Sunday, October 16, 2011

BTG: Short Story Contest: Farewell to Dad by J. Conrad Guest


Farewell to Dad

J. Conrad Guest

Hi, Dad,” I said as I sat down at the dining room table, where two glasses of scotch had been poured before my arrival. Not shot glasses but tumblers; they’d been filled to a generous three fingers. A bottle of twelve-year-old Glenfiddich sat in the middle of the table. “Wow,” I added, grinning. “When did you take to the good scotch? I only ever saw Dewar’s in your liquor cabinet.”

“Your mother’s brother, your uncle Stephen, gave it to me ten years ago, for Christmas. It’s been sitting downstairs, in the fruit cellar.”

“Which now makes it a twenty-two-year-old. You know what they get for a bottle of twenty-one-year-old?”

Dad said nothing, only stared past me, at something that may or may not have been on the wall behind me, or beyond it, or maybe nothing at all. Something wasn’t right. Something more than the grieving widower was wrong. Still, I tried to keep the conversation light.

“It should be real smooth,” I said to get him talking; when he didn’t take his cue I added, “You’ve been waiting for the right occasion to break it open and dinner with your son on a Friday night is occasion enough?”

“I have cancer.”

This time it was my turn to stare. At Dad.

“I’ve been having annual colonoscopies for the last ten years,” he said. “They’ve been removing polyps that have always come back benign. Until last week.”


“I’m scheduled for surgery on Monday. After that, I start Chemo and radiation treatment.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “If they can remove it, why do you need treatment?”

“It’s not surgery to remove the cancer. I don’t understand the why behind their reasoning, but they want to give me a colostomy—a sort of bypass to keep my lower colon free of waste during treatment. You remember my cousin Ted? He had one.”

I nodded. I recalled my father had once joked about it, that Ted had been robbed of the gratification of a good bowel movement to start off his day. I’d wondered then of the good taste of my father’s wit and wondered, too, if he now recalled the comment; certainly with the shoe on the other foot, he would fail to see the humor.

“He wore a plastic bag under his shirt that collected his waste,” I said.

Dad nodded.

“Well, what’s the prognosis? Do they expect a full recovery? Will they at some point reconnect your colon?”

Dad shook his head. “They give me a year at most.” Picking up his tumbler, he added, “I figure after this weekend my drinking days will be over.”

Unsure of what to say, I clinked my glass to his and said, “No time like the present to start drinking the good stuff.”

We finished our tumblers quickly, in silence. I was embarrassed that I didn’t seem to know what to say to a dying man; that said dying man was my father made it no easier.

We came back from dinner to finish off the bottle of Glenfiddich. Both of us were pleasantly buoyant and so we took to reminiscing about my youth.

“You remember taking me to my first ballgame at Tiger Stadium?” I asked.

“I can’t say that I do, Son,” he said.

I did my best to hide my disappointment. “It was a night game. The Tigers beat the Angels. I was six or seven, Mom stayed at home, and Francine was so bored she took to counting the lights in right field. You were pissed at the two dollar price for box seats.”

“I don’t remember that,” he said, but I wondered if maybe he did, the result of my prompting, but was embarrassed these many years later at having been so angry.

“You remember when Francine broke her arm?” I asked. “She was twelve or thirteen and had turned to start to run and managed to trip herself. She fell, not hard, but the doctor informed us that a hard fall wasn’t necessary to break a bone; sometimes it’s in the how one falls.”

Dad had been angry then, too, at Francine’s clumsiness. This was before he’d gotten a job at Cadillac working on the assembly line, before the Blue Cross insurance he received as a member of the UAW covered everything. I said nothing of Dad’s anger, only adding, “She cried like a baby.”

“She was just a kid,” he said, as if she needed defending, and I wondered, for the first time, whether he was confessing, although he had no idea that he was, that Francine was his favorite. “You ever break anything?”

“As a matter of fact I did. Remember when I shattered my big toe?” I’d been carrying a flat backstage while rehearsing for a show. The guy carrying the other end had bumped the flat against a doorjamb, jarring the flat from my grip and the flat had fallen on my toe. “I shattered it in six places, according to the x-ray. After telling me he’d never seen such a break, the doctor told me he couldn’t put it in a splint and that the only thing he could do for me was drill a hole through my toenail to relieve the pressure caused by the burst blood vessels. He came back a few minutes later with a Bunsen burner and a paperclip. He then told me, as he heated the paperclip over the burner’s flame, that the surgical drill they normally used for this procedure was out being serviced. He said to me, as he got ready to push the paperclip through my toenail, that it would hurt less if I didn’t watch. So I lay back on the examination table, but he was wrong, Dad. It hurt. It hurt a helluva lot. Still, as injuries go, it was the most painful one I’ve ever sustained—you don’t know how important a toe is until you break it.”

I’d lost the point of the story, thanks to the effects of the scotch; then I found it. Wagging a finger at my father for the first time in my life I said: “But I never cried.”

“But you were what, eighteen or nineteen?”

“Twenty,” I said, taking a sip from my glass.

Then, my mind abruptly changing directions, I asked, “Do you know why Francine is pissed off at me?”

“I didn’t know she was,” he said, looking down into his empty glass, and I wondered if he might be withholding the truth, perhaps to protect me or for whatever he thought might be a good reason.

“You didn’t notice her treatment of me at Mom’s memorial service?”

“All I know is that it troubled your mother that you two weren’t closer. She considered herself a failure over it.”

“She told me the same thing about a year ago. Said Francine had told her she had no brother. I wonder what I ever said or did to make her feel that way.”

“The fact you once called her a whore might have something to do with it.”

“I’d forgotten that,” I said. “You remember that? Of all things for you to remember.”

“It’s not language befitting a gentleman, especially in connection with his sister.”

“No, I suppose you’re right.”

“Your mother taught you better.”

“Yes, she did, Dad.” And then, “Not to defend myself—”

“Then don’t.”

I ignored the rebuke.

“She told me she didn’t like the way I treated girls. We were still in high school and I was a flirt, yes, but it’s not like I was sleeping around or breaking hearts or anything. The truth is I didn’t care for the way she treated the boys she dated. You remember Brad?”

“Can’t say that I do.”

“He joined the service after graduation but ended up going AWOL. You told him he wasn’t to come around anymore.”

“That Brad.”

“Yes, that Brad. They dated in high school. Here’s the argument that precipitated my comment. When Brad found out she wanted a roll top desk—which I thought a pretty expensive gift—he offered to buy her one for her birthday. She only saw him as a meal ticket and I thought it pretty horrendous that she was willing to let him buy such an expensive token of his affection when she wasn’t in the least bit serious about him. To me it was an act of prostitution and I told her as much. I later apologized for it.”

“Words are a powerful weapon, Son,” he said, his diction somewhat slurred by the scotch, surely as slurred as my own. “Once spoken they can never be taken back.”

I thought of the many words Dad had spoken in anger to Mom over the years and wondered as I wandered through the mists of time—or was it through the fog of alcohol?—about the words of wisdom he often offered to others but never seemed to heed himself. I considered whether the ghosts of those words were in part responsible for the tremendous grief he felt over her loss, because now he truly could never take them back.

I changed the subject.

“You remember the day Mom brought home the dog? For some reason you didn’t approve.”

“Approve, hell,” he said, laughing. It was a sound I’d rarely heard from my father, especially as a boy. It was a good sound to me, even if it was only the result of being well-lubricated. This had been a good idea—a father and son drinking binge, even if we were going to pay dearly for it in the morning.

Eat, drink and be merry, I thought. For tomorrow we die.

“I was pissed off over having another mouth to feed,” Dad said. Then, suddenly more somber, he added, “She brought that dog home for you, but with you in school during most of the day that dog bonded with her and it became hers.”

I watched him fight back tears.

“That dog’s been dead for nearly fifteen years,” he said.

“Ginger,” I said, as if it were important that we speak of the dead by name.

“Your mother talked of Ginger as if she’d been a member of the family.”

“She was, Dad. For thirteen years.”

Dad choked back a sob. He seemed not to have heard me.

“Right up until her stroke she talked of how much she missed that damn dog. I offered to get her another one but she refused. ‘No,’ she told me. ‘I miss Ginger.’ As if having another dog might somehow tarnish her memory of Ginger.” He wiped at the moisture on his face before adding, “Damn these tears.” Words I recalled my dad saying a lot since we’d lost her—me, my mother, he, his wife.

“Can’t ever replace a loved one,” I said, watching Dad drain his glass. My mouth seemed to work slowly, as slowly as my thought process—what was it they said about being slow as molasses? But we weren’t drinking molasses, and my glass, too, was empty.

Dad poured us each another tumbler, but we finished our scotch in relative silence and then called it a night. I was in no condition to drive so I spent the night at Dad’s place.

Sleep came hard to me as I found myself grieving the loss of my father long months before it would happen. Finally, the one-hundredth sheep granted my plea for sleep’s escape.

Christmas morning, 1992. Dad is sitting across the dining room table from me, his eyes as glassy as they were the night we nearly finished a bottle of twenty-two-year-old scotch. Sadly, their appearance this morning—pale and milky—is the result of two months of radiation and chemotherapy. I took a sip of my coffee; dad sipped from a glass of skim milk. The acidic content in coffee upsets his stomach.

The gifts we are about to exchange sit on the table next to us: mine—two, one for Dad and one for Francine—are wrapped in red, green and gold Yule themed paper; his to me is in a brown grocery bag.

“You first,” Dad said, and despite the immediacy of his impending demise, there was something youthful in his voice. For these few minutes he was again a boy on Christmas morning, anxious to unwrap presents.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Francine?”

“Oh, she called last night to tell me she’d be coming later.”

Disappointed, I couldn’t help but feel her delay had been contrived, to avoid me; but I said nothing.

I reached for the grocery bag and removed from it a copy of A Conrad Argosy. It was a huge hardback collection of the works of Joseph Conrad, and it looked old.

“There’s a card inside,” he told me.

I opened the front cover to find the card. I unsealed it and skimmed over the Hallmark message—it was cliché anyway—and read Dad’s handwritten message:

With more and deeper understanding, Dad
Before I could ask him to explain, Dad added that I should ignore the inscription on the title page of the book:

To Jim:

In memory of last Christmas spent together at Parris Is. and of our friendship, the writing of one of the greatest who came from the country of your ancestors. This book is worthy as a token of all that your friendship has meant to me.

Christmas 1942

“I didn’t know you had this,” I said, closing the cover. “How come I never saw this when I was growing up?”

“I don’t know. It’s been on the bookshelf in the basement all along. Maybe it was because all you read as a kid were comic books.”

I sighed. “I hated having to sneak those into the house.”

“I hated that you read such pulp.”

“Why? I was just a kid. It’s what kids read.”

“I never did.”

“They probably didn’t have them back then.”

“Graphic novels have been around for centuries,” he said, surprising me with that bit of trivia. “Although they didn’t call them that.”

“Well how come you hate them?”

“I don’t hate them. I just worried that you wouldn’t acquire a taste for literature.”

“Wow,” I said. “Did it ever occur to you the best way to get a kid to do something is to tell him not to do it?”

“That may be true today, but when I was a kid, I did as my parents told me. It’s called respect.”

“You did everything your parents told you? They gave you a book by Tolstoy and you read and enjoyed it?”

Dad looked thoughtful for a moment.

“What is it, Dad?”

“My dad paid for violin lessons for me …”

“And you hated them,” I guessed.

“They cost the old man twenty-five cents and all my tutor did was hand me a sheet of music and tell me to practice it. He taught me nothing of music. So, yes, I hated taking violin lessons.” He paused a moment, fighting his emotion. “I still feel guilty over the money he spent for three years, because I was afraid to tell him I hated the lessons. I feel like I stole that money.”

“Jesus, Dad.” I felt bad that he’d been carrying around that remorse for so many decades. “Yet you kept the violin. I remember you playing it once or twice, when I was but a boy.”

Dad said nothing, so I added, “I’m sure he understands. I’m sure he forgives you.”

“Yeah,” he said, with assurance; but I wondered if it was contrived. “Now, what did you get for me?”

I pushed my gift across the table and watched him unwrap it. He tore at the wrapping, and I recalled past years when he opened gifts, careful not to tear the paper so that it could be used the next year.

He opened the box and pulled from it a one-twenty-fourth scale replica of the blue and white sprint car Parnelli Jones drove back in the 1960s. The numeral “1” was painted on its tail, and the words “Fike Plumbing Special” scrolled across the engine cowling. As a kid, Dad and I had watched on TV Jones drive that car on Midwest dirt tracks, dueling with the likes of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. In truth, I felt guilty over buying it as a gift. But I was stuck over what to buy for a man who would be dead in a few months; so I settled for something that later would look cool in my den.

His eyes lit up as he held the replica by the wheels in both hands, turning it to look at it from several angles.

“It’s a beauty,” he said, smiling. For a moment he looked like a child, the clarity of youth returning to his eyes.

“I thought you’d like it,” I said. “I have a display case for it in the car.” And then, eyeing the other gift, I asked, “Did Francine say why she couldn’t make it?”

“No. I imagine she’s spending the morning with her boyfriend. She’s got a life separate from her old man,” he added, sounding as if he were making an excuse for her.

“Okay,” I said, although I didn’t understand, certain again that she just didn’t wish to be in a room with me. “See to it that she gets my gift, will you?”

Dad told me later that Francine had left my gift unopened, telling him to tell me that I needn’t have bought her anything.

The following April Francine managed to muster up her courage to call me to tell me she’d invited Dad to a Mother’s Day brunch at The Summit, the rotating restaurant at the top of the Renaissance Center on the Detroit River.

“It’s our first Mother’s Day without Mom and I figured it would be pointless to just ignore it,” she said. “You’re welcome to come along.”

“Sure,” I said, wondering if she might be disappointed that I accepted. Frankly, I was a little annoyed by what I felt was her debasing invitation, as if it were a second thought to letting her little brother tag along.

“Would you mind driving?”

Ah, I thought. There was a motive after all.

“Not at all,” I said.

“I’ll meet you at Dad’s house at ten.”

“See you then.” Before I could ask how she was or make any attempt at small talk, she told me she needed to run.

After I hung up I felt somewhat humiliated by her treatment of me—that she’d deliberately waited until she was ready to “run,” maybe to the kitchen to pour a second cup of coffee, before calling me.

Then I censured myself for being unreasonable. Maybe she really had needed to cut short the call to be somewhere. As a teen she’d always been on the go, participating in a number of extracurricular activities in high school. I recalled my mother telling me that she’d been mortified upon learning she was pregnant with me.

Francine, at nearly two, was a little ball of energy that kept Mom on the run and she fretted that she’d never be able to keep up with two little ones. Fortunately, for Mom, I was the opposite of Francine. I’d been a relatively low maintenance infant, requiring little more than changes in diapers and feedings. I fussed little; while as a toddler I was pretty passive.

“Where've you been?” Francine asked as soon as I walked in the door. Her question was accompanied by a laugh I thought was a little forced.

Already she can’t wait for brunch to be over, I thought with a glance at my watch.

“You said ten. By my watch I’m early.”

“Dad, you ready?” she called, ignoring my com¬ment.

A moment later Dad appeared. Despite appearing gaunt, his color was good, the result of his doctor taking him off his treatment to “improve the quality” of what little time he had left. He wore a white dress shirt without a tie under a navy blue sport coat. Beneath the shirt, before he buttoned the sport coat, I saw the bulge of his ostomy pouch.

“Hi, Dad,” I said. “You look nice.”

“Are you going to wear a tie?” Francine asked.

“Should I?”

“It’s The Summit, Dad.”

“I’ll pick one out for you,” I said.

A few minutes later, after I’d tied his tie, we were on our way.

We were seated seventy-two stories above the Detroit River, where we faced, for a time as the restaurant slowly revolved, Windsor. The day was bright and sunny and the view across the river was spectacular, while the river itself, a murky green, was nothing much to admire. Its surface was dotted with sailboats and speedboats. From where I sat, I saw the Ambassador Bridge spanning the river.

“Did you know the Detroit River is not a river?” Dad said from beside me.

“No?” I said. “If it’s not a river, what is it?”

“A river has a source and empties into a larger body of water; whereas a strait connects two large bodies of water. The Detroit River is actually a strait.”

I noted Francine, staring across the river into Windsor. She appeared bored with the discussion.

“The Detroit River has a nicer ring to it than the Detroit Strait,” I said.

“How about the Strait of Detroit?” Dad said.

“Not bad,” I said. “What say we petition the city for a name change?”

“Yeah,” Dad said with a chuckle. “I suspect the city has more important matters to consider.”

“You look nice, Francine,” I said, my effort to draw her into the conversation.

“Thanks. You do, too,” was all she said.

Frankly, I was struck, not for the first time, by how different we were: I was wearing a summer tan suit for the first time and she was wearing a winter pantsuit to close out the cold weather season, despite a forecast of seventy-five degrees.

At a loss for something to say, I was thankful when the waitress came to take our orders; we all opted for the breakfast buffet.

Before we left our table, Francine took a picture of Dad and me, and then we switched places so that I could take one of her alongside Dad.

We returned from the buffet with our plates and made small talk while we ate. I was aware of the family seated behind my sister, a party of eight—a young mother of two adolescents, her husband and their parents. Painfully aware of our missing guest of honor, I briefly wondered over the wisdom of not ignoring this day.

“How are you doing, Dad?” I asked between bites of my omelet, which had been made to order at the buffet.

“My appetite is back and I don’t miss the nausea, let me tell you. It won’t be long, from what they tell me, before I start feeling sick again.”

“Can we talk about something else?” Francine said.

“What would you like to talk about?” I said, more tersely than I’d intended.

Francine said nothing and I heard, from behind me, a male voice, its tone condescending as the second syllable ended on a rising note, “Mother.” The voice proceeded to mumble something I couldn’t make out.

In response, an elderly woman’s voice said, “I just—” before the male voice cut her off:

“Tut! I don’t want to hear it.”

I watched my father’s face turn red.

“Ungrateful little prick,” he said.

“Dad!” Francine said, abashed and perhaps fearing he’d be overheard.

“I can’t tolerate disrespect,” he whispered.

“Respect isn’t something we’re born with,” I said. “It’s taught, earned. If he disrespects his mother it’s because she’s allowed it all her life.”

Dad glared at me and I thought for sure a reprimand was coming my way.

“Not that I find any less tolerable his insolence.”

I watched Dad consider my statement and then nod.

“You’re right,” he said.

In that moment I realized the student to my father I’d always considered myself had just become the teacher. It was a sad moment even if it left me feeling empowered.

On our way home Francine asked Dad to direct me to the first apartment he'd shared with Mom, where she’d been conceived.

Dad had me get off I-94 at Mt. Elliot and two right turns later we sat, idling, in front of a dilapidated building boarded up. I wanted to cry as I saw before me a pictogram of the cycle of life. But I was grateful for the smile on Dad’s face. He was seeing something else entirely.

Twenty minutes later we were back at Dad's place. No surprise to me, Francine bade us goodbye from the sidewalk and Dad and I watched her drive off. I envi¬sioned her pleasure, that her good deed was done. This time next year, with Dad gone, she could in good conscience honor our mother in her own way, without me.

Once inside, I helped Dad take off his sport coat, hung it in the foyer closet, and then took off his tie. As I hung it up in the hall closet, he suggested I take his entire collection of ties home with me.

“I have no use for them,” he said. “Some of those belonged to your mother’s father, which I took after he died.”

“Sure, Dad. Thanks.”

I held on to those ties for several years, before giving them to the Salvation Army, without ever once wearing one. I just couldn’t bring myself to be seen in a polyester tie.

“You going to stay for the rest of the ballgame?” he asked, turning on the TV. The Magnavox had been traded in for a color Panasonic long ago.

“Sure,” I said. “You have any beer in the refrigerator?”

“I think I have a couple Rolling Rocks.”

I came back into the living room with two beers to see Dad switching through the stations with the remote control; I couldn’t help but laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I remember, thirty years ago, when I used to be your television remote.”

He laughed and said, “Kids today, they don’t get enough exercise.”

He found the game, already into the second inning. I sat on a chair while he curled up into a fetal position on the sofa.

The Tigers lost to the Yankees 11-2; but it didn’t seem to matter to Dad. He’d fallen asleep long before the stretch.

Dad didn't live to see Father's Day. He died Sunday night, June 6.

Francine stood on one side of his hospice bed and I stood on the other side, my hand on his. Dad, who’d been in a coma for three days, his breathing shallow but regular, simply let out a final breath, and never took another.

Francine cried like a baby; lost in my own grief, I had no time to consider her anguish over a man she once blamed for our mother’s unhappiness.

I felt my eyes brim with water; a moment later, the water broke over the levees, to stream down my cheeks.

I stood a moment over Dad, his eyes closed and his mouth open in a silent call no one would ever hear. His chest was still. The stern father from my youth, a man I’d always seen as solid as a rock; the man who once, when I was eight, pulled me across the backyard by my ear and threatened to kick my ass, who never came to visit me in the hospital when I had surgery, who gave up playing chess and ping pong when I began to best him with regularity, and who always checked the odometer whenever I asked for the family car; the man who loved baseball until the very end (even if he burst my childhood dream), but never taught me how to keep score in a program; a man I struggled to love and wanted to look up to, at times loathed but mostly feared; the man who learned, only after the passing of his life’s partner, that tears were no sign of weakness; the man with whom I’d gotten drunk the night he told me he had cancer—the man who’d been there for the forever comprised by my thirty-six years and nearly eight months—was gone.

We think of orphans only as children; but in that moment I felt myself orphaned.

I was startled by a warm breath of air brushing my cheek, and realized my world would forever be a much colder place.

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