In honor of Father’s Day this past weekend, I thought I’d write a post about my Dad. After all, he was the English teacher who inspired me to want to write as a kid (and maybe even as an adult too!).
It’s a little hard to think where to begin. My Dad inspired a lot of my life – even in his death. I hate to define him by death but truly – he even did that really “well.” He was diagnosed with cancer in late May of 2002. He’d had a malignant sarcoma (soft tissue cancer) in his back a few years before, but the doctor had removed it and said he was good to go – no need for chemo or radiation even. Turns out, he probably should have gotten a second opinion. The cancer spread to his lungs with a large tumor nestling itself on the aorta – so that in x-rays it actually just looked like a shadow of the heart. He’d been sick for several months, but x-rays then had revealed nothing. It was only found during an exploratory surgery.
I guess when my Mom told me that they’d found it – but didn’t remove it – I should have understood more about what that meant. Some place inside, I think I did, but not a place I was willing to share with my conscious mind. So I kept trucking along – visiting and talking to them more, but that was it. Scared as hell, but pushing that down. It was in September that the oncologist confirmed this was terminal. He’d do chemo (in addition to the radiation he’d already had) as long as it was palliative, but eventually they’d stop that and we’d lose him.
I talked to my Dad one time about what the possible “options” were – he said, there were two chances in all this. The first was a miracle (when hope number one is a miracle, that’s not all that reassuring) and the second was that the chemo could keep him around long enough for a cure to be found. So, being a religious man, my Dad chose a saint to focus his prayers for intercession on (Brother Andre of Montreal). He often said – Brother Andre needs one more miracle to be canonized and I need just this one miracle – it’s a win/win! And then he said – but if I get this miracle, I can’t just take this extra time I’m given in life and use it for me. I think I’ll plan to go someplace I’m needed and volunteer for several weeks or a month each year. If God’s given me this extra time, I can’t be selfish in it and need to share that. I remember I told a friend that and she said – you know, that’s really a lesson for all of us (using the time God has given us for others). I answered abruptly (only say 85% joking…), “Nope! No lessons without the miracle!”
The months of his illness went on – there were a few small moments of hope, but there were a lot more moments of abject fear (at least for me). I’d taken him out one time in October or so to go shopping for a birthday gift for my Mom. He’d taken an anti-nausea medication and it hit him during lunch, with horrible side effects. He was starting to hallucinate a little (as a side note, this was actually not an uncommon side effect for my Dad with medications. He’d had horrible hallucinations on morphine after his appendicitis. They’d finally gone away and he was watching the news when the Falkland Islands War was being covered. He saw that Argentina had declared war on the UK and called my Mom very upset – his hallucinations were clearly back! Nope, turns out truth is stranger than fiction) and was very unsteady on his feet. I was scared. I wanted to drive him to a hospital, but I suddenly realized that hospitals couldn’t do anything for him and that scared me in a whole different way.
But in all this – while I felt scared and confused and wondered about how to maintain faith. He didn’t. It was unreal – but only once did he ever mention anything like fear to me. He said, sort of academically, that this was odd for him. He’d never really known anyone who was dying, so it all felt like a strange uncharted territory. I tried to probe a little, but that was it. I think I was the only person who really ever cried much in front of him. I tried not to, as I think it upset him – but then again… Even though I knew he didn’t want us to be sad, well maybe it wasn’t so bad to see one person get a bit overwrought every once in awhile – you’d know you were really missed!
When asked how he felt about it all. He said he was pretty much ready. He said – look, I’m asking for this miracle, but I’m not at all mad if I don’t get it. I’ve had a wonderful life – how can I be mad at God for giving me so much? Sure I’d like more, but getting mad about not getting it would just be greedy.
That was a hard spirit for me to maintain… But when I’d start to get angry, I’d find that train of thought coming towards me. A friend of mine said at the time – the only way this could hurt less is if you loved him less.
I thought about that one a lot. During this time, a lot of people said a lot of well meaning, but in the end, kind of dumb things. This was the most noteworthy exception and it’s what I always say to people now. Because, the more I pondered it, the more I thought – you know, I wouldn’t give up one good memory to have it hurt less that I can’t repeat those. I suddenly felt a little less powerless in a situation that beat at my type A, control freak personality!
He eventually lost the battle against cancer in March 2003. As it happened, he’d actually seemed to have been on a decent plateau at the time – where we would have thought that we’d have a few more months at least. Despite months of a terminal illness, it felt sudden. Sudden enough that it was the first weekend in months that I wasn’t coming home to visit. I’d been exhausted with the strain of the constant drive and, selfish as it may sound, I’d wanted a weekend off to be young and go to a friend’s birthday party. My Mom called Friday night to tell me to come home, but despite breaking every traffic law known to man, I didn’t quite make it in time. (My brother and my cousin used to joke about their “beat the clock” trips back from DC – every one a challenge to how quick you could make it. That trip – at about 2.5 hours from Northern VA to Central NJ - was probably the new standard.)
And, what can I say? It really really sucked for awhile. But after a little over a year of first avoiding dealing with anything and then falling into my negative emotions, I finally came up for air. And it turned out that he even had the power to inspire me in death. I looked at my life and said – I’m fairly young and healthy and it’s time to get out there and live my life. I finally fully freed myself from a bad relationship (well, emotionally. The relationship was over quite awhile before) and just went out to have some fun. I took belly dancing lessons (even though my stress – all this was coupled with a very stressful time at work and finishing grad school – had put me at a point where I was very underweight and missing the required belly). I played adult kickball. I did 8 minute dating. And I decided to just get out there and stop worrying so much about the future and just have fun. And when I did, my future walked in – I met my husband about 6 weeks later.
And to think, my Dad, as he tried to insure that everything was taken care of and we were on the right path, had been so worried I might not ever settle down and meet someone! We were married about two years later and though I didn’t have my father daughter dance – a thought that had hovered in my brain during his illness – we did invite everyone to dance to “My Daughter’s Eyes” in his memory because he “was there. In [his] daughter’s eyes.”
Ooh… got really schmaltzy there at the end! Sorry for the long babbled post this week. What crazy things these Hallmark holidays do to us!