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“There’s someone in the bathroom at night who tries to stop me from getting in,” my father insists a few weeks before his death. “I don’t see him, but I know he’s there.” [End Page 157]
I nod as if this invisible predator is real, doing his dirty work in the dark. I never challenge my father’s delusion, just as I never challenge the certainty that with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer, he will soon die. Though my father’s been a family physician in Alabama for almost fifty years and for the last three months has dressed in a suit and tie and sat for two hours at his desk, he’s never once mentioned that he has cancer. “This problem,” he calls it. “When I get over this problem.”
I nod at this, too.
My father is seventy-nine, and though he will not see eighty—shy only three months—I believe this eighty-years marker would have pleased him, fulfilling a triumphant defiance of his past, when, during my childhood, he both secretly feared and ritually announced that he’d be dead by forty. Not thirty-nine. Not forty-one or forty-two or forty-three. No, he would collapse at forty, as if this were an inheritance from his father, who died at forty, on the way to the hospital, from untreated peritonitis. Then again, perhaps this premonition came from the recognition that he was descended from a long line of Irish Catholic alcoholics: garrulous, optimistic, reality-denying drinkers who casually dismissed heart attacks, strokes, and exhausted livers, even though the clock was ticking. Indeed, the stories were vivid, sobering: his grandfather (his father’s father), once widowed, packed up his three kids and traveled with them by train from Nashville to Mobile, insisting that they wait in the Mobile train station and mind the oldest while he went to find work and a place for them to live. He returned twenty years later.
Instead of dying at forty, my father was revitalized, an unexpected reckoning with fate: in his next decade, he became an even more popular doctor in our town—elected president of the county medical association, serving as mayor pro tem of the city council, and named to the boards of hospitals and banks and universities, becoming—to use his most valued compliment of others—a “credit to the community.”
Rather than a coffin, he entered a new sort of daylight.
And yet it was also during this decade and the next, amid my father’s vigor and popularity, that our troubles began. At first, our disagreements and rumblings simmered rather than erupted, small storms that never escalated to dizzying winds or damaging hail, never flooded the driveway or saturated the topsoil. What they did was erode the nerves and waterlog the heart. My father, after all, was often tired from his strenuous schedule, and I had not yet been dragged down to the bottom of myself. [End Page 158]
There’s someone in the bathroom at night who tries to stop me from getting in.
“He’ll get plenty of offers,” my father said to no one in particular as he pierced the yolk of his fried egg with a piece of toast. It was a warm Saturday morning in 1962, and my father gazed out the window, where dogwood still bloomed and my mother’s ferns shimmered lush and green in the light before he pushed the dripping toast into his mouth. Sitting on either side of him at the breakfast table, my sister and I knew he meant my brother, still sleeping, as Saturday was the only day—no practices, no games—he could languish in bed. Though it was early September, college football coaches from all over the country had been angling for my brother, piling on coded compliments, sending him glossy brochures and stats and discussing campus visits for later in the fall. My father drank his coffee, scratched idly at his neck where dry skin often flecked onto his collar, then turned to my sister, who’d gone back to reading her...