Excerpt: 'The Last Goodnights'

The Beginning

I had no idea what my father wanted to talk to me about that afternoon in early November 1998 when he asked me to step into his bedroom for a private chat. But I was used to Jolly's secretiveness, so I didn't find it odd that he would suggest it, particularly with a houseful of visiting relatives and no privacy anywhere but behind a locked door. I assumed he had some additional bad news about the status of his cancer, something he wanted to tell me first, since I would be his successor in the role of what Jolly liked to call "the man of the family." An outdated concept, perhaps, but one that, unfortunately, applied more to our family than I liked. After Jolly's death, I would be the one member of the family who could be called solid, competent, and reliable. My mother had once been an ultra-competent professional, but various illnesses had left her needy and dependent. I had two sisters, both older than I, but Jolly never felt they could properly handle complicated or stressful "real world" matters. Years of experience and many disappointments had informed his opinion.

I sat in the big leather chair by the bookshelves, prepared to wait. Whenever Jolly talked to me about something important, he approached it in a roundabout way.

But not this time. Straight away he said, "John, I need your help."

This startled me—doubly so. He was being direct, which was rare enough. And he was asking for help. Jolly never asked for help. His smoothly contained persona, Mr. Totally In Control, had just popped open right in front of me. Not that any outsider would have noticed, because Jolly's demeanor was exactly the same as it was whenever he discussed anything important: His voice was measured and smooth; he sat squarely on the edge of his bed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped; he looked straight at me, seriously and intently, but his face showed little more than mild concern. His face rarely gave anything away. Only his words betrayed him now.

"I'm dying," he said. "That's no secret—everyone knows it. I don't have more than a few months, at most. But I do have something that is very important to me. I have options about how and when my death will occur."

He paused to let this sink in.

"At some point," he continued, "not too long from now, I will decide that enough is enough. By that time I will be full of all sorts of drugs, particularly the morphine that I'm already taking for pain. A little extra of that should do the trick, without anyone having to know and get upset."

He paused again and looked out the window.

I sat up in my chair. I suddenly felt hot and cold at the same time, as I realized what he meant. But as powerfully as his words registered, the idea behind them didn't seem strange at all. It made sense. He was about to die anyway, so why linger in pain? I knew I'd want to do the same thing if I were in his position.

I didn't know what to say, so I kept quiet and waited for him to continue. I don't know if I could have said anything even if I'd wanted to, because I was still somewhat stunned, not only by the intensity of what he'd told me, but also because I'd never expected him to share thoughts like these with me.

Still looking out the window, he continued, "My body is full of cancer. If I knock off a little ahead of schedule, nobody's going to know the difference, and I'll have saved myself a hell of a lot of pain."

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