Decompose

Decompose: (v) to rot; putrefy

My dad died of lung cancer.

It was not a surprise—though death itself offers a certain array of misunderstandings.

He smoked all his life.

Matter of fact, he rolled his own. No filters.

So by the time cancer got to his lungs, the disease already had a climate suited for its purposes.

I was never close to my dad. The last few months of his life, he made a feeble, but noble, attempt to connect with me—but I was sixteen and in no mood for sentimental drivel.

The summer following his demise, I was old enough that I needed money of my own so I could pay for gasoline, dates and some clothes.

I joined a summer jobs campaign offered by the federal government, which paid $1.10 an hour. I ended up working at the community cemetery, mowing the grass around the graves.

I guess I was a little freaked out about it. But it was quiet, and the man in charge of the grounds didn’t hang around, supervising me, which meant I could do things at a pace that honored my laziness.

This was also the location of my father’s grave.

His site was so new that grass had not yet grown up over the pile of dirt. So every time I took my mower by his plot, I said something to him. Since we had not talked much during my growing up years, I thought I would make up for it by chatting to him in his reclining position.

It felt weird at first.

But then I struck up a conversation that prompted me to work more efficiently, actually relishing the time I had, mowing down the departed.

I will never forget, one very, very hot day, there was a smell in the air. It was a combination of rotten tomatoes, vitamins—if you put your nose right up to the jar—with a slight bit of the hay fields that surrounded our town.

It was not an unpleasant odor. After a while, I breathed it deeply into my lungs.

It was the scent of human beings simmering in their graves. It was very natural.

The job only lasted that one summer.

It’s probably good that it didn’t continue.

I was young and didn’t need to be ruminating over the sniff of those who decompose.

Cobalt

Cobalt: (n) the chemical element of atomic number 27, a hard silvery-white magnetic metal.

My dad decided to die when I was sixteen years old.

He had planned it for nearly thirty years.

As a cigarette smoker who actually bought tobacco in the can and “rolled his own,” he had pretty well determined the end of his story long before he’d lived out all the plot lines.

I was one of the plot lines.

Before I found out that he had terminal lung cancer which had spread to his brain, there was a brief, three-month period when he became warmer, more tender–wanting some closeness with me.

Unfortunately, by that time I had created so much distance there was no way for me to transport myself to his side–even when I discovered he was dying.

They sat down and explained it to me, pointing out that he would be going through radiation treatments, which involved cobalt. He did.

Yet he barely survived the only cure they had available. When he returned home, he could barely walk and had trouble breathing. His skin was red like he had a deep sunburn, and he smelled like the trash we burned in the back yard.

Being around him just scared the hell out of me.

Everyone wanted me to turn into the devoted son who held the hand of his ailing father up to death’s door.

I just couldn’t do it.

Even when his breathing became so heavy that I could hear it through the walls while sitting on our porch stoop, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I loved him or even be present when the last gasp escaped his being.

This is my memory of cobalt.

It was used in the early years of radiation treatment, and left the patient nearly vacant of the resources to think and move.

As I sit here today, I can wish that I had been a better son and he a better father.

But that is because I have an older mind, and sometimes find it difficult to regain the fury involved in being sixteen.

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