At fifty-nine, prostate cancer migrating to the brain, Ray Allen fell asleep, gently floating away like candle smoke extinguished by loving fingers.
At fifty-nine, prostate cancer migrating to the brain, Ray Allen seized, bed frame hammering the floor, blood saliva clogging his mouth and nose until he choked to death.
On the night of the wake, at thirty-three, after flying back to New Jersey from graduate school in Virginia, I heard my mother deliver this first version with reverential certainty. I believed her, though she had difficulty with hard truths. My oldest brother’s alcoholism a phase; my other brother’s agoraphobia a quirk; my depression an exaggeration.
We stood together near the open casket. Tears scored her Oil of Olay cheeks. I wanted to cry, because tears seemed to suggest progress, so someone said.
Although not technically my stepfather until well after I’d left the nest, he had attempted to father me and my two older brothers — taking us on trips to New York City, or Point Pleasant; buying presents other than clothes: we all got shiny new Schwinn bikes one Christmas. He told us to empty the dishwasher, eat the brussels sprouts, and get better at math so we could manage our future fortunes.
No discipline though — mom forbid it. No overt affection either.
I loved him.
“Sleeping like a baby” Mom said.
Amy, Ray’s biological daughter, roughly the same age as me, knelt by the casket, a lipstick smeared tissue in her hand. All day she sobbed loud enough to turn heads, maybe to make sure heads turned. I preferred Mom’s satellite grief. But Amy’s antics made me jealous. Ray’s blood. I guess she deserved a showcase.
She finally made her way to me, but not until I was in the hallway leading to the restrooms. Alone.
“Thank you for coming all the way from Virginia.” She held my elbow.
I pulled away, then muttered an apology.
“I wish I had a chance to say goodbye.” I said feebly, finally looking at her.
Ray’s Italian nose, flared, rounded at the nostrils. Too much rogue.
Her perfume was overwhelming. My eyes finally did water a little. “Trust me,” her grip tightened, “You’re lucky you weren’t there.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“Your mom didn’t tell you?”
We sat on cloth benches. I wondered if the walls were soundproofed. “What?”
Then Amy, her hand resting on mine, told me the second version, with colorful details: eleven blood transfusions; cataracts and veined fingers; erratic heart beats; three orbiting nurses in colorful scrubs, taking turns patting forehead sweat; Ray’s desperate thumb pressing the morphine button. And “Awful, awful…sounds.”
Her perfume cast a poisoning ring of fire around my face.
Then this: “Your mom grabbed him – he was thrashing so, all 300 pounds of him.” She let out a stifled laugh. “Your mom’s hands leaned down hard on his shoulders; I don’t how she gathered the strength. I’ll never forget it. She was repeating over and over, her voice so…alien, ‘Don’t you dare leave me, do you hear? Don’t. You. Dare. Leave Me!’
Amy paused for a long time.
She reached her arm over my shoulder, but I recoiled. “Should I?”
“Yeah… Go on.” My bladder screamed.
“Well, your mom, you know, like that, shrugging off the nurses, until he coughed up blood. She let go and kind of whispered, “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave. Please.”
I excused myself and fled into the bathroom, reaching the urinal just in time. I thought my whole body had turned into useless wastewater. Eventually, the surge became a stream, stream a trickle, trickle a drip and a drip, then nothing.
Nothing at all.
Amy waited by the door, attempted to console me with an extended tissue, for what I didn’t know. I was bone dry.
I reentered the crowded, somber space; heads turned, chins titled as if in understanding, as if understanding were possible.
Grief swarms the ears like the sound of helicopter blades, the helicopter itself never visible in a restless, panoramic search of the sky. All I could see up there was my stepfather’s enormous, white-knuckled thumb, setting on a wildly colorful horizon.
Ray Allen, survived by his wife, Marianne, who imagines he finished his pasta primavera, kissed her on the cheek, and led her upstairs to soft sheets and snore-free rest.
Ray Allen, survived by his daughter, Amy, who imagines he wrestled a chord of live, snaking electrical wire that encircled him, neck to ankle, and dragged him away.
Ray Allen, survived by his youngest stepson, John, who imagines standing with him in a pitch-dark living room, searching for the light switch, the on/off, the source, never able to get out of each other’s way.
J B Allen teaches writing at Commonwealth University and Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s at Hollins University and an MFA in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work appeared in Microfiction Monday Magazine and Front Porch Journal. “The Source” is a memoir excerpt from Life Could Be A Dream: A Playlist Memoir about fathers, including his dad, a singer in the fifties group, The Crew Cuts. He’s working on a horror novel where memories animate to cause havoc on their hosts. Listen to his God voice in the horror fiction podcast, The Disposers.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/d-olwen-dee