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Hey, Chief

I have a recurring dream that my father is puttering around in his garage, waiting for me to come help him fix his aging Dodge Dakota. He sits there on his Craftsman stool, unburdened by the pains of chemotherapy, brown eyes shining with mirth and wisdom, bent over an old water pump. “Hey, Chief, can I help with that?” I ask. Burnt engine coolant mixes with the clean smell of his freshly laundered work shirt. As he smiles and places a reassuring hand on my back, I wake up.

————————

My father seemed to be beating the cancer until my cells entered his body.

I had met with donation coordinators at Johns Hopkins at least ten times before the transplant took place in January. As a near-clone of my dad, a veritable reproduction of his personality, humor, and mannerisms, it was no surprise that I was a perfect bone marrow match. They had tested me for every communicable disease in existence, took enough blood to satiate an entire town of vampires, and asked me if I was doing this of my own accord. I was, I thought. The oncologists and hematologists warned us of the major risks to my body and his life, but we charged onward, ever optimistic, like we had for every other problem that snarled at us from the shadowy side of life. The biggest threat to me was sore hip bones. The biggest threat to him was an often fatal reaction to the donor cells, called Graft-Versus-Host disease.

A little marrow meant nothing to me, and everything to him. I showed up on the day of surgery with no reservations, all jokes and youthful confidence.

From a medical standpoint, the transplant went perfectly. The needle-wielding surgeons got more of the thick red blood cell slurry from me than they had anticipated, and my dad processed it with no issues. Much to the surprise of the nurses caring for both of us, he was up visiting me before my spinal block had even worn off. He looked good then, when he still had that mop of salt and pepper hair and that cheeky British smile. As I waited for the numbness to retreat from my legs he teased me, “Now I get to be a pain in your ass for a change.”

Immediately after the transplant, I had a much rougher recovery than my dad. The spinal block irritated vertebrae which then swelled in protest. I was sent to neurologists to make sure no permanent damage had been done, and given a heavy course of prednisone to quell the inflammation. My dad claimed he felt great, better than he had in a long time, now that the majority of the chemotherapy was out of his system and he could dedicate his energy to recovery. Being the one in pain for a change felt appropriately sacrificial. He deserved a break after three years of cancer misery.

He began taking the anti-rejection medicine, labeled under the medically innocuous name “Tacrolimus.” As I steadily got better, he got steadily worse. He did his best to mask the symptoms with his characteristic grin and playful chuckles, but his lack of energy and greying complexion were impossible to hide. Long midday naps became expected and no cause for concern. He’d never admit how he felt, ever full of fatherly pride, but the pain and frustration flickered in his tired eyes.

When my mother, the ever vigilant nurse, needed a break and went to see her family in England, I volunteered to cover her shift. I spent a week with him in the oppressive July sun, hoping to relive or revive the memories of my beach-washed childhood. But he had changed so much from the cheery, involved father of my elementary school years; he ate very little, laughed even less, and slept more than the black and white stray cats that begged for food on the back porch. I took the time off of work to care for him, lift his spirits, but he insisted he was fine, that all would be better once he stopped taking the Tacrolimus. He swore to me he didn’t feel sick. I wanted to believe him, so I did.

When the dust of the cancer diagnosis had settled, and we looked tentatively into the future, I never considered that he might die. He was John Gray the invincible, the champion of our family, the chief of our tribe. Growing up we’d call him “the rock.” No matter how bad things got, how wild the seas of adolescence surged, my dad’s unflinching resolve was there, a stone for us to cling to in the storm. If he could get cancer, could die, then everything I knew about the balance of the world suddenly made no sense. The denial of his illness was a selfish way to hold onto some sense of fairness in the randomness of disease and biology.

He promised that we would change the brakes on my car together that week I was with him. But his hands were too weak to hold a ratchet and his mind too fogged by the drugs to focus. I changed the brakes myself while he slept.

The unwelcome what-ifs crawled into my brain when I saw him that July. His skin shrunken tight to his face, his lips chapped and cracked, his stomach now a massive bloat of retained fluid. Still trying to cling to the tatters of his true personality, he joked and called it his “water baby.” I laughed weakly. Google confirmed my concerns; major water retention near the abdomen meant heavy liver damage, usually from advanced cirrhosis, exacerbated by the anti-rejection meds. The hallmarks of GVH. The disease attacked the weakest organs first; my dad’s lifelong love of red wine and British ales made his liver an easy target.

The Hopkins staff had mentioned a weakened liver in the past, but our oncologist didn’t seem concerned. A man with a big needle tapped my father like a keg when the pressure of the fluid got too high, or too uncomfortable. My dad said it was his punishment for forty years of partying; another symptom to deal with in the ever-growing list of cancer-related physical abnormalities. Something routine that could be dealt with once the cancer had fully gone into remission. The whole family tried to keep going like he was still the same husband and father he’d always been, despite the startlingly obvious evidence otherwise.

On July 26th he got the news that his latest bone marrow biopsy showed no leukemia. Seventeen days later, the fluid in his stomach went septic, and he was dead.

————————

The physical distance from where my parents retired on Chincoteague Island somehow allows me to disconnect from the reality of his death. My mind’s natural defense mechanism pictures him still very much alive, just living very far away.

At home, in the safety of the familiar, I can hide. I can float, blissfully oblivious, in a life full of distractions, perpetually refusing to face that the man I owe my very life to, my personality, my success, is gone and is never coming back. I can lie to myself that I’m not an emotional mess, that if I just keep soldiering on all the pain stabbing through my chest will somehow disappear. I can wear my denial like mirrored armor, deflecting the truth while protecting myself.

But down on the island, I can’t avoid his ghost. It’s where his presence still lingers the strongest. Twenty years of family memories radiate from the beach-town topography: snaking bike paths that we rode to the beach as a family, the rotting wooden pier where we’d throw squid-baited hooks into Chincoteague Bay, the now-abandoned Landmark Crab House where we’d watch the water turn orange and purple as it swallowed the sun. We’d only spend a few weeks a year down at the beach, but somehow now, when my mind wanders to him, I picture marsh grass, snowy egrets, and barrel-chested ponies.

I can’t explain the feeling of crossing the causeway that leads to the island without dipping into the fantastic, the spiritual, even the supernatural. As soon as my car pulls onto that thin slip of road lined by miles of marshlands I feel an instant, almost palpable sense of belonging, like that of opening the front door of your childhood home after years of being away. It may be a combination of the salted air, the unreal blues and greens of the Atlantic spillover, and the cries of shorebirds echoing across the flat land of Shelly Bay. It may be a positive psychological association I’ve developed with the island over a decade of yearly summer pilgrimage. I can feel my dad when I hit that road, hear his voice welcoming me home on the salty wind, almost see him riding shotgun, singing Jimmy Buffet, off-key, as loud as he can.

I always take the same route through the tiny town to get to my parents’ house; a right from the main bridge onto Main street, a left onto Poplar, a right by the Family Dollar store onto Pension street, and then finally a left onto the appropriately church-lined Church street. I’m used to my mom greeting me from the porch with enthusiastic waves as I pull down the long shattered shell driveway, but today the house is quiet, dark, alone. The fleet of cars that my dad had amassed during his life as a mechanic – that chunky red Dodge Dakota, the Jeeps, the Jaguars – have all been sold or locked away.

I pull my Mini, a modern echo of the first car he built in England in the 70s, into his spot outside of the garage. Oil splotches stain the concrete slab in front of the four dark green doors, near-permanent memories of his love affair with engines. The little bit of sunlight still peeking through the lanky evergreens that grow in the sandy soil makes long shadows across the yard he spent hours meticulously maintaining before he got too weak to mow.

————————

I dream of him in anachronisms; he’s the thirty-five year old tower of strength and joviality that now exists only on film, and I’m twenty-eight, fully grown, not the skinny mess of blonde and bones that used to be his shadow in the garage on weekends. In those midnight recollections, I’m mature enough to actually help him, understand the intricacies of the clutch we’re dismantling, and strong enough to loosen the bolts without having to call for the power of his rugby-forged arms. We share a beer as father and son, as master and apprentice, as friends.

————————

The overhead fluorescents wash the entire garage in flat white. The entryway looks like a computer graveyard: dozens of computer cases lie flayed on the desks, their power supplies and hard drives dangling loosely from their bodies in one of my dad’s mad experiments.  I sit in his chair and spin around, looking at the pictures of me and my sister that stand proudly on his desk. I knock his mouse and his monitor flares to life. I can’t guess his password. I ignore the drawers stuffed with paperwork that I’ve been sent to organize and wander over to the heart of his kingdom.

The 1962 Morris Mini we’d been working on sits on ramps, hood up, like some skeletal relic being prepared for exhibition. So many signs of my dad’s touch linger. A half-built cylinder head for his Lambretta scooter. A cat themed knick-knack he’d been repainting for my mom. Tools taken out to be used, never put away. Something in me wants to clean up, make this garage pristine again, but I can’t even move the trash. Every scrap of steel, every loose battery and wrench is a piece of his life, a life still buzzing with energy around me. A life without a body.

The side panel of his baby – a 1967 Jaguar XKE – covers my hand in dust. A thirty-four foot RV takes up an entire bay of the cavernous garage, a reminder of the plans he’d had for his post-cancer renaissance. The cherry-red BSA motorcycle won’t turn over, no matter how hard I kick the starter.

“Hey, Chief?” I ask, still wanting his guidance before I take the engine apart.

All I get is the echo of my own voice, which, when I hear it in this hollow space, sounds just like his.

Oliver Gray was raised in the suburbs of Maryland, and earned his M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University. His essays and stories have been published in the Good Men Project, The TJ Eckleberg Review, 20 Something Magazine, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine. His beer and writing blog, Literature and Libation, won the North American Guild of Beer Writers’ “Blog of the Year” award in 2013. He currently lives just outside of Washington DC and is working on a beer and brewing themed book.

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Posted in Essays

Comments: 14

(12) Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    Gorgeous and real. One life to live, buddy. I know you know that. You should be very very happy to have made this gift to your dad.

  2. What a terribly sad, terribly true depiction of grief. I spend time at Chincoteaque every year and you captured the place perfectly. Well done!

  3. Alison Syring says:

    I’m with Callie. Just read this, and cried, at work. The best piece of writing I’ve ever read from you, Oliver. Beautiful.

  4. Justin says:

    Oh man…..all I can say is, I feel your pain.

  5. jane perkins says:

    oliver, this is beautiful. l love your language.

  6. Callie Leuck says:

    I knew I shouldn’t have read this at work. That last line just twisted my heart, Oliver.

  7. Betsy Marro says:

    Beautiful. I will be thinking about this piece all day and for many in the future. So glad you had the love you shared with your father because it is clear that it will live on.

  8. David Frey says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your father, Oliver. I never knew him and I miss him too. Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. Aileen Wietstruk says:

    Beautifully written. Be proud of what you wrote and of the deep abiding love that brought you to write it. I know only too well the feelings you detail so delicately. I too have lost a dear one, my husband of 40 years, to cancer…pancreatic cancer. In our case there was only 30 days, exactly, from diagnosis to death. No chance to try something, anything, to gain more time. I’m glad you had the opportunity to try to heal him and so sorry that it did not work for the two of you. The portrait you have created of your relationship will last and will bear testimony to the love you bore him and the values he passed on to you. Be happy and continue to love.

  10. Enid Kassner says:

    A poignant memoir that captures perfectly the adjustment to loss. Lyrically written, its deliberate pace gives us time to get to know your dad, and suffer with you his departure.

  11. Vicki V says:

    Thank you for sharing this moving piece. What a vivid picture you have painted of your “chief” and your beautiful relationship with each other.

  12. Such a gorgeous, nostalgic piece deserves a better comment than I am prepared to leave, as my attention is currently devoted to not crying at work. But this piece moved me deeply. It’s clear that your father lives on, Oliver.

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