Unexpected Healing: A Memoir of a Father’s Death to Cancer

“If anyone strikes my heart, it does not break, but it bursts and the flame coming out of it becomes a torch on my path.”- Hazrat Inaya.

I had arrived at the house that Tuesday evening, the day he died. When my mother’s call reached me, the panic only mildly tempered in her voice, all she said was, “It’s really bad.”A nurse was there, holding a stethoscope to his heart, as were the two loving Filipino care givers, Arnell and Oscar. Over the last few months they had worked and slept there 24 hours and had become part of the family. My mother managed to contact the priest in time to deliver the last rites. I stood by the end of his bed, head bowed, reciting the prayers with the rest of them. My dad lay there, cross-eyed and still from the morphine. He was uncharacteristically quiet.

It startles me that I actually watched him take his last breath. Fitting I suppose because he watched me take my first. He made me and now I would carry his DNA to the end of my life, a strange sort of passing of the baton. I have my father’s feet: Knobby and narrow, and not especially pretty. These past several months I spent many hours massaging his feet, he liked that, and I had noticed the similarity. When they carried his body out a few hours later and his feet poked through the end of the bag, I was reminded of this again. The odd things that made me feel a part of him, here was another to add to the absurdity of death. And dying. How it all began.

My father and I were never friends. Growing up, he made fun of my looks (my Irish- Welsh genetics had proffered me a pointy chin and square masculine jaw), chided me for my spotty intelligence, and generally instilled intimidation. I regarded him suspiciously and often fearfully. His unpredictable nature was both bombastic and critical, snapping into hilarious and sweet on the turn of a dime. His illness had been with him twenty-two years, but the real end, the sharp decline, was in the last two. It was during that time when our relationship, mercifully and surprisingly, improved.

When someone is very sick, their loved ones actually get sick, too. Our sickness is one of worry, concern, and the whittling away of our energy. Inexplicably, we also carry a surplus of optimism. One has to be optimistic. When I got my dad to walk around the pool with his cane, swearing and complaining the entire five feet, I felt like the head cheerleader at the home game.

Sometimes the triumphs were smaller, like getting him to eat half a sandwich. He loved bacon on a well-toasted English muffin. And still other times, the best I could rally a cheer for was him sleeping through the night without keeping my mother up every hour. Often I didn’t even know what I was rooting for: wellness, distraction from illness, appearance of health or balance or hope, or just an ordinary day where nothing, no crisis at all, happened. Dying of cancer is very active, very much a show and it takes everyone with it.

Here’s what I learned: Watching someone die slowly is impossible, horrendous, and insurmountable. But you do it anyway. I can’t tell you when exactly, but the role of cheerleader morphed into the role of solider.  Now I had been recruited for this tour of duty.

My mother and I took turns answering the baby monitor. I had purchased one as a solution to our many worries about not hearing him from other rooms. We took turns dashing up the stairs when we heard his call: straighten the bed sheets, get more protein drink, and help him to the bathroom. We were soldiers in the war, hyper alert for anything, and we were not surprised when warfare came. Vomiting, mood swings, rage, and despair.  “When am I going to get over this thing?” my child-like father would ask. The only answer was the one never replied.

And what other battles was I fighting? What were our weapons? You know already the enemy is winning, that there isn’t going to be a happy ending, so the battle is for capturing every possible second left. And to be acutely present to it, pressing into the pages of your memory because both time and the disease are closing in.

Like a war zone, my parent’s house descended into chaos. Every possible surface was filled with mountains of medicine bottles, scraps of paper, and half-eaten bowls of food.  Upon entering the kitchen in search for scissors and discovering my mom popping open another bottle of wine, nearly toppling the cat off the table as she poured, I made her promise we would never slide into the likes of “Grey Gardens.” This made her laugh. It was good to make her laugh. I made a point to do that when I could. Laughter was a tricky tool in my family. Funny, but often duplicitous, especially to my dad who built a career on jokes.

What comes with a tidal wave personality like his was a well equipped vocabulary for killing anything in its path, and his viciousness took no prisoners. My dad craved gobs of attention, with appetites both extravagant and massive. A daughter of strength and moderation was no match for him and our interactions were frictional.

Back to the last six weeks of his life – while spending most of the day in bed and rarely getting downstairs, he asked me to read the Sunday comics to him. This event involved explaining verbally what was in each picture. I employed various cartoon-like voices to better create the world of the comic strips. He found my interpretations less than stellar and let me know, but complimented me for a valiant effort. It remains a lovely moment for me. Another lighter moment: Upon administering medicinal marijuana in lollypop form to ease his nausea, my father looked up from his bed, sucker neatly wedged between his lips and said, “Hey Ames – did you ever think it would come to this, feeding your father pot?” No, I never did. He thanked me often for all the help.

“I am so lucky,” he once said after… well does it matter?

“No, I am the lucky one,” was my reply. Those wondrous moments slip in quietly like morning light, genuine and warm.

Some days I lay next to him and hold his hand while we listened to music or watched baseball. The World Series was on and he tried to explain the game to me. Time was moving and he had only so much left. Those afternoons I would bring my arsenal of good cheer for that was within my reach. That is what I could do. I read David Sedaris to him, brought funny stories from the paper, (one he really laughed at that involved a man blaming his cat for surfing a number of pornographic websites) and made him brownies. Throughout my entire life my dad lived on one side of the chasm and me the other, but this illness spun a thread that reached across and held us together.

Most of the time I held it together, both for him and for my mom. I stuffed it all inside until I could get home and release the vapors of anguish. There was one moment though, when even I couldn’t solider it through. I remember the day was about two weeks before his death. My father loved the TV channel where they played music. He particularly loved the Broadway station. La Cage Aux Follies was playing and in a burst of energy, my father in a rather robust voice chimed in with the refrain, “I am what I am..” It was the most vigor I had seen him in months and it made me smile for the rest of the day.

Quite the contrary came a week later. One afternoon I was laying next to him, trying to soothe him, his hand slipping out and away from mine. He was fidgeting and angry and rolled over. I could hear the labored breathing and grew alarmed at the change of his skin.  I noticed that particular day he looked ghoulishly white and pasty, a reminder of the disease and its residency in his body. Over the TV came the slow refrain of Barbara Streisand singing, “Happy Days are here again.” The picture of his nearly inert body, his twitching feet searching for the covers, and the dark evening light broke the dam and my tears gave way. That day I lost the battle.

The funeral was a circus. Having gained a reputation as the dark sheep of the family, the one who left and spent some time away from the family, my attendance was met coldly. Death becomes so personal that is it almost comedic. I witnessed all the hands gripping too tightly to the cocktail glasses, the false frozen smiles, and the well-intentioned, impotent words. I stayed upstairs and lay on the bed where my father had been, thinking about him and hoping where ever he went it was peaceful.

Grieving isn’t about forgetting. It’s about dividing up one’s feelings. Portions to mourn and release and portions to re-claim and build again. It is architecture and construction – creative, tedious and unpredictable.

At his memorial everyone spoke of his large appetites, and his robust joy of life. I do not share that with him. I am moderate, cautious of this world, a small foot in it at best. To my credit, I have built a solid relationship with myself, having navigated my interior deeply and thoroughly. My dad did not. He couldn’t or wouldn’t access his personal self, I suppose because his public self was so bright and playful. The truth is I believe what lay deep in there terrified him and so he scooted away from everything too emotional or candid. Uncomfortable with intimacy, with anything that involved self reflection, we were strangers from foreign lands, joined together in crisis.

The day after he died my mother immediately had the handicap rails and ramps, bars and stools all stripped. She wanted no reminders. There is a steely practicality to my mother, her Irish ruggedness, her “forward moving, stay in line solider” attitude. We lost this battle, but we have to keep moving. She confessed there were times lo these many months that were so excruciating that she wanted to get in her car and drive far far away. The anguish of watching someone die is so overwhelming, so impossible that it is to marvel anyone can manage it. When the brink of my despair broke and fell before me, I was shocked to see that same pain created something even more astonishing: My heart had grown and taken on a new shape.

The weeks afterward: random moments that break me up. Weird reminders, wheelchairs, canes, the smell of bacon. What do we all silently promise to do to the ones who made us? We promise to hold their hand.

Cancer was my prison, dad was the prisoner, and the light through the cell window was love. He wasn’t freed in the traditional sense, but I believe his heart was given redemption. So was mine. I never did impress him much with my intelligence or wit, nor did he me. Our conversations were never deep. Who would have guessed that I felt the closest to him when in the silence we held hands and watched CSI? There was no need to dazzle with words – words were futile and false. But I had the most elegant of weapons – a blunt sword that required simply holding, not brandishing. It was what reflected off the shiny tip that mattered. The picture of father and daughter connected by flesh, quiet and undisguised.

I do not have regrets. I spent precious time with him that weaved the smallest strand we could both tread across. It was a joint effort and one that I know involved a series of miracles. My heart is shattered for sure, but like a mirror that has fallen to the ground and the pieces have cracked and splintered, they can also be glued together. More profoundly, what is now reflected back will be better. For that is the thing about death. You change. And if you were present to it you will absorb this experience into the gallery of your life. Turns out, you don’t acquire wisdom: You become it.

As horrifying as it sounds, disease is a gift. All this time I thought I was showing up for him, administering mercy and kindness to help with the transition. But I was there for me.  I suppose I had always wanted a close relationship with my father, I would have asked that he always be kind to me, respectful, and supportive. I would have hoped he and I could have been great friends, with private jokes, and mutual tastes. We weren’t and I have often wondered what other woman I would be had I had his nurturing. My dad was not my hero. He was an unformed man, demonized by his excesses and crippled emotional blankness. Sometimes when I lie on my bed, I reach my hand across the pillow like I did all those months. His hand isn’t there, but I can see his face looking back at me, with gratitude in his eyes. Never underestimate the power of holding a hand.

A memoir by Amy Lloyd, www.amylloydonline.com

Photo Credit.

24 Comments:

  1. Patti Negri said on October 19, 2010 at 8:49 pm ... #

    Wow, what a beautiful, touching and insightful story indeed. Thank you Amy for sharing your words with the world! ;o) Patti Negri

  2. Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC said on October 20, 2010 at 1:38 pm ... #

    Beautifully written and honestly told. Your father may not have been your hero, but you’ve certainly proven yourself to be one of his. ♥

  3. amy lloyd said on October 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm ... #

    Patti and Marty both: I am truly moved by your comments. I am humbled and honored,both. Thank you and thank you Kate Stern for championing it.

  4. Kati said on October 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm ... #

    Amy,
    Your writing is such a gift! Poetic expression of deep and powerful things. I will take so many of your beautiful word pictures into my heart in the upcoming days and weeks. I too was a caregiver for a father I had not been close to. Weaving the smallest strand we could both tread across. And then saying goodbye to the strand as well as the man. Like you say, in time I hope to become wisdom as a result. Thank you opening your heart to tell your story!

  5. amy lloyd said on October 28, 2010 at 1:27 pm ... #

    Kati- you are the very audience I had hoped to reach: anyone who had that less-then-perfect relationship with their father. I am truly heartened that my experience resonated with you. It is the highest gift of any artist: to touch someone else’s heart with the truth.
    Thank you so much for your lovely comments.
    You,my dear, are more magnificent then you know…

  6. Brooke Todd said on November 2, 2010 at 7:07 pm ... #

    Wow! This memoir is amazing. I am currently writing a memoir about my father and how he died of cancer when I was 2 years old. Your memoir has inspired me to write down all my thoughts and not be afraid of what people will think of them.

  7. AJ said on November 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm ... #

    A lot of the emotional and physical descriptions here are familiar to me. You’ve articulated some of the feelings I couldn’t put into words. Thank you for this inspiring post. I reposted it on Facebook and many more have been touched by your story.

  8. amy lloyd said on November 5, 2010 at 4:16 pm ... #

    Brooke and AJ: This has been the most remarkable experience and each time I hear from someone, I am amazed. Thank you, thank you both for your beautiful comments.
    Brooke- I encourage you to go forward and write boldly and bravely about your own experience. It will be cathartic and “unexpectedly healing.”

    I think camp comfort zone is a miracle, I truly do.

  9. Brent Haworth said on November 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm ... #

    Wow. That is all i can say to this. I was thnking about writing a memoir about my grandpa who died recently of cancer and i was looking online for ideas and i found this. You have an amazing gift.

  10. amy lloyd said on November 17, 2010 at 2:54 pm ... #

    I urge you,Brent,to write. You will discover how liberating and illuminating the process is and how much it honors your personal experience.
    Thank you for your lovely comments- it made my day!

  11. Stacey said on November 22, 2010 at 9:51 pm ... #

    This was almost like a mirror into my own life. Tomorrow, Nov 23, will be seven years since my father passed of cancer. I experienced so many of the same feelings and situations, it’s uncanny.

  12. Mary said on December 1, 2010 at 3:22 pm ... #

    I just stumbled upon this writing while searching for a grief counselor…my dad just passed away last week. I was his primary caretaker these last 2 years. He lived with me. I spent the previous 3 weeks at the hospital with him as he struggled to fight back from his COPD and heart failure, an all-to-common battle he’s fought and won during the past 20 years. His decision to not fight back this time was his decision to make, although it was made without the benefit of any discussion or preparation on my behalf. I too, watched him take his last breath and tried to will him back to life with my painful cries of denial….I’m not sure I will ever get over this, but I will try. Thank you for sharing your story….

  13. Tracy said on January 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm ... #

    Wow you have me in tears….I haven’t lost my parents…. but my husband
    who I believe is my Angel on earth, As I go through my healing process
    in therapy, I guess my angel James wanted me to watch Oprah today
    because she talked about releasing Shame (working on it), and then
    I found your article and I relate on many levels, not so great relationship
    with either parent and not a perfect marriage…So thank you for helping
    me heal today…keep writing

  14. Karen said on January 29, 2011 at 9:12 am ... #

    Thankyou so much I am walkign your steps right now in my own life. Your words are a wonderful gift helping my soul continue to GET through, your beautiful and challenging words give me strength, I cant thanyou enough.
    Heartfelt many blessings to you today x

  15. Kazia said on October 6, 2011 at 11:22 am ... #

    Thank you so much Amy for your poetic writing. It is soothing and emotional. I was looking for why it is a gift when someone allows you to watch them die. I lost my father in late September 2010. He lost his battle with cancer. I watched his last breathes which had haunted me for sometime. But as the days go on and the more I read about death I am trying to find gratitude in the “gift” he has given to my family and I. Thank you so much again. This passage is truly beautiful and I am glad I ran across it. Like Karen said, you have given me strength.

  16. Chad said on October 10, 2011 at 11:40 pm ... #

    Amazingly honest, vivid and poetic…I lost my father almost 2 months ago, unexpectedly and we were great friends, I was a daddy’s girl. I encouraged him to go to therapy and he did and I was so proud that at 62 he was achieving personal awareness and reflection. We often shared notes; we were so similar, something that makes me so happy….I do not know which is worse, watching your Dad die or a sudden loss, both leave a prodigious hole…Thanks for sharing your gift.

  17. Anon said on September 5, 2012 at 2:27 am ... #

    Wow….I lost a dear friend last November 2 to cancer. He was a retired Doctor. Although his 5 children came in and out of town the entire time he was dying, in his last days, he would not die.
    The hospice nurses told the children that he either would not die in front of them or he was waiting for someone. Imagine the gift he gave me when he allowed me to be the last visitor. I babbled for one hour straight while holding his hands. I felt as if a higher being gave me all the right things to say. I was told he was gone within 5 minutes of my leaving.

  18. B said on September 24, 2012 at 9:52 pm ... #

    Thru my tears I type. This is quite similar to the experience I had almost 1 year ago. I’ve not allowed much time or space for grieving & today I decided it was time. I’m so grateful to have come across this article, as it enabled me to acknowledge much of what I’ve been trying not to feel. Watching my father die was the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced. Thru the process I learned much of myself & his love for me. I will never regret those moments by his side & am forever grateful to have been a support to him in his last living moments. Thank you for sharing your story!

  19. Alie stone said on September 27, 2012 at 1:02 am ... #

    I lost my father to cancer when I was 11. It’s been two years and I am having a really hard time coping with it. I looked on line for some tips and that is when I found your story. Thank you so much for writing this. It helped me so much and was just wonderful to read.

  20. Teffiny said on October 17, 2012 at 3:24 am ... #

    Wow! What a beautiful gift you have for writing! I just found out 30 mins ago that my father is dying. Unfortunately we haven’t spoken in 8 years.. I knew before reading this that I have to now make a move towards healing this relationship. Not sure where to begin, but your story has confirmed for me that the past is no longer what matters. What move I make now will determine how I can live with myself once he’s gone. Thank you.. I think I’ll start by extending my hand..

  21. Tracy said on January 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm ... #

    Thank you for your story! I can relate to your words in reference to the war on cancer. I always said it was a battle, my dad was the warrior and I his foot soldier…always having his back, rallying the troops and carrying him when he could not. Cancer takes the ones we love and also a piece of those left behind. The what if’s, should have’s and how unfair the war was. I was there holding my dad’s hand, keeping it together throughout the battle, only to have the flood gates open on my own time. There was no other place I would have been, and only wish we had more time…I would have done anything to take away his pain…Now I just have my own- He was truly the only man I ever loved,a true gentleman. Thanks for sharing your story, I know I am not alone in the waves of emotions.

  22. Maria Chamorro said on April 25, 2013 at 9:45 am ... #

    My years are flowing as I read this. I just lost my father to cancer last week and I am destroyed. I was his caregiver and I actually moved in my parents with me which turned out to be a blessing because I got to spend my dad’s last year with him every day. But I can also relate to all you wrote. In my pain I have been trying to put into words how I feel, to make sense. But you did above and it does my heart good to read your words. This was simply beautiful.

  23. Pat said on March 25, 2014 at 9:31 am ... #

    Hi, have just read your story. I lost my father also to cancer last week. We did not have the closest of relationships thanx to my step mother and her family! I was always made to feel as if I was in the way, even my own daughters picked up on this from an early age the result being I didn’t see as much of him as I probably should of!! I spent the last four weeks being with him for as long as I could be, I was with him the whole day before he died only taking a few hours to go home and sort out before going back to be with him. Like you not many words were spoken but through out his ordeal the thread of love was always there. He died in my arms knowing that I loved him. A very precious moment as it was just us two. I am so proud of how he accepted his fate and never once complained. My father faced death as he faced life. With courage in his heart and a smile on his face. Its like the umbilical cord has been severed I no longer have parents , I feel like an orphan!!!!! At the age of 53!!!! In all of this I have to smile and remember I Am My Fathers Daughter!!!! If he could smile so can I Thank you this has really helped 🙂

  24. smb said on February 20, 2015 at 11:55 pm ... #

    Wow–so much of what you wrote hit home with me. So well-written. The tears flowed freely when I read this. I’ve felt so alone in my feelings the past three years since my Dad passed away from cancer. I still struggle. I feel so very blessed to have been there with my Dad through his battle and treasure many moments, but so many other moments haunt me. Your experience was so eerily similar. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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