Even though every natural law indicates it, even though popular culture is rife with examples, even though the arc of his condition moved with haste in a particular direction - specifically, down - I was very surprised when my father died. I was surprised that he could.
It wasn’t merely naivete. Those afflicted with his particular cancer number less than one hundred. It is the sort of cancer that excites a doctor. One of the things that is so “exciting” about this cancer is that it apparently didn’t form the hard masses we use to find the disease, rather, it converts the meat of your abdomen into a kind of undifferentiated doom. What might happen is that they will attempt to draw your blood and instead draw out the green syrup that was once your guts. Shortly thereafter they will tell you and your family that the fight is over.
I am at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and nobody wants to be here. Even as an internationally recognized temple of healing, every inch of it is terror. Every cubic inch of every room is that is not occupied by terrified children and terrified parents is filled to its capacity with a terror wholly unique to that family which no other person has any power to comprehend. There is art on the walls and rooms which is designed to evoke a jungle of some kind, and I resent it. Every giraffe is my sworn enemy.
I am here because the hand sanitizer station at my son’s school began talking to him last week. I won’t tell you everything it said; he might want to be president someday.
When your child - statistically speaking, your son - is unlike other children in some very specific ways, doctors will prescribe them some methamphetamines. And if they can’t keep them down, these methamphetamines, they give them another drug that will keep (in this case) him from vomiting. Except the anti-nausea drugs also made him vomit. And the methamphetamines caused the hand sanitizer and the recycling bin to suggest that he hurt himself in a manner of such terrifying specificity that it still echoes. It wasn’t a good week. I can’t really care about myself anymore, I don’t see the point. To have made a person who suffers like this, and who I cannot help, is a pain beyond words.
I thought that maybe I could be a better father to him than mine was to me, and it hasn’t been the case so far. My problem is that I’m essentially allergic to rules. I thought that might help me here, but he’s got the same problem I do, only now I’m the rules he happens to be allergic to. I think of how my own father must have managed it, a man stripped of the tools to construct a stable, entire self, and I wish I’d been able to make realizations like this at some point prior to his incineration.
My father always told me that if I was going to drink from the hose, I had to let it run for a bit. I chose not to do that once, because I was smarter than him, and a rock ended up halfway down my throat. It stayed there for a while, right in the middle of my chest, until it felt good and ready to go down. That is how it feels now.
One Saturday I brought Elliot to see him, in another hospital. I’m spending a lot of time in hospitals right now. The door was open, but the curtain was drawn across and the boy couldn’t bring himself to pass it. He didn’t recognize the smell or the sound of the place, things I’d become immune to by that point. I told him it was okay. He could read his book in the hall.
I went out to check on my son every now and then, and once he asked me what those sounds were. I told him that there are kinds of pain that make people speak in ways they don’t choose to. I told him that his mother had made similar sounds when his sister was born, and then she would yell at me to sing, and then she would howl, back and forth, for a half an hour or so. He said he understood.
I had been in this room with my father before, during the brief window where he wasn’t dying but was instead getting better, and I wasn’t really welcome then. He has another family, and another son in everything but name, and it was a family of his choosing and not the family which long, ungracious living had set against him. That wasn’t the man I saw this time. I saw the other one, the one who cried out and needed holding, the one who fell asleep for twenty seconds and then woke up a different person each time. There was a clear part right in the middle of it, a minute or so, where everything was calm before his tour of hell resumed. That was goodbye, even if no one said it.
I don’t think I will ever get “better” after having seen that. I think this is the kind of knowing that stays with you. I can reach into my pocket, now, and find it there.
I couldn’t talk to anyone at the funeral about the funeral. I could talk to them at considerable length on any other topic: the cookies Brenna brought for the potluck, the comparative virtues of Subway over Blimpie, but not the atomized man we were there ostensibly to mourn. When the time came, when the microphone was being passed around, I couldn’t say anything. I waved it away like a teetotaler.
This is what I should have said:
When I was four, the birdhouse that had hung since my earliest memory became home to a family of swallows. I could hear the chicks inside, day after day, until I no longer heard them. The birdhouse slowly became a grey sphere until it was not a house for birds but a house for wasps.
I took to throwing rocks at the hive from the middle of the backyard, and when I had thrown all the nearby rocks I gathered more from the front yard and threw those. Occasionally I would actually hit it, flecks and shreds would fly off and it would swing gently on the wire that held it to the branch. There was something unseemly about trading musically inclined chicks for carnivorous insects. I understood even then that it was a bullshit trade. My antics ended up more or less as you’d expect, with a constellation of stings up my right arm.
My dad wasn’t home a lot, but this time he was. He asked me what had happened, I told him, and his face became unlike a person’s face. Then, he told me to stay inside. He rolled an empty steel drum across the yard, underneath the hive, and then he built a fire in it while they stung and stung him. I saw him wipe handfuls of wasps off his arms. They stung him when he came back with a pair of bolt cutters, and they stung him when he clipped through the wire and the little house fell into the fire and burned.