Trigger warning: cancer, illness, hospice mention, food mention, weight mention
When you lose a parent as a young kid, you have a lot of questions. “Did daddy like ___?” “Would he like this band or that band or this food or this ____?” I often wonder now if it was hard for my mom to constantly get these questions from me that I only asked because I was insatiably curious and I knew remarkably little about who my dad was personally. A lot of what I remember about my dad (and about my childhood in general) comes in images and in imagined scenarios of how I believe things would have gone. I don’t have many truly genuine memories of my father, but the ones I do have I treasure and actively make sure I never forget. One thing I know for sure about my dad was that he was stick thin. I remember him crossing his bony legs in the morning in his bathrobe as he read the newspaper and drank his coffee. My mom told me that his legs were so bony that he had to sleep with a pillow between them; my aunt even bought him a catfish body pillow (my dad loved to fish, so it was a perfect gift) to put between his legs. It looked like a catfish. Seriously.
When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I remember how chemotherapy changed his body. His ability to keep weight on worsened (he ate all of my Girl Scout cookie orders that were for other people – he could easily put away rows of thin mints at a time and still struggle to gain weight), he shaved what was left of his hair off, and he developed bags under his eyes. But what I, an eight year old kid…what I just could not wrap my mind around was that my dad could no longer draw me his beautiful pictures, because the chemo made his hands shake.
My dad never finished college and struggled to keep a job, and so a year before I was born he reenrolled in night classes at Montgomery College in Montgomery County. He worked on his Associates Degree for eight years before he was diagnosed and had to drop out, getting only a certificate for Computer Engineering or something of the sort. But he took an art class and would bring home the prettiest drawings and give them to me; he was a very talented artist. One night I asked him to draw me something, and he took out a ruler. I said something like “Don’t use that, you don’t need it!” because he had never needed to use one before. But he did now. His hands shook so much that he couldn’t draw a straight line.
Watching him lose control of his body just in that single moment was devastating to me, but I don’t think I could imagine what it feels like to find out that there is a cancer growing inside of you. I can’t imagine how and even if my dad experienced disembodiment – if he separated his mind from his body – when he began to lose control of his body.
A year after he was diagnosed, my dad was admitted into hospice. And considering that when he was first diagnosed the doctors said he only had a couple of months to live, I feel like my dad had, if just briefly, prevailed. I still remember the room he stayed in. Both the phone and the bathroom door were broken, and one day my mom walked in to find my dad up out of his bed and fixing the broken door. The image is actually kind of funny to me: a sickly thin man in a white t-shirt, with lung cancer, in hospice, and yet on his feet actively doing something. This makes me wonder about how we tend to dehumanize the ill by assuming they can’t or don’t want to move their bodies once they realize they’re dying.
Talking about my dad and his illness has gotten easier for me over time. I’m now a lot more curious about how my dad felt during his illness, how he dealt with the internal struggle of being a smoker prior to his diagnosis and the self-blame that could go along with that, and of how he was treated by other people. I also wonder about his perspective on death and how it might have changed after he was diagnosed. I guess I still have a lot of questions.