How My Father’s Cancer Diagnosis Saved Our Rocky Relationship
In one conversation after Dad got sick, everything changed completely.
I grew up on a small farm, living a life that I took for granted. I had a dog without a leash and mountains in whichever direction I looked, and I awoke to the call of pheasants in the alfalfa fields. My father worked in the city as a welder. He was quiet; distant, you might say. He was not highly educated, but he was smart, with an engineer’s way of looking at problems. He was a man made of leather, brass, and chewing tobacco who tried to teach my brother and me useful things, including respect. He also had a temper. I did not like him very much.
One day I came home from school and his car was already there. Once inside, I was told by my mother that he didn’t feel well. His back hurt. My father never missed work; in fact, when he came home, he went to the barn to work even more. I remember peeking around the corner at him as he lay on his bed in the middle of the day. I was in elementary school.
Multiple myeloma, I learned, is a type of blood cancer. It starts in the cells that normally make antibodies for the body to use in its immune response against infections. When those cells become malignant, they make abnormal antibodies like crazy, crowding out the useful ones. As the cancer grows, the person who has it shrinks. The disease saps the body’s energy, and the abnormal antibodies cause problems for other cells and tissues. Bones eventually look like Swiss cheese, and when they break, they may never heal. For the last year of my father’s life, his entire day consisted of rising from his hospital bed in the living room and walking to his chair to sit and think.
He was predictably in that chair when I came home one day during the ninth grade. I do not remember where my mother and brother were, but the two of us were alone. He asked me to sit down.
What followed still moves me these decades later. He told me about his life, his family growing up, what it was like in the Pacific during World War II, his loves, his heartbreaks. It was as if a pipe had burst, his inner self rushing out to me in a great flood.
He had been speaking for maybe an hour or more when I realized that he was doing more than telling. He was asking to be forgiven. All it took was understanding that that was what he needed, and I forgave everything, immediately.
When he died, I didn’t return to school for a few days. My biggest dread going back was gym class. It was poorly supervised, and bullies ran the show. True to form, on my first day, I was standing there in my shorts when an all-too-familiar voice bellowed, “Lensch!” It was a guy who had given many of us a few lumps over the years. I turned to face him and said, “What do you want?” The other boys didn’t say a word as they waited for the beatdown.
“I heard your dad died,” he said. “Is that true?”
I quietly replied, “Yes.”
He didn’t punch me. He didn’t even move. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry.”
I was shocked. I’m sure I cried. Those two words are how I have remembered that kid ever since.
What do you do when your “enemies” reveal that they are also human? I think you either forgive and move forward or hold on to resentment and live in the past. I’m certainly not glad that my father got sick, but at the same time, I realize that if he hadn’t, I might never have come to love him.