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03.11.06 6:55 p.m.

A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.  

-Baruch Spinoza


Previously in Xenology: Emily's father was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.

Well, Goodbye

Emily's father learned the prognosis we all knew for days, that he would not live to see another autumn or even much of the summer. In two to three months he will be dead. Not simply that there is a possibility, but that it would take a miracle of messianic proportions for him to see winter again. He greeted this news by turning to Emily and saying fondly, "Well, goodbye."

After getting this news, they went to have a far too normal dinner at TGI-Friday's. Emily told her father that he had carte blanche to henceforth eat whatever he wanted. It isn't as though there is anything he can do to correct the problem at this juncture. No amount of broccoli and vitamin D kills ten lung tumors and I know not how many brain tumors. Have the tiramisu.

He wants to spend the last few weeks (WEEKS!) of his life getting to know me better. I mark it strange to think I am an unknown. I am here. But I suppose socialization and interpersonal knowledge doesn't transfer from the written word. He wants to take walks with me, because it is with me he is leaving his youngest daughter. I am being entrusted a girl who is a perambulator by nature. No one could cage her, yet he wants to make me her keeper. I've lasted this long by letting her roam free. Only she can be trusted to keep her.

I want very much to remain the eternal observer. Things are far easier in this niche I have carved, warm and safe. They know me here. Participation is an exacting science, the moment chosen that can be no other. To participate in his death means that it will hit me so much harder. Have I the strength to face the moment in its crisis? Yet who am I do deprive a dying man of his wish for conversations? Who am I to deny this experience, excruciatingly painful, from even myself? I am a writer, goddamn it, and great plots have been written for less.

Can I compartmentalize this? Can I ever just look him in the eyes and think, "But you will die," without attaching the refrain of a poem to it? Until I have accepted he will die, I feel useless and weak. I narrate the story but he dies off stage between commercials. A washing machine ad later, we are dressed in our funereal best and the event is over. We sniffle and indulge in product placement for Kleenex and the credits roll. It is a very special episode and we can all get back to the reruns when he has a bushy mop of red hair and carried a toddler Emily on his shoulders.

But this isn't about his death. If I must indulge in the trappings of screenwriting, I don't think I can fail to acknowledge the Very Special Message that this is all about life, of helping him to make the most of these final moments. Carpe-ing what diems we can.

He won't feel pain near the end, Emily says. She took the doctor aside and asked. He will lapse into a coma and will never come out. He will fade away and give up the ghost. Until that time, his brain is being kept from swelling by powerful steroids. He could end this in a day by failing to take this medication on time. He forestalls death with an orange pill bottle, just a few more weeks fifty pills at a time.

I want to think that this must be a liberating experience, to know that there is nothing to lose and only to gain. But I just can't. For all of my religion and the solitary memory I have of dying, I can't stop thinking that it is just a light bulb shutting off. It is man's greatest fear, that this is it. We are given a life and what happens after that is none of Death's concern. Emily wants him to try to contact her after he passes to let her know that he made the trip safely. Does that ever work? Do we just decide that a bluebird is the message because life is too goddamn harsh if we can't take the natural world for omens?

I've known him nearly five years, yet what do I really know? What did I ever get to know of him? He is a painter and the father of my lover. He painted toilet seats early in his married life. He was going to live five years in the city, five in the mountains, five in the country, and five by the sea. Artifacts, but not a life. Just gewgaws from the Stuart Shedletsky Memorial Gift Shop.

This just isn't going to be okay and there is absolutely nothing I can do to protect Emily. He will die. Natural law has decreed it so. But I am a Taoist. Isn't death as much a part of the flow as life? Why fight it? Because maybe the flow splashes into a bottomless pit past that next turn. It won't help to fight it. None of us gets out of this alive. Resisting will only hurt more. I know that I could detach into Zen so easily. To meditate on koans and feel unburdened, but maybe this burden is what I need. I can be divine, but can I handle being a man? This is mortal. This is how it feels to live and, as vast as this despair is, it is honest. It comes from the same source as the profound joys.

All of these petty thoughts creep in, like his death means that I will get to go to nice dinners with them. I don't mean that, but part of me does. Part of me finds the absurd and shallow and says these things silently to try it on for size and see how it is I will react. I feel remorseful for thinking it, but I still look forward to having the dinner.

I don't know what to say to him. You may not know it to read this, but I am quite the shy person. Some part of me is still the little boy hiding in the sleeping bag as the only way that I could actually face my parents' friends. I don't know what I feared, but I did fear. I fear now most of all, because I do not know if I can provide what he wants. I can make him think so, but he deserves better than the appearance, both as Emily's father and as a man.

He should have a Speaker for the Dead, someone to enumerate his life in the most naked way. What will I wear to his funeral, I wonder? What should I say then? Should I say anything? Is this because I did something wrong? Is my life this dramatic because I made some foul genie wish?

Missing Emily

"In all of this, the worse part is that I can't stop being angry with him. Do you know what my father said when he got in the car with my mother after his diagnosis? The first thing out of his mouth was, 'You are going to be a very rich woman.'" I scoff at this statement, because there seems nothing else to do. Money is certainly not likely to be the first thing on her mind given that her husband of the last forty years is going to die.

"The next thing he said was, 'I am going to miss Emily so much.'"

I can't stop myself and I just start crying at this. It is such a tragic statement and it brings it home to me. There is a theory, one I have espoused in stories, that Hell isn't a place as much it is a lack of the divine. The word "Emily" seems easily substitutable. I tell Emily that I need a moment and leave the restaurant at which we are eating. I try to contain my sobs until I get to my car, some place of safety where I won't be burdened with the unwelcome caring of witnesses, but I can't be bothered to open the door. I just let loose and am objectively embarrassed at the feminine and animal quality of my wracking sobs. I sound like one of the geese honking overhead, but there doesn't seem to be anyone else to hear me.

I sit in front of my car on a cement block. It is cool out, but warmer than it has been in months. I wonder how long I will cry and when the last time was that I felt this level of profound sadness. I can't remember at all and don't know if I have had just reason to feel this way since Todd died. This is so much deeper, so prolonged. Todd threw a party and was healthy, Todd hung himself and was gone. He wasn't strangled over the course of months with the awareness that his time was short.

Emily told me that her mother thinks I should not get to know her father, as that will only make his coming death harder for me. Much as I would like to, I can't agree with that. The needs of Emily's father outweigh my likely fear that I will be devastated.

I drape myself on the hood of my car and watch flimsy clouds pass over the moon. All of this is so much more than I can really handle. I try not to detach from this, to become the blue force behind my eyes and take the cosmic view. It isn't denying my emotions, but it seems too close.

I return to the table, my nose stuffed up. Emily is about to order for me. I try not to look up at the waitress, as I am sure my eyes are red and puffy. There was no need to trap onlookers in my private drama. Emily says she is sorry for ruining our evening. She has not, of course, though I have to actively distract myself from thinking of the phrase, "I am going to miss Emily so much." That does not stop being an emotional punch no matter how much I cry. Then she says that she is grateful to see me have this outburst, because I seemed far too calm about the whole situation. Today, when she told me that we might take over her father's lease on his apartment after his death, I was silent a moment and then apologized in advance for saying, "Where he has died, I will live! In his apartment!" I have to joke or I cannot cope.

Emily's mother said Emily could have anything she wants of her father's after his death. The only object to which she has laid claim is her father's bone necklace from New Zealand, an object I do not think I have ever seen. If we take his apartment, I imagine we will end up with most of its contents. I hope that isn't as morbid as it sounds.

Soon in Xenology: City day.

last watched: March of the Penguins
reading: History of Magic and the Occult
listening: The Greatest Songs Ever Written (By Us)

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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