He’d had the flu for a few weeks when she finally convinced him to go to the doctor. His favorite jeans wouldn’t stay on anymore, his belt had become useless in aiding and abetting and he couldn’t find the strength to go buy some in a smaller size. He was a mans man – doctors were for women, babies and invalids. Eventually the terminally ill were added to the list, and he was added with them.
It was pancreatic cancer and when he was diagnosed his life was stamped with an estimated expiration date that nearly matched the sweet cream spread in the fridge. Dreams of retirement in Snoqualmie Falls evaporated like the mist that inspired them. Instead of his remaining days being spent rocking in a chair made of pine or maple on creaky boards in comfortable clothes, wrapped in a quilt and eating cookies for every meal, he elected to participate in a clinical trial so that others might be saved by his drawn out and tortured loss.
I remember the last attempt to go for one of his mystery treatments.
The shell of my father was buckled in the passenger seat of his big brown Caddy, he was wearing light grey sweatpants with aggressive ankle elastic and they didn’t fit him any better than they would have fit a barstool.
His hair was gone, and a thin blue stocking cap covered they grey and white stubble on his perfect little noggin. He had on a sweatshirt and a coat I never cared for, and he was bent in half with his head over his knees.
I was clumsy behind the wheel of his beast and hit a manhole cover on the street a few houses away from his when he made a noise that still hurts my heart. It was a yelp and a groan and the sound of someone truly, deeply in pain. When it’s someone you love producing it, the sound threatens to kill you, too.
I stopped the car and through labored breaths he said quietly that he couldn’t do it anymore. He requested that I take him back home.
I asked him repeatedly if he was sure, because if we didn’t go to treatment that day, the protocol was over. We couldn’t go back. That was the end of the trial and the end of the treatment, and essentially; the end of him.
He said he was sure. He was nearly gone as it was.
A minister coordinated through Hospice had come to the house and counseled us a few times during the weeks he was still able to talk and joke. She was young, with sandy hair in one of those non-descript short styles. Maybe Dorothy Hamill, maybe Mark Hamilll. Either way. She was the first woman of the cloth I’d met and I didn’t know what to make of her except that dad seemed to like her and that was good enough for me.
There was an exercise she walked us through one afternoon in the sitting room we rarely used because it was formal and unwelcoming. And there was no TV.
The furniture still smelled new and the springs squeaked a little under our weight as we settled in and huddled closely around dad. She asked him to he tell us each (the 3 of 4 that were there) something – though now I don’t remember exactly what the question was.
What I remember is that when it came time for him to speak to me, he said he worried most about me being okay without him.
I wasn’t. I’m still not.
Days later, he and his organs were shutting down in a bed we’d set up in the living area on the ground floor of the house. It was an open floor plan and his bed was steps from his favorite high-backed blue cloth chair. This meant he was also steps from the living room so we could be around him and with him and he could hear us watching TV and talking and laughing and he could know we were together and living.
The minister with the short hair visited as regularly as the nurses in the few short months we had between the news and the end, despite my father being an atheist. She’d sit with her head bowed, listening intently as she held his hand. They’d talk while he still could talk, but on that last night the two way conversations had long since ended and the minister leaned in close. So close it almost looked like nothing was being said. But it was.
I found out later that she’d told him he was forgiven, and that he was loved, and that it was okay to go.
He went while we were sleeping that night, as was his way not to make a scene or have a fuss made over him. She called to tell me around 2am and I broke a land speed record getting back to the house. I remember sitting with her while we waited for a nurse to make the pronunciation and for the funeral home fella to arrive. She held his hand and kissed his forehead and we cried because we missed him already and because we were happy he wasn’t hurting anymore and we made a truce right there and then without saying anything at all.
I don’t remember much else. I was 23, and I’d just said good-bye to the original love of my life.