You can’t always be perfect at everything

Note: I actually wrote a different post than this, but I will probably post it tomorrow instead. Because today is October 30, 2006, which means that my father died exactly fifteen years ago. So, I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to post this story, which I originally wrote for submission to a website that publishes personal essays. It didn’t get accepted, probably for its fatal flaw of being a bit over-dramatic, but, hey, you can’t always be perfect at everything.

October is a strange month for me. It’s the month my father passed away, 15 years ago. And every year, when the leaves begin to turn and the Halloween decorations emerge, I remember.

I was nine years old and was carving a pumpkin when it happened. My brother and I were up to our elbows in pumpkin pulp; seeds were splattered across the newspapers lining the floor. Things hadn’t been going so well that fall for us, we knew that much, but we had no idea what was about to come.

It took me a while to catch on. I suppose it should have sent up a little red flag in my head when Daddy began to spend a lot of time at home with us during the hot days of July and August, but since I was on summer vacation, naturally I assumed that he was, too. Never mind that, normally, if he wasn’t slaving away at the magazine he was busying himself in his workshop, teaching my brother and I how to properly sand wood while he worked on whatever project he was in the midst of completing. Instead, that summer, the three of us spent most days on the couch watching Matlock reruns.

But then school started up and he didn’t go back to work. And, now, instead of watching Matlock, he seemed to just lie there with the TV on, staring quietly off into the distance but not actually looking at the television. Finally, when the hospital bed arrived and my mother started sleeping in the living room, she clued us in.

“Your father has cancer,” she said.

I looked over at my brother, who was just as boisterous and giddy as he was before this conversation began, and I could tell that the words hadn’t meant a thing to him. He was too young to know their power. But I wasn’t, and I ran to the bathroom and threw up.

Then I started crying and my brother followed suit. “Is he going to die?” I asked, and my mother said she didn’t know yet.

She did, though. In fact, she had known about his illness for about six months, and it wasn’t until it they knew it was terminal that they decided to tell us.

A week or so later, my mother turned 43 years old. My father was completely bedridden by then, but never to be outdone on her birthday he’d managed to order her a beautiful piece of jewelry via catalog. This became a source of laughter and joking in the apartment for the next week or so, because even on his deathbed Daddy had his priorities straight.

He had become too weak to shave, but he wasn’t about to put up with stubble. My mother, whose shaving experience was limited to legs and armpits, had difficulty doing it for him and after too many nicks Daddy finally fired her and asked his childhood friend Damian to do it for him. Damian was much more adept at the art of facial hair removal, we found out, because when we was done my father looked in the handheld mirror and whispered, “I’ll give it a five and a half.”

So October wasn’t all bad. My father’s humor hung with him until the end, and even though the house was quiet and unfamiliar, there was hope to speak of.

I had just begun the fourth grade, which meant that I had also started learning how to play the trumpet. If you’ve ever heard a child learning to play a very loud brass instrument, you will know the pain my sick father felt as I eked out a high C—or some variant thereof—while waiting for the school bus to arrive one morning.

“Laura.”

It was very faint and I didn’t hear it over the sound of my elephant trunk of an instrument.

My mother stopped me. “Laura, I think your father is calling you. Go up there and see what he wants.”

I had been avoiding his room ever since I found out about the illness, and even with all the jokes and high spirits, I was terrified. Cautiously, I tiptoed up the stairs and into his room. His face was pale and his hair, which only a few months ago still clung to its natural dark brown hue, had faded well beyond the salt-and-pepper stage into old-man gray. He gestured me over to his bed.

“Laura.” He looked at me, and for the first time in a few weeks, I looked into his eyes. They were sparkling, and I could tell he was happy, if slightly annoyed by my very loud, very early musical endeavors.

“You know, you can’t always be perfect at everything all of the time.”

I didn’t understand it at the time, of course, but that was his sense of humor speaking.

And then it was time for Halloween. My brother and I picked out our pumpkins—his was small and stout, mine tall and stately—and etched our jack-o-lantern patterns on their soon-to-be faces. Our costumes were all set and our minds were focused on the gobs of candy that would soon be ours.

We laid newspaper on the kitchen floor and removed the pumpkin tops. We dug out the insides, and our babysitter transformed the slimy seeds into salty morsels. My mother had just gotten home from work and was settling into dinner as my brother and I prodded our giant orange vegetables with sharp knives.

And then:

“Elaine.”

The Hospice nurse called my mother into the bedroom. Even then, even in the middle of pumpkin carving, my brother and I knew there was something wrong with the nurse’s tone. My mother went upstairs and shut the bedroom door.

Ten minutes later, October would never be the same again.

10 thoughts on “You can’t always be perfect at everything

  1. Laura, I’m sorry for your loss, especially at so young an age.

    I almost lost my mom to cancer when I was around ten, and even though we didn’t have the best of relationships back then I knew I didn’t want her to leave. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a family member, at least not a human one, but I did come close to losing my mom so I can relate to a lot of the things you went through.

    I hope you still carry fond memories of Halloween, particularly of those spent trick-or-treating with your dad. He sounds like he was a great man and I’m glad that you saw fit to share this memory of him.

  2. You have my sympathies at this time of remembrance. This cannot have been an easy this to write when you did, but you did it well. Both perspectives of a young girl and an older one carry strong emotions. So what for over-dramatic, it’s real and poignant and I thank you for the privilege of letting me read it.

    I have not been reading you long but it is clear that you have that endearing humor too. His words were wise as well.

    I have not lost a parent so I cannot say that I know the feeling, but I can say that those I have lost to that disease…well, I think they would be proud if I could handle such a delicate time as deftly as you have here. I cannot really say much more you have me tearing up a bit, so I will just send those electronic hugs and wish you and yours well.

  3. Wow. I want to say for the sadness what congratulations is to a happy event, but I don’t know how to put it. What a monumental experience to have a such a young age. I acknowledge it.

  4. Laura,

    I will lift my glass to you, mom, kieran and shawn, tomorrow night, in rememberance of your dad…I also want to thank you for sharing some of your life with me, I’ll never forget you guys…

    Bob

  5. I’m so sorry to read this. I know that time softens the blow, but every time the holiday comes around, it brings back the pain. My mom died 25 years ago on a bright, brilliant June day. So now, when June comes around, I always remember the loss.

    Sorry the Web zine didn’t accept this. You should try some other places.
    Lynn

  6. From an emotional standpoint, the loss is still fresh and profound in such a way that my heart goes out to you.

    From a technical standpoint…I love this, in part because of the fact that the guts of the pumpkins of the floor make me think of the fact that writing about loss is to be vulnerable, is to literally spill ones guts. The vomit too.

    From a totally irrelevant standpoint…I hate the word hospice. You’d think they’d come up with a better word for it.

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