When I was eight or nine, my dad got a phone call from his doctor with the news that he was dying of cancer. My parents reacted by booking a family trip to Disney World (probably on a credit card). Faced with the impending, untimely loss of my father’s life, their impulse was to give me and my brother some happy memories. After a day or two, the doctor called again with an apology. Dad’s lab results had been accidentally swapped with someone else’s. The old—oops, hey you’re going to live—medical record switch-o-roo! My brother and I weren’t told any of this until years later. All we knew was that we were going to Disney World.
My family might tell it a different way, but this is how I remember it.
Even though I lacked context at the time, I have a vague memory of my mother’s pinched outrage behind a closed door saying to my father, “He’s lucky you didn’t kill yourself after the first call!” Family friends asked what sort of recourse my parents sought. Surely, people seemed to think, a doctor shouldn’t be able to get away with a mistake like that. But we had free medical care from my dad’s service in the Navy. What could my parents have done? As far as I know, the question never rose beyond rhetoric. They took us to Disney World is what they did.
It was abnormally hot in Florida that April. Mickey Mouse stepped on my toe when I approached him for an autograph. Those costumes have limited periphery. My favorite part was the hotel: crisp sheets and cool air without the clutter and nicotine stains of home. I have a picture of us in Tomorrowland. My eyes are closed, fending off heatstroke; Dad’s smoking a cigarette; my brother looks mad at the world. My family sans (“Take the picture, Molly!”) my mother. The Magic Kingdom in all its unapologetic, gritty actuality.
I’ve never thought about what that trip must have been like for my parents. I’ve never even asked them. Nor have I wondered about the man whose lab results were swapped with Dad’s. Instead, what occurs to me each time I see the adorable grimace on my very young face is that there is no such thing as a happiest place on earth. And there is no happily ever after. There is only what we have: a will to give each other happy memories, to make our love known before the next time the doctor calls.