It’s been a year and two months since my father died, and only now can I bring myself to say something solid about what death is, how I have grieved, or who my father is to me. I found out in August 2003 that he was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer and that in only 5% of the cases similar to his would he live longer than five years. It was more than likely that he would live less than that time, and since then there was a terrible ticking clock at every holiday, every birthday, every graduation, every Monday morning, every turn of a chapter that this could be the last time he was with us.
It is hard to live in transition in your teens and early twenties with so much changing to feel so grounded by something like your father’s impending death. My family did not really want me to move to LA for graduate school, but on the outside they were excited for me. I think everyone including myself wondered how I would cope if he died while I was away at school. One time I was deep in my spring term school work and my father was scheduled for a spur of the moment and very serious surgery. I struggled for a week to figure out what to do and then bought a plane ticket even though we had so little money and flew to Portland not knowing if he would even be alive when I got there. The odd thing was he was happy to have me there as a distraction and pretended that I wasn’t there because of the surgery. We went out to dinner. I have a picture of us there. In all of his pictures there is so much underneath the surface. If I look back at our family photos in the last five years I see his pain, his excitement to be with us, our fear that this can’t last forever, our joy that we have at least that moment, and all of us wanting it just to be normal.
When I worked as a therapist in graduate school all of this was going on... the ticking clock, the fear that I would miss something, the rest of life that was exciting and moving at a fast pace, the love that I had for my father, the anger that I had at him for not being honest with me about how he was doing physically, the sadness for the things I wanted from him as a child that I knew I would never get if he died now. By a strange set of circumstances I was offered a position working with cancer patients and their families. Some of them during the last stages of life, others in the early parts of grieving a death. I was very honest that I was sorting through those things myself and told my colleagues of my father, some of my own challenges in my family because of it, and how it affected my work. At that point I had been living with and processing my father’s illness for nearly four years, learning how to talk to people about how he was doing and how they could pray when I wasn’t even really sure what was going on with him. At times I felt like ignoring my parents and moving on with life, at other times I was more sensitive and worried and tried to reach out and help. Over those years I felt like my father wanted to keep things a secret and live life without us worrying but I felt pushed away. I remember one of the concepts in our counseling work at that agency sticking with me during the last years of my dad’s life “a new normal.” They said that families dealing with cancer have such a different perspective, but they find their new normal and live in that and often can thrive.
Our new normal was so... us. My father lost his entire retirement in the Enron scandal in 2001 and for a short time was very angry and unapproachable about the topic. He was a Christian but was not the type to sort things out externally or talk to others... especially to family and especially about his faith dilemmas. At some point we all realized that his cancer made it impossible to ever earn back money enough to live into retirement. And I’m sure he realized that he wouldn’t live that long either. There wasn’t a big event that happened but eventually we got to laughing about Enron, about how it all went down, about how blind all of the employees felt, and how in the end, it doesn’t really matter. My dad talked to me one day about God’s judgment, about what I thought happened to people like Kenneth Lay, and about living in this world when we don’t actually see justice pull through. In this sense my father is a great pillar of faith to me that I can draw on even now, even though we couldn’t talk about faith together most of the time. I can put my tiny life trials into perspective when I know that he lived through great injustice and is now with God enjoying eternity without any of that bitterness on his radar. So I guess our new normal was a humor that only we could understand, an acceptance that life is life and that our narrative with God is so much greater, and that pain will be here (like cancer, like financial ruin, like wanting more from our families and knowing we can never have it).
to be continued...