The simple, barely utterable fact is that my father isn’t getting better.
In mid-December, after a week of pain and suffering in the hospital, he made the brave but heartbreaking decision to end his chemotherapy treatments and go home on hospice care. The weekly chemo regimen was making him weak and spacey, and he would barely recover from the previous treatment when it was time to go back to the center and do it all again. And though the cancer in his abdomen hadn’t grown through the course of the chemo, it hadn’t improved, either.
I don’t believe he had given up on his fight — there was no evidence the chemo had helped. The doctors were candid in not knowing how things would progress without the treatment, and he was ready to be done with the side effects and the soul-sucking routine.
When Simone and I went out to see him over winter break, I found myself parsing everything he said, every gesture, every interaction with his wife (who is a hospice nurse, and whose company is taking care of Dad), to try to divine his outlook. It was like being a little kid again, hyper-vigilant of the smallest cues about my parents’ state of mind.
As I sat by the hospital bed in the living room, California sunlight washing in through the giant picture windows, illuminating the commode to the right of the bed and a tray table with water and books and the Kindle Fire we’d bought him to the left, every ounce of my attention was devoted to understanding what he was thinking.
My father earnestly believed that, once the effects of the chemotherapy wore off, his body would get stronger again, and he’d be able to walk the dog, get himself to the bathroom, and even travel. When he mentioned a plan to score some cured beef next time he and his wife visited her parents in Kansas, or getting a ride to the crew chief meeting at the aerospace museum where he volunteered, my heart would lift with optimism. Maybe he wouldn’t beat this thing, but at least he was still planning on being here for awhile.
He was shaky and off-balance, unable to walk without a cane and help, but he hadn’t given up.
When things got especially grim last year, I went back to my counselor, concerned that I wasn’t processing things the way I should — was I asking myself the right questions? Was I dealing with any unresolved issues with my father? Was I prepared for what was to come?
I cannot overstate how important it’s been to speak with someone who cares for me but is disconnected from the emotions of this time in my life. My father and I have nothing left unsaid, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have stuff to deal with and talk through. It’s been powerful to have someone say, “You’re handling this very well, but you just don’t know how it’s all going to affect you when he eventually passes away.” My counselor is my reality check, the trusted advisor I can talk to about the dynamics of speaking with my sisters or my mother or my daughter, and the expert who understands how ambiguity, grief, and worry can affect a person.
My philosophy has been this: I will have plenty of time to be sad, so the healthy course of action is to put that off as long as I can, to just keep going, living the best life possible.
When Simone and I were flying home from California earlier in the month, I told her this: “Zaide has decided to stop his chemotherapy, but we just don’t know what the means. He may have weeks left, or months, or even years, though that’s unlikely. We’ll plan our trip to Japan this summer, and buy travel insurance with the understanding that we may have to postpone it depending on what happens. For now, though, we can say prayers for healing, send him lots of loving thoughts, and be there when we can.”
Simone pondered my words, looking out the window of the plane at the snowy peaks breaking through the cotton cloud blankets below. Then she turned in her seat and hugged me, never saying a word. I held her close, kissed the top of her head, and took in the familiar scent of my girl, breathing through the tears that threatened to break free. And then we went back to our books, sitting a little closer.
I manage to keep it together most of the time, maintaining a layer of separation between my everyday life and the sadness; a sort of pragmatic buffer that allows me to function — to work, to parent, to date, to socialize. When the grief seeps through, and it does, it generally comes in manageable levels, like little earthquakes venting off energy. And maybe in those moments I want to lay down on the sidewalk and curl up in a fetal position or crawl under my comforter and retreat from the world, but I generally don’t. I let the worry for my father, the grief for what’s to come, the stress about the logistics, and the fear that I’m not going to finish writing his obituary in time wash over me for a moment or two, and then I force my intention back into whatever I’m doing. Yoga helps me breathe. The gym still provides solace. Snowboarding shakes away the cobwebs, forcing me to be present in the moment. Snuggling on the couch with Simone while watching Dr. Who provides a gentle normalcy to the rough days.
When people ask me how I’m doing (some know about Dad and some don’t), my general response is, “I’m mostly okay,” and it’s mostly true. I find myself reluctant to bring up what’s happening, but willing to share at the same time. I try to state the facts then change the topic. No need to weigh down a light conversation with my stuff. No need to elicit the concerned expressions, the “let me know if there’s anything I can do” platitudes, the awkward pause.
My baby sister, who lives a couple hours away from my father, visits him often, giving him some time with his newest granddaughter, and helping his wife manage details. She provides my middle sister and me with insights about what’s going on in an honest and loving manner.
My sisters and I are dealing with our grief in different ways, which is bringing us closer together and is also forcing us to learn more about each other — what we need, how to talk about this, when and how to offer help. We have always been close, but this challenge has us interacting in new contexts. I’ve never loved my sisters more than I do right now.
I’m so happy they have awesome husbands who jump in when they need to check out — who step up to feed the kids, cook a healthy dinner, bring an extra blanket over to the couch, pour a strong cocktail, and dry tears of worry and sadness. My sisters are concerned that I don’t have someone to do the same. I am too, sometimes.
But I have friends who’ve lost parents in the last couple of years, and they’ve been a godsend when I haven’t known the proper course to take. They’re the ones who said, “Eric, stop worrying about logistics and schedules; go see your father as often as you can. You’ll never regret having taken those trips.” They’re the friends who already know what I need and offer it accordingly.
I’ve never been very good at asking for help, and I’m just getting better at accepting it when offered. I don’t even know what I’d ask for most of the time, so it’s comforting to have people in my life who will take action whether I request it or not.
I’m mostly okay.
But here’s a secret. In the last week or so, I’ve found myself to be vulnerable and over-sensitive, despondent, quietly cranky, and deeply lonely, even when I’m with friends. The truth that Dad’s health is deteriorating has been weighing on me more and more. I’m still putting up that bluff front, keeping the business going, eating well, forcing myself to get exercise, and being a good dad. I don’t have another choice. But, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I’m sad more often than I was just weeks ago. The grief is starting to seep in more steadily, and is manifesting itself in unexpected ways — stress headaches, clumsiness, moments when I’m just checked out of what’s going on around me.
I’m a pretty strong dude, and I know how to keep it together when things go sideways. But I’m also self-aware enough to realize that I’m not stellar right now, and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. So I’m going to make every effort to keep doing what I do best: enjoy what life has to offer, recognize the magic in every day, make plans for fun and adventure, be open-hearted, and always seek love.
And travel to spend time with my father as often as possible.