I don’t remember what I was doing when my aunt called to tell me my father was dying. Probably it was something inane, like watching The Bachelor: On the Wings of Vom. She didn’t say the word “death” of course, or “dying.” But the message was conveyed, and I was told to come to Tucson immediately.
My dad had been in the hospital for almost two weeks at this point, alone, save for the daily visit from an amazingly generous neighbor. He came in with pneumonia; it was much later that they found the cancer. After my aunt called me, I called my brother, Jonny, in New York and relayed the news precisely as it was relayed to me, in a perverse game of telephone that somehow made me appear rational and calm. I was simply a messenger. My brother, as I did, received the news rather stoically, with a litany of Okays and promises to book airfare. It was only after I hung up that I burst into tears.
A few weeks before that, my step-dad had a stroke, and while he was in the hospital, my mom’s blood pressure skyrocketed, which caused her to panic and check herself into the hospital as well. They were in different wards, so they communicated with each other by cell phone, as well as me, who called several times a day because that was all I could do from so far away to keep from panicking myself.
When I saw my brother next, at Northwest Medical Hospital in Tucson, it was evident that he’d been crying relentlessly, something that I have maybe witnessed twice in my life, once at the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, when we were barely out of diapers. It was impossible not to cry at the sight of our father, who now weighed less than I did, and twitched uncontrollably from the endotracheal tube that was doing his breathing for him, and the straps that kept his hands from ripping it out of his throat, which the nurses told us he tried to do every ten minutes. He was heavily sedated, and when his eyes did manage to open, they were not his, but the mucuousy, glazed-over cow eyes I recognized from growing up on a farm. His lips were cracked and dry, and he drooled from the inability to close his mouth around the tube.
As Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, “The power of grief to derange the mind has been exhaustively noted.” Yet this derangement is something whose “cure” can only be lessened with time. It’s not considered a pathology. I was so deranged during my time in Tucson that I couldn’t even write in my journal. I felt that whatever I wrote about my father would come true, and I did not want to jinx anything. I also couldn’t have a single conversation that wasn’t punctuated by uncontrollable fits of sobbing. Even the most benign questions, Are you hungry? Do you want to go for a walk? caused my grief to flare anew.
With the doctors, I tried to retain an ounce of composure, even though I could not understand why they were asking me, for all intents and purposes, a child, to sign documents that said “Do Not Resuscitate” on them. No matter that I was 27-years-old, and an adult by every conceivable measure, including that last important hurdle at 25 of being able to rent a car and carpet shampooer without having to pay extra. No matter that I’d been a functioning adult for nearly a decade. I could no sooner decide what to have for lunch than I could tell the doctors when to end my father’s life.
I had nightmares every night for weeks. One of them involved me talking to my seven-year-old self. She was at school and she was upset because Dad wasn’t there. I told her he was there, just outside the door where she couldn’t see him, and she said that he would just have to leave again. Then we both started crying.
I signed the doctors’ forms and asked simple questions that they couldn’t remotely answer, questions like How long? Then I ordered dinner for my brother, my girlfriend and me. I broke into my house using the hidden spare key that my high school boyfriend once used to surprise me with flowers on my birthday, then later, after he dumped me, to return every gift I’d given him. After dinner, having somehow given myself the task of Adultness, I set about taking care of all I knew how, which, aside from eating and feeding the dogs, proved to be decidedly little. This was made even more apparent a day later when the bathroom flooded, seeping gray and black bile through the walls, onto the living room carpet and into my childhood bedroom. As the tiles of my bedroom floor warped and peeled off, and we used up every towel and sheet in the house and it still wasn’t enough, I became convinced that there was no use trying anymore and burst into tears again.
When he was finally diagnosed with lung cancer, I was relieved. It had a name now, an expectation. He’d been smoking for fifty-odd years, after all. That his denial finally caught up to him did not surprise anyone, least of all me, especially since my girlfriend’s mom had passed away just a few months earlier from a similar fate. I was in the room when she died, reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, reading in fact, the scene where Oscar Wao dies, and when I looked up from my book after it happened, everything had changed.
I didn’t see my brother smoke one cigarette while in Tucson. Perhaps he feared a lecture, or simply wanted to be alone in his grief, but I could always smell it on him. Just like after my dad quit smoking once before when I was a teenager, but it didn’t last, and he took the habit up again in secret. Instead of admitting his defeat, he took really long trips to the gas station. He started closing his bedroom door more often. He went to get something from the shed, and always came back fifteen minutes later reeking of smoke. I wanted to tell him that I knew, that I didn’t consider him a failure, but instead I just played along.
In another nightmare, Jonny and Dad were both talking to me at the same time. I told them to stop, that I couldn’t understand them, but this just made them talk louder until they were both shouting and spitting at my face.
There were moments that I hated him too, even as he lay unconscious, emaciated in his hospital gown, for the addiction, and for the power it had over him. I’d always hated it, and as a child took to passive-aggressively hiding things from him whenever I could: cigarettes, lighters. When he was finally breathing enough on his own that they could take the tube out of his throat, he noted with irony that he had just quit smoking a few days before he ended up in the hospital. I wanted to believe him, but my grief made me vulgar. I frantically searched the house and threw away every ashtray I could find. It was imperative to me that they not exist anymore. Not even as trash.
Before the bathroom flooded, I found a sticker in my room of a family of gangsta Jesters, which I have for some reason kept for over a decade, in addition to several impersonal birthday cards from my orthodontist. Purging, I thought, was something I should do immediately. Something responsible. I got through two drawers before I found my San Francisco address written in his handwriting, which sent me into another flurry of tears.
The last nightmare, the worst one of all, was just a sound — an explosion — right in my face. It came without warning, propelling me out of the bed.
When he was still intubated, but the doctors lessened his drug intake enough for him to be semi-conscious, we tried to communicate with him using a chart that had big letters and numbers on it. We held it out for him and told him to spell out what he wanted, but he was too weak to even point with any accuracy, and his first (and only) attempt to ask for water spelled out W-A-R-F. “Warf?” Jonny said, amused. “You want to watch Star Trek?” The smile on my dad’s face was the first sign of life I’d seen from him in days.
A social worker came to talk to us about death and was so unremarkable that the only thing I recall about her is how fucked up her teeth were.
As the weeks went on and my dad stubbornly went on living, the doctors’ prognoses became less and less dire. His cancer went from “taking up the whole left lung” to “about the size of a quarter.” Instead of relief though, for I was far past that stage, I became furious. This was a good sign, I thought. Grief I could do nothing about, but anger I could. Grief was passive, but anger was righteous. I’d felt glimpses of it before, when one of the nurses told me not to touch my dad so much, that I was irritating him. As if being chained to a hospital bed, with tubes in his nose, throat, stomach and veins, and being sedated 24-hours-a-day wasn’t the real reason he was irritated. No, it must’ve been me touching his feet.
I could also, I found, read books and internet articles about lung cancer. It seemed important for me to learn about this thing that I was avoiding by incessantly checking Facebook and sending cryptic yet alarming text messages to friends. This is when I learned that approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths occur each year among adult nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. And that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker’s chances of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30%. And that some research also suggests it may increase the risk of breast cancer, nasal sinus cavity cancer, and nasopharyngeal cancer in adults and the risk of leukemia, lymphoma, and brain tumors in children.
This information that I was gathering, which was supposed to make me feel in control again, did nothing of the sort, so I switched to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, which talked about cancer in a much more manageable way, through vegetables. And I set about planning all the nutritious, cancer-fighting meals I would make for us, buying cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, and as soon as he got out of the hospital, I went into the kitchen and prepared several dishes while my brother drove to Carl’s Jr. and bought them both bacon western cheeseburgers and fries and sodas, which they ate out of wrappers while my girlfriend and I ate what we had made in silence.
We watched Seinfeld together at the dinner table, and for brief moments, we were a family again, and I no longer felt like a failure for not having a job yet in San Francisco, or even an interview, and the life I was struggling to maintain in a new city became inconsequential because I was supposed to be here, participating in this ritual of nothingness with my dad and brother and girlfriend, watching Seinfeld and eating wordlessly.
My dad continued to defy the doctors’ odds, through chemo and radiation and physical therapy until I got a phone call from him in September saying he was officially cancer free. He told me this right before I was supposed to go on a date with a straight girl who, coincidentally, asked me out after I offered my condolences for her mom’s cancer diagnosis. Her mom, it turns out, has final-stage lung cancer, which was one of the reasons she proffered as to why she could not see me anymore after our first date. I didn’t believe her excuse, but I sympathized with it nonetheless.
None of that matters now, of course, though it mattered terribly to me then, as most things of little consequence do in the heat of the moment. What matters is that I just spent Christmas in New York with my dad and brother, drinking instant coffee and watching 30 Rock, and these things, these insignificant, boring details made me happier than I’d felt in a long time. And every time I think I know what love is, it changes. I used to be frightened by that, but not anymore. “Everything changes,” my dad once told me, in an effort to get me to come out of my room after my teenage heart was broken for the first time. “But everything stays the same too.”
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.
Title borrowed from the lyrics of Regina Spektor’s Fidelity.