We're sitting on my father's bed in silence. The television we're all staring at is on mute. Dribble, dribble, shoot, miss. My mother has figured out how to plug the camcorder into the TV so that my dad can watch my basketball practice she filmed two days ago.
My dad lies in bed, bandages wrapped around his decaying neck, almost lifeless, except for the occasional movement of his eyes. This is what it's like to have throat cancer.
It's kinda awkward—staring at the TV screen without sound. Not to mention, I'm a foot shorter than all the other players and am pretty bad. Like really bad. I wish I could crack a joke. "Guess I should've stuck to ballet, huh, Dad?" I'd say. And he'd respond with a witty comeback, most likely accompanied by jazz hands. But I can't. Any sound—even the voice of his 9-year-old daughter—is too painful for him to hear. We used to be able to play silent cards, but even that has become unbearable.
I gently kiss my father goodbye on his forehead, far enough from the bandages, far enough from the cancer. I feel all hollowed out. Why'd we even come here in the first place?
When I return home to my mom's, I have an email. It's from him.
"You should have stuck to ballet ; )
P.S. Blue punch buggy. No punch backs. Linda saw one the other day."
There he was! My dad! Not that mummy I'd just seen. This was him—my warm, funny, honest dad. Yes, Linda, his nurse, most likely helped him type it, but I don't care. It's just me and him. I immediately want to drive to the grocery store with my mom so I can spot a Volkswagen Bug and email him back.
There's always a Before the Cancer and After the Cancer. After the cancer, my dad and I would primarily communicate through text. Before the cancer, it was through dancing and laughing and, most of all, cooking.
Chef Kenny is what I called him, always in a fake Italian accent. We'd blast the Stones while cooking chicken tetrazzini, lasagna or jambalaya. He'd sip scotch; I'd drink Coke. Let's just say that we weren't calm, thoughtful chefs. We were chaotic. We were dashers, why-the-hell-not-ers—a splash of this, a dollop of that—tasting as we went along.
After my parents' divorce, whenever we were alone in my dad's bachelor pad, cooking became an even stronger bond between us. There's no silence louder than a bored preteen sitting in a house that she didn't grow up in and doesn't particularly like, but add the clanking of pots and pans and aromas spilling out into the living room, and almost any space can become a home. The two of us would cook dinner, lay down a blanket in front of the TV and eat heaping bowls of Texas chili while watching "Austin Powers."
As I much as I loved my dad, it wasn't always easy being with him, particularly after the divorce. He was volatile on a good day, but the split stirred up even more anger. He'd sometimes lash out at me for no apparent reason, and I couldn't really count on him for much—except dinner. There was always dinner.
"Fettucine alfredo?" he'd ask, and I knew everything would be all right, at least for that moment.
After one particularly harsh blowup, I retreated to my room, confused as to what I had done to set him off. Thirty minutes later, he knocked on my door.
"Let's invent something. A pasta dish!" he said, full of warmth and charm, as if he was a different man.
So there we were, back in our kitchen. Shrimp, white wine, olive oil, garlic (so much garlic) and spaghetti. I boiled the pasta, while he worked on the sauce.
"You're humming," he said.
"That means you're happy," he answered.
"Yeah, I feel better," I said and smiled.
The dish was perfect. Sweet and tart, and oh so garlicky—just like my mother wouldn't like it. We named it Daddy's Shrimp Pasta.
"Can we make Daddy's pasta tonight?" I asked my mom on one of our After the Cancer evenings alone together.
"I don't know how to make it, sweetheart."
"Do you think Dad could type it up? And email it?"
"Um …" my mom stammered. "Typing's really hard for Dad these days."
"It's OK," I said and we ordered Saucy Thai for dinner instead.
Two weeks later, I woke up to an email. It was from my dad. I clicked open, and there it was: Daddy's Shrimp Pasta. The whole recipe was typed out for me; it even had serving instructions: "Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with warm, buttery bread."
"Enjoy!" was tacked onto the end.
It was the last email I ever got from my dad. He died three days later.
That was 17 years ago. I recently printed out the recipe and framed it. It sits on my desk in my apartment—a reminder of what I had as opposed to what I've lost. I make the dish for anyone I truly love, and today that's my boyfriend, Max.
"You're humming," he says, as I sauté the shrimp.
"I know," I say. "It means I'm happy."