By Pat Detmer
Dad was dying and in Intensive Care, so hooked up with wires and tubes that it made the digital tangle behind my office desk look minimalist. He’d failed to take care of himself and was paying for a sedentary lifetime of smoking, eating poorly, and liking his liquor too much. So on Easter weekend, after a call from his wife, we left our family holiday get-together and flew 450 miles to be at his side.
It was an odd and uncomfortable trip for his three daughters. After divorcing our mother, he’d remarried and had scant contact with us, preferring instead to be with his new, younger wife and her family. Given the lack of response and contact, we believed ourselves to be estranged, but he thought everything was A-OK, this in spite of the fact that we would sent him gifts with no response, and had once, on a rare visit to his home, listened to his wife breezily admit that she swiped addresses of famous people from the database of a well-known confectionary company where she worked and had sent birthday cards to Ginger Rogers, Monty Hall, and Richard Simmons, prompting me to blurt out in a family-packed car on the drive home, “Jesus Christ! Richard Simmons got a birthday card? Anybody in this car ever get a birthday card?” No hands were raised.
We weren’t staying at Dad’s on this trip. We’d squeezed into their home once before, a set piece for “Hoarders” before “Hoarders” existed. My husband and I slept in an extra bedroom filled with cartons of canned peaches, and we had to clear boxes of cereal off the kitchen chairs so we could sit down. The unused treadmill carried three brand-new bread-makers on its pristine running belt, gifts he’d purchased for his daughters but had never mailed. So although our mother had raised us to honor our family and do the right thing even if it was difficult, we took the easy way out and booked a hotel. Besides, Mother wasn’t with us.
The hospital visit was awkward. Sometimes there’s no good thing to be said over a hospital bed. It can be a struggle even when relationships are clear and deep. We sisters had always been able to cut through family tension with humor, impersonations, or breaking out in three-part harmony, but this was Intensive Care, and this was our father and his hovering stranger of a wife. The conversation ebbed and flowed. No. That’s a lie. It only ebbed.
Dad kept trying to say something that started with “M,” and we tried to help. Could it be a question about our mother? As the eldest, I knew better than anyone how she would appreciate that. Her name was “Marian,” so could it be? But no, that wasn’t it. Middle sister Susie figured it out. She shared my father’s fascination with money (which he didn’t have) and his desire to get a lot of it (which she eventually did.) Dad was trying to ask about her stocks, Microsoft, specifically. In ICU, his lungs rattling, he wanted to know how she was doing with it. Youngest sister Barbie and I faded away to the place we always went when numbers were in play. Time for a trip to the bathroom. Anybody have change for the candy machine? What’s in this magazine I thumbed through already? Eventually even that conversation stalled and died, unlike my Dad, and we decided to call it a day.
Wordlessly, we took the elevator to the lobby, pushed through the wide front doors, and stepped out into a lovely evening, walking abreast down the sidewalk and pausing at the street. Now what? He could die tonight or live for days. We were saddened, travel-weary, and cranky, in a town where we didn’t even know how to get to the nearest bar. The sun was setting behind the mountains while 400+ miles away, our families would now be headed home from a warm and lovely holiday together.
Being the eldest, I felt the need to lead. “Well … ” I began. And then stopped. What could be said? Susie was reaching into her purse, digging at the bottom of it. She found what she wanted, popping a cigarette out of the pack. “Seriously?” I cried. “Are you kidding me?” Barbie, the peacemaker, reached for my forearm as Susie dug in again, looking for a lighter. “I cannot believe you! Were you just in there with us? Do you want to end up like that?”
Unruffled, determined, she locked eyes with me as she clamped the cigarette between her lips, lit it, took a deep, deep drag, blew smoke in my face, and rasped, “I’ll dance on your fucking grave!”
For a moment we stood immobile, and then we started laughing like Dad wasn’t trussed up and dying in a room behind us. We howled, double over, hooted, coughed and fought for breath while people turned to look. It was the shared, irreverent laughter that always saved us when things were darkest and we were our most anxious and fearful. This we would always have, no matter who left us.
The eldest leads. I wiped at my teary eyes. “Let’s find a bar.”
©2020 Pat Detmer
Pat Detmer, who turned 70 in this amazingly shitty year, writes a weekly blog for her company, has written humor columns for newspapers in the Seattle area, and appeared in Newsweek’s My Turn when it was a print-only venture. She’s won fiction contests having to do with brevity and speed, and her short stories have appeared in multiple anthologies.