The Gift I Regret

JPEG A 0566The 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.

Dad in LR 1978

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?”

“No, Dad.”

“Debbie—”

“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.  
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9 Comments

  1. I can see how you’d regret that decision, but I imagine that your dad would’ve seen it differently. I bet he would’ve been proud that his daughter held fast to her convictions. He would’ve been proud that she didn’t let others push her around. He would’ve been proud that you didn’t argue or really try to stop him as an adult — you did stop the car, after all — but that you expected him to make his own decisions and actions.

  2. I get this. I did something very like this to my mother when she was dying. I have regretted it since. Maybe I’ll write about it. I’m not sure. I thought I had few regrets till you reminded me, here, with this one. Thank you for your beautiful honesty.

    • What are those Russian dolls that nest within one another, smaller, smaller, smaller? Sometimes, I find writing about one tiny thing I have said or done (positive or negative) is like that. I think I have a short thing to say and each layer opens another layer until somehow there is a whole chunk of essay standing there blinking at me like a dutiful pet. This felt like that. I just wanted to say, Gee, I should have done it for him, but then it manifest as something larger–the way we hold our lines for history’s sake, or because we always did, and how, I wish I could have been present enough to his need to let what I always did go. And how, having written this, I believe next time when faced with something similar, maybe I will. That’s the gift to me, I guess. I hope you’ll write about yours when you’re ready. There’s a gift for you there somewhere.

  3. Wonderfully written and brave. There are things I could, maybe should, write about my mother’s last day. But I don’t think I have the courage to write that this week. I’ll get there, though, and I’ll remember what you wrote here to guide me.

  4. It’s so hard to say no to someone. To me I see this as optimism on your part as you must have believed he would beat this thing and you wanted him to live the rest of his life healthier. Plus had you betrayed yourself and your own beliefs you would have had that on top of everything else–you just couldn’t knowingly play a part in his disease. Very very tough. I understand your feelings but what you did came from a place of love.

    • It was out of love but from a place of inflexibility. Loving actions can different when death is leaning over the shoulder and I wish I’d considered that. Next time, whatever that next time is, I hope I’ll remember that.

  5. You are such a gifted writer and compassionate with words. Yet how could a girl who was losing her father fail him. No that wasn’t you! The only pain I see in this memory, is the pain you felt in not giving him what he wanted. After all he could choose to hurt himself, even if you couldn’t. This tells me you wouldn’t do anything to hurt your father, because you loved him. Or should I add: love him still. What girl doesn’t love her father, as a hero and the strongest force in her universe. No, I’d say: his gift to you was to not let you buy those cigarettes. Then you could see his vulnerably and the way he was held captive by such a small thing. His legacy to you was remembering him strong willed. So far off in your future you could drawn from that strength in a time of need. We all have things we are held captive by but the guilt of loving someone so much you wanted them to stay around and depriving them of a weakness to make this happen is no sin I’m aware of. God works everything for His good. You have pieces of all those whom you have loved woven into your writings and memories it seems. P.S. If my grandchild wants to get behind the wheel of my car at the age of four…guess what I deprive her of her driving privileges:) Doesn’t give me any regret! Fact is: Most of us are built with good judgment to protect those we love! Love you, quit trying to find fault in yourself…I told you you’re a perfect neighbor!

    • Thanks! Not finding fault with myself–just reflecting on what I’d do differently. That last pack was not going to cost him his life or save him, and if I had it to do over again, I’d buy them. As a kindness.

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