On her bedside table, my mother keeps a snapshot taken after Christmas dinner last year. In the picture my parents are still sitting at the table, cleared except for the wine and water goblets, and Mom is making some sort of joke while Dad smiles. All the usual tropes of the middle American family holiday are there: the happy after-dinner talk, Mom’s Santa-red sweater, a child’s homemade paper-plate wreath hanging in the background.
:What the photo doesn’t show are the less picturesque tropes: You don’t see my bleary-eyed sister and brother-in-law, who have spent the night in the same room with two babies, one of them suffering a full-blown ear infection. You don’t see the meltdown my 4-year-olddriven to madness by lack of sleep and a dark suspicion that his brothers got a better haul from Santa than he didhas just had. You don’t see the red glow of fever inflaming the cheeks of my brother and sister-in-law and their 3-year-old, all of whom are coming down with the flu but none of whom are willing to miss Christmas dinner. At least not this Christmas dinner.
It was to be, we all knew, my father’s last Christmas. So the holidays were exhausting in that particular draining way of holidays when terminal illness is in the house: All that forced, unhappy merriment, all that teeth-grinding togetherness borne of the conviction that it would all soon be over. The last Christmas, the last New Year, the last holiday all together, the last celebration we would spend wholeif that’s a word that can be used for a family that is growing and diminishing at the same time. It’s hard not to go into some Lion King mantra about the cycle of life when your sister, a newborn nursing at her breast, is passing the sweet potato soufflé across the table to your dying father and all the cousins at the kids’ table are refusing the squash casserole as one unified, totally petulant voice.
But petulance could be found at the adult table, too, the cycle of life notwithstanding. The thing is, my brother and sister and I had already been doing the last-holiday routine for a while. Thanks to our father’s having survived two years beyond his post-diagnosis life expectancy, we’d already had two last Christmases together and three last Thanksgivings, a couple of last Father’s Days, and many, many last family birthdays. Even before Dad’s illness, I spent more time with my extended family than anyone I know, and I’ve always done it gladly. But in all honesty, by last Christmas, 26 months after my father got cancer, I was sick to death of my family, and they were heartily sick of me.
Except for Dad. He was sick of none of us. Dad had been surviving by dint of utter tenacity, a passionate grip on what mattered to him most. And what mattered most to him thenthe same as it ever waswas us.
In this clarity of understanding, I believe my father was unusual among men of his generation. For him, there was no need of a deathbed recognition of the importance of family, no cat’s-in-the-cradle eureka that showed him how he’d wasted his life on ambition or minutiae instead of playing with his kids. He regarded us as unearned treasures; all our lives he’d shake his head, marveling: “I can’t believe how lucky I am!” And last Christmas he still wasn’t ready to leave such luck behind. If ever there was a man determined not to go gentle into that good night, it was my own fatherand the hands he’d been grabbing to yank him back from the grave were my mother’s and my brother’s and my sister’s and mine.
“I want us to be together for Christmas again this year,” Dad had said back in the fall. “I want to spend Christmas with all my grandchildren, and I think we ought come to your house because you have more room.”
The one gift terminal illness bestows on its victim’s family is the chance to have no regrets. Car wrecks and heart attacks leave family members stunned, disbelieving: “But we were quarreling over the thermostat just this morning! I didn’t even kiss him goodbye when he left for work!” With cancer, there is no unspoken love; no lost opportunities for tenderness; no wishing once the loved one has finally taken his last, horrible, gasping breath, that you had said something you’d always meant to say. By then you’ve said it all a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times. You keep saying it because of the dying person’s cavernous needlove me, love me, remind me that I didn’t waste my lifeand because of your own secret, ugly prayer: Please, God, when this hideous illness is finally over, give me at least a clear conscience.
I wish I could report that I heard my father’s Christmas request with patient acceptance, with the pure, dumb resignation people acquire in the service of what cannot be stopped or even really slowed. But I was tiredtired of trying to tempt my father to eat puddings and ice cream he pushed aside after one taste, tired of sitting beside him for hours while the television droned senselessly on, tired of deferring any kind of plan because I could never know in advance if he’d need me just at that time. And I wasn’t yet willing to give over my entire life to his dying. “I don’t know, Dad,” I heard myself saying. “I’d really rather have a low-key holiday this year: Just us and you and Mom.”
“Oh,” he said, sounding a little surprised. Had I never told him “no” in the more than two decades since I’d left my teens behind? Or had he grown accustomed by then to hearing only the big N-O, the quiet cosmic refusal of reprieve, while the rest of us scurried around saying yes, yes, yes to everything he asked that was in our power to give? “Oh,” he said. “Oh.”
If cancer gives its bystanders the gift of no regrets, of no unsaid love, it also transforms us all into fearful children, powerless, shaken, mindful of our own essential smallness: I was selfish and ashamed; I feared my father’s death. I’m in confessional mode, so here’s one more ugly confession for you: My father’s illness was making me realize that I had passed the age of 40 without ever truly leaving childhood.
I’d finished school, pursued a profession, gotten married, borne three children, and not one of those things had made me grow up. I still thought of my father’s love, of his unshakable belief in me, as my surest protection against my own inconsequence. He always told me, “No matter what happens, you can come home. Even if you marry a bastard, you can always leave him and come on home.” I still wanted my father to act like my father, damn it, even to the end. Was that the reason for my little foot-stamping fit about his plans for Christmas? Because if I acted like a child I’d force him to become my vibrant shelter of a father again and not a sad, frightened old man?
“Well, I want you to put it on the calendar for next year,” he said, backing down, shuffling backward. “We’ll have your quiet Christmas this time, and next year we’ll have a big, whole-family party.”
Next time. Next time. Next time. It had the same mournful tone as all those last-Thanksgiving last-Christmas gongs sounding in my ear for the past 26 months. He had beaten the odds for too long already; there would be no next time, and I knew it. And he knew I knew it. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Christmas would be at my house again, and everyone would come.
But when I look at the picture beside my mother’s bed, I don’t see the hours I spent rearranging my house to make room for the whole extended family to spend Christmas there. I don’t see the shopping and the wrapping of dozens of presents, none of them needed, least of all for my dying father. I don’t see the days of cooking and baking it took to get ready for a final feast on Christmas. I don’t see the heaps of wrinkled wrapping paper or the stacks of unwashed dishes or the glazed eyes of the exhausted children just beyond the camera’s view.
All I see is my father, smiling at my mother. He doesn’t look like a man with exactly two months to live, a man ravaged by radiation and six different chemotherapy regimens, a brave man in constant pain. He looks like my Dad, the father I’ve always known: happy, proud, continually astonished at his own good fortune.
And looking at that picture reminds me that I didn’t escape my father’s long, sad illness free from regret after all. Looking at that picture I know I would gladly wrap a hundred presents and bake a thousand pies and rearrange every stick of furniture in my house if it would bring him back for one more day, if I could have my father home again for Christmas.
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