Things a Man Needs to Hear Before He Dies
In memory of my father, Lester (October 1946 – December 2015)
The memory is fresh: he smells like a man who has worked in dirt and sun for weeks without a bath, but I can’t tell him this. I can’t tell him his house smells the same, that the black-grey stained work clothes he has hanging on rusted nails throughout the house reek loudly, calling gingy flies from miles away. I can’t tell him, so I stand by the side of his house, facing the row of lanky hibiscus plants shielding his house from the street and talk with him as he sits in the doorway of the room that multitasks as living room, kitchen, and bedroom. A small, square piece of board resting on his aging knees holds his pile of weed—his delight, his morning coffee, and night cap—the seventh smoke he will be having since he started his day twelve hours ago. Skillfully he cuts away at the herb, removing the seeds, releasing the trapped scents that seem to say, “This is top class weed, high grade, homegrown—Brand Jamaica.”
As soon as he’s done cutting, he masterfully rolls his pile of weed into a Rizla. The white paper creates a hollow haven for the weed and a receptive conductor of lighter flame. He lights his finished spliff with his silver lighter, puffing at the tapered end of the spliff until the tip is red enough with flame to sustain itself. Then he cloaks his lips around his spliff, rests his back against the doorpost, and fills his insides with smoke. Slowly, as if not to allow a thread of the savory billow to escape until he’s ready to let it go, he raises his head—chin in the air, mouth pouted—and allows the small, gray cloud of smoke to seep through his teeth and nose into the air towards me, past me, and above us both. Between puffs, we talk about nothing in particular: how school is going, how well the corn crop is flourishing, and whether it will ripen in time for Christmas harvesting. We talk until dusk engulfs us, and then I walk home, a five-minute stroll from his house to my mother’s.
I cannot say my dad was my hero like some adults looking back on their childhoods would, but he certainly wasn’t my enemy, either. In my mind, I struggle to figure out where to place him or how to describe the relationship we had. By the time I turned ten, my opinions of him began to be shaped not solely by my own experiences with him but also by those vicarious experiences related to me by family members and friends of the family. The combined effect made for a confusion that would follow me into my adult life. He was and still is a hardened man, both respected and feared for a temper that saw my mother separating from him when I was about six years old. Since then, my conflicting feelings about my father have grown into a tangled web of emotions. My earliest childhood memory of him is a blurry glimpse of myself at around two years old asleep on his stomach. Throughout my teenage and adult years, I have sometimes wondered whether this memory actually happened or was skillfully crafted by my very active imagination. My emotions seem to say the memory is real, but my more logical self wants to believe otherwise.
My logical self, in light of information received over time, knows that my father was an abusive person. Though I never experienced the full extent of his wrath, the women he had relationships with and the children he got from his first relationship were not as lucky. One of these women was my mother, and these children were my older half-brothers and sister. Though my mother did not try to poison my thoughts towards my father, I was privy to stories about the grotesque nature of the abuse he dealt to his own children, actions that in my childhood eyes were those of a monster. I can still see my mother’s scars and remember clearly the day I returned from a walk with my older sister to find our neighbor shaving a section of her head to reveal a fresh, bloody wound. I don’t remember how I reacted at that moment, but my sister cried. I imagine I cried, too.
As a teenager and young adult, I felt this was reason enough to hate him, but I still harbored tender feelings towards my father, who had never raised a hand at me or threatened me with more than a stare. My siblings have always accused me of being his favorite, the one least likely to rile his temper, the one who won most of his endearing smiles, the one on whom he spent the most money. That last accusation was linked to the fact that I was the only one of all his children to attend high school, thus obtaining monetary support from my father over a longer period of time. This support came with eyes that beamed with the pride of knowing that one of his children was accomplishing something that was unprecedented in his family. Though there may have been some merit to my siblings’ claims, I saw my relationship with my father as one of mutual respect. I respected his diligence and showed an interest in his seemingly mundane and primitive farming practices. In return for my interest, he spoke to me not as a child but as he would a colleague, asking for and valuing my opinions on different aspects of farming. How could I hate him when I was more familiar with this other side of him: the charming, funny, and know-it-all side that made him human to me? To hate him, I would need to forget the talks we had sitting outside his house or standing in the middle of a field of tomatoes, yams, or whatever else he was sowing or reaping at the time.
Sometimes it helps if I remind myself that he too had suffered at an early age at the hands of his own father, who had at first disowned him. At the age of six, his mother dropped him on his father’s doorstep and left him there indefinitely. By the time he was twelve, he was a man used to fending for himself. Having had to endure the hard knocks of his father, he had been forced to grow up at accelerated speed. He must have felt it necessary to strike fear into the hearts of others before they had a chance to strike fear into his. Looking back, I cannot think of one man or woman who had ever willfully challenged my father. The deadly intensity with which he spoke made it easy to believe he was capable of the most devilish acts. Though I knew this in my head, my heart knew that there was more to my father than his anger. This was the same man who laughed at my jokes and listened attentively to my accounts of school ground activities while he pulled weeds from a patch of cabbage or watered sun-drenched tomato shoots. On these occasions, I reveled in the light of his attentiveness and couldn’t care less that there, in the middle of his field, sweat stains creating waves across his shirt, he was probably the most imperfect man I knew.
In February 2015, my mother reluctantly informed me that my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer in the latter part of 2014. She kept the news from me for at least four months after finding out and only decided to tell me after my niece threatened to tell me herself. It is difficult to explain exactly how I felt upon receiving the news. It was as if a dreaded fear had materialized; a nightmare had suddenly become real. In spite of this, I can’t say I was surprised about my father’s diagnosis. I had expected it. I didn’t know when it would happen, but in my teenage head, I had planned for it. I knew that at the rate that he smoked, both cigarettes and marijuana, lung cancer was inevitable. I knew from my failed attempt at saving him that I had to come up with a different plan.
My plan was simply to be ready for that day, to be financially stable and in a position to take care of him when it happened. This plan was conceived after one of my most memorable experiences with my father. When I was thirteen, I thought for a few minutes that it was possible to save my father from himself and from lung cancer. These thoughts came at the prompting of my half-sister, who was visiting one Sunday afternoon. Maybe she, too, saw what the future held for my father if he continued to smoke. Boosting my confidence with the notion that I was my father’s favorite, she charmed me into hiding my father’s pack of cigarettes. I took the bait; I took the cigarettes back to my mother’s house while my father was away. For the next thirty minutes, I felt like Superman after one of his earth-saving missions. I was proud of myself, until I heard my name called in the grimmest of tones. It was my father and he was spitting fire.
“KAREEN! Where’s mi cigarette?” His voice, a cross between a sword and a drum, left me dumbfounded.
“Why you touch me cigarette? What you do with them?” he continued, further enraged by my non-response.
As if under a spell, I stood at the window of my mother’s house looking down the slope at him. He stood a few feet away from the house and from my position at the window, forced by his position to look up at me. Somehow, he managed to send the wrath in his voice up the hill and through the window where I stood, striking fear into my very core.
“Carry mi cigarette. Come give mi!”
At this, I fetched the box from its hiding place above the door and walked what felt like a whole mile, legs shaking, heart racing, down the slope. Standing arms-length away from him, I stretched my hand toward him slowly and cautiously. He grabbed the box from my hand. Like a scared rabbit, I jumped backwards, avoiding his gaze. I got off that day with a warning but vowed never again to touch his cigarettes. That day I realized I needed a Plan B, a plan for the arrival of cancer.
Twelve years have passed since that day I stood talking to my father while he sat on his doorstep smoking weed. I sit beside his bed thinking hard of things that we could talk about. Things like how well I’m doing in college or how my brother wishes he could come see our father, but he can’t. None of these topics seem fitting, so I just sit here hoping that he will say something that I can work with. Then we could talk like old times. We could probably pretend he has a spliff, as if the many spliffs that he’s had hasn’t changed his life at all. It has been a year and seven months since I last saw him, and I can’t think of anything to break the ice that time has placed between us.
Twelve years, and he still smells—now he smells like sickness and cancer—but I can’t tell him this. His feet are swollen, his fingers the size of my two thumbs. His face is scarred by wrinkles that seem to have been drawn overnight. He is a gaunt replica of the man who had sat on the doorstep cutting weed. The man who talked with me in the middle of his tomato field had been bigger. His face shone when he laughed, and he stood upright. Now he’s lying in a hospital bed, a tube running from the back of his hand to a bag suspended on a pole beside his bed. He has a boy’s body now, small, a smile that resembles a wince, and he is lying as if the bed is swallowing him whole.
I think back to the uncertain memory of lying on my father’s chest. In my memory, he’s a different man, healthier and stronger. This memory is now clearer than ever. I am lying on his chest because of an infestation of large red ants, a quarter to half an inch long. Instinctively, I touch my right ear lobe, feeling for the indentation left at the area where one of these ants had bitten me as a child. I was sleeping on my father’s chest to prevent any further bites. He was protecting me much like I had tried to protect him from cancer.
I had tried to save him but failed, and my Plan B had not yet gotten off the ground. The child inside still regrets not being able to save my father, but my logical self sees now that there was nothing I could have done to save him. The doctor comes and draws the last of many vials of blood to run the last of many tests. My father grimaces in pain, his hand jerks, and his blood spills and runs off his hand onto the white sheet swiftly, as if racing to find the cure for its thinned constitution. My heart is ripped to shreds at the sight of his pain, and I cry with him and for him. I cry with him because my mother and my aunt have left the room to shield themselves from the burden of his pain. I cry because I want to shield myself, too, but know that he has suffered alone for too long, and it would be selfish not to suffer with him for once. I cry because my father’s pain is mine to bear, too.
They will send him home soon because there is nothing they can do for him. There is not much they can do to counter the damage that has already been done to his lungs and stomach. I will have to leave soon. Visiting hours will end. I’ll come back tomorrow, but after that I won’t come back. I’ll be far away, and he will be sent home to wait. I can’t tell him this. I can only tell him I’ll see him tomorrow. There are so many things I need to tell him and even more things that he needs to hear. But how do I tell him when I am still working them out in my head?