It’s November, almost Thanksgiving. On the phone my father is telling me how he’s been nauseated lately. He feels unstable, off balance. “Wobbly. Kind of dizzy. You know?” he says.
I know. I mean, I guess I know. I remember the board strung by rope from the limb of a wild, ancient oak. As a girl I sat on it, and, against my protests, my brother twisted and twisted and twisted and then let go. After I’d stopped spinning, I was unable to stand. My feet tripped over each other, and I fell with a landing that was neither soft nor graceful. The world blurred as if I had vaseline on my eyes. For the next five minutes I heaved but didn’t vomit. So I know, I guess. But I don’t know. My father is vomiting. He leaves the phone to vomit. The swing incident didn’t go on for a month. It didn’t make me lose thirty pounds.
I’ve heard this kind of story before, from my friend Todd. His dad was feeling queasy, said it felt like vertigo. Then one night he fell and hit his head on the nightstand. Twenty-four hours later he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. Todd was hopeful about his father’s chances, but I looked the disease up, and it was like a death sentence: two months at best. When Todd said his father was eating again, I told him, “That’s a great sign.” But I knew what I knew.
I’d dreamt of Todd’s dad for weeks before I heard the news. I barely even knew him. How do you tell your friend you’ve been dreaming of his father? I’d met the man just once or twice in the twenty years Todd and I had been friends. His father was a production worker for GM, maybe Saturn. What I knew most about him was that he drew political cartoons as a hobby. He was good. Todd had shown me a scrapbook of his dad’s work once. Steve’s work. His dad’s name was Steve. I’m 99 percent sure that’s right. But there you go: a man’s son is your best friend for decades, and your mind scrambles to grasp his name. It makes everything seem so temporary and forgettable.
Steve’s decline was harsh, steady, and complete in roughly sixteen weeks. (Four months seems so much longer when you say it like that.) Todd traveled back and forth from his Florida home to his Georgia birthplace to be with his dad. Brain surgery and radiation didn’t help. The family chose to pull his feeding tube and let him slide into whatever lies beyond. I don’t know what it was like for Todd. I took him to the airport once. We bought beer and cigars for the drive. At security I took his lighter. I still have that clear orange lighter. I’m saving it and mean to give it back to him someday. In the meantime I can’t use it, but I also can’t throw it away.
I was at Tire Kingdom when Todd called, sobbing, and choked the words into my ear. I cried with him. I said I was sorry. And I was. I’m still sorry seven years later. Those two words were all I had for one of my closest friends. They’re the best we can do. If I bump into someone by accident at Target reaching for hair gel, I offer the same words that I do when someone’s dad dies.
Todd buried his dad, then a few weeks later called to tell me a flood had hit Georgia and pushed caskets up out of the ground, creating a real-life River Styx.
I did not dream of my father. I just got that call before Thanksgiving. He had vertigo and nausea, he said — except he didn’t say it like that. He said, “I’ve got vertigo and nauseous.” (When he’d had a high result on a PSA test years before, he’d called to tell me in great detail about his “prostrate.”) I asked if he was waking up in the middle of the night to throw up. No. I asked if he was OK when he sat very still. Yes. I asked if his ears hurt. No. I was silent. He put me on hold, returned from vomiting, and said he had to go. He would call when his “stomach bug” had passed. I hung up and said to no one, “Brain tumor.”
The day after Thanksgiving my sister called. “Have you spoken to Dad?” she asked. “He really doesn’t sound good.” The next morning I called him. Alice, his third wife, answered. She said Dad still wasn’t feeling well. My sister and I insisted that Alice take him to the ER, but she wouldn’t, because Dad said he didn’t want to go.
Two weeks later Dad was in the hospital. I went to see him on December 9. He had gone from 165 pounds to 135 since Thanksgiving. Thirty pounds in two weeks. Looking at him, I wanted to say, Who lets it come to this? But the better question is Who doesn’t? Aren’t most of us in some career we didn’t exactly pick? In a dead-limb relationship we should have pruned from our tree years ago? In a marriage that only limps along? Denial is invigorating — like inertia with attitude. It allows you to be defiant while doing nothing at all. Could I really criticize?
Dad had been admitted through the ER the night before. My sister and I were at his bedside by 8 AM, in time for a surgeon to come in to discuss the operation he was scheduled to perform in three hours. We found out Dad did have a brain tumor. Also lung cancer. And an ulcerated esophagus. And reflux. And dentures that slid like hockey pucks around his mouth when he spoke, so that you could not understand much of what he said. They’d inserted a catheter, and a plastic sack of orange-tinged urine hung like a saddlebag from the bed. After the surgery there were wires and tubes and beeping things and clear pillows of fluids: cipro-something, diaza-something. Therapists came in with kazoo-shaped pipes loaded with bronchial-dilating potions. Dad leaned in to puff on the pipes, the back of his head trussed like the Thanksgiving bird he’d been unable to eat.
I hadn’t had much communication with my father, who’d divorced my mother when I was in eighth grade. Now I was forty-three. He’d become a born-again evangelical Christian. My sister and I are, at best, lapsed Catholics, religiously decommissioned. Most of our kids aren’t even baptized. Mine are professed atheists. Dad lived his life; I lived mine. It was not a relationship filled with animosity. It was not filled with anything. He was like an old neighbor who used to come shoot the shit with you in the driveway before he moved to Arizona. I thought of him sometimes, but without any real depth. His other families had supplanted his first so long ago that he’d hardly seemed like my father anymore, until this moment.
In the tiny hospital room my sister and I stood by the bed of this man we only vaguely knew. The main players in his new life broke into prayer circles and uttered incantations and did everything but rub garlic on his balls. They grabbed our hands and prayed, “Lord, Father of all things, we know you are with us today. We just want you to know that we give everything up to you, Father.” They told God they knew he was all powerful and could reach his mighty hand down right then and there and heal my father’s brain, tear the tumor right out of his head. (Later, in the car, I said to my sister, “Holy fuck, if the hand of God had come through the window, I was so out of there.”) Every time a new group of the devout came to visit, my sister and I had to be introduced. None of the people in my father’s life knew who we were. He’d sweep his hand toward us and say, “These are my daughters.” My father, the magician: Voilà! Daughters!
I tried to get to the hospital every day. Lots of information was being doled out to a man patched together like a rag doll, his brain fresh from the scalpel. Once, when I was alone with Dad, a giant oncologist entered the room. He was so tall he blotted out the sun coming through the window. He shook my dad’s hand and then made the strange assumption that I was my father’s wife. Either my father looked like a real player, or I looked like crap. My bet was on the latter.
The doctor told us about Dad’s cancer. One word clanged around the room like a pinball: incurable. Treatable, to a point, but terminal. My father said nothing. The oncologist waited in silence. His eyes cut to the window, then the floor. Finally he backed away from the diagnosis a little by saying that he saw miracles all the time. He was, he said, a man of faith.
Later, when I told Alice about the doctor’s diagnosis, she narrowed her eyes at me and said, “What do you mean they can’t cure it? Why not?” She was incredulous, as if I’d made it up. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “That can’t be right.”
The man was on death row, but no one else seemed to see this. Even my brother remained guarded, saying to me on the phone, “Well, you’re not a doctor, so you don’t know for sure.” How much did I need to know? Dad was seventy-five and had been a smoker for more than sixty years. He had cancer in one lung, the lymph nodes, and his brain. He weighed less than I had in twelfth grade when my waist was twenty-one inches. It’s not that I wasn’t hoping for a miracle; I was just realistic enough to know that it would take one to save him.
The next few weeks were maddening. My dad seemed to think that once the tumor was out, the next steps would be radiation and chemo, and then everyone would return to their regularly scheduled programs. I set up a CaringBridge website for Dad, where friends and family could get updates on his condition and leave messages of support. He was from one of those old-school Catholic families of twelve kids. His web of relations was so wide that no one fully knew everyone else. I thought the online network would help. Dad never logged on to the site himself, but I printed out the messages people left and brought them to him, or I read them to him on the phone. Alice complained that she could not sign on to CaringBridge. “I went there,” she said, “and I put in my name and the password I use on my computer, and it wouldn’t do anything.” I knew it was just pain and exhaustion and worry talking. I tried to explain that she needed to set up an account. “I did that,” she said. “You just didn’t set it up so I can get in it.” My patience, like my dad, kept thinning.
The day before Christmas I thought that, if the tables had been turned, my father would not have come to see me on Christmas Eve at the hospital. He would have told me that he’d love to, but he was playing Christ’s uncle in the Christmas cantata at the church. Or he’d have said, “I’ll try to drop by after I do this tile job.” But I kept coming to the hospital and doing whatever I could to help. The entire time, my father never acknowledged that he was dying. Everyone ignored the vomiting, shrinking, balding elephant in the room. Whenever the doctors asked my father if he had any questions, he responded, “Not right now.” I wanted to shake him.
I asked Alice how she was doing. Didn’t she have any questions? She guessed not, she said. “We’ll just do this, and then we can move on to getting him well.” I wanted to say, This is the new “well.”
Then one day, after a particularly grueling appointment, Alice grabbed my arm and said, “You have been a real blessing. I don’t know what I would do without you. I could not do this alone. I can’t thank you enough.” She burst into tears, and so did I. How could I stay angry? God damn his dying ass, I could not muster up any disdain for my father, and my heart broke for this woman, who was becoming a central figure in my daily life.
My life outside the hospital went on. I had a student in my class who was flirting with me inappropriately. My beloved dog had a systemic yeast infection and a failing liver. She needed to be euthanized, but I just could not do it. Instead I carried her ninety pounds of dead weight to my car every three days, drove her to my mother’s, and bathed her in the downstairs bathtub, because we didn’t have one downstairs at our house, and my old girl couldn’t climb stairs anymore. And I lay with her on the floor and told her I loved her. I told her I was sorry, because it was all I had. And I cried every day when no one was watching. Then I wiped away the tears and headed back to the trenches, smile firmly in place.
My father was in and out of the hospital for four months and also developed a yeast infection, in his esophagus. Meanwhile a stair on my back deck gave way and collapsed — while I was standing on it. My kids’ shower stopped working. One of them got an ear infection; the other, a sinus infection. I had a massive upper-respiratory infection. My dentist determined that I was grinding my teeth at night. “Are you under any stress?” he asked.
My sister, who’d been visiting with Dad every Sunday, sent me an e-mail: “Dad seems done.”
I thought, God, aren’t we all?
But we were not. In my mind I silently willed my father and Alice to end treatment, involve hospice, alleviate the vomiting, and just let him die. The problem was that, despite my sister’s assessment, Dad was still not convinced he was dying. Alice kept saying she wanted to do whatever my father wanted to do. My father was not in his right mind, though. She wanted him to be the one to acknowledge the obvious, and when he did not, they just kept soldiering down whatever path was recommended by the doctor du jour. When asked if he would rather wait on chemo and treat the nausea for a while, Dad was noncommittal.
During these discussions Dad hunched down in the chair, looking into the distance and seeming to take in only every other word. I’d make notes, ask questions, offer prompts: “So, Dad, didn’t you want to know what can be done about X?” He would nod and say, “Uh, yeah.” And the doctor would race through some script with all the patience of an eighteen-year-old groom on his honeymoon. I’d ask something else, and the doctor would answer, and Dad would nod, though I suspect he hadn’t the faintest idea what the man had said. The nurses gave instructions, and my father went where he was told to go, did what he was told to do. Dad let them hook him up to IVs without a single question about what was being pumped in. I kept asking, “So, what’s in that bag? What does this medicine do? Are there any side effects? What do these blood-level results mean?”
A friend said that he hoped God would be with my father. I’m not sure God ever showed up, but my dad had two daughters who, despite his best efforts to neglect them, were at his side during his illness. If a person needs proof of God, that’s it. The sun reflected off the river and into the hospital windows. Soon, very soon, we’d end this chemo. We. I kept saying that. Why? He and I were not a “we.” Me and him. Him and me. The “we” that never really was and would never really be.
My sister drove back and forth to Dad’s house every week, after he’d finished his chemotherapy treatments. She would arrive in his forlorn living room weekend after weekend to mine the dry seams of a father who’d left her in his rearview mirror when she was seven. Seven. She called me every time she left Dad’s house, shaking off the claustrophobia of his living tomb and reporting on the progression of his decline. Each call started with a declaration of her departure from his street: “Hey,” she’d say. “Leaving Shenandoah.”
In a previous life this dying man had taught me to use a shotgun. He’d taught me how to fish and clean my own catch. He’d taught me how to hit a softball. How to start a fire. How to use tools and ride a horse. He’d also taught me that you can leave your family, that you don’t have to support your kids. You can become a hero someplace else if you just reinvent yourself before a new audience. You don’t have to express regret if you really don’t feel it. You can find redemption in erasure. But that had been more than three decades earlier. And now we were left with what was. My role in the world of doctors had ended, and, like my sister, I went to, then left, Shenandoah.
Dad said “I love you” when he could still speak, and I said it back. I don’t know what either of us meant by it. Our definitions of everything were worlds apart. We were like different jokes with the same punch line. So I sat with him. My sister sat with him. Sometimes even my brother came to sit with him.
We sat with the sun in the windows.
We sat with the water scattering diamonds of light to the bridges.
We sat with Alice.
We sat knowing that in every election our votes canceled each other out.
We sat with what we had lost and what we had gained.
We sat with words strangled in our throats.
We sat with our greatest history together being made in the present.
There was no moment of revelation or clarity. Nothing profound was said or shared. There was no Hollywood ending or profession of regret. Before he lost his speech entirely, Dad spoke about construction jobs he had left to do, measuring imaginary doors and windows with sickly arms outstretched.
When he died, his body shook like a rocket exploding from the atmosphere. His spine arched, and his mouth twisted to speak a final word that never came. I laid my head on the pillow next to his and sang a hymn I’d learned in Catholic school, back before all the leaving, back when he was still my dad and not a near stranger. I whispered the song because I was crying. “Be not afraid, I go before you always. / Come follow Me, and I will give you rest.” I’m not sure which one of us I sang the song for or what I meant by it, but there it was on my lips.
In the sun he fades away from me, from us. He is pale light. He is a whisper, a stare, a slight tremble in one hand. He fades into spring. He becomes a regret, a relief, a memory discussed in phone calls. He becomes a name in a prayer. He becomes the story of an ex–Golden Gloves fighter and a photo of a young, uniformed Marine. He becomes a deep sadness, an ocean wave that doesn’t shift a single shell as it pulls back out to sea.