Dying is usually thought of an instant, a moment in time, when a being tips over some unseen edge from warm familiar life into a journey that must remain opaque to those of us left still waiting in line. There…there…and just now, not. Sometimes death is exactly that, all too quick. Wars harvest little instant deaths by the dozen; highways do the same, though in incidents far enough from each other that we find them less immediately horrifying.
My father’s death took 468 days. He was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer on January 30th, 2010, and died a year and some months later, on May 18th, 2011. Metastatic lung cancer can have many causes, but by far the most common, and the most likely, were the cigarettes that my father smoked nearly every day of his life from age 15. He tried many times to quit; and even though he was profoundly stubborn and willful, the craving for cigarettes broke his will every time.
I did talk about it somewhat as the year went along, to friends, family and debaters. But there’s a quiet fog that wraps itself around you that no words actually come through. There’s a pale mood that cannot be spoken. You find others who have been touched this way; others who watched or were watching a loved one die. When you meet, you say no words, you just simply identify yourself, and then stare for a while. Both of you know there’s nothing to say; both of you know it helps to feel less alone.
But usually you’re a lonely ambassador, speaking a different dialect: you don’t want to impose your grief on everyone else, but it’s always there and you can’t always hide it. You don’t want to hide behind it as an excuse for every flaky moment, every outburst, every time you let slip the mask you keep around the parts of life you declare normal. But it is the excuse, it is the reason, and you don’t care enough to lie, either.
You find each moment tinged with guilt; guilt that you’re not there in some way for your parent, that you’re not doing the right thing, that you could somehow be a better son in the last months left you will be a son. You find each moment tinged with grief, wondering what it’ll be like when he’s well and truly gone, when you have the last sequence of last moments with him — the last meal, the last hug, the last word. The last gift. You don’t know which will be the last, but only that it grows closer and closer, and you worry that you’ll botch it, and be left carrying it forever, without possible apology or amends.
For four hundred and sixty eight days, life was about a series of endings, of things you’ll never get back or have again, culminating in that final one. A last Father’s Day, a day that shall nevermore have meaning to me; last Thanskgiving, last Christmas — both my birthday and Dad’s favorite holiday; he was the one waking everyone up at 6 AM. And then one last ending, May 18th. Another holiday on the calendar, a new personal Father’s Day. A day to spend in pointless rituals, lighting candles, doing whatever it is to try to inadequately show you’re still somebody’s son.