The air was cold, a sign of the bleak seasons to come. The wind had a chill to it, one that passed through my thin autumn jacket, exposing me, leaving me cold with the bitter taste of vulnerability on my tongue. The jacket was an old one, one my dad had purchased for a long forgotten birthday years past. I clung to it, clinging to the sense of normality and comfort that it provided. It was a folly. Nothing brought me comfort these days. The hyperventilating breaths of frosty air, and the fresh tears making their way down my face were barely an indicator for the turmoil I felt inside.
It happened too fast; almost as if i blinked, and everything i had before was overturned, disrupted, and never to be the same. I sat down on the rotting corpse of what was left of a bench, wincing at the acute pain from the splinters poking through the back of my jacket, digging into my soft flesh. I sag into the wood, the reality sinking in, this was it. I was really alone this time. I reach into my pocket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. I feel the texture of the box in an attempt to ground myself. Slowly, I pull out a cigarette, reaching into my pocket again for the lighter. As I strike the lighter, the bright yellow-orange flame engulfs the end of the tobacco, turning it to a soft orange glow of embers. I methodically inhale to feel the acute discomfort for which I have longed. Eventually, I exhale. It’s hard to say why or when I started this toxic habit, the irony of it is almost laughable. Here I am, smoking a cigarette, doing the one thing that took his spirit, his last breath.
I suppose it began with me sitting down with a friend. I was distraught and unable to calm down, not unusual for me these days. I asked her for advice, yet the little information she gave did not satisfy my need for closure. Finally, after about a half hour of this, she pulled a pack of cigs out of her back pocket of the side of her jeans closest to me. Then pulled one out, lighting and taking a drag. I watched her for some time before she offered me one. At that moment, I wasn't sure what came over me; except that I just didn’t care anymore. I needed to feel. I slowly took the cigarette out of her hand, feeling almost a sense of remorse for the damage I knew I was about to do. Yet, that was merely a transient feeling, overshadowed by the need to feel, the need for this numbness to go away. It did, even if only for a little while.
It was getting colder and I could feel the wind begin to drop in temperature. I welcomed the cold temperatures, knowing that none of it mattered. I was untouchable. I had nothing left to lose. I remember the exact day that began this downward spiral. This manipulation of my emotions from an unseen cause I couldn't fix. It was simple. My dad was scheduled to have his appointment at the hospital for his bronchitis followup and then we were to go out to lunch. He was originally supposed to meet me at the diner, but plans changed. Everything changed.
10:11 am. He should be back by now, it was bronchitis. It wasn’t usual for an appointment like this to take hours and it certainly wasn’t like him to miss several calls. I sighed, attempting to quell my growing concern. It was well into the afternoon, long past lunchtime. I sat down by the window, pressing myself against the glass. The rain was pouring down heavily in sheets. It was so loud against the roof, you almost missed the thunderous clouds booming above. The roads were covered with rain water and nearly every car that passed by my apartment hydroplaned. I stood up after a few more minutes and began to pace along the floor. It was a hardwood floor, cold against my feet, and it sent a chill through my body. The decor was cheap. Living in the city was much more expensive than I had previously anticipated. Most of the furniture was used, the couch had been free from a yardsale. It seemed mismatched by anyone else’s standards, but to me it was home.
It took another half an hour before I heard keys jingle at the door. It took all of my newfound adult self-control not to pounce on my dad. I settled on giving him a quick hug before pulling away to take a good look at him. He looked exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he looked at his wits end. For a second, I stood with my mouth agape, not quite sure what to say. I had never seen my dad this frazzled before and it scared me. That wasn’t half as bad as when he opened his mouth. The word he spoke acting as a poison, flowing from his mouth and attacking my brain. Never would I have associated this word with my father. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn't even think. My dad, my rock, couldn't have Cancer.
My dad and I had always been close, ever since my mom died when I was 7. I don't remember her much. The only constant in my life has been my dad. He came to every school award ceremony, was always cheering me on at every softball game, helped me with my homework, and was there the entire time helping me get into the university of my choice. He made sure I never needed a thing. He was always there for me, and I suppose his unwavering support was something I took for granted. I never thought of the fact that it might not always be there. That he might not always be there.
It was hard at first, getting used to the chemo, the sickness, how frail he had become. It was hard watching him on oxygen, barely able to talk, and too weak to move. I tried to stay strong for him. I tried to be there. For the first while, I spent every day with him in the hospital that I could, always crying myself to sleep. Unconsciously and unintentionally, I began to distance myself from him. I couldn’t watch him go through this. I couldn't be that person. I realized this when his beautiful brown hair started coming out in clumps. He was too young to be bald. 56 is too young to be bald. It’s too soon. It’s too soon for him to die. I suppose that's the point though. Life was never fair. You just have to make the best of what you have before it’s too late.
Eventually, when my dad became less aware, I stopped visiting. I couldn’t take the sickness, the confusion. I couldn't watch him slowly deteriorate and die an agonizingly slow death. I knew I should be there for him and that if it was me in there, he would never have left my side. The guilt was tearing me apart, eating me alive. I just couldn’t go back. I needed a distraction, so I threw myself into work with a fervor like never before. My co-workers tried to lessen my work load, they made me food, invited me out to dinner with them, yet I would never accept. Why should I be happy? What did I have to be happy about? I felt powerless. I would die for my dad in a heartbeat. Yet this was something I couldn't fix, something that I couldn't save him from. I still remember the last visit I had with him. I remembered the last words he spoke to me forever burned into my psyche.
We had been bickering all day, and tensions were only rising. My dad knew what I was doing, and I had never seen him that angry before. Watching him grow sicker and sicker had only strengthened my unconscious resolve that I couldn't be around. Watching him lean on a nurse for help to his bed after another chemo round, it made me sick to my stomach. I began to gather my stuff from the various places around the room, tears slipping down my nose, into my mouth, their saltiness making me wince. Looking sadly at me, my dad asked hesitantly, almost as if the answer I would supply was going to disappoint him, as if I was going to make him cry:
“Where are you going?”
The question didn’t phase me, it only made it harder for me to hold in the sobs. I turned around, looking him in the eyes, and only saw sadness. When a single tear fell down his cheek, it took all I had not to scream. I refused to turn back around, not acknowledging a word spoken to me. I picked up my bag, and without looking behind me, I left. However, not before i caught my father’s parting thoughts:
“You’ve made this a life well lived. No matter what they say, this is the hardest part.”
The words were spoken so softly and with such devastation I almost didn’t catch them. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he meant saying goodbye to me.
It had been weeks since I had even last heard from the hospital, and I pretended it was a good thing, even though the growing pit in my stomach told me it was anything but. I was sitting at my desk when my boss pulled me aside, asking me to step into his office. I could feel that something was wrong, yet I did not know what. Was I getting fired? He stayed silent for a few moments, before clearing his throat. I was not prepared for what he was about to say. He told me it was my dad, that it was critical. He told me at some point i could have off some time, but by that point i was gathering my stuff, and barely heard a word he said.
I broke nearly every speed limit on my way to the hospital, then waited in the waiting room for nearly an hour to get the chance to speak with my father’s doctor, hoping he might assuage my concerns. The doctor did anything but. He was unconscious, and on life support. He was dying. I choked on my breath, and as soon as I was done talking to the doctor, walked directly out of the hospital. It’s been nearly 20 minutes now, and i know it’s time to say goodbye. I waited too long. It was too late to fix this, but he at least deserved a goodbye. My rock, my protector, my best friend, and my dad.
Shivering, I got up from the bench, not even bothering to stretch. What was the point? I was alone now, alone and powerless to fix my mistakes. I waited too long, and now I can never tell my dad I loved him. I can only hope he knows. He’ll be with mom now. I walk through the automatic doors, scuffing my shoes on the dirty tile floor of the waiting room. I wait in line for the elevator, trying to ignore the woman standing next to me attempting to make polite conversation. I just cannot bear to contain my grief. I wait until I hear the ding for my floor, then exit the elevator. I walk to his room, knowing this is it. This is my final goodbye. I slip into his room, and sit on the hard plastic chair next to his bedside. I grab his hand, feeling how cold and limp it is already. There are a million things I wish I could say to him, but nothing fits. Nothing makes sense. Nothing i could say could possibly describe how sorry i am. Nothing can even begin to describe how much I love him. I sit there for a long time just holding his hand, staring at his face.
I gently kiss his hand, before laying it back on the hospital bed. I lean back into the hard plastic chair for a few moments, before finally standing up. I lean down next to his ear and whisper my final words to him.
“I love you daddy”