A run and later a walk around the neck. The smell of freshly cut grass. A bobwhite with chestnut brown underside. The white underbands of a mockingbird. A catbird singing “like a parakeet,” as my mother would say. The two constants of this place-the birds and the soughing of wind through the leaves.
The Cape Cod evenings overwhelm me. This time of year is a blessing, a gift. The excess of nature-it has so much to give, to spare. Tomorrow, my father arrives. He’ll be far away from his doctors, the hospital here isn’t great, and this house wasn’t built for a sick man. Still, we’re all convinced that this is the right place for him to come.
At 4:45 a.m., I came sounding up from sleep. The rain was steady then. It continues. Sometimes a gentle layered tapping. Right now thick drops plopping on the tar shingles of the roof. A mourning dove’s hollow song cuts through the rain. The house, musty.
It’s still raining when they arrive at 3. I’ve been warned, but am shocked when I see him. The second round of chemo has been unkind. Thin and wrinkled, his neck strains forward like a mud turtle’s, and his blue eyes shine out against pale skin. Alone in the kitchen with my mother, she tells me a story. In the hospital a few days before, he had “bitched at” her in front of a nurse. As the nurse wheeled him away, she leaned over and said to my father, “You should be nicer to your daughter. She’s so understanding.”
Still, if he doesn’t look like my father, he sounds like him. He points at the weeds on the back patio with his cane: “We’ll pull those up tomorrow.” Then the cane shoots out toward the ivy: “We’ll rip some of that down, too.” I thought I’d gotten the house in great shape, but he lets me know otherwise. “We’ll fix it all up over the next months,” he says. “It’ll mean big, big bucks down the line.”
I become a day laborer. “Life is maintenance,” my father tells me. Maintenance is his dying theme, and he plays it fortissimo. I spend the morning cutting a lawn that has just been cut. I wonder if it wouldn’t be equally helpful to leave the mower running outside his window, soothing him with its song of labor. Signs of industry and organization reassure him. As if to die in a neat, well-trimmed house will make all the difference.
“Ready for your first inspection?” he asks. He comes out, points and jabs with the cane. “This should be yanked,” he says, gesturing at a clump of weeds. He limps over to the side of the house, where the trash waits to be picked up. “It looks like a goddamn trailer park,” he grouses.
Unable to control his cells, he tries to control what he can. Anything shaggy or overgrown is bad. It makes me want to own a house where I never cut the lawn, leaving it unkempt and spotted with thistle and dandelions. It would be no use. His ghost would sneak back and clip and prune in the middle of the night.
It’s unfortunate that dying won’t conform to his schedule. At least when he dies he’ll finally be “organized.” He knows I’ll be sure to weed his grave.
While I have some complaints about his style, I think he is remarkable. He rarely complains about the pain, works on selling his business and on his will-“getting things organized for your mother”-and loses himself in conversation as the endless parade of friends streams through the house. If he wants the weeds pulled, so be it.
Found a dead seal on the beach today. Its body was about 3 feet long, black, vaguely spotted. It had claws for toenails, and the whole carcass was entwined in brown-purple seaweed and yellow beach grass. The head, its flesh apparently chewed off, stared up at me. The vertebrae of the neck were completely exposed. I cringed when I first saw it, grabbing at my own neck to make sure everything was in place.
My mother looks frail, a word I never thought I’d use to describe her. Too many shocks, too many jolts. She hunches over her cigarettes. “She’s the only woman in the world who responds to her husband having lung cancer by starting to smoke again,” says my father.
I dream about her falling sick, too, but it’s a possibility I don’t even want to consider.
June 6 (National Cancer Survivor’s Day)
Last night Mom filled in more details about my father’s toxic reaction to the second round of chemo. The drugs poisoned his system, and he essentially went crazy for three days. His hospital room began to spin around, golf balls flew out of the television screen, extension cords slithered into figure eights, and gremlins communicated to him by pointing thumbtacks on the bulletin board in different directions. Unraveling his hospital blanket became his main goal. “I’ve got a good one here,” he’d say if he found a thread he could pull apart. Once, on the way back from the bathroom, he snuck his fingernail scissors out of his mess kit and hid them so he could cut into the blanket’s edge once he was alone. But his diabolical smile gave him away. “What did you do now?” my sister asked. Sheepishly, he showed her the scissors. As she took them away, he shrugged and smiled. “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said.
My sister was both terrified and hard pressed not to laugh. “He was tripping his brains out,” she told me over the phone.
My father laughs about this episode, too, but he must hate the thought of it. Of losing control. Of his mind, usually such a sharp and discerning machine, suddenly going haywire. “Nothing is private in the hospital,” he said in a trembly voice. “You lose all privacy and self-respect.”
Hiking up to Stone’s Bluff, I picture Lear raging on the heath during the storm. The comparison makes sense to me. Both men, kings of their worlds, had things “under control” from a young age. My father went to Harvard Business School and was president of his company by the time he was 30. What’s it like to have it all suddenly come undone? Like Lear, he’s had his cosmology unraveled. Not betrayed by daughters, but by cells.
By the end of the play, Lear, in jail with Cordelia, had learned gentleness and compassion through his trials. My father now speaks in a soft voice. The hair on the side of his head is so thin and light that you want to stroke it, take care of him. The lion is going out like a lamb. He seems so much gentler, so much more sympathizing and sympathetic.
Unfortunately, there is another similarity between his story and Lear’s. That would be the ending. And that ending angers me.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
I hear Lear rage in my head and then, walking along the bluff, take the opportunity to do some raging of my own. My anger is decidedly less articulate.
“Why?” I yell at the sickly green ocean. “Why the fuck?”
Melodramas call for the melodramatic. Yelling does some good.
Feeling jittery, overcaffeinated. Worried about sickness claiming the other members of my family, I can’t sleep. I take a night walk. Staring up at branches reflected against the front of the house, caught in the beam of the spotlight. Jagged cross-hatching. A reflection like barbed wire shaken by an unseen hand.
I walk up the street away from the house. An indigo sky swollen with clouds. Clouds dark and troubled at the center, white and clean along the edge….A strange map of an unknown country.
In the distance a sudden, jerky movement. I can barely make it out. It stands perfectly still, attempting to blend in with its surroundings. It’s tall, taller than a man, with a pale, almost luminescent face. I am terrified. Should I run away? Despite my fear, I move forward. Crouched, ready to fight, I angle in and, finally, make out the shape in the moonlight. I laugh out loud. I have met my enemy, and it is a street sign. There it stands, tall and white.
“No Parking This Side,” it says.
So many good friends. Many nights we eat at different friends’ homes, despite the fact he is so tired. Usually, he gets swept up in the festivity. Becomes animated, involved, telling funny anecdotes, invariably getting the biggest laughs of the evening.
Last night we ate at Heidi Schadt’s. She seems perfectly suited to dealing with the situation. People talk about not “knowing how to act” or what to do, and most people really don’t. Heidi knows. She knows people try to live as they have lived. That the nourishing things-food and drink and sleep and friends-are the most important. She brings by a bowl of potato salad, stocks us with toothpaste, detergent and Spray and Wash, helps clean the house. She knows we try to live day-to-day, knows we do this not because it says to in some self-help book about dealing with grief, but because it’s how we live anyway, all of us.
We had a fine dinner, punctuated with Heidi’s loud “HA-HA’s” and lots of wine. My father looked good.
The wind is constant. Rippling through the post oaks and pines. Moving through them all morning like waves. Here the wind actually whistles.
My life would make Robert Bly do cartwheels. In just a few short years I have lost my golden ball and now am losing my father. As for Bly’s movement, the idea of men sweating together and beating drums is trendily nauseating. An easier solution would be just to keep playing sports. Playing sports all these years has given me everything the men’s movement supposedly wants-an arena in which to be a hero, a group of male (and female) friends who sweat, talk, play and drink together. Intentionally or not, Bly has taken a real thing and made it seem cheesy. He’s done for “manhood” what McDonald’s did for hamburgers.
Still, he asks some valid questions. Like how do we live without fathers? Without someone to show us how to be?
This morning that someone looks like a prison camp survivor as he emerges from the bathroom. For a man who always took up so much space suddenly to be emaciated! His body is thin and freckled, very much a bag of bones.
I’m impressed that he still walks around the house in just his boxers. I admired his lack of self-consciousness when he was too fat, and I admire it now that he’s too thin. The rest of us-my mother included-are vain. The whole family fell to the fitness bug long ago. We worry about pinches of fat and take off our clothes in proportion to how good we feel about our bodies. I think it’s fair to say that I’m the most vain and like to strut around shirtless when I’m feeling strong. But my father struts, or lumbers, no matter his shape. It’s his house, and he will greet guests in boxers if he chooses.
And as his shape deteriorates, I work out fanatically. Fear is a wonderful motivator.
“Cancer books don’t sell,” an agent told me the other day. I wonder whether he’s right and, if so, why. There is the obvious answer that we don’t want to hear about it. But since one out of three families is affected, you’d think plenty of people would be curious. I think disease is the modern adventure, the one almost all of us face.
Another rainy morning, the smell of oil paint rising off my sister’s paintings. My father’s mania for order is contagious. Up here in my study I suddenly find myself making notes, checking boxes, planning.
He sits at his card table on the deck below me. He is leaning, sifting. He stacks empty beers for the recycling man, moving cans of Miller Lite delicately, as if they were chess pieces. As he works he breathes heavily, talks to the cans-“Come on, guys,” he says to the obstinate ones-sniffles and snorts. Whether he’s keeping himself alive or killing himself by doing these things is open to debate.
I see him try to drag a lawn chair across the porch. I jump up and run downstairs to help him.
Is this all there is in life? Is this what it’s all about?
Control. Is it as large an issue for everyone as we make it in our family? He is angry at his cancer. It’s not at all under his control. And so he needs to control what he can. Dishes in the right place, cans organized, etc.
“Writing is breaking the illusion of control.” This from the mother, a writer, of one of my students. Is it true? Or is writing also a way of putting things in their place? Metaphysically neatening up cans, organizing the unorganizable flux?
If not the content of writing, than certainly the routine helps give order and the illusion of control to my life. “Good habits are worth being fanatical about,” John Irving said. I must write every morning, like an athlete who must work out. I might not see my father again after this month, yet I resent the interruptions to my morning routine. How can I write when I’m constantly bringing him Pepsi, taking him Percocet, emptying the trash when he urgently wants it emptied, feeling guilty when I’m not near him? It sounds-it is-remarkably selfish, but I’m less of a person, less able to deal with him, if I don’t write first.
Last night more cancer dreams. Now everyone in my family has died at least once in my subconscious.
My father and I share a fascination with birds. I might know their names a little better, but take no greater delight.
This morning goldfinches, a brilliant scarlet tanager, a downy woodpecker and a drab female cardinal with a candy corn beak. I wish he could come to the beach with me one morning to see the swallows putting on their show. White bellies and split tails. Fluttering, swooping, then hanging in the wind. Yesterday I counted 26 of their holes on the top of the bluff.
Sometimes he enjoys watching birds in a purely sporting manner. He loves to see his cats stalk them. “In nature you only have to lose one step and-whommpf-someone gets you.” He shoots out his hand to demonstrate. He talks about an old cat of his, a great hunter, Mr. Kitty. He points to the three finches now hovering around the feeder.
“Mr. Kitty would have had all of them for lunch. Swipe-swipe-swipe.” He shoots his hand out three times.
The mining of joy. That would be a good line of work. Is it still possible to travel some of the same paths the romantics did? Why not? Our brains are the same. Not to experience God per se in an oak tree, but to experience something miraculous, delightful. To open up those pathways now considered the sole realm of drugs. To “go negative” as Whitman did. To resist, like Thoreau, following the same tired, tamped paths in the brain.
I remember the evening I spent at Walter Jackson Bate’s farmhouse in New Hampshire. I asked him if he believed in God.
“Oh, yes, I suppose,” he said. He pointed out through the plate glass window. Rain poured down hard on the flower beds, and mist rose above the hills. “I have to believe there is something behind such a miraculous world.”
His statement surprised me, but not as much as the adamancy of my own response.
“I can’t believe in heaven,” I said. “Heaven seems the worst case of wishful thinking. Like believing in Santa Claus.”
He looked at me carefully.
“I said I believed in a God who created the universe,” he said. “I never said I believed in the afterlife.”
I lie by the water, listening to its lapping, diving in for four or five swimming sessions. I let the third beer settle in my stomach, the sun burning my belly to a crisp. Today, in many ways, is the most beautiful yet. The temperature and low humidity are perfect. For my health, I take the waters. The sun cuts an angle straight toward me, and I dive into the bracing gold. I splash the salt on my face, listen to the waves’ gruff mantra. At times like these it seems as if the Cape is helping me deal with my father’s sickness. Like an old friend, helping me cope.
I’m taking a nap at the house when my parents return from the boat ride. My mother comes home first, and her sobbing wakes me. It’s a sound infrequently heard in this house. I go downstairs and hold her while she lets go.
“It’s just so awful, so awful,” she says as her body convulses. “It was so beautiful out on the bay. And we were there with our friends. It was just like it used to be. But it isn’t like it used to be. He’s so sick.”
She can’t stop, and when she goes to the bathroom I start to lose it. Until he walks in. Then I pull myself together, get him his little pillows, set him up in his chair.
Why is it that the only time I’m able really to feel is when my mother breaks down? Even then, I’m distant. Look at me now-writing in here as she continues to cry out on the back deck.
Why do you write?
I’ve heard so many pompous answers to that question. I write to be like my father. To get organized-to put things in their place.
My mother harasses him about taking his afternoon nap. “I’ll have plenty of time to rest soon enough,” he barks, then lets go with a low, loud chortle.
As they head out to see the plots at the Quivet cemetery, he yells, “We’re off to see the final resting place, David.” I hear his trailing laughter as the door slams.
I was the same way with my cancer. The fact that it hit me in the balls was all the more reason to joke. But I don’t feel like laughing anymore. My father ages before my eyes. I witness the slow, elderly movements, the methodical double-checking, the painful wincing. Later in the day he’s an old white spider bent over his bed, sitting there without moving, just thinking. But thinking about what?
A low line of blue-gray clouds moves quickly from left to right. A smaller, whiter group-all bunched up-floats higher and more slowly in the opposite direction. The two groups create a dying, shifting light. The post oak is illuminated-radiant.
Today my mother looks exhausted, at times almost haggard. Strange to see this endlessly optimistic and energetic person so drained. Still, I know she will boost herself back up soon. She needs to help him.
How much human beings must put up with.
My parents will leave in a couple of days. I keep waiting for a wrap-up speech from him, expecting him to tell me the meaning of life. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew it. But despite his aggressive nature, he’s never really been big on counseling me. My whole life, I’ve rebelled against imagined advice.
About as close as he comes to a wrap-up is telling me not to misplace his tools while he’s gone. “You leave something one way, you want to find it that way,” he says. “Someday you’ll understand.”
From Tom Clark’s biography of Charles Olson:
Reading Pound’s prose, he [Olson] felt at once challenged, intimidated, provoked and awed. In his journals, Pound had already become a principal sparring partner, pervading his mind with a shadow presence that went well beyond mere influence. “Should you not best him?” he goaded himself. “Is this form not inevitable enough to be used as your own? Let yourself be derivative for a bit. …Write as the fathers to be the father.”
This morning my mother chastised him when he tried to empty the trash.
“I’m keeping my mind occupied,” he snapped.
Lounging in the hammock, I watch the chickadees at the feeder. We gave the hammock to my father five years ago, for his 52nd birthday. I’ve watched him sand it, paint it (with two coats, of course), assemble it, disassemble it, drag it down to the cellar to store for winter, drag it back up for summer. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lie in it.
Still, I think it was a fine gift, occupying his mind as it did.
Dickie Buck now owns a limousine service. He’s offered to give my a father a ride to Logan for free, doorway to doorway. This is typical of the way our friends and acquaintances have rallied round him. It reminds me a bit of the communal spirit on the Cape when hurricanes threaten. Everyone nailing up plywood, helping pull each other’s boats, rushing about in the general sense of panic and, yes, excitement. These were the most exciting times here when I was a kid. Sneaking down to the beach to watch the storm sweep in. Jumping off the dunes with my coat open and actually flying for a few short feet.
When he left I tried to be affectionate. I squeezed his shoulder as I said goodbye and accidentally pinched his cancerous lymph node. He winced and cried out in pain. “Jesus,” he yelled.
Sunlight ripples off smooth humps of water. The ocean is even warmer after the storm. The beach is strewn with weeds, jellyfish, clumps of kelp. Seagulls bark like marine sergeants.
Rode my bike out to Paine’s Creek. Parked at the landing and ogled a young brunette in a black leotard and purple cut-offs. Swam in the little cove-the water bathtub warm. The backs of mating horseshoe crabs were covered with periwinkles, barnacles, green sea grass. Are there crustier characters anywhere?
It’s time for me to leave this house. I have lived in my father’s house for too long.
Today all the lines and cleats, everything that isn’t tied down, are dinging against the masts and flagpoles. Another sound, which I can’t place, comes from the harbor. A sound like the shaking of a huge aluminum sheet.
I walk down to the harbor, then toward the beach. Black, wet phone lines bounce up and down, and the gray phone box sizzles. At the beach, debris has been kicked up by the storm. Clumps of beach stalks and hundreds of black skate eggs. Horseshoe crab shells-brown, black and one golden-brown-crunch underfoot. A blue-capped milk carton, an empty bag of cottage fries and a can of motor oil under the sea stairs.
On the way home I pass the plywood husk of a new house. Piles of red cedar shingles, stacked in large bundles by the front door, smell good enough to eat. They vary in size: Some are only about half a hand’s span wide, others-the ones that my old boss Gus called “bedsheets”-seem to cover whole walls. I’ve both stapled and nailed shingles. Either way, they’re attached to a house in an uneven pattern, overlapped like bricks. The edges of the row on top are never allowed to line up with the edges of the row below, otherwise water would seep in. Today the shingles are an orange-gold, but, after a few years of the wind’s brackish assault, they will darken and take on their strange gray character.
My walks keep me sane.
July 2 (Dad’s birthday)
“Death is a matter of style,” said Antole Broyard. I wouldn’t choose my father’s style; I define myself against him. At times he lives as if pruning were the highest function of being human. Life is mowing and fixing and scraping and planning, planning, planning. Yet there is something tremendously heroic about all this. He continues to fight his fight in the face of death.
And, of course, all this fussing can’t hide how much he cares about all of us. “To my family,” he toasted the night before he left. “Who could ask for more?” He broke down and couldn’t stop crying.
The letters of appreciation keep pouring in. Sarah, the ex-mayor of Worcester, writes:
…You were the dearest and closest friend that Gavin and I had in our marriage….Your irascibility is only exceeded by your desire for no one to know what a teddy bear you can be. Your caustic sense of humor is only exceeded by your thoughtful concern for your friends-to the point of unilaterally finding solutions to others’ problems. You are the epitome of a fun-loving genius. You are a tender and treasured friend and always will be.
I wrote my own letter to him for his birthday. In it I detailed all the gifts he has given me-gifts of persistence, delight, humor, concern.
How do we live in the face of death? Broyard was still writing “Intoxicated by my Illness” when he died. In it he quotes Brunner’s “The Denial of Death.” The way to fight death is “by becoming so insistently ourselves.” Certainly my father has done this and, by doing so, has provided me with a role model for both living and dying. The lesson he teaches me is not to be like him, but to be insistently like myself.
To be heroic is our deepest wish. I feel a sharp pain in my shoulders and fear my own death again; cancer is closing in like the tide. Probably this is hypochondria. Or paranoia. No matter. The solution is the same either way. To live heroically. How? It means different things for different people. For me, it means to throw myself into writing. To love my friends and family. To keep strong physically and live like an athlete. To have some physical connection to place.
And to live this way insistently.
* David Gessner is a writer, cartoonist and illustrator who lives in Boulder, Colo. His book of essays and drawings entitled “A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod” (University Press of New England) is due out next spring.