Last year at this time I was in Middltetown, Ohio, taking care of my 86-year-old father, who was dying of pancreatic cancer. (He died Jan. 7.) Yesterday, in hopes of finding solace for a friend whose mother has cancer, I went back there.
Back, as I remembered it with the help of the Writing Boots archives, to that cocoon where Dad and I lived for a little while—the brightly lit living room where he gaped at the newspaper all morning as I fiddled with my laptop, but never let him out of my peripheral vision.
That part hasn't changed. In fact, my friend, not much about my relationship with Dad has changed. The phone calls have ceased, but the words remain. —DM
Words between us
can't write anymore because the pills make his head fuzzy. He wants me
to come up with something to write back to "all these people," a
half-dozen family members and friends who have written him letters
telling him what he's meant to them.
I instinctively resist
because I think writers can't ghostwrite for writers, a notion he seems
to think is a cop-out. "I asked David for help writing these letters,"
I hear him telling my sister on the phone, "and he put on his hat and
went out the door."
So I try.
I tell him
he's already done his part in the lives of these letter writers, and
all they really want to know is that he received their letters of
appreciation. "Thank you for your fine letter," I propose he writes on
cards that I'll address. "And I want you to know that it meant a great
deal to me, and so do you."
"But that's what you'd write," he says. "It's not what I'd write."
Between reruns of the above episode, words hold us together.
remembers a fragment from a poem he once knew: "like a bubble it burst,
all at once and nothing first." We search in vain for the rest of the
We make fun of the hospice nurse, who can't
pronounced a particular one-syllable Middletown street name correctly
because of her southern accent.
At the dinner table, he
stares at a photograph of himself in the cockpit of an airplane that has the numbers
N1451R on the fuselage. "Five-One Ringo," he says over and over because
doing so makes him feel like pilot again.
Reading Old Cars Weekly,
he grumbles about the term "swapped out" as it's used to refer to
engines that are replaced with other engines. The "out" part, he says,
is "totally unnecessary." He says so with such increasing force that
I'm compelled to remind him, defensively, that I didn't invent the
term. "Well, you need to do something about it," he says with only the
hint of a grin.
Words to us are things, every bit as much
as airplanes and automobiles and Oxycodone pills are things, and we
hold onto them, one on each end, and we spin around together.