Dad stepped into the car and handed me an article from Atlantic Monthly called “Letting Go of My Father.”
“I’ve got nothing to say other than ‘Don’t let it get this bad.’” We pulled away from the curb and onto another journey to the clinic; the oncologist had requested a second blood test in a week. I hadn’t seen the article, but the meaning was plain: here we were again. We needed to get back to the business of cancer, which was suspended for a great, special, amazing while.
But the statute of limitations had possibly run out.
When we heard that Dad was riddled with cancer the previous June, those early weeks were spent at crisis levels of management as we tried to make Dad more comfortable and to make sense of all the medical blah blah blah.
But eventually there was no more to say. The hormone therapy tamped down Dad’s testosterone. His appetite returned. His mysterious ailment/bum foot slowly improved and he began taking walks for pleasure again, even entertained getting on his bike once in a while. By the time Christmas rolled around he was positively hale. We all celebrated Christmas together, kissed farewell to the crappy old year, rang in the new one, and planned a trip to Mexico.
“I keep forgetting he’s sick,” Lars said over Christmas break. It was an easy mistake to make; Dad’s appetite came roaring back and he was eating food for both sustenance and pleasure again. He walked with his camera to take photos of his neighborhood so he could spend hours and hours in his studio painting what he found there. Dad was over the moon with his returned mobility and he maximized it.
He was just Dad again.
Mexico was the first vacation Dad ever took. When I planned the trip in the first place, I considered Italy for our big adventure because Dad had always entertained some profoundly irrational dislike based on his prejudice against Renaissance art. The fact that it was the birthplace of the Roman Empire and the seed for much of the development of the Western world never seemed to enter the equation. He was like “Reg” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who asked, “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
So, like, whatever Dad.
He seemed up for it. Dad kept an open mind because he knew that we were bonkers for it. Plus, come on: the Sistine Chapel, the Forum, centuries worth of fountains littering the city in a blanket of cultural detritus. Ancient aqueducts. The Pantheon. Fried artichokes. Gelato.
But I took a step back and realized that because Dad is Dad and Rome is Rome, he would make it his mission—his duty—to see every last single artifact the city coughed up for him. Dad would visit Rome the way he’d visited all the rest, which was to chase down art like a cultural bloodhound in every corner and hallway, and then move on to nearby cities if he had time.
Rome began to seem like a lot of work. It seemed like it wasn’t going to be very relaxing. It was exhaustion wrapped up in the glitter and pomp of history.
I changed my tack and lobbied for a small, relaxed fishing town called Sayulita, in Mexico. Dad readily agreed because he thought I was trying to work around Milo’s school schedule. I was okay with that. Whatever it took to encourage Dad to take a load off.
We set down in Puerto Vallarta in February, and the air was so heavy and warm that Dad instantly fell into vacation mode. Our taxi driver, Antonio, with whom we had arranged ahead of time, was waiting for us with a cooler of Tecate and a stream of interesting stories as we drove through the jungle en route to Sayulita. The region and landscape was so utterly “other” to Dad— who had always visited places to see something rather than just being—that he collapsed into the mood of mellow immediately.
“Never in my life would I have imagined myself in a place like this!” he enthused. Our house was palatial, came with a housekeeper, had its own palapa with a hammock and dining area, banana trees, coconut palms. A short walk to the idyllic beach. Eighty-degree days, sixty-five degree nights. A small stroll into town where we could pick up the best ice cream outside of Italy that we’ve ever eaten. A restaurant which consisted of a family who spoke no English, six tables, and two hammocks in the jungle; they served the best fish tacos in town. Iguanas were the only traffic at points, wandering the dirt roads looking for a new tree to fall from.
Dad didn’t do a blessed thing. He never pulled out his sketchbook, didn’t even contemplate finding an art gallery, though there are a few. He sat on the beach and watched the sea. He stared at the jungle hills. He drank Negra Modelo and ate coconut shrimp on three different occasions. He read books. He splurged by drinking coffee for the first time in ten years under our palapa with muffins from the Muffin Lady. That was it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a real vacation in my whole life,” he said. “This is great.”
Back in the bosom of Portland’s winter, which is mild all things considered, Dad was feeling good after soaking up the heat and sun of Mexico. But about a week after our return he got a little crotchety again, mostly, he thought, because of the damp. He always felt better when he could read books in his chair by the window, catch a couple of Z’s there, and have southern exposure cook out the cranky.
I began to suspect that his foe was making its unwelcome return a few weeks after Mexico. Dad was more lethargic. He seemed paler than I remembered. He complained of aches and stiffness more often and cursed Portland for its cloudy days. At dinners he wasn’t as pluck, his appetite not as enthusiastic as it was the month before. I asked him about it and he was blasé, convinced his arthritis was bothering him again, though he did entertain the notion that the cancer might be sending up ﬂares. He was coming up on his next Lupron hormone shot, so we thought perhaps the hormones coursing through his system were a little thin and that was the corollary with the timing of his aches and pains.
The week before his hormone shot, he went in for his PSA test. The docs called him with a request he get tested again because his numbers were sharply elevated—up past 50—and they wanted to double check.
But neither Dad nor I doubted the results: too many inconvenient facts were lining up. His PSA numbers were elevated enough that it appeared the hormone therapy has lost its efficacy, and we were into the next phase.
Some people last for ten years on hormone therapy alone. Dad would not be one of them.
We sat in the car after I had taken him to have the second blood test. We had spoken of “Cancer” and “Illness” again, though it had been months since we’d mentioned it. We’d had a reprieve of sorts, a suspension of wartime action, but it appeared the armistice had been called off.
“Here we are again,” I said to Dad as he was getting out of the car.
“Here we are still,” he reminded me.
Here we were. Still.