On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.
My father had everything wrong with him at this point. In the past week, he’d been hospitalized for anemia, and a colonoscopy had necessitated the removal of fifteen benign polyps. He had congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and Type II diabetes. He had renal cell cancer (kidney cancer), which had spread to his lungs. And he had an enlarged prostate that forced him to wear a catheter, making trips to the grocery store—where he refused to be seated in a motorized cart—uncomfortable and embarrassing. Twice, the spout had fetched loose from the bag, spilling urine down the inside of his pants. He never really learned to attach the parts properly, and so walked with one hand pinching the tube that pinched his urethra.
As we puttered around the store inspecting nutrition labels, I thought of the words my father used to bark at me when I was a child: Walk with a purpose. My father was so irritated by dawdlers that he routinely shopped at night, sometimes the middle of the night, to avoid the elderly men and women who dominated the daylight hours, pushing walkers across the scuffed floor. Bluehairs, he called them, whisking me along as though the Price Chopper was downtown Manhattan.
Now, at age sixty-three and dying, my father crept along so slowly I had to keep stopping so as not to get ahead of him. I pretended to get caught up in the cereal aisle, affixing my eyes to the blurring boxes in search of heart healthy brands, because watching him walk made me want to sit down and wail. I stood always on the lip of a temper tantrum.
On our way out, me pushing the cart slowly enough to feel each pock in the tile, my father asked to stop at the scratch-off machines. He inserted a couple of dollar bills and gingerly, still pinching his catheter, fished a quarter out of his pocket.
“Here, hon,” he said, handing me the tickets and coin. I scratched the film away to reveal sets of numbers and pictograms, and then handed the tickets back to my father. “I can’t tell,” I said.
He put his glasses on, a pair of Dollar General magnifying lenses, to study them. Then the corner of his mouth turned up. “Loser today,” he said, “but winner in general.”
My father practiced a benign form of gambling—nothing addictive or financially threatening. Just the occasional opportunism. Still, his attraction to playing the odds was surprising for such an anxious, fretful man, a curio of his personality. Normally, my father was only interested in certainties, in facts. He obsessively memorized data, especially about sports and history. He loved trivia games. Guinness World Records. Quote books that allowed him to look up Winston Churchill’s exact words to the woman who famously accused him of being drunk. (“Madame, you’re ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober.”) We spent many a Thursday night watching Jeopardy together, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to beat the actual contestants. As one of his friends wrote in the online guest book attached to my father’s obituary: “He knew every worthless fact that never made him a dime.”
But my father also suffered insomnia and panic attacks; he was a known pessimist, a fatalist, always sure that this winter would be unbearably bad, that his business would fail in the terrible economy, that he, a bachelor who’d lost the marriage odds with my mother, would be alone at the end of his life.
Yet he found the lure of possibility irresistible, believing that a set of numbers or a single correct answer could change everything someday. This, I’ve come to understand, was his version of hope.
Some people will have no truck with odds—they see the very opposite of hope in playing them.
In 1968, as the war gained momentum and more young men were hauled by the government out of their hometowns, my father’s older brother, Freddy, volunteered for a second tour in Southeast Asia. My father had just turned eighteen and would be graduating high school in a few months. The draft was aptly called The Lottery, and the numbers assigned to young men like my father meant a whole different animal of possibility–the possibility of being shipped overseas to die. Freddy may have known that my father’s nervous disposition wouldn’t play well in combat.
To ensure that my father wouldn’t be drafted, Freddy extended his own active duty. He was sent to Thailand as a supervisor at an air base that sent artillery-laden planes over Vietnam and Laos. The details remain cloudy, but one day, as Freddy made repairs to the bomb lift, he got caught in some rigging and was electrocuted. For the rest of his life, my father blamed himself for his brother’s death.
On the day we learned of his cancer’s metastasis, my father, mother, and I stood in the hospital lobby. “Why should I bother getting any treatment if it’s just going to get me anyway?” my father said.
The automatic door behind us opened and closed, sucking out the heated air into a frigid November. My mother, his ex-wife of twenty-eight years, foraged in her purse for her gloves, perhaps contemplating taking a hit off her new electric cigarette. We were all exhausted from the slew of appointments that had led to this dismal news and this dismal place that smelled sharp and sweet, like rot. My mother stopped rummaging and looked at my father. “Danny,” she said, sighing. “Okay, fine. It’s up to you. You want to die? Do nothing. You want to live longer? Or at least try to? You got anything to live for?”
“Like what?” my father said. His winter coat hung like a vinyl box around his diminished frame. He had already lost thirty pounds.
My mother yanked on her gloves and cupped my shoulder. “Like your daughter? Like a future grandchild, maybe? Is that something you’d like to see someday, if you could?”
My father looked at the floor, ashamed. Even now, or perhaps especially now, he hated to disappoint my mother, to do anything that might push her goodwill away. “Yes,” he said. “I would like that very much.”
“Then stop acting like you have nothing to live for when we’re right here.”
It was the last argument my parents would ever have, and as usual, my mother won.
Recreational and problematic alike, gamblers are often driven dually by greed and generosity. They spend themselves on improbabilities for others. Back when I tended bar, like my father, at a place across town, one of the regular Quickdraw players routinely split half his winnings among the servers. At Close Quarters, the bar my father owned for twenty years until his death, the winners of sports pools (Superbowl, March Madness, World Cup, World Series) were tacitly expected to buy a few rounds, maybe even use the pot to throw a party for their losing comrades. Whenever those scratch-off tickets paid out, my father would take me out for an elaborate dinner, or, when I got older, give me money to help pay down my student loans. He loved having money for the sole purpose of spending it on others. Over the years, he used part of his tax return to buy my husband and me not one, but three toaster ovens, each one bigger and more expensive than the last.
“But this one’s a Kitchenaid,” he said when I questioned whether or not we needed the most recent toaster. “They’re the best.”
He even fantasized about winning. Particularly if he won a real jackpot—the New York Lottery, let’s say. On late nights at Close Quarters, both of us drunk on beers and shots of blackberry brandy, wistfulness lining his face like cigarette smoke, he’d describe his imagined plans. First thing he would do was clear all of my mother’s debts, he said, her mortgage and credit cards, and still more he would give her so she could retire and go to the bluegrass music festivals she loved, ride her horses, remodel her kitchen. I’m sure he pictured it many times–writing a check and presenting it to her, the way he did once when I was a kid, sending me home with five thousand dollars so she could put a new roof on our house.
“Hey,” he would say, “somebody has to win, right?”
For my husband and me, my father said he would buy a house. One with an in-law apartment or a big, finished basement. That way, he could come to live with us when he got too old to care for himself, he said.
“I don’t need much,” he told us. “A TV and a bed, is all. And you.”
Of all the riches he could fathom for his loved ones, what he desired most for himself was a family.
On the last day of his life, my father and I ran errands together. A doctor’s appointment in the morning, then the Dollar General, then the Price Chopper. As I drove him home with his groceries, dud scratch-offs stuffed into his pants pocket, my father asked me again to tell him the odds of surviving his cancer. He knew I’d been researching nonstop since Dr. Petroski first discovered the kidney tumor, a bulge ludicrously visible on the CAT scan. I didn’t, I couldn’t, lie to him. These were facts. He had a right to know them.
“It’s about 9%, Dad,” I said, and then immediately had to qualify, for the single digit was shattering. “But remember, there are treatments. They can prolong your life.” I hated the way we kept repeating the clinical language like we were studying for a quiz. None of us knew how to adapt cancer-speak for our own tongues, and the unfamiliar words in our mouths fed the impossibility of what was happening. If it didn’t sound true, it couldn’t be.
But it was.
In just a few hours, my father would call me in the middle of an acute coronary episode, the result of cancer’s enormous stress on his body. “Please,” he would say, choking a little into the phone, “just talk me through this, honey.”
But I wouldn’t. Instead, I would hang up and call 911, and then my husband and I would drive to my father’s house to be with him. To answer questions about his medications. To watch, helpless, as the paramedics loaded him onto the ambulance. To ride with his dying body and listen to the wet, hollow sound of chest compression that would fail to revive him.
It would not be a peaceful death. I don’t believe in such a thing. But he would not be alone.
As I explained the odds of his cancer survival, my father lit a cigarette and cracked the passenger side window of my car. My mother had bought him an electric cigarette like hers, and he promised to start using it that night. Another tiny gesture in the direction of hope, or maybe one of acceptance for the only absolute in life. The one unexceptional universal. My father and I had landed on a contended moment where we knew we were in this as a family, his dying. He told me he appreciated everything my mother and I had been doing for him. He told me I was the best daughter in the world.
Then he patted my hand across the console. “Well,” he said, “somebody’s got to be in that 9%, right?”
“That’s true, Dad,” I said. Somebody had to be.