"And sometimes the quest for peace is situational, like figuring out what to do with your minutes while your dad dies." An essay by David Schmader. ON THE COVER: Self-portrait by Frank Correa

Peace. The word itself is peaceful, even before it calls up images that illustrate the point: serene holy figures, blissed-out hippies, lions nuzzling lambs. Humans cherish peace because it’s one of our greatest ideals. To communally steer the human tornado of ambition, fear, judgment, and desire toward harmony is both the most and the least we can do.

We also cherish peace because it’s rare and fleeting and forever beset by threats to its existence. It’s impossible to talk about peace without talking about its enemies, those million things ready to disrupt harmony at any moment.

Sometimes these enemies are international forces: terror threats, war, natural disaster. Sometimes they’re tiny personal things, like anxiety and grudges and low-level frantic distraction. (Forget ISIS—the greater threat to most Americans’ daily tranquility is Facebook.)

Sometimes this quest for peace is seasonal, like now, as the Holiday Shopping Industrial Complex sells the dream that with enough spent cash, anyone can find a golden oasis of peace on Christmas morning. And sometimes the quest for peace is situational, like figuring out what to do with your minutes while your dad dies.

Live long enough and you’ll have a cancer story, and here’s how my dad’s went. Around 2004, when he was in his early 60s, my dad was diagnosed with cancer of the prostate and began treatment that kept the cancer in check for a good five years. In 2009, the cancer finally outran available treatments and spread to his bones, at which time my family—my dad, my mom, my brother and I—were given the harsh news. Pending miraculous new developments, my dad had a year left to live.

Mine is not an emotional family. Religion-free except for my dad’s residual Catholicism, we bonded over shared jokes and a sort of corporate responsibility: We’d all been cast in this funky family together, and it was our job to make the best of it. When it came time to get something done, we didn’t screw around. After the starter-pistol of my dad’s fatal diagnosis, my family got down to the business of giving Dad a proper last year. The main goal was to just hang out and log hours together as a family, getting the most of Dad while he was here and creating as many opportunities as possible to say what we wanted to say before one of us went away forever. Since we all lived in different states, this meant destination events.

That winter, my dad took us on a cruise from Florida to Cozumel to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. He loved cruises—the up-close people-watching, the regimented schedule, the never-ending bustle of life. Nearly everything about the cruise squicked me out—but the trip wasn’t about my enjoyment, so I summoned the whole of my college acting training to put on a game face. One evening, I joined my parents at the “Salute to Broadway!” showcase and watched a 20-something woman in a ramshackle Cats costume sing “Memory” while the ship listed and my weed cookie kicked in. It’s a feeling I wish I could share with everyone.

Even as it was happening, I could sense the cruise’s deeper purpose. Killing time together in close proximity wasn’t some unfortunate fact of cruising—it was the point. Suffering through the cruise-related rigmarole together was the point. As the trip wound down, a heartbreaking fact hovered in my mind: “A day will come when you’ll yearn to have spent more time waiting in cruise-ship buffet lines with your father.”

That summer, we rented a beach house on the Virginia coast, where we spent another week tossed together in the daily rhythms of food and chores and naps. Days involved lounging by the ocean, nights were filled with cocktails and board games. Over the course of the week, we gave my dad a weeklong, celebratory memorial service, each of us squirming through the itchiness of putting a lifetime of feelings into words so no one would leave regretting things unsaid.

For me, Beach Week was about gratitude, and communicating to my dad, “You did your best, your best was great, and you should be happy and proud of your life.” Some of this was done directly, and much more through familial osmosis. We ate his favorite food (Tex-Mex, don’t get fancy), drank his favorite drink (super-cold Coors Light with lime and salt on the rim) and carried on a days-spanning tour of family memories. Under any and all pleasure ran a cold current of sadness. As far as we knew, everything we did was for the last time.

We returned to this beach house with my dad every summer for the next four years. Turns out cancer diagnoses are an inexact science, and when another summer rolled around with Dad as alive and well as he’d been the summer before, it seemed rude not to do it again.

Thus began our great, tenuous four-year grace period. Twice my dad worked his way to the end of his available treatment options, only to have a new drug show up. (He made it clear that when his treatment starting making his days miserable, he’d be ready to skip to the end.)

Cancer was working through my dad’s skeletal system, but hadn’t yet added up to any noticeable diminishment of life. Part of this was his disposition. I’m tempted to write, “He wasn’t a complainer,” but he was totally a complainer, about overgrown lawns and improperly parked cars and tardiness. But he wasn’t one to make a spectacle of his suffering. Even during his most intense chemotherapy, he kept up his daily golf game. Meanwhile, summers kept arriving and we kept making our way to Beach Week.

We’d done all the heavy emotional lifting that first year. Now the pressure was off. One extra year would’ve been a gift. We got four—long enough to develop beach-specific running gags, long enough to have fights and make up, long enough that the weird, lucky purgatory we’d been cast into started to overlap with the weird, lucky purgatory of every human life.

After Beach Week Five, my dad’s cancer intruded upon his brain, which wasn’t itself cancerous, but was being subjected to pressure from cancerous growths in the bones of his skull. The result was a slow-blooming disruption of cognition, progressing from mood swings to childlike sensitivity to confused paranoia as the pressure increased. I’d always imagined the cancer would attack various torso organs but leave his mind intact. Instead it rendered him someone who shivered at imagined dangers and threatened to call the cops if you made him put on shoes.

Targeted radiation had the potential to diminish the cancerous growths and allow him to get back to waiting to die with his cognition skills intact. The doctor ordered an intense regimen of daily treatments for two weeks. I traveled from Seattle to help get Dad to his appointments, wrangling him in and out of cars and wheeling him down hospital hallways.

My dad and I had never been close. He’d grown up the son of a Western Pennsylvania coal miner, attending Catholic school and serving in the Army before starting a 40-year career with Western Electric. I’d grown up the son of a hard-working suburban dad, attending art school before starting a 24-years-and-counting career as what we used to call “an openly gay writer.” I was baffling to him and vice versa.

But our time together running the maze of his treatments, through the haze of his diminished cognition, forged a new sort of relationship between my dad and me. He needed help, and I was thrilled to be able to give it. In a way, my dad got his first up-close glimpse of what I was good for. He never saw my stage productions—maybe because they were gay and edgy or maybe because they were theatre—but now he got to see my communication and organizational skills in action as I stage-managed his cancer battle.

One of the key talents I took away from college was the ability to talk anyone through a bad acid trip, and this came into play as my dad struggled to make sense. One morning I found him staring into his cereal bowl. “How do we know there’s not a hole in the bottom?” he asked. I explained that if bowls had holes in the bottom, they wouldn’t work. “I trust bowls to be able to do their jobs,” I said. His eyes widened like a high freshman encountering a Zen koan.

The two-week radiation intensive worked. By the day of dad’s final treatment, the pressure against his brain had diminished enough to allow much of his cognition and personality to return, and by the following week, he was back to normal—still “packed with cancer,” but at least we were back to the stasis of waiting for what came next.

Once my dad was stable, I flew home, knowing I’d return when things got worse, when the cancer that grew against his brain grew into something else. I was back within the month.

Despite its wonderful palliative benefits, home hospice care is essentially sitting around the house waiting for someone to die. Dad spent more and more time sleeping, a nurse visited a couple times a week and my mother, brother and I waited. Waiting in silence soon proved unbearable, and as we are not and never will be a family that leaves the TV on as background noise, I busied myself with making a mix CD.

I’d made mixes for memorials before, where the honoree is gone and the music is a reminder of what’s lost. This was different. This was music for the wait before death.

The main criteria was melodic comfort, no heavy themes, in songs you want to go on forever. That’s the thing about end-of-life care: You simultaneously can’t wait for it to be done and never want it to end.

The ultimate goal of the playlist was peace, or at least its more common cousin, peacefulness. The songs that worked best trafficked in melodic suspended animation, with lyrics that hinted at the spiritual but never dealt explicitly with death, like neo-lullabies (Rickie Lee Jones’ “Stewart’s Coat,” John Cale’s “Andalucia”) and gauzy soundscapes (Thomas Dolby’s “The Flat Earth,” Jane Siberry’s “Love Is Everything”). Franco’s “Likambo Ya Ngana” features lyrics in Lingala that reportedly address the importance of not stealing from your neighbor, but it’s all so gorgeous the song could’ve translated to “Faster, Cancer, Faster!” and still made the cut.

Joe Ely’s “Because of the Wind” was the best song about Texas I could find that fit the stylistic parameters. Brian Eno and John Cale’s “Spinning Away” laced the air with elegant euphemisms for what comes after the end (“Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away…”). And Ray Charles’s “America, the Beautiful” earned its place by being the lifelong favorite song of the man we were there for.

“The Makings of You” always annoyed me with its syrupy opening swell, then sent me swooning as the swell receded, leaving Curtis Mayfield’s gorgeous voice singing so close to my ear I could almost feel his breath: The love of all mankind/Should reflect some sign/Of these words I’ve tried to recite/They’re close but not quite/Almost impossible to do/Reciting the makings of you

As his time in hospice care progressed, less and less of my dad was there. For a few days he slept and only got up to pee. For a few more days he slept and didn’t get up to pee. For about an hour each day, he’d materialize in recognizable form. As he came to need more and more help, he got embarrassed and apologetic—and my mother, brother, and I all assured him that we were exactly where we wanted to be.

Here’s the thing about helping your parents die: It’s an incomparable way to show them what kind of kid they raised. In the most basic and beautiful way, it’s payback time. Here’s a person who suffered through the stress and mess and heartbreak of bringing you into the world, and now you get to return the favor on their way out. In a way that feels both perverse and completely natural, I’ve never felt more alive than when I was helping my dad die.

Eventually the day came that he broke out of an extended sleep to give a loud, rough holler and he was gone. His wait for peace was over. Ours, thankfully, carried on.