I was driving to the Taco Bell near our apartment, with nothing on my mind except all the delicious Mexican cuisine I was about to eat, when I got a call on my phone. The screen read “Dad.” I picked up the phone and said “Hey Dad” but it wasn’t Dad at all. It was Dad’s fiancé Karen.
Karen said “I’m with your father. He’s in the hospital.”
And I thought “Well, this is it.” This is what happens. Your parents get old. They have strokes. They get heart attacks. The pain becomes too much. You take them off life-support. Then you bury them in the cold, unforgiving earth and that’s that.
Then it happens to you.
Then it happens to your kids.
And then one day the sun blows up and the universe dies and then it’s nothing but darkness and silence forever, for this is the brutal procession of death we call life.
Then I heard Karen say “He chopped off his toe!”
I said “what?”
She said “His toe! The big one. Your father got it caught in one of the machines. ” Then she chuckled and said “I swear, that man…”
Later, while I’m telling Jamie the story of how Dad chopped his toe off, I get two texts from Dad’s phone. The first one is an overexposed close-up of a pearl white bone surrounded by what looks like gray and white chicken flesh. The second text says: “This is my toe.”
“I guess Dad got his phone back” I say.
“Oh did he text you?” says Jamie.
I say “He sent me a picture of his chopped off toe. Wanna see?”
And Jamie, through a mouthful of chalupa, says “I will literally kill you if you try and show me a picture of your dad’s chopped off toe.”
I didn’t understand how she could fail to be even a little curious. How often do you get to see your in-law’s bones? Anyway, I respected her wishes.
Later that night, Dad called me from the hospital.
“Did you get the picture I sent?” he asked.
I said “Yes. It made me want to throw up.”
“Ha ha ha” he said. “Well, how often do you get to see your old man’s toe bone?” I said “That’s what I thought!” Then I said “How do you feel?”
He told me he was okay. He was in a lot of pain but it was getting better. He said it was a workplace accident and he was eligible for workers comp and time off. He would be fine, he said. They could reattach it. He praised the factory that ripped off his toe for being so accommodating. He said these things happen.
I told him I was scared when Karen called him from his phone and told me he was in the hospital.
He sighed and said “Well, I can’t blame you for that. I guess I’ve put you all through a lot over the years.”
Then my dad revisited the bad times with me. There was a long time when I was a kid when my dad would drink too much or take pills and go missing for weeks. Sometimes nobody knew where he was, and sometimes I just wasn’t allowed to know. Jail, rehab, benders, car crashes, affairs - in and out, in and out. He’d reappear weeks later with bruises, different clothes, new facial hair, hollow eyes in which I saw nothing of the Dad I knew. It was a time of chaos and tears. It was a time when it felt like we lived on the edge of a cliff. These were the worst years of our lives.
How could I tell him I didn’t think of any of that? That it didn’t even cross my mind?
How could I possibly tell my father that I didn’t think he had it in him anymore? That he was too old? That I didn’t believe he had the energy to ruin our lives even if he wanted to? How could I admit that when Karen called on his phone from the hospital, I assumed he was dying of some sad old man disease?
It would be cruel. So I said nothing. Instead we just sat there, connected by an invisible satellite signal, marinating in the swampy black mire of the past.
And then we said our goodbyes.
And now to suture this small but essential bit on the end:
I have spent so many words on death and disease and dismemberment and addiction and chaos and jail and sad childhoods that you might miss that this whole story is just one long line of good things happening, one after another.
You’d be forgiven. We could all use a dose of forgiveness, I think.
Dad got better. I grew up. We talk on the phone. We laugh. We both have people who love us in our lives. I got to eat a Gordita Supreme and Dad’s toe fell off - sure - but they can reattach it. Science can do incredible things now. We get to live in the world of the future, where if your toe falls off they can just pop it right back on.
Mitch Russell is a wildly famous author operating under a pseudonym. Don’t tell anyone. You can read his junk in Rejection Letters and Functionally Dead.