Excerpt: 'The Last Goodnights'

I finally asked Jolly about his plan for dealing with his rapidly advancing cancer. He replied with great sangfroid. "I'm a physician," he said. "I know when my number's up. It's just a question of how to go through the decline. The 'cure' in a case like this is worse than the goddamn disease. I'm not going to do anything drastic to fight it. What's the point? Maybe I'd live a few more weeks, but I wouldn't be able to do anything except lie in bed and suffer."

I was a bit surprised to hear him say this, because I knew he'd already started chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but I also knew that he often said and did contradictory things. Maybe he felt he needed to "keep up appearances" for his colleagues at the hospital by going through the standard treatment regimen. Or maybe he thought, as he did about so much in his life, that things would go differently for him—that by the sheer force of his considerable will, he could avoid the inevitable side effects of the chemo and radiation.

As Jolly continued, Mom did a good job of remaining stoic. Anne dashed all across the emotional landscape, alternately weeping and vowing grandly to stand by Jolly no matter what, and help him beat the cancer if it was the last thing she ever did. Mary put on a happy face for the most part, although it was obviously forced, and she seemed to shrink in on herself at times, retreating from the intensity of the conversation. I asked questions, remained calm, and tried to be supportive. So we all stayed true to our established familial-behavior patterns.

Dinnertime came and went, Jolly opened his presents with great gusto, and then the party came to an end because I needed to leave for the airport and catch the last flight back to Seattle. I had to be in court with a client the next morning, so I couldn't stay overnight in L.A. I was about to call a cab when Dad volunteered to drive me—another surprise. He usually hated chores like that. Perhaps he felt the need, as I did, for a few minutes of private conversation.

I kissed Mom and my sisters goodbye, and then Jolly and I got into his car and headed down the freeway to LAX. Jolly loved his Cadillac—the fanciest car he'd ever owned. When he'd bought the Caddy only a few years earlier, he'd joked about its being black, saying it would be the last car he'd ever own, and that we could drive him to his funeral in it. Now, as he steered it down the freeway, I realized that the joke would come true. I didn't say anything, though—surely he'd thought of it. I just shook my head at the sad irony.

As we drove along and made small talk, I could tell he had something on his mind—probably our unfinished old business—but I knew it would be hard for him to raise that painful subject. So, as we neared the airport, I waded in.

"Listen, Dad, there's something important I want to talk with you about, and I think it's important that I tell you in person, before I get on the plane."

"Okay," he said; he sounded neutral, but I sensed him bracing himself.

"You and I have been having this big disagreement for a couple of years, but I want you to know that I'm through with it. I've been thinking a lot about the whole situation since you told me your medical news, and, well, life-and-death matters—like what you're facing—are simply more important. So I want you to know that all that other stuff is moot. It's over and done with, as far as I'm concerned."

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