April 24 will mark 30 years since my father died at 48 from a cancer that is highly treatable, when caught early – even preventable. Get your colonoscopies, people. Please.
This is part three of a series about his illness and dying, which was in every way a family affair. If I’m a bit off on some details, forgive me. I wrote nothing down at the time, so everything is recreated from memory.
Mother tried to keep her tone nonchalant when she called to tell me that Daddy’d gone for a physical, and the doctor had found something, a spot on his lung, and needed him to come in the next day for a follow-up.
It was probably nothing, she said, but she wanted me to know she’d be accompanying him to the doctor, in case I tried to find her.
“Daddy has cancer and he’s going to die,” I said, bursting into tears. Randy grabbed me by the upper arms and pulled me up, asking me to explain.
“You scared me to death,” he said, when I’d finished repeating what Mother had told me. “I’m sure it’s nothing; he’s healthy and he’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t and he wouldn’t.
I was shocked but not surprised by the phone call – two weeks earlier I’d had a dream from which I awoke sobbing with tears streaming down my face. My father had died suddenly of a heart attack and I was distraught – wrong disease, but the dream was so real I hadn’t been able to shake it.
The day of the surgery to remove the tumor, Mother, Cathy and I sat in the waiting room for what seemed like hours. When the surgeon came out, he was very frank. “It is cancer,” he began – as the wind-tunnel whoosh started in my head.
I glanced at Cathy and Mother, and when Mother’s face glazed over, I remember thinking, “I’ve got to pay attention, I’ve got to pay attention.” The phrase was a mantra that kept me focused when it would have been easy to give in to panic.
The doctor explained that he’d taken the entire upper lobe (“Wait! How will that work?” I fleetingly thought, but didn’t interrupt), so the lung was now cancer-free – but it was a metastasis from somewhere else and they’d have to do more tests to find the primary cancer.
In pre-Internet 1980 we had no way to look up definitions or find implications, but we knew it was bad, very bad.
I can’t speak for my sister, but that was the day I grew up. At 25, with two babies, a house, a vegetable garden, and a husband with PTSD, I’d still been, at some level “Daddy’s Little Girl,” as Mother said I called my toddler-self.
We all quickly settled in for what wouldn’t be a nearly long-enough haul through the bowels of cancer.