In mid-March 1996, Erin and I whisper-argue in the bedroom while my father lies on the sofa bed in the living room watching Family Feud. I would appreciate the irony if my father wasn’t having surgery in the morning for advanced colon cancer.
The surgeon is a rotund, jolly fellow around 60, rated by New York Magazine as one of the best. He put my father at ease during the office visit, which is not easy for a doctor to do. The last thing the surgeon said was, “You’ll be dancing the tarantella in six weeks.”
I leave Erin in the bedroom, hoping my father hasn’t overheard our quibbling. My father’s hospital pajamas are in a plastic supermarket bag, his blue slacks draped over a chair. He is wearing baggy boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. He is engrossed in The Feud.
“So that’s the guy who replaced Richard Dawson?” I ask as I sit on the edge of the bed.
“Yeah—a few years ago. They canned him—this is a rerun. It’s a shame. I liked him.”
I can tell that my father was rooting for this boyish man who landed a dream job. We watch as he schmoozes with a boisterous, healthy-looking family, then smiles sweetly as mom, dad, and adult children jump up and down, hugging in celebration of a “good answer.” I like the new—now fired—host. What a rough day it must have been when he was let go, though not as rough as being told you have cancer—even if the surgeon is also a good schmoozer.
I think about how, in the next few weeks—whether my father makes it through or not—the surgeon and host will move on: the surgeon telling others they’ll be dancing the tarantella, and the host smiling boyishly on the set of a new game show. But tonight, as I sit on the edge of the sofa bed with my cancer-ridden father while my wife fumes at me from the bedroom and my father’s wife is long dead, I am grateful for the company of the sweet ex-host and the jolly surgeon.
By the Fourth of July, I will read in the obituaries that the surgeon died of a massive heart attack and the host hung himself with bed sheets in a closet of a psychiatric ward.
Though he will never dance the tarantella, my father will live to mourn them both.