Life is so messy. Why does something so beautiful have to be so awfully, heart-wrenchingly, terrifyingly messy at the same time?
I may have mentioned, probably around 5 years ago and never again since, that my father has stage 4 (that's the really bad type) colon cancer. Then I mostly stopped thinking about it--of course, that's not really possible but cancer is a sneaky bastard, particularly in this case, and allowed for long moments of coasting quietly through this roller coaster ride for life, and during those moments, I just tried not to think about "it."
"It" is complicated and maybe even more so when the relationship is complicated. My dad is an alcoholic. Not the terrible monster beating and molesting people type, just the selfish, indifferent, occasionally absent kind. Man, this is hard to write. Because it's not cool to say, right? About a dying man. About a dying, not-certifiably terrible man. So not only do I feel limited in speaking of my grief but I feel even more limited because who thinks like this? Who says things like this? What kind of jerk...? I want to delete that last paragraph more than you'll ever know. I want to protect him, and this awful side of me, from you.
There was a moment that I blurted this horrible personal truth out to my hairdresser (the keeper of my soulful secrets) and admitted that there was a time after his diagnosis, that along with our confusion and sadness, the rest of the family felt a bit like he just got a free pass now. Without much familial investment at all over the years, he was going to need us and it would be inhumane to not just drop our former issues and be the kind of people that we would prefer to be in this situation. To be that kind of family, the kind of family we all wished we were, with the devoted wife and children beating their chests and crying to the heavens over the injustice of our lost patriarch.
But again, life is messy. Particularly when any form of addiction is involved.
(And my hairdresser laughed and cried at the same time, hugged me, and told me her story was very much the same and that I should write a memoir of my grief, for people like us. But I think this will suffice. That is why she is the keeper of my secrets, though.)
He has had good times and surprising stretches of being sober where he is enjoyable, and he has had bad times. He can be difficult to be around (this is the diplomatic way of stating this point).
The last time he was in the hospital, we were alone when the doctor came in and lectured him about drinking after his story changed a bit about how much he'd been doing it.
Finally, the elephant in the room had been unleashed.
When the doctor left, my dad said he didn't want to live if he couldn't have a beer with his chicken wings, and I told him that it really was his life and he could live the rest of it however he wanted, but that if he chose that to understand that he was basically choosing suicide--a long drawn out version, but suicide nonetheless since the tumors on his liver left no room for messing around. I reiterated that it was his decision, that it wasn't my life, but that I wouldn't bother with all of the chemotherapy and experimental treatments if he was choosing to give up in this way. I said it with kindness and without judgment, just a matter of fact way to say he was welcome to do that but let's call it what it is.
He quit drinking. For a while.
Through this ordeal, this fantastically shitty ordeal, we are closer than we've ever been in the past. He calls to update me on the progress of his illness and treatment and when sober, he would call frequently and we would talk about how a beer is just not worth it. When he quit calling, I knew.
His doctor called my parents' home at 10pm on Friday night and said based on some blood work he was reviewing, my dad was in liver failure and needed to go to the hospital now. He thought he was having a shunt placed in his liver and when I visited the next morning, we chatted casually about the time of the surgery and hospital food. There was a bright yellow unsigned Do Not Resuscitate form on the bedside table that matched the pallor of his skin and the whites of his eyes.
Since the beginning of his illness, we have this verbal dance that we do. He likes to point out that he will die, I think needing to talk about it but not being sure as to how, and then gives an estimate for that. My job is to acknowledge it and then refute it.
"I could be dead in 6 months," he'd say bluntly, waiting for a reaction.
"Yeah, you could," I'd reply. "Or you could step out the front door and get hit by a bus this afternoon, or you could live another 5 years. They gave you 6 months to live almost 5 years ago, so who knows what other odds you'll beat. You have no way of knowing, no one does."
"There are only two forms of chemo left I can try," was another intro to this conversation. "I could be dead within the year."
"Yeah, that's true, and it's a scary thought," I'd say, taking my turn. "Or this round of chemo could hit the 'reset' button and science could catch up and you could live for years still." That was one of his favorites, we repeated that dialog many times in many different but strikingly similar forms.
But this past weekend they had decided that his liver was inoperable and his favorite nurse gave him a kiss and a hug and tearfully told him it would probably be weeks.
This news was delivered as I sat waiting for the Lego movie, and I left my kids and husband at the theater without a car and drove back to the hospital, all the while thinking, "What do you say to someone who just found out that they are under hospice care?" or even more importantly, "What don't you say to someone who has just found out they are under hospice care?" Don't ask me because I still don't know. I was also wondering on the way there, is there anything harder than seeing your dad cry?
And then I found out that there is.
It's seeing your dad scared out of his mind and trying not to cry.
"They said weeks, but how can they know?" He asked, forehead furrowed, eyes watering.
"They don't know. They said months 5 years ago. No one knows," I said my lines, knowing that they know.
"They said weeks but it could be months, don't you think?"
"You've been feeling great. It could definitely be months," I lied to the yellow man before me.
"But I guess months isn't a whole lot better than weeks," he said with an air of defeat that I hope you'll never witness in your own lives.
"Of course months is a whole lot better than weeks. Every additional day is better."
I told him it must be scary right now and asked if he would rather this or something unexpected and without
hesitation he said he would rather this, knowing it was coming. I'm not
so sure I agree. From the outside looking in, this is torture of the worst kind.
I pointed out that while he still felt good, he should think of things he would like to do. That we would make it happen.
He would like to work and be with his dogs. That's all. He said he was so glad that they would outlive him, because he couldn't stand to lose one of them--forehead creasing, eyes watering overtime at the thought. He has a tiny, nervous little Chihuahua mix and a Dachshund, to better paint the picture of this "tough farm boy" and his beloved pets.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about what money was in what accounts and how my mom will be okay and how weird and morbid funerals are and who to tell and how to tell them and the importance of accepting the help of hospice, like this was a perfectly average way to spend a Saturday with my parents, casually discussing the end of someone's existence with that someone.
In a surprising (and messy) story twist, the liver doctor came in at the end of the day and declared the cancer doctors to be full of doom and gloom and said let's give it a few weeks and see what happens. Told him to go home and have a drink if he'd like. Thanks, guy, good looking out. How's that Hippocratic oath treating you these days?
But he is happy to be at home and with his dogs. He is happy to have his hope for a "few more months" confirmed by an outsider of our regular routine. He is happy to hold on to what is most likely a lie. As far as I know, he did not have that drink.
And in the background the rest of the family has whispered and texted talks of hospice and palliative care and arranges for special food and tries to give him a good balance of space and company. He fell down on Monday while feeling weak and told my mom he thinks it will be days and not weeks. He seemed surprised.
Out of habit, I fell into my role and thought, "It could be weeks, no one knows."
As if days and weeks aren't awfully close as it is.