I had just finished fighting a new friend last night when I got a call from my Dad, a call I had been waiting for, a call to explain the nature of his sudden illness and subsequent hospitalization. Matt Nelson, the new friend, opened Mellow Pages this February, a library and reading room in Bushwick. It’s a brilliant way to lose money: a tiny corner cube of a room stuffed with excellent independent books, chapbooks, zines and literary magazines. In an effort to raise money for the project, Matt volunteered to fight anyone for $20. It was a stupid idea with an overwhelming probability that someone would get seriously hurt. So, yeah, I signed up.
I’ve boxed a little but mostly, I’m just large with a long, simian reach. Matt’s not a small guy, though, he spoke knowingly about boxing gear, and he’s from Washington and they make men out of a more durable substance in the Pacific Northwest. I was worried he was downplaying his skill level and might catch me with my chin out and put me to sleep.
I got conflicting input from my friends. Most of my guy friends said “Kill him. Bloody him. Knock him down, eviscerate him, and wear his large intestine like a mink stole.” My female friends said “Jesus, just don’t hurt him.” My girlfriend said “Just don’t get hurt, okay honey?”
The day of the fundraiser, I also got the news that my Dad was in the hospital. He hadn’t been feeling well and his wife had insisted they go to the hospital. Once he was admitted, they found out that his electrolyte levels were perilously low. They replenished his potassium and calcium (and, Jesus, what other thing is in electrolytes? Help me out here, Dad) and kept him overnight. When they checked again, his electrolytes were again dangerously low. So something was up but they didn’t know what.
My sister did the panicked Google diagnosis (which we all know is a bad idea and we do it anyway) and figured it was something with his kidneys. It took me about two and a half seconds to figure out that both Tatyana and I would volunteer a kidney for the old man, but that it would be my job to bully her into letting me do it because, after all, there is some risk in donating an organ and she’s got the four kids and I just have guitars.
But at the time of the fundraiser, we still hadn’t heard back from the doctors what was up with my Dad. So Matt and I wrapped up our hands and went at it, yes, in the Mellow Pages Library. Fighting in the library is lame when you’re fifteen. I’m thirty-six. Anyway, it sucked. It sucks hurting a good person and it sucks getting hit in the face and I endured both. I knew that it would be lame to try to kill Matt because it’s pretty heroic of him to open Mellow Pages and even more heroic to offer to fight people to raise money for it. Plus he’s a good writer and I genuinely like him, and not just because he has bad ideas. I knew it would be equally lame to just defend and keep him at arm’s length all night. I mean, why offer to fight someone if you’re not going to fight? So my goal was not to hurt him and not to get hurt… but to give him enough that he remembered my name. I think he will. I will remember his name, too.
After two rounds, we’d had enough. His nose was bleeding and my mouthpiece tasted like raw steak. But, fool that Matt is, he manned up to go another two rounds with another guy who’d showed up to fight him. At the end of the first round, my phone rang: my Dad.
He sounded good, upbeat, totally normal. I could tell that he was stressed but he didn’t sound scared or weak or sick at all. They’d thought it might be his heart, he said, but he’d passed all their tests with flying colors. Then they’d found something small near his right temple. They’d excise it with surgery or radiation and he’d be fine. They were sending him home with medication and he was going to check in with a specialist soon.
I said that I wouldn’t worry because I knew his wife Theresa would be vigilant about ensuring that he got the best treatment possible.
“Did you say ‘vigilant’ or ‘belligerent?’ Because yes, she is belligerently making sure I get the best treatment available.”
I could hear him smiling. I guess the part of his body that manufactures horrible Dad jokes was still working perfectly. We talked for a minute before it really sunk in.
“Dad, I mean… you said the right temple. I mean… we are talking about a tumor inside your fucking skull, right?”
“Well, yes,” he said, “but it’s small. Maybe the size of a quarter.”
My dad has a brain tumor.
Now, listen, I know what you’re thinking, but I know that there are brain tumors, and then there are brain tumors. Theresa had a brain tumor the size of an orange removed several years ago, a tumor that had been growing very slowly in her head for a long time, a tumor that had blood vessels going through it, a tumor that only finally made its presence known when it got so large that it began crowding her brain. She’s fine. She has a job, she works her ass off in their garden, she skis, she drives her motorcycle on long tours with my Dad. She’s absolutely the person I knew before the operation.
A friend of my father’s, John Plato, a guy I knew my entire life and maybe the only guy I’ve ever met who was tougher than my Dad also had a brain tumor. It killed him. There are brain tumors, and then there are brain tumors.
I called my sister Tatyana. She was understandably worried so I tried to calm her down.
“T,” I said, “don’t let yourself freak out about this. He’s strong, he’s relatively young, Theresa came through her scare totally fine… This is not the end for him. No way.
“But, at the same time, he is going to die one day. We have to make our peace with that, as much as you can make peace with losing a parent before it happens.”
We got off the phone, both agreeing that we were fine, neither of us fine at all. You ever try to comfort someone who is freaking out about something, only to freak yourself out way worse? I came home and booked a plane ticket out to California to see my Dad in a couple of days.
I’m sure in my heart that this tumor will not kill him or even transform him, that he and I will be back working in the hot sun together next summer. Have I not told you yet that my Dad is a fucking awesome dude? I bought a house this spring and this summer, my Dad drove the eight hours down from Sutter Creek and then worked fourteen hour days with me for ten days to get it whipped in to shape. We worked side-by-side for a while, and then branched off to do separate jobs after a couple of days. He took the opportunity to listen to his iPod and he was rocking out to Guns ‘n’ Roses while he hung sheetrock with his shirt off, occasionally stopping to wipe the sweat from his face and fist pump or howl tunelessly along with the lyrics. My dad is never going to die. Are you fucking kidding me? He’s not like leather or steel because leather dries out and cracks and steel rusts. My Dad… my Dad is like an old, liquor-soaked Christmas fruitcake: he never goes bad, he just gets older and drier and harder and heavier and more potent. My dad will outlive me, he will outlive you, he will outlive all of us. This little tumor will not kill my Dad.
But my dad is going to die one day. We are all going to die. I can’t fucking handle it.
I don’t fear my own death. I fear dying because I know that dying sucks, it’s often painful and scary and protracted and I know I will be an absolute baby, blubbering and crying and begging and pleading. But I don’t fear death itself. Jumping into a frigid lake in the fall is worse. It’s scary and you dread it and then you hit the water and it’s fucking awful. With death, it’s like you jump and then the movie ends before you hit the water. No pain, no terror, no eternal hellfire, no white fluffy clouds, no 72 virgins. Death is nothing at all.
What I live in terror of is the death of other people. I don’t want to lose anyone else. Can you all stay just as you are right now, right this second? I don’t want to be brave or inspirational or even mature, I want to screw around and do juvenile, dangerous things with my idiot friends, okay? Please? Thank you.
My parents are both terrific smartasses and total ballbusters with unflagging enthusiasm for cheap jokes. I don’t want to see their mental faculties slowly hollow out, watch their bodies crumple in slow motion, watch their sharp eyes retreat into their faces. I remember being a little kid, laying next to my dad in bed, marveling at the broad expanse of his back, covered in freckles and coarse black hair. He seemed impossibly massive, like a cross between a rhinoceros and a mountain. I’m still astonished to see myself taller than my Dad in pictures. It’s an optical illusion, it’s a weird camera angle, it’s a trick of the light. My Dad will always be bigger than I am.
Here’s where I’m supposed to turn it around, right? I’m supposed to talk about how grateful I am for the time we’ve had, that we’ve been able to patch things up (and fight again, and patch things up again, and fight again…) how Death is a bookend that is necessary in order for us to enjoy the time in between the darkness at either end, and carpe diem and all that happy horseshit, right? Nope, not tonight. Not this time.
That’s all dependent on some bullshit Hollywood arc of experience between young men and their fathers: Act I: We Fight. Act II: We Make Up. Act III: The Old Man Dies. It seems to be based on the premise that once we are no longer fighting with Dad, he has served his dramatic purpose and the butchers immediately start sharpening their knives. No. My Dad and I still have a lot of projects to do together. My Dad is a good friend of mine. We enjoy each other’s company. We are just getting started.