These veins run wild with witching-hour alcohol and cigarette ashes. But they aren’t mine. I am not the Bic-lighter phoenix of this dark room. That is my Daddy. There he is at the end of the day, as a pile of ashes in his ashtray. I’m still here, rooted to the hardwood floor, waiting for that phoenix to rise instead of burning out.
When they told me his lungs were black like soot, and the tumor was the size of a kitchen sponge, I went to that place where every child hides when they make a castle out of cardboard boxes, that same place teenagers hide in their headphones when the fighting outside their bedroom door becomes too loud.
Hospital waiting rooms epitomize my childhood. They were my nursery. Their hard seats were my cradle, copies of “Home and Garden” and faded “Highlights” with all the pictures already colored in, were my baby books. Illness was the center of my life. My mother had a disease called MSA that took her life when I was 15, and my father lost his life to lung cancer 14 months later.
I am 16. I have seen a man and a woman lose all they ever had — homes, families, possessions, abilities, hope — and in one climactic fell swoop, their lives. This has left me with much to contemplate.
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First, who was my father? What is it that I lost?
My father made everyone happy. Except, of course, when he didn’t. He wore big, red and yellow clown shoes to chemotherapy. He also drank himself to oblivion. He rewrote all the words to classic Christmas songs to make me laugh. He also drove my brothers away with his fists and slurred threats and hate. He taught me the Tao Te Ching and how to draw. He pounded me into the ground with words so quick, sharp and copious they left me gasping for air. I say these things in all their ugly juxtaposition in an effort to avoid the patterned fallacy of the mourning, this being the tendency to saint the dead and put aside all their flaws out of misguided “respect.” I respected my father for all his utter humanity, complete in all its flawed ambit.
However, as this apologue was preparing to take my family and me off into the world of every poster ever pasted on the back of a high-school counselor’s door, there came a twist. My father quit drinking. Clean cut. Stopped. He found himself to be Taoist, and took up painting again. My brothers didn’t trust his newfound change, but I did. Perhaps I am naive. In seeing my father rise from the ashes of his own disgrace, I set all that I am on the back of a phoenix, and watched it soar.
He was sober just over a year when he was diagnosed with stage three, non-small-cell lung cancer. Irony stomped on my life like a cruel man’s foot on the tail of a fleeing mouse.
With illness comes a breaker of emotions, ready to swallow the mourning and wash them away from all they thought they knew. The cruelest of these emotions is not agony, nor hate, nor despair. The cruelest emotion is hope, and hope relies on remainders. The chemo and radiation fail, and he is now one with his affliction and you are one with a cliché titled “loved ones.” His eyes, full to the brim with love and tears and that cruel hope, like a river swollen from rain … they are the remainders, the stump of what once was.
When his legs give out, what remains? His hands remain. Cold and soft from lack of circulation, they hold yours tight, the familiar calluses from years of construction work gone.
Hope kept me going like that last hit keeps an addict soaring up up up until they come crashing down down down and they need more more more to make it through the hour. I was so stoned on hope that it didn’t hurt me when he became paralyzed from the waist down, or when he received that cushy “comfort pack” of morphine cocktails from hospice to ease the pain.
My father’s cancer was a back-burner issue to me for quite a while, because in the midst of all this my mother died. I was convinced that life wouldn’t be so cruel as to take both my parents from me, right? After all, my father and I had just dug ourselves out of the tomb of the past. Our faces were upturned to the future; the morning sun was shining on our tear-stained cheeks. We were going to be happy for the first time.
Eventually, his hands that held mine so tight seemed to crumble away like ashes, and I became acutely aware of all the time I had spent pretending I wasn’t losing everything.
I don’t know why I am not one of those heated advocates of hunting down the “cure for cancer.” Perhaps, to me, my father was more important than the cancer that took his life. I will not say I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I have gone through. Because I understand things that no one I have met understands. This may seem callous, but I am an advocate of raw truth. The raw truth is that life is crueller to some than it is to others. The grotesque and the beautiful are business partners, dealing in life and death. I am angry that this is the lot that life has given me, but I am willing to accept that I just don’t understand the universe’s motives.
The aftermath of cancer’s victory on a body is an ugly thing, and blame is an invention of those unable to accept the grotesque portions of their own psyche.
I stayed out of all this. I never asked for a thing. I never looked at the cigarettes my Daddy smoked; I just handed him his lighter and opened the window to let out the smoke.
My father gave me his guitars, because I was the one who should have them. He warned me that I could have his bomber jacket … but I should be aware that it would make me look like the Fonz. I laughed, and we watched our favorite movies together. I got all I wanted from my Dad before he died. We may not have had the chance to walk off into the horizon of the future, but at least we got to see the sun set on our pasts.
I have tried to find the beauty in death. After all of this, how does it still elude me? Is it in that last, shallow breath? In the unblinking eyes of a man in a hospital bed, surrounded by those he loves? Is it in a casket with the worms? Or in that evanescent Xanadu so many people swear exists, with their arthritic feet just itching for a pair of them golden slippers to walk them golden streets? Is death simply a separation of the infinite from the finite? And is that beautiful?
And oh, the universe is so much larger than me and my pain and my thoughts. My father, in all his Buddhist self-contradiction, told me that attachment is the root of all pain. Then he told me he loved me, and told me not to be sad. And I would like to believe that people are phoenixes, and though he may not rise again on this horizon, he will rise again somewhere.