Excerpt: 'The Last Goodnights'

Jolly's Birthday

A week after Jolly called and told me about his diagnosis, and five weeks before he asked for my help during that bedroom chat, I flew from Seattle to L.A. for his seventy-fourth birthday. We all knew this would be his last, so my sisters came too: Anne from New York City, and Mary from Northern California. Neither brought her husband.

I felt nervous about seeing Jolly, and not just because of the extreme changes looming over him and the rest of the family. Until he'd phoned me with his bad news, I hadn't planned on attending his birthday party—or any other event involving him—because our recent relationship had not been good. For a long time, Jolly's philandering had been an open secret in our family, but it had never intruded directly on our lives until two years before. Decades of polite, quiet disagreement about Jolly's behavior had finally become pointed conflict when he made the bewildering decision to start bringing into our home, and into the homes of old family friends, his newly admitted illegitimate child—an adolescent boy. I had told Jolly that this was highly inappropriate and painful to the family (and embarrassing to the old family friends), and that it was especially hurtful, insulting, and disrespectful to K. I stood up for K because she was in no position to stand up to Jolly anymore, due to her failing health and increased dependence on him. K and I had always been close, and now that her health and strength were declining, I felt more and more protective of her.

I'd told Jolly that if he wanted to spend time with this boy, there were numerous other places they could go—places on the other side of town, where the boy's mother lived; places that wouldn't be so offensive to basic notions of decency, discretion, and tact. Los Angeles is not a small town; it has plenty such places.

Jolly didn't like my telling him that his flaunting a gross indiscretion was wrong, and he refused to stop it. He even tried to twist the situation on me by saying how sad he was that I "didn't like the kid," but I set things straight immediately: I told Jolly that it wasn't the boy I disliked—I didn't know him well enough to like or dislike him; I'd met him only a time or two, when he was a small child, and long before I'd learned his true lineage. Rather, it was Jolly I didn't like, for behaving in such an astonishingly bad way, especially toward K, his wife of more than fifty years. He'd had no reply to that.

I'd been angry at Jolly for several months afterward, but over time my anger had faded into sadness and disappointment as I mourned the loss of the man I'd once imagined my father to be, and began to know him—and try to accept him—for who he really was.

And now, after learning of his illness and thinking—a lot—about our relationship, I decided to put our recent conflict aside and act like a son, not a judge. Jolly and I hadn't resolved our old business, but life isn't governed by parliamentary procedure, and the new business—end-of-life issues—now took priority.

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