"My body's falling apart," says my father. Crumpled into the couch, the hot glow of the muted television casting a woozy pallor on his skin, Dad looks older now than I've ever seen him. Of course, he is older now, each day one step closer to the inevitable; but he's more resigned these days, more graven and hollow: a soldier slowly giving up his struggle. He moves slower, talks slower; his once-thick shock of hair now alabaster and thin. Into his cheeks the years have carved long lines, even on the left side of his face, where a spate of Bell's palsy long ago artificially relaxed his flesh.
"I don't have much longer," he says. I scoff, but he waves his hand so patiently and sadly that a spark ignites inside me. Suddenly I'm enraged, and I don't know why.
"It's true," he continues. "I've always known when I was going to die."
Thankfully, he doesn't elaborate. But I can tell he wants to. I can see so many things left unsaid percolating behind that weak smile, corroding him from the inside out. Maybe he thinks he's doing me a favor by holding it in. Maybe he simply doesn't know how to let it go.
Last week my uncle Eddie died. The detectives found him in his trailer, baking under the Arizona sun, alone except for his dog and his liquor bottles. He'd been dead at least five days.
I never knew Eddie, and my father hadn't talked to him in over thirty years. But silence doesn't mean anything. Not anymore.
Eddie's not the first family member to die, but he was the most sudden. At least with my uncle Bill, my dad had time to get used to the idea of his brother passing. Cancer does that: It gives you time to make your peace, to make amends, to say goodbye. Diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer, Bill had less time than most, but it was enough, I think, to bridge the gap between him and my father. Maybe not completely, but enough.
I only met Bill once. He came to our house when I was a little girl, because he needed a warm place to sleep for the night. While I can't recall his face, I do remember he stubbed out a cigarette in our couch, and his dingy khaki pants smelled like the sidewalk. My father kicked him out for shooting crack in our bathroom. I never saw or heard from him again.
Eddie was an alcoholic. Bill was a junkie. I didn't know either man, only their addictions. Two long and complex lives, each boiled down to a single, lonely adjective.
My father flirted with drugs and liquor in his youth, especially after he returned from Vietnam. But these days, he only has his cigarettes – no less deadly an addiction, and one that's killing him slowly, surgery by surgery, organ by organ. A triple bypass. Several stents. A mini stroke. Dad never did do anything half-assedly.
I watch my father watch me expectantly, and I don't know what to say or what to do. To see him so quietly broken over two men I never really knew – indeed, never even heard him talk about –leaves me without any compass to get my bearings. I'm left unmoored, afloat on misery I cannot share, only spectate.
"I have a doctor's appointment this Friday," he continues, looking away to stare at the mute television screen. "They found a spot on my liver. It's just a spot, but they want me to come in for a CAT scan."
"It's probably nothing," I say automatically. But I don't know that. I can't know that.
"Yeah, whatever," he says, still not looking at me. He says that a lot these days.
A long moment passes. "Watch yourself," he adds finally. "Our family's got a gene in them, that addict's gene. I'm just happy you never seemed to get it."
I say nothing. He's said this before, of course. In the past, he's blamed our Cherokee blood, although frankly, I think his and his brothers' struggles had more to do with broken Appalachian homes, endless tours in Vietnam, and childhoods spent in foster care. But I don't know that. I can't know that.
He unmutes the TV and we sit and stare at it for awhile without really watching. It's late, so late the commercials have switched over to infomercials. Eventually, I stand up, kiss my father on the cheek, and go to bed.
Upstairs, under the hot glow of the lamplight, I reach for my DS. Yawning and rubbing away the sting in my eyes, I open the clamshell. Dragon Quest IX. I've put 230 hours into it. I bought the game just three months ago.
I pause, handheld half open. My mouth tastes cottony; my head pounds. I think of the other games, and other nights just like this, and eye the DS like a half-empty bottle. I place it back on the nightstand, ashamed.
Turning over in the cold bed, I stare at the walls, wide awake and a little bit afraid.