The dew on the wide St. Augustine grass blades gleam in the morning sun like tears.
“You wanna come in?”
He doesn’t turn to me. The beads of sweat glisten on his luminous scalp, the veins winding like blue highways on a map. While huffing in rough spurts from his open mouth, his cloudy blue eyes dart back and forth warily.
The bottom of the windshield fogs as the air conditioning struggles to keep us cool.
“Dad, you sure you don’t want to grab any clothes?”
He shakes his head in stuttered jerks.
The fact this is his last visit to his house is an unspoken truth.
“How are you holding up?” I asked my mother.
We sat by the hotel pool.
Taking a sip of her bloody mary, she avoided my inquiring stare. Her deeply tanned face, profoundly wrinkled from all the years on golf courses in Florida, scrunched into folds for a moment. The question must have dug deeper than I’d intended. I meant it to be innocent with no real expectation of a substantive answer. Two months before, my father received the diagnosis of lung cancer and was scheduled to have the tumor removed during the upcoming week.
Because of her stubborn nature, I fully expected she would keep her feelings close and not admit to having any concerns. She ignored doctors, unless the pain was too much to withstand – an appendectomy the only example of which I was aware.
So mine was a simple gesture to make sure she knew she could count on me for support. It’s what a son should do.
“I feel sorry for Frank,” she sighed, though her slow, smoke-scarred tone belied the words.
I waited, recognizing her intonation and her subsequent shrug, expecting more to come, though the declaration was to blow past anything I expected. She twisted uncomfortably in her chair and gazed about, as though someone might be listening. Frank was, at that moment, with my kids, his grandkids, at a nearby bumper car track. The pool deck was empty, the water in the pool still.
“But, I don’t love him.” Another pause. “Haven’t for years.” The statement was bland, matter-of-fact, though she continued avoiding my gaze.
I wasn’t blind. The majority of their communications had become rolling eyes and derogatory utterances whenever the other pontificated about some inane subject. I figured it the normal path of a forty-five year marriage. The boredom and irritation of hearing the same absurd responses day in day out wear on most couples, but I assumed, buried beneath the surface, there was a second-level emotion into which their affection had evolved. So her statement caught me by surprise.
Wincing quietly as the shocking reality sunk in, feeling a slow burn in the form of flushed cheeks; my first reaction was to leap to his defense. How could she deny him love when he was in such a state, but as I replayed her inflection, I recognized its lack of aggression? In fact it seemed more of a revelation, the admittance of something she felt but had, until that moment, yet to face.
Taking a quick gulp of beer I gathered my senses enough to sputter, “And why not?” I then backed off allowing the space she needed.
I spent my life sparring with him, though recently the contentiousness had relaxed and our conversations were actually uneventful, even enjoyable. Our breakthrough was pre-diagnosis, though not too pre which did make me a bit suspicious. I chose to be thankful for this newfound respect, not quite overt love, granted, but a huge leap forward.
This unforeseen development might threaten our new relationship.
She shook her graying head, alarmingly vulnerable. Her fatigue was obvious. My protector, my strength and support throughout my life revealed a side with which I was unfamiliar. This was a woman who, during my sophomore year in high school, berated some woman at a party because her daughter had the gall to break up with me. She was a lioness in every sense of the word. Hand trembling, she reached for a cigarette pack and her dull gaze seem to focus inward.
The seriousness of the whole situation kept growing with each silent second. I rocked back and forth as she lit another cigarette.
“I promised him I’d never tell you kids.”
“You can’t open this up and leave me hanging.” Despite an urge to rant and rave, much as I did when a boy when I wanted something, I remained quiet, if not calm.
In the midst of Garner’s Sporting Goods Store on Main Street in Hillsdale, when I was nine, the junior set of 5 golf clubs perched in a red plaid bag called out to me so strongly, I was overcome with lust. Like most overpowering urges, I found it hard to fight, and became enraged when she said, “You don’t need them. You’ve just begun to play. Keep practicing with my clubs.
The tears. The sniffles. The overt screams all meant to melt her defenses, were unrelenting until everyone in the store looked not at me, but at her – as if my behavior was her fault. I was remorseful as I wiped my tears, carrying that bag out of the store under the mortified expressions of the other shoppers, ultimately triumphant, but at her expense.
My need for this answer equaled my need for those clubs. But as those feelings of regret came rushing back, along with the obvious embarrassment she must have felt along with the internal strength she mustered as she walked out of that place with her head held high, her little asshole in tow with a brand new set of golf clubs, I bit my tongue. What she put up with from me over the years made me shift uncomfortably in my chair. But the fact remained…
She glared with a terse expression, taking one more cautionary glance around the pool area. “You can’t tell him.”
“And she’s right,” my wife Mary whispered that same night in our double bed at the motel. Our son snored in the double bed next to us. Our two younger daughters shared an adjoining room. We were all there to witness our oldest daughter’s graduation from college the next day.
“Can you believe it?”
Nothing about my family surprised her after watching our kids inch toward adulthood, often displaying the same negative traits – tempers, laziness, too much drinking, and too much smoking.
I glared at the motley ceiling, awash with the iridescent green glow from the alarm clock, wrestling with the shock and confusion.
“Don’t you realize every time you screw up like this it puts a black smear on our family. Don’t you care what others think about us?” he lectured as he sipped his martini after I’d been caught vandalizing a neighbor’s house when I was in fifth grade.
All those self-righteous lectures had seeped into my psyche and formed the initial layer of bricks in the foundation of my personality. And this new revelation was cracking the footings and what made matters worse – I couldn’t attack him without betraying my mother.
I spent my life with a very concrete image of Frank, good, bad or indifferent; it was one with which I was comfortable, actually could joke about it with him – respected, might have even loved this image.
“We have to find a home for him. I can’t take care of him here.” It was nine months after the removal of his lung. “Can you come down and move him from the hospital.” The exhaustion in my mother’s voice equaled the annoyance.
The humid air was a licking tongue as I emerged from a rental car. Even the air conditioning hadn’t helped. I expelled a deep breath as I pulled the shirt fabric away from my back like lifting flypaper off a countertop.
Lee Lake Regional Hospital glared down from the sign atop the building like a neon advertisement. “God’s Waiting Room” is filled with those who are wobbling on their last legs, whose major topic of conversation is always health-related – the best oncologist, the best urologist, which funeral home gives the best service.
I will avoid living here at all costs.
“If it’s gone to the bones, it’s all she wrote, buddy,” he barked over the phone. It was a statement of anger more than acceptance. “Life is too short for sentimentality,” he had once spewed at Uncle Dave’s funeral. On a break to sneak a smoke, I asked him how he was handling Dave’s death. “Christ, the man was 90 years old.” Then came the sentimentality kicker. I expected no less from him. Of course, it was easy to be tough when it was the other guy. “I was grabbing the damn walker as I squatted to shit, and crashed into the toilet, wham – almost broke my ass, and why, cause my collarbone snapped like a twig.”
Cancer has followed the expected road map. Lung, brain, bone until it owns his body, wreaking havoc, spreading pain and suffering while we stand by helplessly. The disease revels in the misery, like some bully who never knows when to quit.
Straight to the hospital from the airport, I was aware of the precarious challenge and found myself running on automatic pilot as I walked briskly across the parking lot – refusing to stop and think too deeply about what was ahead. Numb avoidance is bliss.
My armor had to be strong enough to keep the emotions locked inside. Frank had explored all the cure options and sampled the most promising of them in hopes of beating the tremendous odds. It kept him focused, even gave him occasion to be hopeful, as the disease marched on, pummeling his body with creative resistant-to-cure weapons. I knew as soon as the lung was removed the chances for recovery were slim and all attempts would likely be futile.
After the discussion with Mom the previous year by the pool, it was obvious Frank probably wasn’t in line for a miracle. We reap what we sow, correct? But I couldn’t help but be torn – wondering if my reaction would be the same had she kept her mouth shut.
But she hadn’t kept her mouth shut. And her information shattered his image to bits like a thermo-pane window and I wandered with a chunk of my history laying on its side, never to be fully verified because of my promise not to rat on her. But, it is the least I can do for her.
The caustic, yet pure scent of cleaning supplies met me on my way through the revolving doors. The brightly wallpapered hallway gave a cheery impression and the glowing tile floor was blinding as the full sunshine cascaded through the tall, wide windows.
A middle-aged woman sat at the circular reception station. Hair stacked high on her head like a helmet gave her a military aura – one of distinct efficiency. She barely looked up when I nodded silently. It was visitor’s hours and she was only there to answer questions and give directions. Frank waited in Room 322.
Marching down the long hall, past groups of folks leaving their loved ones, their expressions betraying the hopelessness with which they wrestled as they faced their future without those integral parts. I wondered if I wore the same mask. I couldn’t feel their sadness, but wasn’t sure if it was because I hadn’t allowed myself the luxury of giving in to the emotions, or the fact I really didn’t care.
Nurse Sanchez was a combination of humor and efficiency. Mom mentioned she couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better job. Probably in her late forties, she swept in and out of rooms like a breeze, unobtrusive, yet bright and cheery, delivering momentary false hope to these terminally ill patients who lay there with their optimism shrinking at the same pace as the disease ate their bodies. Her plump figure, poured into her tight fitting whites, flew through the halls on cushy soled white nurse shoes. Jet-black hair, stuffed under the white cardboard hat, showed no signs of gray and I felt jealous when glimpses of my thinning, gray hair stared back at me in the reflections from the window overlooking the courtyard.
“Nurse Sanchez. I’m Ben, Frank James’ son.”
She held out her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. He’s drugged and in good spirits, Ben.” It was one way to cut quickly to the heart of the matter. Pleasant demeanor aside, there was little time for small talk. She surveyed the chart, and then looked up with a sigh, her eyes rimmed with dark circles, giving away the true state of her exhaustion. “You’ve got to get him outta here within twenty four hours.”
“That’s why I’m here. Just keep him drugged. It’s the only way he’s gonna accept the destination.”
She paused and glanced down the hall toward his room. “He’ll have another injection of morphine before he leaves.”
“He’s quite a flirt, ya know.”
I chuckled because she expected me too, but felt no pride, or even appreciation of the humor. Forcing a smile and a wink, “Pinched ya yet?”
“If he did, probably missed it. He’s pretty weak. I’ll check my cheeks tonight and let you know tomorrow,” she winked before scurrying off to another room.
“Are you still not smoking?” Frank bellowed over the phone. I knew it was his way of showing concern. Recently I had gained the new level of respect from him. During high school we might have had five civil conversations. Even the arguments weren’t that frequent – as though it would have taken too much energy and why waste energy on a lost cause. As my demeanor grew less surly, the angst between us shrunk. Maybe it was marriage and fatherhood. Maybe it was the fact we were growing mellow and migrating toward the middle from opposite ends of the spectrum. In the years before the cancer it seemed I got along better with him than I did with my mother.
“Still off,” I bragged from the kitchen table, sitting across from my wife and my son Ryan.
“Good, cause I’ve just been diagnosed with lung cancer.” He announced it angrily, with no fear and surrender. “I was coughing up blood. Your mother said the same thing happened to Ann Warner. Course, you know she died of lung cancer.”
There had always been an heir of invincibility in Frank, basically due to the longevity of our ancestors from as long back as they could be traced. Hell, my grandfather, Frank’s father lived until he was 97. When diagnosed, Frank was only 74. He was my comparison scale. He drank too much. He could never quit smoking. The relatives on his side were all clean-livers. Untouched by outside negatives, they could be counted on to live into their mid-to late 80 years on average. Frank had decided to challenge the formula. Would the same genes that kept these folks living way past the norm succumb to the scurrilous power of cigarettes and booze? As an example he used his father, Frank Sr., a fairly clean liver, who had mysteriously contracted breast cancer and had the breast removed. Unusual for a man, but life threatening nevertheless when he was 77 years old. That jagged scar across the right side of his chest was a source of curiosity during our visits to the beach in Cape Cod. Outside of the pink color, it kind of blended in with the other set of wrinkles in his loose fitting skin. But the point is he lived another 20 years. Invincible to what others normally succumbed. That was his hope. That is my hope.
“You’ll beat it Dad,” was my immediate response. Frank was so objective I felt I could respond with the same lack of emotion – hopefully instilling strength and courage in both of us. “What is the next step?”
“Meet with an oncologist and go over alternatives. I’m not sure I want chemo though, cause I’m reading there is a lot in that cure worse than the disease in folks my age…”
“Listen to the doctors, Dad.” Frank had been a borderline hypochondriac all his life, running to doctors at the first appearance of a sniffle. I felt certain he would follow orders.
“Yeah. We’ll see what they say.”
I looked at Mary – totally emotionless, as though it was something that could be overcome and said “Dad has lung cancer.”
Mary had never been a fan, but her nose crinkled and tears welled up in her blue eyes. “And?” she choked.
I was confident. “We’ll see.”
That aura of invincibility helped me to remain worry free. I could sleep and not think too much about what turned out to be inevitable, because Dad was a James, and we all lived forever. But, just in case, I used it as a tool to keep me from going back to smoking and I immediately began to watch my drinking. The benchmark had abruptly inched closer to mortal, and I could only hope I hadn’t waited too long to jump back onto the wagon with those clean living James’.
The television hummed mundanely from its perch high on the wall in front of Frank’s bed. It had to have been the staff, because the only thing he ever watched was the 10 o’clock news and golf tournaments on the weekends.
My last visit had been two months before. He was preparing to take a trip up to Shane’s Hospital for laser treatment on the brain tumor that had metastasized from the lung cancer – it’s first side trip. Discovering the procedure in a magazine, which claimed success for a few, it raised his hopes. They drilled his shaven skull then fastened a halo with shallow screws to use as a guide for the laser. His college roommate Grady drove him and they roomed together in a nearby hotel. The treatment was done on an outpatient basis. Guilty because I couldn’t take the time away from work, but it seemed to work out all right. “Not great. Certainly not like old times,” Grady admitted, “but it was okay.”
Frank sent me a Polaroid of him wearing the halo around his shaved head – his expression, death – hollow, deep-set eyes staring in such a way they followed me no matter where I held the photo. For some this might have been an attempt at a joke, some noble show of strength in the face of ultimate disaster, but each day revealed more cracks in his armor and though his reaction to impending death may have been normal, I somehow expected more. It could’ve been some maudlin reminder to stay off the bad things and live a healthy life, or it could have just been a plea for mercy, a cloaked attempt to instill guilt and make me drop everything in my life to come take care of him.
Four months after that futile attempt.
“Ben. Good of you to come.” The tone clearly an arrow of malfeasance with hopes of drawing guilt.
He was the image of that Polaroid. The skin on his head was almost sheer with webs of veins stretching like tattoos. His eyebrows, never very thick, had disappeared, making his eyes rise like runny egg yolks. The disease had kept its promise, ravaging the body in stereotypical fashion, leaving Frank a miniscule heap of bones propped on large pillows.
“How are you feeling?”
“Pretty good. No pain. Throughout this whole thing, no pain.”
The statement strikes me as a mean joke on us. No pain for him.
“That’s good. You know you have to leave?” Quick, unfeeling, but I felt I had to get it on the table. Segue was definitely lacking but so was any feeling outside of anger and a strong sensation of betrayal.
Frank looks at me quizzically, which I interpreted as confusion and I began explaining the circumstances.
“Stop.” Frank chuckles. “I know. I know.”
“Well then, you understand Mom can no longer take care of you?”
Frank frowns, took a deep, wet breath that rattled in his throat. “You mean she doesn’t want to.”
Can you blame her? I keep quiet. She certainly doesn’t owe him anything, but even as disgusting as the truth of the matter was, Frank did deserve decent care until his death.
“I gotta favor to ask of you,” Frank announced. “I want you to call this number when I die. It’s Viv, a friend of mine. She’ll want to know I’m dead. She’s had it tough for awhile.”
“Your father asked me for a divorce about 10 years ago,” she finally revealed, stopping to catch her breath, as though admitting it made her nauseous, not only because she was reneging on her promise, but was actually admitting the fact out loud, which drove home the powerful, painful truth like a punch to the gut.
The statement swirled around me with such velocity, dizziness attacked as the image of this man, not always a kind one, but one that I had always respected, quickly crumbled into ash. I couldn’t speak. It was my turn for the gut-punch.
She nodded, staring off across the pool as she dragged hard on her cigarette. “It came as a total shock. I would have thought I was more astute,” she paused to exhale, and chuckled with such anguish it gripped my heart. “Obviously I wasn’t.”
Throat parched, I licked my dry lips before taking another gulp of beer.
“Why didn’t you grant him a divorce…More importantly, why did he even want a damn divorce?”
“I wanted nothing to do with a divorce. My parents were divorced…”
All my life I’d heard about that divorce and how it stained her as a child.
“Divorce wasn’t like it is today – so commonplace, so accepted,” she continued. “I had no friends who had divorced parents.”
“But why did he want a divorce?”
Her left eye twitched and she took a deep breath. “Another woman.”
“So did he stop seeing her when you said you wouldn’t divorce him?”
Her chin was so taut; aiming it like a weapon and I realized it was her defense, because in order to stave off divorce she had surrendered. She shook her head in rapid jerks. “No!”
And because she had promised to never tell me, my hands were tied. I couldn’t ask him why without implicating her. I had to allow this man to die with his lie – which is obviously what he wanted.
He studied me with milky eyes, as though he was seeing me for the first time, and then leaned his bald head forward with a wince and asked, “You happy?” His tone was one of doubt, as though, since maybe he’d never been happy how in the hell could his son?
“Yeh, I am.”
He frowned and grunted, “Hmm.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Don’t know. Guess that’s what counts, right? I mean I never quite understood how you spent so much time coaching your kids instead of working harder at your job.”
It was my turn to grunt, because I spent so much time doing so in some ill attempt to make up for Frank’s absence during my own childhood. And I am happy with the balance, and might have lashed out at him had he not been drugged up, had he not been dying. Strike two, though. First cheating, then this…
“I’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll get you out of here.” I had to leave at that point because nothing good was going to happen if I stayed.
Frank stared with heavy eyes, “Good that you’re happy. Remember to call her, okay.” He handed me the ripped corner of a newspaper. “Here’s the number.”
Back outside under the ferocious sun, the humidity bathed me. The blacktop of the parking lot bubbled in the heat. Mom ended up compromising with him. No divorce meant he spent three nights a week with the other woman. Viv, was it? She’d been his part time live in lover for the prior ten years. Where was she now that it was coming to an end? Course, where was Mom?
He finally dozes off, his head bobbing as I wind through the scalding fields in central Florida, but not before he embarks on a stare down contest with the road ahead, his eyes piercing the pavement as if he is trying to open it and dive right into hell. His mind is churning so hard I can hear it.
Two hulking attendants dressed in faded white uniforms meet us as I pull up to the entryway of Glanders Nursing Home. They lift him effortlessly like a doll and place him gently into a wheelchair.
“Frank James,” I announce. It is just another delivery and their job is to get it from the vehicle to the front desk.
A middle aged, thickset woman in a dark grey business suit greets me. The air is pungent with the distinct scent of urine.
“Just a few signatures, Mr. James and your father will be free to go to his room.”
I snicker at the use of free, but decide not to comment, and after signing seven pages, I am accompanying another attendant, Joe, as he rolls Frank into an elevator and pushes number three.
Frank stares at the floor, hardly blinking and if I had any interest at this point, or care I might ask him his thoughts, but I can’t muster any empathy and am not in the mood for conversation.
Joe whistles at a large woman dressed in a gray uniform down the hall as he pauses outside a door. He waves her towards him then wheels Frank into his new room, his last room – a sterile white box with splashes of green specs on the tile floor. At least the urine scent is masked with bleach. The grey lady waddles in, huffing like Frank, whizzing past me to help Joe lift Frank out of the chair into his bed.
The size of a small child with the same shocked frightened expression.
“I’ll be back soon Mr. James. I’m Wanda, the day nurse.”
She turns and whispers, “Hospice is coming this afternoon.”
I take a seat in a molded plastic chair by his bed and struggle to say something of importance, of feeling, anything to lighten the mood, and finally ask, “Do you want to make a phone call?” I don’t expect him to take me up on the offer.
But he nods and holds out his shaking, gnarled hand.
“Hey Joe, do you have to dial 9 to get an outside line?” I call.
Looking over his shoulder, he just nods as he pushes the chair out the door.
“Got a number?”
It isn’t a local number, so I’m curious as I dial and hand him the receiver.
“Gary,” he chokes. “It’s Frank.”
He listens, mouth hanging open and breathing like a fan.
“Frank James. Yeah. No, not good. I’ve got cancer…everywhere. Oh, thanks…Yeh, but the reason I’m calling – remember when we were kids at the Cape and we became blood brothers…” he pauses to cough, a fitful, wet explosion that spews blood all over the sheets.
I quickly wipe the red drool from his chin. His head falls back into the pillow as if someone severed it at the neck. The muscles in his neck turn to rock hard chords as he lifts his head off the pillow. His creamy blue eyes are hallucinatory with hope. His delusions are all he has left.
“Well, we made that promise, you remember? You know, don’t you remember? To take care of each other if we got sick… Remember? Yeh. Well, you gotta come and get me. Promised you know. Gary…Gary..?” The receiver lands on his chest and he gazes at me with a horrendously anguished expression – as though he is witnessing blasphemy, godlessness and torture all at once.
This sad plea is his last.
The Hospice folks show up with a white paper cup. One large lady, or maybe just large in comparison to Frank shrinking frame, grips his bald head with a meaty mitt, and lifts his head off the pillow. “Hello Mr. James. I’m Mary. We are from Hospice and here to help you feel better.”
An angular male nurse with thick black-framed glasses wipes his drool with a napkin in one hand before shoving a pill between his gray lips and pours water from a glass into his mouth while Mary pulls his head back. Not even a choke or gurgle. These folks know their business. Frank would be impressed, and maybe he is, but his eyes are now shut for good. His last days will be spent in a painless stupor.
Heat wavers in scrawling lines as I meander onto the black top parking lot. I pull out the crumpled slip of newspaper from my pocket. It is a local phone number scrawled so shakily I can barely make it out. Peering up at his window on the third floor, reflecting like a mirror in the scorching sun, I slowly crumble it up and pitch it into a garbage can on my way to the car.
About the Author: C.W. Bigelow
After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow has lived in nine states before currently living in the Charlotte NC area. His short stories and poems have most recently appeared in The Scrambler,The View From Here,The Shine Journal, The Gloom Cupboard, Indigo Rising, Litsnack,Sister Ignition, Full of Crow, FeatherLit, Curbside Splendor, Literary Juice,The Dying Goose and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.