A father comes to terms with terminal illness, searches for absolution. Work in progress.
A / G O O D / D E A T H
K E A T O N C O O P E R
A lump smaller than an apple seed can change your perspective in ways nothing else can. Haven't spoken to your estranged daughter in six and a half years? Spent the better part of a decade with a woman you love, but delayed marriage because it just didn't seem all that important in the moment? Been meaning to bequeath the family publishing business to your (for lack of a better word) unsettled son? Have dreamt of taking that trip with the other son to the hunting cabin on the Peninsula but felt like there were more pressing matters to attend to? Wanted to get high out of your fucking mind on psilocybin mushrooms like you did when you were twenty but, you know, now, you're a responsible adult with a reputation to uphold?
As a means to elicit changing one's priorities, nothing quite cuts it like being told the tiny mass pressing against your spinal column will kill you dead within the year. And in one way or another, it was the only goddamn thing in the world that would force you to see it all the way through to the end. You're tired of being a bitter old man, Arthur. You're tired of a lot of things. Now, this long nap you've been talking about isn't a remote prospect but a goddamn guest on your stoop with his fist wrapped around the stupid knocker.
Knock knock. Who's there? Not. Not who? Not a fucking joke.
It's that or it's all a joke. And you know, you kinda hope it is. So, you look at yourself in the mirror and smile the dumbest smile you've ever seen, and you cry a little--but just a little. You're gonna miss this life. But you see your daughter's eyes as they were when she was a little girl playing an out-of-tune piano and you know you're going to see them again because you also know you're not going out on anyone's terms but your own. And this thought makes your smile even dumber and it makes you cry a little more--but just a little. And you put on your pants. And you put on your shirt. And you put on your shoes. And you wipe the tears off your face. And you breathe deep into your chest. It hurts but you breathe deep again. And you sit down next to your woman as she sleeps in your bed barely covered by the sheets. And you kiss her. And you whisper into her ear that you love her. And you cry--but just a little. And you get up and you walk out on the streets and you say, "Good morning," to the first person you see. And you walk to that park with the totem pole at the north end of the Market, the one where all the tourists and drifters go to buy pot, and you find an empty bench overlooking the water and you claim it for yourself. And you look at your phone. And you call your doctor. And he answers. And you ask him a question.
"Dr. Isherwood? Yes. This is Arthur Bridegroom. I know I have an appointment scheduled for Friday where we can iron out all the details, but I wanted to ask you something. Look, what, if anything, can you tell me about Death with Dignity?"
I've gotta wonder what's the matter with a little bit of clarity? I know it doesn't make it any easier being all in on something so glum, but I can't shake the feeling that I'm better off knowing I'm not long for this world. I once thought I had a long life ahead of me and you know, I never took the time to appreciate all the little things. It's disappointing that I never really told my children I loved them. I think they know I did, but, man, I could never actually say the words. For so long, I just thought there'd be a right time. And then my daughter, Mallory, and I had a falling out. She married a woman twice her age the summer after she graduated from college--I didn't give two fucks that she was gay, but I was never able to support the age difference. And then, they moved to Portland not long after the wedding (to which I was not invited) and now she's got two kids I've never met. I was supposed to be there, you see. I was supposed to support her as an adult making choices she's more than capable of making. And I was meant to tell her I loved her. But I made one of the ten greatest mistakes of my life then. And then I didn't know how to come back from that. I couldn't just call her out of the blue and announce my great shame to her. I was too proud. It's only now that the thought of actually reconciling, if she'd even have it, really made any sense at all. God, I really fucked that one up. How do you tell your daughter in the same phone call that you're sorry, that you love her, and that you're dying? And does the last bit take all the meaning out of the first? Because, God if I don't feel like I'm just doing it out some sort of misplaced obligation, not to her, but to myself. And that makes me feel like the most selfish sonuvabitch on the face of the Earth.
And then there are my sons, Peter and Benny. Identical Twins. They just turned thirty. They're on two separate trajectories, those two. Let me tell you, I want the best for them both, truly, and I fully expect it for Peter. He's a good kid. Always been smart as whip, you know. He opened a successful bar a few years ago and has been seeing this nice girl, Diana for about as long. Benny on the other hand--look, Benny was smart, too. But maybe just a bit too smart for his own good. You see, he helped me for a few years running our publishing house. I loved having him there. But there was always something--something off. He was a sensitive boy. And you know, I could say one thing and it'd throw him off for the rest of the day. And then one day, he took a lunch break and disappeared for a week. We didn't know what to think, how to feel. Nothing. And then we got a call from one of his college buddies thinking he might have an idea where he was. So, my ex-wife and I drove across the state and found him locked in his car with a dozen or so bottles of whiskey, God knows how many cigarette butts and a loaded shotgun. We got him home and he was well again for a while, until he wasn't. God, there were moments in the first few years, I thought he'd go on one these benders and that he was going to kill himself and I'd never see him again. You know, he's on medication now--seems to be doing okay. Staying with his mother. I'll say one thing, though: the one bright side to this whole goddamn ordeal is being pretty fucking sure that he'll outlive me.
And Claire. She's been so patient through it all. Been there through all the rough patches with my kids and with my ex. And at times they were pretty fucking rough. She's supported me in ways I can't even describe. Let's be clear, she never took any shit from me, either. But she never had any kids of her own. Not sure she ever wanted any. So that she's been like a second mother to my kids in so many ways always made me love her just that much more.
Claire knows I'm sick. She knows it's bad. Yet, I haven't been able to tell her what I want to do about it. I'm not sure how she'd take it. My kids, save Peter, know nothing either. I haven't said anything to him, of course, but he's that kind of perceptive. He just reads into these things better than anyone.
I say all of this for so many reasons. I think what I keep coming back to though is this one thing. This one little thing just tears me apart, man. My life--look, I've got my successes and I've sure as hell had a good shake of failures--my life has been a mixed bag. I'm here at the end now and I'm wondering if it will be enough? I just don't know. All I've got is those I'll leave behind. And it feels awfully shaky right now.
There are some moments you see something incredible--something you couldn't imagine in a million years if you tried. And they linger with you like nothing else. I keep returning to this one particular moment like a morbid calling card of clarity. It's late on a weeknight and there aren't a lot of people out. I see this doe. And she's still as a goddamn mountain, standing on the sidewalk at the intersection of Second and Virginia. She's just standing there, staring me down like this grand inquisitor. And I can't take my eyes off of her. It's like, there's this staring match between us and neither of us has plans to lose. And she slowly moves out from the sidewalk to the middle of the intersection. And I catch it from the corner of my eye--two fawns sprint out from an alleyway behind the Moore Theater to meet their mother. And she's still just staring at me. Still just standing there. And she turns to her fawns and gently encourages them onward. They cross to the opposite side of the street and she turns back to me. Meanwhile, I can't stop watching it all unfold. She takes one more step and, wham! Some asshole in Land Rover slams right into her, sending her distorted body into a telephone pole a few feet in front of me. Her fawns disperse as the driver exits his vehicle. And he says, "What the fuck? Did I just hit a deer?" And I say, "Yeah, man. You did." "Why the fuck is there a deer in the middle of Downtown Seattle?" That's a good question. "Good question," I say. Upon further inspection, it's clear that it's still alive. "Oh fuck, man! He's still moving!" he says. I correct him. "She's still moving." "What?" he says. "It's a doe. Ergo, she's still moving." "The fuck does it matter, man?" he says. "Doe, a deer. A female deer? You never seen The Sound of Music?" And now he's incredulous, "What the fuck are you on about, man?" "You were right, it doesn't really matter. Nevertheless, what are you going to do about this? You can't just let her suffer." I say. And he looks at me like I asked him to shoot his kid. "No, man! I'm not gonna do that." "Well, somebody's got to." "You do it!" he says. "Okay." Okay. "You got a tire-iron in there?" I ask him. "A tire-iron?" "Yeah. A tire-iron. Unless you got something better in there." And he digs around in the back of his Land Rover and pulls out a screwdriver. "A screwdriver?" "That's all I've got, man," he says. That's all he had, I guess. So, I knelt down beside her and I pressed the screwdriver against the base of her skull, took a deep breath and smashed my palm on the handle. Those fucking moments, man.
I call Peter this morning and ask if he could spare a couple days at the hunting cabin with me under the pretense of catching up. He says Diana is back from some conference in L.A., that she could cover a few shifts, and he's got the bandwidth to spend some time with me. He tells me to meet him at his bar on Friday at noon and we can make a stopover at the Army & Navy Surplus to pick up some last-minute gear. I tell him I have a surprise for him. He is curious but has never been the type to pry in these situations. I tell him I look forward to seeing him.
Claire comes home from Caffe Vita, kisses my forehead and offers me an Americano. She seizes my free hand and sits next to me on our sofa. I tell her about my phone call with Peter and suggest we listen to a record. She pulls Symbiosis by Bill Evans. Excellent choice. We listen to the first side, punctuated only by one of the of two of us intermittently trilling the keys on my daughter's piano. Side two. I look up and down at her as she sways moodily during the second movement. And all I can think is how much I want to make love to her. I wrap myself around her hips, resting my head in the center of her body, and inhale. She exudes a comforting fragrance of warm pastry--of fresh butter and toasted flour, of nutmeg and cardamom. And I pull my head under her blouse and kiss her belly. She undoes the buttons on her mom jeans and my fingers tiptoe cautiously into her panties. She uses her body to guide me to the music, now the dulcet croons of Jeff Buckley bellowing Dink's Song. And it's all I can do not to be consumed. She moans--as I kiss her below the line and finally give into the call. I moan--as the music swells and her body pulsates in some kind of cosmic unison. We take the sofa, shedding layers of clothing like the last leaves on an autumn tree. Never guarded. Never fully cognizant of the layout of the room surrounding us. A lamp is knocked over. A paper coffee cup is toppled. And none of it matters now. All I see is her. All she sees is me. And nothing has ever seemed clearer. I place my hands on her breasts and whisper little truths of love just below her ear, nipping at her neck. And she rests a hand on my groin and assures me she knows what she's doing. I never question her. And I feel a rush of blood course through me. I haven't felt this alive since before I got sick. But as it is wont to do, the fatigue supplementary to this illness, floods me as quickly as the moment began. She runs her fingers through my hair, reassuring me that all is okay. There is a part of me that believes her. There is another that wants to scream. I lose it. She brushes the tears away from my eyes. "Baby. Baby, what's wrong? I want to help you. But I can't if you don't tell me what's going on." She holds me so close I lose my breath. "It's getting worse, Claire. It's gonna get a lot worse, babe. And I don't have it in me to keep it going forever." And I realize now that I must tell her what I intend to do. "Honey. I'm listening. You can tell me anything, you know that?" I come a little more undone, sinking deep into the sofa cushions and I cradle her cheeks in the palm of my hands. "I've got six months, max. There's only one more stop on this train, babe. And I'm ready to get off. I want to finish up some things before the end, but you need to know I'm talking with Dr. Isherwood about physician-assisted suicide."