by L. Vocem
First published in StorySouth
Crackle crackle, breath, crackle breath, pause.
And I thought my mother-in-law would ask something about Valerie, or about some Christmas present they were returning and good-bye. Instead the conversation turned out to be a long, confusing explanation about why we should not tell Valerie anything, that we must wait until she got home, that she would not be able to drive, or work, or do anything since she really loved her Daddy.
I pulled a cigarette out of my pack and looked at the designer holding the printouts that had to go out that afternoon for client approval. I lit and inhaled and told her, while holding my hand over the mouth piece, that it would be a while. If only I could dissect what Valerie’s mother was talking about.
There was stress in Jeanette’s voice, with a slight quiver she seemed to try to suppress. Finally, after a long pause, she said that they had seen only a general practitioner, although he could have been an internist, she wasn’t sure; and that Valerie’s father, Howard was diagnosed with lung cancer and had only three weeks to live.
“Three weeks,” I said, asking or repeating, not quite sure what to think. I asked Jeanette what kind of test they had performed. How could they be so sure that it was three weeks, why not five, or six, or a year.
“No.” She paused, then saying mater-of-factly, “the doctor said three weeks.” As if since it came from a doctor it could not be questioned, God had spoken and that was it. She paused again and switched the conversation to her concerns about Valerie.
“Valerie doesn’t take these things that well, Kyle. And you know that,” she said.
I finished my cigarette and pulled another one. I looked at the rest of the pack and said to myself that I had to quit. I had smoked for so long that I could be next, I could be the one receiving that news from some doctor. Yet even while talking to Valerie’s mother, there was that deep, deep voice that said to me in a cocky, reassuring way: “that only happens to other people.” Not me, not in a million years.
Yet Howard only had three weeks.
I had tried to quit before, but it had not been easy since most of my employees smoked. I went through the patch, the gum, the total abstinence, the two cigarettes a day, but nothing had worked. I could say that it was the pressure at work, the deadlines, but I don’t know if that was the truth. At one point I had a beer with the guys and on the way home I stopped at a convenience store, picked up a six-pack of beer, and for no apparent reason added a pack of cigarettes, not even my brand, but whatever was on the counter, not thinking or rationalizing, just feeling a buzzing sensation in my head that said, give me, give me, give me. And it had to be given. I inhaled that whole pack by the end of that evening.
“Just promise me you won’t tell Valerie until she gets home,” Jeanette said, pausing, then saying goodbye with a forced happiness, that she had to call the other daughters.
The designer came to my office again holding the printouts. She began to say something but stopped and asked me what was wrong, if I was okay. I crushed my cigarette into the ashtray and told her that this time I was quitting once and for all. She looked at me and rolled her eyes.
“Kyle, spare us. I don’t know if we can handle you quitting again,” she said, placing the printouts on my desk and going on to describe what she was attempting to do with each layout.
I looked at the designs, but in my head I could do nothing but repeat what Valerie’s mother had said. Three weeks kept coming up over and over again. How could someone develop cancer and die in three weeks? No, the doctor was nuts. Jeanette probably heard wrong. If nothing else, they could always consult a specialist. Someone else. Do something.
I turned off the TV when Valerie arrived home. She glanced at the empty screen and back at me, placing her keys on the counter. “What’s wrong Kyle,” she said, studying my facial expression. I guess there was no hiding from her.
“Is it Daddy? Tell me it’s not Daddy?”
I got up and walked towards her.
“What is it?” she asked, pulling back.
“The doctors said he has three weeks. They think. No, they said it’s cancer. Well, your mother said so.”
To my surprise Valerie did not go ballistic. She bit her lower lip and asked me questions about whether her sisters had called, what had her mother exactly said—was she nuts, was she calm. I told her that she was calm, that she was worried about her.
“It figures,” she said with a sigh. “She’s always worrying about me.”
I asked her how did she know. She had spoken with her sister Jane a few weeks before about how pissed off Jane was about Howard eating all those Alives as if they were candy, that they might be addictive or something.
Valerie called Jane in Knoxville. I could hear the little sound of Jane’s voice through the receiver. Valerie told her to calm down, that being mad would not solve anything. That yes, yes, who in the hell was this doctor they had talked to. Daddy hated doctors so they probably went to one of those Doc in the box type of places and this doctor probably didn’t know his ass from his elbow.
“Has anyone talked to Annie?” Valerie asked, staring at the floor, then shaking her head and looking at me. Dear Annie, she was the youngest one of the sisters, the one that they should have all been worried about. Or Valerie thought so and told Jane.
Valerie called Annie, but nobody answered the phone, so she called her mother and found out that Annie had already left for Asheville. Valerie asked her mother for more details, but she danced around the issue as she had done with me.
“Mom, mother, but why hadn’t they found this earlier? When was the last time that he went to a doctor? Mom, I see. I see. Jesus. Mom, but.”
Valerie looked at me and shook her head. “Touch football? He hasn’t been to the doctor since then? Mom, that was what, eight years ago. How could he?”
After Valerie got off the phone she went upstairs and began to pack. At one point she asked me to get the large suitcase from the attic. Trying to make conversation, I mentioned that I had a client meeting the following day, that it would define whether six months worth of work would take place, or I would have to lay off the junior copywriter and one of the designers. She looked at me with one of those, how dare you say that in a situation like this type of looks.
“Valerie, I am not trying to get out of going. I just need to talk it over with you. I can’t put the business on hold. It’s not like I have a job and can take vacations or have somebody take over the Studio.”
“We’re talking about my Dad, Kyle.”
“We don’t even know if your mother has the facts straight. Jesus, three weeks? And you know how these things are these days. Doctors want to cover their asses now. They exaggerate, so when the patient lives a year, you can thank them and worship them instead of suing them.”
“Whatever time there is, I am spending it next to Daddy.”
“That’s fine, honey. But we can’t put absolutely everything on hold.”
“I don’t care.”
The drive to the mountains was crisp and clear. The moon filled the highway and the South Carolina Piedmont in a ethereal milky bath. Going up Saluda Mountain I wanted to open the window and smoke a cigarette, but the wind blew with impunity, shaking the car to the side.
“Are you alright,” Valerie asked, opening her eyes. “Do you need some coffee?”
I shook my head and smiled at her, extending my hand. She embraced it and didn’t let go until we got to her parents.
. . . . .
The next morning I found Howard fitting a filter in the coffee maker. He was clean shaven and smiling. He asked me how the trip up the mountain was. Jeanette came into the kitchen and told us to be quiet, that Valerie and Annie were still sleeping and we shouldn’t wake them up.
“Let’s have some coffee,” Howard said the moment the coffee finished percolating, pulling two mugs from the cupboard and pointing at my shirt pocket where I kept my pack of cigarettes. He filled the cups with coffee and handed me one. We went outside.
“Jeanette threw away all the cigarettes I had in the house,” Howard said, lifting two fingers. I gave him a cigarette and placed one between my lips. He took a Zippo out of his shirt pocket and offered me a light.
“You should quit. These things will kill you,” he said with a smirk, lighting his cigarette and taking a quick drag.
“How’s Valerie taking it,” he asked, glancing at me. In no way, shape or form could I say that this was a man with only three weeks left to live. He was still stout, energetic, with that odd sense of humor of his. I was quite surprised as to how he was taking it so far.
“You shouldn’t be out there in the cold,” Valerie said from the door, looking pale, tired and sleepy, wrapped in her robe.
“It’s good to see you too Val,” he responded, taking a sip of his coffee. “How was the trip?”
“It was okay. It’s good to see you too, Daddy. It’s cold out there so come in soon.”
We went into the warmth of the kitchen, where everyone congregated with puffy eyes, half asleep, holding mugs of tea, hot cocoa and coffee. Jeanette began to fry some bacon and make biscuits.
Valerie asked Jane about the kids, about Jack. They had remained in Knoxville, they didn’t know if Pop, as they called their grandfather, was really sick or what, so they didn’t want to traumatize them.
“Traumatize them? Is that what they tell you in those rearing books? I’d rather you’d brought the kids,” Howard said. “You guys all look so somber.”
“Do you have any pain?” Jane asked.
“Oh, I’m fine.”
“He’s high, that’s what it is,” Jeanette said.
“What have they given you?”
“Tylenol with codeine, I think.”
Jane frowned and looked at Valerie. “Strong stuff.”
. . .
Shelby, Annie’s boyfriend arrived from Charlotte around noon. Annie told him to put his stuff in the den. Even though they lived together, that was where the boyfriends slept. It was when I first dated Valerie, then it became Jack’s turn and now it was Shelby’s. He didn’t seem to mind. He actually tried to fit in, to be one of the in-law-boys.
We spent the rest of the day on the phone with several doctors and found out, first of all, that none wanted to agree or disagree with any of the findings. They all wanted to look at the existing tests and X-rays, do a thorough examination to determine what other tests would be necessary. They wouldn’t commit about timing either. He could actually have more than likely six months, or even a year. And depending on how bad it was, they needed to start him on treatment right away. But they were not too specific there either. They had to see him and then chemo, surgery, radiation—they were all options.
“I think I am going to puke,” Howard said.
Everyone looked at him, alarmed.
“No, I mean, good grief, all they want to do is poison me, slice me, nuke me. I don’t know if I can handle all that. People look like zombies, no hair, no color, no life. That’s not living. I don’t know Jane.”
“Daddy, It’s rough, but it beats the alternative. You can’t just give up. What if it goes into remission. What if you’re fine after that.”
“You see what I mean — remission. There’s no cure. They just put you through all that crap to make money, to see for how long they can squeeze a dollar out of you. No, I want out with dignity.”
“Dad, they’ve done some great things. So I think we should give it a try. We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
. . . . .
Howard, Shelby and I went for a ride around the mountains and we stopped by the old log cabin by Emma’s Grove Road. Howard told us that it belonged now to his father and it was one of the oldest log cabins in the state still standing. Next to the cabin was an old tobacco barn, now covered in kudzu vines. We parked the truck behind it and walked down a yellow pasture, across a creek and went through a thick of white pines and began to climb up a hill. Howard moved effortlessly, never breathing hard, breaking branches that were in the way, moving swiftly, aware of every crook and cranny of the rugged terrain. Shelby breathed hard and looked at me, as if questioning where in the hell the old man found the energy to climb or where he was taking us. At one point Howard stopped and turned around, facing us.
“You city boys need to stop eating that fast food crap and get some good’ole country cooking,” he said.
Howard, pointed at an area covered in rhododendron.
“That’s where Papaw’s still used to be.”
I looked for something in particular, a structure, a flat area, but all I could see was the confluence of two slopes, rocks, a stream bed, all under a canopy of towering tree trunks standing guard, giving me the feeling of an impenetrable wilderness.
“You see where the spring comes out of the ground. Revenuers were never able to find this spot.”
He smiled at us, and told us how his father, the Baptist Minister who had married Valerie and me, Papaw kept a still before getting religion. Howard said that half the politicians in the area got their liquor from him because they knew it was good quality. He never, ever used car radiators for distilling. No sir. But best of all was the water from that spring — rich and clear. He could sell it now just for drinking, like they do with the foreign bottled water.
He paused and looked down the mountain. “I thought one day this was going to be the girls, you boys and your youngens. I reckon that’ll never happen. Now you might get nothing.”
Howard asked me for a cigarette.
We smoked. Shelby chewed his tobacco.
Howard found the spring. With a cupped hand he took a sip of the water.
“Taste it, you’ll know what I mean.”
Valerie remained in the Mountains with her Dad. I had to head back and take control of the on slough of projects resulting from that client meeting I was so worried that would not go well. As I drove, I tried not to smoke, but the temptation was so huge that along the way I sucked in a couple of cigarettes with the excuse that it would keep me awake and focused on the road.
Valerie called at night and told me that Annie and Shelby announced their engagement and were planning to get married in a month. Then the following night she told me that, they decided not to take any chances, that even though they felt that Howard would make it, he might be by then in the middle of chemotherapy and would be too weak. And what if, and God forbid, he really only had three weeks. So they changed the wedding date for the following week since Annie wanted her Daddy to give her away, like he did Jane and Valerie. The next night, I had to work late, so I called Valerie instead. She told me that what was going to be a simple “only family” wedding had become a major event. The list had grown to over 200 guests. They even booked First Baptist Church in town.
I drove up on the weekend, if for no other reason that to console Valerie. I found Howard smoking on the porch when I arrived. He looked bored and told me that the girls were out shopping for stuff for the wedding. We sat on the couch and flipped channels. He told me that his appointment with the oncologist was going to be next Tuesday. He didn’t want to go. But he had no choice, Jane had made the appointment. Besides, the Tylenols with codeine didn’t seem to work that well anymore. He could feel the pain in his shoulder more often. By six in the afternoon he looked tired and winded.
“Maybe them fuckers are right,” he said.
“Naw, they’re fucking wrong,” I said, thinking that I’d never heard him use that word before.
While the girls were shopping, Jack, Howard and I took the kids to McDonald’s. It was what Jack called his favorite baby-sitting place. Jake went up and down the colorful contraption with steps, slides, ladders and kids and more kids. Tabatha sat on Howard’s lap and kept playing with her French fries and some plastic toy she already had torn the head off from her Happy Meal. Howard seemed rejuvenated and happy, sipping a cup of coffee, looking a little thinner. He asked me if I had quit smoking. I showed him my brand new patch. He smiled.
“I should have quit when I was your age,” he said watching Jake slide down. “Next thing, they’ll find out that everything in here causes cancer.”
“Or makes you fat,” I said.
I drove back to Atlanta Sunday night.
Quitting was not easy, every time I saw a commercial on TV about coffee, or beer, or food, or something steaming, I had to take a deep breath, close my eyes and let the idea of smoking fade away, out of my mind. Then the patch wore off and my brain felt like it was on fire. A million voices played at the same time, confusing my thoughts, all saying, it’s okay, just have one cigarette. One. One. Just one. That’s all you need. I put another patch on my arm. I chewed some of the gum I still had from the last time I had tried to quit. It worked so fast I ended up in the bathroom throwing up.
Jesus, I’ll put up with the cancer, I thought, while staring at the toilet. Not everybody gets cancer. Some people get it and they don’t even smoke. It’s God who decides, not us. I scurried throughout the house looking for places where I had in the past hidden cigarettes. I couldn’t find any. I went to the car. I hid them sometimes in the glove compartment. I checked. Nothing. I started the engine and pulled to the edge of the driveway and stopped. Fucking fool, I thought. I am going to trick myself into starting again. No fucking way. I went back to the house. Little voices chattered and whispered in my head.
Valerie called during the day at the Studio. Right away I knew it was not good. Howard had gone to the oncologist. There was a small tumor close to the surface of his left shoulder. They might have to remove most of his left lung and then he would have to do some severe chemotherapy. However, all that was academic depending on the lab tests and the biopsy. Valerie began to sob at this point. Several of my people came to the door of my office, stopped, looked alarmed and went away. Valerie continued. If the cancer had metastasized and invaded the liver, there was very little that they could do. They would have those results by Friday. Also, there were a ton of other tests they wanted to do. I asked Valerie what they were.
“Damn it, Kyle, I don’t know what they are. Tests, more tests. I don’t know their names. They also gave him something stronger.”
“Darviset,” she replied.
I only worked half a day on Friday and drove up early so I would have enough time to get fitted for my tux, drive to the house, take a shower and get ready for the rehearsal dinner. When I arrived at the house, there was an entourage of people getting ready. Hair dryers roared in different bathrooms, women came out of rooms, asking each other if this or that looked right. Shelby came out of Annie’s room and said he had to go check on his parents at the hotel so he would see us at the church.
“Where have you been?” Valerie said, pointing to my designated bathroom, reminding me that I also needed a shave, and to hurry because we didn’t want to be late.
“I tried to leave as soon as I could. It’s just that we were swamped and I had to put out a lot of fires.”
Valerie gave me a look, as if no excuse was good enough right now, I had crossed some line and committed some ultimate offense.
“Did you get fitted?”
“Yes I did, Val,” I snapped back.
“Here,” she threw a towel at me and pointed again in the direction of the bathroom.
Unfortunately there was no hot water left. So in the middle of February, I had to shower and shave in cold water. While shaving, Valerie came in the bathroom and looked in the mirror, holding a tube of lipstick. She let out a sigh and looked at me.
“Mother is driving me nuts. I can’t believe she’s doing this.”
“Why can’t things be simple.”
“What are you talking about, what’s the problem.”
“You know Daddy is not right.”
“Val, he looks fine, for God’s sake.”
“No, Kyle. He’s drugged out on that stuff and, and.”
“What are you talking about? That’s a strong pain killer, Val. Let me finish shaving. Can you?” I leaned closer to the mirror and scraped more cream off my face. Several red dots formed around my neck and dripped.
“It’s about Papaw. Mother is using that. She has spent all her time reminding Daddy of how Papaw never helped them. She snapped at me and repeated that story about back when I was a baby and in the hospital they didn’t have insurance, and how Daddy had to pay all the bills. It took him years. So for a long time, we didn’t have anything. And they never helped, Poppa and MamaJoe never brought in food or offered anything.”
“Your mother has to always be pissed at someone, Val.”
“But you see Daddy’s never held a grudge about it. Never. And now, out of the blue, he does? This is new. It’s not him.”
“But your mother does, that’s why she doesn’t go there with the rest of us on Christmas Eve. But Val, that’s nothing new, what else can you expect.”
“I don’t know.” Valerie leaned against the mirror, then looked at me. “Honey, you cut yourself.”
“So why do you think he has a grudge against them now? You think it has something to do with the medicine? I don’t know Kyle. I am so confused right now. I want to agree with him but all I see is Momma’s doing. And, and, she’s making such a big deal about it and doesn’t want them to be part of the wedding. What is everybody in the church going to think when they don’t see Papaw and MamaJoe where they’re supposed to be seated? People talk in this town. You can’t do that. And she pitched a fit when I told her. Kyle, you’re bleeding all over.”
“Can you microwave me a wet towel. There’s no hot water. It will seal all the pores.”
“Are you sure about this?”
I had to dress in a rush. The whole house smelled of colognes, of people ready to go out. In the den Howard and one of the cousins watched TV. I sat on one of the couches.
“I got a patch too,” Howard said leaning towards me. “I decided to quit anyway. Jeanette’s idea, actually. Even though that’s not what the doctor said. Do you know what that quack said? Do you?”
Howard looked at the TV and back at me, lifting the hand holding the remote control.
“He said that quitting now would not help. That it might upset or shock my lungs or something. Could you believe that Kyle? Could you? He wants me to continue smoking for now. Isn’t that the craziest thing you’ve ever heard, Kyle? What kind of therapy is that?”
Jeanette came in and designated in which cars we would be going. Howard then looked at the whole group and smiling told them that he was not going.
“Are you okay?” Valerie asked, rushing to him.
“I am fine, it’s just that I’m tired, that’s all.”
“Are you in pain? Did you give him his medicine?” Annie asked.
“Just a minute ago,” Jeanette said, pursing her lips.
“You all go! I’ll be fine. So don’t worry about me. Okay.”
“Can you get up? Are you dizzy?” Valerie asked.
“Could you all stop worrying about me. Go, damn it. I’m just tired. Okay?”
We all went outside to the cars. Then Jeanette and Valerie asked me if I would stay and watch over Howard, just to be on the safe side, not because he needed it, but so he would not be alone. They gave me the phone number of the doctor, the church and the restaurant — just in case. I obliged. I hugged and kissed and went back in the house.
I guess because of the wedding a lot of people found out that Howard was sick, so the next day the doorbell began to ring early in the morning. They sat in the den around Howard and talked about old times, about things that they used to do, about who was retiring and whose kids had just graduated from college, or had married whom, or who had so many grandchildren so far.
The girls arrived with an entourage of relatives. They showed us the bridesmaids dresses, they talked about the different choices they had, about the problems fitting everyone. Valerie asked me to help her take the tuxes for Howard, Jack and me out of the car and told me that we needed to get ready soon.
Howard looked exhausted, ready to go to sleep. Jeanette made him some coffee. The girls helped dressing him. Then we waited in the den for the girls.
I flipped channels, unable to concentrate on anything, thinking about how bad I wanted a cigarette, feeling as if the whole house was under an indescribable tension, yet everyone smiled, everyone was on their best behavior. Jeanette and Valerie had a little exchange in the kitchen about wanting to invite Papaw and MamaJoe to the wedding. They pretended to whisper to each other, but they were loud. I could hear everything from the den. I chose to stay out of it and not go into the kitchen. If I got into it, Jeanette would blame me for months, telling Valerie over and over what a bad husband I was, bringing up every possible defect I had. Howard remained sleeping in his tux, leaning back with his mouth wide open, taking deep gasps of air.
When it came time to leave, I had to help Howard to the car. He was exhausted, he said, and was having difficulty with his breathing. Still, by the car he asked me if I had a cigarette. I was so desperate for one, I would have smoked a cigarette with him right then.
Valerie and I took our car and on the way to the church she told me about the discussion with her mother. Valerie’s mother made sure that they had not invited Papaw and MammaJoe.
“Kyle, they are my grandparents, for God’s sake.”
I told Valerie where we had gone when we first had found out that he had cancer. About going behind the log cabin up the mountain and checking out the spring and the place where Papaw had kept his still and about Howard’s comment about the land.
“So that’s what it is. It’s got to be Momma’s doing, Kyle. But why? I thought that was in the past. Papaw promised Momma some of that land if she took care of Lewis. Remember, Poppa’s second cousin who lived in the log cabin. Well, he owned all that land. And for three years she fed the sweet old man, prepared his bath, went to buy his food and medicines, took him to the doctor, even suggested the cataract operation so he could at least see a little something. But Papaw kept the land when Lewis died. He said he wanted to consolidate all the family land, that in the past so much has been cut into little pieces and out of spite for one another, they had sold acres and acres for nothing. He was not going to let some stupid relative turn the cove, and all this land into a trailer park. Eventually it would be split between Daddy and Uncle Mark. And Daddy would get the log cabin because Uncle Mark didn’t want any land he couldn’t develop, and there was not much you could do with a historical site. I think Momma wants the land now. But this is a stupid way to go about it.”
“So what happens if your Daddy dies, Val?”
“Let’s not even think about that, Kyle.”
The moment we arrived at the church Valerie went in one direction and I went the other. My job as an usher kept me smiling and shaking hands, meeting members of Valerie’s family I didn’t know even existed, being introduced to Shelby’s father, mother, uncles, sisters, friends, relatives.
Jeanette arrived, and asked me if I could find a wheelchair, that Howard was so tired that he was unable to walk.
“Is he Okay?” I whispered to her.
Jeanette smiled at a couple of people and whispered back to me. “He looks so winded we had to stop the car and see if he could make it. He said he was fine. I told him not to stress himself out. That the moment that he doesn’t feel good, we’ll take him back home.”
Jack and I placed him in the wheelchair. I took him inside the church, down the isle and parked him to one side of the first set of pews. He pressed my arm and whispered “I want to stand when it’s time to give Annie away.” He grinned and winked at me.
I helped Howard stand during the photos. Then took him in the wheelchair to the reception. Piano music filled the room. Everyone stood and looked in our direction as we entered. After a while there were lines to talk to Howard and the bride and groom. It was as if this was not a wedding for Annie and Shelby but a party to honor Howard. And the bride and groom did not seem to mind, they were indeed the ones bringing people over to him.
To my amazement, Howard found his second wind and became lively with all the attention given to him. Still we did not allow him to get up from the wheelchair, and even though he asked to sneak outside so he could smoke a cigarette, Jeanette told me that she would personally dismember me if I did. I smiled at her and at that moment the photographer captured our image for posterity, both with huge grins.
We had to pry Howard away from the reception and take him home. He wanted to stay but he looked too weak, as if he were trying to hide his pain.
The next day he slept until noon, unaware of the phone ringing every fifteen minutes. When he woke up, he said that he was in pain, that he hurt all over. He shivered, devoid of his usual grin and humor. He coughed and had to inhale hard to get a good gasp of air. Jeanette said that it would be best to take him to a hospital and see if he was okay.
“I ain’t going to no hospital, you hear me,” he said between coughs.
Jane called the doctor and went off to pick up another prescription.
By mid-afternoon Howard looked much better. He even made a few jokes and told us stories of when he was a little kid. How they didn’t have electricity until the fifties, how the winters used to be stronger, with real snow blizzards instead of ice storms, and about them having to run to the out house that used to be between his house and Jeanette’s mother’s house, and how a good ole Sears catalog for the longest time was the best paper you could use. He would not stop, as if his whole life had to be told, and made sense of right away. As if by telling and re-telling what he had already told was going to keep some of him here among us, and without saying it, he knew that. So we would not forget how it had been, what they had to go through to get this far, to be able to put three girls through college, even marry them off. He’d done his job, Howard said, as if arriving at a conclusion, at the meaning of it all.
The drive to Atlanta was lonely. I did crave a cigarette all the time, but I did not smoke. My head buzzed and tempted me, but I did not let it win over. I drove trying not to think, just pushing the accelerator, braking, pushing, following the long string of red lights into the body of the city, into the capillary of my subdivision, into my empty home.
I stared at the blank screen of the TV unable to turn it on. I did not want it to numb my sense of loneliness, to give me a placebo effect, to make me feel at ease when all I had inside of me said that we had been deceived by our own selves, by the tube, by our hurry, hurry, hurry, career, success, money, gadgets, work. And then, what?
Valerie called and told me that they were going to Knoxville the next day to see another oncologist. This was supposed to be some doctor that had practically performed miracles, that his techniques were bold and aggressive and had produced great results.
Four projects needed approval and only one was ready for the client. By noon I had to call clients and cancel meetings, promising them that we would have layouts there first thing in the morning. I was pissed, edgy, upset, breathless — wanting a cigarette. The phone rang and I thought it was going to a client asking where in the hell her project was. It was Valerie. They had tried to go to Knoxville for the appointment with the other oncologist, but along the way Howard kept complaining that he could not breathe so they took him to the hospital. They gave him oxygen and said that it would be best to keep him overnight just to see how he was doing. Howard didn’t want to be admitted, but was out of breath, in a lot of pain, so Jane and Valerie convinced him to stay. Valerie said that he looked really bad, that it didn’t make sense. That the day before, he looked tired, but he was fine. Now he looked different, strange, thinner.
“I’ll come up tomorrow afternoon,” I told Valerie. She was silent for a while.
“Kyle, I don’t know if he’ll make it, he just doesn’t look right at all.”
“Valerie, your Dad is a strong man. Have a little faith in him.”
“Kyle, you don’t understand. You better come up today.”
Deadlines, work, family, clients, life, changes, cigarettes, changes, Valerie, drive, drive. I needed a fucking cigarette, but I had a patch, and the gum, and Howard was worse than they anticipated, and Valerie wanted me to drive right away, and I had to see, or call, or tell, or cancel the meetings again. And again.
On the way out of the office, I stole a cigarette from one of my designers. I touched the patch on my shoulder, wondering if it was still working. I couldn’t tell, my head buzzed anyway. I used the car’s cigarette lighter. I inhaled, I smoked, I blew rings. I inhaled deeper, feeling the smoke reach my lungs, tingle and caress them. The smoke felt good, my head cleared as if a veil was lifted from my mind. Yet I could only think that I had cheated and that pleasure soothing my lungs was indeed producing some chemical reaction, mutating some cells, one at the time, until there were enough of those little guys to gang up on me. And then POW!
I’m a goner.
I did not buy a pack of cigarettes on the way home. My suitcase was still on the bed unpacked. So I took dirty laundry out and put clean things in. I headed out of town.
There was a man with an oxygen mask on a bed taking deep gasps to get air. If it wasn’t because Jane and Jeanette were there, I would have thought I was in the wrong room. Howard’s eyes shifted towards me, tired, lethargic. He said something through the mask and lifted his hand slightly. He closed his eyes, but the deep breathing continued.
Shelby and Annie came by and talked about who had been at the wedding, how they were going to wait and see before even thinking about some honeymoon. Jack came and went alternating with Jane baby-sitting.
Valerie and I went to a small room close to the elevators with a couple of vending machines and two couches. She told me that a doctor came by and spoke to them. They still had no idea how long Howard would last, but based on the blood and the various other test, the prognosis was not what they had hoped. The cancer had already metastasized and had invaded the liver and the MRI already showed another small tumor forming in his brain. Jane asked almost mad, why didn’t they find anything earlier. Lung cancer can be very swift, the doctor had said, you can look and not find a tumor and then very quickly it takes over.
“He’s lucky,” Valerie said, looking at one of the vending machines, putting her hands in her pockets, coming out with a piece of lint. “He said that if they had found the tumor, let’s say about a year ago, it would have only meant surgery and chemo and a year going in and out of hospitals and hell. And the outcome, give or take a couple of months would have been the same.”
“How long now?”
Valerie took a deep breath, frowned and threw a slow motion punch at the glass of the vending machine. “They still don’t know.”
Howard began to complain not about his pain or the oxygen, but that he wanted out of there, that he wanted to go home. He didn’t want to end up hooked to a bunch of machines to keep him living indefinitely. He was weak, but he was still feisty.
A nurse told us that we didn’t want to take him home. That if we did that we’d never be able to sleep comfortably in that house ever again. Jeanette looked at the nurse like she was scum.
“Honey, I’m telling you. I don’t care what you do. But I know, I see it everyday. You won’t be able to stand your own house. You need to be in hospice, fifth floor. He’ll be comfy, uh-huh, just like home. And you’ll have your peace of mind and good memories of your house — if you know what I mean.”
They moved Howard to hospice on the fifth floor. It looked more like an office building with carpeting and pictures than the sterile hospital look and smell of the previous floor. They had exactly in the same location a small room with a couple of couches and better paintings. Instead of vending machines they had an antique table with complementary hot coffee.
Howard then took a turn for the better. As we sat around, he would lift his mask and tell jokes or ask about whether someone had come to visit or not. And even thought the girls had explained to him his situation and he knew how bad it was, he kept mentioning that he wanted to go home, that Jane could take her kids to the other end of the house because he was going to smoke one last cigarette while building a good fire, and goddamnit, he was the one dying so he had every right to do so. He then paused, looked around, took another deep breath into the mask, and asked “where are the kids, Jane?”
“They are with Jack.”
“Bring them over, I am not going to traumatize them or nothing.”
“Yes Daddy, we’ll do it in the morning,” Jane responded.
During the night they began an IV, first with liquids, then with a touch of morphine. Time moved one breath at the time. The nurse or the doctor came, touched, looked at a chart and went away. In the morning, while Howard slept, we went down and had breakfast in the cafeteria. We came up to the room and sat around as people came and went. Howard seemed in good spirits, but it was difficult for him to talk now. Only a whisper came out of his mouth only to quickly have to place the mask on and gasp for air.
Valerie sent me home to take a shower and change. I came back before dark and sat next to Howard. He was out, so I napped for a while until Valerie woke me up when she brought in Papaw and MommaJoe in the room. They called out his name, but since he was still asleep they stood there looking at him. Jeanette came in the room and her eyes lit very big. Valerie took her by the arm and they went into the hall. I followed them to that small room with the complementary coffee. Jeanette screamed at Valerie, that she was a traitor, how could she go against her father’s wishes and allow them to come here.
A staff person passed by so both of them lowered their voices but continued exchanging loud whispers. I really felt like intervening, but Valerie looked at me as if saying to keep out. Jeanette said that she was going to tell them to leave, that they were not welcomed. Valerie told her mother that yes, she had invited Papaw and MamaJoe there and that they had every right to be there. Jeanette veered her eyes and walked into the hallway and stopped by the door of the room. Then headed down the hall towards the elevators, mad as hell, whispering words to herself. Valerie and I went into the room. Papaw and Mama Joe had already left. Howard was awake and grinned at us. He lifted his mask and said something in a low voice. He used Papaw and MommaJoe in his words but everything else was unintelligible. He held Valerie’s hand and then mine and pressed firm.
Jeanette arrived a few minutes later with Jane. She forced a smile at me but looked at Valerie as if she was something repugnant. My patch must have worn out, since my head began to buzz again. I was also out of gum. I just held tight to my senses, even though what I wanted to do was explode and tell Jeanette what I thought.
Howard smiled at everyone. And his happiness seemed contagious since everyone began to smile, to be content with each other. It was as if without words he was saying not to let our own tension, our own nerves to take the best of the moment.
I smiled at Jeanette and she gave me the closest I guess she could of a true smile.
I don’t know what is the best way to quit smoking, but when all you do is wait and wait, listening to a man taking deep desperate gasps for air, it becomes a torture. At one rational level you realize what is going on, at another the craving comes back deeper, stronger, nastier. I could now smell which visitors smoked and reeked of tobacco, an odor that was now attractive and repugnant all at the same time.
The next morning a lot of family showed up, but Howard remained unconscious, gasping for air. We all formed a circle and had a prayer.
A nurse came in and went away, people came in, and went away. We all went in and out of the room. Waiting, not knowing if we should hope, not knowing if it would be another day, another hour, another minute, all punctuated by Howard’s deep desperate breathing, as if he was trying to remain here a minute longer.
I went outside of the room, feeling tired, dirty, with bad breath and still craving a cigarette and another patch. Then I noticed something — peace, silence. I turned and looked at the bed, at Howard. He lay motionless, breathless, quiet.
“Jeanette, Valerie, nurse, nurse,” I screamed and went in the room. I held his hand, still warm. A few seconds before, a man was fighting for his life, now all that was left was without motion. Had he just left?
The nurse arrived in the room. The relatives that had napped on the chairs got up and began to weep. Jeanette and Valerie and Annie and Shelby and Jane and everyone came in. Voices and weeping and screaming and talking and buzzing and thinking, three weeks, three fucking weeks, and buzzing and voices and weeping filled the room, but for once I did not crave. All I could do was hold his hand— hard—maybe yank him back to this side.