Sins of the Father
There on his deathbed lay Mark Abbott, berating his son Steven while losing his battle with cancer. The man was asleep more than awake these days and had to be on oxygen most of the time. Yet, he still had breath enough to remind Steven of all of his shortcomings.
“You’re 38 and you still don’t have a wife or kids. Do you even have friends, Steven?” Mark spat blood. “You’re gonna end up being some cream puff loner the rest of your life.”
Steven cleaned the red from his father’s mouth in silence.
“Grow a spine for once and ask a girl out, Steven! Your poor dog can’t deal with all your whinny shit alone. You need to find you a woman who’ll put up with you.” The dying man coughed and heaved.
Steven pushed a cup of water under his father’s nose. Mark slapped it away and it burst against a wall and spilled water everywhere.
A concerned nurse entered and asked, “Everyone all right in here?”
“Will you marry my hopeless son?” Mark proposed.
Steven pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I’m sorry about my father.”
“That’s okay. I’ve had plenty of people ask me to marry them or think I’m the angel of death. But a father offering up his son is a new one. I’m afraid I’ll have to decline the marriage proposal, though. Sorry.”
“I’ll clean up the mess,” Steven noted and retrieved another towel.
The nurse nodded and left.
“You’ve got to fix your attitude,” Mark said to his son’s back.
“My attitude’s fine. It’s yours that needs adjusting.”
“You sure? Even a woman who cleans up piss and shit and watches people die all day doesn’t want to take a chance on you.”
Steven put the wet cloth in a hamper and smiled at his father. “Mom’s debut gallery opening is tonight. I’m going to take photos of her work so you can see it.”
Mark scoffed. “What, Cynthia’s too busy to show her artsy-fartsy crap to her ex-husband in person? I’m about to kick the bucket here. I thought she’d have been thrilled to see the light leave my eyes.”
“No, dad. Contrary to what you think, mom still loves you.”
“Then why hasn’t she come to see me once?”
Steven knew why. His father was an abusive nightmare to be around. He didn’t know how or exactly why she stayed with his dad all those years. He suspected she did it for him. For Steven. For her only child. Once Steven went off to college, there were no reasons left for Cynthia to stay in that marriage. She quickly left Mark. She spent years working on herself. Reconnecting with people she had lost contact with due to Mark. She eventually pursued an art career. Another thing Mark discouraged. She couldn’t bear seeing her ex-husband again, even like this. Especially like this.
“You’ll have to ask her,” Steven answered.
“She doesn’t take my calls, son, or I would’ve.” There was a moment of silence. “I’m tired,” the dying man eventually admitted.
“Okay, I’ll let you get some rest.”
As Steven was getting his coat off his chair, Mark grabbed his son’s arm.
“Tell me…Is your mother happy?”
Steven thought about it for a moment. His mom is more open to Steven. More talkative. She smiles more. She travels more. Explores her passions more.
“Yeah, dad, she’s happy.”
Mark nodded and coughed deeply before closing his eyes. His breathing was deep and unstable, like tremors before an earthquake. Steven watched his father take a few breaths, wondering how many more he had left. He was determined to visit his father as much as possible in his final moments. Steven knew it was too late for them to have an ideal relationship. But at least Steven could keep the man company.
After exiting his dad’s room, Steven called his mother. She answered after six rings and when she did, lively conversation invaded his end of the line. He had to pull his phone away or risk popping an eardrum.
“Yes, Steven? Hold on. Let me—it’s my son—Steven, hold on a sec, let me find someplace quieter—I’ll be right back.”
After a few seconds of listening to the ambient chatter fade away, Steven eventually heard a “hello?” from his mom.
“Hi, can you hear me better?” Steven asked.
“Yes, sorry for all the noise. I’m at the launch party. Where are you?”
“I’m on my way. Just about to leave the hospital.”
“Oh, well get here soon.”
“Mom, you should see him. At least once.”
Cynthia went silent.
“Mom? Are you still there? I—“
“I’m here,” she interrupted. “I’ll think about it, okay? Just get your butt down here and help me deal with some of these horses’ asses.”
Steven couldn’t help but let out a laugh. “I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
Just as Steven hung up and pocketed his phone, the nurse who was in charge of taking care of his dad rushed past him, followed by a doctor. They entered Mark’s room. Steven followed them. The room was quiet moments ago, but now alarms and laconic shouting dominated the space. A river of red ran down Mark Abbott’s mouth.
“What’s happening? Is he okay?” Steven asked in a calm tone that defied the situation.
The nurse turned to usher Steven out. “It’s best you wait outside.”
Steven resisted, planting himself squarely and closing the door behind him. “I’ll stay out of the way.”
“Nurse Abby, I need you here,” implored the doctor, and the nurse moved back to a position between some medical equipment and Mark’s defeated body.
The hospital staff tried everything they could to bring Steven’s father back. Nothing worked. Mark Abbott was gone. When the doctor turned off the monitor and silence filled the air for a moment, Steven couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of relief. That man tormented him all his life. A burden had been lifted from Steven’s shoulders. He wouldn’t have to come back here for another day and listen to his father insult him anymore. Steven was finally free of such a toxic, abusive force in his life. Besides, Steven knew his was dad was in constant pain. At least the old man didn’t have to deal with this agony anymore.
Steven couldn’t help but blurt a thought aloud, “I can finally live my life now that this asshole is dead.”
Why did Steven just say that? What an awful thing to think, let alone say. Luckily, he wasn’t within earshot of anyone. He looked down at his hands. He couldn’t recognize them. He found his own skin and clothes unfamiliar to him. Like Steven’s soul had vacated and someone else’s spirit had promptly taken shelter in Steven’s body. He became dizzy and had to sit.
The doctor that was trying to resuscitate Mark found Steven.
“Mr. Abbott, I’m Dr. Jagadeesh,” she introduced.
He looked up at her but wasn’t able to see her in detail. She blended in with the rest of the hospital so well that he couldn’t make out her features. His brain was blurring her into the background. She looked like an out-of-focus mass in an out-of-focus white coat. Something must have gone wrong with his eyes. They didn’t want to focus. And Steven didn’t have the strength or willpower to make them work. Looking at her gave him a headache. His dilated gaze shifted away from the doctor to the bland tiles on the floor, hoping that would be easier on his brain.
When Dr. Jagadeesh continued to speak to Steven, her voice was muffled by some unseen force. As if the air around him had dampened and was interfering with her voice. He could barely make out what she was trying to tell him aside from “we couldn’t save him” and “we’ll hold him for a week while you make arrangements.”
Steven stood and gathered his strength to overcome the dullness of his senses. He had to get out of this place. It was sucking the life out of him.
“Thank you, doctor. I know you did everything you could,” he said to her before leaving. He was surprised he could even muster up that much.
Steven raced home to get dressed for his mother’s art show. He operated so hastily that he missed a button on his shirt and made the Windsor knot of his tie too loose. His shirt was poorly tucked into his pants and easily came undone from his waist on one side. He completely forgot to wear his belt. None of that seemed to matter to him though. Nothing mattered. Steven couldn’t feel anything. The stale aura of apathy was all around him. He knew he was compelled to go see his mom and congratulate her at her big event but he no longer knew why. Why did any of that matter? His father was gone. What was worse was that it was difficult for him to subdue those feelings of solace that kept bubbling up to the surface. Steven was unencumbered, at last, and he wasn’t even allowed to feel good about it since his father had to die for him to feel this way. Steven was disgusted by the cruelty that so suddenly took hold of him.
Steven drove to the gallery. When he got there and parked at the entrance, he couldn’t quite remember how he even got there. He realized that he must’ve driven himself, but he just couldn’t remember the specifics. His brain was too distracted to dedicate anything new to memory. He forgot to give his keys to the valet. The poor kid had to race up and block Steven’s path to get his keys.
When Steven entered the gallery, he immediately grabbed a glass of wine, downed it like it was oxygen, then grabbed another.
“There you are!” Steven’s mother, Cynthia, shouted from across the gallery, turning heads.
Steven would normally feel embarrassed when his mom did something like that–and she did it far more often after divorcing Mark. Steven remembers his mother as a much quieter person when she was with dad. Now, though, she didn’t give a second thought to yelling across a room. Cynthia became an entirely different person after she divorced Mark.
Mother ran over and gave her son an abrasive hug. Steven had to use his wrist as a gyroscope to steady his wine so it didn’t spill all over the place.
“I’m glad you’re here. Finally!” Cynthia proclaimed. “I’ve got so many people for you to meet.”
“Dad…passed. Just before I left the hospital.”
Cynthia’s face dropped. “I see…Come, let’s go talk in private.”
The two of them got permission from staff to talk amongst the coat check storage. It was a small space surrounded by curtains. Cynthia browsed the racks as Steven stood in silence. She pulled a large fur coat off its hanger.
“Jesus, this thing is probably worth more than my house.”
She put it on. It trailed on the floor.
“What do you think? Not my style.”
Steven clenched his fist. “How can you make jokes after the news I just told you?”
“I’m sorry, Steven. I’m no good in situations like this. I tend to distract myself and make silly jokes instead of processing things like an emotionally mature human being.”
“You didn’t use to do that.”
“What, you mean when I was with Mark? I didn’t use to do anything when I was around him out of fear it’d set him off in some way. Is that how you want me to act?”
“What I want is for you to care about the fact that my dad is dead.”
“I do care. I care a lot.”
“Doesn’t sound like it to me.”
Cynthia put the coat back on the rack. “Look, I care. I really do. That man was a big part of my life well before you knew him. I appreciate that he gave me you. Well, I mostly gave me you but he helped. It’s unfortunate but death is a part of life, sweetie. Look on the bright side, at least he’s not suffering anymore.”
“Right. You clearly never gave a shit about dad. That’s why you left him. That’s why you didn’t even bother to come to see him in the hospital. Too busy with your pretentious art bullshit.”
“How fucking dare you,” Cynthia spat. “Steven, you don’t have a goddamn clue how I feel right now or at any given moment. You know why? Because you never ask me. Just because I’m not acting the way you’d like me to, doesn’t mean I’m not sad about it. And you don’t have the right to speak to me that way. You’re way out of line here.”
Steven stomped toward his mother. “All you had to do was fucking call the guy. Just once. Just to say goodbye. And you couldn’t even do that. Please don’t act like you cared about the man.”
Cynthia stepped toward her son in kind. “Don’t lecture me about my own feelings, Steven. You don’t get to do that. But since you seem so interested in how I feel all of a sudden, let me tell you. That man was a bitter asshole who insulted, threatened, and manipulated me at every turn. He mentally and emotionally abused me, Steven. I know he hurt you, too. I’m just sorry I was too weak to do anything about it. You want to know how I’m feeling? Glad. I loved the man but I’m glad he’s dead.”
“Fuck you!” Steven screamed. “How can you say that about him? The man is dead and you’re talking shit about him. How fair is that? He doesn’t even have a chance to defend himself. You’re an awful human being.”
A worried staff member pulled back a curtain and glanced at the two of them. “Everything okay in here?”
“Yes, peachy. He was just leaving,” Cynthia said, making her way toward the drawn curtain. She stopped before exiting and tilted her head back to Steven. “You’re no longer welcome here. Either leave or I’ll have security remove you.”
“You’re a heartless—“
“I know you’re not yourself right now,” Cynthia interrupted, “and that’s understandable. But I’ve waited my whole life for the day that my art would be shown. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what you think of me right now. I’m not going to let you or Mark or anyone ruin this day for me. After you’ve cooled down, let me know if you still want to talk.”
With that, Cynthia left to go rejoin the party.
The staff member held out their hand. “I can take your ticket and bring you your coat, sir.”
“I didn’t bring one,” Steven replied and then trudged his way out of the building. Yet another place he had to escape before it devoured what was left of his energy.
Steven got back to his apartment, flung his jacket and tie over the back of the couch, and opened an expensive bottle of scotch he was saving for a special occasion. He held his glass of ambrosia to the sky and inspected the caramel color of the liquor in the light.
“Here’s to you, dad.” He sucked the scotch down.
One glass turned into two, two to three, and three to four. He wallowed in thoughts of failure. Maybe his dad was right. He had no family of his own, a boring, soul-sucking job, and no true friends. At least he had a dog. An old labrador named Daisy who did more sleeping than running around these days. She was a good girl and he made sure she was living her best life. No, his dad wasn’t right. If he could do one thing right, take care of one other life, and love his pet just as much as she loves her person, he was all right. He had Daisy and he had his mom. He had hope. Why did he talk to his mom that way? She didn’t deserve that at all. She was right, he was out of line. He was an idiot who didn’t consider her feelings about this, and not just while Mark was dying in the hospital. Steven realized he had never had a real conversation about dad with his mom. He never asked her how she felt about anything—about what she went through. He never expressed his love and gratitude toward her. She was there for him all the time but he wasn’t there for her.
Even though he stopped talking to his dad years ago, Steven came running to the man’s side the moment his health started to fade. When had he ever done anything like that for his mom? Never. When Cynthia and Mark got divorced, Steven mostly stayed out of it. When Cynthia was struggling financially and trying to make a new life for herself, Steven wasn’t there for her. When Cynthia was trying to break into the art scene and was no doubt facing challenges, Steven didn’t talk to her about it. He was there but not there. He’d have dinner or coffee with his mom every so often but never talked about any of these things with her. He had been a terrible son. But unlike with his dad, it wasn’t too late to fix things with his mom. Whatever it took, he would make things right.
On glass seven, he called Cynthia. Voicemail. “This is Cynthia Woods, leave a message after the beep. Beep. Hah, just kidding—here comes the real one.”
Steven was caught off guard by hearing the surname “Woods,” thinking he somehow accidentally dialed the wrong person in his inebriated state. It took a moment for him to remember that that was his mom’s maiden name. The loud digital beep of the voicemail sobered him up a bit. Not enough for him to appear lucid while leaving this voicemail, however.
“Hi…mom, It’s me—It’s your Steven. But you already knew that,” he slurred. “I’m sure you’re still at your art painting show. I’m calling…I’m calling to tell you I’m sor—I’m sorry for how I acted. I’m going to be busy making arrangements for dad’s funeral but I want to see you. To talk. You name the time and the palace—place. That is if you still want to see me. I understand if not. Anyway, bye mom. I love you.”
Steven dropped his phone beside him on his couch and fell asleep soon after turning on the television. He woke up the next day with a pounding headache, somehow having made it to his bed at some point in the night. While taking headache medication with his morning coffee, he noticed he had a voicemail from Cynthia.
Her response was simple. “I understand. I’d love to meet and talk through this. Let’s have coffee this afternoon—say Victrola Coffee Shop at two o’clock? They have the best multigrain muffins there.”
Cynthia got there early and grabbed a small table them. Steven got there ten minutes late and waited in line. They shared a nod from across the cafe. He ordered her a double espresso and a muffin and a black coffee for himself. That was their ritual. She’d get the table, he’d get the drinks. He always knew what his mom wanted by her reaction to him entering. If she nodded as she just did, she wanted a double espresso. A wave meant it was a cappuccino kind of day. A smile signaled she’d like a latte. Steven was always a black coffee person. He liked to keep things simple.
He sat the drinks and muffin down first, then sat himself down promptly thereafter.
Cynthia chucked while picking at the muffin. “I don’t know how you always do it.”
Steven met her with a quizzical look.
“How do you always know what type of drink I want? It’s like you can read my mind. But only the part of my mind that wants coffee.”
“I have a system,” Steven replied with a smirk.
“Tell me, what is this system? Is it something I do? Some vibe I give off that when you see me, my appearance screams ‘I need a double-shot today!’”
“I’ll never tell,” Steven replied with a smile.
Cynthia lightly stirred her small drink with its accompanying spoon. “So…”
“So…” Steven echoed.
“I was happy to get your voicemail. Were you drunk?”
Steven nodded. “A little.”
Cynthia inspected her son more thoroughly. “You poor thing, you must be hungover. Drink plenty of water.”
“Mom, you don’t have to lecture me about hydrating. I’m not in my twenties anymore.”
“I know you’re not. That’s my point. That’s why you need to drink more water. Being hungover in your thirties is twice as hard as your twenties. Speaking from experience, here.”
“All right, all right,” Steven said and poured a glass of water from a pitcher that was stationed on the table and took a drink.
“So about your dad—“ Cynthia started but Steven held up his finger while gulping down the entire glass of water.
Steven cleared his throat and poured another glass. “You weren’t kidding. I do need to drink more water.”
They snort laughed in harmony.
“I’m sorry,” Steven added.
“I forgive you.”
“I remember last night just being so angry at you—“
Cynthia interrupted, “We don’t need to get into it. I get it. I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have been so crude last night. Especially so soon after your father had passed.”
“Mom, I realize now why I was so mad at you. It wasn’t because of what you had said about dad. It was because I had felt the same way.” Steven looked down at his hands. They were familiar to him this time. “You know what I said to myself as soon as he went? I said, ‘I can finally live my life now that this asshole is dead.’ Those words just came out without a thought. It was like an impulse. I don’t know what came over me. I was mad at myself and I took that out on you.”
Cynthia took a sip of her drink. “I said something similar when I divorced your dad, truth be told.”
“I’m so sorry. I missed your big opening and everything.”
“Hey, I already forgave you. You don’t have to keep apologizing, okay?”
Steven nodded and sipped his coffee. “So, how did everything go last night?”
“Amazing! I made a ton of money. I know art shouldn’t be about the money but it felt so good that people wanted to pay huge sums of cash for my work. Feels like I’ve finally made it.”
Steven saw a light in his mom’s eyes that he had never seen before. Maybe she had that passion last night and he just wasn’t in a place to notice it. Regardless, there was a spark. A power he admired. He loved seeing his mom happy. She deserved happiness.
They spent hours chatting about everything under the sun. Art, next steps, career goals, thoughts, feelings, Mark’s many idiosyncrasies, funeral arrangements—no topic was off the table. They stayed for so long that Cynthia ordered another drink.
“Let me know how I can help with your father’s memorial service. I went through all that when your grandpa died, and again when your grandma died. At my age, I’m starting to attend more wakes than parties.”
Steven laughed. “Thanks, mom, I will…I do actually have a favor to ask. I understand things were hard between you two, but—“
“I’ll be at the funeral. Right there beside you,” Cynthia promised, anticipating what her son was about to ask.
“…Thanks, mom.” Steven traced the line of his coffee cup with his fingertip for a moment, then let out a sigh. “I can’t believe I missed your big art opening.”
“Stop worrying, there’ll be many others.”
“But this was your debut opening! You only get one.”
“Tell you what, I’ll give you a special tour. Just the two of us. You probably wouldn’t have liked having to rub elbows with all those hoity-toity vapid husks of humanity anyway.”
“I thought you said you had a bunch of people for me to meet?”
“Oh, I just said that aloud in front of them to make them feel special. If they feel more special, they’ll feel more obliged to drop big bucks on my art.”
“Mom, I’ve never seen this side of you before. I like it.”
Cynthia leaned back. “Get used to it. I’m finding new sides of myself every day. I even surprise myself sometimes. I’ve learned to just embrace my chaos and try to work some of that energy into my art.”
“Mom, I’m proud of you. I hope you know that.”
“Oh, stop. You’re going to make me cry. I don’t like crying in public.” Cynthia sucked down her new espresso in one gulp. ”But I appreciate you saying that.”
Two weeks later, mother and son attended Mark’s funeral. Steven went through his father’s address book and sent out invitations to nearly a hundred people—most of whom he had never met. He and Cynthia were the only two people to show up.
Steven stood in front of his father’s open casket and prepared to deliver his eulogy to an audience of one.
“I had a complicated relationship with my father,” Steven began, “we spent most of our time arguing, and when we weren’t arguing, he was busy telling me about how much of a screw-up I was. Regardless of his faults, there was a good side to him. My father provided for me. I never went without clothes, shelter, or a meal. He supported me through college and then some. He paid for my deposit on my apartment when I couldn’t afford it. And he did so without question. I remember him telling me not to pay him back. To save my money for something else. For that support, I am grateful.
Steven swallowed and continued, “This is the part in the eulogy where I was going to say, ‘There are a lot of faces out there that are unfamiliar to me and I’d like to hear stories about how you know my father…’ but since you’re the only one here, I’ll move on.”
Cynthia stood. “I’d like to share a story about your dad.”
Steven nodded and sat down and Cynthia stood and took his place.
She cleared her throat. “This was a few years before I had you. Forty-five years ago, to be exact. Oh god, I’m so old. Anyway, I was coming back from seeing your grandparents. Your dad couldn’t go because he had work that he couldn’t get out of. On my way back home, my car broke down. I was fifty miles or more away from the nearest town. I had no idea what to do. I called your dad from an emergency phone on the highway, back when they had those emergency call boxes. I was in shambles. I don’t know how your dad even understood what I was saying I was sobbing so much.
“I remember he let me cry and cry, and when I was finally done crying, he gently asked where I was. I told him and he said, ‘Don’t call a tow truck, just stay right there. I’ll be there in an hour.’ He showed up forty-five minutes later driving someone’s tow truck. I don’t know where he even got that behemoth of a vehicle from. He hitched the car up and we were off.
“The whole way home he was talking about how sorry he was for not doing a good enough check-up on the car before I drove it. He told me that he failed me. I didn’t think it was a big deal but Mark felt like he had betrayed me in some way and in his eyes, acquiring a tow truck to personally haul me and our hunk of junk home was his way of making up for it. I’d never seen him like that before.
“I still to this day don’t understand why he took that so personally, but I did take one thing away from that experience. Mark did cause the ones he loved pain, but he still cared about us in his own way. I’m not saying this to excuse the bad things he did. But rather to show that there’s still kindness in everyone somewhere, they just need to open up their hearts a bit more. I wish I could’ve helped your father deal with his anger issues, but I’m no therapist. Hell, I can barely take care of myself. When Mark and I divorced, I could only think of the bad memories. The hurt he caused me. And you, Steven. But over time, I began to think of him less and less until, after a few years, I didn’t think about him at all. Now that he’s gone, I’ll probably start thinking about him again. But now, I’ll think more about the good times we had.”
Steven and Cynthia traveled from the observance to the cemetery plot where Mark is to be laid to rest in a family plot beside his parents—Steven’s grandparents. A priest quoted some unfamiliar Bible passage and then Mark’s body was lowered into the ground. Steven and Cynthia threw clumps of fresh soil into the grave. The shower of dirt resonated with deep thuds against the fine oak of Mark’s casket. Cynthia put her arm around her boy and he reciprocated. The two of them walked toward their respective cars side-by-side in one another’s arms.
“I’ll call you to set up a time when I can give you a personal art tour,” Cynthia stated.
“Mom, you don’t have to do that. I have some time off next week, I’ll just go see it then.”
“Then you’ll have to see it with all the riff-raff. Nonsense.”
“Okay, okay.” Steven chuckled, then grew more serious. “Thanks for coming. Would’ve sucked for me to have to do this alone.”
“Of course. It’s a shame nobody else came. I would’ve thought your cousins would’ve at least attended to see if they got any money left to them in your dad’s will.”
“I think they knew all the hospital bills left dad and me pretty much broke.”
Cynthia sighed and hugged her son. “We’re going to talk about that, too. Now that I’m a big-shot artist, I have a bit of money. Let me help.”
“Don’t worry about it. My bank account will recover.”
“I think you’re under the impression that I was asking to help you. Let me rephrase for your edification: I’m helping.”
Steven smiled. “Yet another new side of you.”
Cynthia gave Steven a confident smirk from the side of her face.
“I know,” Steven followed up, “I’ll get used to it.”
Steven could feel his mom’s energy shine sanguine. “Hey, schedule some time off from your soul-crushing job,” Cynthia ordered. “Let’s go on a trip together. Just you and me.”
“Mom, I can’t take time—“
“Again, I’m not asking,” Cynthia interjected. “We need this. You need this. Let’s go on a vacation somewhere. Wherever you want. My treat.”
Steven thought for a moment. “…All right, let’s do it.”
They hugged again and departed. Steven spent most of that evening relaxing on his couch with Daisy, his snoozing chocolate-brown dog.
“You’re all I need, at least for now. You and mom,” Steven whispered to his dog as she snored, head in Steven’s lap.
Steven stopped for a moment to reflect on whether he truly meant what he just said. Was he just a recluse? Maybe. Did he want to share his life with another person someday? Also a maybe. But was he going to slog through the muck and mire that is the modern dating scene? God, no. He could do with more friends, but other than that, Steven was happy with his life the way it was.