Pain demands to be felt.

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.

Leave a Comment