“I fucking love it here,” I said like a spoiled white asshole as I looked up at the cloudless sky, seeing only palm trees against the perfect blue.
“I know. I could stay here forever,” said my girlfriend, Abby.
Abby and I were celebrating her twenty-fourth birthday at the JW Marriott pool in Palm Desert. She had flown into Los Angeles from Berkeley the night before, and then we had driven out to the desert in my shitty Subaru. We were drinking frozen tropical smoothies full of alcohol, the endless sun beating down on us as we read pointless books with entertaining storylines. The pool band played “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and various Beach Boys songs on a loop. We had incredibly important conversations about incredibly important topics, like where we should eat dinner and how much post-dinner sex we should have. Shit, maybe we’d even hit up a late-night hot tub session if we had the energy after all the eating and fucking. The world was ours.
My parents owned a time-share at this Palm Desert Marriott, and I had grown up vacationing there. It was our family spot. We were from Salt Lake City, Utah, so Palm Desert was one of the closest warm destinations. We liked coming here to get away from our problems and from all the Mormons who lived around us. My mom hated Mormons with a passion. When we first moved to Salt Lake from Pekin, Illinois, our beloved family dog, Basquo, was running around the neighborhood. An evil Mormon kid started throwing rocks at him and pulling his tail, so Basquo bit him. Our Mormon neighbors ganged up on my mom and dad and demanded that we put Basquo under. My mom had disliked Mormons ever since, blaming them for the death of our dog. She trained us to distrust them as well, and made sure we knew there was a normal world outside of Utah.
So, as kids, when we’d land at the Palm Springs Airport, my mom was always sure to point out the glowing neon COCKTAILS sign in the terminal bar. “See, this is what normal places are like that aren’t ran by a Nazi religion,” she would say. “They have bars everywhere.” “Okay, great,” we’d say back, not really sure what all that meant. We spent several Thanksgivings and Easters in Palm Desert. Fuck, we were so comfortable with the place that my gay brother, Greg, came out of the closet here on a family vacation.
I brought Abby to Palm Desert to let her in on the Marshall family tradition of relaxing in the sun and getting away from all of our troubles. At the time, I didn’t have many troubles to get away from. Things were going great. I was living in Los Angeles working my first real job at a strategic communications and PR firm called Abernathy MacGregor, making my own money for the first time in my life. Though the job was occasionally difficult and consuming, I was still very much in that post-college dicking-around phase. I lived in an apartment right off the Sunset Strip, where my roommate Gabe and I would sit on our balcony cracking jokes while watching beautiful struggling actresses walk by on their way toward chasing their Hollywood dreams. Abby was getting her Ph.D. at Berkeley in materials science. We had met sophomore year of college at Berkeley and had been together since—four years now. She was way smarter than most attractive blondes and was amused by my offbeat sense of humor instead of repelled by it. We were madly in love. Even though we were in a long distance relationship, marriage seemed inevitable.
Everything with my family was going pretty well, too. Sure, my mom still had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had first been diagnosed in 1992, when she was only thirty-seven years old. I remember the day. She left for the doctor’s one morning thinking she had a stomach bug and returned a cancer patient. My four siblings and I were all under eleven. We didn’t know what cancer meant. My little sister Chelsea couldn’t even pronounce the word. “What is can-sore?” she asked upon hearing the news.
“It’s not good,” I said, not really sure what it was myself.
Terrifying words accompanied my mother’s diagnosis—words like terminal, inoperable, untreatable, and advanced. It was deemed stage four, or “end-stage,” cancer, and she was given only a couple months to live. But, looking her kids in their watery eyes, she vowed to not let cancer leave her children without a mom. She decided to fight it with all her will and strength, no matter how many chemotherapy treatments and surgeries it took. She wasn’t going to let cancer beat her.
And it didn’t. After nearly seventy rounds of chemotherapy and several surgeries, at age fifty-one she was still standing. The cancer wasn’t gone, but it was under control. She and her trusted oncologist, Dr. Saundra Buys, would keep a watchful eye on it. When her immune system or white blood count would begin to drop, she’d start chemo back up. It was a big part of her life and a constant battle. But right now she was feeling good and wasn’t receiving any chemo. In fact, she had a full head of hair down to her shoulders. My dad was doing better than ever. He was fifty-three and cruising along toward retirement. Sure his hair was graying and he was slowly going bald, but life was good.
He owned and ran a few weekly newspapers in a variety of small towns across northern Utah, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest. His business did well and he was financially secure. Plus, he worked for himself, so he was able to manage his hours in a way that allowed for him to have free time to spend with his dipshit family. He’d start every day with a cup of coffee and a dump, and end it with a glass of wine. He had the perfect life. Things were coasting along so nicely that he had recently picked up a new hobby: marathon running. His best friend, Sam Larkin, had gotten him into it a couple years back. I personally think you have to have some sort of mental disorder to want to torture your body via a marathon, but my dad seemed to love it. He had always been an active person—skiing every weekend in the winter—so I guess it made sense that he got addicted to another form of exercise. He was running at least fifteen miles most days of the week. He had to run no matter where we were. It was his meth, his life. It was how we all knew him—our dad, the marathon-running health nut.
He had just finished running the Chicago Marathon on October 20, 2006. It had been his second marathon of the month. The first was St. George, in southern Utah. My dad was working on qualifying for the Boston Marathon, which is like the Super Bowl of marathons for these runner nuts. He needed to finish the St. George race in under three hours and thirty-five minutes to qualify for his age bracket. The obsessive training paid off. He qualified for Boston by only a few seconds.
My older sister, Tiffany, was working at Fidelity Investments in downtown Salt Lake. She had just finished undergrad at the University of Utah, where she majored in international studies. She had ambitions of going to law school next and was taking a class to help her study for the LSAT. She had just bought a house in a trendy Salt Lake neighborhood. She was a snowboarding fanatic, and even though her studies and work didn’t leave her much free time, she’d get up to the mountains a few times a week during the winter season. She was seven years into dating her boyfriend, Derek. He was a Park City townie who worked at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and loved mountain biking. He had a tattoo of a naked lady running along his right arm that he’d let me look at when I was bored at family dinners. He had a giant heart and fit in perfectly with our family. My sister was still trying to figure out all of her career aspirations, but she was happy, settling into a very nice life in Salt Lake close to her beloved mountains.
My gay brother, Greg, was in his last year at Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois. He was majoring in journalism and fine-tuning his incredible writing skills. He was busy enjoying the freedom that being out and proud brought about, especially now that he lived in a more liberal city than Salt Lake. Greg is a tall, wickedly smart blond, so he had his pick of cock. He was born with cerebral palsy, but after several leg surgeries, he was left with only a slight limp. Oh, and he was uncircumcised. He said that he had a “gimmicky cock that every guy on campus wanted to try out.” If life is about fucking as much as possible, then Greg certainly seemed to be nailing it. After college, he planned on getting a journalism job at a newspaper or radio station in Chicago and living in the city with friends.
My little sisters, Michelle and Chelsea—who we always called “The Little Girls”—were in high school. My adopted Native American sister, Michelle, was a popular tenth grader who didn’t give two fucks about school or anything. She spent most of her time flirting with boys and hanging with friends. She was getting into a little bit of trouble with drinking, but nothing that a few hours of community service couldn’t get her out of. In her early teens, one of the people she had been hanging around was her much older Mormon soccer coach. Because of the age difference we thought the relationship was just a bit creepy, so we started calling her coach Creepy Rob. But that appeared to finally be over. She had a couple more years of school, then hopefully she’d be off to college.
Chelsea was almost sixteen. She wasn’t popular, so she focused on school. She was a little off socially, a little too intense to make and keep close friends. We always thought she was just immature, but we had recently realized that she actually had Asperger’s, a mild form of autism. My parents had started looking into getting her some help for it. But Chelsea was a straight-A student and smart as a whip at anything she put her mind to. People with Asperger’s often obsess over something, and her obsession was dancing. She was able to masterfully steer any conversation right back to ballet. Oh, and she was absolutely terrific at making fart and ass jokes—a trait I admired and one that had always made us close.
A sense of humor is all you really need to get through life. All in all, my siblings and I were lucky, living with the proverbial silver spoon jammed firmly up our asses. Having two loving parents who were financially stable gave us every advantage to succeed in this mostly unfair world. We always had a nice big roof over our heads, were able to pick whichever college we wanted to attend, and knew that, no matter our failures, our parents were there to help guide us toward success and happiness. I hate when a person uses the word blessed like some pious asshole, but we were so blessed—the genetic lottery playing out in our favor. Things had been good,
were currently good, and were expected to continue to be good. The future was bright for the Marshall clan.
“Would you like another drink?” the poolside waitress asked Abby and me.
“Oh, fuck, yeah. I’ll have another strawberry daiquiri with an extra shot of rum, and whatever she wants,” I said back.
“Piña colada,” said Abby.
“You got it,” said the waitress.
“I love you, babe,” said Abby as she looked over at me and smiled her beautiful, radiant smile.
“I love you, too,” I said back. We leaned over and did one of those obnoxious kisses assholes in love sometimes do in public. If I had been watching this display of affection instead of partaking in it, I would’ve shaken my head and muttered “dickheads” under my breath.
“Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take you to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama,” sang the poolside band.
When we got back to our room, which looked out on the impeccably manicured golf course, we popped open a bottle of wine, because why the fuck not? I had left my phone charging in the wall socket as to not be distracted from the drinking and sitting around at the pool.
“Holy shit,” I said as I picked it up.
I had six missed calls from my mom, three from Greg, and two text messages from Michelle, who primarily communicated via text message, unless she was shit-faced drunk—then she might offer up a drunk dial. The texts just read “Danny?” and “Where are you?”
I instantly knew something was up.
I initially thought, Oh fuck, something happened to one of our dogs. We had two golden retrievers, Berkeley and Mazie, who my parents loved and were always calling to talk about. A thousand hypothetical scenarios ran through my head. Maybe Berkeley had been hit by a car. Or maybe he had swallowed and choked on one of the two tennis balls he usually carried in his mouth. Shit, maybe one of the cruel Mormon neighborhood boys had beaten him to death and carved FUCK THE MARSHALLS into his heart. The Mormons had written FUCK THE MARSHALLS on our mailbox in chalk once. Had they taken it to the next level? Was this the next Basquo situation?
I called my mom back. She answered. “Where the fuck have you been?”
“At the pool. What the fuck is up?” I responded, wanting to match her swear word or swear word—one of our secret games.
“It’s your fucking dad,” she said back, her voice now trembling
This text is a short extract from Home is Burning by Dan Marshall, a sweet, blackly comic memoir about a man moving home to take care of his cancer-stricken Mum and dying Dad. Out through Hachette Australia on 27 October 2015. If you like what you've read, click here to buy a copy.
We suggest you do, because we'll be discussing Home is Burning with the author, streamed live on Thursday 5th November as part of our Bright Young Things Bloc Club. Get amongst it!
Dan Marshall grew up in a nice home with nice parents in Salt Lake City, Utah, before attending UC Berkeley. After college, Dan worked at a strategic communications public relations firm in Los Angeles. At 25 he left work and returned to Salt Lake to take care of his sick parents. While caring for them, he started writing detailed accounts about many of their weird, sad, funny adventures. Home Is Burning is his first book.
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