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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Late Stages

It’s the little moments that matter.

One day, when I was about five years old, I heard the door bell ring. My father had taken his motorcycle around the block to road test a repair. He’d told me to stay in the house, keep the doors locked, and not let anyone in. He’d be right back. I’d heard him drive off only a few minutes before. But I was five. I couldn’t see outside, and I wanted to know who was there, the insistence of the rapidly ringing doorbell undermining my father’s command.

I turned the knob and struggled to open the door, as a butler must feel opening the front door of a grand estate. On the front stoop, my father stood, breathing hard and shivering slightly. One sleeve of his grimy, weekend t-shirt was ripped apart, and his jeans were torn away in various places up and down his legs. The holes revealed bloody wounds, and drying blood trailed from his scalp down his face, down to his neck in some places. Red seeped through cotton and denim. Life seemed to be oozing out of him. Even though he was standing there, eyes open, I assumed he must have been dead.

As he opened the screen door, I backed out of the way, afraid to make a sound as he stomped past. I can’t remember what happened immediately after that. He probably went to the bathroom to tend to his wounds. I’ve lost the part of the story between feeling frightened and then, later that day, learning that he’d lost control when his motorcycle skidded on cinders. When I started riding a bike around the neighborhood a few years later, I had the same problem, only I knew to anticipate dangers like that. I had much to learn from, and even more to learn about, my father, who’d come back to life.


Dad had survived death at least once before. When he was 13, while staying with his grandparents, he was filling a lawnmower with gasoline and, somehow, the gasoline ignited. The left leg of his jeans caught fire. His grandmother ran to him and smothered the fire with her apron, but not before he’d suffered third-degree burns on his leg, and resulting in second-degree burns for her. If she hadn’t been nearby and moved so quickly, Dad might have burned to death, and I might not exist.

His recovery involved the healing of his wounds, of course, but he also had to learn to walk again. He was not a patient patient. He snapped at people who tried to help him. His grandfather had to give him a talking-to. Dad got the message. He cooperated, healed, walked. The episode became a powerful memory that stayed with him.


I’m not, as some people might assume, thinking about all of this because of Dad’s recent diagnosis: lung cancer, stage four. Sure, he’s on my mind more lately, but the past weaves itself into every moment. The present serves as a filter.

Some people would, and perhaps will, use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. He’s strong; he’s always been a fighter; etc. And while all of that’s true, I’m much more interested in my father as a person, who experiences joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments.


For my first 20 years, I thought Dad must have been ashamed of me. He stayed busy with work and volunteer activities. During the time we spent together, he explained things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting. And I was a huge sissy.

As a teenager, the stakes got higher, and I worried about what it was about me that made him not want to be around me. Now I was a chubby sissy, and I didn’t do well with making many friends. The few expectations he seemed to have for me didn’t make sense. When he tried to teach me how to drive, he took me to a mall parking lot for my first lesson, where he had me start out on an incline in a car with manual transmission. Maybe he thought starting out with the hardest lesson would make the rest easier.

He got impatient with me, and I got scared. I figured he must have been punishing me because I wasn’t the son he wanted. Or, maybe I wasn’t his son at all. That would have been better for both of us, right? Sometimes, I fantasized he would simply disappear or maybe even die, and my guilt about that  fantasy only reinforced how horrible I was and how much I didn’t deserve to be accepted by him. I had a related fantasy about disappearing or dying myself, the only difference being I made actual, if vague, plans to make myself disappear.


As it turns out, both Dad and I survived my adolescence. When I was 19, I realized I was gay. It took me a few months to tell him. Actually, I told Mom, and she thought she should tell him. Dad and I took it from there. I knew he knew, but we didn’t talk about it explicitly until I broke up with my first partner. Dad didn’t offer platitudes; he just listened and said enough I knew he had been paying attention all along.

Openness has worked well for us in the twenty years since then, allowing us to find how we’re similar and to appreciate how we’re not. The inherent conflict I used to sense has subsided into minor disagreements we talk about but don’t dwell on, and a lot of agreement that I wouldn’t have believed was possible when I was a kid. He’s still pretty quiet, both in person and on the phone. Having that time of shared silence means a lot to both of us. Sometimes there’s nothing to say, and sometimes there simply aren’t words. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection.

In the past few years, he’s survived prostate cancer and has managed diabetes. So now we embark upon a new challenge, a new death-defying feat. It’s silly of me to try to write about it. All the advice in the writers’ guides tells me that topics like cancer, diabetes, and aging parents are “played out” and “overdone.” I am surely inviting others to tell me they’ve been there, done that. They will try to tell me how to feel, and there’s not much in the world that I hate more than that.

Two pieces of Dad’s advice come to mind: 1) Don’t worry so much about them; they’re not worth the wasted brain cells. 2) Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

This is the sense of humor I didn’t understand as a kid, when he’d tease me to show he loved me. More often than not, I read the jokes as disapproval. His intention didn’t matter much to me when I was a kid, but entirely matters now that I’m a reluctant adult with the same sense of humor and, more important, a surprisingly similar approach to life. I want to savor the process on my own terms. I want to look back all the way to the beginning of the story, and I’m aware of the end. But until that time comes, I’ll keep exploring the precious middle.

4 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by j3black, j3black. j3black said: Late Stages http://wp.me/phtgy-eY […]

  2. James, This is a moving, wonderful post. You really capture how complicated it can be to love and be loved by someone, especially a parent. It made me miss my dad. Or, really, it made me acknowledge how much I miss my dad. I wish we could “play out” cancer, but I’m afraid that these topics are still all too human and relevant to many, many of us. Thanks for writing this.

  3. […] what I said, including a few lines I stole from an earlier post: Long before supposedly modern men carried “man purses,” my father carried one, and he […]

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