(This letter is an excerpt from the new memoir Public Apology, out today!)
Sorry for choosing Hannah and Her Sisters when you asked me to go out and rent some movies for our family to watch to get our minds off the fact that Dad had been diagnosed with cancer.
You remember, I’m sure, that this was just a couple weeks before I graduated from high school. It must have been a weekend, because we were all at home in the afternoon. Dad walked in to the TV room with his friend David Landy. You could tell that David Landy had been crying.
“The doctor just hit me with it,” Dad said. “Boom.” His eyes looked like they weren’t really looking at us, and his voice sounded like it was coming from far away. But he said he thought that the doctor had done the right thing. “So I’m just gonna hit you with it.”
The cancer had started in his lung. At least that’s what they thought. It was hard to tell. By the time anybody knew anything, it had spread to his brain and his lymph nodes and his spinal column and everywhere. ‘Metastasized’ was the unfamiliar word. The doctor had told him that he would be dead in two months.
We sat in the TV room for a long time with the TV off.
Deb cried. I went upstairs and looked at myself in my bathroom mirror. I looked normal, but I felt like a different person. Like the person who I was when I’d woken up that morning was no more, and that this new person that I had become was hidden inside my head, looking out through fake eye sockets at this thing in the mirror that was only a shell. Why wasn’t I crying? Why didn’t I even feel like crying? Shouldn’t a person be crying after learning that one’s father is dying? It felt like a dream, like I’d wake up the next day and this wouldn’t be happening.
But I knew it was real, and that it was a big deal. One that I felt wholly unprepared for, despite the fact that Dad had come into the kitchen a few weeks prior and asked me to get off the phone so we could talk, and endured the put-upon expression I fixed him with before telling me that he was having some medical tests. He’d said that he’d been coughing up blood and that he didn’t know why, and that it might be serious. It might be bad, he’d said. He hadn’t said the word ‘cancer,’ though, and I had quickly pushed it out of mind and not given it much more thought. Because I was so good at being what sitcoms and movies had taught me teenagers were supposed to be like, and convincing myself that you and Dad didn’t mean anything to me.
“Dad has cancer.” I said it out loud to myself. “Dad is dying.”
I stood there for a moment, blinking, wondering if this would jog me into a burst of emotion that felt more real.
“This is what it feels like when your dad is dying,” I said.
I wrote Dad a clumsy note to tell him that I loved him. “You’re like Superman to me,” I wrote. I didn’t know what else to write. I went into your room and tucked the note under the pillow on his side of the bed. The house was quiet.
Later, back down in the TV room, Dad told us he was going to fight the cancer as hard as he could. Despite what the doctor had told him, he was determined to do whatever it took to beat it. “I’ve been a fighter all my life,” he said. “I’m not going to quit now.”
He came over to where I was sitting on the arm of the couch and looked me hard in the eye. “I’m gonna need you here with me on this one,” he said. “Don’t run away from me. I need you here with me and as part of this family. And I need you to be present. Don’t go and hide in the bottom of a bottle or inside the tube of a bong.” I told him I wouldn’t.
Dad’s parents drove down from West Orange. Thea was crying as she walked in the door, tissue paper already crumpled into balls in her hands, her face twisted into an expression that made it hard to imagine that she would ever be able to smile again. Pa looked stooped and older than he’d ever looked before.
At dinnertime, no one felt much like eating. I forget if it was you or David Landy who had the idea that we should rent some movies to watch, but I thought it was a good one. Get our minds off the news, lighten the mood, to the extent that that might be possible. I remember Dad agreed, and that he said to get comedies. “I want to laugh,” he said.
I volunteered to go to the video store. I wanted to get out of the house, out of that atmosphere, even if only for twenty minutes. I liked feeling that I was helping, too, even in a minor way. Alone in the carport, once the door closed behind me, I took what felt like my first full breath in hours.
Soft-rugged and fluorescent-lit, the video store gave me the same dissociative feeling as looking in the mirror had. There I was, in this very familiar place, a place where I’d spent so many hours of my life doing exactly what I was doing then, scanning the collection, searching for titles that I knew or new ones that looked intriguing, a place where there were always faces I recognized — Ms. Maxwell, an English teacher at my school, worked there some nights — a place where people met and stopped to chat. There I was, just like always, except not at all like always. Walking around the store, I couldn’t help thinking about what I looked like to the other people around me. I saw Mr. Johnson, Jeremy’s dad, there that night. Did he recognize me? Did I seem the same? I suppose I did. I wasn’t trembling or sobbing or breathing into a brown paper bag, there wasn’t blood dripping from my nose or soaking through my shirt from my chest. I was just standing there, my jaw set firm, squinting slightly as I scanned the titles on the plastic-sheathed spines of the VHS boxes on one of the racks in the comedy section. I felt like a spy. I felt like a liar.
I don’t know how exactly it happened. I guess I was caught up in thinking about this stuff, in a sort of daze, as I was choosing videos. I got A Fish Called Wanda, and, I think, Porky’s, which was always a favorite of Dad’s and mine. And then I found Hannah And Her Sisters. It’s weird, because I had seen that movie before. We all had, and liked it. We were big Woody Allen fans. But in remembering that we liked it, and in the daze I was in without really knowing I was in it, I forgot that one of the main plotlines of that movie revolves around Woody Allen’s character believing he has a brain tumor.
I stopped on the way home to pick up my girlfriend. I had told her the news and asked that she come over.
When we got back to our house and got out of the car, she saw the bag from the video store and asked me what I had rented. When I told her Hannah and Her Sisters, she stopped suddenly. “We can’t go in there with that movie,” she said. She reminded me what happens to Woody Allen’s character.
“Oh my god,” I gasped. We were standing in the carport. “How could I have forgotten that?”
I cursed myself and shook my head. I felt like someone who has been hypnotized onstage, awakening to the sound of the magician’s finger-snap, looking around to see who’s watching. It was frightening — one of those moments when your trust in your own brain falters.
Thank god she had stopped me. Thank god I hadn’t gotten inside and popped it into the VCR. “Hey, is everybody ready to laugh?! This movie is about someone who thinks he has cancer!”
I didn’t know what to do. She said we should go back and pick a different movie. I opened the door quietly and called you over from the TV room where everyone was waiting. “Here,” I said, handing you the two other movies. “You can start watching one. I have to go back to the store.”
You looked at me quizzically. “Why? What happened?”
I showed you the box for Hannah and Her Sisters. “Woody Allen’s character is a hypochondriac who thinks he has cancer.”
“Oh.” Your voice fell. “Oh.”
“I… I don’t know what I was thinking,” I stuttered. “I forgot.”
“Yes…” You tried to be comforting. “I would like to think that Dad could find that funny right now, but I don’t think he could.”
I closed the door behind me. I don’t know what you told everyone about where I was going. I think you started A Fish Called Wanda.
Previously: Dear Coot Veal
Dave Bry has a lot to apologize for.