Roleplaying Manual for a Decaying Parent
When your father returned from his tenth tour, he handed you a six-sided die, told you to start rolling it if he ever started dying. He said, “Get it?” and walked past you to the rest of your family. Now, when you misplace it, you cut out and draw numbers, one through six, to try to figure out what’s right.
You have to pull your father out from the ocean again, his body slack and glimmering, blooming against the fireworks.
1: He had set some off earlier today, a few beers in – this allowed since it was a holiday, and he had served the country. A roman candle went off without a hitch, but a spinner tipped sideways and into the underside of a neighbor’s chair. This neighbor, who looks like most of your neighbors – though not your family – erupted like the firework, saying he was done with the lot of you.
2: A few weeks ago, he started listening to a radio show that promised to tell its listeners the real truths about America and the world. Since then, he’s spoken often about how firing heavy weapons for the military made his skull vibrate in the wrong way, which is the only reason he forgets things sometimes now. It’s because of this that he’s relegated to grill duty, and it’s because of this that he burns his hand when he tries to flip a link with it.
3: There had been signs of his decay for a while, but it was too impossible for him to not be invulnerable. Well into his seventies, he could still lift you or your cousins above his head – whether you agreed to it or not – in the same way that he could when you were kids. Now, you’re all pushing thirty or thirty-five, and he conflates your names, then tells you he was joking.
4: You have never seen him cry, but it’s almost as though this was what he had slipped into the ocean to do. When you cause him to emerge, you can’t tell if he’s choking on tears or seawater, or a combination of the two, or something else.
5: These yearly voyages to the ocean have become as constant as your family’s migration to the Cape. You are a family that can stop traffic. Your paths trace a firework across the map, its vertex on your parents’ house in the center of the tourist trap where you were raised, were all lifeguards.
6: Talking to your father is like talking to an ex. A lot of your exes drank too much.
You are surrounded by cousins. You have a million cousins, and you don’t know where all of them are from, but you remember that the only time your father hit you was when you accused them of not being related to your nuclear family. They rotated through your home in shifts, your mother’s sister’s son, her “uncle’s” baby brother. You had many siblings for a year or two that you now see only once a year, and do not contact otherwise.
1: You are the smallest person in a big family. Most of your relatives have a hundred pounds on you. They are like your father. It feels like they came from him more than you did. You try to help them lift him – placing a hand on the back of his knee, or under an ankle, but they cover every inch of his skin, bear his weight so entirely that no matter how forcefully you press their hands into his body, none of it reaches you.
2: You fit between your cousins, sliding between them as easily as your father entered the ocean. Each time you touch an arm, your relief in finally being able to carry a piece of him away from drowning is shattered when an off-breath reveals that it belongs to a cousin instead. And so, you move again, the only one without a piece of your father’s body, as though laying hands on one now will grant you what you are missing.
3: Your father has always called you sensitive, and despite all the work you’ve done in therapy, he’s still the only person you’re afraid to cry in front of. So, as you have your hands beneath the back of his head, you can’t look at him, afraid you’ll cry onto his face. And his head tilts to look away from yours as well, ashamed of his state or his crying kid, or just unconscious, or worse.
4: There is a space where none of your cousins have lifted him, just above the base of his neck. You cradle what you imagine is his brain stem. You are not used to the idea of a dead father – everything that’s prepared you for a dead parent has instead had a dead mother or a dead dog. Dead fathers are mythical or lions or mechanisms for revenge – not silent, gurgling or limp.
5: Now that you’re surrounded by your cousins, though, you know that many of them have dead fathers – some gone before they reached a cousin’s age. You’ve been to funerals for your partners’ parents. Co-workers took time off for mourning. You are, you realize, surrounded by dead dads. Which means that yours is stronger, that his passing is still more superstition than inevitability, right?
6: You think of the house, how it will be so full of people and feel so empty. This is a worry that emerges every year – that this is going to be a strange holiday.
He spits, and he’s up, though the noises he makes aren’t close to his usual language. Like the rest of your family, your father speaks in a system of death sentences.
1: When pulling into any gas station, “This left turn’s gonna kill me, gonna kill all of us.” The only time you see him regularly ashamed is right after he says this: when it doesn’t, when he counts out quarters for lottery tickets, when he returns to the car with his head down – even if you’ve gone with him – and says he wishes he could have given you more. “Imagine,” he tells you like he’s reading it off the side of his hand, “If you had a place that wasn’t closing in on you.”
2: Once, after returning from the vacation you and your cousins saved up for, “Is it possible to die from a screaming kid? Because I might be on my way.” He’d go on to talk about how all babies are reminders of an absence of one’s own possibility, how if you keep enough of them together, it’s like a vacuum, which was why he’d only ever dealt with one baby, and looked after the rest when they began middle or high school.
3: Your mother, a brute force. But you should have seen his first girlfriend, a rifle. You’ve found an old journal of his, in which he refers to himself as a Weapon of Ass Destruction, but you’ve never heard this claim vocalized.
4: Any car that’s not his or your mother’s truck is a hacksaw. Mirrors that flip down unexpectedly are blades or heart attacks. Airbags are government tools used to take out old soldiers who know too much. When one of your cousins arrived this year, your father popped the hood of her car, removed a few important-looking items, and closed it, waiting to be thanked.
5: “The ocean,” he said when you were a kid, having just watched a documentary on predators, “is full of poison.” He’d cut out photographs from the copies of National Geographic that the pair of you would take every month from the recycling center: jellyfish bigger than your body, reef snakes ready to coil.
6: His own father, he tells you on holidays, condemned everything. “Giving birth to someone is setting them up to die and hoping you’re not around to see it.”
And though he’s talking more through water than words, coughing little explosions under frantic eyes, you know that he’s pulled from the infinite catalog to come up with another way to predict his own demise before it happens, so that even in death he’ll at least be correct. And perhaps it’s this that will counter the wrongness of his passing when it happens – this trail of predictions building upon itself like a reef, so vast and hardened, that when the whole damn thing crumbles, a single cell of it can snap off and latch into how he’s remembered and live on forever.
When he can talk again, days later, it’s almost like nothing happened. “I forgot to mention,” he tells you when you see he’s standing and run to him, “Remember that neighbor kid? Kevin? He fell into a volcano on vacation. Died. Wacky, eh?”
After the second stroke, your father is in the hospital, kind and religious. He can walk, he swears, but prefers to lie down – it’s comfortable. He deserves that. Your mother teaches him how to text, and he promises to message you daily as long as you don’t use the dumb pictures. He remembers maybe once a week.
1: “Your cousins said they would get me a new BB gun to shoot squirrels with if I get better enough to get out of here. So I am going to do that.”
2: “One of the doctors told me that I could try weed if I wanted to to take the edge off even though I can talk fine again. I told her no but I thought you would think that was funny.”
3: “I am sorry I was not around a lot when you were younger.” “Sorry was on meds when I sent that ignore it.” “We should get you a CostCo membership.”
4: “Don’t get old it sucks.” “This hospital food is going to kill me.”
5: “I started reading one of the dumb books you left. I need you to explain what the magician who can’t die means. Am I missing something?”
6: “Do you still get angry?”
Your mother talks the nurses into letting her stay overnight. There’s a part of you that feels cut-out, even though she and your father both say he’s doing fine – the monitors pick up zero irregularities, he hasn’t lost any muscular function, and his blood, he messages you, “is good.” When your mother mentions that he’s having tests done, and stumbles over the assurance that they’re routine, you fly out to the care facility to sit with them. The hospital campus feels empty, though it is full, presumably, of bodies that are also decaying, that must be decaying at rates faster than your father’s.
1: You and your mother share a pair of headphones and watch her favorite videos on your phone – old interviews and action movie clips. “Compromise?” the two of you just about sing together as Eartha Kitt turns to face the camera, “What is compromising?” When you get to the part where she talks about finding “someone to share me with me,” your mother squeezes your hand, rises, and walks down the hallway, to where you cannot see her.
2: In the middle of the night, your father’s thrashing arm knocks over the tower of books that the family has sent him. “Fuck these,” he screams, “Fucking tell everyone I’m illiterate.” He misses the handrails on the side of his bed and falls from it, and the sound that cracks through the facility reminds you of when you and your cousin ran into each other at soccer practice and left the field with a matching pair of concussions. There’s blood. A nurse shows up, and your mother escorts you beyond the room.
3: Soon enough, it becomes your job to tell every cousin that visits to put cartoon-green gloves on their hands before they enter your father’s room. The nurses walk by, thanking you, the Glove Machine, for your service. When you were a kid, before even the first cousin appeared, your mom kept a similar box of them for cleaning toilets and jewelry. Once, she let you wear a pair outside. And as you kicked a ball around with Kevin, the neighbor kid, you realized your father was chasing you. He lifted you from below your shoulders, looked you over, and called you a sniper’s wet dream.
4: Any cousin that visits brings a relic, and it feels as though the correct activation of these things will bump your father from hospice and into a newfound and appropriate burst of life. You have heard your parents’ wedding song, “Hungry Eyes,” ten times over the past week. They hang photos of him that other ancestors saved: your father on an aircraft carrier, your parents flipping off the courthouse that wouldn’t let two people of different skin colors get married, your father from behind on a mountain, piss in an arc over a placid valley. There are keychains and trophies. The nurses don’t allow a taxidermied moose head in the room, calling it a walking contagion, and you are thankful.
5: The room gets direct sunlight only as the sun is setting, and if you don’t pray with your father when it permeates the room, he yells for the nurses to take you away. You bow your head and count the tiles on the floor. When you run out of tiles, you count the visible grains in the stiff wooden chairs that you and your mother occupy. He asks you what you pray for, and you tell him, “You,” and he calls for the nurses to remove you.
6: Your mother runs to the car, to grab a forgotten cylinder of lip balm. While she’s away, your father turns to you and asks, “Do you think I was a good person?”
It is only now that your relatives tell you that you look like your father. You were always the wrong shape to match his, but his body has shrunken and expanded, and his eyes have sunken into the same dull crescents you see when you look into the mirror. “I see it now,” a cousin tells you. They ask you to stand next to your father, so they can get a picture. You and your father both hate this – and you both express this – but you fear so much that there will be a final picture that you figure if you keep taking them, there won’t be one. “This,” your father admits, “Is probably the last thing I’ll say to you.” And it’s a similar pattern – he is so laden with last things that eventually it becomes clear he’s improvising them whenever he pulls you over. While they’re often broken or unintelligible, what sticks with you is:
1: “Tell me what therapy is like,” he says. “I have a bunch of time to think about stuff like that here, and I feel like I could have done a better job if I had done something like that. I almost wish it had been a thing that people my age weren’t afraid of.” It is baffling that this man could be afraid. You tell him this, and he laughs. “It’s all part of grief. They have pamphlets here about that, if you need one.”
2: “You know what I want to tell you,” he says, and he’s choking, like every time he’s been in the water and you’ve had to pull him out. He tries to say it, but can’t. What he releases is, “I think there’s a psychic link between parent and child, and I also think you’re,” he takes a few minutes to breathe, “picking up what I’m putting down.” The next time your mother passes you in the hallway, she tells you that she loves you, and that your father does, too. In feeling like a child again, you understand that you have always been one.
3: After he refuses to listen to it when a cousin brings him an old boombox, he asks you to turn it on. You cycle through the hits of the late sixties and early seventies – the same that would rollick through the cab in your mother’s truck whenever he would drive with you. Within two songs, you’re both belting them out. Your mom takes a video. You both sound terrible – your voice is cracking and shaking, and his is hardly there. He fills the spaces opened by forgotten lyrics with adlibs about his singing. “I don’t smoke cigarettes, Hyannis General Hospital, I eat them!”
4: “Remember that neighbor kid? Kevin? He fell into a volcano. Died.”
5: Your father motions for you to lean in closer. He has never been one for affectionate contact, so it is jarring for your face to be so close to his. He tries to whisper something to you, but winces as his neck moves. Every time he tries again, breath leaves him, but any pitch or prosody that was meant to leave his mouth stays inside of it. He sighs, and it’s the first time you’ve seen him sigh. He motions for you to get your mother.
6: “I always knew that you were a sensitive kid,” he tells you, “And I was always jealous of that. I always will be.” For a moment, you’re the one who is gone – as unbelievable as his death still is, what’s beyond further belief is that the last thing your father will feel for you is jealousy. You place an arm on his shoulder, tell him you love him, and walk outside to scream. Nurses show up, and the birds that sit outside of your father’s window scatter. You’re asked if you’re experiencing any pain.
And it’s not real until it is, and you hate that this asshole, this idiot, who was never supposed to do anything close to decay, who was supposed to be around forever, scaring you and being afraid to tell you that he loved you until it became an endpoint, left you with anything, because even the smallest cell means you have to cry in front of what he was, and you hate that this is the first time you can, and you hate that that’s what you think about as it happens.
But, then, here he is, in the note that explains the DNR, in the service where you and your cousins dance as he demands to his favorite songs, in your mother’s tone when she says she isn’t long for the world, that she has to follow him eventually, and – by the way – what do you want from the will? He is the set of now-dulled knives he sent when you moved to your first apartment across the country, red-flagged by the postal service. He is the handprints in the cement he poured and smoothed to make a path where the dogs could walk to go piss, he is everything that explodes from you when you scroll too far down your phone and see his name. You text him once and your mother asks you to stop. Another time, a person you don’t know replies, but your father still contains that number, and 1 through 365 and 1 through 6 and any one of the twenty-four hours per day when you think about him and cry and you could swear that he is somewhere around you, nodding and breathing heavy and nose wet in the way that both of you wished he could have been before you understood that even after his decay, he would be eternal.