The tumor in my father's pancreas was removed last week in an operation that lasted five hours and was more difficult than his surgeons had expected. Afterward, they delivered the grim news that most people in his condition could not expect to live for more than ninety days. Since I knew nothing of the surgery, or the tumor, I was not there when he was given his death sentence. Communication is not a priority with my father. Ten years ago he divorced one wife and had found another before word filtered down to me.
His current wife--she's either number five or number six--eventually called and, after reintroducing herself, passed along the barest of details about the tumor and its related issues. Agnes explained that my father was not feeling well and didn't want to talk. I replied that he had never wanted to talk, regardless of how he felt. She asked me to spread the news to the rest of the family. I almost asked "Why?" but didn't want to bicker with this poor woman.
The rest of the family consists of my younger sister, Jill, and my mother. Jill lives in Seattle and, as far as I know, has not spoken to our father in at least ten years. She has two small children who have never met him, and never will. My mother, after surviving twelve years of marriage, got lucky and got out, taking Jill and me with her, and I have a hunch that the news of his impending death will have zero impact on her.
Needless to say, we do not get together at Christmas and exchange gifts by the fire.
After the phone call from Agnes, I sit at my desk and ponder life without Warren, my father. I started calling him Warren when I was in college because he was more of a person, a stranger, than a father. He did not object. He has never cared what I call him, and I have always assumed he prefers that I don't call him at all. At least I make the occasional effort; he never has.
After a few minutes, I admit the truth--life without Warren will be the same as life with him.
I call Jill and break the news. Her first question is whether I plan to attend the funeral, which is somewhat premature. She wants to know if she should try to visit him, to say hello and good-bye and go through the phony motions of acting as though she cares, when in fact she does not. Nor do I, and we both admit this. We have no love for Warren because he never cared for us. He abandoned the family when we were kids and has spent the past thirty years acting as though we do not exist. Jill and I are both parents now, and we find it inconceivable that a father can have no use for his own children.
"I'm not going," she finally declares. "Now, or later. How about you?"
"I don't know," I reply. "I'll have to think about it."
The truth is that I know I will go see him. He has burned most of the bridges in his life, but there is one rather substantial piece of unfinished business that he has to deal with before he dies.
My mother lives in Tulsa with her second husband. In high school, Warren was the superjock, and she was the homecoming queen, the most popular girl. Their wedding thrilled their small town, but after a couple of years with Warren all thrills were gone. I know they have not spoken to each other in decades, and why should they?
"Mom, I have some bad news," I say into the phone, trying to seem sufficiently somber.
"What is it?" she asks quickly, probably afraid it is one of her grandchildren.
"Warren's sick. Pancreatic cancer, he has less than three months to live."
A pause, relief, then, "I was assuming he was already dead."
And there you have it. His memorial service will not be packed with grieving family members.
"I'm sorry," she says, but she is not. "I guess you'll have to deal with it."
"I don't want to be bothered with it, Paul, just call me when it's over. Or don't. I don't care what happens to Warren."
"I understand, Mom."
I know he hit her a few times, probably a lot more than I realized. And he drank and chased women and lived the hard life of a professional baseball player. He was arrogant and cocky, and from the age of fifteen he was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted because he, Warren Tracey, could throw a baseball through a brick wall.
We manage to move the conversation to the kids and when she might see them again. Because of her beauty and brains, she landed on her feet after Warren. She married a slightly older man, an executive for a drilling company, and he provided a fine home for Jill and me. He loves my mom, and that's all that matters.
I doubt if Warren ever did.