My Father Is Dying, a Memoir

James Tadd Adcox


My father is dying. I do not imagine that you would care. "Oh, let him die a hundred times, a thousand, a hundred thousand, if only you would shut up about it," you would say. I will not shut up about it. He is dying, and his hair is falling out, and his teeth. Oh God his teeth. He once had great shining teeth, as beautiful as the moon. Now they are an embarrassment, improper. Little jaggedy brown things that one can only imagine crawling into a mouth unasked, pleading for sanctuary.

"What has your father ever done for me? Or for you, even?" It is true that we were not close. Nevertheless I feel compelled to tell you the story of my father, how he went from a certain lump of flesh to this lump of flesh, this one, the one that is dying, its teeth and its bald head soon to be put underground and forgot. Here he is, in his small apartment, in a community specifically reserved for men and women fifty-five years and older, and dying. His rent is supplemented. By a church, I think.

Father (do I call him "father"?), father is your rent supplemented by a church?

A great hacking cough.

His lungs, his lungs are not good, but then his lungs have never been good. We have the same lungs, genetically speaking. I have looked into this—I dripped a drop of my blood on a sheet of paper, sent it away to the for-profit lab, and I gave them a check for ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents and a promise that I would not use the results for any manner of evil, and they confirmed: the same lungs in my body as in his. Allowing, naturally, for the difference in age and life experience.

My mother likes to tell me a story about a tree. When I ask her about her memories of him, there is always one involving a tree. I'm not sure what kind of tree it was, whether it was a beech or a dogwood or an oak or a palm tree. (It was probably not a palm tree.) She sat in this tree—with my father? with him on the ground below, looking up at her?—looking out at the night sky, the moon, the stars, each of which she could name. I don't know any more of the story than this. How she got in the tree, whether he chased her there, whether he was in the tree alongside her, nothing. Every time she begins to tell me this story—this, the story of the most beautiful memory of her time with him, the man she loved (I believe she loved him), and with whom she gave birth to me (does one say "gave birth with"?)—she gets sidetracked, she gets angry, she begins stumbling over her words and shaking her head, saying things like "There were good times between us, I don't want you to think that there weren't some truly lovely and wonderful moments, there were times that I would never give up, like that time in the tree; oooooooo child, but there were bad times as well, there were some really horrendous and appalling times, there were moments I wouldn't wish on anyone—I was so young then, and naïve, and impressionable, and believed in the inherent goodness of the world, and he wrecked that, though he was young as well, as young as I was, younger even, and perhaps more impressionable, naïve, etcetera—he wrecked all of that. The world has been a darker place since."

My father's apartment is supplemented by the Eternal Light Church, I have found a bill from the Eternal Light Church here on the table, my father owes Eternal Light over $2000 in rent, he stopped paying rent at one point to find out what would happen, and what happened was nothing, and then after a little while they sent him a letter that said that he owed them such and such, and sometime later they sent him another letter saying he owed them a little more, and so on, until we arrive at the present letter, lying on his otherwise uncluttered coffee table, which records the exact amount at $2374.56, including interest and late fees.

My father shrugs, between coughs.

Oh there have been men who have been sent to evict him, but each time my father has still been dying, and each time the men have left, chastened. Soon they will send the man with the strong stomach, who will not flinch from evicting a man who is so obviously dying, who will pluck up my brittle father from his preferred seat, a blue La-Z-Boy he has owned as long as I have known him, a chair which has traveled from my childhood home to the grand two story home my father shared with his second wife after his divorce from my mother; to the yet grander home with the pool he and the second wife occupied during one particularly glorious summer that shines, still, in my childhood memories; to the manufactured home owned by his in-laws in a low-rent section of Pittsburgh following his initial decline; to the apartment he currently occupies, alone, in a yet worse neighborhood of Pittsburgh—he will gather, I was saying, this strong-stomached man, my stick-thin father up in his arms, he will be gentle but strong, he will not flinch, he will take my father out the door and then, when my father is on the other side of it, he will lock the door tight with a brand-new key. My father knows he is coming, the strong-stomached eviction-man, but he does not (my father says) fear him any longer. Perhaps by then my father will be dead. "In any case, he will be doing me a service."

Let me describe my father's apartment. There is the La-Z-Boy, which I have already mentioned, which is at least as old as I am and which has become metonymic with my father's body. It is a blue that one associates with objects from four decades ago, it is unclear (even, I suspect, for people who lived in that decade) whether it is the case that this particular blue was inexplicably popular during that decade or whether it had originally been the kind of blue which might be recognizable in the present decade and its present color the result of complex chemical changes in the dyes taking place over time. There is also a TV, on a small, metal TV tray.

"He is not so anonymous as he thinks he is," my father says, between coughs. He is referring, I understand, to the strong-stomached man who will one day arrive. "Here, look." My father brings me to the closed blinds (I have never seen the blinds in his apartment opened) and demonstrates how subtly he can raise a single venetian blade, slowly, a fraction of an inch, allowing him to peek out at the parking lot beyond his window without being exposed. "I've seen him coming for others," my father says, "carrying them out in his broad arms, tossing them into the back of his Nissan Sentra, driving them away." How big is he, I ask. He must be very large, I assume, to so easily carry them out. My father studies me for a moment. About your size, he says.

Is that large enough, I ask.

My father tells me a story: once upon a time he had been entrusted with the care of a friend's, a female friend's, cat while she and her housemates were out of town. It is important for the story, I think, to clarify that this female friend was someone he had been involved with, they had had an affair, the affair was over and though difficult feelings remained my father prided himself on staying on good terms with anyone with whom he had had an affair. My father is extremely allergic to cats—if he touches one and then touches his face, his face will begin to redden and swell up and he will begin making terrifying wheezing sounds whenever he draws breath. And he is nearly always touching his face, brushing his lips thoughtfully with a finger or rubbing at his eyes. This allergy has plagued him all his life. I mention this to make clear what kind of favor it was, for my father to agree to care for a female friend's cat while said friend was away.

On the date his friend was to return—the last day that my father had responsibilities towards the cat—he went to his friend's house slightly after six o'clock, let himself in with the key, fulfilled his duties, and left, locking the door behind him. At nine o'clock that night, his friend called from a pay phone on her block.

"Did you leave the front door open?" she asked my father. My father declared that he had not. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Not even maybe by mistake, just a little crack?" He was sure that he had closed the door and locked it behind him. "Actually," the friend said, "the truth is, it looks a little bit like it's broken. Was it broken when you left?" It was not, my father said. "You don't think somebody broke in, do you?" the friend asked.

Of course someone had broken in. My father told his friend, who wanted to go inside the house to investigate, to stay away, that he would call the police. When the police arrived, one officer gathered evidence, while another stayed downstairs and spoke with my father and his friend. "Things end on bad terms between you two?" the officer asked. My father's friend snorted. "Who broke up with who?" the officer asked. "Who do you think?" my father's friend said.

It was clear that the officer suspected my father of some connection to the break-in, even though, as my father pointed out to the officer, my father had a key and would therefore have no reason to break in. My father, trying to get on the officer's good side, asked, "How big would somebody have to be, to break a door down like that?" It didn't actually take that much to break down a door, the officer said. Most gave if you applied only a little sharp pressure. He looked my father up and down, meaningfully. "I'd say someone about your size would have no problem with it," the officer said.

What my father is telling me is that most of us move through the world without realizing how strong we actually are, and that most of what we consider to be obstacles to our strength are not physical but rather symbolic obstacles. I myself am plenty strong enough to lift my father and drag him from his house, is what my father means to say.

We test this proposition: My father climbs into my arms. He is quiet and slack, a brittle body, just-warm, just-breathing. My father's breath against my face: awful, but full of love.

We are like that when he opens the door, the strong-stomached man who will evict my father. Opens it, doesn't force the lock, doesn't kick it in. Doesn't need to, it opens for him. It is not that he is physically intimidating, he isn't, he's not in bad shape but neither is he what you would think of as muscular. Rather he is morally intimidating. One understands, looking at his expression, that he will do what he needs to. One asks oneself: throughout my life has there even once been a situation in which I have been able to tell myself, in all truthfulness, that I would do whatever I needed to do, no matter what it was, to accomplish that which I wished to accomplish? He is a little taller than me, though not by much. He's balding, his lips are pursed, he's wearing an old sweatshirt.

I hand my father over to him, gently, as if my father were asleep. My father is not asleep. He is agitated. His spittle lands on my neck. He knows very well what I am doing, how I am betraying him. Through the slit in the blind, I watch as the strong-stomached man places my father into the back of his Nissan Sentra, cupping my father's head with his hand to prevent him from bumping it, and shuts the door. A moment later they are gone.

Perhaps though it was a palm tree, the tree in my mother's story, since I know that once, in the years before I was born, they took a trip to Hawaii together, they stayed in an open-air hotel and made love in their hotel room bed with the breeze from the ocean coming in warm and full of salt and rode with a man who claimed to be a tour guide up the side of the volcano Haleakala. He drove them from one small village to another, stopping to speak with the villagers in Hawaiian, gesturing to my father and mother still seated in the back of his rickety Jeep, and at times receiving small amounts of money from the villagers. My parents had no idea what was happening. No explanation seemed forthcoming from their guide, who had turned evasive when speaking to them in English. They began to wonder whether they had been kidnapped. This was when they were still in love, although what part of their love it was, whether it was their first love, or whether it was their steady love, or whether it was the love that follows betrayal and reconciliation, I cannot say.