June 2024

 There was little talk of what would happen next. There were wills being made out, insurance policies double-checked, and VHS tapes like “Cancer Doesn’t Scare Me” purchased. Holistic nutrition guides appeared around the house — vegetarianism was tried, an array of supplements bought from TV mail order suppliers. He drank more orange juice. Orange juice, the TV said, contained antioxidants. He needed antioxidants. Orange juice would save us from cancer.

When he started getting treatment, his hair fell out. He hated treatment. “It’s poison, it’s like roto-rooter going through your veins,” he laughed. “The treatment is worse than the disease.”

This was the bad old days of cancer treatment, when the main strategy was to ruthlessly barrage cancer cells rather than develop the immune system. The oncologists seemed like generals fighting World War II — talk of fronts, flanking, troop movements — they seemed to enjoy their jobs. 

There were lines of defense, an arsenal of poisons to use against the enemy. If mortar didn’t work, there was always a nuke — the “experimental treatments” he was trying to get into.

My dad did not openly speculate about where he thought the cancer came from. Male breast cancer is a strange variety. There were some rumblings about how it might have come from a blow to the chest. Or the well water at the old farmhouse. My mom seemed to think it was from the furniture mills and factories he worked at as a boy. 

I decided, privately, that it came from not living the life he wanted, being repressed in some way, by family life, which had limited his dreams. This suited my ideology at the time. I decided he had been an adventurous and excited young man, but that life had roped him down like Gulliver — as it does to most of us eventually. A wife, two kids, one with a disability, a mid-level sales job at a fax broadcast company.

I also wondered if it was from the pain of a previous marriage, which I had heard ended very badly. I found some old Polaroids of him and his first wife out in the desert, young Southern half-hippies, like a Crosby Stills & Nash record cover — they looked young and beautiful and happy. 

At one point during a period of unemployment, he thought of starting a used bookstore. This really excited him and he started collecting paperbacks out in the storage shed. All those books! So excited! He wasn’t much of a reader, really, but I knew he liked old used books. It was the first time I had seen him display an off-kilter passion. But I guess he decided that a bookstore was too pie-in-the-sky, so he gave it up for something more pragmatic and stable. 

“Do something you love, by all means” he said, “but figure out how to make money with it.” I wanted to be some kind of punk avant-garde artist rebel. He told me I should do computer art, learn graphic design — maybe I could get a job at Disney or Pixar. Pixar and 3D animation was the future of art. Both he and my mom had sales jobs that had given them a proper middle-class life, allowing them to work from home and occasionally travel. They came from a different world. They didn’t necessarily want me to do what they had done, but neither did they want me to be a decadent, romantic, broke artist.

I started going to state school in nearby Greensboro. My dad became a kind of cyborg — they installed a port into his arm to deliver the toxic drugs. 

His stomach bloated as the cancer took him over. He had been a fit man – but the cancer in his belly swelled so he seemed almost pregnant. We sat and watched TV in near silence on the recliners. At night, I went off on long angry runs to burn off the accumulated energy from sitting around.  

I went with him to some appointments, but not all. I was afraid of going with him.I could tell he wanted me to, but I didn’t want to see him there, like that, with those professionals doing strange things to him, treating him as just-another-one. 

His eyes turned watery. He talked less —  as if detaching from this world, somehow resentful about what this world had done to him — he became more religious, reading the gospels and attending church more often. He wrote little. A few entries in a notebook, mostly entries about the treatments at the hospital, which he described in minute detail, and bland, practical advice like: Don’t ever buy a boat — it will rot in the front yard, it’s a money pit. He was a mysterious and handsome Southern man that people knew (or thought they knew) and loved (or thought they loved) though to me he had always been as if behind a gauze — loving and empathetic but unreachable, with nowhere near the warmth and personality of my mother.

His side of the family, good country people from Wilkes County, came to say their final goodbye, hovering, uncomfortable and out of their element. He lay in the bed, breathing labored, and they stood around him. His brother-in-law Ken, an evangelical bus driver from Statesville, kept shaking his head over and over again, with his hands in his overalls, “That boy don’t look good. That boy ain’t gonna make it,” and then walked out, not wanting to see anymore — too close in age. Maybe he was disgusted by the sight of a dying man. Shew, Johnny, my Johnny, my forever-teary-eyed grandma shook her head, Shewwwww-ee. Shoo. 

One afternoon in the last month, he called his old co-worker friend from Western Union, Wilkie. After small talk and an effort at appearing as if he was fine, he abruptly became solemn and started sobbing into the phone. “Wilkie, I’m not doing so good. Can you come here soon? I’m not going to make it.” I had never heard him cry before, and I could hear Wilkie on the other end of the line explaining why he couldn’t make it — I could almost hear him loosening his sweat-stained white-collar.

On his final night, I administered the fatal dose of morphine to him through the oral syringe, as per hospice’s instruction — unable to really talk or move, he mounted a passive resistance against it, rejecting it, like a kid with cough medicine. The morphine did its work. My mom and I lay beside him in bed, crying ourselves. He clutched his belly and moaned. We held him. 

I fell asleep for a few minutes and had a dream. In it, I found myself in a kind of metallic box, like a Cold War fallout bunker or submarine. 

A plate glass window looked out onto soil. We were sinking. Dad was in there beside me, pacing and shouting, “Help me son, you’ve got to help me!” He was looking for a way out. I smashed all the buttons on the submarine’s control panel. I tried to open my mouth to speak, but only dust came out, like an old vacuum cleaner backfiring. Coffins opened up and PetSmart stores popped out, shrilling with the electronic shrieks of mall Halloween Express, and that fog, that wonderful-smelling fog machine mist in haunted houses and Disney rides.

When I jolted awake, the predawn light and June breeze was coming in through the screen window. The curtain fluttered — the spindly Carolina pines swayed, all-knowing and sympathetic. We had not found a way out. A corpse beside us.

My younger brother Ben, handicapped and in need of being lifted out of bed with a sling, called out wanting to know what was going on. My mom went into his room in her nightgown and explained to him in whispers and I heard them laying down together crying.

My mom called the funeral home and they dispatched their men, in their black suits and black van. In the ranch home’s narrow hallway, as the men tried to get their gurney through to the back bedroom, I tried to make small talk with them, asking if they watched Six Feet Under. One of the assistants, a big, gaunt Frankenstein-looking man, smiled his polite and somber smile and said he had seen an episode, but the judgmental silence of his co-workers shut him down. 

 My mom put on her sing-song telephone voice and called all the relatives and friends from the phone in  the kitchen while the funeral home men worked in the back bedroom. When they were ready to leave, we were ushered into the front of the house so we wouldn’t see the gurney being wheeled out. The funeral home men put the body in a bag and wheeled it through the hallway.

 From the living room, we heard a thump and a scuffle out on the driveway. The funeral home men came in and waited politely for my mom to get off the telephone. They pulled her aside and whispered something — she winced. When they had left, she said, “When they were going down those steps there, one of the funeral home men slipped and your daddy fell off the gurney.”

 The accident upset her and she hung her head on my shoulder. 

 After the black van had driven off, my mom and I went hesitantly back into the bedroom. The impression of the form was still visible on the sheets. In its place, the funeral company had placed a plastic rose on the pillow with a little glossy tag attached that read: We are so sorry for your loss. –Louis Funeral Home.

 “Look!” my mom seemed very moved, “they left us a rose. She read the words on the tag and her eyes grew weepy, “This is just so beautiful.” I picked up the cheap plastic rose and smelled it out of habit.

 The dewy summer day had the feeling of bells ringing somewhere in the distance. A giddy feeling of unreality. 

 A wake was hastily organized, my mom made phone call after phone call. I called my friends out on the cluttered and dusty screened-in porch where we kept cardboard boxes and the dog and cat food. I rang anyone I could think of. 

 I was instructed to go out and get beer and wine and buy a suit. I took the car out into the sprawl, where commuters alongside me stared at the road blankly, just a normal June weekday. 

 Now a visit to the beer warehouse in the strip mall, now standing in line to buy cases of wine and beer. Now going to the old-timey menswear store to buy a blazer and matching pants from the salt-and-peppered Southern gentleman, a native by his accent and demeanor. 

 Then I drove to the Circle K for a pack of smokes then to my favorite place to have a minute to myself, the drainage pond behind the Barnes and Noble. Red clay, green grass, brown water, geese.

 I had done well what the hospice nurse told me to do.

 It’s not my fault, It’s not my fault, I just did what they told me to do, I thought. 

 It’s his last night, this will make him more comfortable. I saw the face of the hospice girl, there in the back bedroom — fresh out of some UNC nursing program, showing me how to load up the oral injector with morphine. I’m sure. This will make it easier for him to pass to the other side.

Horrifying, like a midwife, a midwife of death. 

Are you sure we should trust her, she’s my age, I asked my mom. 

We should do what the doctors say to do, my mom hissed. 

She’s not a doctor, she’s just a student, I said.

She seems to know how to do this, my mom said.

When the time came, I did the deed.

I killed my own dad! Technically speaking. The ground opened up under me. Bottomless horror.

When I got home, the neighbors and church people had begun to filter into the cozy, carpeted living room­. They were eating snacks and I set out the wine and beer and we were surrounded by JC Penny family portraits, and Easter gatherings, and graduations, and weddings. At the wake I drank and drank. 

The red-headed matronly middle aged church lady whom I had known since I was a kid, one of the liberal Episcopalian ministers, grabbed me and pressed me against her bosom, cooing in my ear Honey…pumpkin…pumpkin…darling…it’s not your fault…time, darling, time…it was time…darling.

 At first I resisted, but her words repeated over and over like a mantra finally broke down my defenses. 

That night, I drove out to the faceless apartment complexes in Carrboro where the woman I was seeing lived — I told her what had happened in a shruggy, matter-of-fact way, as if it was just a thing that was, as if I was unaffected. She was nice and kind but seemed kind of baffled as to why I had come. Then I think we made love and watched a movie.

When I got home early the next morning, the horror had doubled down. I killed my father and ran away to have sex and watch a movie on the very night he had died!

I was a bad person. A very bad person. 

My aunt had spent the night, she slept in bed with my mom in the spot where the plastic rose had been left. Over morning coffee, she took me aside, “I don’t want to tell your mother…but something strange happened in the middle of the night. I woke up with this feeling like there was a weight at the end of the bed, like someone was sitting on the edge. Sis, is that you, I asked in the darkness thinking it was your mother. But she was asleep. I even got up and looked around. Someone was there but no one was there. It spooked me so much, I can’t sleep in that bed anymore on account of it I think.”

A house where a person has died where the bereaved are still living is a haunted house. It holds a certain vibration, keeping the soul and the death. The frequency warbles and changes over time, affecting the feeling of the home for those that dwell there. Newcomers can sense whatever it happens to be, the grief, the longing, the day-to-day contentment that encases the grief and longing underneath, especially when the newcomer is alone there or has the knowledge that someone has died there.

Things have to be done. Things have to be sorted. There are the death-logistics. The world doesn’t stop. The world doesn’t care that you’re aggrieved. It continues to demand of you and tell you over and over again: You are just another one in the world. 

Just remember, you have to consume water and food and sleep and write checks and deal with bureaucracies until you are dead. 

This world is vulgar.

After everything was taken care of; after my mom had gone to the old 60s funeral home with a chimney in downtown Raleigh and identified the body, and wrote them a check; after I had gone out back of the funeral home and retrieved the ashes in a cardboard box with a typewritten name on top; after she informed the insurance companies and social security administration; after placing an obituary, getting control of the email, wrangling in and shutting down old bank accounts;

 After that was the funeral and internment of ashes at the Episcopal church, with a strange wind rustling through the pines. My mom gave a speech thanking everyone for coming and assured them that he loved all of them very much. Everyone had tears in their eyes and the teary eyes were looking at us. For a minute, I could see my family from the outside, we looked so small, so pitiable — the three of us, short, stubby, one in an electric wheelchair.

 I turned my face away — I didn’t want to be seen. I tried to stifle my tears but they coughed up out of me — like coffins coming up in a flooded graveyard — I wanted to hide back in the woods.

 The house seemed strangely empty and peaceful after. The mail continued to arrive, the name on the front always a shock, followed by anger, disbelief, annoyance at the sender. 

Back in the house — the old house where I had grown up and everything had happened — it took on a kind of aura, a sense of presence. My brother talked to 1-800 mediums and psychics. My brother sat in the living room at his folding table in the afternoons, watching his ghost hunter shows on TiVo. “Dad is still here, he’s watching over us,” he said. When I sat in the living room in front of the glowing old globe and the pictures of us all around and the old rugs, I felt it too.

 My mom said: “I know you feel the way I do — that we did something wrong. But we didn’t. You just can’t think like that. You just can’t think about it. We did what we were told to do.”

 At the entrance to the cluttered, chaotic little ranch-style house is a collection of ferns — the ferns from the funeral that my mother has kept alive — they spread like tentacles all over the floor. My mother has watered them dutifully, cared for them all these years. They have never died. Every time I come home, the plants have grown bigger and bigger, their spindles sprawling out, jungle-like, the wood PERGO floor underneath them rotting from the spilled dirt and millipedes. Has it already been five, ten, twenty years?  

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