Saying Goodbye To My Father

When it came to my father's mortality, I was somewhat philosophical.

11 February 2024 | 7 Minutes

My father criticized my mother’s cooking only twice. The first occasion was back in 1966. They were newly married, and my mother had placed a plate of hot food in front of him. He looked at the plate and said, “What’s this slop?”

My mother tossed the plate out the window. For the next five decades, my father was contrite and well-behaved. Then, a week ago, he criticized my mother’s curry.

Let me interrupt myself. I, too, once criticized my mother’s cooking. Or more accurately, I described one of her meals as average. I don’t know why I said it, frankly. I guess when one is fourteen-years-old, we somehow believe nothing in the world can kill us. My mother’s reaction was not moderate, and — long story short — when my father, last week, issued an unsavory remark concerning the unsavoriness of my mother’s curry, I knew right away the man was finally ready to die.

He’d been battling lung cancer, you see. By the way, when he received his diagnosis, the oncologist had a bit of fun with the situation. “I’ve got some good news and bad news for you,” she told my father. “The good news is you can now smoke as many cigarettes as you like.”

Dutifully, my father went down to the shops to buy a pack of cigarettes. I was there when he came back empty-handed. Remember, he hadn’t bought cigarettes since 1992.

“I’m not bloody paying that much for bloody cigarettes! They want thirty-five dollars a pack! Nearly had a heart attack!”

I said nothing. He’d already heard all my material concerning heart disease. He used to have heart attacks every second or third year. Two years ago, he briefly died whilst feeding his hens; his pacemaker revived him, and he woke up surrounded by chickens. Understandably, they were giving him some fairly peculiar looks.

He also survived bowel cancer and – on two occasions! – he criticized my mother’s cooking. A man can grow accustomed to living in the vicinity of death’s door, I suppose. It’s worth mentioning that his first heart attack happened the day I graduated from high school. Nobody should have been surprised. In those days, he considered a plate of pork crackling to be a well-balanced meal.

The following day, my mother asked me to go over to the hospital and say goodbye to him on the chance he didn’t survive the surgery. I’m a good sport, so I went along and said goodbye to him. He gave me some advice, and I didn’t listen, as is my custom. It was probably something like, buy as many lottery tickets as you canor don’t waste money on towels, because you can get them free from hotels.

Have you ever said goodbye to someone and walked away, only to discover you’re both going in the same direction? You end up having to walk half-a-block together in embarrassed silence, until you eventually and awkwardly, you blurt out, ‘Well, this is where I cross the street. See you later!’ and flee?

That’s how it’s been for me and my father. Except instead of crossing the street, I moved overseas. I’d come back every few years, turn up at my mother’s house and find him there.

“Ah,” I’d say. “Still alive, I see.”

“Yep. The doc says I’m tough as nails.”

“Then you should probably tell ‘em about the heart attacks.”

Then he’d start up with the advice, and I’d nod and pretend to listen. And there you have a full summary of our relationship over the past three decades. There’s been a lot of talk of his dying, but very little follow through. Under the circumstances, I feel I’ve been very patient through all this.

Admittedly, I might have been annoyed that his imminent death was in someway connected to tobacco. It’s not that I’m a cigar afficionado exactly, but I smoked the occasional Dutch cigarillo with my friend Zoya, and was looking forward to doing that again someday. But frankly, I fear my father’s lung cancer diagnosis has effectively killed any enthusiasm I might otherwise have felt towards cigars.

Which annoys me, because for a long time I have cultivated the dream of living in a lighthouse. After my children were all grown up, I figured I’d get myself a woolen sweater, peacoat, and corn-cob pipe, and go find myself a lighthouse on some lost stretch of coast up there in Maine or New Hampshire. I’d write my memoirs, of course, and when I was finished, I’d throw the pages into the sea, laughing madly into the wind — just to show the gods what’s what, you know? But that won’t be happening now. And before you say, ‘You can still live in a lighthouse, Kris’, just ask yourself — what’s the point of living in a lighthouse if you can’t smoke a pipe?

I should also mention that the first time I smoked a pipe was when I was nine years old. My father’s idea. He thought if I smoked a pipe as a child, it would dissuade me from ever smoking tobacco again. (It was the Eighties). Anyway, as stratagems go, this was terrifically effective. I didn’t smoke tobacco again for another ten years.

There’s a possibility that I might have seemed slightly irreverent here. Understand, my father was seventy-nine. It was his time. Besides, it’s not as if he, himself, was a gravely serious individual. He was the sort of man who would, following a hip replacement surgery, ask if he could take the hip-bone home with him. You know, to give to the dog.

He also left his body to science. He was always amused by the thought of medical students dissecting his cadaver. Which reminds me of something. When I worked at Harvard, I had a friend who maintained the computers in the Department for Anatomical Gifts (and yes, that is precisely what you think it is). Well, I found out last year that someone in that department was selling body parts on the black-market. (I know!) So, I immediately fired off an email to my friend, and told him if I found out he had any part in that sordid business, I’d be terribly disappointed in him.

Anyway, back to the story. My mother says there won’t be a funeral, and that various members of the family tree will merely get together for coffee and cake. My daughter, Hattie, has asked her Nana precisely which kind of cake, and whether this cake can be shaped like a skull and crossbones. Hattie, eight-years-old, has also asked if she may keep her grandfather’s camper van. Nana has politely declined.

I will explain to Hattie in due course that once people know you’ve inherited a dark sense of humor, you should not expect to inherit anything else, ever again.

This afternoon, I was planning to take my daughters over to say goodbye to their grandfather at the hospital. I had already said goodbye — in the early nineties, you might recall — though I thought it might be funny to show up at the hospital today and, in a loud and desperate tone, demand his bank passwords.

Or declare, “It’s me — Carmello! Your illegitimate son from your other family! I’ve tracked you down at last!”

I thought it might be amusing to turn up in a grim reaper costume. Or to leap back from my father’s deathbed and exclaim, “What do you mean, your real name is D.B. Cooper?!”

Unfortunately, there was no time; he died late last night. Later this morning, I’ll head over to my mother’s house. My sisters will be there. The task of giving me lots of advice now falls to them — but fear not, I know precisely how not to listen.

You might wonder whether, when all is said and done, I have any particular regrets concerning my relationship with my father. Well, the honest answer is yes, I do.

I regret it did not occur to me sooner that we could have tattooed onto my father’s body the following words: ‘I buried the gold bars at the following map coordinates …’

Unfortunately, this idea only came to me yesterday evening, when he was already at the hospital. It’s a real shame, I think, because I feel that would have been a profoundly satisfying way to get a dozen medical students to visit a remote corner of Peru. But which among us can say they have no regrets?

Before I go, I just want to say — I hope you’re all doing well, and thanks for being subscribed to my newsletter. And just … thanks for being here. I apologize if this newsletter was a little serious, but you know how life can get. I promise to be somewhat less serious next time, and within the next two weeks.

Yours With chaste affection,

Kris St.Gabriel



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