The Slow March of Death: My Father’s Cancer and Necessary Denial of Mortality

Yesterday, I joked with my husband that it’s difficult to say “poor dad” in any scenario. My father, with his chronic narcissism, is quick to blame you with a massive guilt trip for any slight mistake, to debate your opinion to the ground telling you you’re flat out wrong, and to make thousands of careless mistakes only to get extremely angry at you if you dare to call him out on any of them. Yesterday was a day when “poor dad” would be the tinge of empathy I feel for him bubbles to the surface.

It has been nearly 10 years since the doctors told him that he has an aggressive form of late-stage prostate cancer and he had “two years” to live. He is 67, and with all his health issues – his obesity, his diabetes which he fails to keep in check, and the cancer which was supposed to take his life long ago, has surpassed the lifetime of Carrie Fisher and many others who have died too young. Still, there is never a good time to die, and despite his personality shortcomings we all want him to live as long as possible and as comfortably as possible. I had a bit of a breakdown years ago about his looming mortality, and then as time passed and the drug concoctions they put him on started to slow down the growth of his cancer we all just put the thoughts of death out of our minds. He briefly lost weight and seemed a bit happier. Then he returned his old habits – overeating, yelling horrible things at my mother, and being his typical anxious, narcissistic, grouchy self.

Yesterday, after my father was processing news on his train down to his winter home in Florida that the magical drugs that have been keeping his cancer at bay for years are no longer working as well as they once were, and that a lesion has appeared on his back and his liver, and his PSA levels have gone up, he received a phone call from his sister who is staying at our house to inform him that the pipes had backed up and the kitchen sink was now filled with raw sewage. Poor dad.

But, seriously, I have put my father’s mortality out of my mind for so long now. It sits there, hovering somewhere in one of my lobes or cortexes, but I avoid the thought. It doesn’t help to linger on these thoughts, or to worry about how the next few years will unfold – if my father will deteriorate at rapid pace, without a chance to lash out on my mother for her inability to be a proper caretaker (or to care much at all), or if he will continue on a slow path with pain becoming something to be managed until he succumbs to his fate.

And, I don’t know how to handle feeling both guilty and hopeless at the same time – guilty for living so far away, hopeless because every time I do visit I’m glad that I do. Sad because no one wants their father to pass away and sadder because of the thoughts of how this would finally free my mother from his temper and abuse. My mother is no saint, but I can’t help but wonder how she’ll adjust to her new life – would she be lonely? Would she find a new man to date? Would she be taken advantage of? Would she enjoy her newfound freedom? Would she hate it? Would she be depressed but not know how to process her feelings because she doesn’t know how to cry?

Regardless of how I process this situation or feel about it, it’s going to happen. Time ticks on and we all know we’re lucky that those two years left to live has turned into nearly 10. At some point all luck runs out. Just got to enjoy the moment and all that jazz.

I feel guilty for being sad that my hypothetical future children will likely not have two grandparents – even though my mother’s father was much older and died of cancer in his 80s, I still have strong memories of him. I think he passed away when I was eight. He completes the puzzle of my parent’s psyches, and I’m glad I was able to get to know him even for a short while. I wish I had longer to understand his intricacies and hear his stories, but at least I knew him. My sister, seven years younger than me, doesn’t have any memories of him, but at least he got to hold her when she was very young. I’d like my father to meet my children. I know it would bring him so much happiness to hold my child.

Ten years ago I didn’t think he’d live long enough to attend my wedding (which, at the time, was far from being scheduled). Now, I’ve awkwardly danced with him in front of 150 guests, and he has lived long enough to purchase a winter home in Florida and enjoy it for at least two seasons. He is miserably depressed, as anyone suffering from a chronic condition would be, but he has been this way for the entirety of his life eating his denial and weighing over 350 pounds at one point, yet never forgetting to comment on his daughter’s weight and looks as the first conversation upon returning from a semester at college.

My father worked hard to give us the life we had. I definitely took it for granted. My mother constantly reminded us how we weren’t well off enough to afford things people could in the neighboring town, and our area was filled with middle class and working class people. We had a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a nice backyard and nice-enough public schools and a nice community pool with swim team and arts & crafts and tennis lessons in the summer. He gave us a very nice life.

It is, perhaps, easier that he has been such a controversial role in my life story—one who deserves love and respect for his long hours worked schlepping to the city to make a solid income with his ability to process numbers and access risk. He, in his own way, loves his daughters. He doesn’t realize or care about the damage he has done by not being in control of his anger.

In short, I’m well past the point of bitterness, and now just humbly entertained by my father’s antics. I see that there will be changes possibly for the good that come out of his passing, especially for my mother, but I also don’t want him to leave this earth anytime soon. The way death works, of course, I don’t have a choice.

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