"Hello, sorry to wake you, your father
is dying.", says Mom, who has been on death watch for so long now. God bless Mom
. It is Hell being the responsible one. I know. I work very hard on being the responsible one in my household - raising my children, worshiping the ground my wife
It's 6AM, and in my opinion that still counts as one of those dreaded late night phone calls. The nurse said we should gather to see him now, if we want to see him alive. But Mom, ever pragmatic, says she would prefer I wait until the funeral. "Then," she says, "you can come if you want to."
She has a way with words, I must admit. A very soft way of saying she knows and understands, without ever having to spell it out. Too bad my father (really my stepfather) never knew that about her. Too bad he married her the way men once bartered for slaves. She, and the rest of us children, were introduced to this whirlwind lack of romance when I was 5. Meet Raymond. Raymond is going to help pay the bills. Raymond is your new father. Treat him with respect.
Raymond was on the rebound from his previous wife and children. They got tired of him. Only a few of his sons ever came to visit, and then not often. Raymond was not the kind of guy most people go out of their way to visit. Raymond just couldn't stand to live alone. He needed a new family. One day he went into a restaurant and saw my mom working the grill. "I'm gonna marry you.", he said. And he did.
Mom was his nursemaid. My sister was his slave. I was his punching bag. My younger brother was his baby, a true-blood raised to live at home forever, unlike us other bastard children. It's really hard to tell who had it worse. I remember the cuts and bruises, the burns, the bleeding. I remember the yelling too, and that was the worst. The yelling was constant and brutal. Raymond had a way with words too. He was sick for most of the time I knew him. Too sick to work. Not to sick to dominate the living room like a terrible king. Radiating a kind of mental sickness we all got to share. Happiness vanished, and after only a mere 6 years I would say we forgot what happiness really might have ever been like.
When I graduated high school I went to the recruiter. I joined the Air Force. I ran away to meet my wife and raise my own children. I am too soft on my kids. My son is my pride. My daughter is my heart. My wife is my soul. If I ever hurt my kids, ruined them, my wonderful wife would kill me. Poison perhaps. I love her for that.
And this morning I got that phone call. Raymond has been dying for a long time now, but at this point it's hard to imagine a person any closer to death. Mom gives him the maximum dosage of morphine every three hours. His legs are swollen like balloons. If you touch him, sores spring up and he lets out a moan. He is not really ever awake now, not really asleep. He talks to himself a lot. The VA nurse says that the cancer has now definitely moved into his bladder, lungs, intestines, liver, bone marrow. It owns all his body now. This small, frail man with fine wisps of white hair and no teeth. So frightened to die alone that he turned into a control freak. Screaming and beating and threatening and laying guilt trips on us, so we would be under his control, so we would not kick him out of the house like his last family did. So he would not die alone.
"You can come if you want to.", says Mom, and I tell her alright. I ask if she is eating, and she mutters some single word and goes back to reporting on Dad's health. I ask if she is OK, and she mutters a word or two and tells me about the cancer. We have talked a lot over the past few months. I know she is afraid to face the future and its freedoms. How the hell do you handle freedom after 28 years of servitude?
I will be there. I have to go buy a suit - something dark, right? I will take the Greyhound bus, because I don't want to pay so much for a short notice plane ticket, and I don't want to drive all the way from Key West, Florida to Marion, Illinois. I will take a bus, which I imagine will drive through the night and into the gray hours of morning. I will arrive in the hometown of my youth. I will look at my brother and my sister and my mother. We will see each other, and know. We will go to a funeral to see the cremated remains of a man who decided in the end that only family should be invited. Words will be said. Afterwards, I will go off with my sister and we will get drunk. The next day I will see my Mom. We will say something to each other. Something important - I should say something important. I will go to see my little brother, and I will be expected to tell him something which will let him know that it's OK. Whatever spell of lethargy that was cast on him is lifted now. He may begin his life as a man. I will think about Heaven and Hell, love and hate, yesterday and tomorrow.
And then I guess I will lose my mind, and come running and screaming home to my wife. She will set my mind at ease, let me resume my role as the responsible one. I will be different then, my cancer removed.