I nod as if this invisible predator is real, doing his dirty work in the
dark. I never challenge my father’s delusion, just as I never challenge
the certainty that with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer, he will
soon die. Though my father’s been a family physician in Alabama for
almost fifty years and for the last three months has dressed in a suit and
tie and sat for two hours at his desk, he’s never once mentioned that he
has cancer. “This problem,” he calls it. “When I get over this problem.”
I nod at this, too.
My father is seventy-nine, and though he will not see eighty—shy only
three months—I believe this eighty-years marker would have pleased
him, fulfilling a triumphant defiance of his past, when, during my childhood, he both secretly feared and ritually announced that he’d be dead
by forty. Not thirty-nine. Not forty-one or forty-two or forty-three. No,
he would collapse at forty, as if this were an inheritance from his father,
who died at forty, on the way to the hospital, from untreated peritonitis.
Then again, perhaps this premonition came from the recognition that
he was descended from a long line of Irish Catholic alcoholics: garrulous, optimistic, reality-denying drinkers who casually dismissed heart
attacks, strokes, and exhausted livers, even though the clock was ticking.
Indeed, the stories were vivid, sobering: his grandfather (his father’s father), once widowed, packed up his three kids and traveled with them
by train from Nashville to Mobile, insisting that they wait in the Mobile
train station and mind the oldest while he went to find work and a place
for them to live. He returned twenty years later.
Instead of dying at forty, my father was revitalized, an unexpected
reckoning with fate: in his next decade, he became an even more pop-
ular doctor in our town—elected president of the county medical asso-
ciation, serving as mayor pro tem of the city council, and named to the
boards of hospitals and banks and universities, becoming—to use his
most valued compliment of others—a “credit to the community.”
Rather than a coffin, he entered a new sort of daylight.
And yet it was also during this decade and the next, amid my father’s
vigor and popularity, that our troubles began. At first, our disagreements and rumblings simmered rather than erupted, small storms that
never escalated to dizzying winds or damaging hail, never flooded the
driveway or saturated the topsoil. What they did was erode the nerves
and waterlog the heart. My father, after all, was often tired from his
strenuous schedule, and I had not yet been dragged down to the bottom