I haven’t been entirely honest about my radical slowdown in posting over the past few months. To be sure, work has been wholly consuming and exhausting, but that’s not all. Last month, my father passed away.
Several months ago, on the return from DPaul’s and my trip to Chicago for our anniversary, I received a phone call from my father. He had just been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer with metastatic disease on the liver. It was the sort of diagnosis that most people would immediately accept as an instant death sentence. My father is not most people.
In the ensuing months, he pursued a wide array of aggressive and sometimes esoteric treatments, from hyperdoses of vitamin C injected directly into a port, to twice-daily coffee enemas (organic of course) and a litany of naturopathic remedies; to ultra-high potency and highly targeted chemotherapy at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America; to experimental (i.e., not approved in the U.S.) dendritic cell therapy in Germany.
And there was progress! After the third dendritic cell treatment, scans showed that the tumors in his pancreas and liver had shrunk, and his tumor markers were down dramatically. Through it all, despite sometimes unrelenting pain and nausea, he remained upbeat and optimistic, and we began to think that he just might make it. After all, we reasoned, if anyone could beat terminal cancer out of sheer will, it would have been him.
Unfortunately, they then found that the disease had moved on to bone, and so the battle began anew. This time he underwent Cyberknife radiation treatments and bone-hardening infusions to slow the encroachment of the disease. These treatments took a terrible toll, weakening his system.
DPaul and I finally found a moment in dad’s frenetic schedule to visit him in Colorado, a rare weekend between trips to various treatments, and so we booked a ticket. We assumed it would be the first of a few final visits over the course of upcoming weeks or months.
The night before we flew out, his wife Sylvia called me. She warned that jaundice had set in, and he was not looking too well. When we arrived in Denver the next day, they met us at the airport. He was yellowed and gaunt. In the car on the way home, he received a call from the oncologist, and was fairly tight-lipped for the rest of the drive home.
The next morning, we all sat at the kitchen table together. Dad said that the scans showed further progression of the tumors. The treatments he had undergone were doing more harm than good at this point, and he was too weak and unstable to return to Germany for another round of dendritic cell therapy. It was no longer about fighting to win; it was about managing the process until the end. He looked up at me, eyes yellow as egg yolks and said, "cancer sucks." Then he cracked his crooked smile, teeth flashing white against the jaundiced skin.
From that point on, things went fast. The next day he had deteriorated so much they called in Hospice. My siblings flew out, and DPaul and I extended our stay a couple days to be with them. A cavalcade of people from near and far arrived at the house, and phones rang non-stop. My aunts, his sisters, booked to come out that Friday.
Each day was worse than the one before. The pain increased, causing him to rely more heavily on the Dilaudid; but every dose triggered violent vomiting, exacerbating the pain. By the time his sisters arrived, he had been ready to let go for days, but held out for them. They arrived the evening of April 11.
A few minutes before 6 am on April 12, Sylvia awoke and noticed he was breathing very shallowly. She looked into his eyes and said, "I love you!" He moved his tongue to respond, took his last breaths, and was gone. He had turned 60 just three weeks previously.
My relationship with my father was not typical. My parents divorced
when I was still an infant, and he was largely absent from my life
throughout childhood. Our relationship was all but nonexistent until my adult life. After DPaul and I had our commitment ceremony, we began to grow closer, but we were more like friends, a couple of guys who happened to get along because of shared interests and not shared genes.
Our relationship was further complicated by other familial matters. Dad remarried when I was my teens and again when I was
25, having one child with each subsequent wife. (My siblings and I have
always been a generation and a country apart, as I’ve lived in
California since 1990.) He married Sylvia less than two years ago. (Insert Four Weddings and a Funeral reference here.) He left me quite a patchwork quilt of ex-stepmothers and half-siblings.
When dad was diagnosed, I spoke with a good friend of mine who had recently lost his father, and with whom his relationship was also less than fairytale. He understood implicitly the miasma of emotion I was swimming in. Since my father wasn’t my father-figure, I didn’t have the feelings I thought I should, and then I felt guilty for not feeling those feelings. On the other hand, I would occasionally be blindsided by overwhelming sorrow at unexpected times. It was a roller coaster.
I have embarassingly few pictures of my father, even fewer of us
together. Perhaps it’s not surprising considering our history. Since
his passing, I’ve begun collecting what I can, culling images from
family members and most recently from boxes of pictures from his house
in New Hampshire. I’m piecing together
the story of his life through these images, learning the more about this man I am discovering I never really knew.
In my youth I struggled to be everything he was not, but in
adulthood, as our relationship warmed, I began to understand that I
could take — in fact had taken — elements of his personality and still remain
my own person. Where I once saw him as flaky, philandering and lewd, instead I perceived a great lust for life, unbridled joie de vivre and the insuppressible spark of idealism. Without trying, I came to share many traits with him, including a penchant for hedonism and an unflaggingly positive outlook on pretty much everything.
And I saw all these
things play out in his fight against his disease. He fought with
determination, passion, and optimism. He fought with every ounce of his
being. And when he decided to stop fighting, I sincerely believe he actively
chose to throw himself under the wheels of the inexorable force of the
disease. He lived, fought and died on his terms.
I’ve long since let go of any hurt or resentment between us. In my last conversations with him, I told him that, though
our relationship perhaps could have been better, I didn’t blame him or me, that
we were just two people going through life the best way we knew how. I told him how proud and impressed I was by his fight, by his unflappable attitude. It pleases me that my final
impressions of my father are filled with pride, joy and love.
The day he passed, DPaul and I were sitting on our back steps, enjoying an unusually warm day and having a moment of quiet reflection. Suddenly, something large and dark flew right past our heads and landed with an audible thump on the wall beside us, in the diagonal patch of sunlight there. It was a grasshopper, and a large one at that. I’ve lived in San Francisco nearly two decades and have never seen a grasshopper here. As it sat there watching us, and we it, DPaul said to me, "That’s your father." He had come to check in on us one last time.
Grasshopper or no, he seems to be forever around me since his passing. I see him everywhere, am reminded of him in everything. I see him in the faces of strangers. It is, strangely, more comforting than upsetting. I know he is in a better place now, and these apparitions are his way of smiling to me from there. How can I not smile back?