When Tommy was a little boy, dinner was a struggle most nights, but especially when his mother served her chicken casserole. He would sit at the table and pick at his food until it was cold.
On one of those nights, after three reheats, Molly had had enough.
“This is your last chance, Tommy. Eat your food before you father gets home from work, or you’ll just have to go to bed hungry.”
But Tommy couldn’t bring himself to eat the casserole — it made his stomach roil, and he was so upset by that point that hot, salty tears rolled into his mouth.
And so, when his father got home after working late — Daddy always worked late — the food still stood on the table. Bill was tired and stern, and he frowned when Molly told him about the trouble with dinner, again.
“Go get cleaned up, then go to bed,” Bill told his son.
And so Tommy did, crying all along the way. He was relieved to be free of the chicken casserole, but terrified that he had disappointed his Daddy and afraid of what punishment might still lie ahead. And he was hungry.
Later that night, after Mommy had tucked him in bed and he heard his parents go to bed, Tommy’s bedroom door creaked open, and Daddy tiptoed across the room.
“Sit up, boy,” Bill whispered into the darkness. And so Tommy sat, frearful of what was to come.
“Here.” The man thrust a fistful of paper toward Tommy. “Don’t tell your mother.”
And Tommy never did tell Molly about the hot dog and the peanuts and the potato chips, all wrapped in a paper towel. Or the can of Coke. Bill never mentioned them, either.
When Tom was a teenager, he liked to stay late at the mall arcade. He would have played Pac-Man until dawn if he could have. But the mall was only open until ten, and, besides, his ride always left at eight.
On one of those nights, Tom was in the middle of his best Asteroids game ever when his friend, Steve, told him it was time to leave.
“Come on, Tom, my mom’s here.”
“Just a few minutes more,” Tom pleaded over his shoulder.
A few minutes later, Steve piped up again. “We have to leave now, Tom. It’s already 8:30, and my mom is really mad.” Tom wasn’t sure if Steve had been standing there the whole time, and he didn’t really care.
“C’mon Tom. I have to go. This is your last chance if you want to ride with us.”
But Tom just kept on playing. When his last ship was destroyed, he was bummed to find out he hadn’t beat his high score.
And he was alarmed when he realized — finally — that his ride was gone.
What was he going to do? His only option was to call home and tell his mother what had happened, but he knew that would land him in deep trouble. He was probably already there, considering it was almost nine o’clock.
As he stepped outside to use the payphone next to the mall entrance, a familiar engine sounded behind him. He would know the putter of Bill’s old Pinto anywhere.
“Get in,” Bill said flatly after the car pulled to a stop at the curb. He was still in his work clothes.
“How did you know I was here?” Tom asked, shocked, as he climbed in.
“I’m your father, Tom.” Those were the only words either of them spoke on the way home, and neither parent ever mentioned the night, at least not to Tom.
When Thomas got his promotion and moved to Colorado, he hardly ever thought about Indiana anymore.
Raising a family was tough, and his job kept him in the office late into the night most days. Every once in awhile, as he trudged to the dark parking garage alone, he would think about his own father, and all those hours he worked when Thomas was a kid.
Mostly, though, there was no time to think about anything but the here and now.
One morning, while Thomas was in a meeting, his mother called and left a message. He meant to call her back but forgot all about it as the day grew even busier. When he got home that night, Sara met him at the door.
“You had better call your mom,” she said, and handed him a slip of paper with the number on it.
Thomas was tired but made the call. His dad was sick and in the hospital. It was serious.
“You need to come home, Tommy. This may be your last chance to see your father.”
No one had called him Tommy for a long time, and it made him feel small. It irritated him.
“I’ll come soon, Mom,” he said. “In a few days, maybe.”
And he did hurry, but that meant moving a lot of important meetings and making travel plans and arranging for his half of the daycare drop-offs and pick-ups for the kids. Sara would stay behind because they couldn’t afford for both of them to be off of work.
When Thomas walked into the hospital room late Friday night, Molly stood and teetered on her feet. She looked old and frail, and he had to hold her up when she threw her arms around him.
She nodded to the bed, puffy red eyes filled with tears. “He’s been sleeping since last night. They don’t know if he’ll wake up.”
Bill was pale, but he looked peaceful. A couple of wires ran down into the blanket that covered him up, attached at the other end to a monitor of some sort that beeped softly every couple of seconds.
Thomas helped his mother sit in a chair on one side of the bed, and he walked around to the other. He leaned over his father and studied the old man’s face. He needed a shave.
“I need a shave, Tommy.” Bill’s raspy voice rumbled past his dry lips, eyes still closed. Molly and Thomas looked at each other, and she stood and grasped her husband’s hand.
Bill opened his eyes and looked at Molly. He smiled.
He turned his eyes to Thomas. “Take my hand.”
Thomas grabbed his father’s hand, balled into a fist. “I love you, son,” Bill said.
He closed his eyes again, and his body went lax. As his hand opened, a slip of paper fell into Thomas’s palm.
When Thomas was on the plane home, he drifted into a fitful sleep and woke with his mouth hanging open, dry and stale.
He reached into the pocket of his jacket, searching for a piece of gum or candy. Paper crinkled against his fingertips.
He pulled out the yellowed note and unfolded it in the dim light of the airplane cabin. He would recognize Bill’s neat, tight printing anywhere.
“You are my son, and I will always be with you when you want me. When you need me. There are no last chances. There will always be another.”