This was a pretty personal piece for me. My dad passed away from four different types of cancer in March of 2016. I cobbled together this epistolary story from letters I wrote to him while undergoing treatments. Many details have been changed for the purposes of the story and to protect my family…but many true details remain.
I read this a couple of years ago during a live reading/recording for my show, The Word Count Podcast episode 88, at a ReaderCON 30.
You can listen to that episode HERE.
Reflect on loved ones who have passed as you go through the main character’s desperate attempt to ignore the fact that his father is dying.
And call a loved one.
R. B. Wood March 2020
My father died of cancer the week before Christmas, while I rode in an Uber heading home from my appointment at the hospital. There are moments in life that are remembered so clearly that the details are forever etched in the lobes of the brain. This is why some people can recall the smells around them when they heard that Kennedy was shot. Or recall the exact lyric being sung on the radio when the announcer broke in to report the Challenger disaster. For my moment, I was slumped in the back of a Corolla that smelled of cheap burgers, body odor, and cigarettes. There must have been nine of those little air freshener trees hanging from the rearview mirror: silent, impotent sentinels who had lost the fight for aromatic dominance to the onslaught of pungent dissonance. It was midafternoon, but the sky was dark with clouds threatening a snowy evening while the cold air hung lifelessly, anticipating the coming storm.
My phone buzzed. I glanced at the screen—it was my brother, in New York. Probably checking up on me. My wife must have told him about the appointment today, despite the fact that I’d asked her not to say anything—my brother had been taking care of Dad for three months now and didn’t need any more shit on his plate.
“Hey, Danny. It’s Stevie,” he said, his voice sounding strained and cracked. “Dad’s gone.”
I figured that, since there won’t be a phone in your room for a while, a letter would be the best way for us to “chat.” Stevie said he’d read them to you until we can go back to our phone conversations.
The trip back to Boston was as long and crazy as ever. I’ve never understood why people make fun of drivers from New York or New Jersey, when in reality it’s the nut-job motorists in Connecticut that should all be locked up. Nevertheless, made it back in time for dinner.
Gina had gone shopping while I was away and picked up some fresh lobster raviolis (or “lobstah” as they say in “Bah-stin”), and we spent dinner talking about the weekend. Gina grilled me on everything your doctor said and fussed about your vital signs—I told her how much better you seemed the morning after your surgery. She said that you are showing good progress, but the doc’s plan for physical therapy is a great indication of how to get you home fastest.
I’m sorry I had to go back to Boston, and I wish I could’ve stayed—not just to visit you but to help take care of you as well. Life really isn’t fair sometimes.
I’m looking at my work schedule (it’s about 6:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in the testing center for the big project I’m running) and I’m thankful the day is busy, but really not caring about any of what needs to be done here today. I’ll check in with Stevie each day to see how you are doing, and I’m trying to get back to New York as soon as I can.
Please listen to the doctors and the nurses—I know they will be asking you to do things you might not be ready for, but they want to see you get better as fast as possible. And to be honest, the doctors wouldn’t be asking you to do things they didn’t think were possible.
Well, the phone has started to ring and testers are beginning to arrive into the lab, so I have to close now. I can’t wait to hear how your day was and hope you’re feeling a bit better.
Love you, Dad!
I was silent for a moment. Focused on my own health problems, I didn’t expect those words from my brother. I knew what Stevie said, but I couldn’t form the image that went with his cracking voice.
A horn blared in the distance. I blinked once.
To my brother, I finally asked, “What do you mean, ‘gone?’”
I feel like Hawkeye in M.A.S.H. every time I type “Dear Dad.” Except for the war zone I’m in has cubicles instead of tents. And there are NO hot nurses here, and witty repartee is frowned upon.
Although I did use the “mustache joke” yesterday.
Gina and I woke up this morning to find a degree. Yes, just one degree on the outdoor thermometer. Coldest day in September for a long time. Even when I went outside to walk Jack, the poor pooch looked up at me as if to say, “You’re kidding, right? How about I just poop in the basement and we’ll call it a day?” Needless to say, even at the ripe old age of seventeen, once he put his nose in the snow and found an interesting scent, he was fine. Dogs do have their priorities, I guess.
Stevie told me the chest tube was taken out yesterday—a great step! I checked with Gina, and the little heart arrhythmia was most probably an after-effect of the anesthesia. I’m glad they are monitoring you so closely, though, and I can’t wait for you to be in a room where you are allowed a telephone!
I never did get a chance to look at the pictures at the house—you know, the ones of you up in New Hampshire. I know where they are and will make a point of going through them with Stevie next time I’m down.
I spoke with Brandon and Rachel last night and they both send you their love. Brandon wants to see you when I have him in January, but I told him that we should let you get better first. Then he proceeded to shout “Don’t ask to see Grandpa until he’s better!” at his sister. But they both are looking forward to seeing you in the New Year once you are up and about.
It’s about ten to eight in the morning now, and I have to jump into my third meeting of the day. It’s crazy here, but Stevie keeps me updated as to how you are doing. I think about you all day and I hope you are feeling a bit better. Please listen to the nurses and doctors—we all want you home as soon as possible.
Love you, Dad!
“Gone,” he said, and started to cry. My brother is fifty-six years old, and I hadn’t heard him cry since that time I needed my wisdom teeth pulled back in ‘76. He thought his little brother was going to die. I, on the other hand, remember thinking I was going to get a really good present. As soon as I’d woken up, my brother had handed me a “Tom Seaver” red, white, and blue baseball glove.
“Dad got this for you!” he said with a squeak.
Now Dad was gone.
The project I’m running at the moment is a very large financial and manufacturing systems installation. The details, quite frankly, are boring. But the fun of a project of such scale is the people involved in making this work.
For example: the lead accountant on the project is a man a little older than Stevie. And like your “Number One Son,” he is in great shape and very intelligent. But for months I couldn’t help but wonder where I’d seen him before. I figured it was another project or at some professional conference…but I didn’t want to ask. So I did what any computer geek would do…I Googled him.
Well, Tom may have been an accountant for decades, but what I found was very interesting. Back in the early eighties, Tom Grant played baseball for the Chicago Cubs. He was an outfielder and pinch hitter with a very unremarkable career…but I knew his name somehow. How did I know his name?
So last night, I finally dug around in the attic for my old baseball cards. And there he was. I actually had his rookie card.
At the end of the contract here I’m planning on asking him to sign it. But until then, he’s my accounting lead.
The world is a strange place.
I hear they are bringing in a specialist to see you tomorrow. Do you think it’s one of those “let’s make money off the old guy” things? I hope it’s nothing serious. I miss you and I really am trying to schedule some time to come back down to visit. Until then—I’ll keep sending notes through Stevie and hope that you are getting a bit better each day.
Until next week, all my love,
“I’ll leave as soon as I can get home and pack,” I said over my brother’s breathless sobs. I’ve never been good at ‘feelings’ and I just didn’t know what to say to make my brother stop crying. “It’ll take me about four or five hours to get to New York. Soon as I’m packed, I’ll…shit. Sorry. I forgot. I need to do a food shop for the pet sitter, first. Just a few things at the grocery store, but then I’ll jump in the car and call you, okay?”
I clicked the ‘end’ button.
I’m not even sure my brother heard me.
Sundays are shopping days for the week. And I always have a plan.
This last bit makes Gina roll her eyes.
But I find it important, living in a big city, to plan the shopping trip very carefully. A difference of ten minutes could lead to parking nightmares and store aisle gridlock.
First, there’s the list. The list is crafted to maximize efficiency and minimize time weaving around crying children and people—people who stop in the middle to socialize, compare ingredients or otherwise stand between the checkout line and me.
Timing, as I hinted at earlier, is critical. Go too early, and you hit the diehards and the dawdlers. Too late, and the pious church people will block lanes with their holy milk runs. But you have to weigh these two enemy combatant groups with the opportunity to get a primo parking space.
The Holy Grail of a parking spot is across from the main exit. It has a pedestrian crosswalk, extra wide sidewalk, and places to park your carts to load up your car. It was one of these spaces that I pulled the car into this morning.
The looks I received as I stood outside the car and admired my good fortune could only be described as pure envy. I took my time walking through the coveted crosswalk, smiling and waving at the cars that, by law, had to stop to allow me free passage. I couldn’t bask in my success for long, however. The Church People would be arriving in thirty minutes.
I suffered a small setback—a cart with a bum wheel. I abandoned the vehicle at once, and obtained a suitable replacement.
Then, I took out the list.
True to plan, I loaded the cart quickly. A minor altercation was avoided in the bread aisle when the Pepperidge Farm Delivery Man temporarily blocked both sides, instead of leaving one side free. He was a new kid. I let his gross ignorance of protocol slide this time.
I was third in line at the counter when I saw it. A line of cars began to flow into the parking lot. It was…“The Catholics.”
A small bead of sweat ran down my forehead as I fumbled with my cash to pay the bill. “Just a few minutes more,” I mumbled.
Back outside, I popped the trunk of the car and began to load the groceries. Two cars pulled into the lane, one on either side of me. Both put their blinkers on laying claim to my space.
As they gestured at one another, both insisting that they got there first. I got into the car and left for home. I have no idea if there was bloodshed over the space.
Another shopping day successfully executed. I could breathe easy until next Sunday.
Love you, Dad!
P.S. Liver Cancer—what treatment options did they give you? Stevie wasn’t too clear on that…
“…not bad, nothing to worry about. I’m fine. We’ll talk about my appointment as soon I get home.”
How like dad. Why didn’t you tell her? She’s your wife, she deserves to know.
“Right! Make a right here, bud!”
My frustration with this driver is mounting. I can tell he senses it by his nervous glances at me in the review mirror. Fuck him and his rank piece of shit Corolla.
Gina knows me too well. She reads my mood and switches the conversation effortlessly from concerned wife to practical partner. It’s one of the reasons I love her.
“Yeah,” I answer, relieved at discussing anything else. “I’ll be heading out tonight. Would you mind finding someone to watch the cats? I’ll get you a shuttle flight tomorrow night from Logan. The ticket will be waiting for you at the counter. Honestly, I don’t care as long as whoever it is feeds them and makes a legitimate attempt at cleaning the damn litter boxes. Yeah, love you, too.”
I have to type quietly, or they’ll hear.
Let me explain. Gina and I adore our cats. She had two when we met, and we have three now. And I’ve come to realize that these little murder-machines are poised to take over the world.
I can tell from the look in their yellow, calculating eyes that they have nicknames for Gina and I. Gina’s “cat name,” as near as I can tell, is “She who feeds us and whose mind we can bend to our will.” My cat name is “He who will be the first disposed of during the rebellion.”
So it is Saturday morning. Although we have a massive to-do list today, Gina and I were looking forward to sleeping in a bit. “Were,” is the operative phrase. About 4:00 AM, there must have been a signal from the cat overlords to begin singing immediately. And by sing, I mean yowl at the top of their lungs. They sound a little like one of the pop stars on my daughter’s iPod. The second phase of their attack came when Evil Cat #2 jumped on the bed and settled down exactly where Evil Cat #1 wanted to be. This resulted in a five minute “explanation” from Evil Cat #1 as to why Evil Cat #2 needed to either move or be mauled.
But neither my wife nor I moved. We pretended to be asleep.
An hour later, Evil Cat #3 decided that the water dish needed to have its contents spread upon on the floor, where by Evil Cat #2 decided it was time to expel a hairball at high velocity toward my slippers.
At this point I figured I’d better get up or I’d find my poor seventeen-year-old dog trussed up and ready for sacrifice to the Cat Overlords.
Quietly as I could, I cleaned up the hairball by stepping on it, and then proceed to slide across the kitchen floor as I’d forgotten about the overturned water dish.
I fed the Evil Cats, cleaned up, and made the coffee. Things have settled down and all the feline monstrosities are quiet.
I figure Gina might sleep for another hour and I can enjoy a cup of coffee in peace.
So quietly…VERY quietly…I type.
I love you, Dad!
P.S. The dog decided to stick his head in a litter box while Evil Cat #3 was using it. Needless to say, Gina is up now.
P.P.S Work has been hell. Can’t leave at the moment. I’m sure you understand. You have already survived three cancers, I’m sure you’ll kick this one’s ass, too!!
I hear horns, and see the blue lights of some sort of police activity ahead.
“God damn it,” I say softly to no one. My driver takes it as an invitation.
“Well, we know what the hold up is, am I right?” said the back of the head in front of me. “Shouldn’t be long now. At least the car is warm and we weren’t involved in the accident, am I right? Lucky break for us. You ready for Christmas? Wife finished shopping ages ago…but I gotta pick up something at the packie later.” He mimes taking a shot and laughs. “Some liquid Christmas cheer, am I right?”
Strobing colors bounce around me as we pass the accident. I don’t answer the driver, my mind spinning on to-do lists and the long drive ahead.
Stevie was telling me about the cheerleader you have for your radiation treatments. I’m so proud you haven’t tossed a bedpan at her!
Because I have one of those cheerleaders here at work. And although I would LOVE to throw the contents of a bedpan at her, apparently that’s frowned upon in professional circles.
Her name is “Lisa,” (why are their names always Lisa or Deirdre or Monica?) and she’s from Boulder. She is one of those “happy all the time” people who shoot rainbows out of their butts, and flowers grow behind every step they take.
In short, I can’t stand her.
I’m running a financial system and manufacturing system upgrade here. I’m worried about shipping a product the day these systems go live. And yet Lisa wants me to pick the best logo for the project and the colors for the training room.
I can’t get millions of dollars in inventory to reconcile, yet she wants me to pick dinner locations and menus for the testing team.
And it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the real world, her world consists of candy-covered goodness and sparkly singing angels.
But, all fluff aside, what she’s doing is—in her way—trying to get things moving forward. And the colors of the training room do look nice.
I love you…and I know radiation is tough, but we all want you home as soon as possible. Hang in there…once the kids’ visit at Thanksgiving is over, I’ll be there. Promise.
It’s two hours later, and I’m in my own car heading to New York, thinking about that red, white, and blue mitt. I know it was 1976 when Dad bought it—and the other kids teased me about my gaudy patriotic glove. But I loved it. I was the first thing I owned that I had to take care of. I cleaned it after every dusty ball game and kept it well oiled for storage in the off-season. It was one of the first lessons I learned from Dad. “Take care of the things you own, and they’ll take care of you, Danny. Remember that.”
I remember, Dad.
I’m somewhere on the Mass Pike when my cell goes off. It’s not the normal ring tone, but a digital version of Sinatra’s New York, New York. It was my dad’s favorite song, and that ring tone was only associated with his home phone.
“It’s Stevie. Where are you?”
“I’m somewhere in Connecticut,” I lied. “Traffic is rough. You okay?”
“Trying to process it.”
“Yeah. Gina with you?”
“She’ll fly down tomorrow, she’s getting her stuff together and some extra things for me. My phone played Sinatra.”
“My phone. I have Dad’s house number setup to play Sinatra when it rings.”
“New York, New York?”
“He loved that number. Always said Sinatra scared away the hippies, remember?”
The Hippies are in town this week.
Remember that cheerleader, Lisa, from Boulder? She’s spawned hippie-clones and we don’t get along.
Why is that? Well, my job is about getting the work done. For example, I’ll have meetings regarding high defects with the system we are installing, map a plan out to fix, execute the plan, and fix the problem (moving onto the next issue).
The granola people would:
- Order food
- Ask how people feel about the problem
- Understand the stress and angst surrounding the problem
- Order some meditation on the problem
- Pass out some granola
We just have different ways of doing things. I’m in at work at 6:00 AM, preparing for the day and lining up activities. They’ll float in at 10ish and bring doughnuts. Or granola. Or donuts covered in granola.
My biggest fear is the lead hippie brings in his guitar. I kid you not, last time they were all here, there was apparently a guitar and songs. I was out that week at the manufacturing facility in Atlanta.
If that happens, I’m going to request Sinatra. Hippies hate Sinatra. Did he ever sing a song called “Shut Your Pie Hole and Get Back to Work?” If anyone would know, it’d be you.
Work is work and it’s a necessary evil but I really wish I were in New York visiting you right now. Gina and I are mapping out the schedule to see if we can come down later this month for Christmas. We’d both like to see you.
Love you, Dad!
“You call your kids?” asks Stevie a little later. I wish he’d stop calling.
“Gina’s doing it and calling the rest of the family.”
“Okay. When do you think you’ll be here?”
“Dunno. Traffic is bad, and I’m surrounded by Massholes. I’m gonna start running some of these jackwagons off the road soon.”
“Heh,” said Stevie. “Dad’s favorite word.”
“Works, though. I need to focus. Check back in about an hour?”
“Sure. Come to Dad’s house. I set up our old room for you.”
I was going to write today about how work resembles a kindergarten, but the snows have pre-empted that letter.
I know I live in New England and snow is just a part of winter up here. I accept that one must be cautious on the road when the snow is falling.
But there is another reason to be careful. The jackwagons. Or “Massholes,” if you prefer. A Masshole will never use blinkers for fear of letting the rest of us drivers know where they are going.
There are three types of Masshole driver during a snowstorm. The first type is the “Hazard Masshole.”
The Hazard is the guy (it’s ALWAYS a guy) driving a little crap car with its hazard lights on going about fifteen miles per hour. Now I respect going slow in a snow storm, and this sort of person wouldn’t be on my list except for the fact that they ‘drift’ while going fifteen miles an hour. And by drift, I mean: over curbs, medians and between lanes. They also drift through stop signs and red lights. They have the cruise control set at fifteen and they’ll be damned if they are going to stop for such meaningless distractions as school buses or old ladies with walkers.
The second type of Masshole is the “Youngster.” This Masshole can be either male or female, drives a fast, sporty car, and rockets along at Olympic bobsled speeds. The key is to see them coming far enough in the rearview mirror to get over as they slide past you screaming “Yahoo!” before they messily embed themselves into a snow plow with a driver that wasn’t diligently watching for “Deathwish Monty” in their mirrors.
Then there is the WORST Masshole. The “Soccer Mom.” Usually behind the wheel of an SUV or Minivan, they are on the phone while doing their nails and keeping their brood of spoiled brats from murdering each other in the back seat. They lane change randomly, tailgate, and wander between the lanes looking for an opening to get ten feet further along than you. Once they see a gap the size of a dime, they gun the engine and go for it like a hobo on a ham sandwich.
By the way, great news! Gina and I will be there on the 20th! All booked. Stevie told me about them moving you home with a fulltime nurse. Hopefully this means you are well enough to celebrate Christmas with us! I even convinced my ex to bring your grandchildren up—they should be there Christmas Eve. Gina and I will pick up the turkey.
Speaking of turkeys, tt’s strange that after six years of college, three years of certification training, and over thirty years in the computer industry, the best training I’ve had to prepare me for this project is raising your grandchildren.
I need to go…some turkey just called me to complain that the printer isn’t working and they don’t know what to do. I need to get them some sparkles and glue to play with while I call the number for printer repair—posted in large letters above the broken printer.
Then maybe I’ll schedule naptime for everyone.
Love you! See you soon!!
My brother called me again when I was 15 minutes from my dad’s house. I answered the phone before New York, New York hit the second measure.
“Just about there,” I said.
“I was getting the room ready for you and I found a box of things under the bed. Looks like Dad’s nurse put it there—I can’t imagine Dad was able to do it. Your name was on it.”
“What’s in it?”
“A bunch of your old stuff. And a note.”
“Fifteen minutes,” I said and hung up.
I pulled into the driveway of the house I grew up in. The old, worn asphalt had familiar heaves and imperfections that I could have described from memory.
The headlights caught the drifting snow and cast strange shadows across the garage door. He built this place in the sixties with his own hands—took him nearly two years. He loved this house. The crazy son-of-a-bitch reroofed the place a few years ago for his 80th birthday. He did it all by himself. The stubborn jerk.
When I finally looked at the front door, it was open and my brother was standing there. His hair was nearly gone, now—and what was left was a white, untidy fringe. The silhouette he struck looked so much like my father that, for a moment…
I left my bag in my trunk. I walked up the steps and hugged my brother.
His eyes were swollen and red.
He was holding a handwritten note.
One of the nurses was good enough to write this for me. Forgive me for not writing myself, but I have too many tubes and wires in my arms and it hurts to move them. You told me a while back about all the cancer tests they were doing on you. All fathers want their son to grow up in his own image, but I would have been happier if you joined the navy rather then join me as a cancer survivor. Let’s hope everything is negative, but if not, there are two things I want to say to you and I’m not sure how much of me will be left to say them to you when you arrive.
First, you are a fighter—always have been. If you have cancer, you will beat it, I’m sure of it. Kick its ass, son.
Second, thank you for your notes. They were all very funny and I always look forward to a new one. You have some real comic talent. You’re not as good as Dave Barry, but you should go and try that instead of the project management shit you’re doing now.
I asked the nurse to put a box of your things together. I found your old mitt and I had it oiled it for you.
“You okay?” my brother asked.
“I have cancer,” I said and began to cry.