I had a conversation with my dad tonight that I’ll never forget.
First, a quick recap: June 2, dad was diagnosed with stage 4 throat and neck cancer. June 9, dad moved in with me and the kids. The rest is sort of a blur, but over the past few months I have learned more than I’d ever want to know about cancer, care giving and I guess just about life in general.
After seven weeks of intense radiation five days a week, and three bouts of an absolutely brutal chemotherapy regimen, dad completed his treatment three weeks ago today. There have been several visits to the hospital outside of his treatment schedule, quite a few short stays, a couple of longer ones and numerous arguments about him being a less than perfect patient. This week he had a follow up visit that really wasn’t very encouraging. He just doesn’t seem to be recovering from the treatment. We came home Wednesday after having some blood work done, but a phone call from his doctor on Friday about his lab results validated what we both already knew…dad is just really, really sick. I took him in to the ER and they admitted him into the critical care unit and so here we are again, with dad in his “luxury suite” at Beaumont.
I don’t really know how to interact with him anymore. This makes him living with me a bit awkward. But he has lost most of his hearing and pretty much all of his speech and I don’t really know how to do much besides talk, so this makes things pretty uncomfortable. I don’t know what else to do so I just keep talking. And he just keeps either not hearing me at all or pretending that he doesn’t. So our actual conversations are rare. But tonight we had one.
I was telling him that when he gets home we need to be more careful about making sure that he doesn’t get this sick again. I told him that I’d do a better job of monitoring him and making sure that he’s staying hydrated and nourished. I talked about how we’d start trying to get him out of bed each day and try to work up to taking a walk down the street. I reminded him of the cane that I’d just bought him and how he needs to start to use it and get up more often. “You’re going to get depressed if you just keep staying in bed” I said. He just laid there and closed his eyes.
I looked at him for way too long. I stared hard. I realized that I don’t even recognize him anymore. He doesn’t look like my dad. He’s just the skeleton of a man that used to be invincible. His face is sunken in. I can see every bone in his body. He’s 5’10” and he weighs 102 lbs. His thighs are about as big around as my wrist. His shoulder blades protrude through the shirts that hang limp on his body. He turned 60 last month but looks like he’s lived a hundred long years. This is my dad. My dad with cancer.
He opened his eyes and with the whisper of a voice that the cancer hasn’t taken yet, he spoke. “I don’t know why you’re so good to me. I’ve never been a good dad to you.”
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that my family has it’s fair share of dysfunctions. Many of which stem from addictions that my dad has just never been able to kick. But “never been a good dad”. Well, that’s a far cry from the truth. I’m saddened that he thinks that and I’m embarrassed because I’ve actually probably felt that way about him at times too.
My parents were practically kids when they had me. She was 19, he was 20. They hadn’t known each other long and they’ve never really talked about how or where they met or anything like that. All I know is that they met, got pregnant, got married and moved to Colorado…in that order…where they had yours truly about seven months later. My dad could have easily bailed. But he didn’t. We stayed in Colorado for years, until (I think) my mom just couldn’t handle being away from family any longer and we made the move to Michigan.
My dad was one of the hardest working men I’ve ever known. He got up early every single morning for as long as I can remember to be to work by 5 or 6 a.m. He was always gone long before I ever woke and came home most evenings with enough time to eat a reheated dinner, since we’d eaten hours before, and then he’d go to bed to do it all again the next day. He often worked six and sometimes seven days a week like that. He taught me to be a hard and diligent worker.
He made sure that we always had what we needed and that we worked for anything else. I inherited his love for horses and he made me earn and save my own money to buy a horse for myself. And then when all of my friend’s parents were buying them their first cars, I was working to save up to purchase a car for myself. He taught me the value of hard work and I learned to appreciate things far more than my friends ever did.
He never did things for me, but taught me how to do everything. From him, I learned to change a tire, replace a toilet and fix a garbage disposal. He taught me how to clean a house spotless, cut the grass perfectly and the proper way to change the oil and the brakes on my car. I learned that nothing is impossible and there are very few things that I can’t figure out how to fix on my own with a little hard work and determination.
When my sister Rebecca and I would fight, my dad would make us sit on the couch next to each other holding hands for what seemed like hours. He told us that “you girls are sisters and you’re all each other will have someday” and that we’d better treat each other right. From him, we learned the importance of family and of course, we eventually grew to love each other. He raised a house full of daughters and I always knew how badly he wanted a son. When my mom was pregnant with Kari, the youngest, I told my dad that I’d pray for a boy. After they found out at the ultrasound that it was another girl, I told him I was sorry and he said that it was fine and “who would want a stinky old boy anyway when he could have another pretty little girl”.
My dad used to be a great story teller and loved to tell jokes. So many of his stories ended up with punch lines that when he actually had a one to tell that wasn’t a joke, he’d have to spend an hour convincing us that there was no punch line coming.
Yeah, my dad has issues. He has fought his demons my whole life, but he’s been as good of a dad as he knew how to and up until a few years ago he was always able to keep those demons at bay.
I don’t know what the outcome will be for my dad right now. But I do know that he won’t be around forever. And I think that I have done him, and probably myself and even my kids, a disservice over the years. I have spent far too much time focusing on what he’s done wrong as a dad and not nearly enough time on what he’s done right. My character has, in so many ways, been formed by my relationship with my dad. And honestly, my relationship with him wasn’t all that bad. I know that he loved me, that he cared for me and that he has always wanted the best for me.
I have learned valuable lessons from him and I’ve also learned a lot of “what not to do” things. But that’s alright. I haven’t been a perfect parent either. I plan to start giving my dad a lot more grace in the parenting department because after all, I hope my kids do the same for me.