Fourteen years ago, the thing I had dreaded most throughout my life finally happened. I lost a parent. To lung cancer that, had medical investigation been conducted thoroughly, would have had a good chance of cure, or at least the prolongation of my father’s life. But, the pain of loss is enough to bear without sorrowfully and angrily indulging in what might have been, ‘if only’. His lung tumor was so large it had severed his recurrent laryngeal nerve, rendering him able to speak in only a forced whisper for the last months of his life. Since there was only me and my parents in our family, the fact that my mother was already in the throes of Alzheimer’s, could not understand my father’s illness and incapacity and spent much of her time berating and humiliating him, made the year that he had left to live even more difficult. We had a tough relationship, my father and I, for reasons that were complex and underscored by our mutual incapacity to show emotion, or talk, to each other. Yet, for all that, I adored him. I always will.
He, being the proud, tough, ambitious force that refused to let anything beat him, would not acknowledge he was ill…even though he was sitting right beside me through all the many doctor and specialist appointments, and heard the diagnosis more than often enough. He just had, he maintained, “a bad chest” and determined it would never be mentioned and he would continue to live and carry on with life as usual.
And, thus, my father and I had a year spent closely together because, given my mother’s incapacity, I was the person he leaned on…though we never mentioned it. It just happened, as naturally as death follows life, and we fell into a routine of my taking charge of appointments and travels out and about with my parents. As they lived on a small farm (where I am now, and where I was for most of the ‘70s and ‘80s), there was work he could no longer do, work that he would never let me do (like use the lawn tractor) before. For decades, when he would be out working at whatever, my mother would send me to tell him to come in for tea. I would track him down, make a “T” sign for him to see and he’d be in for, as my mother would term it, “tea and a piece”. The first time, in that last year, as I was mowing the lawn and saw him on the back deck making the “T” sign for me, the number of tears I immediately shed were incalculable.
And, so that year progressed, him ever worsening, my mother’s becoming ever more confused and lost, and it was hellish. The fact that we could not talk about his illness or what he might want…where he wanted to be buried…in Ireland or Canada, or things as simple as how he felt about this mortality that had been foisted upon him made everything all the more surreal. More than a few times during my life, I’d heard him comment he was never going to die. He just couldn’t deal with the thought, much less the reality, of it. And so we talked of other things during our trips into town, banal insignificant things, U.S. politics a lot (as those who know me will not find surprising) and…the weather, likely. He told me a few things about my mother I had never known, things that helped me understand her, and their relationship, a bit better. But whatever it was we talked about, no matter how inconsequential or trivial, what mattered was we TALKED. We were together, the two of us, almost like we had been in my childhood, when I spent every weekend with him, visiting his company’s construction job sites, or ‘helping’ with whatever he was building, or going for the plane rides I so loved during the years he co-owned a Cessna 4-seater. It was all I could do, during those together times, not to break down into hysterical tears of grief and sorrow and dread but, for his sake – like he wanted – I kept myself and my topics neutral.
I don’t know why I’ve chosen now to expound and expand on our relationship and how my father’s illness and death affected me, but not everything has an explanation. It just is. Despite how very difficult that year and our relationship was, I thank God and everything in the Universe that we were given that year. Nothing dramatic happened between us. We just lived, much closer and with a mutual understanding of what lay between us, unspoken. All these years later, 15; and nine since my mother finally was released from her very real suffering, not a day goes by that I don’t dissolve a bit into tears of loneliness, of loss. I don’t summon them; they find me in the tiniest of moments, hearing a word or noticing a scent, when a song comes into my head and, often, when it’s least convenient…in the midst of others.
I consider that last year, for all its grim distress and sadness, a precious gift, given to both of us so we could part, ultimately, as friends, as equals, in mutual appreciation, tacitly expressing the true depth of the love in which we – parent and child – held each other.
Words were unnecessary. Tears will always fill that void.
Old vegan, animal-rescuing, ex-corporate communicator with lifelong crippling shyness that made expressing myself verbally near impossible.So I took my weirdness to paper, then to typewriter and, now, to computer screen. I write all wrong.