The Firebird


Mariah Mottley


My dad is on the express train out of here, it turns out.


He’s been diagnosed with a primary malignant brain tumor, a stage 4 glioblastoma. He’s going to die. Shortly after the biopsy, he couldn’t walk. His next stop is hospice, then the hereafter. They say 6 to 12 weeks.

It’s abrupt. And clarifying. He hasn’t wanted to talk to anyone, but today I turned up the volume on his cellphone. The time for playing hard to get is over, I told him. “You’re not sick anymore, you’re dying.”

He is jocular. The brain tumor is going to kill him quicker than the diabetes, and quicker than the heart disease. He can have wine. He tells me, again, that treats from Burger King are welcome both at the hospital, where he is now, and at his future “parking space” at the hospice. Also, on the bright side, that bloodthirsty cardiologist will remain unsatisfied and never have a chance at splitting his sternum.

When was my deadline for this column, he wanted to know. An old newspaper man, he has an uncanny instinct for deadlines, could smell mine on me.

“I don’t know what to write, Dad,” I said. “It’s been so intense.”

My phone keeps ringing with calls from the friends he won’t speak to. So far today I have cried on the phone with men in LA, Maine, and Toronto, as well as a maritime lawyer from the 718 area code.

“I’m certainly not going to sue if you write about me,” he said, raising one eyebrow. He is wearing yellow socks with white treads on them for traction and teal hospital pants.

My father worked as a journalist his entire life, for a Hearst magazine, and for the shipping industry, among others. One of his co-workers nicknamed him “the Tongue” for his legendary interview skills, his ability to get anything out of anybody. He is one of the most exacting and fearsome line editors I’ve ever met. Even with cataracts, nothing ever gets by him, not double spaces, not missing apostrophes, nothing.

Tears prick my eyes at the thought of the dumb typos that I will create in the future world without him in it. His lip curls with satisfaction, watching me, enjoying that I am now the one responsible for producing copy.

“Whatever will get you to the deadline, dear, is fine with me. I want it known that I am making a dry-eyed departure, and that I don’t want a lot of mush. I keep seeing all these boxes with check marks, except for one at the end.”

I asked him what he meant. He explained that he had taken care of all his business. He’d finished his novel the day before entering the hospital, settled his legal affairs, and attended his birthday party, had a great meal: A steak that my husband grilled, and my chicken and biscuit casserole.


“It’s all fallen perfectly into place,” he said. “That party you threw for me. We couldn’t do that now. I can’t walk. The music, the DVDs, the writing, they are all slipping into the past. It’s all so strange to realize, I won’t ever go to the gas station again, or return books to the library. This has really been a pleasant place to live, you know. It has. I won’t see your house again, probably. But I’ll remember lying down in the grass between those big trees in the spring, and the sound of the horses when Lightning bites Fenia. I can see it all. There’s no sadness. My body is doing this. It’s coming from inside me.”

His words made me unbearably sad, Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief flashing in my mind. We have been through bargaining, denial, depression and rage. Today it is acceptance, with some sertraline and sarcasm swirled in. He won’t see those trees in spring again. He knows that.

I will go home, but he will not. I will hear the horses jostling one another for hay, he will not. I just cried and breathed, breathed and cried. It is pure pain, watching someone say goodbye to themselves, to the world. It hurt more than when he was angry and confused, and taking pot shots at me for being bossy.

He tells me that he could use some sharper disposable razors, and a Diet Pepsi. He has heard there is a vending machine nearby.

“Here,” he says, offering me a corner of his sheet, “Wipe your nose.” I grabbed my wallet, and the paper napkin off his lunch tray, found the vending machine. The soda hissed as I cracked it open.

The phone rang, the ringer obnoxiously loud. Area code 404, my only cousin, his nephew. “Answer it,” I told him. He did.


Originally from Manhattan, Mariah was educated in Massachusetts, Montana and Texas, often by failure. She lives with her husband and three children in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Mariah can be reached at



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