He took one last drag on his cigarette before putting it out in the small glass ashtray that he held in his hand. It was chilly outside, and he wanted to get back in to catch this week’s episode of Survivor.
He had been smoking for… what? Since he was in the army. That was when he was 22. So, for 65 years? Yeah. 65 years. There were a few years when he put the cigarettes away and switched over to cigars. He didn’t mind the cigars, but despite the constant pressure from his wife and children to quit smoking, they quickly decided they preferred the Pall Malls to the stench of the cheap cigars. So he easily made the transition back.
His doctor hassled him periodically. His brother, who smoked a pipe, had died of lung cancer. But every time his lung scans came back clean, even the doctor had to back off.
But as all things do, it finally caught up to him. The pathology report concluded esophageal cancer. A diagnosis that when shared is met with an uncomfortable stare and a sharp intake of breath. And then instead of following up with some cliche, such as “You can beat this,” or “People fight that all the time,” they mumble something about that being a “bad” one.
He was given three to six months. That’s an odd turn of phrase, he thought. Just who exactly would be giving him these months? Turned out, whoever it was had been feeling particularly generous, for he had already been given thirteen months. And he still felt pretty good.
After the diagnosis, he had stopped socializing. Not that he had typically socialized. He had his group he went to lunch with on Thursdays. And he spent as much time as he could with his busy grandchildren. He didn’t care about reconnecting with those from the past. He didn’t want visits from his nieces and nephews. He had no interest in trips to any of his favorite places one last time. Or any sites he had previously longed to see. He was content to remain in his cramped apartment, only to step outside on the balcony for a cigarette.
His wife had died three years before. She had been the social one. His role was to show up when and where he was instructed to. Often that required simply entering the living room – she loved to entertain. Her health deteriorated terribly the last five or so years of her life. There was no entertaining in those years. There wasn’t much of anything except for pain and regrets.
But when she died, he cleared out their home, selling some things, donating others, and finally throwing away most. He sold the house and moved into the apartment. All in preparation for Death, who had not yet knocked on his door.
He had children. Two of them. But he didn’t involve them in the purge. It simply didn’t occur to him. He saw it as a job to do, a job he completed devoid of emotion. He hadn’t considered that his children might have an emotion about it.
For most of life, Death resides in a remote hideaway. Until its presence is required. So now Death became a day-to-day visitor.
Death had stormed in and refused to be ignored. It hovered around the apartment, walked with him out to the garbage bin. It followed him down the street for dinner with his grandchildren. It peeked over the curtain while he sat on his stool in the shower to clean himself. It mocked him as he pulled a bottle of Ensure out of the refrigerator.
For years, nay for decades, he had talked to his children about his death, but never about Death. Not in any morbid sense. Not in a belief it was eminent. But from a business perspective. Some twenty-five years earlier, he began organizing his belongings into boxes in the basement to ensure a smooth transition to the next generation. Descending to the basement of boxes became a yearly tradition as important as the serving of his wife’s sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving.
The basement ritual required that he describe the contents of each box on each shelf, despite the fact that each box on each shelf was properly labelled. Some boxes were even accompanied by a sheet of paper listing the items they held tucked away.
One of his daughters, or perhaps a curious grandchild, might long to open one of those boxes to examine the hidden treasures he had just described. This was forbidden. Nothing was to be disturbed.
Facing Death from close up, though, was an entirely different affair. He faced it alone, and sometimes he didn’t face it well.
He envied those who die suddenly and are spared from having to live with Death. For them, Death simply sweeps in and whisks them off.
But when Death lurks, it demands that people replay their lives for its amusement. And he was not exempt from this obligation.
“I’ve lived an unexamined life,” he blurted out to one of his daughters. She had no idea what to do with that information. So she did nothing.
He could only explore a life unexplored alone. Death demanded it.
He pulled out some files from his desk to show her.
“Here’s the number for the broker. He manages my IRA.”
“Here’s my YMCA bill. I’ll go ahead and cancel my membership now. I haven’t been in a while.”
“This is the title to my car. I stopped driving last week. I want you to give the car to your daughter. But you’ll need to go to the DMV.”
There were other slips of paper, charts, statements, and such.
“I need you to look up soft shell crab,” he randomly requested.
An awkward silence hung in the air as she, confused, looked up soft shell crab on her phone.
“Found it. Why am I looking this up?” she asked.
“I need to know if you’re supposed to eat the shell.”
Yes, you are supposed to eat the shell. What an odd question from the man she couldn’t imagine had ever eaten crab in his life. His idea of a good meal, no, of a feast, was a well-done steak and boiled potatoes. Maybe with a slice of white bread spread with butter balancing on the edge of the plate. And a glass of milk. He had always eaten like the midwestern farm boy that he was.
“Fifty-five years ago, I went to a business dinner in New Orleans. I was auditing the Louisiana Scrap Metal Company. And I can’t imagine why I did this, but I ordered soft shell crab. I didn’t know anything about soft shell crab. And when it came, I wasn’t sure if I should eat the shell. I looked around, and no one else had ordered it. So I took a few bites, eating the shell, but I couldn’t figure it out. So I didn’t eat any more. I wanted to know if I was supposed to eat the shell.”
These were the thoughts that pushed their way into his consciousness these days, memories of events he needed to reconcile.
“I know I wasn’t a very good father. But I provided you with food on the table and a roof over your head. I gave you the basics. I believe you had what you needed,” he proclaimed about a month before Death finally took him.
His daughter protested: this wasn’t necessary, you were a fine dad, I had everything I needed.
“Stop,” he interrupted. “It’s important that you learn who your father really is.”
He had a lifetime of stories to tell, a lifetime of experiences to choose from to share with his daughter about his journey on this earth. There was the year the U.S. Army stationed him in Japan. There was his relationship with music and the piano that had been a mainstay of his life. There was college on the GI bill. There was the chance meeting with the woman who would become his wife at a political rally. There was the violent death of his parents, curtesy of a teenaged drunk driver. There was becoming a father and then a grandfather. There were the jobs where he was a workhorse who concluded his career with a gold watch and a pension. There were endless stories to draw on in this moment.
But Death was tapping its foot impatiently. And this is the story he told:
“My parents had been very successful. Very. My father ended up with nineteen hundred acres in South Dakota, which was a lot of land back then. He was an honest, hard-working man. And my mother. She was beautiful. And she came from the best family in town. She was quite the catch.
“Then my dad lost the farm to the Dust Bowl and the Depression. And the grasshoppers. We had to move in with one of their hired hands. I can’t imagine the humiliation my father must have felt. And the shame when he had to face my mother’s parents. He was never the same. You need to understand how difficult it had to be for them.
“In 1936, they moved us to Minnesota. While I lived at home, we lived on four different farms. I went to six different schools. Six. I had never thought about that before. I never made any friends.”
His voice cracked.
Did that glitch arise from a sense of regret? From a realization regarding the reserve he always practiced when around others? Did it explain why his daughter seemed like a stranger? Did he conclude that his wife’s similarly lonely childhood of moving from town to town, country to country, as a navy brat may have been what drew them to each other?
It was a lot of revelation at 86 years old. But Death does that.
“But here is what I want to tell you. When I was six years old, I did something that upset my father. I don’t remember what I did, but he was really angry at me. I remember a big tree stump in the yard, and he called me over to it. Just by the tone of voice, I knew I had done something wrong. I walked over to that stump, and I watched my father pull off his belt.”
He paused, playing the scene in his head like an old movie.
“I don’t have any memory of him ever hitting me. But he must have. He must have…”
Death pulled the memory from the past and threw it in his lap, right there, in his easy chair in his small apartment. He was no longer sharing the story with his daughter. He was talking to Death.
“I became hysterical. Just hysterical. I wouldn’t stop crying. I just couldn’t stop. I remember trying to hide behind the stump as he stood over me. But I don’t remember him hitting me. When he walked away, I ran out into the cornfield, far enough that I couldn’t see the house or the barn. And I sat behind a corn stalk for hours. I never wanted to go home again.
“It started getting dark, and even though I was scared to face my father again, I knew I would have to go home. When I walked into the kitchen, dinner was on the table. My parents acted like nothing had happened. So I sat down in silence and ate.
“And you know, I think they made an agreement that night. For my father never spoke to me again.”
He hesitated. But Death demanded he finish.
“My father never talked to me again. I was six years old. Oh he gave me directions: milk the cows, sweep the barn, fill up the truck. But that was it. Whatever I did, he must have been so disappointed in me.
“And my mother, she never talked to me either. But they provided me with the basics. My mother drove me where I needed to go. She let me join the band, and she would drive me. I played football one year, and she drove me to that. I can’t complain because they did provide for me.”
A month later, he grudgingly gave up the cigarettes when he entered into hospice care. Looking over his chart, the staff, who had seen this same scene play out countless times, predicted he would be there for nine weeks.
But Death, satisfied, spared him and gave him one.