he snarls, in a voice full of rage and impatience. Where’s what, my father asks. The man leans down and whacks my father in the temple with the shotgun barrel. The guns, he says menacingly, where are the fucking guns?  I don’t have any guns, my father says, his eyes wide.

It is at this point that I begin to comprehend what is happening. I gasp, and the third man raises his shotgun to me, as if he’d just noticed me for the first time. Cover your face, he screams at me. I look down, frozen, and he marches over and pushes me down on the couch. He picks up a throw pillow and shoves it at me. I bring my knees up on the couch, trying to make myself as small as possible, and cover my face with the pillow.

I have a brain tumor, he tells me. He’s very upbeat and optimistic. He feels certain he can beat this. At first, I share his optimism. I’m surrounded by friends and don’t want to break down in front of them, so I make a conscious choice to believe him.

Nothin’, man, the rummaging guy says. Sure this is the right house? The man nearest my father retorts, 1389 Coupler Court. My father mumbles from the floor, 1387 Coupler Way. The man lightly kicks him in the side. What? 1387 Coupler Way, my father repeats, a little louder this time. No, 1389 Coupler Court, the man repeats. Coupler Court is up in Sun Valley, my father declares, this is Coupler Way. Here, let me show you my address. He starts to reach for his wallet and the man lunges at him. My father rolls over on his stomach with his hands flat on the floor and the man pulls the wallet out of his back pocket.

After the back pain, came neck pain. Always a bit of a skeptic, he thought a chiropractor could fix what was wrong. He hated going to doctor for any reason. That’s the way I was raised, believing doctors and hospitals were only for emergencies. You didn’t see a doctor when you had a cold or sore throat, you just toughed it out.

Sonofabitch, the man says. He calls out to the others, get the phones. I hear one man walk off into the kitchen, and the man holding my stepmother’s costume jewelry heads toward the master bedroom. After a moment, I hear an odd, unfamiliar sound that makes the wall shake in a disconcerting way. I twist my head to the left, toward the hallway, and peek. The man stalks into the living room with a telephone and base in hand, grey cord trailing behind him. He yanked the phone cord out of the wall, I thought to myself.

The other man comes out of the kitchen fumbling with heavy plastic objects: most likely the wall phone and an answering machine. I peek out from behind the pillow, as the men open the door to leave. The first man looks back at my father, still on the floor, and points the shotgun at him once more. If you call the police, you’re fucking dead. Finally, they leave.

The median survival time for patients with secondary brain cancers is four months. In some cases, when the secondary cancer is caught very early or the brain involvement is small, survival time can increase to two years or longer.

Not long after the neck pain, the headaches started. He finally visited a doctor, only to learn that he had developed a brain tumor. Inoperable. Treatable, with radiation therapy. Apparently, he told me, the cancer started in my lungs, moved to my back, traveled up my neck and lodged somewhere in the brain. All those warning signs. All those opportunities to stop this slow invasion, wasted.

Three and half months later, he was dead.