The value of a parting gift is a matter of perspective, depending on whether you inhabit the point of view of the deserted or the departed. The last gift I gave my father was arrogant and cruel, although I didn’t know it at the time. We were coming home from chemo, and his arm, swollen deep-purple red from edema, throbbed worse than the incision from the base of his neck to the crown of his head where the doctors split the skin and the skull to probe at the brain.
“Really, Dad?” I said when he told me he was having brain surgery. He was terminally ill with bone cancer. It seemed absurd to undergo such an invasive procedure given that he was facing the end.
“I don’t want that goddam thing in my brain,” he said.
He was agitated when he came back from surgery. The nurse handed him a cup of ice chips to suck.
“I don’t want ice. I want a goddam steak!”
He always was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. He probably was always stubborn too, but I didn’t notice until he got sick. He refused to ride in a wheelchair for the follow-up MRI. He wore his own thick socks, slippery on the waxed floors. It took two orderlies, one on each side, and a nurse behind him, as he shuffled one painstaking step after the other down the long hospital corridor to the radiology department. I don’t remember if Dad ever owned slippers. When I picture him as I remember him from my youth, I see his flat top haircut, blue jeans, and, when he wasn’t working, a double knit shirt with pocket over his heart, the pocket he always reached for, the pocket that held his cigarettes.
He held a cigarette in his right hand so consistently that it could have been a sixth finger, smoldering between his index and his middle finger (the one that carried the tip of a lead pencil from when a boy in school had stabbed him years earlier). I’d asked him to quit smoking since elementary school, when I saw a commercial with the district attorney Hamilton Burger (played by William Talman) from the Perry Mason series. I loved Perry Mason. I loved Della Street. I loved Paul Drake. I even liked the district attorney. If any one of them had said that it was bad to eat candy, I would have believed them. It wasn’t common knowledge—at least in my world—that smoking could kill you. Cigarette ads were still routinely shown on television. William Talman’s commercial haunted me. I pestered Dad to quit from then on.
My dad without a cigarette? Unimaginable. There were always a couple of cartons on top of the refrigerator, waiting for him to slide another package out the end, to tuck the pack in his left breast pocket.Dad smoked for years, even when he was so sick with cancer that he could hardly raise himself out of his recliner. Even when he was so weak he could no longer walk to the bathroom. (He damned well wasn’t going to rent a commode or buy a urinal; he used an emptied coffee can.) He expected to beat cancer. Who could blame him for hoping? He was 59.
Fifty-nine years old, and I was driving him home from chemo that warm July day. He’d stopped driving a couple weeks earlier; he knocked the mirror off of a parked car when he wandered out of his lane. He didn’t want to kill somebody, he said, so he let me drive him after that.
“Pull in and stop right there,” he said. “Will you run in and get me a carton?”
“I’ve never bought them for you. I’m not going to start now.” Recently, I’d said yes to other things. Yes to fixing his coffee so he could drink it through a straw. Yes to sponging his lips when he was too tired to drink. Yes to helping him fumble his penis into an empty coffee can so he could pee. On that particular righteous and awful day, I said no.
He nodded softly at me and opened the car door. I watched him stagger thirty feet to the storefront. He pulled the glass door open as if it were lead, as if he had not spent his entire adult life falling trees and packing out deer, as if the door required the last bit of resolve he held. He waited in line behind two redneck punks in sawed-off pants and red suspenders. They jostled one another and bullshitted with the clerk while my dad stood in line, wobbling with the effort it took him to stand.
I sat in the driver’s seat and watched him as he made his way to pay. He leaned on the counter for support, handed over the money, and took the carton of cigarettes from the clerk. He shuffled slowly… slowly… slowly back to the car, clutching the Benson & Hedges 100s to his chest as if they were gold. It was the last carton he would ever buy. It contained the last pack he would ever open. The last cigarette he would ever smoke. Maybe I hoped he wouldn’t ask. Maybe he knew that I refused out of love. Maybe it was fair. I had always thought of my unwillingness to contribute to his habit as a gift. But the last time he asked, I wish I’d said yes.