Recently I had my mother retell me the timeline of my father’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, reoccurrence, remission, reoccurrence and death. Actually, I knew when that last one was. I couldn’t remember details about the rest. Couldn’t remember what happened when. Going through it the first time ages 1 to 15 made it kind of a blur. All I really knew was that dad was in and out of the hospital. Sometimes he was sick. Sometimes he wasn’t. That’s about all I knew.
Hospitals were regular occurrences. I can remember being in Jr. High and a classmate saying they’d never been to a hospital before. You mean as a patient? I said. And she said, No. I mean ever. Why? she said, Have you?
Have I? Good lord, I grew up in hospital hallways. Strange, but I feel at home in hospitals. They don’t bother me. Maybe because I’ve spent so much time in their nooks and crannys – I got bored easily as a child and often went exploring in the hospitals. That made my sister mad – she thought I should be with my dad when we were there but my dad was made out of the same stuff I was and, of all people, I’m sure he understood.
You never knew when a hospital trip was coming. I do remember that. I remember everything being fine and then wham – we’d be headed to St. V’s for some reason or another. And often for days. That’s just the way it was.
One year it looked like we were going to have to celebrate Christmas at the hospital. In the days leading up to the holiday my dad tried to convince the doctors he could go home. They were budging. Somehow, however, at the last minute the doctor found some Christmas spirit and told him he could go home the next day – Christmas day.
My mom, my sister and I turned elf. We drove home and somehow, someway found a tree. We wrestled the tree inside and the decorations down from the attic and decided if Daddy was coming home, we’d damn sure have a tree up and decorated. We were so excited. You can hardly blame us. It wasn’t often we’d get to surprise my father.
We had to help him inside – he was pretty weak. We were all just bursting waiting for his reaction. He saw the tree. We shouted Surprise! He smiled and laughed and we talked a million miles a minute telling all we had to do in such little time. And then, suddenly, things went wrong. As my father was looking at the tree, his gaze zeroed in on the tree stand. He moved closer. And then closer. We all kind of chuckled. The night before, when we tried to get the tree in the tree stand, it wouldn’t’ really fit. We tried to hack at the trunk with a saw and even tried to adjust the stand but just couldn’t really make it work. Eventually my sister came up with a brilliant plan to get it to stand up by wedging it with pieces of brick. It was a smart idea. We worked and worked and busted up some brick and eventually got the tree to stand proud and solid. It wasn’t pretty but it worked and we were proud of ourselves.
As my father looked at the tree and tree stand, realization came across his face. And that’s when it happened … his hands let go of the hearth where he was resting his weight and flew to his head. MY BRICK! He shouted. What did you do to my brick???
And from us, a rousing round of, Huh?
Apparently the brick my sister and I smashed up and used bits of to wedge the tree in place was a very special brick. It came from a smokestack and it was round. Curved. I guess they don’t make them like that anymore. I don’t know. All I know is my dad went ape shit. It was like we shot his dog. And then busted the mutt into pieces and shoved it in the tree stand.
I’m sure he was tired. He was sick. Truthfully, he shouldn’t have been anywhere but in the hospital and given all of that, I guess we can excuse him. But man oh man, did he make us feel right horrible about that brick. He went on. And on. And on. We ruined Christmas. That’s what we were told. We ruined it. All because we didn’t think. All because we rushed and had to do something the easy way instead of the right way. All because we broke that brick.
I still feel awful when I think about it. When I think about that blasted brick.
My father died alone. Hooked up to machines and unable to talk. I’ve occasionally wondered what thoughts went through his mind when he was taking his final breaths. I don’t really know. I can guess. I think he was probably thinking about his wife. He was probably thinking of all the events – graduations, weddings – he would miss in his daughters’ lives. Maybe he was looking back - wishing he’d done some things differently. Maybe he was thinking of Peaches, his girlfriend from high school or places he never went. Maybe he was thinking about his very near future, about heaven and seeing his father again. Maybe one single thought went through his mind. Maybe a hundred shouted for attention. I don’t really know. But I do know one thing. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he did not lie there, gasping for air alone in an intensive care unit thinking, Damn. I wish I had that brick.
Some things matter.
Some things don’t.
Not confusing the two, that’s the tough part.