By Daniel McDermott
I’ve only brushed my teeth a handful of times since my father died two weeks ago. It’s as if, after passing, he shipped me his breath from the other side.
“I can tell,” my wife said. “It smells stale, and I never notice your breath.”
You see, dad owned his stale breath, would flaunt it at parties. He’d put his hand on your shoulder and laugh from the gut. His favorite meal was liver and onions. He snacked on sardines and week-old beef jerky. It was a rancid, scourging, farm-scented breath. Breath feared by mouthwash and loved by dogs. Without my dad’s breath there’s no telling how many more cheek kisses we would have exchanged, how many more cavities I would have endured.
“You don’t wanna end up smelling like your father,” Mom would say, handing me a brush topped with blue-striped gel.
“We don’t want you to have false teeth like your daddy,” the dentist would say, while demonstrating technique on some large plastic gums.
But my father’s breath is more than just liver and jerky, sardines and amber beer. It’s fishing trips, golf outings, proud smiles and graduation dinners. It’s the breath of all dads from the post-war generation, men who wear suits and jingle pockets full of change, men with high cholesterol and sodium-rich skin—meat and milk the vitamins of their time—who exist without doctors and who will die when they are damn well ready.
My father died before he was prepared, however. His internal clock was not set right. Seventy-five years, twenty-eight days and seven hours: ten years less than he expected, fifteen years less than his father.
It began months earlier, while towing a pull-cart at a golf course on Cape Cod, his sour breath huffing through thick salty air.
“I just collapsed,” dad said in the emergency room, “couldn’t even walk.”
They found cancer chewing away at his prostate, spreading rapidly outside what doctors called “the pod.” Cancer outside the pod is deadly, they added.
Two years later, two weeks ago, my father died in a hospital bed, in diapers, with a bald head and morphine under his tongue. Three days after that I stopped brushing my teeth, my dad’s breath delivered soon after—a spectral courier with a black-hooded uniform and a box full of plaque. No longer will I mine for embedded vegetable bits. The chalky film, the periodontal pockets, will flourish like a sun-laden garden, homage to all things patriarchal, a middle finger to the life-taking cancer. It’s an oral protest, a fluoride walkout, a reincarnation of breath that will persist as long as it must, until my father is returned with his hair still intact.
We all picture our fathers’ deaths: a bedside of grandchildren, a wide-grinning old man with no regrets a week shy of his 108th birthday, a sense of pride welling up in his eyes. You hold his hand, whisper “I love you, Dad” as he slowly drifts to sleep, and plan to honor his memory with the greatness of your life.
When I was still a skinny kid with pimples on my face and shorts above my knees, every practice putt I hit was to win the U.S. Open, The Masters, to excel at a game my father long revered. I’d be older in my mind, clean-shaven and handsome, a stroke better than Jack Nicklaus before thousands of cheering fans. I would nod to the crowd, look up and point at the sky. “Sadly, his father did not live to see this,” a slick-haired commentator would say. And dad was always there in the clouds, cherubic and clapping with minty fresh breath and no diapers in sight.
But that is not going to happen. I will never win the U.S. Open or any golf tournament. My father did not reach the century mark. He will never meet his grandchildren. I will never again see his winter-grey beard, never hear the tone-dropping concern in his voice when I am ill, never feel his handshake, never read his letters or ponder his advice.
But, one thing I can always have, is his breath.