I’m sitting in the waiting area with Dad while my mother is undergoing a biopsy of her lung. We were silent for a long while; my Dad not being much of a talker. On the other hand, I usually talked too much, but always felt a little inhibited when it was just me and my father. I guess you would say that Mom was always the buffer.
“You know that they are looking to just confirm and stage it, right, Dad?”
“Yea, I know” he says, tearing up.
I’m trying to hold it together, because for some reason I feel compelled to be the strong one; I can’t show any weakness, or all the walls will cave in. I’m very scared for my mother–lung cancer is an awful disease–and I’m worried about how my father is going to deal with her illness, and perhaps, her death. My relationship with my father is a complex one. As I write this I think how naïve that sounds; who doesn’t have complex relationships with their parents?
When I was really little, I remember a young, vibrant Dad. He worked in the city Monday through Friday, and for a while had a part-time job in the evenings at the local grocery store. In the summers, my parents would often take my siblings and me on all sorts of day trips (what families today call stay-cations). Dad would have a week off and instead of going away, we would venture out to local places of interest. I remember going to places like, The Land of Make Believe, Fairytale Forest, and The Gingerbread Castle. Sometimes, we would spend a night out someplace that was too far for a one day trip, such as Lancaster, PA, to see the Amish. I can remember going to Lake George, and the Jersey Shore too. My parents were always loading us into the car, and off we would go. We also had a pool in the backyard, and enjoyed many days swimming and having cookouts. Dad spent his weekends taking care of the pool as well as the yard and doing other household chores; he was a hardworking man. We always spent Sundays with his parents, either at our house or theirs; my mother’s mother also lived with us, and, so, I guess you could say Dad was a real family man.
As the years went by, and I grew older and more aware, I noticed that Dad started to drink more than he used to. My first memories of this were when I started recognizing that he would get angrier than usual at some little misstep or at something that seemed relatively insignificant. I soon learned to stay out of his way when he was like this, and as the years went on, he was like this more often than not. During these years, it was difficult to categorize what kind of relationship we had; it was as if he had two different personalities, and I was confused more than anything else. Eventually, he stopped his “bad habit” as he called it and our family time was more and more normal. By the time I was having children of my own, he was a different man from what he had been during those years. As my children grew, I saw how wonderful and loving he was with them, and it brought back memories of my own early childhood and the man I knew then.
Dad was still not a man of many words, and with my mother around, he didn’t need to be the one talking! She was the social one–she initiated interactions with other relatives and friends. Mom and Dad had grown to be a loving couple that were always there for their family–always. Dad developed good relationships with his children and our spouses, as well as his eight grandchildren. Dad was a real family man once again.
Now, here we were many years later, sitting in the hospital, waiting to find out what Mom was dealing with. It wasn’t long before we learned the truth: Stage 4, inoperable. It felt as though there was an iron weight on my chest, crushing my own lungs, as I tried to comprehend what it meant: the treatments to come, the eventual loss of my mother, and how Dad would deal with it all.
My mother endured the battle for six and a half years. She had non-stop chemotherapy, and thankfully, until the last six months, she maintained a good quality of life. However, the fateful time came, and my mother passed on. Of the many roles that my mother played, the most prominent was liaison–she was the one we all spoke with, made arrangements with, checked in with. Life now would change in many ways, but her death would have a tremendous effect on my relationship with my father.
Although I live almost 1,200 miles away from Dad, we are closer than ever. We speak almost daily, and I go home to visit him several times a year. In addition, he has come to visit me! Ironically, my mother’s death has been the catalyst for our developing a new relationship–one which we might not have had if my mother didn’t pass before him. He’s still not much of a talker–but he does talk a lot more than he used to. I’m different, too: I am comfortable confiding in him, and sharing with him how I feel about most everything. More importantly, I am able to tell him that I love him every time we speak, a sentiment that has always been true, just not always easy to express.