My father was the straight man in a comedy duo without a partner. The world was his funny man. His comedic feeds were so good that the punch line was implied, and people would laugh. He, on the other hand, would keep his stoic expression, only on rare occasions revealing the slightest smirk or shoulder jiggle from suppressed laughter. This left his audience wondering if they had simply misunderstood what he’d said, sometimes apologizing for their laughter, which was exactly what he was going for.
I once found him sitting on my bed wearing my mother’s housecoat; a lamp shade on his head with a large green plant protruding from it. He looked up at me with piercing serious eyes and quickly strummed the guitar he had in his hands. He began to serenade me with “Lady of Spain.” He could neither play guitar nor sing if his life depended on it, which made the scene all the more absurd, and funny. When his performance was over, he got up and left the room without a bow or comment.
In some ways he was a typical dad. We played catch, he taught me how to fish, and how to swim, and he hit me when I deserved it. Times were different. Dad was also a gambler: horses, poker, stocks and commodities. He taught me about those too. Contrary to what you might think about gamblers, if he was up, he was a nervous wreck, but if he was down, he didn’t have a care in the world. He’d often say, “The bank’s got money I haven’t spent yet.” He also gambled on life. He smoked too much, didn’t exercise enough and his diet consisted of half eaten sandwiches and handfuls of antacids.
We thought he’d beaten it, but the cancer came back, and they couldn’t cut it out of him the second time. He had chemotherapy, radiation, and other experimental treatments that managed to rob him of his humor without killing the tumor. I watched him age before my eyes. His hair fell out in chunks, and gray skin hung off his thin bones. He had nothing left to give, had no fight left in him. If anyone had a reason to go, he did, but he stayed, not for himself, but for us. He became a test subject, and then a statistic.
My father died when I was fifteen from an overdose of Percodan. He popped them like candies and chased them with whisky, but it wasn’t enough to stop the pain until twenty of them were ground up in his drink. He died and finally got peace, but the man who was my father was gone long before his body expired. To this day, I’m not sure if it was the cancer or the alleged cure that led him to his grave.
It was tough, suddenly being the man of the house in a one-income family earning less than the poverty level with two siblings and a needy cocker spaniel. The only thing that Dad bequeathed us was debt. I became carpenter, plumber, electrician, roofer, dog walker and counselor. Yes, it was tough, but watching a man you love peacefully sleep in a chair then suddenly writhe in pain, hands balled into fists, neck stretched and back arched so that he almost vaults out of the chair, was worse.
When he died, it changed me. Friends didn’t know what to say, so they said nothing. I let those friendships drift away. My teenage life, and all the social norms that go along with it, was put on hold, never to be re-visited. I anticipated, but did not tempt, death. I wouldn’t take chances. No thrill seeking for me. I was not the gambler my father was. My focus was on the inevitability of death, and worse, a fear of intimacy that it would take ten years and two psychologists to help me recover from. I was and still am a cautious but prepared man. I eat well and exercise regularly. When I married and had children we bought life insurance and wrote a will. We drew up legal documents declaring who should raise our children should we both pass. We arranged trust funds for them.
I’ve never ridden a motorcycle nor jumped out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute strapped to my back. I have never engaged the services of a prostitute, snorted cocaine, or kissed a camel. Okay, there was that one time, but I was really drunk and I made five bucks on the dare…the camel, not the coke or the prostitute.
Eighteen months ago the surgeon took out one of my kidneys. He said that the cancer was not a typical type for its location. I had no idea what that meant, but he explained that what they removed from me was probably a secondary cancer, suggesting that there was another tumor somewhere in my body. CT scans, x-rays and blood work revealed nothing, and then one day a year later, I just fell down. They found it in my brain. It’s inoperable.
I don’t smoke. Dad still did, even at the end. No point quitting, I guess, when the finish line is running towards you. I don’t have anything to quit. There’s no smoking gun that caused my affliction. Cancer does not discriminate.
The pain from the radiotherapy and chemotherapy stays long after the treatments are over. I don’t take Percodan. I take Morphine. My cancer is different. The pills are different, but the result is the same. My body is so used to the pain meds, that they have little effect. I have to take larger and larger doses, enough to put most men down, but all it does for me is dull the pain a bit. At the same time it makes me constipated, drowsy, and I throw up a lot. All of a sudden, I started thinking about using marijuana, cocaine, even heroin…anything to let me stay…be a father, a husband and contribute to my family’s wellbeing, but would I actually contribute or would I just sleep, slumped over in the chair, like Dad did? What about riding a motorcycle, or jumping out of a plane? If I’d lived my life differently and thrown caution to the wind, would I have ended up in the same place?
I think we’ve taught our kids good survival skills, and when I’m gone, the insurance will pay off the mortgage and put the kids through school. There will be no need for our teenage son to suddenly become the man of the house.
When I gave that drink to Dad all those years ago, I’d imagined him smiling when he tasted the bitterness and saw the chalky color of his drink caused by the Percodan I’d ground up in his glass. I’d imagined him falling asleep and drifting off to the afterlife with that smile still on his face, knowing that I’d taken his pain away. The glass was empty. He drank it all.
Yes, times were different, but I knew then, and know now, how the law, society, and the church would view what I’ve done. Call it euthanasia if you want, but I’ve had to live with the fact that I murdered my father. I can’t allow my pain to force my son into the same decision. Some would call me a criminal for what I’ve done, and some will call me a coward for what I’m about to do, but they are my choices, and I believe, the right ones. Maybe I’ll go to hell for what I’ve done, but hell can’t be worse than this.
“Hey, Son! Bring your old man the whiskey and my pills.”
Douglas Shearer spent years traveling for work and living out of a suitcase before returning to the city of his youth near Toronto, Canada where he now lives with his wife and two children. He graduated from The Institute of Children’s Literature in 2010 and was published in non-fiction before completing the course. His instructor said she loved his style, but suggested he not limit himself to writing for kids. “Treatment” is his first fiction to be published.
Read an interview with Douglas here.