Their mom gives them a wry smile and says, "Guys, I know this isn't how you want to spend your afternoons, but just go with it, okay?"
And Alex smiles and nods along with her brother, and doesn't say, but I love Dad's stories. I always have. And she does love her dad's stories, she has since she was a little kid and he'd tell her bedtime stories about the princess who saved her kingdom and the prince and became an awesome ruler and won tons of skating medals. (That last part was probably because Alex had dreams of becoming a world-famous figure skater when she was younger.)
Sure she rolls her eyes now, but—that's, like, a requirement. Her dad's stories are ridiculous and long, but they're funny, even if that's mostly because he and all his friends were apparently nuts and totally drama-prone when they were younger.
What none of them even dare to think out loud is this—we're doing this because this is going to be the last story Dad'll ever tell.
It's been over a year, and her dad has yet to let them go with him on any of the hospital visits. Tim's usually the one who brings it up, and Dad always waves him off with a smile and a "Kids, it'd be way too boring for you."
The part of Alex that isn't shamefully relieved doesn't get it—they know what's happening, going to the hospital isn't going to make it sink in any more than it already has. Not when Dad has to go to the lawyer's office and write up a new will, not when he's having quiet conversations with Mom about what to do when—when.
Tim's actually even mad about it—"Dad's just trying to baby us," he'll mutter every time, his mouth going tight and pinched.
Mom's the one who finally settles things. "Kids, I know you want to support your dad, but he…this is hard to understand, but he really just can't bear to have you guys there, seeing him in that place. Just please, do this for him?"
And because Mom's asking, because this is one small thing they can do, they both agree.
Most days, it's pretty normal. Most days, their dad's laughing around, cooking breakfast and rushing them off to school. He's there in the afternoons to help with their homework, tease them over dinner.
Most days they can act normal. Most days Alex can go to school and laugh at lunchtime with her friends and not think, my dad is dying. Most days she can enjoy dinner with her family.
She can manage to forget, a lot of the time. More than should be possible.
It takes her a while before she realizes that this is just another gift her father's managed to give her.
When her parents, dry-eyed and calm, told them of their decision—Dad's decision—Alex hadn't cried, and she hadn't yelled. Mostly because she knew it was coming.
Besides, Tim had done enough yelling for both of them. He'd yelled and shouted about Dad giving up, giving in, shouted over everyone until Dad had to finally stand up and say, "Tim, please, please try to understand—" And he wasn't dry-eyed any more, Dad was crying, tears coming down his cheeks and Tim started sobbing too, and he'd just collapsed in Dad's arms and wailed.
Alex hadn't said a word, and it wasn't until Mom turned to her and said, "Oh, sweetie," that Alex became aware of the tears coursing down her own cheeks.
That was the one discussion they'd had about it. Alex wasn't there for when everyone else was told—except for when she'd accidentally overheard the conversation with Uncle Barney over the phone and that was an accident, mostly, because she hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but couldn't help hearing.
She couldn't help hearing because Uncle Barney was yelling so loudly that Alex could hear him, even though she wasn't in the room, but in the hallway just outside the open door. Not just his voice, but the words too, which were loud and angry and at certain points, would have needed asterisks if they were in print. After a few moments her dad shut the door, with an apologetic look, and Alex hadn't heard the rest.
Uncle Barney stopped by the next day, and he spent a few hours with Dad in the study. When they emerged, his eyes were red-rimmed and glassy, and at dinner, he was even nicer than usual to all of them, and his voice was quieter.
The day after that, their dad started the first story. Both Alex and Tim had already silently agreed to act as normal as possible, to treat this as if it were a normal situation, and Dad's just telling them another one of his long stories.
"Are we being punished?" Tim whines, and Dad says no, but Alex thinks yes, they are, and she doesn't know why.
"Will this take a while?" Alex asks, keeping her voice light, almost like she's complaining, just like she would have sounded before.
"Yes," Dad promises, and Alex hopes it takes forever, hopes this can last forever, that their family can last forever, even though she knows better.
It's weird listening to Dad tell them about this stuff, because—well, it's weird picturing their dad like that, before them, before Mom. After every story, Alex goes to the family albums and looks at her dad and tries to imagine everything—the clothes they probably wore, the music that they listened to.
"I can't believe Dad dated Aunt Robin," Tim mutters a few stories in, looking over her shoulder at the pictures of Aunt Lily and Uncle Marshall's wedding.
"Hey, Aunt Robin was a total babe," Alex points out reasonably, and she was. Still is, honestly.
"Well, yeah," Tim said. "But—it's just weird, thinking about it. She's our aunt, and she and Mom are like, best friends now, but all those years ago—"
"She and Dad were totally in love," Alex finishes. "Yeah. It is weird thinking about it."
But it's easier to think about than what's happening now, how Aunt Robin's taken time off from traveling the globe and is living in a nearby hotel with Uncle Barney, how Aunt Lily and Uncle Marshall and Sam visit them every week now, regular as clockwork. How Dad's getting phone calls and visits from friends from all over the place, people he hasn't talked to in years. How Mom's finally losing those extra few pounds she's always complained about, except it's not due to a diet.
How every day, it seems like her dad's getting up a little later, going to sleep a little earlier, how none of his hair has grown back from the chemo.
It's easier to picture the past than to think about the present or the rapidly approaching future.
Alex wonders if this was what her dad had in mind, when he started telling her the story of how he and Mom met. She wonders if this was a gift he'd planned, like something for her birthday or Christmas. A sort of sorry-I'll-be-dead-before-your-high-school-graduations present.
Her eyes start to sting, and Alex blinks rapidly, refusing to let the pictures get wrinkly and ruined.
It doesn't take long before Alex sees the underlying message. Because the thing is—she and Tim already know the story of how Dad and Mom met, with the bright yellow umbrella in the middle of a New York street.
But that's not what Dad has in mind. Dad—Dad's giving them life lessons or whatever, sneaking them in between stories of girls and breakups and Uncle Barney being on some game show. Advice on work, relationships, friendship, love—all the advice he'd be able to give years from now, if he wasn't going to be gone long before then.
So he's doing it now instead, while he still has time, while he's still here.
The stories last for a month, then another. Alex and Tim make sure to whine and complain at the appropriate moments, still trying desperately to cling on to whatever normalcy they can, pretending to be anything but what they are—two kids who are already grieving for a father who hasn't left yet.
It's like an unspoken pact among the four of them—no mushy stuff, no tears, no sad looks. Dad made this decision for a reason—he wanted them to spend time together as a family, and that's what they're doing.
So they pretend, and they keep on pretending, even when Dad starts taking naps in the middle of the day because he's so tired, when the number of pills he has to take gets larger and larger, when the portions of food he has at dinner get smaller and smaller because his appetite is decreasing by the day.
They all end up in the hospital anyway. Dad fights it as hard as he can—but the doctors are adamant, and so's Mom, which is even more important.
Somehow they end up in some deluxe suite of a hospital room—forget suspecting, Alex knows Uncle Barney had a hand in this.
When Alex looks down at her father, an IV in his arm and his skin winter-pale against the hospital sheets, she knows why he didn't want her to come here.
She and Tim sit with him while he sleeps, while Mom talks with the doctors outside.
His eyes crack open. "Kids," he whispers, "—did I ever tell you about the time—"
"Dad," Tim chokes out, "—now?"
Dad smiles at them, and Alex can see the echoes of who he was at 28 when he was in love with Robin, at 30 when he was engaged to a woman who wasn't Mom, at 32 when he married their mother. "Why not?"
"Okay," Alex says, smiling past the lump in her throat. She takes his hand, and tries not to think about how fragile it is. "Tell us how you and Mom met."