Sitting across the Formica tabletop in that grimy truckers diner, my father sat in the booth with this muscular hands fiddling with a matchbook as he took a draw on his cigarette. He was once a beautifully handsome man, a chiseled jaw, a Romanesque nose, brilliant gold-green eyes, jet black hair, deeply tanned skin, and a singing voice that could make a girl swoon. As his little girl, I remembered that movie-star handsome man. Now he was skin and bone, with a grayish complexion, balding, and his body wracked as he coughed up phlegm into a paper-napkin. He looked up at me briefly, and then back down. Again, eye contact. “Trace, I have cancer” he said. “Lung cancer.”
I took a moment to get my bearings. I knew he had something to tell me when he called me at work and asked if I could get off early to meet him, that it was urgent, but I hadn’t been prepared for this. “What did the doctor say? Did you get a second opinion?”
He said, “Yeah, I got three second opinions. They all say the same thing. Chemo. I start next week.”
“What’s the prognosis?” I questioned. The corner of his mouth turned up slightly and he said, “I can’t get one outta them. Could be months. Could be weeks. Or I could beat it. I’m gonna beat it.” The look in his eyes didn’t match the conviction in his voice. He knew as well as I did that he was already too sick to have a chance. All those years of smoking, drinking, and exposure to asbestos insulation, it had just been a matter of time.
I wasn’t close to this man as his adult child. He had basically abandoned my sister and me after he and my mother divorced when I was 6. I remembered sitting at the front window on Saturday mornings, time and again, waiting for dad to show up for visitation, but he rarely if ever showed. Mom would hold me in her arms as I sobbed. There was nothing she could say to take away the pain of my broken heart. My daddy didn’t love me anymore.
Now here I was, sitting across from this un-bathed man, he smelled of body odor, bourbon and stale cigarettes. For years now he had been an embarrassment to me, especially when he showed up in the parking lot of my office, asking random strangers walking in if they knew me. He once handed a co-worker a stinky and stained motivational (pyramid-scheme money management no less) cassette tape wrapped in cellophane from a cigarette pack to give to me, when he could have simply called my office phone. The look on my co-worker’s face was unbelieving that this hobo of a man was actually my father. How do you explain that away? You can’t. Why didn’t he just leave me alone like he did when I wanted him in my life? Why did he even bother to try after all these years?
It was a love-hate relationship for me at best. The little girl in me still loved this wreck of a man, despite all his failures. The adult woman was pissed as hell at him. But here I was looking into those tired eyes, and seeing my father coming to grips with his own mortality. So now he needed me. Really needed me. He had so few friends and family left. So few people that actually cared about him. He was looking for a response from me. And being the dutiful daughter, I remained strong and encouraging, and told him I would help him any way I could.
He reached across the table and took my hand and squeezed. I looked into his eyes and let him see the love I still held for him. As tears welled up in both our eyes, the barriers fell away and it was just that beautiful green-eyed man and his little girl, holding hands and smiling at one another at last.