My dad is
sitting in his easy chair. Next to him is the end table that holds
a lamp, his clicker, his razor (because he likes to shave while he
watches TV, feeling for the razor’s accuracy rather than looking for
it in a mirror) and, even now, his pack of cigarettes, his lighter
and his ashtray.
The cancer has
moved to his brain. We know it. We don’t need an MRI to tell us
that the cancer cells have done just what we have been praying they
wouldn’t: they have traveled from his lung, unwanted passengers in
his bloodstream, staking claim to his brain and multiplying in an
effort to dominate and destroy. And if the golden hue of his
usually pale Irish skin is any indicator, his liver is now riddled
with more malignant tumors.
We are in my
father’s living room, just thirteen months since his cancer
diagnosis and three months since his 61st birthday. Tom Brokaw’s
voice is coming out of the television at a decibel level that
ensures the neighbors will be able to hold a decent conversation
about current events, whether they want to or not. I am sitting on
the sofa, my younger sister Kathleen is sitting beside me; the
weariness of our day is etched on her face, her grief revealed
through the transparent mask of normalcy we are all trying to wear.
Jeanie, our stepmother and my father’s soul mate, is in the spare
room, probably on the computer and probably crying. We all do a lot
of that these days. But not in front of Dad. Whenever we do slip
up and let a tear fall for him to see he says, “Jesus Christ. I’m
not dead yet, you know.” His sense of humor has always been a
“Dad, can you
turn it down a little?” I ask, shouting in my effort to be heard
over the news.
My dad looks at
me as though I just asked him to strip naked in front of us. “You
think it’s too loud?” he questions me with a definite degree of
disdain. “Dad, I’m pretty sure the neighbors can hear the TV as well
as we can.” “I don’t care about the neighbors.” And he really
doesn’t, but he grabs the clicker and makes a pretense of clicking
the volume button.
I look around
the room. Everything is the same as it has been for the past few
years, ever since Dad and Jeanie finally got married and Dad moved
his stuff into the condo. He really didn’t have much in the way of
furniture, even after fifteen years of being divorced from my mother
and raising three kids on his own.
pictures of our family all over the room, but the one that catches
my eye is the one of Dad and Jeanie, a portrait from a cruise they
took a few years ago. They both look so stiff and so formal and,
somehow, so happy. Jeanie is wearing a brightly printed gown full
of pinks and purples and blues and she is wearing her “picture
smile.” Dad is wearing a white tuxedo with a blue bow tie that
matches the blue in Jeanie’s gown. His head is tilted to the left,
toward Jeanie, and he has a look on his face I had never seen before
– I like to think of it as the “I love this” look. He really does.
He loves cruises and he loves gambling and he loves eating and he
loves Jeanie. It is all there in that picture.
“Hey, Hon. It’s
time for Wheel of Fortune.” Jeanie comes into the room, leans over
Dad, grabs the clicker, changes the channel and then puts the
clicker back. She knows, as we all do, the clicker stays with my
I can tell she’s
been crying. And probably searching the Internet for some
last-minute-miraculous-cure for late-stage small-cell lung cancer.
She sits down in the chair next to my Dad. “Darcy?” Jeanie looks at
me expectantly, knowing that I will know exactly what she wants me
to do. I have been doing it ever since I got here over two weeks
I get up,
sighing more for the effect than because I am annoyed. I want to
help and I know Jeanie is feeling needy. I know she is truly in
pain: in her back, in her hips, in her heart. So I lean over and
take her sneakers off one at a time, then her socks. I prefer
putting her socks and sneakers on, which I will have to do in the
morning. I worry about who is going to do this for her later. After
Dad is gone and I have gone back to my life, to my husband and my
I sit back down
on the sofa, put my feet back on the coffee table and get ready to
play Wheel of Fortune with everyone in the room. We are a
competitive family, my dad most of all, and as we start calling out
letters his voice is noticeably missing. He is staring at the
television, but I don’t think he is really seeing it. Or maybe he
doesn’t remember how to play. I don’t know which it is and I don’t
want to know. I stop watching the TV. I don’t want to play
The silence is
making me sad. As I look around the room, my attention focuses on
the “other” sofa. It’s the one thing that is different, the one
thing that doesn’t belong here. It is blue and green and red plaid
and it clashes with the soft, pastel floral of the sofa I am sitting
on, the one that does belong here. But the plaid sofa had to be
moved. It was in the spare room up against the wall where the
hospital bed will be going and the hospital bed is coming in the
I look over at
my dad. He doesn’t weigh two hundred and seventy pounds any more.
At best I would guess he is now a hundred and twenty pounds lighter
than that. His hair hasn’t grown back all the way since his
chemotherapy, but he can at least comb it now, with that same little
black comb he has had for years. I love that comb. It’s silly, I
know, but I really do. I remember him combing his hair with that
comb when he got ready for work or when he had just woken up from a
He looks at me.
His eyes are still that beautiful mossy green color, but something
is missing. I can’t explain it. Vacant doesn’t really do justice
to what is missing. It is so much more than vacant; it’s weariness
and confusion and sadness and yet, still a piece of my old dad is in
He reaches over
to the end table, still watching me. I feel mesmerized, as though I
am supposed to be watching him at this moment, as though I have no
choice. He picks up the clicker, but he doesn’t change the channel
or lower the volume.
He starts to
shave with it. In long, stroking motions, from one side of his face,
under his chin and around to the other side. He is still watching
me. He is still shaving. He is rubbing his face with his other
hand, checking for the smooth skin left in the wake of his razor.
And he doesn’t know. He can’t feel what is not happening to him.
I look away
because I can feel it bubbling up in my throat. Not tears or anger
but laughter. Laughter. I really don’t want to laugh, but the
absurdity makes me giddy; and when I look at my sister it’s useless
to try to reign it in. She has seen it too, and so has Jeanie and
suddenly we are laughing. Hard, with tears running down our faces.
My dad still doesn’t know but he stops shaving and puts the clicker
asks. “What’s so funny?" I stop laughing because suddenly it feels
more like sobs, and if I start crying now I know I will never stop.
He looks at me.
He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t look mad or sad. I can’t tell if he
knows what happened or if he just knows that he will never really be
in this room with us again. Not the whole him.
sobered up as well and I know what she is going to say before she
says it. “John, Hon, look at me. Who am I, Hon?” I hate it when she
asks him that. She has been asking it for the past couple of weeks,
ever since we noticed his behavior changing. She is desperate that
he doesn’t forget her.
woman. You’re Jeanie Malone. My wife.” My dad, my real dad,
answers, rolling his eyes and looking at my sister and me for
confirmation that Jeanie is a lunatic. We give it to him.
this room is the same as it has been for years, except for the extra
sofa. And the cancer.
Darcy Lee Malone
was a caregiver for her father during the last year of his life. She
is married, the mother of four children and a graduate student
working towards her MA in English. Darcy wrote to us of her
caregiving experience, “I want to share those moments with others.
I want to let my readers know that it is normal to have moments of
laughter as well as tears, even when faced with the most devastating
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