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The moment the door closed and the doctor was out of the room, the old man took a cigarette from a pack well hidden in his backpack. The sterility of the room was driving him
crazy. The cigarette would make it a drive to crazy with a tiny distraction.
“Jesus Dad! Are you fucking kidding?”
“What son? I’m dying! It don’t matter anymore. The ship has sailed. We have crossed the Rubicon. We didn’t pull out in time. Calm your righteous indignation.”
“Even if it doesn’t make a difference for you, this is a fucking hospital. You can’t even smoke next to the building
outside, let alone in the goddamn examining room!”
“So, what? They’ll call the cops? Give me detention? Refuse to do the surgery? I’ll just look innocent and start calling the doctor by your name.
I’m sorry, Billy. I just get so confused sometimes. I’m so scared. I don’t mean to be a burden on you and Ma.
They ain’t gonna do shit. One of the benefits of being old.”
Billy dragged his hands down his face. He wanted to start smashing the beeping machines around his old man, but he didn’t.
“Son, Jesus Christ. I never tried to push any of that ‘be a man’ stuff on you ‘cause it’s bullshit, but have
some balls. Believe me, worse things have happened in this room than an old man smoking.”
“Are you trying to make a point or something?”
“I think the lung cancer made the point, son. I’m just letting it know that I got the point and don’t give a fuck.”
“Why? Why don’t you give a fuck?”
“Because it’s too late. It was too late before I had a chance to stop it. You think I’m a coward? An idiot? You think I wouldn’t drop this cigarette forever if it meant
one more minute with your beautiful kids? Goddamn, son. You’ve known me a long time.”
Billy tried to smile, but the smile got stuck on condescending. He could feel it and he hated himself for it.
“OK, Dad. You never told me how to live my life. I’m not telling you how to live yours. But I disapprove. For the record.”
“Let it be shown that the firstborn has registered his moral quagmire – let the record show that Billy Winthrop is incensed!”
Billy couldn’t help laughing. It was his father’s most powerful weapon. Ever since he was a kid. It’s hard to be mad at a man who never gets mad at you. It’s hard to place
judgment on a man who never placed judgement on you.
“Henry was really sorry he couldn’t make it. He’ll be here with the kids next time.”
“Good. Henry isn’t as uptight as you are. You balance each other out. I feel like I’m talking to your Mom. Come to think of it, Henry probably would have done your mother
a world of good. About the only thing I feel proud of when I think about being a dad and husband is that I knew you were gay before you did and it didn’t change one damn thing. If anything, it made me respect you more.”
“Respect me? What the hell does that mean?”
“It means some people come out of the closet slowly. Some come out with a look of shame on their faces. Some inch their way out so they can dive back in if necessary.
Not everyone kicks the goddamn door to splinters and then sets the closet on fire.”
“Aw, come on …”
“Hey don’t bullshit a bullshitter. You told me with a straight back and a straight face and you meant it. You wore a white t-shirt with “I am gay” written on it to fucking
SCHOOL. There’s no one I respect as much as you.”
“Hey, listen. You take the nice things I say and believe them. And remember them. How much longer you think I got? Not long. You’re going to hear everything about yourself,
your wonderful husband, and your beautiful children until you stop denying it. You’re a good man. A better Dad than I was.”
Billy froze, mouth open.
“Dad! You were the greatest dad a kid ever had. You ever wonder why every kid in the neighborhood spent their weekends at our house? They had assholes for dads. Or guys
that didn’t care. Weren’t invested. Some of my gay friends lost their fucking Dad the day they told the truth.”
“Alright, alright. I didn’t say I was a bad dad. I just think you’re better at it.”
“Then I owe it to you.”
“The fuck you do. You don’t owe no one nothing. You never did. You came into this world the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Your mother and I loved you so hard it made
us love each other more. You were a gift. I owe you everything. You made me a better man.”
Billy was not trying not to cry now.
And then the door opened. The doctor looked first at Billy weeping and then at his father puffing lovingly on a Marlboro.
“Sir! There is no smoking in my hospital.”
“Let the record show that I accept my reprimand and that it is no fault of my boy’s. He thinks I’m an asshole too.”
The doctor looked shocked. Even moreso when they both burst out laughing. Tears rolling down their faces. Billy kissed his Dad on the forehead.”
“I love you, you stubborn old man.”
“I know you do. And I love you, you stubborn young buck.”
The doctor cleared his throat. Billy smiled.
“Alright, alright. I’ll be in the waiting room. Be strong old man.”
Billy did not know that part of him would be waiting in the waiting room forever. Because his dad came out covered in a sheet. He never had a chance to say goodbye to
Henry or the kids.
The kids took it hard. Achingly so. But they knew their Granpa loved them. And they knew they were as lucky as their own dad had been.
They had been given a gift.
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