By Michael Coolen
Alternate First Prize winner in the 2017 Ageless Authors Writing Contest
Dad was killed by whales.
Hundreds of whales.
They began killing him in 1919, soon after he started working at a whale-blubber rendering plant on the Seattle waterfront. My father was only thirteen years old.
It was a job his alcoholic dory fisherman who got him the job supposedly to help out with finances at home. Most of the pay went to support his father’s addiction.
Dad worked 12 hours a day loading dozens of one-hundred pound barrels of whale oil onto waiting trucks. He worked amid a stench of rendered blubber so potent that an arriving whaling ship could be smelled over the horizon long before it could be seen.
[The whale’s] smoke is horrible to inhale… it has an unspeakable, wild, odor about it…It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit. (Moby Dick, The Try-Works)
Dock workers smoked cigarettes all day to keep from choking and gagging. Like his older co-workers, my young father began smoking pre-packaged unfiltered Camel cigarettes R.J. Reynolds introduced to America in 1913. Instead of having to roll a cigarette, all he had to do was pull a one out of a pack and inhale that lethal combination of Turkish and Virginia tobacco. The Camels began destroying Dad’s body while keeping him from vomiting.
“The smell was awful,” Dad once told me. A man who normally kept his own counsel, he’d once described the death of his newborn baby in the 1930s as “awful,” and the suffering of World War II as “awful.” In his hospital bed, he described the pain from the pancreatic cancer caused by a lifetime of inhaling unfiltered Camels as “awful.”
Dad became a two plus pack a day smoker for sixty-two years. During those decades, he smoked close to eight hundred thousand cigarettes. Laid end to end, that many cigarettes would stretch thirteen miles, about the height of thirty-eight Empire State Buildings stacked vertically. I could just as easily have begun this story by writing, “My father was killed by Camels.”
Six decades after Dad left the docks, his journey from health to illness to death was a short one. Just six weeks.
I was living in Oregon when I got a call late one night in June from my mother.
“He came up to me last week,” she said, “and he told me he felt sicker than a dog. We went to the doctor yesterday, and your dad went through some tests.” She was quiet for a few moments. “Dr. Olson recommended exploratory surgery as soon as possible. And it doesn’t look good.”
Two days later my sister Theresa called me less than an hour after Dad had gone into surgery.
“We’d barely had our coffee,” she said, “when my name was paged and Dr. Olson wanted us meet with us.”
“Your father has pancreatic cancer,” he said. “It has metastasized all over. There is nothing we can do, so we’ve just sewed him up again.”
After I hung up, I sat on the deck of my cabin, looking out at the moonlight reflecting on the dark water of the Willamette River. I tried and failed to remember a single instance Dad was ever sick or had complained that he didn’t feel well. I drove through the night to Seattle, and by early morning I was sitting next to him in his room at Providence Hospital.
He was still a little groggy when Dr. Olson came into the room. He had been Dad’s primary care physician for decades, and the two were good friends.
“I’ve never kept anything from you, Harvey,” he said. “We found pancreatic cancer, and it has spread everywhere. There’s nothing more we can do except make you comfortable. I’m truly sorry.”
Dad didn’t seem to understood the diagnosis. He just stared at the doctor and didn’t say a word. But shortly after the doctor left, I saw a single tear flowing down his right cheek. I had never seen my father cry. Never.
Mom once said she’d seen him cry twice. The first time was after a car slammed down on his left hand while he was changing a flat tire. Dad was a violinist, and the damage to his pinky finger was so bad he lost the flexibility he needed to play as well as he had for years. He struggled with the sorrow of that loss the rest of his life.
The second time Dad cried occurred in the mid-1930s, when he had to tell Mom that their newborn daughter, Patty Jo, had just died from the influenza that was sweeping the hospital. She was two days old. Over a hundred other fathers and mothers cried over their dead babies during those terrible two weeks at Providence Hospital. And now, forty years later, we were back in that same hospital knowing there would be months of tears ahead for our family.
After the doctor left, Dad stared at the ceiling for several silent minutes.
“What a revoltin’ development this is,” he finally said.
I smiled as he quoted the television show The Life of Riley starring William Bendix. It had been one of his favorites in the 1950s, and we had watched it as a family. Bendix played Chester Riley, a blue-collar worker with a gift for turning small problems into catastrophes.
At some point, Bendix would sum up what had happened by saying “What a revoltin’ development this is.” Dad always chuckled at that phrase.
When my brother Pat came to sit with Dad, I wandered down the hall to a room that had been set aside for the family. There was coffee and donuts and a collection of magazines and books to distract us from the antiseptic smell and death watch we were experiencing. I picked up a book of poetry. It opened immediately to Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, a villanelle by Dylan Thomas. Four kinds of men inhabit the poem’s world—wise, good, wild, and grave—and each in turn is urged to resist death, to not go gentle into that good night. Life is not over just because you are old and ill.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Realizing that although death is inevitable, even the wise man fights on in the hope that he will have the time for his words to fork lightning, part the seas, raise the dead, say goodbye one more time. My father was a wise man who felt that the success of a life should not be measured through forked lightning, but in being a good husband and father and devout Catholic.
When I returned to his room that evening, we talked about some of his favorite violinists. He thought Jascha Heifetz was a genius, but he was particularly partial to Zino Francescatti. After he went to sleep, I read that poem to myself as if it was a kind of cosmic prayer with the power to heal him—or ease both his death and my sorrow.
The next morning, the hospital chaplain came by to give him Holy Communion.
“I am not worthy,” Dad said, so quietly I almost missed hearing it.
“I will come back to take your confession later,” replied the priest, using his right hand to bless Dad with the sign of the cross.
I sat in raging silence—furious that Catholic doctrine could make such a good man ever think he was unworthy; a doctrine that urges its members to pray and give thanks while devouring them from the inside. Much like the whales that started Dad on this voyage.
Here be it said in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used…the crisp, shriveled blubber, now called scraps or fritters…feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr…once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. (Moby Dick, The Try-Works).
Dad had the reputation of being a quiet man. I discovered the reason for his silence the previous fall, not knowing he would be dead in nine months. Trying to learn more about this quiet man, I had told the folks I wanted to tape-record an oral history of them after Thanksgiving dinner. The result was a three-hour tape of my Dad talking about his life. About fifteen minutes into my interview, I asked him about his reputation of being quiet.
“You know, everybody says I’m quiet, but with a wife, three daughters and three sons I haven’t been able to get a word in edgewise for about thirty-five years! It was just easier not trying to talk. Anyhow, I was never any good at talking unless I thought about something before I opened my mouth.”
In his hospital room nine months later, Dad was even quieter because there were so many agonizing blisters inside his mouth from the medication. I returned to the poem as I sat with him.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way
Do not go gentle into that good night.
A wild man my father was not. Dad’s idea of “wild” was to show us how he could partially eject his upper and lower dentures and make them dance and click around in his open mouth. When we were kids, it was hilarious, but it became a little sadder as we got older and understood why he had dentures to begin with. For most of his early life, he couldn’t afford to go to a dentist; not to mention what the cigarettes had done to the teeth he no longer had.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As Dad’s condition worsened, the oncologist prescribed chemotherapy, in this case intravenous fluorouracil to fight the growth of cancer cells so that Dad might have a few more days…of awful. Known as 5FU, it is toxic poison whose side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and sores in the mouth. In Dad’s case, it probably eventually killed him. Ironically, thirty-six years later, I use a topical cream containing 5FU to seek out and destroy cancer cells on my face.
Three days after going on chemotherapy, Dad’s breathing became more labored. Whenever I was alone in the room with him, I tried to breathe louder, hoping he could still hear me and breathe more easily. By this time, I knew the poem by heart, and I spoke it to him and whispered it to him and yelled it to myself, frantic to see him improve.
“Rage Dad, rage!” I said. “Don’t go yet!” Children have so many questions they would like to ask their parents when it is too late for answers.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Fierce tears flowed down my face when Dad died. My mother could barely walk because of the damage to her hip, but she hobbled over to his bed using her walker and threw herself on his body and howled like an animal caught in a trap. I don’t remember who was in the room, although I remember one was a hospice nurse that my brother Pat eventually married (and who eventually was the hospice nurse for him when he died from prostate cancer thirty-six years later). I’m sure there were other siblings there, but I can’t recall who. But I do remember that the anguish in the room was palpable.
Dad died on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was Dad’s favorite feast. It commemorates the ascension of the mother of Jesus directly into heaven without being buried. There is no Biblical citation or proof of any kind that this ever happened, but Pope Pius XII formally declared it was true in his Munificentissimus Deus (“the most bountiful God”) published on November 1st, 1950. Since Pope Pius IX had declared in 1870 that popes were infallible (in large part as a response to Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species), the Assumption must have happened like XII said it did.
The funeral was a few days later at St. Patrick’s Church, just a few blocks from the folks’ house. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to speak at it, I composed a piece for organ combining the tunes “Road to the Isles” and “Simple Gifts.” Over a decade later, I revised it for my Mom’s
funeral, adding a fragment of “Little Boy Blue,” the song she sang to all of her children at bedtime.
I have read “Do Not Go Gentle” often over the years. With the arrival of YouTube, I have also listened to its recitation by Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, and many others. One performance by Rodney Dangerfield sticks in my mind. Towards the end of the film, Back to School, Dangerfield delivers a powerful recitation of the poem to prove he’s a good student. When he finishes, his girlfriend asks him what the poem means.
“It means…,” he responds, “I don’t take shit from no one.”
Words to live by. Or die by, especially if a life lived passionately becomes so unbearable that death is preferable.
I know I would not purchase a few more days of breath at the price of “awful.” I would not go gentle into that good night. I would rip the scythe from the Grim Reaper’s hands.
“I don’t take shit from no one!” I would spit at him, just before turning off the light and leaping into the abyss.
Michael Coolen is a pianist, composer, actor, performance artist, and writer living in Oregon. He has been published in Ethnomusicology, West- ern Folklore, Oregon Humanities, 50wordstories Online, The Gold Man Review, Best Travel Stories, The Fable Online, Kalnya Language Press, Twisted Vine, Clementine Poetry Journal, Creative Writing Institute, Rats Ass Review, Solarwyrm Press, Synesthesia Magazine, Broken Plate Poetry Magazine, WalkWriteUp, and StoryClub Magazine. Michael is also a published composer, whose works have been performed widely, including at Carnegie Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Museum of Modern Art, and the Christie Gallery.