Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  February 2013 | issue 446

Leaving Shenandoah

by C.J. Gall

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C.J. Gall is tempted by cakes of all kinds, though she’s hoping her vigorous workout routine will help her avoid having to be buried in a piano case. She lives in Jackson­ville, Florida, and teaches ethics and social science.

IT’S NOVEMBER, almost Thanksgiving. On the phone my father is telling me how he’s been nauseated lately. He feels unstable, off balance. “Wobbly. Kind of dizzy. You know?” he says.

I know. I mean, I guess I know. I remember the board strung by rope from the limb of a wild, ancient oak. As a girl I sat on it, and, against my protests, my brother twisted and twisted and twisted and then let go. After I’d stopped spinning, I was unable to stand. My feet tripped over each other, and I fell with a landing that was neither soft nor graceful. The world blurred as if I had vaseline on my eyes. For the next five minutes I heaved but didn’t vomit. So I know, I guess. But I don’t know. My father is vomiting. He leaves the phone to vomit. The swing incident didn’t go on for a month. It didn’t make me lose thirty pounds.

I’ve heard this kind of story before, from my friend Todd. His dad was feeling queasy, said it felt like vertigo. Then one night he fell and hit his head on the nightstand. Twenty-four hours later he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. Todd was hopeful about his father’s chances, but I looked the disease up, and it was like a death sentence: two months at best. When Todd said his father was eating again, I told him, “That’s a great sign.” But I knew what I knew.

I’d dreamt of Todd’s dad for weeks before I heard the news. I barely even knew him. How do you tell your friend you’ve been dreaming of his father? I’d met the man just once or twice in the twenty years Todd and I had been friends. His father was a production worker for gm, maybe Saturn. What I knew most about him was that he drew political cartoons as a hobby. He was good. Todd had shown me a scrapbook of his dad’s work once. Steve’s work. His dad’s name was Steve. I’m 99 percent sure that’s right. But there you go: a man’s son is your best friend for decades, and your mind scrambles to grasp his name. It makes everything seem so temporary and forgettable.

Steve’s decline was harsh, steady, and complete in roughly sixteen weeks. (Four months seems so much longer when you say it like that.) Todd traveled back and forth from his Florida home to his Georgia birthplace to be with his dad. Brain surgery and radiation didn’t help. The family chose to pull his feeding tube and let him slide into whatever lies beyond. I don’t know what it was like for Todd. I took him to the airport once. We bought beer and cigars for the drive. At security I took his lighter. I still have that clear orange lighter. I’m saving it and mean to give it back to him someday. In the meantime I can’t use it, but I also can’t throw it away.

I was at Tire Kingdom when Todd called, sobbing, and choked the words into my ear. I cried with him. I said I was sorry. And I was. I’m still sorry seven years later. Those two words were all I had for one of my closest friends. They’re the best we can do. If I bump into someone by accident at Target reaching for hair gel, I offer the same words that I do when someone’s dad dies.

Todd buried his dad, then a few weeks later called to tell me a flood had hit Georgia and pushed caskets up out of the ground, creating a real-life River Styx.

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