Content warning: Cancer, language, and death.
Dad begs to be cremated but Aldon won't hear of it. Never mind that he's saying this at the table right in front of our old man, or that he has less money than the rest of us to spend on a casket and burial plot. As the oldest son, he thinks whatever he says goes.
"It's not right, being cremated," he tells us. He's got this look on his face like Dad just asked him to eat some roadkill. "It's just not right. And besides, you should want to be next to Mom. Did you forget we buried her too?"
Dad grapples with the lighter in his sandpaper hands. It takes him a few tries before he procures a flame. "And I'm still regretting it," he says, sparking to life the cigarette that's dangling from his mouth. "Worst mistake of my life." This, even though his lungs are black as the ace of spades. Even though the cancer has started to metastasize and he's stopped attending his chemotherapy.
"You can't mean that," Aldon replies, and he and Grover and I watch our father exhale Marlboro smoke in perfect gray rings.
"And why not?" Dad takes another drag. His eyes close in the way they do when he's about to dispense his wisdom. Smoke wafts around him in a cloud when he speaks, makes him look like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. "Let me tell you boys something. Love ain't blind, grief is. Hell, if I'd've known how much all that stuff was gonna cost, how much of a toll it'd take, we would've cremated her too."
Grover shifts in his seat. He's been attending Nicotine Anonymous for about a month now, ever since Dad informed us of his Stage 4 diagnosis. You wouldn't know it though, not from the way he traces the cigarette's every movement, or how he leans forward whenever one of Dad's smoke rings appears. He bites down on a dirty fingernail, his new bad habit, and says, "Don't talk like that, Dad." As the youngest son, he's used to getting what he wants.
"What? I'm just talking." Dad shrugs and turns to me. We all know this is just for show. As the middle son, my opinion is irrelevant. "Might as well get in all the words that I can while I'm still around."
"Dad, please," Grover pleads. For a moment he is ten years old again instead of thirty, a scared child asking his father not to shut off the nightlight, to stay with him a while longer.
Dad called this morning and asked each of us to come over, said he had some important news to disclose. I drove first to Aldon's house—his truck is in the shop again—and then we picked up Grover, who still doesn't have his license. The December air was cool, and little flakes of snow started to come down as we pulled into the driveway. When my brothers and I piled out of my van and stumbled into Dad's house, the first thing he said was, "Doctor gave me 'bout a month," and then we all just stood there listening to the tick-tock of his grandfather clock.
Aldon stands now and starts rummaging through one of the kitchen cabinets. He returns to the table carrying three glasses and a bottle of Jim Beam. "You should really get a better hiding spot," he says, jiggling the bottle. He pours a shot of whiskey for me and Dad and Grover, keeps the bottle for himself.
"How 'bout I just leave you that bottle in the will?" Dad retorts, and Aldon drinks to that.
"I'll look into setting things up with the cemetery this week," he says. "See if they still have a spot close to Mom that we can reserve. Soon as I do that, you're free to leave me whatever you want."
Dad takes a breath. It looks like he's about to argue but then he starts coughing, a noise like thunder. The wheezing rattles his body. He hunches over, one fist clenched tightly in front of his mouth, the upshot of five decades of smoking. The sound floods the room. My own throat starts to tighten. Grover pushes his glass of whiskey in front of Dad, begging him to take a drink, to help himself. Aldon takes a long swig of Jim Beam.
A full minute passes before Dad recovers. He breathes deeply, massages his chest with one hand. Gulps his own whiskey shot, downs Grover's, then silently returns to his stubby cigarette. He is alive.
Outside, the neighbor's dog barks. An ambulance whizzes by, sirens whooping, and paints our blue and red shadows across the kitchen walls. But inside the house we are quiet. We listen to the world pass by, listen to the sound of one another's breathing.
I clear my throat. "You really don't want to be buried?" I ask, my first words since we arrived. My body is turned toward my father but I'm looking out the picture window behind him, watching the hood of my car slowly collect snow, seeing the tiny flakes grow into something big and distinguishable.
"No." One word, one syllable, no explanation.
And as our father, that is all he needs to say. He gives the cigarette one final puff. Then he grinds the butt in his ashtray to show he means business.
On the drive home Aldon and Grover and I made a pact. We agreed to visit Dad a few times each week, check in on him, help around the house. Little things like that. And we do, for the most part. Sometimes Aldon has to stay late at his motel job, and sometimes neither of us are available to give Grover a ride, but mostly we keep up our ends of the bargain. We wear our devotion to our father like a badge of honor.
Today is exactly one month after that conversation in Dad's kitchen, a Sunday, which means it's my turn. January isn't any warmer than December, but it's not snowing this time when I park in the driveway. I grab the grocery bag from the passenger seat, look to see if everything is still there—toilet paper, a week's worth of microwave meals, and five packs of Marlboro Reds. Check. The front door is unlocked when I try the handle.
"Just gimme the cigarettes and leave the rest anyplace," Dad says when he sees me. He's in his usual spot, sprawled on his La-Z-Boy recliner, tilted so far back he's almost horizontal. His feet are up on the coffee table, dangerously close to the cigarette butt that's still smoldering in the ashtray.
I hand him a carton. Then he looks at me and says, "All of 'em," so I give him what he wants. A pang of guilt courses through my body as I fish out the fifth one, damp from the thawing TV dinners.
Last Sunday he showed me the X-rays. His lungs looked like two big sandbags, charcoal black except for a large grayish lump in the left one, the cancer. I flipped through the pictures, my throat dry and my hands shaky, while he sat in his chair, blowing smoke up to the ceiling. I didn't tell him what I actually thought, how seeing that stuff made my stomach feel like quicksand, how I wasn't ready for him to leave us yet.
That's what I'm thinking about when Dad says, "I showed 'em, didn't I, Buddy? The doctors, I mean." He's got this big goofy grin on his face, only it doesn't quite reach his eyes. Without waiting for my response, he adds, "Been over a month and I still ain't kicked the bucket yet. To hell with them and their chemo. Who needs it?"
I could act like Grover and beg him not to talk like that. I could act like Aldon and change the subject. Instead I choose to act like myself and say nothing. The plastic bag in my hand feels heavier than it did a minute ago, so I head to the kitchen and start stuffing vegetables and lasagnas and pot pies in the freezer. I'm still standing there playing Refrigerator Tetris when Dad calls my name. "Whenever you got the time," he says, which really means right now.
Except for the grandfather clock the living room is silent. My father lifts a pack of cigarettes from the armrest like he's giving a toast, gestures to the couch. "Sit down, son. Let me get a good look at you."
The leather couch sticks to my skin like Velcro when I flop down. The two of us inspect each other like we're appraisers on Antiques Roadshow searching for treasure in a mountain of junk. He looks paler than he did last week. There is a red stain on his shirt. I'm thankful that I'm not the only one with dark circles under their eyes. As if reading my mind, he chuckles and says, "You look like hell." This, even though he has lost all his weight and his hair in the past year. Even though he looks nothing like the man in the photos on the mantelpiece.
"Back atcha," I reply, and from the way he smiles I can tell he takes it as a compliment, a testament to his hardships.
"Ah, but which one of us went through chemo?" He wags his fingers, all too eager to one-up me. "Which one of us is living on borrowed time? Which one of us could die tomorrow? Riddle me that."
I sense the smile leaving my face, sense the levity leaving our conversation. What a feeling, to be reminded that your father isn't invincible. I wouldn't wish it on anybody.
Dad grabs a cigarette pack and smacks it against his palm, once, twice, so many times I lose count. The noise is maddening. "Well, Buddy?" he says in between blows, his voice oozing bravado. "What about it? You ain't got nothing left to say to your old man before he dies?"
The sentence leaves my mouth before I can stop myself. "You could've had more time if you didn't stop going to chemo, you know." And even I can hear the accusation in my voice.
My father smacks the pack one last time. The noise is an exclamation point, accentuating my words. Numbness creeps through my body. Somehow I just reached into my magic hat and pulled out his smile, his bravado, his invincibility. The expression on his face now could break my heart if I looked long enough.
It takes me a moment to find my voice. "I didn't mean it like that," I tell him, like there's another way to mean what I said. My face is on fire. "You know I didn't mean it like that."
"You don't understand." The words come out slow, deliberate. He shakes his head and grasps the recliner's armrests, muscles tense. I repeat the three words in my mind, try to decipher their tone, come up short. Dad says, "You don't get it at all, do you? I just couldn't do chemo anymore. I couldn't take one more goddamn minute."
He attempts to sit up straight, manages to get almost halfway to a comfortable position, but then he winces and gives a low groan and slumps back down. He doesn't reply when I ask if he wants any help.
"It was killing me, Bud. I've never felt so weak in my life," he tells me, tilting his head down so he's looking in my direction instead of at the ceiling. "And the side effects, the nausea and fatigue and the pain every day. Even now. A month and a half since my last treatment and I still feel like I'm someone else."
"I didn't know, Dad."
"Do you know Aldon came over yesterday and I couldn't even remember his name half the time he was here? My own son, for Chrissake!"
I do not correct him, do not tell him that Saturday visits belong to Grover. "I didn't know, Dad."
My father is a tornado now, unstoppable. "Do you think I choose to spend every second in this recliner? You think I like not being able to cook my own meals and do my own laundry? You think I enjoy needing you boys for every little thing? It's downright fucking embarrassing." His voice catches in the middle of 'embarrassing,' makes the word sound foreign and daunting.
And when he puts his head in his hands, I feel something inside of me shatter. It occurs to me how easy it is to open a Pandora's box, and also how difficult it is to stop yourself from doing it. "I'm sorry," and I say it again and again until it's the only sound in the world.
Outside, the sun is setting. Color fades from the room, from my father's face. I don't want our night to end like this. I'm desperate to mend fences. So I say the first thing that comes to me, the same question I asked a month ago: "You really don't want to be buried? You meant that?"
"Yes." One word, one syllable, no explanation.
"But why?" My voice comes out whinier than intended. "Aldon said he's almost done getting everything set up with the cemetery."
"You wanna know why?" my father asks. Digging his nails into the armrest, he tries once more to lift himself. Pain contorts his face as he raises his body with his gaunt arms. It takes almost a minute but then he is upright and looking me straight in the eye.
"Because I can't do anything on my own anymore." And maybe I look confused because he adds, quietly, "I'm already putting you boys through enough hell, I know that. Don't think I don't know that. There's no reason to take up any more space in your lives when I'm gone. I want you to stop worrying about me. Just burn me and be done with it. Please. Just give your old man that much."
We stay like that for a while, staring at each other as the room grows dark. The clock behind Dad tick-tocks to the rhythm of our heartbeats. And it's true: Later, when I'm getting ready to head home, when my father is asleep in his recliner, I glance at the ashtray on the coffee table, overflowing with discarded tobacco ash, and a thought crosses my mind: That could be him.
Grover is the one who finds him two days later, kicked back in his La-Z-Boy, eyes closed like he's ready to dispense some wisdom. Only he doesn't have the breath to do it anymore. Grover calls Aldon first, even though I was the one who drove him to the house and was still waiting outside in the driveway. I try not to let that get to me.
Aldon takes off early from the motel. When he pulls up to the curb we walk inside together. Grover is sitting on the floor beside the recliner, holding Dad's hand. His smooth face is slick with tears. He says, "I'm sorry." For what we don't know, but we understand and we apologize too.
Sighing, Aldon sinks into the couch and rubs the bridge of his nose. He is turning forty next week but in the dim twilight he looks much older. There is a patch of gray in his hair that I've never noticed before, wrinkles that come and go like a magic trick. He tells us that we will have to call 911 soon to get the paramedics out here so they can whisk our father's body away. Grover protests, but Aldon is not Dad; he is our brother, the oldest son, and whatever he says goes. He excuses himself to make a phone call, slipping out the door into the January evening and leaving a rush of cool air in his wake.
"I'm sorry," Grover says again. Whether he's talking to me or to Dad, I can't be sure. But he looks peaceful, my father, our father. He's not quite smiling, but he doesn't look like he's in pain now.
And before I know it I feel myself walking across the room to the coffee table by the recliner. Grover asks what I'm up to. Bending down, I grab Dad's metal ashtray, filled to the brim with dead cigarettes. Then I go into the kitchen and dump it, the butts, the tobacco ash, the residue. It hits the bottom of the trash can with a satisfying thud. I blow on the metal until my reflection appears. Then I put the thing back where I found it.
The front door opens. "You guys," Aldon says, taking the cell phone from his ear and covering it with his hand. "I've got the man from the cemetery on the phone. Do you two have any questions for him while we're here?"
We are quiet.
Grover hesitates, bites his nail, shakes his head no.
I take a moment to make my decision. I don't have any questions for the man either, but I nod my head and hold out my hand. Aldon willingly drops the phone in my ashy palm, watches as I make my way to the door. The air feels warm around me. With each step I imagine the man's shocked voice on the other end of the line as I tell him that, unfortunately, we've changed our minds, that we've decided to have our father cremated after all. I will apologize for wasting his time. I will explain to him how grief makes us blind. And for the first time today I can't help but smile as I grip the phone tighter, turn the doorknob, and step out into the night.