I first learned of my father’s cancer by voicemail. My father rarely, if ever, called me. He had never liked talking on the phone and had a habit after about two minutes of conversation of concluding, “I better let you go” as though I were the one itching to get off the phone. “Merr, I’ve got cancer” his brief message began. He had not felt well for several months and finally went to the doctor, convinced he had an ulcer.
I’m an only child and growing up, I was often in my father’s care, he was a college professor and had a more flexible schedule than my mother. A folklorist, my father was both a teller of tales and a maker of tales. As a girl, I knew these tales well: the baby alligator he gave to his college girlfriend as a gift, which, once rejected, returned home with him to suburban New Jersey where it lived in the bathtub until it escaped and was found hissing in the shrubs by a petrified gardener 4 houses down; hitchhiking cross country to work in a logging camp; dropping out of college to join the paratroopers; sailing his 40-foot wooden sailboat with no engine single-handed down the Maine coast. These tales, told and retold, expertly, with perfect delivery by my father, were the tapestry of my childhood. Like my father, they loomed larger than life. And like any child, I sought my father’s attention, this man whose heroes were Shackleton and Amundsen, who could recite Shakespeare and Twain, fell trees, hunt pheasant and whose depth of knowledge seemed boundless. He admired fearlessness and independence; frowned on overt displays of emotion. I fashioned myself on these qualities, hoping to elicit his admiration, to feature in a tale.
I did feature in his tales, though only as bit parts, with him always the lead: my birth, when, rather than waiting at the hospital, he bar hopped by motorcycle while doctors frantically tried to find him, needing his permission to do an emergency C-section to save my mother’s life; or the time when, so distracted by the launching and subsequent sinking of his sail boat, he forgot about me, age 7, and found me at dusk curled up asleep in the front seat of his truck. These tales were told by my father to relatives and friends with irreverence, and always elicited uproarious laughter.
My own stories did not rise to the level of tales: age 8 making my father a virgin eggnog on Christmas in hopes of a holiday without alcohol. Me, in my PJs, my father shaving in the bathroom mirror, steam filling the air between us, “Dad could you drink this eggnog, today?” He glances down, laughs slightly, and then, goes back to shaving. Years later, age 14, my first night at boarding school, calling home from the basement of the dorm, the cement cold on my stocking feet, the feeling in my chest tight with missing. My father picks up the phone, I can tell he’s ‘into his cups’ just from the way he answers, “Hello?” “Hi Dad, it’s me”. I pause, try to speak, start to cry, the tightness giving way. “I’m homesick”. His response: “Jesus, you’ve just left,” and he hands the phone to my mother, who sooths, comforts, mends.
Some 10 days after my father’s initial diagnosis I sit in a brightly lit doctor’s office with my father and stepmother. “You have pancreatic cancer, stage 4”. They live in a small coastal Maine town, the hospital room looks out over a glistening blue bay, made brighter by the frigid temperatures. “4 to 6 months without treatment, maybe a year with treatment,” the doctor tells us. We all know our parents will die sometime, we don’t know how, or when necessarily, but it’s one of life’s certainties. At 78, my father had led a full and healthy life, now it was his time. And yet, hearing this news with such certainty I felt my bearings go: the familiar pillars of my life disappear like islands when the fog rolls in and shrouds everything in its path.
Years before my father had quit drinking. No AA, no relapses, just quit. Sometime following, while I was in college, he began an affair with the woman who would later become his wife. I left the country soon after learning of my father’s affair. A recent college graduate faced with a depressed economy and a longing I couldn’t identify, I secured a berth aboard a sailboat bound for Antigua. I wasn’t in much communication with my father during those years, the sting of his affair, what I saw as betrayal, still raw. But I did call him once, around Christmas, feeling homesick. Speaking to him, the tropical air pressing in on me, I felt my chest go tight, and paused not wanting the tears to come. There was a silence on the line and then my father said “come home, you can always come home”. Who, I wondered briefly, was this man on the other end of the line offering me a soft landing? I could sense some shift in him, but I wasn’t ready for it, not yet.
I didn’t go home for 5 more years. When I did return, I had my own tales, where I was the lead: sailing around the world; racing in the America’s Cup. My tales featured the Southern Ocean and trips aloft in 40 knots. These were tales I knew my father would revere.
But it was a different man I found on my return: he was a keeper of bees, a tender of woods. “Merr, I’m tending out on my meals and wheels folks today” he would inform me, heading out the door. He called in regularly on two ancient cousins, Clarissa and Louise, forgotten, it seemed, by all but my father. “Tending out” – a term new to me, a tendency new for him, was a colloquial expression for taking care of. And so, in our new roles, me the teller of tales, him a tender of people and places, we began to lean toward one another.
When my first marriage fell apart, he was there with his truck, helping me move to a new place; he brought me truckloads of wood for my fireplace, jars of honey from his bees. When I remarried, and my husband and I began clearing land to build a house on land passed down through my father’s family, he was there with his chainsaw, advising us on what to clear and where to set the house. When, some years on, my third child was born at that house, he came every day, checking in on me, on the baby. He never stayed long, but I could tell: he was tending out on me.
Love is a funny thing, it finds a way always, seeping in under the door, through the smallest cracks and crevasses, taking root in barren places. It’s like the spruce sapling that grows on nothing but a granite rock and a small bit of moss. And so it was with my father and me: in our own unskilled way, we found a way to love one another, deeply. It was flawed, and still painful at times, but it was real, and we were both grateful for the bit of moss that allowed our love to take root.
My father’s decline was swift. It wasn’t more than six weeks after he was diagnosed that he was bed-ridden in the small downstairs bedroom my step-mother and I had converted for him. While not in pain, he was tormented by a cough. The hospice doctor had scheduled a visit to see if he could help relieve my father’s cough. My step-mother was out and my father and I had spent the afternoon together. He mentioned his back pain, and I asked if a back rub might help. He thought it might. My father had never been overly affectionate with me, a brief kiss on the cheek in greeting or departure was the closest we got. Stepping towards him to rub his back, I felt anxious. He leaned forward in the wheelchair, exposing his back, his spine protruding though his shirt. I reached down and rubbed the small of his back. I could feel how his skin had loosened, could feel his vulnerability. Always lanky and lean, weeks without nourishment had emaciated him. I hoped my ministrations gave him relief, but more than anything, I was grateful for this chance to be close to him, peel back the layers of stoicism that, even at our closest, remained. “Thank you Merr” he said, “that’s better”. Later, we made a list of questions for the doctor: the cough, his inability to read, and his back pain.
After the doctor, a gentle and thoughtful man, had examined my father and answered his questions, there was a lull in the conversation. Seated in an old wingback chair, my father turned to the doctor: “Doctor, I want to ask one more thing. Time, how much time have I got?” This question had not been on the list we’d prepared. I could tell it was something the doctor had been asked many times before, and he began his answer softly and vaguely. Sensing where the conversation was going, my father interjected, “Before you answer, I want you to know, I want to shorten it down, my time, I don’t want more time”. The doctor’s answer, which came softly, was simply “we can help you”.
The man who delivered the prescription was pleasant, chatting about the recent cold snap as he passed the paper bag filled with vials of liquid morphine through the door. On the phone I had peppered the doctor with more questions: how long? how much? what would happen? We spoke in euphemisms, this act of dignity still illegal in our state.
In the two short months between my father’s diagnosis and the day the deliveryman brought the morphine, I had tried to take stock of our relationship. In the end, I told him this: “Dad, you weren’t the perfect father, but you were the perfect father for me.” The truth and simplicity of this gave me comfort. I told him this the day the morphine arrived, the day before I tended out on him for the last time, gently placing plastic syringe after plastic syringe between his cheek and gum smelling his sour, going-away breath. His response, barely audible, I keep close to my heart: “Merr, you were a wonderful daughter.”