I wrote this post in early 2008, but did not publish it here until now.
My mother wore a shirt this weekend with cartoon depictions of stool from a variety of local forest animals. The headline was “Endangered Feces.” I laughed, not just at the shirt but because it was my mother wearing it; she is not prone to having funny T-shirts. Unsurprisingly, it was my father who bought it for her.
I was at my parents’ place, in part, to help out with chores. I started by sweeping the deck. The act of making long, loping strokes with the pushbroom is as familiar to me as my own name. How many times did I sweep that deck growing up? Over a thousand? Usually, I wasn’t even paying attention to what I was doing: I would be, say, fourteen years old, simmering with thoughts of sex and high school politics.
My father has shaved his head because he’s expecting his hair to fall out when he starts radiation treatments next week. His face looks like an egg, but also more like my late grandfather than I ever would have imagined possible. My brother says it’s a way for our father to keep control: remove the hair before the radiation and the chemo has a chance to do it for him. I think my brother is right.
My brother showed up unexpectedly with his whole family in tow. He came because we had decided to start filming my father, to try to catch his stories and his life on tape. We don’t know how long he has left. It might only be a few months. In any event, he will soon change, as the radiation eats away at his internal organs even as it attempts to destroy his lung cancer.
We were amazed how well the taping went. Dad had always been quiet, taciturn, uninterested in talking about his past or his feelings. We had heard dribs and drabs of it over the years, of course. But today he opened up about everything: his painful childhood, his contentious relationship with his parents, his ambitions. He seemed to be enjoying it. He seemed to realize that there was no point in holding anything back. He was ready to talk.
“Posterity will think he was always that expressive and honest,” my brother joked later. “It will be his last, great misdirection.”
Filming Dad was, in a sense, the second step of a potential new family tradition. Dad had filmed his own father several years ago, although that was on VHS and the footage has never been transferred to digital or edited. I wondered if all Howards would do this in the future. My niece might film my brother in fifty years. We all might step in front of the camera on our way out of this life, a final, formal curtain call. Digital tape might evolve into holograms; I like to imagine a Hall of Heads where our images sprout up and crackle as we talk, overlapping, about times and people long gone.
We taped for two hours this weekend. I had heard most of the stories, but some of them surprised me:
“My parents used to give me money on Sunday to take my brother and sister to the movies. It was a double feature with a cartoon, and it cost a quarter. They also gave us a nickel for candy. It took me years later to realize why they did this. Because one day, we returned home and they were upstairs in their bedroom. I found a used condom on the floor outside the door. They got us out of the house every Sunday because this was their day to have sex.”
Dad has already started losing weight. When he starts treatments, he will shoot under 150 pounds. My whole life, he has been overweight--which, as a child, I didn’t register as a negative thing. Rather, he was like a land mass, a continent that I could put my arms around. He was sometimes intimidating, even severe, but always protective and always loving. I can’t find a way to comprehend that he will shrink down until he weighs less than me. And that means I’m nowhere near to accepting that he will keep on shrinking. Dwindling. Growing even smaller until he winks out like a light.
My father died in his sleep on April 12, 2010. Long before I ever started a blog, as well as during the years that I wrote one, he was always by far my most loyal reader.