GO HOME AND DIE
I remember seeing my dad leaning into the sink counter in his bathroom on an early July evening. His hands resting on the edge of the counter as his head hung between his arms. His weeping was audible from the hallway, even though it was clear he didn’t want to be heard. I peeked my head in the door and caught him. I’ve always been poking my head in where it didn’t belong.
I sat and watched him weep, his tears falling straight down onto the carpet. His hands gripped the maroon tile, holding up his quickly weakening body. His body that had played football, basketball and baseball all through school. His body that earned him a full-ride baseball scholarship to Washington State University. His body that had helped to create my body, and the body of my sister. His body that had always frightened me because of its massive strength, and the harsh words that came out of it anytime I did wrong. That body was now withering. It had become a shell of what it was at its peak, but at forty-seven years of age, his body was starting to quit.
It was just a few weeks before that night, on June 24th when he sat my sister and I down. I was twenty-one and had recently finished my junior year at the University of Washington and was staying at home for the summer.
“I want you guys to come out here,” he said in a strong and certain tone. “So I’m fucked. Go home and fucking die is what they told me.”
My dad wasn’t known to mince words, but it sure seemed like an appropriate time to maybe add a little bit of fluff in delivering those lines to your two college-aged kids. We knew that the radiation and chemo hadn’t worked and that he was doing some experimental treatment at this point, but the words still felt like a kick in the cookies.
“Say something you guys,” he commanded. I think he just wanted the air filled with something other than the cold silence of his impending death.
“Well this sucks,” I muttered. My sister just remained silent.
“I hope you guys know that what I’m most proud of is you two,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit. I honestly remember him telling me he was proud of me one other time. I was probably nine and I was the best hitter in our little league. After a game where I had four hits, including a home run, he spent the whole car ride home telling me how good of a hitter I was, and how the ball just flew off my bat and how proud of me he was. I tried to bottle up that praise and store it inside of me, banking it like pennies in a piggy bank. I spent every day after that searching for that same praise, that same approval that would make that feeling come back. It was like a drug.
The few weeks after that final diagnosis seem like kind of a blur. A hospice nurse became our fourth housemate at some point and she took over doing all the bandage changings that had become a constant and painful struggle for my dad. I remember staying with dad at the house as the nodules of cancer spread through his lymph system and eventually all throughout his body. We would stay in and watch the Seattle Mariners games almost every night on television. This was 2001, and they were in the middle of the best season in team history.
Baseball was our bond. The final game we ever watched together was in Seattle, when the Mariners took on the Boston Red Sox and Pedro Martinez. Pedro was the best pitcher of that generation and my dad and I watched the entire game from right behind home plate in my mom’s season ticket seats. My parents had hardly spoken since their divorce three years earlier and my dad bitched about having to use her seats, but he finally acquiesced and decided to go to the game with me.
The game went on and Pedro Martinez was masterful. I’d love to tell you that it was a perfect night and I got to sit with my dad, who knew more about baseball than anyone I’ve ever known, and we had an amazing time. But the sad fact of cancer is that it hurts and it’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t really ever go away, even when you’re doing something that should be fun. The cancer may as well have filled that entire stadium. Every time the kid next to us would get up to pee and my dad would have to adjust, he would wince in pain.
The one highlight of that night came when Manny Ramirez came up to bat for Boston. Ramirez had just been gifted one of the biggest contracts in baseball that year and deservedly so. A fan behind us started to heckle Ramirez as he dug in and after a few expletive-laced shouts, he directed for Mariners pitcher John Halama to “stick a fastball in his ear!”
My dad tilted his head back ever so slightly and retorted to the angry guy, saying “Ramirez could catch Halama’s fastball in his fucking teeth and spit it back at him.”
The guy didn’t hesitate.
“I’ll bet you five bucks Halama gets him out!” the guy said.
“You’re on,” my dad screamed above the buzz of the crowd.
Ramirez proceeded to drill a hanging curveball into left-field for a double and my dad calmly and quietly stuck his hand back over his shoulder, creating a perfect platform for the guy behind us to gently lay down a wrinkly five dollar-bill. My dad didn’t say a word, didn’t look at the guy, just sat there content with his winning prognostication. When he went to pocket the five, he looked casually over at me and gave me a little wink. Cancer could take away every living cell in his body, but at that point, it hadn’t yet taken away his charm, no matter how buried he usually kept it.
It was that night, after the baseball game that I caught him leaning into the sink counter crying. I finally did go in and approach him. He must have heard me before I got to him, because when I placed my hand on his right shoulder, he didn’t even flinch.
“I’m fucking scared,” he said.
“I know dad, I am too,” I said, starting to cry myself.
He stood up and he hugged me and cried into my shoulder. I was 21 and had grown taller than him. It was a strange role-reversal of nature. Here I was having to hold my dad and tell him it was going to be ok. He was the toughest and meanest guy I knew. Every birthday from the age of twelve onward he would tell me that this birthday was the one where it was finally legal for him to kick the shit out of me. He must have threatened to kick my ass a thousand times. Every time I smarted off he would say “do you want me to come over there and pop you?” He never hit me once in his life.
The cancer had coated his lungs as we entered the second half of July and he told me that he was worried that the tumors would start to bleed in his lungs and he’d choke to death. He was terrified that was how he was going to go.
I had gone fishing on the morning of July 23rd with my cousin and got a phone call from my aunt. She said he had a bad night and wasn’t doing too well and that I might want to come home. I remember thinking the entire two-hour drive home that when I pulled up I didn’t want to see a bunch of people there. If everyone was at the house that would have meant he had passed while I was in transit. I cried nearly the whole drive home and when I pulled up our street and got to the four-way stop near our house, I saw what looked like every one of my relatives cars in the driveway. My heart stopped. I got out of the car and I think my aunt Barbara could tell what I was thinking and immediately said, “He’s ok honey.”
We sat on the front porch that night, my dad, his older brother, my uncle Gary, and myself. We ate burgers and Blizzards from Dairy Queen in what became called by my uncle “the last supper.” My dad sat in his smoking chair, the one he’d sat and smoked cigarettes in since we moved to that house a decade earlier, with his oxygen tank in his nose. He wasn’t smoking anymore, instead he spent that precious time on the porch to get in one last fat joke on me.
“Your back is so wide they could show a western at the drive-in on it,” he said to me as I sat on that step just in front of him. I know he was trying to be funny, but it still stung. My dad hated the fact that I was fat. I think he took it as a reflection on him as a parent. Like my fatness was his fault.
We stayed up late that night, as he had been sleeping terribly for the last couple days. Finally at about three in the morning, I walked over and said goodnight to him. He was laid back in his lazy boy, in a haze somewhere between sleep and morphine high, and just made a noise acknowledging that he heard me.
I said goodnight to the hospice nurse who was there with him and went to my bedroom. I don’t really believe in God, but I finally out loud just muttered “Just let him fall asleep and not wake up.” Maybe it was selfish of me to say that, but even I had grown tired of his illness. I think I just assumed that he was ready and wanted to go as much as I wanted him to go and be finally released of his pain.
I slept until eleven and when I walked out there he was still asleep, laid back in his recliner.
“Did he sleep all night?” I asked the nurse.
“He got up for a couple minutes at seven and got some water, but other than that he was out like a light,” she whispered.
The nurse headed out at the same time that my uncle Gary arrived. We all talked in the front entryway for a few minutes and when she left, he and I sat on the couch, just across the room from my dad. His breath was quiet and as my uncle and I talked I’d occasionally glance over at him. I had spent the last few weeks coming out each night and standing behind the entry to the living room, just listening to hear his breath or his snore, just to make sure he was still going.
I looked at him as I saw his stomach gently go up, and just as gently go back down. Then finally, it didn’t go back up. A few seconds passed as I kept my eye on him, listening to my uncle talk about whatever he was talking about. His stomach rose just a touch once more and then finally settled down at rest. There was no noise. There was no real movement. There was no choking on blood. There was just peace and death. It was just pure and simple death in its most quiet form. I was immediately comforted that his transition was so much more peaceful than any of the days of his illness had been. There was a big part of me that selfishly was glad that it was all over. I probably should feel guilty for that, but I don’t.
I didn’t cry in that moment or the rest of that day. I think I was partly in shock and partly I think I was just filled with such gratitude that his suffering was over. One thing I do remember is that after calling emergency services to come pick up his body I had to start calling people. I had to call my mom and tell her that her ex-husband, the father of her two children, had died. They didn’t talk in those final years and I know it was hard for both of them. My dad could never put his pride down enough to ever let her back in. My uncle called my Grandmother to tell her that her second born child was gone.
After they took away his body, my uncle, my mom, my sister and I sat around and talked for a while. The strange thing is, after waiting for his passing for so long and expecting it to be this monumental moment, I just kind of felt numb and life kind of just went on. I spent most of the rest of that day just hanging out with friends and shooting pool. Turns out that monumental pain didn’t really start for a few months.