Shaving Like Crazy
By Darcy Lee Malone

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 little quirky.

“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. 

There are 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 dad.  Period.

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 ago.

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 children.

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 anymore.

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 morning.

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 nap. 

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 there. 

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 down. 

“What?” he 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.

Jeanie has 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.

“Jesus Christ, 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.

Everything in 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 of situations.”


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