Scene: The Encounter

The main characters in my current novel, Into the Caldera, have a chance meeting at a party that alters the course of their lives. Jenn, the protagonist or antagonist depending on how the story is viewed, meets Scott and Marc although she’s too high to really remember much. The scene is written from her altered point of view.

The sky grew brighter despite the deepening night. The music not so much confronted her as penetrated her like Ron had done earlier. Every guy at the party leered at her, made suggestive comments, and lapped at her breasts like the thirsty dogs they were. She felt like she walked on the air beneath her feet. Her body thrummed, titillated with each step she took. Her arm brushed against another girl’s bare arm, and she felt a rush of desire. The girl, equally drunk or high, smiled lazily at her and apologized, but Jenn wanted to kiss her and taste the beer on her lips. Only her stumble into the crowd stopped her from pushing herself upon the girl.

Nicole came up to her and steadied her in the ebb and flow of the crush of bodies.

“Jenn, you’ve had too much.”

“What?”

“You’ve had too much Molly and beer.”

“There’s no such thing.” Her words felt coherent and sharp, but she didn’t recognize the sound of her voice.

“You need some water.”

“I want another beer. And a Molly.”

“No.”

Jenn focused her eyes on her friend. Anger flushed her face. “Why not?”

“You’ve had enough. Besides, I’m out.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I gave the last one to Hannah.”

The name reverberated in her head, but Jenn couldn’t process it. “Holly?”

“What?”

“What the fuck is Holly doing here?”

“Not Holly. Hannah. Who’s Holly?”

“Oh.” Jenn looked at the blur of faces past Nicole and shook her head. She felt her heart speed up like a rocket in her chest.

“Who’s Holly?”

Jenn came back down to the moment. “She’s that tramp Ron’s dating now.”

Nicole shook her head. “Oh, her.”

“She’s a tramp.”

“We should go.”

“This party is still hot…”

“It’s 2 AM.”

“Seriously?” Jenn pulled her phone from her pants pocket, but it fell to the floor. Nicole bent down with her to retrieve it. Jenn nodded her head as Nicole handed her the phone. She widened her eyes to see the time displayed on the lock screen. “Damn. Where’d the time go?”

“I’ll take you home.”

“No.”

“Jenn, I’m going over to Aaron’s place. I don’t want to leave you here alone. Let me take you back to our apartment and then I’ll go to Aaron’s.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“You’re rolling, Jenn. You shouldn’t be left here alone.”

“I’m not alone. I have the girls.” She thrust her hand out toward the door leading to the patio and hit a passing guy on the shoulder. “Oh, sorry.” The guy looked at her and smiled, but he kept walking.

“The girls are already gone. They’ve hooked up.”

“All of them.”

“Pretty much. This party is winding down.”

Jenn scanned the room around them. Bodies still crammed into most available space. Only a narrow path winded through the room to let people pass. “It still looks strong to me.”

“You’re high.”

“I’m fine. Go on and fuck Aaron. Fuck your brains out. I’ll be fine.”

Nicole exhaled a laugh. “Are you sure?” She sounded genuinely concerned, but Jenn didn’t want to interfere with her friend’s hookup.

“Have an orgasm for me.”

Nicole laughed out loud. “Those are only for me!”

She leaned in and hugged Jenn. Her hair still smelled good despite the sweaty volleyball game they had played earlier. When they parted Nicole said, “Call an Uber and text me when you get back to the apartment.”

Jenn wobbled a little in place. “Yes, mother!”

“Jenn,” Nicole sighed sounding exhausted.

“Okay, I’ll keep you informed of my whereabouts.”

“Thank you.”

Nicole gave her one last hug before she pivoted and allowed the crowd to swallow her. Jenn watched her best friend disappear from sight before she scanned the sea of heads that bobbed around her. In that brief moment when she was alone, she felt like the only one at the party. A chill ran up her spine and goose bumps perforated her arms.

“Hi, I’m Scott, and this is Marc,” said a voice she could not see. She turned and two tall, lanky guys stood before her. Both had longish, scraggly hair and boyish faces so young looking that she thought that some high schoolers had crashed the party.

She tried to steady herself and make sense of where she was, but she drew a blank, so she said the only thing she could think of, “I’m Jenn. I’m leaving.”

A Different Approach

In the last five years, I’ve written six novels, mostly in the literary genre except for my one venture into science fiction. I completed the first draft of my latest novel, a psychological thriller, last September, but I’ve been meandering through the editing process since then. Having spent some time learning more about the craft of writing, I’ve given less emphasis to the speed at which I finish a book and more to the aspects of crafting and re-crafting the story. Many an accomplished writer has acknowledged that writing is mostly re-writing, and nothing could be closer to the truth. As I’m relatively new to the world of novel writing, I’m still crafting my own approach.

I think it’s important to get the story out. Often, when I have a new story idea, I find myself in the throes of passion for the novel and want to get it on the page. I don’t hold back in this honeymoon phase because it’s more important to get the general idea in words than it is to worry about the structure or inconsistencies. These things can be honed later. Re-writing provides ample opportunity to perfect a story. Imagine making a piece of pottery: I want to get the general form in place and then I’ll carefully smooth out the rough parts repeatedly until I get the final, beautiful (hopefully) piece that I originally imagined. A novel is very much like pottery. In the end, no novel is perfect in the author’s view; the goal is to get it to a level approaching perfection that is cognitively acceptable to the writer.

At the base level, re-writing is no fun. It’s like having to write the same sentence repeatedly as a form of punishment (I can’t be the only one who had to do that in school). The process is very slow and often discouraging. Some things simply don’t work the second time around when I re-read my work. I find it helps to have other projects to work on while I’m going through this phase; otherwise, I’m likely to go crazy. During the re-write phase this time around, I’ve banged out my memoir and written countless concepts for potential novel ideas. Sometimes, I find myself working on other writing ideas simply to avoid re-writing.

Despite my internal reluctance, I have made progress on my current novel, and I’m starting to appreciate the approach. Once I finished the first draft, I re-read it a couple of times, and then, I deconstructed the story and realized that I had two parallel story lines in the novel, but one wasn’t fully fleshed out. I’ve spent much of the past few months writing that second story line. I’m almost done with it, and when I am, I’ll have to integrate it into the first draft and do another round of revisions since several inconsistencies have arisen in the story. I think this approach will work for me. I think this will help me set a good pace for the story and end up with a true first draft that has legs.

What hasn’t changed in my approach is the importance of the characters. I have a tendency to fall in love with my characters and become them in many ways. I love stepping into the mind of a character and letting myself wander around. At the end of the day, when my writing is done, the characters take me to where they want to take me. It’s almost surreal. Before I started down this road of writing novels, I didn’t quite understand it when writers said they let the characters decide where to go. I understand now, and it’s true. The characters own the story.

My goal is to finish the second “first” draft of Into the Caldera by the end of June just in time for my first residency at The Fifth Semester in Chicago. This is the story I plan to cultivate during the writing program. I’m excited about its potential. It’s an enthralling story with a strong main character that I hope captivates readers. Only time will tell.

Paris in Spring

Until I made the trek to Paris, I never understood its appeal above any other wonderful, historic European city. I’d been to a few but not Paris having only stood in the graces of its presence during layovers at Charles de Gaulle, and let’s face it, while the airport is nice, it’s about as much a representation of Paris as one of the many mementos hawked by the vendors that line its streets. The real Paris has to be experienced by all your senses to truly appreciate the beauty of it.

There’s no better time than spring to visit the City of Light. The winter doldrums and rain have moved on leaving behind gorgeous blue skies and an emerging warmth that engulfs you like a warm blanket on a chilly morning. The nights, while nippy, are crystal clear, which is perfect for sauntering around the city in search of the reasons why it is called the City of Light. The old street lamps, many likely used back in the day when they had to be lit, may have modern day lighting now, but they still provide that comforting golden hue that many Parisians likely experienced back in the 1800s.

Speaking of old, the buildings are absolutely amazing. Even pedestrian apartments and office buildings are gorgeous and ornate with French doors with tiny patios beneath them opening up onto the street. The curvy, wrought-iron railing circumvents the lower half of the doors above the street giving the buildings a gilded, royal look that can only be at home in Paris. I found myself snapping photos of many of these buildings, while I chuckled to myself that I’d rarely take a picture of an apartment building back in the States.

Of course, there is much more to see than plain, old buildings. The beauty of Paris encompasses a plethora of landmarks that are as famous as the city itself. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc of Triumph, Concorde Plaza with its view of the Obelisk and the Hotel of the Invalids, and the Louvre. Every angle and time of the day revealed a new face to these many landmarks. Set back in the stunning blue sky, these landmarks sparkle, but they also come alive at night as the famed street lights provide a golden aura that makes them all the more memorable.

I imagine that Paris is gorgeous any time of year, even in the dreary winter rain, but spring brings out the absolute best in the city. I ran the Paris Marathon during my stay there and had the opportunity to see the best the city has to offer over my 26-mile trek. It started on Champs-Elysees, the famed boulevard stretched between the Arc of Triumph and Concorde Plaza. In the beautiful morning sunrise in the shadow of the glowing Arc, I began my run straight down the avenue toward the giant Ferris Wheel in Concorde. The warm morning air enveloped me and 54 thousand other runners as we took a turn in the Plaza and circumnavigated the Obelisk. I felt elated to be running in such an iconic race in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Blooming trees and chirping birds competed with the spectators for my attention. The course took me by most major landmarks, and although I had been in the city for two days as of the day of the race, seeing it from the perspective of a runner was certainly unique on the “once in a lifetime” scale. Perhaps the most perfect part of the course came when we turned out of the park at the eastern end of the course and winded our way down to the Seine River. Running along the wide sidewalk with the river to my left and the city to my right gave me a burst of energy just when I needed it. River boats lazily glided along the river. Pedestrians leaned on the bridges over the river alternately cheering us on and taking pictures as if they weren’t too sure what to do first.

Most races have that seminal moment where some part of it just sticks in your mind forever. When I ran a marathon in South Africa, the moment where I had two adult giraffes running alongside me for a brief time has held my fascination for years, but in Paris, that moment occurred when I entered a tree-lined portion of the Seine boardwalk and ran in full view of the Eiffel Tower on my left and the Museum of Modern Art on my right. The shade of the blooming trees relieved me of the burden of the emerging heat, but their striking beauty in the shadow of such a historic landmark provided just enough push to keep me going toward the finish. With that view permanently etched in my mind, I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face.

The only question I had when I finally left for the airport to return home was how soon could I get back. I had fallen in love with the City of Light, and I will most certainly return.

Concept: The Other Side

The flat screen TV hung in the waiting room in Dr. Travis Martin’s office, perfectly centered on the beige-colored wall. The Today show filled the screen brightening the matching, drab chairs that formed one end of a rectangle around the TV with the ambient light that flashed from the screen. A glass table sat in the center of the collection of chairs in the waiting room covered with a fan of magazines that had been carefully organized the day before after the office had closed. Janice, the meticulous owner of the reception and waiting area, sat patiently behind the counter pecking away at the computer before her. She glanced askew at the muted TV and sighed. Another long day awaited her.

At 7:10 AM the first patient of the day arrived. Charlie Peck, a dapper young professional who commuted into the city every day, bounded through the door like a man on a mission. He was late, as usual, but he commanded her attention like she had been the one who had disrespected his time. He didn’t apologize for being late, and Janice liked him less because of it. She judged the doctor’s patients not only by the condition of their teeth, this was a dentist’s office after all, but also by how well they kept to their appointments. She’d heard all manner of excuses in her two decades of working for Dr. Martin, and she’d learned who deserved her leniency and who did not. Charlie did not.

“Dr. Martin will be with you shortly,” she said as Charlie stood before her at the counter after he had checked in. “Please have a seat.”

She kept a professional demeanor, but she quietly seethed. She hesitated for a moment before telling Dr. Martin that his first appointment had arrived. His next appointment slot remained open, so the doctor had time to make Charlie wait. She glanced at Mr. Peck as he fidgeted in the waiting room obviously annoyed at having to wait. He likely had to get downtown soon, but he was always late and constantly rescheduling and moving his appointments like only his time mattered. Time was money for Dr. Martin, and by extension, it was for her too.

The hygienist, Richard, walked up to the reception area and peered into the waiting room. “Is Charlie checked in?” He pursed his lips and widened his eyes behind his wire-frame glasses. Richard was a burly man who almost busted through his tight-fitting lab coat. He looked like a linebacker who squeezed into a suit after a game.

“Yes,” Janice replied. The hygienist looked at her a moment and then to Charlie behind her.

“Mr. Peck, do you want to come on back?”

“Yes.” Charlie shot up from his chair and darted toward the door as Richard opened it. As he walked by Janice, Charlie gave her a wan smile, which she returned in the affectless way she did when she was annoyed.

She peered out into the empty waiting room for a brief moment before she returned to the computer in front of her. A game of solitaire awaited. Had she been paying attention to the parking lot, she would have noticed the black car pull into one of the spaces in front of the office.

Charlie Peck lay back in the dentist chair fully reclined as the amiable hygienist chatted away as he checked each bright white tooth in his patient’s mouth. He poked and prodded with the sharp metal tool and made small talk with his muffled patient. Charlie managed only a word or two as the hygienist switched tools or applied suction to the pooling water in his mouth. The one-sided conversation carried through the office just like any other early-morning start to the day.

Dr. Martin listened to chatter and footsteps through his office from a nook behind a wall at the top of the hall leading to his exam rooms as he reviewed his appointment schedule on a laptop. A dim light cast a shadow over his back, but he could see just fine. He had refrained from turning on the overhead fluorescent lights because he disliked the artificial blast of cold light and how it made his skin look. Florescent lights only made bright white teeth look better. Everything else looked sickly or dead. A vision of a cold, dead hand flashed before his eyes, but he shook it off.

His hygienist, Richard, continued his one-sided conversation with Charlie. Richard’s voice boomed and carried throughout the entire office. Sometimes, his laugh startled Dr. Martin as it rattled off the walls. His loquacious and amiable assistant softened his patients up before he waltzed into the room and had a more serious discussion with them about cavities and gum disease. He focused on the problems his patients faced, while Richard talked about his grandkids and his beloved Duke Blue Devils.

Richard laughed heartily disturbing the relative calm in Dr. Martin’s nook. The doctor shook it off as he heard the ding of his front door opening, but he ignored it because he knew Janice would take care of it. His next patient wasn’t due until 8:30. Tuesdays were always slow. He returned to his laptop briefly before Richard interrupted him.

“Hey Boss, you ready to take a look?” Richard asked.

Dr. Martin looked up and gave a restrained smile. “How’s he look?”

“Good. Nothing’s changed since his last visit. More plaque build-up though and some gum recession. Otherwise, looks good.”

“Okay. Let’s have a look.” Dr. Martin stood up and pulled a pair of latex gloves from box near his laptop and followed the bulky hygienist to the patient room down the hall.

“Good morning, Mr. Peck,” Dr. Martin said as he grabbed a rolling stool and had a seat next to his patient.

“Good morning.”

“Anything new with you?”

“Nothing–”

“Dr. Martin,” Janice said as she walked through the door. “There are two men here to see you.” She looked pale and frightened, but Dr. Martin felt more annoyed than concerned.

“Okay. What do they want?”

“They said it’s important.”

“Are they patients?”

“No. They need to talk to you.”

“Find out what they want, and tell them I’ll be done in about ten minutes.”

“They can’t wait.” Janice looked positively frightened.

Dr. Martin paused for a moment. This was his office and no one dictated what he did, but Janice’s persistence concerned him. Nevertheless, he replied, “Tell them to wait.”

“I don’t think we can do that, Dr. Martin,” said a deep voice that belonged to a man who appeared at the door to the exam room. The man, tall and sturdy with a crew cut, had a stern look on his face. Dr. Martin could see another similarly-sized man behind him. Neither had a friendly smile of any sort to suggest that their business was pleasant.

“I told you that you cannot come back here…” Janice protested.

Dr. Martin sized up his visitors and waved Janice off. “It’s okay, Janice,” he said to her as he turned toward the men. “How can I help you?” His felt his own voice tremble as if the solid foundation he stood on had begun to teeter.

“I’m Detective Lance Burgess with the Stamford Police Department, and this is Detective Reginald Featherstone. We’re going to need you to come with us,” the first man said as he flashed his badge. Both men nodded.

“Now?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

Charlie had sat up and wheeled around toward the two men. Janice shrunk into the corner as the blood drained from her face, and Richard stood behind the detectives with a grim look on his face.

“I’m in the middle of an appointment here. Can’t this wait?”

“No, you can either come with us willingly or we can arrest you right here.”

“What is he being arrested for?” Janice wailed.

“Ma’am, this doesn’t concern you,” Detective Featherstone said.

“What about my checkup?” Charlie asked out loud. He seemed dumbfounded and at a loss for words.

Dr. Martin looked at him and then said, “Richard, can you finish up with Charlie?”

“Yes, Boss,” he replied from the hallway.

The detectives looked tense. The stern looks on their faces remained chiseled in place as Dr. Martin stood up. He motioned for them to leave the room as he stood behind them, but they merely moved aside of the door way and kept their eyes on him. Janice looked at him in horror, but he ignored her. He nodded his thanks to Richard, but his affable hygienist looked just as frightened as his receptionist.

In the hallway, the detectives flanked him on either side while Detective Burgess spoke to him in a low, serious voice. He didn’t really listen to what the Detective was saying about his rights. Silence sounded good at that moment. A lawyer couldn’t help him right now. He followed them out into the parking lot and the second detective opened the rear door to their car for him. He sat down in the backseat and buried his head in his hands. He didn’t look up for fear that he’d see Janice standing at the door gaping out at him or his next patient walking into an office that he’d likely never see again. His hands trembled, but his resolve remained firm. He’d say nothing.

Box Fan

I grew up in the deep South, where the summers were long and hot and sticky. The heat clung to you like a second skin, one that you wished you could shed. The endless days of summer always overstayed their welcome, but once the heat finally started to recede and the cooler days of October arrived, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. Hot, humid nights gave way to the slight chill of autumn. No longer did the bed sheets stick to you like the skin of an onion. The whine of the box fan was replaced by the sounds of the world outside winding down for cooler days ahead.

The big oaks that had proffered shade from the glaring summer sun transformed into fiery flames that brightened the countryside. Oranges and yellows rippled through the trees and peaked just as the fall breezes grew in ferocity. Leaves glided to the ground or danced in the wind as they fell to the earth. The crackle of leaves beneath your feet provided a soundtrack for the season, a sure sign that the dog days of summer were gone for a few months at least.

Cornfields and gardens, once teaming with life, lay dormant. Wilting stalks swayed in the breeze waiting to return to the earth for the next planting season. Pumpkins basked in the glow of the sun, piled up in the bounty of the harvest, and adorned the doorsteps of those celebrating the season.

Snow rarely visited us in the South. Winter meant brown grass matted with frost, which crunched beneath our footsteps like clumps of ice spilled on the patio during those long, hot summers. Naked trees swayed in the wind, gnarled branches reaching for the sky like elderly outstretched hands. Branches infrequently fell to the ground lying in a bed of dead leaves until they too succumbed to the entropy of nature.

Winters, shortened by the latitude, gave way to glimpses of spring. Daffodils sprung to life and the roiling gray clouds of winter parted for the deep blue of the season of revival. March winds rolled across the hills gently swaying the trees as they came alive again. Green returned to the grass, flowers bloomed, bees buzzed, and the harsh chill of winter left behind a gentle warmth. Occasional showers burnished the renewal. A sense of potential pervaded every living thing.

Like a flywheel first spinning into motion, the season took hold. The daylight lengthened and the sun strayed higher in the sky and kept its repose longer. The warmth gave way to a persistent heat that made the shade of newly-adorned trees all the more welcome. Breezes fell still. The air, once dry, became saturated. The hot sticky mess returned sending all but the most ardent sun worshipers into the arms of air- conditioned spaces or the whir of the box fan.

Aftermath

Thank you for reading. This is the final post from the memoir. Not all of the chapters were posted here for many reasons. This story was written mainly for me but for my kids as well in hopes that some day they’ll read it and understand me at a deeper level than most kids understand their parents. That’s all I can ask for. 

 

“I’ve got a bad disease, but from my brain is where I bleed.” – Red Hot Chili Peppers

The RV roared to life at the intersection ambling forward through the last cross street on the way out of Yellowstone National Park. The sky brimmed with white-gray clouds still clinging to an overcast day, but up ahead in the distance, I could see rays of sunlight breaking through as if they were pointing to brighter days ahead.

Tiffany sat quietly beside me in the passenger seat reading her book as I piloted the behemoth vehicle through the park on our way back home. The kids sat in the back engrossed in their own little worlds – a book for Grace and some mindless iPad game for Troy. I couldn’t help but smile after we had spent a week losing ourselves in the wonderful nature of Yellowstone. We’d had the time of our lives visiting the geysers and hot springs and watching lumbering bison cross right in front of us. We had camped in the RV in the heart of the park with minimal connection to the outside world.

Dad had been gone for over a year, and during that time a melancholy sense of being had fallen over me. I kept it mostly to myself not wanting to be a downer to Tiffany and the kids, but in those moments when I was alone and my thoughts drifted to Dad, the sadness was overwhelming. Sometimes, I’d have to go on a run to get away from everyone, driving my legs deeper into the depths of some forest path to escape the grief, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to shake the sense of loss and loneliness. Dad’s death had left me unmoored.

Emerson and Thoreau had found meaning and inspiration from nature, and likewise, the trip to Yellowstone had given me a new appreciation for the wonder around me. Dad’s death had dampened my creativity leaving me morose and rudderless. I struggled to remain positive, but something about watching the sun set over a river in the middle of all that grandeur while my son tried to get a close-up picture of a bison made me positively happy again. I realized the obvious at that moment – my life was wonderful beyond words even if Dad was no longer physically a part of it. He would always be a part of me.

I took a deep breath as I drove under the awning marking the exit to Yellowstone. The sun grew brighter. The sense of a wonderful summer adventure engulfed us. For a moment, I was a kid again playing with my brothers while Dad looked on laughing at our antics. But I wasn’t. It was my turn to take the path he had taken, to raise my kids and watch them grow up to be on their own. They would one day realize that our time together is also limited.

Looking back over Dad’s life, I tried to make sense of it all. I struggled with the fact that he was but another in billions of people who had lived and died with only a handful of people remembering him. He had been happy for the most part in spite of those many years when he wasn’t. He loved Mom, his boys, and his grandchildren. He tried to make the best of the worst situations, and he failed in some cases. I loved him not because he was infallible or perfect but because he wasn’t. Our flaws make us decidedly human and give us the capacity to love and be loved.

Despite the difficult times, Dad never passed up an opportunity to laugh. Often at Mom’s expense, he’d send us all laughing with some comment or story. We’d watch cartoons together and pick up an annoying line and proceed to drive Mom crazy. In many ways he was like one of us boys, and in the best moments, when it was just the five of us, laughter would reverberate through the house because of him. I think I missed hearing him laugh the most.

Dad spent his entire life on the outside looking in, which fueled his overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the world. One of his favorite quips was “I can’t win for losing.” He had that sense of defeatism before he ever even gave the facts a chance. He’d been beaten and chastised by a world that was seemingly stacked against him, a working class man stuck in a monotonous and dreary play that would not end in his favor. I never could wrap my head around his view of the world until the end.

I, too, felt that sense of being the odd man out, but I’ve categorically resisted the urge to let it overwhelm me. I tamped it down because I knew I’d never go anywhere if I succumbed to it. Dad was always there to remind me of who I am and keep me from getting too far ahead of myself. He didn’t do it purposefully. He did it inadvertently, probably for the most part unknown to him. I could see in him elements of myself. The same tendencies that plagued him haunted me too. I am his son.

In the end what matters most is the family around you. I’d been unreasonably lucky in that regard. Words cannot describe how much I love Tiffany, and our children round out the perfect little family. I didn’t have Dad, but I still had Mom and my brothers. We couldn’t all be together, but we were always connected. I had many great memories of Dad, and that picture of him from that last Christmas had assumed its place above my chair in my office. Dad was looking over me every morning. It was my turn to be the father I needed to be, and I am going to do the best I can. For Dad.

The Long Goodbye

“I lit a fire with the love you left behind,
And it burned wild and crept up the mountainside,
I followed your ashes into outer space,
I can’t look out the window, I can’t look at this place,

I can’t look at the stars,
They make me wonder where you are…” – Grace Potter

The Whipple procedure had given Dad more time, but it always seemed borrowed or perhaps stolen. After the round of chemo following the procedure, he resumed a fairly normal life, slowly regaining his strength. By no means, did he return to the same old Dad. He lost weight and seemed frail. Bones protruded from his shoulders, and his legs, never meaty or muscular by any means, literally looked like chicken legs, but we were happy, even if only for a little while, to have him back in reasonable health.

For much of the length of 2014, we held the false hope that Dad just might beat the cancer. His doctor visits yielded positive results with weight loss being the primary concern raised by his caretakers. The cancer seemed to be at bay. We took a collective breath.

I took my family to visit him a couple of times that year in the summer and again at Christmas. He loved seeing his grandkids. He had waited so long to have grandkids that he couldn’t wait to play with them no matter how he felt. Even in his most miserable moments, the grandkids made him smile, and maybe, reminded him of a time when he too had so much future ahead of him.

I told the kids that their Papa was ill and that he had cancer, but I didn’t characterize it as a moment of impending death. I didn’t want their last memories of their paternal grandfather to be sad ones. I wanted them to have happy ones that they would treasure for the rest of their lives. I had loved mine and had so many fond memories of him that I desperately wanted that for them even though they never got to see Dad that much.

By the time we visited at Christmas, Dad put on a strong face, but I could see the pain. Nothing had revealed itself yet as problematic, but I suspected that he wouldn’t make it another Christmas. I asked my good friend Keith, a superbly talented photographer, to swing by at our Christmas gathering and take some portraits of Dad. I wanted to capture him in those moments even if he didn’t really look like how I thought of him. Keith took a series of photos of Dad alone and with us boys, the last family portrait we’d ever take. I had tens of thousands of photos in my collection, but those two of Dad, alone and with the three of us, became my most treasured.

By the time the New Year rolled around, Dad started having problems. A visit to the doctor revealed that the cancer had returned and spread. He went back on chemotherapy, but he grew progressively weaker. Danny’s reports grew grimmer every time I talked to him. The specter of death loomed. He seemed like he was in a free fall and there was nothing any of us could do except hope against reality. I’d known this was coming, but nothing, no matter how much warning I had had, prepared me for Dad’s demise.

By Mom’s birthday in early April, Dad ended up in the hospital in dire condition. I flew to Atlanta to be with him expecting it to be the end. Seeing him laying in the hospital bed like that, a shell of his former self, took my breath away. He had deteriorated quickly since I had seen him at Christmas. He wore the agony on his face and spoke in a raspy whisper. I could barely keep my composure around him, but the last thing he needed was for me to break down. I had to be strong even in the face of losing someone I loved so much.

In a seminal moment, one that will forever be seared in my brain, I spent the night with him at the hospital. His room had a little cove with a bench near the window, and I tried to sleep there, but all throughout the night, Dad moaned and writhed in pain. The sound still haunts my memories of him. The nurses tended to him all night trying to make him comfortable, but at that point nothing short of knocking him out worked. He couldn’t take care of himself. They had to clean him up multiple times throughout the night. The thin curtain that I had pulled between the bench and his bed did nothing to hide me from the terrible sound of my dad slowly dying next to me.

After that night, all I wished for him was peace and a pain-free existence. Even if he lived, his would be a life of abject misery. I didn’t want him to die, but I didn’t want him in that kind of pain either. Those opposing wishes battled inside my head.

The next day offered a level of respite that I hadn’t expected. Dad didn’t look better, but he stabilized and became more coherent and aware of his surroundings. We could talk between the moments he drifted off to sleep. His brothers and sisters came to visit along with my cousins and other family members. It felt like a family reunion, and there was a great amount of comfort in having everyone around him.

In between the family visits, I sat by his bed. When he slept, I read a book or worked on my computer. When he was awake, I talked to him as much as I could. The funny thing was that neither of us were great conversationalists. I preferred quiet solitude and so did he, but in those moments, we talked as much as he could because we both knew our time together was coming to an end. We pretended that things were normal (How are the Braves going to do this year?) and swooned over his grandkids (That Gracie sure is smart!), but in a few instances, when the stark realization of death scared him most, he became uncharacteristically serious.

It was during one of those moments that he said the one thing that stands out most to me, the one thing that I hear in my head even now. “I did the best I could.” That’s all he said, referring to how he raised my brothers and me. He looked at me, weak and struggling with the pain, and I told him that he did. He did great. I squeezed his hand but remained quiet, the lump in my throat too big to let me speak. He drifted off to sleep and all I could do was hold his hand.

That week, as hard as it was, got better. The worst moments passed and Dad, although still bedridden, seemed to regain some vigor. He sat up more as the week wore on and there was a false sense of hope that permeated the family. Maybe this was just another episode in the journey with cancer. By the end of the week, Dad looked well enough for me to return home to Seattle, so I left him behind despite my misgivings about seeing him for the last time.

When I returned home, I called him and Danny every day. Dad got well enough to be discharged to home hospice care, but before he left the hospital, I had a Facetime call with him in what would be the last time I would see him alive. He looked so much better than he had the week before that I almost believed that he was going to pull through, but that wasn’t in the cards. Cancer tortures its victims like that, gives them hope and then pulls the rug out from under them.

Dad’s progress eventually stalled and his health resumed its decline. He remained in his home heavily medicated to keep him comfortable. Other organs started malfunctioning, and the home nurse warned Danny that the end was imminent. I hastily made reservations for my family and me to return to Atlanta. I hoped to get there before he passed to say one final goodbye. I never made it.

I hadn’t slept well the night before our flight as I eagerly wanted to get back to Dad. We arrived at the airport for a very early morning departure. I fidgeted at the gate hoping everything would be on time. I still had my phone on waiting for any updates from Danny. As they called our zone for boarding, I took a deep breath. I’d be out of touch for five hours, and I could only hope everything would be fine, but as I walked down the jetway, Danny called. Dad had died. The long journey had come to an end.