Writing About My Father, Day 18
Today my sister called me at my office with distressing news about my father. After the call, I went to a friend’s cubicle and cried. Not a full tearful torrent, but my eyes welled up, my voice became shaky. And I realized it’s the first time I really let myself cry—even if only for a minute or so—about my Dad’s situation.
My father was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in the first week of February, just a few days before I was admitted to the hospital for uterine surgery (to remove fibroids), which left me with a six-inch scar and photographic proof of what I’m like on morphine. I was careful not to let myself really absorb the news of my father’s diagnosis because I knew I needed all of my strength to get me through the several weeks of recovery, and what was then a possibility that I myself might have cancer.
Since then I haven’t done what I think of as the usual things one does when a parent is having a catastrophic health experience. I have not had a melt-down or gone to visit him as often as possible or called on a daily basis. And I haven’t been uncomfortable talking about the possibility of his death, especially as—morbid as it may seem—knowing that both of my parents were turning 70 this year, their deaths have become a real possibility in my mind. Not soon or imminently, but I’ve become keenly aware that they will ultimately die.
I’v been worried that because I haven’t been reacting appropriately that I am callous, that I am unforgiving, that I am selfish, that I simply do not care as much as my siblings do. Each night as I’ve written my way through these blogs, I have heard silent accusations of “bad daughter” with each keystroke.
I’m not sure what clicked tonight, but I finally realized that our reactions to grief are as individual as our fingerprints. My reaction doesn’t have to be the same as my sister’s or my brother’s.
While I, like my father, seem to have an opinion on just about everything, it’s difficult for me to react immediately to hard things. I take them in and then the hard thing has to sink into my skin, tumble around for a while so I can feel out its sharp edges and precarious angles.
I learned a long time ago that I have an artist’s skin with the potential to absorb everything—by which I mean any input with which I come in contact—so that after a short while, inside me becomes nothing but noise and chaos. I’ve had to learn to filter input, not absorb it right away or all at once. Which can sometimes slow my reaction time when whatever the hard thing is is something that’s happening directly to me. I think the emotional noise of my father’s dying has been so overwhelming that it’s somehow short-circuited my own self-knowledge, so I haven’t been able to remind myself that I am processing things in what is a very normal manner for me.
Our communication system is set up so my middle brother gets the news from my stepmother, and then he tells my sister, who then tells me. Often, I find myself listening more for and worrying about how my sister is taking it all in. So in the moment the bad news is delivered, I am always retreating, not because I don’t care but because I can’t absorb it and take care of my sister at the same time, and it feels vitally important for me to take care of my sister.
I think, also, that one of the ways I find myself connecting to my father now is as a fellow patient. I have spent long stretches of time in the hospital hooked up to an IV. I’ve been too weak to walk, and had absolutely no appetite. I’ve been poked and prodded relentlessly by a gaggle of doctors hovering around unsure what to do for me. I remember how exhausting it was to have to talk to other people, no matter how beloved, to explain over and over again what the doctor said. And so, once I can get the news from my sister, I find myself reluctant to pick up the phone and call my father. While it’s obviously a sign of caring to call, the part of me that’s been gravely ill recoils from what feels to me like burdening him. I habitually project my own experience as a patient onto his, though we have very different ideas about visitors and phone calls.
Am I still angry at him? Yes. Do I resent that I have to suddenly show up for him when he has not show up for me? Yes. Am I sometimes in sheer avoidance mode? Yes. I will own up to the fact that wrestling with anger, resentment, avoidance are also part of the reason why there are wide gaps between my phone calls. Forty-two years of hoarding his bad behavior, of stuffing my disappointment and anger and feelings of abandonment and betrayal way way down to my unlit, unmarked corners in order to not be estranged from him doesn’t just disappear if I breathe the words, “I forgive you,” even if it probably would make it easier on everyone else if it did.
I may not be grieving in the right away, or the preferred way, or in a way that’s easily identifiable—even by myself–as grieving, but make no mistake, I am keeping a vigil for my father. I am mourning him the only way I know how. I am letting go of the old hurts that separate me from him in the only way I can let them all go—by looking at them squarely. By cataloging the breadth and depth and height of each one. By naming them. You cannot let go what you cannot see. And so in my grief, I look.