This story was written in response to the one-word prompt, “bread.”
Marla entered her father’s towering old house. It had never truly felt like home – just some place that she visited when her father requested her to. It had always seemed stiff and unwelcoming. As if by taking one wrong step across the egg-shelled floor, she’d cause the house to crash down around them. Maybe it was in the way her father stood over her, making sure she was always embodying the ladylike way in which she was told to act. She wondered if he knew that when he was out of the room, she’d often stuck her tongue out at him as a child, and flipped him the bird as an adolescent. He acted like she wanted to be here. To be the robot he was always too prone to remind her she should be.
She’d had different plans. And over the years, she’d fought the voice in the back of her head reprimanding every non ladylike thing she’d said or did.
So, walking into her father’s house now, with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the air, and a relaxed and soft smile on her father’s face as he greeted her in the foyer and wrapped her in a hug that was not stiff and not unwelcoming, Marla was caught off guard. Who was this man and what had he done with Jeffrey Winston III?
She hugged him back, sort of. Her arms went around him but remained fairly stagnant instead of squeezing back, and her hands awkwardly patted his back. How was she so bad at hugging? If the moment weren’t so abnormally unrefined, she might have laughed.
“It’s so good to see you, Mars. I’m glad you decided to pay your old dad a visit.” His voice was cheery and he’d call her the nickname he hadn’t used since she was five. She should have had plenty to say, but verbal communication seemed to be something she used to know how to do.
Instead, she furrowed her eyebrows, cocked her head slightly, gave her father a half-hearted smile and waited for the other shoe to drop. She wanted to believe that this smiling, earnest man was the father she’d always wanted but never had – to accept that without doubt – but she’d known the other version of Jeffrey Winston III for 30 years and couldn’t be easily swayed. He was up to something – and they both knew it.
“So, I guess you’re wondering why I asked you to visit me this Christmas.” She saw his eyes glaze over but she couldn’t tell if it was tears or memories that coated his eyes. She heard him clear his throat and noticed the tense pause that seemed to span minutes but was only a few seconds. “This will by my last.”
She watched her father’s shoulders give in and the tears he’d fought back fall down his face. She’d never seen her father cry; never expected he was capable of it. Emotions were never a part of their relationship, or a part of her father’s persona. He’d broken a few ribs and his left leg in a car accident once and he hadn’t cried. He’d seen his only child off to college and hadn’t even offered a single emotion – no teary-eyes, no “I love you,” no “I’m proud of you,” no recognition that they were indeed connected in any way. And while that had hurt, she’d known not to expect it.
But here he was, a couple feet away from her, sitting down on his beloved brown leather recliner in what seemed to be an inconsolable heap of a man. And despite never having seen this man before, she felt that missing connection now. She reached for his hand and held it, the whites of her knuckles showing.
She had so many questions she wanted to ask – Last Christmas? What do you mean? How do you know? What is your diagnosis? Have you gotten second and third and fourth opinions? – but the questions remained lodged within, wreaking havoc in her brain. She knew he would talk when he could.
A few minutes later, her father looked up, his eyes red and cheeks flushed and splotchy. She saw him try to smile, to be the stoic one he’d always needed to be, but his lips fell flat.
She heard the guttural sound of his throat clearing once again.
“I’ve been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. I’ve known about it for a few months and only have a month or two more before …” Marla heard his voice catch on the lump in his throat. “Before I die.”
Marla felt her own tears build up and felt when they readily spilled down her face and onto her shirt. How many tears had she shed over her father’s inability to be anything other than an uppity know-it-all poor excuse of a man? How many times had she resented her father for not loving her? And now it didn’t matter. Because here he was – the father she’d always wanted – and he was dying.
And there was no cure. No stopping it. No making up for lost time. No do-overs. No father-daughter moments to make and then cherish. Their past would have to suffice. She knew the world to be a cruel and unjust place, but she’d never felt it so much as she did now.
“How many doctors have you seen? How about chemo or radiation? Alternative medicine?”
She saw the look of defeat in his eyes and realized that he’d already been denied those opportunities. Or he’d tried them and they didn’t work.
“Nothing left to do, Mars. They said chemotherapy and radiation weren’t going to work – I was too far gone already. And if that wasn’t going to work, no alternative medicine would either.” This time he’d resigned to making sure his smile pushed through. But she couldn’t help thinking that smiles were pointless right now. What was there to smile about?
“I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t much of a father. I wanted to be.” Was that guilt in her father’s eyes? Regret? “I could tell you I didn’t know how to be a good father. My own father was a cold, hard man and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But the truth is I didn’t try hard enough. I took what came naturally to me and went with it instead of making sure that you never questioned my love for you, or how happy I am to be your father. I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long to admit this – maybe we could’ve had more time, with good memories. I need you to know that I do love you.” He was looking straight into her eyes and squeezing her hand as he spoke.
She wanted to shame him for not trying hard enough – she wanted to let him know how much he’d hurt her by not being loving, or supportive. But she couldn’t. She could see he already knew these things – would take them to his grave – and she couldn’t hurt him when he was reaching out to her.
He’d chosen to spend his last Christmas with her. He’d chosen her. And that was something he’d never done before. It would have to be enough.
And two months later when she placed flowers on her father’s casket and said her final good-bye, she knew that the time they’d shared since Christmas would be enough to hold her together when she needed him most. It had to.