“My father was still making plans, and little plans were one way he expressed his love of life.”
In the final year of my father’s life, for an hour or so, we visited the football fields of my old high school. That weekend he wanted to watch the senior team play against its traditional rivals, an older and wealthier school in the next valley. It wasn’t the kind of outing he usually suggested: We tended to stay at home whenever I spent the weekend with my parents. If we left the house, we went for a meal at the local Hellenic club, an embassy-like building tricked out with a colonnade and pediment and Greek sculptures mounted on the roof. The ostentation of the place always amused my father. At the time he had pancreatic cancer and we, his family, all knew he didn’t have much longer to live—he was over the edge and we were watching him disappear.
I was prepared to go anywhere he liked, and that particular weekend he wanted to watch schoolboy rugby. He got in the car and pulled on woolen gloves; my father said he had good memories of watching me play football on Saturday mornings. By this stage his clothes no longer fit him—apart from gloves and shoes—but he wasn’t bothered enough to buy new things, said it was a waste of money. With every few steps he’d hitch up his jeans. Sometimes he touched the side of his stomach, where he wore a drainage bag for bile fluid. The tube and bag didn’t bother him anymore, he said.
My father shivered through the first half of the game, pacing back and forth. That day was icy and windy, and the wind was scented with mud from the playing field. I bought him a cheese sandwich, which he didn’t touch. My eyes moved between him and the field. More than once I asked if he wanted to leave, and I kept thinking that maybe he should be admitted to the hospital and fed through a tube, until he gained weight and gathered some strength. That might buy us some time. He was in peril and we had to do something; I thought, there must be something we could do to save him from this cancer. During the break we sat in the car with the engine running, the heater turned on, before returning to the sideline.
The home side, my old high school, played in a blue jersey; the away team was in white. At almost every opportunity the white side sent the ball to a boy playing on the wing, who was so big he looked out of position. When he received the ball he tried to run over the top of his opposing player, and often this strategy succeeded and he scored, to mild and begrudging applause. But as the game went on the blue side got better at bringing down the giant boy, and he grew frustrated, and would lift his knees higher and use his palm to wildly strike out at tacklers. The game had turned into something else—a contest between this outsized kid and a home side trying to stop him. With total commitment his opposing number, a skinny boy on the blue team, threw himself at the side of the big kid’s knees, but he bounced off and rolled across the sideline, throwing out trails of dirt, as people applauded again for the large boy, who scored and made a victorious whooping sound and tossed the ball in the air like professional players do.
My father rubbed his hands and remarked on the cold. “We should’ve brought a flask of whiskey and some cups,” he said. “If we do this again, we’ll bring something like that.”
This surprised me, because he wasn’t a big drinker, and he didn’t like whiskey, and he didn’t to my knowledge own a flask, and before that day, if someone had produced a flask of whiskey on the sideline at a game of schoolboy rugby, I bet he would have shook his head, thought it was unseemly and out of place. Where were these ideas of his coming from? Then he told me that he wanted to go look at some bricks, after the game; he hadn’t mentioned this before. I asked what he wanted to do with these bricks, and he said he was thinking about building an outdoor oven, wood-fired, nothing too big. Maybe I could help.
“You know the kind,” he said, without looking at me; he was still watching the game. Yes, I knew the kind, and I knew there would never be an outdoor oven in his backyard. He didn’t want to buy the bricks that day, he said, just compare prices. My father was still making plans, and little plans were one way he expressed his love of life. The home side scored and my father whistled with his fingers, his mouth silvery with fillings.
There was enough time in the game for the big kid to take a final run with the ball, and this time he was caught by his opposing number, the skinny boy again, and the pair of them tipped over the sideline and began pushing and grabbing hold of each other, swearing through mouthguards; the aggression was half-hearted, pointless; the winner of the game was beyond doubt, now, and there was nothing much to quarrel over. Moving towards the two boys, my father lifted his hand as if to pacify them, and he seemed almost to laugh.
Andrew Pippos lives in Sydney. His writing has appeared in The Millions, Tin House, N+1, Okey-Panky and Meanjin. Twitter: @andrewpippos