THE BLOG
06/06/2013 02:28 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

On Brain Cancer, Ashtrays and Nostalgia

Olivia Newton-John's sister succumbed to brain cancer one month after her diagnosis.

My father, Phil Schneiderman, is a seven-year survivor, and I've had years to remember. My father, I recall, once had the precise memory of a chess player.

Yet, he never played chess seriously, and so became my model for a certain type of impatience: thinking beyond the next three moves was entirely possible, but impractical. Phil managed to careen with a mix of decisiveness and instinct through the other activities of modern life (chain smoking, cursing, business travel, etc.) with the same precision a grandmaster might have applied to his art, were his business the art of the immediate.

And so my youth is triangulated not by rooks and pawns, but by plastic ashtrays. These monochrome totems to a mid-twentieth century collision of plastic and color a testament to "The Jetsons," the hydrogen bomb, and the irradiated seed. In the small bathroom near the entrance foyer of our home in a Newark, DE subdivision, between my body, the toilet seat, and a particular ashtray atop the toilet -- this one bright Crayola yellow -- I can locate my past in the spectacular hues of memory.

I remember these ashtrays, one in each room of our home with fetishized longing. I don't smoke, and have always hated my father's two-pack per day habit. He took it up on 1959, as a 12-year-old hiding near the school track to indulge -- and smoked somewhere on the order of 350,000 cigarettes before he quit, cold turkey, in 1990. I enter the story in 1974, soon discovering the always-available cartons taking up refrigerator real estate and growing to loathe the clear-plastic wrapping band of each pack, with their single-colored rim line. These crinkled monstrosities frozen to the kitchen table like cockroaches smashed in pinches of mushed rice.

The ashtrays, though, remain linked not only with the great chain of ashes my father had produced, but also to his discourse -- at a word, at less than a word -- on the history of the British monarchy back to 1066, the minutiae of Civil War troop movements, or a sweeping historical survey of his beloved New York Mets.

Phil could use the precision of his memory to produce world (or baseball) history with a particularly Brooklyn-bred slant: the emergence of power from marginal beginnings (the Mets in 1969; the Wales-sprung House of Tudor), or the creeping multiculturalism of American society (Jewish families, his, in the predominately Italian section of Brooklyn; the effect of free blacks in the North upon Southern plantation policy). During his lectures, I learned how to smoke a topic, how to burn through it both chronologically, from tip to end, and chemically, through the mixture of the various carcinogens that would cause my eyes to water with silent wishes for the cessation of his speech, which often morphed into screeds against unacceptable social behaviors of the moment (mine, my sister's, our mother's) or the general stupidity of those who might process the world through vehicles other than the endlessly portable hues of his rainbow ash catchers.

When the primary voice in your home is the voice of the Father, constant and tyrannical in its sonic dominance, but also eloquent and Brooklyn-lyrical and insightful and crazily self-important, it could be flattering to ape the style in your home conversation: Phil speaks "at" you, and you successfully interrupt. After a successful insertion, I would feel that I belonged for a moment to the same universe as the ashtray, where my presence too had become a bright object necessary to Phil's existence.

Now, I find myself frustrated precisely by my father's lack of precision: His inability to speak for more than a few words in a string, his silent opening of a series of aphasic windows, his random-yet-persistent confusion of gender pronouns.

And so, with some hesitation, I play the song, "Suite: Judy Blues Eyes," from the Crosby, Stills, and Nash record already worn into its grooves by the time I recall the smell from the refrigerated cigarette cartons. At the first line, "It's getting to the point / where I'm no fun anymore," my dad has slipped into a nostalgia trance more powerful than the army of vertigo-producing anti-seizure medicines he takes in mega dose. He's back to the age where he reigned as speaker-in-chief, excused by the music from the necessity of having to speak. Listening to CSN allows him to revisit a space his precision diatribes might cook in an oven of silence, where his edges might perhaps be soothed and modified by that silence.

The second section begins: "Friday evening / Sunday in the afternoon" and my dad's eyes are almost teary; they've rolled back into the mist of time and the shade of memory. When the final section of the suite barrels forth with its famous "doo-doo-doo-da-doo," and the Spanish verse emerges from Stephen Stills' protracted delivery, Phil begins to sing, "doo-da-doo..." as best he can.

He is a person soothed as if ingesting a powerful soporific when I play on Tom Rush's The Circle Game a few days later. My dad smiles, and loses himself again in a box of old photographs he sees quite clearly but can no longer describe. When the song "The Circle Game" finally comes on -- well, he's a ball of soft putty -- and I know that this aspect of my childhood oddly replicated here, where a father listens to something other than himself, where he loses at least a few of angles for the length of the pop song, is a false as my memories of the smoke, the ashtrays, the bullying lectures that of course are real and omnipresent but also the fictional amplification of my own desperate attempts to remember his life -- our lives -- before brain cancer.

Nostalgia possesses a dangerous power. We remember what never existed; we map feelings we wish to have felt onto songs, objects and people whose real forms remain inaccessible. We love or condemn the past in degrees correlating only to our current state of remembrance. Nostalgia lets me love the man who raised me, now dead and gone, and lets me mourn for his loss. Nostalgia lets me blame my father for the way I remember him. It allows me place a desperate hold on his monologue stream that I often feel, perhaps wrongly, created a climate of verbal abuse, because now, today, my father is enfeebled, often shaky with wilting limbs or wet with submerged disquiet at his loss of control.

When he stands in the kitchen to tell me how to arrange the dishes in his dishwasher, when he grabs a soiled bowl and painstakingly places it directly in the space of another bowl, unable for a minute or so to recognize that the two bowls cannot occupy the same location, so too does his new personality, when I let it, cause the eventual displacement and softening of his old.

Toward the end of "The Circle Game," he enters a state of intense reverie. He nods and half closes his eyes, and for a moment I stop, too, to listen to the chorus: "And the seasons they go 'round and 'round / And the painted ponies go up and down / We're captive on the carousel of time." It's pretty, but I know a carnival trick when I hear one.

There are no seasons. No painted ponies. No lessons in the wheel of life and death and aging that can possibly keep me from having to wash my father in the shower tomorrow (while my mother, his caretaker, is away) or lift him with both arms from behind as he walks up a set of stairs before collapsing in his bed to watch 24-new channel so loud as that is as if we are in the middle of Syrian Civil War.

Oh, that's right. Cancer is a war.

No it's not. It's a fact.

I made need to deploy Tom Rush, or CSN, or (good god) Barry Manilow, but I would be a fool to listen too closely, to read too much into the significance of ancient ashtrays long gone, or to turn my dead father -- the one before cancer -- into either saint or tyrant or man whose old life has been stolen from him forever.

He's all of these things, and none, depending on how I feel about his condition. I am often overtaken by his disease, resentful of its costs to our family, or filled with affection for a person no longer able to care for himself. Yet I must remain clear headed: What I need to remember, no matter how I feel, is that at 10 am, in just a few minutes, I must deliver my dad his next set of pills.

These are the facts of cancer. The rest, however painful or wonderful or terrifying, is just the sound of an old pop song.