On the day that Steven Abbett’s father lost his battle with lung cancer and died, Steven was at his side. They were having a conversation about Steven’s short-comings. In Steven’s eyes, his father only saw disappointment in him. But from Mark Abbett’s perspective, these verbal lashings were supposed to motivate his son. Mark continued to reiterate the same idea—Steven needs to find a wife. He needs to just go get married and enjoy life. He needs to find a good woman that’ll put up with him. He can’t treat his hypothetical wife horribly; he can’t take her for granted.
That’s exactly what Mark did—Mark was married to a beautiful woman named Abigail. She was not Steven’s mother. Abigail was the light of Mark’s life for a time. And, for a time, Mark was the light of hers. They spent fifteen years together, traveling the world and finding joy in the nuances of life. Then, after coughing up blood one morning in the shower, Mark went to the doctor for what seemed like an infection. He was was informed that there were two growths in his right lung: one about the size of a golf ball was fixated on his right main stem bronchus, and another about half that size had made home in the lowest area of his right lobe. Mark fell apart. Usually, hearing something that is potentially life threatening such as that would cause a person to quit their job, and do all of the things that they’ve wanted to do “when they got the time.” Mark was an amazing photographer. Mark was able to frame objects that were ignored by everyone and make people wonder at their mysteries. Mark sold his gift in piecemeal to various companies. This is how he met Abigail.
Mark was asked by National Geographic to shoot photos of the Berlin Wall protests in Germany. Abigail was at several of those protests for Greenpeace. Neither of them spoke a lick of German, nor had they even set foot on German soil beforehand. Mark took a photograph of her without her consent, and once the flash released from his camera, she broke it. Tore the film straight out and cracked his $5000 lens. When Mark tells the story of how they met, he always frames it as if breaking his camera was an accident. Whenever Abigail interjects, and she always does, she makes sure to correct him. The word “asshole” is used often in her version.
When Abigail tells their story, she always ends it with, “…and after calling him an asshole a few more times, and asking him how he thinks he has the right to take a photo of me at a time like this—his rebuttal was simply, ‘This is history. People around the world have a right to see this.’ That’s when I knew that I wanted to marry him.”
For fifteen years they had the life that every other married couple wanted. They never owned a house. They were too busy traveling. Then, after Mark got the news about his lungs, everything stopped. He stopped taking photographs; they stopped traveling. Mark stopped paying attention to Abigail; stopped paying attention to himself. He became angry with his fate, and in turn, angry with Abigail just by her being there. That woman loved him, and would’ve been there with him until his last breath, but Mark pushed her so far away that she no longer existed. She faded away back into the world. Although it was too late, Mark realized that he was imbuing the very nature of his own cancer cells—he was becoming cancer. He opened his eyes again. Really opened them. He became an in-house photographer for an advertising company, and married Steven’s mother, Cynthia, a model that he would photograph for store catalogues. They divorced him after twenty-five years of marriage. Cynthia loved Mark just as much as Abigail did, maybe more. Mark did not love her back. She thought that that was just how Mark was as a person. She was accurate, in some sense, but Cynthia never fully realized how accurate.
Frankly, she didn’t try to investigate Mark or his true feelings, she just wanted to make this all work. She wanted a family. And she got one, for a time. Mark’s cancer got worse and so did his old ways. Steven still sees his mother every day, but she cannot—she will not—go and see that man. Even on his deathbed.
“Your father not only loathes himself because of his situation, he ropes everyone stupid enough to care about him into his misery. I’m glad that you turned out to be very unlike him.”
Steven tries his best not to judge anyone. Mainly because the only words that he’s ever heard are those of judgement: mom judging dad, dad judging him, dad judging himself, rinse and repeat. Steven cannot—he will not—allow himself to succumb to the same projecting and selfishness.
Steven considers himself happy. He has a stable job. But having no spouse or girlfriend or any real friends Has left many openings for his father to pass his judgements. To lie there and tell Steven about who a man of his age is supposed to be. Steven shouldn’t be trapped in an office withering away as he designs some tall building or another. He should be out, exploring the world and meeting people. He should have a wife and two kids by now. What is the matter with him? How could Steven let his life fall in such disarray? His father would stir up this negative rhetoric toward Steven between intervals of sanguine expectorate. Steven would just nod and try not to let any of it phase him.
He doesn’t want to, is that really wrong? Has Steven not lived a good life so far? Granted, he doesn’t have a partner or children or a model home with the picket fence, but is that the only path toward happiness? Steven thinks that he’s happy. It can be a difficult feeling to recognize some times. Is he not happy?
As his father slowly slips into nothingness, the muscles in Steven’s back and neck gradually relax. If this isn’t happiness, Steven doesn’t know what is.