award I get but who also asks simply, “What are you working on?” when
he calls. Always, he asks about my work. And to free me from the economic constraints of my creative life, he likes to send me “fun money,”
money he insists I use for pleasure. And yet it isn’t through talking on
the phone or in person that my father and I become close. It’s through
the old-fashioned epistolary mode, both handwritten and typed pages
sent through snail mail. In letters, I tell him about seeing two deer frolicking in a field across from my house, scampering around the yard like
puppies, chasing one another; I tell him my worries about completing
a novel, how I’ll write in late afternoon, finishing a chapter, but will be
anxious the next morning about the next one; I tell him about the dogwood coming into bloom, my brown world exploding into green.
In response, my father mostly sends me short, staccato sentences in
his beautiful, slanting penmanship on both sides of a prescription, sentences that often make me laugh.
And yet, it seems another irony that as we become close, my father’s
health begins to deteriorate. Not all at once. But through a series of sur-geries and chronic diseases that require maintenance and discipline,
two things he’s never mastered in regard to his own body. Because he’s
lived a workaholic life, a life of service and hypervigilance to others, always attuned to being a “credit to the community,” he’s depended on an
abundance of energy and endurance, choosing rich foods when he gets
a chance, drinking too much, sleeping erratically, avoiding exercise and
pushing the boundaries in every way. When illness comes, he ignores
it as if he can will it away until a crisis sabotages his dismissal. Then,
he goes under the knife, complaining and recovering and returning as
much as possible to his former ways.
That is, until he’s diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.
I’ve been home for a week, sleeping on the couch across from my father’s
hospital bed, getting up when he wakes for ice chips, for the portable
commode, and watching him as he sleeps on his back, the covers drawn
up to his chin. He’s frail but alert, mostly preoccupied with the small
details of bodily discomfort, though he revives for a few minutes with
visitors, then slips into a coma-like sleep after they leave. Tending to him
is a relief, a ritual, a promise that he’s alive. I can’t imagine it ending.
And yet it is ending. His breathing is shallower. His words simpler.
His sleep longer. What I remember most vividly is that two days before he dies, one of the hospice nurses arrives to bathe and change him.