Death Among Men
The silhouettes told the tale. One man at a beginning, one at an end; both at a nexus where neither would emerge unchanged. The sound of the oxygen traveling through the endless tube in compliment to the labored breathing of the older man was evidence that this was, in fact, a hospital, the kind of place where a man goes to die. The room was dark, but it did not hide from view one hunched form leaning over the other, despair illustrated by every aspect of his posture. Nor could the dark hide the tears streaming down the hooked nose of the younger man. This battle had lasted a year and now they had finally lost.
On yet another brutal winter night, a wretched coughing could be heard reverberating throughout the McCoy household. The elder John McCoy was once again doubled over the garbage can, expectorating more foul-colored phlegm.
"Dad, are you sure you're all right?" the younger Jack called as he moved toward his father.
"Get out of here," was the labored reply.
Jack would not understand for many years, but John could not stand to have his son see him this way, so weak and fragile. Jack, at this time, was a successful Assistant District Attorney, on his way up the ranks and fighting for the Executive position. He was a grown man who was successful in his career, but the same order still reigned in the McCoy family household. John was the father, the master, and Jack was still the rebellious youth, whose accomplishments rarely brought pride to the old man's eyes. The child who required punishment, the kind he had not received in over 20 years.
John lashed out, "What a stupid question! Of course I'm not all right. For God's sake, some days I wonder how you got anywhere in life with the sense of a turnip!"
Of course Jack was insulated from this kind of comment, the kind he had much experience receiving from his father over the years. At this point it was almost expected. Still, something seemed wrong...
They sat in the living room, at opposing angles. John stared out the window as the neighbors attempted to affix yet another string of Christmas lights to their overburdened house. Jack had the full intention of asking the purpose of this meeting, one he was not fond of continuing, until he saw the bottle. It was not alcohol, as he expected, but pills of the prescription variety. Small and green. Morphine. A brief but cold sweat broke out on Jack's forehead when he saw the implications of such evidence, much like a good seafarer can visualize the entirety of an iceberg when all he can see is the tip. Is this the beginning of the end of the reign of King John McCoy? The thoughts oozed across his mind with the simmering rage of lava, searing his skewed morality. Jack, you can't think like that. He's your father. If he's sick, you have take responsibility, no matter what hell he put your family through.
John sat in his pockmarked armchair and lit up a cigarette. Puffing it with apparent need, he finally spoke, "Jack, I need a favor."
"I know you're wondering why I called you after all these years and, frankly, I'm surprised you came."
Foolish loyalty, Dad.
The words still hit the son with an impact he had not felt in a long time.
"Stop sitting there with your jaw hanging around your knees, pretending you didn't know. I'm 'The Old Chimney' to you. Well, all that smoking caught up with me, with this cancer and all. Now aren't you wondering about the favor? It's something only my son, the great moral paragon, could do. I need you to kill me."
The taxi served as a bottle, constricting the anger inside him, the pressure keeping it at a simmer. How dare he, after all this time? He calls me up, begging for a favor, then lies! I'm not a mewling little infant; he could have been straight with me. What makes him think I could do such a thing? Then the real reason for his anger became apparent. He's giving up. A McCoy is giving up. How pathetic. He's certainly not worthy of my help. Especially not after what he did to Mom.
Childhood was not a pleasant affair for Jack McCoy. Certainly he was admired by the boys and desired by the girls, but something was always missing. Carelessly flung torments on the playground seemed to hit Jack a little harder than the other children. His mother mentioned this to John, which elicited these eternal words of wisdom from him: "Well that little pansy better toughen up, 'cause I don't allow fags in my house. You know, if only you had as much girliness in you as him..." And, of course, the teen years were the worst. Two men, one asserting his newfound independence, the other violently defending what control he had left. Jack often wondered how any of his family escaped that place alive.
Two weeks passed uneventfully for Jack. Work was a welcome diversion from the situation with his father, which was left unresolved when he stormed out of his home in a wordless rage. Unfortunately, the thoughts kept nagging at him, dredging up the foul debris of his inner conflict. What should I do? I mean, I'd never kill him, but he's dying and I don't know what to do. Jack didn't even want to see his father, after everything that had transpired in that household. He couldn't forgive the man for what he had done. Then why not? You have two choices here, Jack; you could kill him and have your revenge or you could watch him die slowly and still have retribution for everything he has done. Jack pushed these ugly thoughts from his head; he rarely allowed himself to ponder such things. They were gone, but that did not mean they would not return.
The floor secretary, dressed in one of those annoying clashing red and green holiday outfits, peeked around the corner of Jack's glass office wall. She stood there, looking apprehensive, until Jack said, "Yes?"
She responded, "Uh, I got this message and I thought I should, you know, deliver it myself. Your father called and he wants you to take him to his chemotherapy appointment. It's at 4:00."
Jack responded, "I have Pages at 4:00," but noticing the horrified look on her face, he reluctantly continued, "Do you think Gross could take Pages? It may be Friday, but it's certainly not golfing weather."
She nodded and answered, "She's still here, so I think that's a good sign."
Jack stepped out of the taxi, boots crunching in the dry and brittle snow. He wondered how anyone used to survive in this weather. Winter kills. The air was crisp and biting, but he thought it best to stand a moment in front of his father's place. It used to be his house, in his mind, but now it belonged to John. What will happen to it after? One of his sisters would probably take it. One thing was certain: he could never go back.
His mother used to sit on the step and talk to him, tell him about life. She never held anything back. "The world is not a nice place, Jack," she would say, "but you can create your own islands of warmth with the people you love." She was right, of course; always she was right. Mothers are like that. They know the ways of the world and that is what makes their job so difficult; they appreciate what horrors their children might face and they recognize that they won't always be around to protect them. And sometimes the children are unable to protect the parents.
Family dynamics are a strange thing. Even when the children grow to be larger that the parent, they are still the children. So Jack rang the doorbell. After an extended period of time, John opened the door a crack and stepped away. Jack took this as an invitation and walked in.
"The cab's waiting for us," he said.
"I'm not going for me, I'm going to punish you," John said as he donned his coat.
With that they left.
Over the past two weeks, Jack had created a vivid image of what the cancer ward must look like. He wasn't far off, as it was truly indistinguishable from the rest of the hospital. The only difference was the seating arrangement for the treatments. He had assumed each individual would get a bed and at least a curtain to shield them from the prying gazes of the other death's-heads in the room. Instead, the room was filled with the clinical version of the la-z-boy. They stood at the desk as the nurse told his father something about him having a sufficient white blood cell count. While they discussed John's general health, Jack heard something that made his blood curdle. A matronly woman with gaunt cheeks and pale beyond belief was emitting a cry that could turn hell on its side.
"It burns," she wept, but no one came.
Jack looked around anxiously before interrupting the nurse at the desk with, "Isn't anyone going to do anything?"
"Oh, it's not as bad as she thinks it is," came the cold and practiced reply.
But the anguish in her voice could not be faked, he knew. And this is what awaited his father.
At home that evening, John appeared to be more his old self. When they stepped into the house, he resumed his regular spot in his recliner in front of the television.
"Dad, would you like anything to eat?"
"Sure. How about some soup from the cupboard?"
The reply surprised Jack, but he complied with the request. He went about making a meal; roles skewed again. They sat in the living room and had a relatively normal moment that a father and son might have. Relatively normal for a man who has just been told he only has a 10% chance of surviving five years. The men watched the Bulls game and said nothing.
Jack opened his eyes. The room was black and silent. He sat up, only to be battered with the stabbing thorns of light-headedness: he had been sleeping for hours. His ears rang in the absolute quiet until a faint scratching became apparent. He nearly dismissed it as imagined, but something filled him with the cold fluid of dread. His eyes adjusted to the faint moonlight that came in through the nicotine-stained curtains. The dishes were away and the chair empty, so his father had obviously gone to bed under his own power. Jack stood and crept his way along the creaky wooden floor to the stairs, which he mounted two at a time. No light pervaded this area either, but Jack could still pick his way along with only the occasional bump into the wall or banister. He felt the urge to seek out the bathroom, but it quickly disappeared when he detected a noxious odor. He felt for the elusive light switch until he gained the piercing illumination that revealed a sight that shocked and sickened him. His father was sprawled out on the bathroom floor, lying in a pool of his own blood and vomit. Momentarily forgetting decades of animosity, Jack immediately lifted his father's head from the filth and extrapolated the events that had transpired while he slept. John had made it upstairs, then, overtaken by the effect of the chemo, began to vomit into the toilet. He then passed out and hit his head on the toilet.
Jack began to feel the tendrils of panic seep in. He felt for a pulse. Where is it? Fumbling with only a civilian's knowledge of first aid, he cursed his lack of information and foresight until his fingers found the faint movement of the carotid artery. What do I do? The panic advanced. He pressed on the oozing gash on his father's head with a towel as he gently lowered him onto a clear part of the floor. He covered the injured man with towels from the rack before rocketing up from his crouched position. Racing downstairs, against time and against himself, Jack dialed 911.
His breathing was shallow and his face pale as he lay in the hospital bed, but the doctors said he was no longer in any danger. Jack sat straight and silent while the shock gradually seeped out of his limbs and ran through his heart. With every breath he returned to his world and the harsh realities within. In that room, Jack made a silent vow. Dad, you may be a son of a bitch who deserves nothing more than to suffer alone for what you've done, but I'll stick by you. I'll take care of you, even though you aren't worthy. And I'm not doing it for you, I'm doing it for me.
Come spring, the strain was taking its toll. His cases were beginning to pile up and his coworkers were noticing that he was always distracted. His work was clearly suffering. He was spending most nights on his father's couch, staying awake until he heard the thundering snoring that signified he would not awaken. Jack was living a hell he had imposed upon himself. He knew that if he left his father alone and never came back, no one would be the wiser. Except he could never forgive himself. A conscience is a curse.
So he returned to his duties, just as he did every night. Right after Christmas his father got in for surgery. It was not a type of cancer for which an operation usually helped, but in his condition it was his only hope. The doctors now said he had only two years. The day was yet another example of the brutal and removed fury of winter and the air stung when you breathed. John and Jack arrived at 8:30 a.m. and silently waited for the preparations to begin.
Finally, Jack spoke, "Dad, I... you know, all those years..."
His father interrupted, "You have to understand..."
Before they could finish, the nurse came. Jack stood, but could follow no further. He watched his father look at him as if it were the last time.
"The margins are completely clear," the doctor said, "The lab found no signs that the cancer spread."
Jack breathed a sigh of weary relief. The battle was won and life could finally return to normal. He waited by his father's bedside until nightfall, then went home to finally sleep in his own bed. Before he left, he wrote a note and left it on the nightstand:
Dad, I know that we never really got along. You do have a lot to answer for, but I feel like we've been given a second chance, both of us, to get things right. After you get out of the hospital we should go for dinner and talk things out. Maybe we can start fresh.
In April he received the news. His father phoned him at work with the simple message, "It's back."
In May, John became too sick many days to even leave the house. Once Jack noticed his father was laying in desperate pain.
"Have you taken your morphine today?"
"Don't lie to me."
"I'll go pick some up."
At the pharmacy, Jack was informed that his father was out of a lot more than morphine. The pharmacist explained why: "Cancer is a very expensive disease to treat, with some of his medications reaching $200 per pill, and your father is over one year away from qualifying for Medicare. He has coverage, but it will have run out in approximately six months. I guess he was trying to conserve it. Also, there are certain medicines his plan does not cover."
"Well, narcotics like morphine freeze the bowels. He requires a strong laxative to keep him from building up fatal levels of toxins in his blood. Many health providers see this as superfluous."
"You mean he hasn't..."
"No, he can't. It is a horrible disease, Mr. McCoy."
Jack paid for the medications and wondered what he was going to do when his money ran out.
By September, Jack realized what the doctors meant when they spoke of the long-term effects of chemotherapy. The gaunt old man was a mere shadow of his robust and intimidating father. His voice was powerless and brittle, like the bones that poked through his frame. There was no hiding this fact, as Jack had to help John get in and out of the bathtub. Some days, his father was too weak to even wash himself. That was when Jack realized how small the man's muscles had become. The humiliating degradation brought him to the verge of tears every time. Especially since the doctors said he had only a year left. Living a year like this would be impossible.
"Who are you going off to fuck tonight?" John demanded as Jack donned his shoes one evening.
Jack merely sighed before answering, "I have paperwork to do."
These exchanges were becoming customary as stress eroded the controls of both men. Neither man knew how to survive something like this without eventually breaking down. Jack felt guilty for being unable to control his behavior in his father's presence.
"You have something to do, but it ain't work," he growled.
"What, do you expect me to stay here every night? I need to earn a living, you know."
"And you don't think I would if I could?"
"That's not what I meant..."
"Like hell it wasn't."
Jack curled his lip in a sneer before spouting, "I haven't been laid since you got sick! What do you expect me to do, jump into the grave with you? You can't even quit smoking. Don't look so surprised; I know you've been sneaking smokes when I'm not here."
John rose from the couch while shouting, "You insolent little brat!" He rose his hand to slap his son, who quickly rose a hand to block the blow. When John's arm connected with Jack's, a sickening crack came from the contact point and the elder man dropped to his knees.
"Oh, God!" Jack gasped.
Even more frightening than the broken arm to Jack was the man himself. For the first time, Jack saw his father cry, even weep in his presence.
"This is how God punishes me! No solutions, no help, nothing but pain..." and the sobbing continued.
In October, after the leaves had fallen and everything looked dead, John had another appointment for an x-ray. Jack wheeled his chair out of the room into to the doctor's private office. He began to leave, as was the custom, when his father said, "For God's sake, Jack, you can sit in on this one."
The doctor lifted his head from the file and nodded gravely.
He began, "John, the arm is still broken and I have to tell you, it will never heal. Your doctor has you on many mineral supplements, but the drugs are preventing them from being absorbed. You can also expect this sort of thing to happen with increased frequency in the future, as the problem is only multiplying."
"But I can't even push myself in a wheelchair with this broken arm."
"You should consider home care as an alternative. I can arrange for a nurse to come by every few days to help out."
"I won't...I can't."
"You have to."
"How long do I have?"
"Your doctor says six months."
Winter came early that year, in a murderous rage bent on destruction. It was so cold, even the usual Christmas cheer seemed muted. It was a week away, but only two people on the whole block had put up lights. Winter kills, Jack reminded himself. Jack sold his prized Suzuki GS 750 that he had installed racing carbs on. Another dream gone. Unbelievably, his father's condition had worsened, but John was still clinging to life. Endlessly clinging to life, with nothing to look forward to.
His father called, "Jack."
He came to his side.
"Jack, you know that snubby I kept from my days on the force? Bring it to me."
"No matter how many times you ask, I can't help you."
"You expect me to live like this? They say I have at least two months left. I can't suffer like this anymore."
Jack tried to explain, but choked on the words. Instead, he began to cry, low and mournful.
John shook his head, "Then do it in rage. Look at what I did to you. Don't you think I know now that I was wrong? I sit awake at night and realize how incredibly alone I am. I will never speak with my daughters ever again. I ask myself why I'm an old man that no one wants anymore, then I realize I know the answer. And I can't do anything about it. I ruined it, I ruined my family. You're broke, set back in your career, and you've wasted the last year of your life taking care of me. What have done to deserve your love, Jack? Nothing. Do it in rage, son.
"If not in rage, then do it in pity for a suffering human being. If I was a horse, you would have shot me already. Is it the gun? Then do it with morphine. I'll go quietly.
"Are you worried about getting caught? Use the morphine. An overdose will cause me to stop breathing, just like the cancer. I'll go quietly, no pain. I have too much in my blood already, they'll never know.
"Please Jack, please. I've never begged for anything in my life, until now. Do it for me. Don't make me suffer any longer."
Jack looked up with weary and mournful eyes, "Dad..."
Two men rested in the blackened room. One man frightened, one who would never feel fear again; both connected by a bond of suffering. The oxygen still traveled through the tubes to aid the unnatural and rattling breathing of the older man. This was the hospital where John McCoy Sr. went to die. The room was near black, but it was not hidden that one hunched over the other, despondency portrayed by every angle of his weary body. Nor did the dark hide the tears that ran down the hooked nose of the younger man. This battle had lasted a year and now they had finally lost.