Part 11 (1/2)

For as long as Kathleen could remember, he had wanted her to understand Alice. He had confided in Kathleen about the aunt she never knew who died young in a fire, a fact that Alice always blamed herself for. He had been angry when, in the throes of a teenage brawl with Alice, Kathleen had brought it up just to hurt her mother. She had felt terrible for doing ita”still did, even all these years later. But she had never told anyone the story, not even Maggie or Clare.

aIall look after her,a Kathleen said weakly. aEven though all we have in common is loving you and being bad drunks.a He smiled, shook his head. aYouall both be surprised.a That scared her. Already she had seen too much of Alice in herselfa”how small she felt on occasion; the way she was quick to judge or to argue or to bully. (How many times had Kathleen pushed Ann Marie to do her bidding? And she was proud of it, which was even worse.) There were certain words she was incapable of uttering without sounding like her mother. Even the earthy, almost sour smell of her skin when she woke each morning was like Aliceas, no matter what soap or lotion Kathleen applied before bed. And the drinking. If they had more than that in common, she would rather not find out.

After he told her the news, Kathleen stayed up late every night, doing research. None of it made sense to her. When she read aYour pancreas is about six inches long and looks like a pear lying on its side,a she was filled with rage. This little nothing, this sideways pear, would be enough to kill her father, who was everything? It seemed impossible.

Her dining room table, already piled high with magazines and newspapers and stray socks and Lean Cuisine trays, was now covered in computer printouts about cancer and a dozen library books on natural remedies.

Over the phone, Kathleen cried to Maggie, who was newly in New York and constantly worried that she ought to come home. Kathleen told her to stay put, though she secretly wished Maggie would return, and many weekends she did, always leaving the overage art dealer she was dating behind, thank the universe.

Kathleen wanted a drink more than she ever had in her life. She wondered if Alice felt this way too. She could remember the way one gla.s.s of wine would dull the edges, how two would make her cheeks grow warm, her thoughts turn rosier, more hopeful. But she also knew she was incapable of drinking just one or two of wine, even though she was occasionally capable of convincing herself otherwise.

She began going to AA meetings twice a day.

Kathleen brought her father teas and herbs that she bought from a well-respected healer in Chinatown. She put a jar of polished runes on his nightstanda”smooth green stones that she told him were for decoration, though in truth she had bought them because it was once believed that they could bring the dead back to life. She lit chakra candles at his bedside that were said to unblock points of stress in the body and allow for white blood cells to thrive. Every morning, as usual, she meditated for two solid hours, but now rather than concentrating on herself, she focused on her fatheras insides, communing with the cancer, willing it to shrink and vanish.

Her family, including Daniel, made fun of her, and she laughed, too, as if to say, I know itas goofy, but indulge me. She realized it was probably bulls.h.i.+t, but why not try? Sometimes she even believed that maybe it would work.

In early October, Alice showed up at Kathleenas house, a foil-wrapped package in her hands.

aWhatas that?a Kathleen asked, meeting her at the door, annoyed that Alice hadnat thought to call ahead. She was still in her pajamas and had been out in the back garden in the middle of her morning meditation.

aA coffee cake I got you at the Fruit Basket. Very moist. Delicious.a aA coffee cake you got me, or a coffee cake you and Daddy ate half of before you decided to bring it over here?a aYouave always liked cinnamon swirl.a aYou didnat answer the question.a aYou donat want it, fine. Truth is, youare putting on the pounds lately. Understandable given whatas happened, but still, you have to watch yourself.a Kathleen took in a deep breath. She had only just begun trying to practice patience with her mother, and already she was failing.

They went into the kitchen and sat down. Immediately, Kathleen saw the room through Aliceas eyes. She had never been particularly tidy, but since her father got sick she had gotten worse. There were dishes stacked precariously a foot above the rim of the sink. She hadnat taken the trash out in a week, and the plastic bin was overflowing. When she realized that one of the dogs had peed on the linoleum floor earlier that morning, Kathleen had covered the yellow puddle with a paper towel, planning to deal with it after shead had her coffee.

aCan I get you anything, Mom?a she asked.

aNo, Iall only stay a minute. Your father needs me there.a aIall be close behind you then,a Kathleen said. aI was planning to come over soon.a Aliceas eyes darted dramatically from wall to wall. Kathleen felt her insides tense up.

aThis place is a disaster area,a Alice blurted after a moment. aHow do you stand it?a aI manage,a Kathleen said.

aYou let people come in and see it this way?a aWell, most people wait for an invitation rather than barging in with gently used coffee cake.a aExcuse me for not being Emily Post. My husband has cancer.a aOh, really? I hadnat heard.a Alice sighed and straightened her posture and smiled, as if to say that she was gathering up the sort of strength one needs to talk to a lunatic.

aActually, thatas why Iam here.a aOkay,a Kathleen said. aWhat is it?a aWell, as you know, your father is being very stubborn about the radiation. Iave been thinking about it a lot, and I am convinced that you are the only one who can talk him into it.a Kathleen smiled. aThatas the same thing I thought about you, before I realized he was right.a She felt a certain tenderness for Alice then, and put her hand atop her motheras.

But Alice pulled away. aWhat makes you say that?a aHis cancer is too far gone, Mom. You know that. All that stuff would just make him miserable.a aSo he thinks,a Alice said. aBut thereas always something they can do. They tell him itas too far gone, but I see him every day and heas okay. Heas still himself, Kathleen. I know itas not too late. I am begging you: convince him to do the radiation. If it doesnat work, whatas the harm? At least weall know he tried everything.a aI canat,a Kathleen said. aI want to respect his wishes. Besides, I donat even think Dr. Callo would do it. All we can do now is hope for the best and try to make Dad happy.a She saw from the look in her motheras eyes that Alice had turned a corner, so quickly that Kathleen wasnat even sure of the exact moment it had happened.

Alice got to her feet. aSo youare telling me Iam supposed to sit here and watch him die? And never set foot in a G.o.dd.a.m.n hospital room? Just lie next to him in bed and say, aGood night, darling. I hope you wonat be dead when I wake up.a a aI know itas hard,a Kathleen said.

aThis is youa”your doing,a Alice said hotly. aYour ridiculous herbs and all that. Youave convinced him itas all he needs.a aThatas not true!a Kathleen said, growing angry. aYouare just looking for someone to blame, but this is no oneas fault. And I wonat have this energy thrown at me when we should all be focused on getting him stronger.a aEnergy! Focus! The man needs drugs, Kathleen. He needs a doctor. If you donat at least try to talk to him about treatments, Iall never forgive you.a Kathleen shrugged her shoulders, feigning indifference. It was typical Alice insanity, which her mother would no doubt forget by tomorrow.

But after Alice walked out, Kathleen cried for a long, long time.

When she drove over to her parentsa house later that afternoon and entered their bedroom, her father was asleep. Everything shead brought over in the previous weeksa”the runes and the vitamins and the candles and the teaa”was gone.

He began to deteriorate fast. His skin turned a sickly yellow, and eventually so did the whites in his blue eyes. He was queasy almost all the time, and couldnat keep down a bite of food. He shriveled as they watched, helpless. Daniel had always been a cheerful man, but now he grew melancholy for the first time Kathleen could remember. Everyone wanted to see him laughing again, maybe more for their own sanity than for him. To see him somber was nauseatingly odd, like a bone thatas broken, poking through skin.

They all gathered around him and did what they could. They watched an obscene amount of the Three Stooges and Jackie Gleason on video. Her nephew Ryan sang Danielas favorite old Dean Martin songs. Maggie mailed books of Irish riddles and jokes. Ann Marie made more soup than the average person consumes in a lifetime, and she was tender with Alicea”bringing her gifts and taking her out to lunch every once in a while.

He was never alone. They gathered at Alice and Danielas house, the house they had all grown up in, for dinner five or six nights a week. They sat around his bed. They looked through old photos from the cottage in Mainea”one night, he said plaintively, aIall never see it againaa”and laughed at all his jokes. They let him talk on and on as he told one of his meandering stories, when they would normally have said, aDad, would you wrap it up? We donat have all day.a Kathleen wanted to soak up every second with him. Sometimes she wished the rest of them would go away. She thought that this was the worst part of grievinga”the limbo phase when the person you love most is still there in front of you, but you know he wonat be for long.

By the end, he was down to ninety-seven pounds.

He lived through Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then it became clear that there wasnat much time left. Just after the first of the year, as Kathleen looked out her kitchen window to see a light snow falling on the driveway, her phone rang. He was gone.

Patrick and Ann Marie hopped to it as usual, making all the arrangements. She took a rattled Alice to pick out a casket and called the caterers. He reached out to the lawyer to deal with the will.

He reached out to the lawyer the day their father died. Kathleen still thought of this with disgust: What kind of person?

Patrick was the one who called her with the news that Daniel had left almost everythinga”other than the house and the property in Maine and his pension and some savings for Alicea”to her.

aHe had three hundred thousand dollars, and heas giving it all to you,a Pat said. aClare and Joe get the Caddy. I get a watch of Grandpaas and Dadas two-year-old Pings.a aPings?a aGolf clubs. Itas a lot of money, Kath. You and Dad, up to your old tricks right till the end,a he said, as if they had been in cahoots. In truth, her father had never mentioned money, and she had never thought to ask.

Three hundred thousand dollars was five yearsa salary for Kathleena”more than enough to pay off her childrenas college tuition. But if her brother had thought she would take any joy in this, he was wrong. He and his wife had always cared so much about material possessions. Kathleen only wanted her father back.

After he died, she took a week off from work. She spent five days in bed, getting up only to pee and drink the occasional gla.s.s of water. She didnat check the mail or turn on the television or eat. She didnat want to talk to anyone, besides Maggie, who curled up in bed beside her, running a hand over her hair. They didnat say a word. Kathleen thanked the universe for her daughter, her creation, the only one in this d.a.m.n family who understood her at all.

At the wake, Ann Marie wept hysterically, which made Kathleen insane.

aI want to slap her,a she whispered to Maggie.

aMoma”a Maggie responded warningly, always the more grown-up of the two of them. But a moment later Ann Marieas sobs reached a new level, and even Maggie raised an eyebrow. She leaned close, putting her lips up against Kathleenas ear: aDo you think sheas crying about Grandpa, or the Pings?a A hundred people came to the funeral the next day, even though there was a foot of snow on the ground, and more was falling. Kathleen could hardly manage to change into her navy blue dress, the one Maggie had picked because it was the only thing she had that was close enough to black.

After the Ma.s.s, they went to Pat and Ann Marieas, the house clogged full of people, a stupid tradition. Kathleen didnat feel like talking to anyone. She hardly recognized most of them. They ate ham sandwiches and lasagna off plastic plates, standing up in the kitchen. Each stranger in their turn approached her and awkwardly said how sorry they were, what a good man he was.

They gathered in groups and drank and drank and drank, and laughed uproariously. Why did the Irish always insist on turning a funeral into a frat party? A while pa.s.sed and she wondered how long she had to stay. She knew from experience that it would go on all night.

Kathleen had counseled teenagers through the deaths of their parents. Her life was blessed, relative to so many others. Yet in this moment, she did not care. She was well aware that she was acting like a child, but what did it matter? Her father was gone.

When Ann Marie put out dessert and coffee, Kathleen took an clair and sat on the couch in the den with Ryan and some younger kids she didnat know, watching cartoons, pretending like she was monitoring the childrenas behavior, though in truth, if they had set her hair on fire she might not have noticed.

She watched the credits roll on an episode of something called Ren & Stimpy.

aDo you like SpongeBob?a Ryan was asking the other kids sweetly. aHeas up next.a aYes!a they shouted.

A little boy turned to Kathleen with a huge grin. aHe lives in a pineapple under the sea,a he said. At least thatas what she thought he said.

aOh my,a she replied.

Kathleen envied thema”so many years away from actually feeling the weight of anyoneas death. They were here because someone had dragged them, unsure and unconcerned about whether this was a First Communion or a funeral or some old personas retirement party.

Through the doorway that led to the dining room, she saw Alice standing by the makes.h.i.+ft bar, pouring a gla.s.s of red wine, filling the gla.s.s to its brim. A moment later, she put it to her lips and swallowed nearly half.

Kathleen jumped a bit in her seat. She had not seen her mother drink since she was a child, and no sight could have surprised her more.

She got to her feet and walked out into the hall, looking one way and then the other, for Maggie or Clare. She didnat see either of them. She walked toward Alice.

aMom? What are you doing?a aIam having a drink, what does it look like?a She was drunk. Her lips and teeth were tinged dark blue. How much had she had? Kathleen had the urge to run and get her father.