Then, a little grandly, I pronounce my father’s name: “John James Vlahos.”
“Esquire,” a second voice on the recording chimes in, and this one word—delivered as a winking parody of lawyerly pomposity—immediately puts me more at ease. The speaker is my dad. We are sitting across from each other in my parents’ bedroom, him in a rose-colored armchair and me in a desk chair. It’s the same room where, decades ago, he calmly forgave me after I confessed that I’d driven the family station wagon through a garage door. Now it’s May 2016, he is 80 years old, and I am holding a digital audio recorder.
Sensing that I don’t quite know how to proceed, my dad hands me a piece of notepaper marked with a skeletal outline in his handwriting. It consists of just a few broad headings: “Family History.” “Family.” “Education.” “Career.” “Extracurricular.”
“So … do you want to take one of these categories and dive into it?” I ask.
“I want to dive in,” he says confidently. “Well, in the first place, my mother was born in the village of Kehries—K-e-h-r-i-e-s—on the Greek island of Evia …” With that, the session is under way.
We are sitting here, doing this, because my father has recently been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The disease has metastasized widely throughout his body, including his bones, liver, and brain. It is going to kill him, probably in a matter of months.
So now my father is telling the story of his life. This will be the first of more than a dozen sessions, each lasting an hour or more. As my audio recorder runs, he describes how he used to explore caves when he was growing up; how he took a job during college loading ice blocks into railroad boxcars. How he fell in love with my mother, became a sports announcer, a singer, and a successful lawyer. He tells jokes I’ve heard a hundred times and fills in biographical details that are entirely new to me.