It fell to me to be Queen of Dad by proximity alone; Chris lived close enough to visit fairly often, but far enough for it to be unreasonable to ask him to make Dad’s health decisions on his behalf. In fairness to both, they wished that we could divide all joys and burdens equally between us, including, I imagine, Dad’s health care.
But if I had been witness to the drama of Dad’s disease, the extremity of the whole thing was dampened by the stillness that filled the gaps between appointments. We were given quiet times in waiting rooms together when we talked about Milo or Lars, or what books we were reading. We’d grab a bite to eat or go to the store together. We had mundane chores in which the normality of life pushed aside the drama of Dad’s diagnosis.
Chris’s experience was extremely different. Though he heard the litany of complaints about getting old from Dad, he was as swindled by the myth of Dad’s “old age” and “portion control” as I was. We were both duped.
So when I called Chris to explain that whatever was wrong with Dad was more serious than arthritis or a bladder infection, it was a big surprise. As I squired Dad from doctor to clinic and back, I got the experience of a garden blooming with dark flowers; Chris just got handed the grim bouquet. I would call with this shocking diagnosis or that one, but Chris would have to chew on it by himself after we hung up the phone.
That first weekend after I called with the Big Reveal, Chris came down. All of us were reeling from the concept of cancer, so he hopped on a plane and we all swallowed it together. That, and a lot of beer.
But Chris couldn’t just hop down any time he heard something new; as a consequence he was conditioned to think of my phone calls as a crisis center calling with updates, possibly more dire than before. When I left messages, Chris assumed we’d learned something horrible and rushed to call us back, even if I’d just called with something mundane, like good days to visit or whether he’d met a nice girl. And it was this reality, so different from my own, that had me wishing there was something I could do.
I remembered what it was like. My stepfather John pulled this number on me when I was far away from home: between a congenital heart condition and deep abiding love for booze, John's organs failed in a total flaming collapse. When I got the call that was that he was at Death’s door, Mom even told me I shouldn’t come to visit because there was nothing left. That was the first time John tanked, and my mother, under extreme strain, forgot that it might not just be about John but about us, so I ignored her and came out anyway.
The second time John just up and died, so what can you do? You come out to help the ones left behind.
This may or may not have had any relationship to Chris’s experience. But it put me in mind of how helpless I felt when the important business of living and dying was taking place so far away from me. I thought about Chris, who loved Dad like a father but also his best friend, a still point in his turning world, and I reeled at how it felt for him.
If there was any gift of knowing about Dad’s disease, it was that Chris had the benefit of following up: he knew it was serious. Even if the hormone therapy stomped the bejeesus out of Dad’s cancer for a while, the oncologist made clear that it was good for about 18 months to two years. No matter what, we knew we were running on a clock of limited medical intervention. After the hormone therapy stopped working (sometimes it doesn’t and people just chug away like steam engines, having their natural hormones reversed by science in such a way that, despite living a strange new identity with boobs and hot flashes, they are most certainly living), it was possible that Dad would have to face a whole new round of interventions, that he might be poked and prodded and hustled around, and surgeried and lanced and made into a strange petri dish of unholy hope mixed with drugs. But in the present, if the hormone therapy took, we might be given a break.
What we did with that break was up to us. Dad made it clear what he wanted to do. I wrote him a note to express my feelings about our new reality, and he responded:
...Whatever “normal” is for us (did I really say “normal”?), is where we should dwell as much as possible. We just need to deal with stuff as it comes up, and improvise around it. ...There’s an anecdote about Ram Dass with one of his terminal patients—totally preoccupied with the unpleasant dreariness of death, she complains about it all the time.
He says to her something like, “Audrey, I notice that you are spending all your time and energy in dying. I have a suggestion: why not try dying for ten minutes every hour, then you’ll have all the rest of the time to do something more interesting.” He’s talking about something that he calls “the Gap”, that space from which we can watch, detached, what is going on with us regardless of whatever pain, frustration, despair we might be feeling in the moment.
It was a simple place Dad strived for, lived in from moment to moment. For me, it was a strange juggling act between complete normalcy and grim revelations, of joy that we were together and horror of what would be when Dad took his bow. I had Milo to entertain and keep as stable as possible; and be a partner to Lars who was also profoundly affected, and profoundly busy. It was a tricky web, and I trod through sections gracefully or fumbling, but through it all.
Chris was having his own experience. I couldn’t feign to understand it; it was his alone. But I understood that it was different, and in that I had empathy. Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It applies equally to the individual.
The swirling drama had focused on Dad, and, to a lesser extent, Chris and me. But we weren’t the only players, and sometimes I forgot through the haze of my suffering or confusion that it was as hard on Lars—perhaps harder because it was like gazing through a looking-glass version of what had happened in his own life.
Lars, not one to dwell, nevertheless suffered misfortune as a child. If it were perpetrated by something other than cancer, it’s possible Lars wouldn’t be so susceptible to the grief which cancer imparts: Lars lost his father to cancer when he was seven-years old.
I’m not sure how one should tell a young child that his father is dying; in the Seventies, when Lars’ father got bladder cancer, the thinking ran, “Don’t tell a child until you must.” By the time Lars learned of his father’s illness, he had two weeks left: two weeks to make sense of death, two weeks to fulfill a life of expectation and love; if not for Lars, who was too young to understand the true gravity of the situation, then for his father who knew without question that his son, whom he loved more than his own life, was going to have to make his way without him. Love was not enough to keep him in the world to protect Lars.
So when I told Lars about a friend-of-a-friend who was waving the white flag of surrender at the unthinkable age of 36 (and leaving behind a young daughter and a husband), a look of such suffering crossed his face that I felt terrible. I felt that after his tireless support and kindness towards me during this confusing and chaotic period, despite his own past, I rewarded him by dashing salt into his wounds. I was ashamed of myself when his face crumpled and he said, “I can’t hear anymore.” It was enough that he supported me through my own and Dad’s problems, but it was too much to expect him to swallow someone else’s grief when it was a grief too similar to his own.
I bit my tongue, sad that I had found someone else’s tragedy worthy of dinnertime conversation, and I wordlessly, perhaps unconsciously, decided I would not introduce that level of pain again.
There are problems with love, which include our desire to protect each other.