Updated: Sep 15, 2021
I wonder what I thought that first time—that first day when I found myself sitting on a cement picnic bench, my feet sporadically swinging since my legs were still too short to reach the ground, waiting behind McDonald’s at one of the few outside tables. Perhaps I thought that we were lucky to have snagged a table, which was probably why I sat outside alone. Most likely, I watched the cars roll by as they cycled slowly through the drive-through, emitting clouds of exhaust in passing. It must have been early February, which means the sky was still raw. Wild and grey from a recent storm perhaps. Angry that the sun had slipped away. Along the periphery, bare trees whistled with the wind, their outline sharp against the sky. What could have been my emotions as I continued to sit there, waiting? Trepidation? Uncertainty? A solidification of the recent understanding that my father was a virtual stranger? Except he had taken me to McDonald’s, and that meant something. So perhaps I felt anticipation as well for the food we would soon be sharing. And then one of the double glass doors swung open, allowing my father to emerge, holding aloft the red plastic tray laden with burgers and fries. He placed it gently on the table between us, sat down, and looked across at me. It very well could have been the first time he’d truly seen me--the second of his four daughters. He picked up a burger and set it before me. With that, the Saturday lunches began.
He never took us anywhere fancy. That wasn’t the point. To be honest, the point was to give us kids a chance to reconnect with our dad. Or perhaps not reconnect. Just connect. After years of living with a shadow so engrossed in his newspapers and gin that he hardly registered he had children, a wife, a life outside his frosted gin glass which always seemed shaped out of smoke, I found it unsettling to see my father actually present. Sober. Who was this man who looked across the cement table at me, quietly asking me if my hamburger was okay? But perhaps he never asked me that. Perhaps we ate in silence. To be honest, my recollections of those lunches are hazy at best. Even still, I suspect that the memory of that time, that period, that transition from absence to presence would be gone completely if I hadn’t repeated the words so frequently over the years through the stories that I’ve written. It’s an old and tired story for me. But, for you, it’s entirely new.
Our lunches began the year I turned nine—after his intervention, after his one-month stay in rehab. I had thought at the time his intervention was a certainty. We asked my father to recover, and so he did. It was only much later that I understood how rare it was, how hard it was for him to stay sober, especially with the challenges he would soon face. And with his newfound sobriety came a determination to connect with his kids, or perhaps it was the counselor’s suggestion that he try to connect with his kids. That’s where the trips to McDonald’s came in, and when my mother first told us of the arrangement, my sisters and I were eager to go. The fact that the lunches included my father seemed an afterthought—though the rules were straightforward enough.
Once a month, he would take one of his children to McDonald’s. It could have been anywhere, really, we had a choice of every fast food restaurant imaginable, but we always chose McDonald’s without fail. My father wasn’t great with the details, so my older sister and I often kept track of each child’s turn. Although it would have been much simpler for us to write a schedule down, it never occurred to any of us to do so. And it was often we who reminded him of the upcoming lunch, especially as we grew older. We weren’t interested in getting to know him. We were interested in the treat. A Saturday would roll around, and one of us would get an urge for a Quarter Pounder with cheese, fries, and a chocolate shake, which was entirely too much food, but he always agreed to it.
“Dad,” one of us would say, “I think it’s my turn! It’s July. This is my month. Can we go to McDonald’s today?”
Without fail, he acquiesced. I see now that the treat was needed. It was the only way I was willing to drive alone with him in his Camaro, for somewhere in the brief counseling that my older sister and I endured while he was in the hospital recovering, I had learned that alcoholics often crash their cars. At nine and ten, especially, I lived with this strange duality—at once believing he was sober but also convinced he couldn’t possibly stop drinking, so I clutched the car handle tightly as we drove the two miles to the closest McDonald’s, the thought of that cheeseburger the only thing that kept me in the car. Because the lunches were silent, mostly. Uncomfortable, at first. They would have been so much easier if we had gone with our father in pairs. But, again, that wasn’t the point.
An unspoken rule was to share the wealth of those lunches with the other sisters, though I was by far the stingiest in that area. I wanted all of my fries for myself. Even still, upon my return, I would dutifully hand out a single fry to each sister, which she would gobble up with enthusiasm even though the fry was hard and cold. Not worth the effort, really, but I had honored our agreement to the letter. At the age of five, my youngest sister was much more generous. In the month when she came home from her lunch, she sat cross-legged on the faded green carpet, unpacking her fries and dividing them carefully into three equal piles for the rest of us, while we hovered over her, impatient with her slow counting. We would have eaten them, too, if our mother hadn’t walked by, witnessed the transaction, and scooped the fries off the floor before dumping them in the garbage.
“You’re not eating off the floor,” she said before disappearing into the next room where my father had retreated, smoking a cigarette while he worked on a crossword puzzle, his children and the experience forgotten.
That was the routine. Until it wasn’t.
This is the part that is difficult to write—not because I’m incapable of writing it or because I haven’t spent years and years and years writing some version of the past. It’s difficult because I’ve learned that people don’t really hear. Don’t really see. They put in place holders for the parts that make them uncomfortable so that the story emerges in their minds as something that is simpler, whitewashed, more palatable, less horrific. And, with that, they diminish a story that I don’t wish to be diminished.
This is where the cancer comes in, and even this isn’t the hard part. We’ve all heard the stories, seen the movies, witnessed the various ways cancer can consume a person until he’s gone. And I need you to know that for us—my three sisters and me—what happened next was the rest of our childhood. And because it happened during childhood, because it was the only cancer we’d experienced tangibly, we thought his treatment was normal. We always took his recovery as a given.
I’ve since learned that it is not normal to cut out the bottom of a man’s mouth, including part of his jawbone and several teeth, put in a skin graft, sew down his tongue, and leave the tongue sewn done for a year so that when his tongue is finally released, he no longer has the ability to speak clearly. I’ve learned that this means the cancer is extreme. And he endured all that without pain medication, clenching onto his sobriety with every passing day. For his wife. For his children. For himself. I’ve learned that now. But I didn’t understand all that at the time. He seemed to be doing okay—even though he also endured eight reconstructive surgeries after the initial procedure. And when it seemed he had recovered enough, I remembered about McDonald’s. Though it had been several years since the routine had been disrupted, I remembered it was my turn.
“Dad,” I said. “Can we go to McDonald’s today? It’s May. It’s my turn.”
He looked up from his crossword at the kitchen table, glanced over at my mother, then looked back at me. Though his words were probably hard for most people to understand, I’d learned to decipher his new version of English. “Maybe another time.”
“Come on, Dad…” I wheedled. I pleaded. I was twelve and focused on the treat.
“Okay.” He sighed, rising from the table and grabbing his keys from a repurposed ashtray on the repurposed bar. With that, we headed out to his Camaro, which I no longer approached with trepidation. It had taken me a couple of years, but I finally believed everything would be okay so that it almost seemed natural to open the car door and enter the passenger side before we journeyed the two miles to McDonald’s. At some point, I had accepted him into my life. I had accepted him as my dad.
Of all our lunches, this is the one I will always remember. It’s easy to do so because it was our last, so I don’t confuse it with other times or other meals. This is the one where I won’t force myself to look away, and I recall details that may or may not be real, which doesn’t matter because the most important ones are.
It feels as though the day was sunny as I sat at the cement picnic table waiting for our food while my dad was inside ordering. I’d like to think the day was sunny with streaks of clouds painting the horizon and a light breeze filtering through the trees. They were all eucalyptus—so tall and fragrant. It’s the perfume that wafted all throughout my childhood. It is the perfume of my past. Around me, several brown sparrows hopped sporadically in search of fallen fries from the family who had vacated the table before us, and then my dad returned with our meals laid out on a red plastic tray. He’d ordered two of everything. Two Quarter Pounders with cheese. Two fries. Perhaps only one chocolate shake for me. And I remember eating this meal with him, enjoying this meal with him, so pleased with myself for thinking it was my turn because, really, it had been so long since his last McDonald’s excursion that no one really knew whose turn it truly was. I bit into my Quarter Pounder, which tasted as juicy and cheesy as I had anticipated.
I don’t know when I first noticed the quiet. After all, it wasn’t unusual to eat a meal with him in silence. He could be an incredibly quiet man. But at some point, I looked across the cement table at my dad and the hamburger before him that remained mostly uneaten. That’s when I realized that each mouthful was a struggle for him. He chewed and chewed, but he really couldn’t swallow—it was as if his throat was rejecting his meal. I could see that he was choking in the effort to get the bite down. I could see that it took him a really long time to consume even a portion of his burger, and I suddenly regretted pushing him into taking me. But what got me—what really hurt—was the tiny piece of American cheese that I saw tangled in his nose hair. I dropped my Quarter Pounder back into its paper carton, closed the lid, and stared at that piece of cheese, unable to bring myself to tell him about it. But I couldn’t look away from it either. He must have somehow choked it up through his nasal passage. I don’t think I understood the severity of what he’d gone through until that moment.
The thing about extreme surgeries or extreme illnesses—anything extreme, really—is that you have to pretend they aren’t extreme. You have to act as if what you witness is normal even as you quietly scream on the inside, knowing you do not have the power to change things.
That was the day I started to scream. Or at least, I wish I could say that was the day. Except it was just a piece of cheese, and I was only twelve years old. I had not developed the skills yet to act as if it were normal to change my father’s IV while discussing my high school English paper. I had not developed clinical eyes that could ignore the massive tumor protruding from the side of his neck, sloughing off in chunks each night as my mother cleaned it. I had not yet developed the ability to smother my own tears. That would come later.
Instead, I waited patiently for him to finish his burger as best as he could while I quietly tossed fries to the sparrows, probably filling the emptiness with idle chatter so that he wouldn’t notice the silence. When he signaled that he was ready to return home, I gathered the trash as I stood and thanked him for the meal, knowing I would never suggest a Saturday at McDonald’s again.