Black Lungs & the Bic-Lighter Phoenix

October 20, 2014

These veins run wild with witching hour alcohol and cigarette ashes. But they aren’t mine. I am not the Bic-lighter phoenix of this dark room. That is my Daddy. There he is at the end of the day, as a pile of ashes in his ashtray. I’m still here, rooted to the hardwood floor, waiting for that phoenix to rise again, instead of burning out.
When they told me his lungs were black like soot, and the tumor was the size of a kitchen sponge, I disappeared into myself. I went to that place where every child hides when they make a castle out of cardboard boxes, that same place that teenagers hide in their headphones when the fighting outside their bedroom door becomes too loud. They tell me I sat in the backyard for hours, pulling the grass up by fat fistfuls like a baby.
Hospital waiting rooms epitomize my childhood. They were my nursery. Their hard, homologous seats were my cradle, copies of “Homes and Gardens”, and faded “Highlights” with all the pictures already colored in, were my baby books. Illness was the center of my life. My mother was afflicted with a disease called MSA that took her life when I was fifteen, and my father lost his life to lung cancer a month ago. I am sixteen. I have seen a man and a woman lose all they ever had; homes, families, possessions, abilities, hope, and in one climactic fell swoop, their lives. This has left me with much to contemplate.
First, who was my father? What is it that I lost? My father had a big, green, dragon tattoo on his left arm. My father made everyone happy. Except, of course, when he didn’t. He wore big, red and yellow clown shoes to chemotherapy. He also drank himself to oblivion. He rewrote all the words to every Christmas song to make me laugh, and made friends with every person he met. He also drove my brothers away with his fists and his slurred threats and hate. He took me to the Portland rose gardens and bought me my first guitar. He guzzled beers by the twelve pack at four in the morning as if the meaning of life could be found at the sludgy bottom. He taught me the Tao Te Ching and how to draw. He pounded me into the ground with words so quick, sharp and copious they left me gasping for air. I say these things in all their ugly juxtaposition in an effort to avoid the patterned fallacy of the mourning, this being the tendency to saint the dead, and put aside all their flaws out of misguided “respect”. I respected my father for all his utter humanity in the basest sense of the term, encompassing all of its flawed ambit. Though this may have hurt at times, I would still curl up at his feet like a dog for him to tell me he loved me just one more time.
My father’s drinking was as old as time and as deeply rooted as an old growth oak. It ran in his blood like wild horses, and came out of his mouth like dirt from a gravedigger’s shovel… wrought with gravel and cigarette butts, and muddy with twilight beers. I became lost in a cardboard castle slum, in a sepulcher of mixed values, lost innocence and quickly dissipating naivety. It’s an age-old story with a recurring theme of recurring flaws. Father to daughter, father to son, on and on like a mad spiral. Everyone tries to defy it in their own way, yet we all succumb in one way or another to the combined foe that is nature and nurture. My fight has left me with a history of having a flask hidden in my bedroom, burn scars on my arms, and what my family has coined as “aggressive independence”.
However, as this archetypal apologue was unfurling its archaic wings and preparing to take my family and I off into the world of every poster ever pasted on the back of a high school counselor’s door, there came a twist. My father quit drinking. Cold turkey. Clean cut. Stopped. He looked inside and found himself to be Taoist, and took up painting again. My brothers didn’t trust his newfound change, but I did. Perhaps I am naïve. I put all my faith and love and hope into learning how to be a daughter. In seeing my father rise from the ashes of his own disgrace, I set all that I am on the back of a phoenix, and watched it soar.
He was sober just over a year when he was diagnosed with stage three, non-small cell lung cancer. Irony stomped on my life like a cruel man’s foot on the tail of a fleeing mouse.
With illness comes a breaker of emotions, ready to swallow the mourning and wash them away from all they thought they knew. The cruelest of these emotions is not agony, nor hate, nor despair. The cruelest emotion is hope, and hope relies on blind faith in remainders. The chemo and radiation fails, and all your father’s hair falls out and you see him bald. He now emblematizes his disease, he is now one with his affliction and you are one with a cliché titled “loved ones”. His eyes, full to the brim with love and tears and that cruel hope, like a river swollen from rain…they are the remainders, the stagnant stump of what once was, that hope hooks her claws into. When his legs give out, and you stand taller than a man you had always looked up to, what remains? His hands remain. They hold yours tight; the calluses you are so familiar with from his years of construction work are gone, leaving them cold and soft from lack of circulation. Hope is what makes you cling to these remainders as if they mean something. As if him squeezing your hand is a signifier of the past and the present and the future all balled up into a hard knot of hope in the pit of your stomach, and that means he will get better. No, you’ve been dreaming that he will never see you graduate from high school. No, child, calm down, your Daddy will be there to walk you down the aisle if you get married. It doesn’t end here.
Hope kept me going like that last hit keeps an addict soaring up up up until they come crashing down down down and they need more more more to make it through the hour. I was so stoned on hope that it didn’t hurt me when he became paralyzed from the waist down, because hope whispered in my ear he will walk again. Or when he got bedsores, (hope says he will heal). Or when he received that nice, cushy “comfort pack” of morphine cocktails from hospice to ease the pain (hope says to me his eyes will focus again, he’ll come up through the fog to be my Daddy again). My father’s cancer was a back-burner issue to me for quite a while, because in the midst of all this my mother died. I was convinced that life wouldn’t be so cruel as to take both my parents from me, right? After all, my father and I had just dug ourselves out of the tomb of the past. Our faces were upturned to the future; the morning sun was shining on our tear-stained cheeks. We were going to be happy for the first time.
Eventually, his hands that held mine so tight seemed to crumble away like ashes. His body bent and fell to a pile. His bright blue eyes didn’t burnt quite as hot, though they looked at me with love so whole and all-consuming I became acutely aware of all the time I had spent pretending I wasn’t losing everything.
I don’t know why I am not one of those heated advocates of hunting down the “cure for cancer”. I don’t do lung cancer runs and I don’t donate money to organizations. Perhaps, to me, my father was more important than the cancer that took his life. My emphasis was not placed on his illness, but on his being. Perhaps he needed to burn out for some reason that I don’t understand yet. I will not say that I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I have gone through. Because there are things that I understand that no one I have met understands. And I would not understand them if my life had not caused me so much grief. This may seem callus, but I am an advocate of raw truth. The raw truth is humans are not kind, no one is good, and life is crueler to some than it is to others. The grotesque and the beautiful are business partners, dealing in the business of life and death. I am not selfless. I am not saintly. I do not shrug off the things that hurt me. I am angry that this is the lot that life has given me, but I am willing to accept that I just don’t understand the universe’s motives. My mind is swollen with rage and grief, but I am willing to say that I am selfish, unkind, and unthinking.
The aftermath of cancer’s victory on a body is an ugly thing. Blame is an invention of those unable to accept the grotesque portions of their own psyche. The scapegoat is the invention of those hopelessly lost in their search for answers. I stayed out of all this. I never asked for a thing. I never looked at the cigarettes my Daddy smoked when his oxygen machine wasn’t turned on with anything resembling resentment, hate, or blame. I just handed him his lighter and opened the window to let out the smoke. My father asked me to sit on his bed with him, and he gave me his guitars, because I was the one who should have them. He smiled and warned me that I could have his bomber jacket…but I should just be aware that it would make me look like the Fonz. I laughed, and we watched our favorite movies together. To me, blame wasn’t worth the trouble. All I wanted to do was lay in the back room and drink chocolate milk like we did when i was a kid. I got all that I wanted from my Dad before he died. We may not have had the chance to walk off into the horizon of the future, but at least we got to see the sun set on our pasts, and the sun rise on what could have been.
I have tried to find the beauty in death. Where does it hide? After all of this, how does it still elude me? Is it in that last, shallow breath? Is it in the unblinking eyes of a man in a hospital bed, surrounded by those he loves? Is it in a casket with the worms? Is it in that evanescent Xanadu so many people swear exists, with their arthritic feet just itching for a pair of them golden slippers to walk them golden streets? Is death simply a separation of the infinite from the finite? And is that beautiful?
And oh, the universe is so much larger than me and my pain and my thoughts. My father, in all his Buddhist self-contradiction, told me that attachment is the root of all pain. Then he told me he loved me, and told me not to be sad. And I would like to believe that people are phoenixes, and though he may not rise again on this horizon, he will rise again somewhere. I would like to think that it is impossible to burn out entirely.
Alona Stroup