Death did not change him. His eyes didn’t soften, his self-pity didn’t lessen and his anger did not abate. The poor eating habits and the drinking and drug taking that hauled him into the irreversible territory of terminal illness went on as they had before. It was hard to watch him, my father, confront death with the same blameful and self-centered attitude he had used to hack through life. My reverie that his death might bring about change, grace, or forgiveness would not be witnessed. Not on his part, at least.
When the call came, I knew he was dead. It had been 10 years since I last heard from my father. I often fantasized that this call would be the first and the last I would ever receive in regards to him. But I was wrong. As I would be wrong about so many things to come. He was not dead. He was dying. And he wanted to see my sister and me.
We agreed to meet him on the premise that one condition was met, the same condition we had put in place 10 years prior; that he confess and apologize for 15 years of childhood sexual, physical, and emotional abuse that my sister and I had endured at his hands. This condition was non-negotiable and had initiated the decade long estrangement between him and us. Assuming my father knew this, and after a gentle reminder of such, we agreed to meet.
My sister and I sat silently across from one another as we observed, speechless and agape, the physical transformation of my father. Half his previous size, frail and glass-eyed, he stared back at us. Aside from the gruesome knot of cancer at his neck, not at all the monster we had remembered. After some unmemorable and agonizing small talk, he began his atonement. Without much effort, it seemed, words began to spill from his mouth. Apologies, pleas, admissions, confessions, and confirmations all came out of him so forcibly it seemed impossible that he could have contained them for so long.
I cried once very briefly and my sister shouted a few things I do not remember. Mostly, I just listened. Astonished. Confused. Not at all ready for what I proclaimed I was all set to receive. Looking back, and I know it sounds terrible, I wish he had died right there, taking everything with him, all those words and implied promises. All the fantasies that an impending death can provide.
Through the next 6 or so months we watched my father die. We could only sit back, with the familiar helplessness of our childhood, while my dad smoked meth after his chemo sessions and poured milkshakes into his feeding tube. We shuttled him to drug dens and daily appointments. We oversaw his medical and palliative care and cringed as he hit on every pretty nurse – regaling them with stories about his childhood in Hawaii (he grew up in Vancouver, WA) and bragging about the IRONMAN Triathlon he was training for right up until he got sick (the most exercise my dad got was riding his mountain bike across town to score dope or grocery shop at 7-Eleven). We were forced to make decisions for him that he refused to make on his own. We asked questions about his treatments, scoured the Internet for ways to make him more comfortable/healthy and lent him money when he lost his wallet – which happened constantly and provided some much needed fodder for joke making behind his back. But mostly, we were just attempting to provide a safe environment in which he could grieve his own death.
Sadly, my father did not at all seem concerned about his psychological, social or spiritual needs. He was rude to his treatment team and eschewed regular monitoring and individualized care. He would sometimes disappear for days unannounced and show up again without explanation in the middle of the night, tapping on my bedroom widow, covered in shrubbery and bruises, asking to sleep on the couch. Not surprisingly, my father’s descent into death mostly seemed not to bother him. And it when it did, he took it out on others or entombed his feelings in drugs. Death did not seem meaningful to him nor did it provoke meaning in him. The disappointment of watching a broken man flounder on his deathbed is a sad sight – one of the saddest. Countless attempts at stopping his self-destructive behavior had proved completely futile and at some point we altogether stopped trying to prevent what he seemed so ready to accept – his own death.
The only expression of grief my father showed would be in cases where he would attempt to elicit sympathy about his condition from total strangers. He would complain of the physical pain but never of the existential kind he was surly up against. His reluctance to outwardly grieve was matched only by his unwillingness to give thanks. The only real acknowledgement he ever gave my sister and I was the time we told him he could keep the 5 dollars in gas money he offered in the form of pocket change. Other than this, he never offered one word or gesture that might indicate he was grateful for all that we had done, even in the face of what he hadn’t.
What stung most about his casual and uncaring fumble into death, was the fact that he didn’t even seem moved enough to attempt to hold out for a potential wedding or the birth of a son, or college graduation. I guess, in the end, his own style of dying matched his way of living. He was never capable of anything else. In the end, I guess I wanted him to exit gracefully and bravely and utter some last words that I could keep as proof that my father wasn’t the barbaric philistine that he was, words that could fly against the truth of my dad’s naked cowardice, but, of course, those words never came.
Slowly, it became evident that my father’s first, grand apology was the only one we’d ever get and that no more was to be mentioned of our childhood or the horrific acts he had carried out against us. We discovered that his wife had recently divorced him and that most of his addict friends weren’t going to care for him the way he knew we would. It was obvious that he didn’t want to heal our relationship or himself. He cared only that he had a little comfort at the end of his life.
Despite our frustrations with my father, watching him waste away was truly heart-rending. For as much misery and anguish my father had inflicted on my sister and me, we still held compassion for him. I’ll never forget the long days at his chemotherapy appointments or the way I felt guilty for being bored at them. I still think about the way he cowered, child-like, at the almost daily needle pricks or the way he his skin painfully welted and peeled after radiation.
My father did not have the deathbed epiphany you see in films or read about in books. He didn’t realize, or maybe didn’t care, that his nearing death was a last chance to make things right. But we did. We offered comfort when he did not deserve it. We offered time and love where he never gave it. Confronting death alongside my father was the most maddening and exhausting work I’ve ever done, but it was going to give me so much if I let it. If I let go the expectations of my father someday changing. If I slid compassion and forgiveness into the place of anger and sadness. If I let love guide me and heal me and be grateful for a closure where I might never have gotten it.
And then something happened. My dad lived. Against all odds, the chemo worked and his cancer went into remission. I remember that moment, I was in my car when I got the call. I remember my heart too, it felt like it was going to smash the windows out. I was so confused. It felt like a trick. I was glad he was going to live, but I was scared he was going to live. I was angry that someone more deserving would die of the same disease and I felt guilty for the same reason. I was bugged out that smoking meth vs. doing yoga and a juice fast could get you the same results. I was sad he wouldn’t need us anymore. I was pissed I ever worried about him.
Miraculously, my father did not die but I’m damn sure he knew he was going to. We all were. Watching him die did not help us make sense of his cruelty, but it did help us to make sense of him. In the end, it was not death he was afraid of, but life. Death had pushed his nose into the botchery of it and it was too much for him to bear. But this death was not my father’s first. He had died a million tiny deaths, until he ended up where we found him– virtually uninhabited. During the days in which my father struggled to die, a chain of words played through my head on repeat, like some impending omen. They were the words of Maya Angelou. They are the words I try and live my own life by:
“What is a fear of living? It’s being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the to ime you take up and the space you occupy. If you don’t know what you’re here to do, then just do some good.”
My father’s almost-death did not change him, but it did change us. Out of the experience, we ourselves, bore healing, transformation, and peace. We discovered what we knew all along, that we did not need his permission or his admission to do so. What we were able to achieve during his confrontation of death – the hard work of acceptance and letting go – might have taken us years to accomplish had it never happened. After my father’s almost-death, my sister and I got on with the hard work of living, which essentially is adequately preparing for death – to confront it without fear, without doubt, and without regret.