I’v e never cried about my cancer diagnosis. Not once. I’m not in denial or some blocked mental place, in fact, I probably have more introspection than is healthy. But I do cry every once in a while, about my Dad’s cancer. My Dad died over seven years ago after ten years and five bouts with this awful disease. I’m more than embarrassed to admit that I don’t even know if his reoccurrences were new primary cancers or metastises. I didn’t think to ask. I was just so self involved with being a college kid and dating and getting married that I didn’t even know to ask about the progression of his disease. He did 5 rounds of chemo, 5 rounds of radiation, several surgeries, most of which I wasn’t even there for. His procedures got to be so numerous, they started to feel routine to me and, god help me, not a big deal.
He had Catholic Charities volunteers drive him to and from treatment. Where was I? I don’t recall. I honestly don’t even remember what was more important than driving my Dad to chemo. It was probably college or work or some seemingly important engagement, but I know now, it couldn’t have been more important than spending time with my Dad and providing comfort throughout his fight. A year of school or a new McJob would have been a menial price to pay for those hours I could have had. For the support I could have been.
And I know. I KNOW, that the reason I never left school or quit a job is that my Dad would have been furious. The only thing that would have made him more angry than cancer would have been any lost opportunity for me. I understand that the reason I had no clue about the gravity of his struggle is that he wanted it that way. To exist as a burden to his only child would have been unconscionable. He never voiced any hint of what treatment was like. I remained blissfully ignorant of the details of chemo until I experienced it myself. And only then, on a random weeknight, many years after he was gone, did I ever shed a tear.
I was taking a bath. (What is it about bathtubs that make us so vulnerable? I know there’s the naked thing and all, but what is it that makes your emotions gush out of you like boozy vapors after a major bender? Seriously. It’s like the feelings steam out of my pores or something. Weird.) And I had a fleeting memory of a conversation I had on the phone with him during one of his lengthy hospital stays.
Me: How ya doin?
Dad: I’m bored.
Me: I bet.
Dad: Yeah….I’ve counted all the tiled in the ceiling. Measured exactly how many steps it takes to get to the bathroom. And I’ve plotted your Mother’s demise 357 different ways….three of them are flawed.
God the man had timing. I just erupted. So freakin funny. Especially with his weary, slurred speech and slight hint of vocal smile.
Yeah, I just cracked up laughing in the privacy of my tub and then melted into a bawling mess for a good twenty minutes. The snot-dripping, hiccuping, gasping for breath, kind of weeping that you can’t even pretend to hide. I wasn’t crying because he was gone. I was crying because I felt like a crappy excuse for a daughter. How on earth could I have not been there for him? How could I have gone about my stupid day to day shifts at a mediocre pool hall, reeking of desperation every time I crossed the threshold of my low rent agent’s office for a shitty non-union audition? Really? That was more important than some quality banter with my own Father while he was on a drip. Really? I’m beyond ashamed.
The only solace I have is this. I just didn’t know. I didn’t “get it” like I do now. And sadly, no matter how close you are to a cancer patient, no matter how much you love and care for them in all of the messy, painful, ugly details; you probably won’t “get it” either. It’s why I maintain that no matter how numerous your friends, no matter how strong your support, cancer is a lonely fucking disease. It just is. The battle you wage with your mind, beyond diagnosis, throughout treatment, and from what I gather, even beyond remission, happens in solitude.
My purpose in sharing these feelings is mostly selfish. I’m really, really trying to forgive myself, but I’m not quite there yet. Somewhere inside, I know my Dad wanted every moment of happiness for me and my tears would disappoint him. But still, I feel I was extremely selfish and inadequate as a young woman with a dedicated Father. Yet, maybe some good can follow. Maybe a weary caregiver will read this and forgive their loved one for demanding to be left alone and do something for themself. Maybe a patient will think twice before saying “You just don’t understand!” and simply be thankful for the company. And maybe I’ll make peace with my shortcomings.
Do me a favor. If you ever have the pleasure of enjoying a great glass of red Burgundy, (the real deal French stuff, not the crap in a jug) stop for just a moment, and think of Tom Ward. He was a pretty great guy. And a terrific Dad.