My father was only 48 when he died of lung cancer. Among the scattered mosaic of thoughts I experienced during that period of our lives, I could never shake how utterly unfair that felt — not just to lose my father in general, and not just for him to die at such a 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. It 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 half-hearted 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 your rules. It didn’t matter if he smoked two packs a day or none, ever, in his life. Cancer was cancer was cancer. And it cared hilariously little for your 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. Because that wasn’t his style.
By my last year of elementary school, my mother had already left us — off to hopefully live a life that didn’t suffocate her. Her desertion of us was upsetting, but not necessarily jarring. And after she left, we never really talked about her — neither in the way one does when someone passes away, nor in the way one accidentally does before remembering that this person had uprooted the lives of others out of their own unthinking or selfishness. In recollecting all this and putting it to paper, it’s important I make clear that it’s not my intention to paint her as this terrible person. It wouldn’t be fair to her because, well…she just wasn’t. And that may sound funny following on the tail end of my confessing she’d left us — her only son, her husband of many years. But she was unhappy; lost, distracted, maybe depressed. 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, comforted by the fact that she represented just one more person who offered familiarity in a world that, day by day, threatened to become less so. 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. 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 report card and progress record, and always kept a cautious eye on the friends I brought home to root out any potential bad influences. No, what I mean is: at that time, I was just this tiny, young thing with a personality not yet fully formed, so my father — who worked every day at Mason’s Garage surrounded by burly, filthy men in oil-stained jumpsuits — didn’t know how to talk to me. All day at work he cursed and laughed and ravaged his fingers, but then he came home to a wife who no longer loved him, and a son who regarded him with wary eyes, so he disappeared inside himself. He was forced to exist in two different worlds as two different people, and I think it was that second world he knew less about and in which he felt less comfortable.
During that time, 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 while also expanding upon them, 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 an 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 provide the solution for the bullpen problem of Philly’s ball club. Our relationship was not unique, but it was incredibly real. To each other we became actual people — with traits, personalities, quirks, and bad habits. We were no longer afraid to be who we were in front of each other; we never felt the impulse to put on the face that we felt 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 included some kind of moral or point 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 used to joke that he was the non-philosophical version of Aesop and he would joke 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 of 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. Even the most outlandish of his stories could sound like they were based 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 being able to reference at least one of his stories was tantamount to a secret handshake.
A routine physical just after my father’s 45th birthday confirmed that cancer was spreading through his lungs at an alarming 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 ran excitedly close by chasing chipmunks. I unpacked the grocery bags as he 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 for the remote because the damned thing was dead again. The summation of his diagnosis had been brief, but sufficient enough that I had nothing left to ask. I had the what, the when, and already knew the why didn’t matter. 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 toward the lake. He braced my chest with his arm, as if he were afraid I would literally fall to pieces. Without thinking, and denying that illusion of unbreakability fathers and sons were supposed to present to the world at all times, I lay my head down on his shoulder. With his rough and desiccated hand — which he 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. I’m not saying that I became okay with it, but our surroundings made the news a little easier to bear.
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 lake. “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. Ask anybody who lives in this area and they’ll tell you — there’s sharks in there.”
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, 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 his end. I pictured coming home to an empty house for the first time. And I’m sure he pictured me living my life without someone around to guide me, now without both parents.
“I’m gonna hang on for as long as I can, Jacky,” 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. For the most part I was right: his eyes were shimmering, but he managed a smile.
“You will never be alone,” 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,” I had muttered.
“Hey!” he said, more firmly this time. The suddenness of it boomed like a gunshot report.
I looked at him again.
“I swear to you. Understand?”
It was the worst time imaginable to argue with him about such fantasy, so instead I nodded at the time, 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, her deck lined with her skeleton crew. 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 of living with a hole in my heart. God and the angels didn’t exist in the same world 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 became 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 permeations of pain and remorse, 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. He selected his coffin; we chose a few songs to play during the ceremony. We went through his rarely used suit closet to 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’d 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 I’m confident that those who believe being given a timeline toward death, along with a breakdown of what to expect, somehow makes it easier has never lived through it themselves. 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. Their intentions were good, and it had been only years before when the same act 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.
The drive home from the cemetery was as lonely as I’d envisioned. And I couldn’t feel my father with me. Not at all.
I’d 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. Instead, I slammed the car into drive and took off down the road. I drove with such fury that it’s a miracle I didn’t wreck.
My tires soundlessly slid to a dead halt over the mulchy 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 in 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 his name aloud, 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 turned around and stared into the dark lake waters for a long time. And instead of demanding his spirit perform parlor tricks for me, or letting those familiar waves of anger roll over me again, I simply remembered him—the way he had been before this thing had come and torn our lives apart. I remembered his face and his stories 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 attempting to look father-angry but instead 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, even though he would never do so. In every good memory I had of my entire life, his face hovered nearby. If nothing else, that gave me a little bit of comfort.
That could have been enough. I could have left Cedar Lake at that moment, jumping on this newfound discovery of him being alive in my memory, and 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, gently causing 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.