My father was only 48 when he died of lung cancer. Looking back on that time in our lives, which by now has been reduced to a scattered mosaic of thoughts and recollections, one thing stands out, and still remains with me to this day: the utter unfairness of that mystifying diagnosis, “lung cancer.” It was shattering to lose him in general, and at his relatively young age, but for him to succumb to a disease that implied he hadn’t taken care of himself, or that he’d been careless — that was a cosmically offensive finale for a man who prided himself on living as healthy a lifestyle as possible. For lung cancer to grow inside someone who’d never once smoked — and he didn’t; not cigarettes, not cigars, not even pipes — made about as much sense as…well, I don’t even know. Any halfhearted metaphor I could muster would sound petty in comparison.
Granted, I was young when this happened; I’d yet to learn the lesson that cancer didn’t follow the rules. It didn’t matter if my father smoked two packs a day or none, ever, in his life. Cancer was cancer was cancer, and it cared hilariously little for textbook arguments. It cared little that my father ate healthy, got his eight hours, and walked our dog, Betsy, to the park and back every morning, without fail. His only real vice – if you could call it that – was a single glass of red at dinner.
Despite this, whichever god- or non-godlike force that drew his number didn’t care about the particulars. It pointed at him — just another anonymous human being in a sea of billions — and assigned him his fate. And like all the other personal tragedies that befell him during his life, he accepted it without a fuss. He didn’t rail against it, didn’t muse aloud, “Why me?,” didn’t go seeking sympathy.
That wasn’t his style.
By my last year of elementary school, my mother had already left us — off to, I guess, live a life that meant something to her. Her desertion of us was upsetting, but not necessarily jarring. After she left, we never really talked about her — neither in the melancholy way one does when someone passes away, nor in the way one accidentally does before remembering that this person had caused immense hurt — had uprooted the lives of others out of their own unthinking or selfishness — and awkwardly changing the subject. In delving into all this and putting it to paper, it’s important I make clear that it’s not my intention to demonize her. It wouldn’t be fair to her because she wasn’t a bad person. That may sound funny following on the tail end of the revelation that she’d left us — her only son, still just a boy, and her husband of many years. But she was unhappy; lost, distracted, probably depressed. Whatever dark thing that was infesting her brain, she simply wasn’t invested in us. Even before she left, we, I think, subconsciously learned not to need her, as if we knew her abandonment of us was inevitable. She was the equivalent of the woman working the counter at the post office, or answering phones at the library. She was someone you’d be glad to see — a presence of comfort found in everyday familiarity. She was someone you’d notice if she went missing, but for whom you wouldn’t necessarily mourn. I don’t blame her for leaving, and I don’t hate her, either. I hope, wherever she is, she found the peace she was looking for.
Following her final departure, my father didn’t know what to do with me. That was made very clear right off the bat. But, I don’t mean he didn’t know how to properly care for me, because he did. He gave me three square meals, insisted on seeing every test and report card, and always kept a cautious eye on the shadier friends I brought home. No, what I mean is: at that time, I was just this tiny, young thing, and with a personality not yet fully formed. Without my mother around, I was suddenly alien to him — something peculiar, intimidating; an unknown to be otherwise left alone.
I once read that a woman becomes a mother the moment she becomes pregnant, but that a man doesn’t become a father until he sees his child for the first time.
With my father, it took just a little bit longer.
He was a laborer, and a tradesman, and after a youthful life of working many different kinds of jobs, he soon settled into a permanent gig as a mechanic at Mason’s Garage, where every day he worked alongside a platoon of burly, filthy men in oil-stained jumpsuits, with whom he would curse and laugh and ravage his fingers. That, I think, is where he was most in his element. But at the end of that work day, he’d come home to a wife who no longer loved him, and a son who regarded him with wary, hesitant eyes. As a means of defense, he’d disappear inside himself. He’d get lost in the ballgame on TV or his newest non-fiction book. He was forced to exist in two different worlds as two different people, and it was that second world he knew less about and where he felt less comfortable.
Part of that discomfort included not knowing how to talk to me.
While she was still in the picture, my mother had been the buffer between us. A quasi-intermediary. Questions or demands my father had for me were first passed through her for remediation; she’d essentially reiterate his words, rephrased with childish clarity, but in a voice dutifully attempting to expunge her evident lack of interest. She was like a student in school forced to memorize poetry, but who recited every stanza without an ounce of passion. She knew the lyrics, but not the music. Looking back, I think she regarded me as an obligation. To her I was the end result of a union and the legacy of an existence with which she was very unsatisfied.
The three of us maintained that kind of pseudo-lifestyle for most of my elementary school years…until the day I came home and saw she was gone. Her car was missing from the driveway and most of her closet was barren — plucked free with the kind of detectable precision from a person who had been planning her escape for a very long time.
The conversation with my father was mercifully brief.
“Is Mom gone?”
“Is she coming back?”
“I don’t think so.”
My father kept a safe emotional distance from me for the next few years, and it wouldn’t be until I obtained my driver’s permit (even though he’d been the one who taught me how to drive in the first place) where something would inexplicably click into place. I don’t know what it was about that particular watershed moment — perhaps it’s a secret signal to fathers everywhere when their sons become men — but to him I was no longer some snot-nosed kid running around his house. I’d become an adult — someone he could talk to.
And once that happened, we became best friends.
Our love for each other was immense, and furiously invigorated by all the earlier years we’d wasted. We did everything fathers and sons were meant to do with each other: ballgames, trips down the shore for an afternoon of fishing, fixing up the old junker Gremlin I had foolishly brought home one day. We laughed together, made fun of each other, cracked the filthiest jokes, and talked about every possible thing that could be talked about. We debated politics, routinely dissected the chasm between the baby boomers and Generation X, and together attempted to concoct the ultimate relief pitching line-up for Philly’s ball club. Our relationship was not unique, but it was incredibly real. To each other we’d become actual people — with traits, personalities, quirks, and bad habits. We were no longer afraid to be ourselves with each other; we never felt the impulse to put on the face that would make us tolerant to the other. There was no reason to be foreign and guarded, because…well, wouldn’t that be silly?
One of the many things I discovered about him during our mutual awakening was that he fancied himself a storyteller. Though he never considered himself a “writer” insofar as he’d preach any kind of moral in his stories, he had some good yarns that he broke out when the mood struck him and they consistently straddled that line between believability and pure absurdity. I once joked that he was the non-philosophical version of Aesop and he joked back, “Who?”
One day he talked of a man named Darby Rhodes — someone he claimed was a former co-worker at the garage — and the alleged monstrous something that had come along in the night and mutilated half his livestock. After the first grisly discovery, Darby had sat out in his pasture at moonrise with a loaded rifle and waited for his uninvited guest to make another appearance. Well, it did, and — according to my father (who accorded to Darby) — it was a Cascade mountain wolf the size of a Buick.
“This thing could bite cows in half with one chomp!” my father would insist, using his clamping hands to depict the size of the beast’s mouth. And I would laugh at him, or roll my eyes with a smile, even if I’d become caught up in the tale, secretly wondering if it were true. His most outlandish stories could sound like they were housed in truth when packaged in his voice. But on paper? They were horror comic stuff at best.
And I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of these tales. Instances in which I’d met his co-workers from the garage or friends from his youth resulted in their giving me a wink and grin and asking if I’d heard the one about the golden-haired mermaid, or the one about his doppelgänger living two towns over who had a son that looked just like me. It was like we were all in some exclusive club, and having heard at least one of his stories was tantamount to a secret handshake.
A routine physical just after my father’s 45th birthday confirmed that adenocarcinoma was spreading through his lungs at a slow but steady rate, and there was little that could be done about it. He declined chemotherapy, reasoning that the procedure would only draw out the inevitable, not cure it — and not to mention cause him considerable pain. Without it, the doctors gave him a median timeline of eight months. No more than one year.
He would go on to last more than two.
Just after his diagnosis (about which he’d initially kept me in the dark), we took a day trip down to Cedar Lake, which was a yearly springtime destination for us. We set up on our usual wooden bench while Betsy excitedly chased chipmunks. I unpacked the grocery bags as my father scraped a metal brush across the charred and dirty racks of the park’s fixed grill. It was then, as he fought a stubborn clump of black, rocky fat, when he told me about his cancer.
In his lungs, he said. No hope, he said. Maybe a year, he said.
He’d told me everything quickly and matter-of-factly — in the same emotionless way he’d tell me how to change a carburetor or to pick up some double-A batteries on my way home from work. The summation of his diagnosis had been pretty brief, but also sufficient enough that there was nothing necessary left for me to ask. I had the what, I had the when. Though I desperately needed the why, I knew no answer could ever satisfy me.
I sat in silence for a while as he scraped at the grill, and I held on for as long as I could before finally letting the tears come. When they did, he sat down next to me on the bench, me facing the table, and him away from it, his eyes on the lake. He braced my chest with his arm, as if he were afraid I would fall to pieces. Without thinking, and denying that illusion of unbreakability fathers and sons were supposed to present to each other, I lay my head down on his shoulder. With his rough and desiccated hand — which he’d ruined over decades working laborious jobs — he smoothed back my hair as I sobbed into his shirt. Neither of us spoke for a long time.
We spent that entire day at Cedar Lake doing the things we usually did. The longer we stayed, the less tragic everything seemed. It had always been our place, after all. With little effort, we’d pumped years and years of great memories into that little smattering of trees, grass, and fresh water, and our utopian view of it couldn’t be undone so easily by this thing called death. Our surroundings made the news a little easier to bear — that was the magic of that place.
Once we finished eating, I took to throwing a small tree branch into the lake. Betsy splashed happily into the water, again and again, eager for her prize. My father watched her for a long time, a funny look on his face.
“You better get Betsy out of there,” he said after a while, looking warily at the water.
“Why?” I asked. “She’s allowed in the lake; I didn’t see a sign.”
“It’s not that,” he said. “You ever hear of the bull shark?”
“I think so,” I said. “That’s the one with the ring in its nose, right?”
I remember smiling wanly at him.
He smiled back, but continued. “Bulls are one of the few species of shark that can live in fresh water. Jersey had one attacking people during the early 1900s. They say a bull hitched a ride down a freshwater river and took up residence along the coast. Four people died in one week.”
“So…” I began, falling right into his trap, “what are you saying?”
He motioned with his head to the water. “Cedar Lake’s got sharks in it.”
I laughed at him, but he didn’t laugh back.
“Bull is right,” I joked. “Don’t you know I’m too old to fall for your stories anymore?”
“It’s not a story,” he said, his face stone serious. “The sharks…they feed at night. But during the day they stay at the bottom to keep out of sight. They know they’re not supposed to be in there, so they hide. But, you ask anybody who lives in this area and they’ll tell you — there’s sharks in there.”
I had to laugh again.
“Dad…Cedar Lake is man-made.”
He looked at me, the subtlest sign of a smile buried somewhere beneath his otherwise practiced mysterious expression.
“You sure about that?”
I found myself looking out over the water as Betsy paddled toward the stick just in her reach. The story was ludicrous — the most outlandish he’d ever told me. I mean, of course it was outlandish. Cedar Lake was just that — a lake. No river connected to it, and hence, no ocean.
But I fell for it all the same.
“Betsy!” I called. “Get out of there!”
Loyally, Betsy retreated the lake and flapped a hundred gallons of water all over the stony shore as my father grinned at me and slapped me on the back. “Come on, it’s getting dark; let’s shove off.”
The drive home was cloaked in terrible silence, so my unoccupied mind began reeling, envisioning a future without my father, and all the hardships we would encounter leading up to the end. Like all the crappy, maudlin films I’d seen, I pictured my father beginning to slow as the disease within him took hold; his skin changing color and his voice growing weak; a blood-misted handkerchief pressed to his mouth following every wet and raspy coughing fit. I pictured the moment of his death — in his bed in our home, his hands in mine, a faceless hospice nurse standing shadow-like in the corner. I pictured coming home to an empty house for the first time; learning how to navigate a life on my own, suddenly becoming intimidated by something as menial as paying the gas bill. And oh, do I remember feeling like an incredible bastard for killing him off in my mind even as he sat in the driver’s seat at that very moment, still perfectly alive.
But I’m also certain he was doing the same: picturing me living my life without someone around to guide me, to show me how to degrease an engine, to scale a fish, to avoid falling for the wrong girl.
For a split second, I thought of my mother — wondered if she’d care. If she’d come to his funeral, or just send flowers. If she’d want to take care of me again. If she would ever even know what happened.
“I’m gonna hang on for as long as I can,” he said. “These doctors don’t know what’s what.”
He’d barely finished his words before I was crying again and I felt his hand squeeze my shoulder. I looked at him after a while, a simple task which felt almost Herculean. Because I was sure that seeing his smiling face and hearing his words of parental reassurance would destroy me. I was right, of course, but I shouldn’t have been surprised: our worlds were ending, and his eyes were shimmering, and the front of my t-shirt was soaked in my tears, but he managed a smile and said the most my-father thing he could have possibly said.
“You know I’m never going to leave you alone, right?” he said. “All the fury of Heaven has nothing on my level of pain-in-the-assness. I’m always going to be with you. ”
“Sure, Dad,” I had muttered. It would be the only moment of anger I ever leveled directly at him for the rest of his life.
“Listen to me, goddamn it!” he said. The suddenness of it boomed like a gunshot report.
I looked at him again. He softened.
“I swear to you. Understand?”
It was the worst time imaginable to argue with him about such fantasy, so instead I nodded, telling him simply, “I know.” But his words didn’t ring even remotely true. He may as well have been retelling me about the Bigfoot sightings at Wharton State Forest, or about the time he’d gone fishing and saw the ghost ship of the wrecked Cecilia breaching the fog mere miles from his boat. Because, he wasn’t always going to be with me. His fossilizing lungs were going to put him in the ground, and my drive home from the cemetery that day would be the start of a lifetime living with a hole in my heart. God and the angels, an afterlife in paradise — they didn’t exist in the same plane as cancer wards and being orphaned in my early twenties. The land of make-believe and living in the clouds all seemed well and good until it was time for your loved ones to check in. It was the well-meaning lies of youth colliding with an ugly reality, and in the process, leaving behind nothing but permeation of pain and fury, with the question, “Why my father?” being answered in the form of a cosmic shrug.
We spent the next year living life as normally as we could, but the year after that was spent in and out of clinics and hospitals and support groups. We were told what to expect, when to expect it — everything except how to deal. We even planned his funeral together. We selected his coffin; we chose a few songs to play during the ceremony. But he, alone, went through his rarely used suit closet to choose the one he’d wear. (“You can’t dress worth a shit,” he’d said, trying to make light of it. “You think I can trust you to dress me?”)
He put the burial plot on his credit card, and then worked extra hours at the garage for as long as he could literally stand to pay it off.
That’s what kind of man my father was.
He died a week after Easter. And those who believe that a timeline toward death, along with a breakdown of what to expect, somehow makes it easier to accept has never lived through it themselves. I was given a two-plus year warning, but I’ll go to my own grave never having endured as much pain as I did on that warm spring day.
On the day of his funeral, I shook so many hands and heard so many condolences that I became numb to everyone around me. People spoke fondly of him — of the memories they had, and the zany adventures that had gained him infamy long before I ever came along. And I endured all these people, many I barely knew, attempting to recite some of his more famous stories — the one about the magic waterfall, the location of which he coyly refused to admit, which could turn anyone who drank the water invisible; or the one about the gold stolen from British soldiers during the Revolutionary War that was melted down, charred black, and forged into the gates which surrounded the library. Hearing these well-wishers resurrect my father in small moments through their remembered versions of his stories should have felt nice, and of course their intentions were good — after all, only years before, the same act had conjured a feeling entirely different — but this time all of it felt wrong. It was like revisiting a book you had loved in childhood, but many years after having gone gray. It was familiar, but not the same, and not nearly as magical.
That drive home from the cemetery was as lonely as I’d feared. And I couldn’t feel my father with me. Not at all.
I parked in front of our house and let the car idle for a long time. The last thing I wanted was to go inside and see his photos hanging on the refrigerator door, or have Betsy run past me to wait for him to saunter up the walkway. I slammed the car into drive and took off down the road in a fury. I drove as the sun set and the engine hummed and the tears threatened to slide down my face.
My tires soundlessly slid to a dead halt over the mulch parking lot of Cedar Lake. I got out and looked at the night sky, which was full dark. The place was deserted, as it usually was. I wandered between the park benches, trying in any way possible to feel my father next to me. I sat at the bench where we always ate and stared at the grill on which we had cooked countless meals. Absurdly, I took to calling aloud for him, demanding that he show himself to me — demanding he prove that his vow to always be with me wasn’t just another one of his tall tales.
A breeze passed through the leaves — the only response.
I stared into the dark waters for a long time. Instead of demanding his spirit perform parlor tricks, or letting those familiar waves of anger roll over me, I simply remembered him — the way he was before this thing had come and torn our lives apart. I remembered his face and his laugh and his misguided enthusiasm over his tuna casserole, which was truly inedible in every sense of the word. I remembered being seventeen and accidentally knocking over the mailbox as I was backing his car out of the driveway, only for him to come out of the house and manage to look father-angry for about two seconds before laughing himself breathless. I remember giving him an antique cracked leather journal for his fortieth birthday to persuade him into writing down some of his stories, and him being very touched by the notion; he’d keep that journal on the nightstand by his bed for the rest of his life, but he’d never write on a single page. In every good memory I had of my entire life, his face hovered nearby — a silent witness, a supportive voice. If nothing else, that gave me comfort.
That could have been enough, I guess. I could have left Cedar Lake at that moment, jumping on this newfound discovery of him being alive in my memory, in my veins and heart, and in every time I’d look in the mirror, finally accepting that as his vow to always be with me.
But I couldn’t resist. I called for him one last time.
“Dad, please,” I whispered, eyes shut. “Are you here…?”
There was only silence again, except for the sudden sound of swirling water. I opened my eyes to see that the glassy surface of the lake had been suddenly disturbed by something, which left behind tiny, careening waves.
And my eyes bugged open at the shape I could have sworn had just disappeared under the water.
I should have been terrified. I should have jumped to my feet and ran close to the shore in an attempt to see if my grief was playing tricks on my mind. Or maybe I should have just gotten the hell out of there and called a park ranger.
Instead I laughed like a mad man.
I jumped to my feet and threw punches into the air, over and over, as tears of miraculous joy rained down my face. I called out for my father and shouted that I loved him.
Because there really were sharks in Cedar Lake.