My dad’s dad, the man I knew as Papaw, died January 8, 2011, at the age of 78. He had a heart attack in his favourite chair while getting ready to watch a football game. Grandma had gone into the kitchen to get something for him, left him for just a minute. When she came back, he was dead.
I was never close to my grandparents. Any of my non-parents-and-brother family, honestly. We always lived far away, and there were significant belief-and-lifestyle differences between us that were difficult for a young conservative child to overcome. I was sad, of course, that Papaw was dead. The last time I’d seen him had been at my wedding, where I’m told that he got quite emotional, which is entirely unlike him. But he did end up leaving the reception early to go back to the hotel to watch a game. He was nothing if not predictable.
Mom called to tell me about Papaw. I’d been asleep. I shouted at her. “WHAT?!” I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry for a day or two. My entire family met at my parents’ house the next morning and made the trek to southern West Virginia.
Mom and I were worried about Dad. Heart problems run in his family. Clearly. He’s worked a hard shift every weekday for 20 years, getting up at 3am, working 4:30am-12:30pm. He was in his lower 50’s, close to the same age as my mom’s dad when he died. But he just…wasn’t slowing down. Working full-time, an elder at his church, still doing all the yard and house work. Just…working so hard, and it was starting to really show. Really wear on him. We were all pretty worried about him, actually.
Dad and I stood by Papaw’s casket at the viewing, both barely holding back tears. This was probably pretty bitchy of me, but I pointed at the casket, shaking, and said, “You have got to slow down, because I’m not ready to see you there, too.” We both broke down sobbing and just hugged each other tightly for a while.
He had a physical coming up shortly, and he was planning to start taking better care of himself from then on out.
Two weeks later, Michael and I were home. Watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My phone rang: it was my mom. Her voice sounded weird. Not right. Not okay. She told me that the doctor discovered that Dad’s liver enzymes were up. I actually don’t remember everything she told me. He got on the phone at one point, too. Both explaining things. Saying words like “lesions” and “liver biopsy.” Immediately after getting off the phone, I googled some of the phrases they told me, and over and over again words like “life expectancy” and “stage four” kept coming up.
The day of Dad’s biopsy, we were going to go visit, to be with them. I was going to leave work early — we lived 2 hours away. Mom called to let me know it was over and they were going home. 40 minutes later, she called again, that same strained voice. “We’re in the hospital. Your dad…he passed out. His heart rate couldn’t get above 34 for a while, but it’s climbing now. They’re keeping him until they know he’ll be okay.”
Later, we discovered that what happened to him is called carcinoid crisis, and it’s a miracle that he didn’t die.
February 8, 2011, one month to the day after Papaw died, Dad called to tell me that it was cancer.
It’s a very slow-growing cancer. Technically, it is stage four. Terminal. But we honestly don’t really know how long he has.
He has monthly injections of something called octreotide, or sandostatin. They’re to keep the tumors from growing as quickly. In late 2012, he had surgery to remove the primary tumor in his small intestine and to debulk some of the tumors in his liver. He had radiation on half of his liver this year, and is going back to the specialist in NYC this month to see what the next steps are: keep going with the shots (which will happen no matter what, until they…stop working), radiate the other side of his liver, or start him on chemo pills. Apparently the surgery he had added years to his life. Apparently if he’d just done the shots and never had the surgery…well. 3–5 years from diagnosis. Now, we don’t know. Hopefully a lot longer.
It’s really easy to forget that he has cancer sometimes. He still looks…normal. Except a little grayer. A little thinner. He has a ginormous 18-inch-long scar from where they cut him open. He’s so tired, all the time. He still works full-time, still works the same shift, is still an elder at the church. He still insists on doing all the yard work. I can’t say that I blame him. He wants normalcy. We all want normalcy. But we all want him to stick around, too.
But that’s not going to happen, is it?
That’s not what stage four cancer means. That’s not what terminal means. He looks okay, but he’s not okay. His treatment makes him sick. And it might keep working for a while — after all, his cancer markers were down according to his last scan. But it also could…stop working. We don’t know. We don’t know.
There’s a scene in both the book and the movie The Fault in Our Stars where one of the characters who is dying of cancer has gone out to try to do something for himself and is…sick. Feverish, throwing up, crying, infection where his treatment tubes go into his body. He screams and beats the inside of his car in raging helplessness and hopelessness. I couldn’t breathe. I can’t breathe. My dad can’t go through that. Mom can’t watch this happen. My brother and I can’t watch this happen. My precious nephews can’t watch this happen. No. No. No. No.
My relationship with him is kind of strained. I married someone he didn’t want me to marry. Now I’m not a Christian, after being The Good Child for so long. I drink (well, sort of). I have a pierced nose. I’m not the daughter he wanted, and I’m not willing to lie to make him feel better.
But I don’t want to squander the days we have. But I don’t know how to make our relationship okay. So much of it was centered around our shared religion, but it’s…not anymore.
I don’t want to lose my daddy. Fuck it, I’m 27 years old, and he’s only still in his 50’s, and I shouldn’t have to think about this for 20 years, and he should be able to be mad as hell at me for my lack of faith but us still be able to talk and be okay and not awkward and I shouldn’t have to worry about whether my decisions are making him sicker. And I shouldn’t have to watch my mom lose her soulmate, and she shouldn’t have to watch him get sicker and sicker and still put up with people who say, “But he looks fine!” or worse yet don’t say anything because they legitimately think nothing’s really seriously all that wrong. And Dad shouldn’t have to worry about what his body is doing to him, and whether it will hurt, and whether the aches and pains and frailty and exhaustion are just part of getting older or part of his cancer or both and never ever really knowing which is which. And it’s not fair that before he could even begin to process the death of his father he had to come face to face with his own mortality, and while it’s so so so great that he’s still alive and might be for a while it is so unbelievably shitty to be forced to live years and years inescapably knowing that your body is fucking trying to kill you.
It’s times like these I’m simultaneously glad that I don’t believe in an afterlife or a god or anything of the sort because it helps me focus on appreciating the time I do have with him, and also glad that he does believe in God and heaven because that’s comforting to him and gives him community and a sense of purpose.
But I don’t want to live in a world without my dad. Where I can’t post puns on his Facebook wall and know that I made him smile. Where no one calls me Kiddo anymore or makes fun of me for habits long since forsaken, where no one looks longingly at the portrait I drew of 3-year-old me and says, “You’ll always be that little girl.” And yes, I hate a good many of those things, but they are also part of the foundations of our relationship and they are Our Things, just like socks will always be Ours so long as he doesn’t make me wear them with the seams in the wrong places, and we will always fight over who gets to sing what harmony until we can’t fight anymore because he won’t be able to sing.
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.