I sipped my coffee on another sodden, gray morning in Portland. The new dog and the old cat flirted, the dog approaching her gingerly, the cat tolerating his approach until she changed her mind and raised a paw to warn him off. Our second cat hid in the basement; she hadn’t come to terms with the new resident. I missed her. I didn’t want to trade her in for the pup; I wanted it all.

My coffee reminded me of Dad, as it often did. Though Dad stopped drinking it when he retired from teaching, he was a dedicated coffee drinker for most of his life, grinding his beans in a spice mill and brewing it in his little stove-top espresso pot. And in my teens, when it became clear that I was cursed with insomnia and a devilish reversal of diurnal human behavior, my father threw me a life saver by making coffee for me every morning.

Most mornings I was so wrecked that I’d lie down in the shower, water pouring over me until our small water heater ran cool. I was lulled into procrastination by the falling water, begging for two more minutes of sleep, thirty seconds, whatever I could scrape together under the weak water pressure. Dad wordlessly came into the bathroom and set a cup of coffee down on the edge of the tub, doctored with the requisite sugar and milk, and I’d roll my eyes upward in thanks.

It was a silent ritual, performed every school morning of my late teens. I don’t know when it started or how, but it was a ritual that Dad performed diligently and probably thanklessly for years. But it was crucial to me, that silent compassion, his understanding of my deeper nature coming into direct conflict with the morning society at large, though he himself was a morning person through and through. He didn’t think I was lazy. He knew that I was a reanimated corpse in the morning and offered aid the best way he knew how: morning ambrosia.

N.M ., pencil on paper, no date

N.M., pencil on paper, no date

Dad started on painkillers, and the next day the results of his MRI and CT scans began rolling in. He received multiple phone calls about this finding and that result which got lost in the slurry of his new pain medication. When he called me to report on the results I got only a fuzzy outline of what the tests revealed. Dad was fixated on one thing: he had been prescribed steroids. The significance of anything else turned into white noise in Dad’s head.

Chris called me from Vancouver and exhaled anxiously over the phone. “Dad told me they prescribed him steroids, he told me like six or seven times. But he can’t tell me why!”

I filled in the gray areas for Chris: The MRI revealed that while Dad had no spinal compression, he had an area of cancer near his spine. Because of this, his doctor referred Dad to radiation oncology, where presumably they would blast whatever creature was living there back to Kingdom Come. Of course radiation was no picnic either, but in a battle between Evil Klingon in the Spine and Radioactive Ray of Doom, the radioactive adversary seemed like the better bet. There was the potential for chemotherapy if the new medicine didn’t stomp Dad’s PSA numbers back down. Dad’s bladder was blocked by cancer, so now he was up for something the oncologist glibly called “the RotoRooter treatment,” to carve a new channel from Dad’s bladder to the toilet bowl. 

Chris was relieved I was on the case; it was a lot more information than “steroids.”

The next day I called Dad to see how he was feeling. “Oh, pretty good,” he slurred. “Pretty tired.” He giggled. “I like naps!” 

“Did you pick up your prescription?” I asked.

“Which one?” Dad wondered, more to himself than me.

“The steroids,” I said.

“I wasn’t sure that was my prescription…I thought it might be someone else’s.” He paused. “Why am I on steroids?”

“To reduce swelling around your spine,” I said.

“What’s up with my spine?”

I hadn’t bargained for this: I knew he was goofy on the painkillers, but he couldn’t remember anything the nurses told him. I now had the unenviable task of telling Dad that he had cancer pressing dangerously near his spinal cord, as though he had never heard it before, and it was imperative that the doctors address it quickly. “The steroids are for inflammation, and the radiation treatment is to take care of the cancer on your spine so it stops growing.”

“Huh. Well, I guess that’s not a surprise,” he said, though clearly he was surprised.

We brought Dad to Mom’s house for Easter dinner, akin to bringing a drunk date for the holidays. And while none of us begrudged Dad his loopiness and were thankful that he wasn’t in pain, it was odd to sit at the table when Dad was close to napping in the gravy.

We ate dessert in the living room, Dad parked in the comfy seat relinquished by my stepfather Bob, and we watched as Dad fumbled with each bite. He gingerly cut the cake with his fork, an action undertaken millions of times during millions of meals before, but the plate slipped to a sharp angle, the cake clinging to it only because of copious density and a surfeit of stickiness. The bite on his fork hung precariously as Dad brought it to his mouth. The plate tipped further south in an uneasy aerial show; we mustered our self-control with each tentative bite to not race forward, to rescue both the cake and his dignity should Dad lose dessert to gravity.

The cake mastered at last, Mom handed him some water while the rest of us chattered on. I peered toward Dad out of the corner of one eye as he nodded out, the glass tipping at the same angle as dessert the moment before. A confection in Dad’s lap was no problem, but clearly water in his lap would make for an unhappy pappy, so I reached out to grab it.

 Dad snapped out of his opioid reverie. “I’m fine!”

“I just want to set the water down, Dad,” I assured him.

“I’ve got it!” he spat. Lively little dickens when spurred.

“You’re about to spill it, Dad.”

“Well I am NOT!” he barked.

We struggled over the water glass for a few tense seconds as I realized that I might spill the water myself, which would just, um, take the cake. “Please set down the glass,” I begged.

“You’re such a pain in the ass!” he bitched as he released his grasp.

I walked back to my place on the sofa, feeling defeated. “I know, Dad. That’s why you made me Queen of You.”

The Injured Messenger , gouache on paper, 1994

The Injured Messenger, gouache on paper, 1994

I called Chris to commiserate. He felt awful about the situation, and neither of us could win. I wished I could share the responsibility during Dad’s illness, or at least have another ally, while Chris wanted to be around to help, or at least be around, but his home was in Canada. There was also the problem of cash flow, which directly impacted his ability to simply pick up at a moment’s notice to join the circus.

But the other part of our shared pain was the loss of Dad at all. It came in waves, the recognition that this was one small step in the greater step of the loss of our patriarch. We felt orphaned prematurely, though he was not dead and we were not orphans. 

Which brought us full circle back to Dad: he brought us to this point, or at least nurtured us along the way. We psychically wrestled with what our lives would be without him and it was a lonelier, scarier place. Who would be our champion, our domestic knight, slaying the beasts of day-to-day living if it was not him?

Chris recognized that this was not a useful way of thinking. “I’m trying to change my attitude, trying to get a different outlook. Be more positive.”

I agreed that it was easy to be gloomy and harder to be constructive.  “Maybe this is the part when we pay him back for all that he’s done. The responsibility has shifted to us: we’re the ones who have to be there for him now. He was always there for us no matter what we did; now we’re going to have to be his point of stability in the world, which is pretty weird.”

Chris chuckled. “You mean that I’m going to have to be a responsible adult? That’s a pretty tall order!”

We laughed.

Storm on the Cape, oil on canvas, 1999

Storm on the Cape, oil on canvas, 1999

I was in the lobby with a coffee after shuttling Dad to his first radiation appointment. They marked Dad’s spine with tiny tattoos, upon which they zeroed in with a blast of radiation, five days a week for two weeks in the quest to keep the alien at bay. The specialists said there was little potential for bad side effects, which was a kindness, and the benefits included less pain around the many sites of the cancer in his bones.

There was an ominous weather system blowing in as we pulled into the parking lot; its clouds rose up in front of us, brooding and spectacular and black. But the day was bright and full of sun, the trees fuzzy with new spring growth, stronger light falling upon us as the sun continued its northerly arc toward summer.

It was fitting, this mix of turbulence and beauty. It lived within us too.


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