“Scared,” my dad croaks, pointing painstakingly at me, then my brother, then my mom.
It’s an understatement.
We’ve summoned his personal physician to our home today to hopefully deny, but probably confirm, our suspicions: The cancer has gone to his brain.
We hold our collective breath as the doctor asks my father, “Who is the President of the United States?”
An underwater, foggy pause. Finally, Dad replies, “Reagan.”
The three healthy people in the room exhale a sigh of relief. He got it right! This must count for something, we think. A small shred of hope still inhabits the homey little den we’re all crowded into. Our prayers, crossed fingers, and wishes on stars and eyelashes might yet magically release him from cancer’s insidious clutches.
My dad is only fifty-two on this day. I am twenty-four, though, so both he and the non-descript middle-aged male doctor seem something close to old to me. Not old old, sitting in a rocking chair waiting to die old, but old enough to have really lived, to have really made it count. I hold on to this thought, stroke it for comfort inside my head like a beloved baby blanket. Even if Dad doesn’t beat this thing in the end, at least he made it far enough to look back and know he lived a long and satisfying life.
Today, at fifty, this notion seems ridiculous. My father was not old then, just as I am not old now. Not nearly old enough to die willingly, anyway, or to feel as though everything that needed accomplishing had been accomplished.
“Do you know what year it is?” the doctor gently inquires.
Such a simple question, yet another torturous gap between the asking and the answering.
It sounds as if Dad is guessing, but guess what? He’s right again. So maybe it’s just his meds messing with his brain, I think, not horribly out-of-control cells forming tumors obliterating his very essence. Given the chance, I am willing to believe anything other than he is dying right in front of me in our shabby, tiny family room.
One final query from Dr. Why-the-Hell-is-He-Here-When-We-Could’ve-Figured-This-Out-Ourselves? “Do you know why I’m asking you these questions?”
“Scared,” Dad says, pointing a bony, shaky finger at us.
Though it has been mere months since he was diagnosed with lung cancer, by now my father is a frightening caricature of his former self, a Tim Burton-esque cartoon of a man. His face, garishly swollen from all the steroids; his normally diminutive five-foot-three personhood shrunken down to what seems like Lilliputian proportions from the chemo.
In his healthier days, we teased Dad that he looked exactly like a smiling Buddha, all cheeks and belly and laughter and light. My brother Tom, two years my senior, even bought Dad a statue of his Buddha twin this past Christmas.
But now it’s April, and he looks nothing like the statue. Now, he looks like he’s been vacationing at Auschwitz from the neck down. From the neck up, a macabre oversized balloon. The two parts don’t equal a normal whole.
Nothing about this situation is normal. This isn’t my normal dad. His brain isn’t his brain anymore. His body isn’t his body.
The drugs have failed to help him.
Our love has failed to heal him.
Nothing is going to save him.
The rickety legs of the couch Dad always liked to nap on—both when he was healthy and now that he is so sick—creak under the weight of what we can no longer deny: This isn’t going to end well.
The threadbare, itchy plaid cushions shred some more, waving a surrender flag to the enemy: We give up. War is over. Cancer wins.
His undergraduate and graduate diplomas hanging on the fake wood paneled wall give him a tearful shake of a tassle: Goodbye, buddy. You were one of the best and brightest.
Only the low-pile industrial red- and black-flecked carpet stands firm. A good soldier never shows fear, even in the face of insurmountable challenges.
“Scared,” my dad says, pointing a knowing finger at us.
Hell yes, we’re scared, even though much of the horror has already happened. Lungs burned. Body stripped. Mind ransacked. We’re just waiting for that one final shoe to drop. One final word spoken. One last breath taken.
Before he got stuck inside his head a few days back, my dad was scared, too. He’d admitted to me as much. And who wouldn’t be, with a death sentence dangling in the not-so-distant future? Not knowing how long was left, but knowing whatever it was wasn’t long enough?
But now, as he utters the word scared, it’s clear he’s more worried about us being worried about him than he is worrying about himself. I figured then he probably had so little conscious thought left that fear as a concept didn’t exist anymore; I see now, as a parent, how he was battling and scraping against his tumor-infested brain to get one single word out. Not “I’m scared,” but rather, “My wife and daughter and son are scared and I want to spare them their fear.”
He was sacrificing himself for us. He would stand tall so we wouldn’t have to fall short in the face of family tragedy.
I often tell my daughters I would jump in front of a moving train to save them from harm, and I mean every word of it. I would do it without thinking twice and without looking back. I would give my life for theirs in any instant, any moment necessary.
“Scared,” my dad says, pointing a cancer-ridden finger at us, beseeching us with those soft, cornflower blue eyes that always played so nicely off his midnight black hair. Chemo, of course, has taken away his hair. His eyes are the same as always, though; probably the only thing left unscathed by that bastard cancer.
In this moment, his eyes say, “I’m sorry.”
Pray, “Don’t hate me for leaving you.”
Admit, “I wish I could be there for your weddings. The birth of your kids. Retiring with mom. Everything I’ll miss.”
Insist, “You’ll all be fine. You have to be. I’ve given everything I have to give.”
Yet all he can actually voice is scared.
It is the last word—last coherent word—I ever remember him saying.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I tell him, taking his hand and trying desperately to display as much grace and acceptance as he is in this instant. Trying to stand firm and strong like the carpet in our shitty shabby tiny tattered fucking family room, not fall apart like his sobbing diplomas.
Trish is the author of four young adult novels, including Notes from the Blender and A Really Awesome Mess, and a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Graham School program in Creative Nonfiction. In her spare time, she rows with a masters crew, most recently competing in Masters Nationals and the Head of the Charles Regatta. She dreams of being on The Amazing Race, but the closest she has ever come was being chosen as a finalist for casting on I Survived a Japanese Game Show (and unfortunately did not survive that last casting cut). You can visit trish at www.trishcook.com and www.instagram.com/instafromthe80s