When my father had his first heart attack many years ago, we drove from Lexington to Asheville to see him in the hospital. There we found him, in a hospital bed, tubes in his nose, looking ashen and beaten. He could barely talk. I had never seen him that weak. I fainted. “You came,” he said to us. “I didn’t think you liked me.”
My father is not an easy man to like. He inherited that trait from his father and mother. His father died when my father was only 23 — overweight, a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker — from a heart attack. My grandfather supposedly told my grandmother when he met her: “You’re not the most beautiful woman in the world, but I’ll marry you anyways.” When my grandmother died, the man who led the service in the elderly care home she lived in said: “Sylvia was not an easy person to live with.” My father was not an easy person to live with. Bouts of rage. Untreated depression. Silence. Fights at the dinner table. Threats to hit me when on car trips. Waking me up at six am on the weekends because “there’s work to do around here!” Storming off when he lost at Monopoly. Making family dinners unbearable. Hitting me with a belt. Reminding me of what I didn’t know how to do, which typically meant everything in the world. When his mother was in the last years of her life, he didn’t want to visit her. He didn’t want to talk with her. Once, while I was on a visit with her at the home she lived in, he pouted and waited in the car outside. He wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t come in.
Now he has cancer. In his kidneys and lungs. His prognosis, as I understand it, is not good. Since he was diagnosed, we haven’t talked. Overall, we’ve barely talked in the last five years. When we lived in Gainesville at the same time, we didn’t speak for a year even though we lived a few miles apart. It took him a year to budge and make contact again. When I got divorced, before he was diagnosed, he knew. He didn’t call. When my ex-wife contracted cancer, he never called. I’ve since called his house, but I haven’t spoken with him. I’m not sure I like him. I probably don’t.
When I was a kid, I asked my dad if he wanted to go for a bike ride on father’s day. He said no. When I was in high school, he told me to get a job in a lumber yard, and when I said I liked the job, he berated me since I wasn’t supposed to like hard work. He never drove me to art or music lessons or baseball. He took me fishing, but mostly yelled at me when the motor died or that I needed to clean the boat afterward and was doing it wrong anyway. He threatened repeatedly to send me to military school. When I got an earring at 13, he called me a fag, using the Yiddish word. He is not a man who shares. He doesn’t share his life. He doesn’t share this thoughts or his feelings. He doesn’t talk. If he loves, he doesn’t share that. He doesn’t talk unless it’s to complain about the world or to be angry. People who are broken are angry at life. Two dominant people in my life, my father and ex-wife, are people who are angry at life.
When he came out of the hospital after that first heart attack, I called him everyday and, via my phone, showed him the new house we had bought. I updated him on the kids and asked about his health. “Did you put oil on that table I gave you?” he reprimanded me, ignoring everything I previously said. I sent pictures of the kids daily. “I know what they look like,” he said. After I paid off a big loan he provided me with to buy the house, he accused me of missing a payment, which I hadn’t. “The next time you need help,” he said, “go to a bank.” When our cat died while we were out of town and my parents were watching the kids, he left a receipt for $25 on the table. That was the price of the cat’s cremation. He wanted his money back.
There is no doubt our communal, cultural anxiety is, at least, partially shaped by what our parents did to us or taught us. This teaching is subtle and not necessarily intentional. Behaviors. Mannerisms. Attitudes. Beliefs. Stubbornness. Apathy. Not showing love. Not talking. These items that we carry around with us as if they were nothing more than bits and pieces of our broken personalities eventually become part of our children’s broken personalities. We don’t need to talk about them with our children. We inadvertently share them. It’s a form of neurotic osmosis. What anxieties do I instill in my children? I no longer talk about her, but they know I don’t like their mother for what she did. I challenge their classic rock knowledge daily. I tell them to flush the toilet. I make complex vegetarian meals they don’t want even when one of my children claims to be a vegetarian. I ask them to read more. I once tried to restrict dessert to every other night, but I lost that battle. When I was married, I did all of their laundry, made their lunches every morning, did the grocery shopping, made up stories for them, wrote each one a separate children’s book based on the night time stories I told, played with them, stayed with them more than their mother did. I try to show them I love them. I share as much of my life and feelings with them as it is possible to share with children who are still trying to figure out how their world fell apart so quickly from divorce. Still, no matter how much I want to praise my supposed parental skills, I’ve likely caused anxiety. It’s inevitable. Some part of my broken personality has crept into their own. It has to. This is how sharing works at the familial level. Our brokenness does not budge. It, too, is stubborn.
Our most intimate crises, as well, are likely formed by both parental issues and failed relationships. This, too, feels inevitable. The failed marriage, as I’ve learned, feels like a heart attack. A pain that splits through your body, suffocates you, paralyzes you, shows you what feels like the end of everything you’ve known and desired. It’s a death. Not a cancer. But a death. As I can list various “injustices” I felt my father inflicted on me while I was growing up and how he wasn’t ever there for me, I could do the same for my ex-wife. I can complain about how she did not share, how she did not talk. When the marriage failed, she would not talk to me. When she did, she told me I wasn’t there for her. But I was there for her when we first learned about her father’s cancer while we were in Copenhagen. I was there for her later during his final year of living (offering our home to him and offering to help care for him as well as helping him with dietary issues, even as that help was too late). Later, I was there again to help with her emotions and loss. Nights. Days. Listening. Supporting. Sharing. Helping. Talking.
She’s no longer a part of my life. We no longer have anything to share or talk about. And like many other moments in our life together when I needed someone, as my father dies, she’s not there for me. Even if we were still married, I wouldn’t expect her to be there for my father’s cancer. And, despite also being told I wasn’t, I was there for her cancer. Chemo. Pain. Consoling. Reassuring that everything will be good. “We’re good, right? Tell me we’re good. Don’t leave me,” she said once, pain ripping through her body, chemo taking over her personality. I thought we were good, but I guess we were not. Sometimes with my father, I could feel the same. He took me to college orientation when I was 17. For once, he offered to be there for me, to help me with the transition to college. We flew to Gainesville from Miami. He needed to attend a meeting first, he told me. We went to his meeting where business was conducted. We then went to campus. “You don’t really want to do this, right?” he asked. Then he took me to see Platoon in a local theater. We flew back that night. The trip was really for the meeting.
Closeness is difficult to measure. I never felt close to my father. I felt close to my ex-wife. Each degree of closeness, however, was really quite far apart. Far from me. Far from the truth. Far from sharing. Far from talking. Far from being good. I think the closest friends my father ever had were old enough to be his father. Both those friends have since passed away. I’m not sure he ever got over their passing. I’m not sure he ever got over being angry that they passed and left him. A man who lost his father when he was 23, who took over his father’s business, who employed his mother (who he believed did not love him), a man like that deals daily with parental issues. A man like that struggles to understand what it means or meant to be a parent. A man like that has no idea if “we’re good” or not. I feel that struggle, but differently. What kind of dad am I? Am I a good dad? Am I there for my kids? Am I right to let my anxious son stay up late and snuggle with me on the couch when his anxiety over the divorce prevents him from sleeping? Should I have let my daughter order the coffee at Starbucks? Do I buy her too many things? Should I get him an Xbox for my house? Am I spoiling them? Am I not? Am I loving? Am I teaching responsibility? Do I devote enough attention to them? Do I share enough? Am I too broken to share what I need to and want to share? Do I talk enough? Are we good?
Recently, I posted to Facebook a series of black and white photos with brief memoir-like narratives reflecting on the nature of black and white’s contrast with nuance. My father was not a black and white figure. He was nuanced. Complex. Suffering. Unaware of others’ suffering. When I had a breakdown at 20, he wouldn’t talk with me. He wouldn’t share or let me share. He emotionally left me. He sat in his chair and watched TV. He was financially supportive of his family. Deep inside, he is a man consumed with pain. During my marriage, I think my ex was mad at life for cancer and other things that have occurred. I think she was consumed with many types of pain. “Would you like to go into Asheville and have a beer at a brewery?” I asked my father many years ago while at his house south of the city. “No,” he said. Later in the evening he pouted when my brother in law and I shared beers in the kitchen. “Would you like me to show you how to make a pizza?” I asked once. “No,” he said and proceeded to make something that did not resemble a pizza and no one wanted to eat. He pouted when no one praised the effort. “Would you like to go for a coffee or lunch this week?” I’d ask my ex-wife almost weekly when we were married. “No,” she would say.
Can I compare these relationships adequately? Likely not, but broken personalities are shared across our various types of relationships, whether parental or via partners. Cancer can bring families together as they regroup and rethink their relationships and the overbearing threat of nothing ever being good again. Cancer destroys everything. Cancer is everywhere, in every home, in every relationship. There are many memoirs regarding cancer. Many types of stories are told by those who had cancer and those who lived through it. “Take care of yourself, too,” people would tell me when my ex had cancer. Take care of myself? I’d think. Why? I’m good. I’m not the one with poison channeling through my body. I’m not the one suffering so badly inside. But they were right. I didn’t take care of myself. I wasn’t good. I should have talked about what I was feeling.
Before my father’s cancer, and during my ex’s cancer, I was reading Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me, a man’s story of his father’s lifetime employment at the famous New York bar, McSorley’s. Two and Two is also a story of father/son relationships and relationships in general. It also includes a story about cancer. In one chapter, the author describes his mother’s cancer. “Cancer pushed a tidal wave of suffering into our lives, and we stood in front of it and never fucking budged.” At the time, I thought I would have a chapter about my ex’s cancer in the book I was writing. I wrote this quote in my notes. The draft for that chapter remains a separate file; it did not make it into the final copy. I opted to not talk about this personal moment or experience, though I talk briefly now in this short essay about two cancers I have had some interaction from afar with. Cancer pushed a wave of suffering into our lives. With my father’s cancer, it doesn’t push that wave into my life. It doesn’t because we never talked. And I haven’t even written here about my mother’s cancer, an odd omission of someone I love in this generic notion I called in the title “Cancer Rhetorics.” In every story we tell, we omit something important, something we should have talked about but didn’t. In the case of my own family, I suppose we did budge in the face of cancer. We stepped aside. We let it through. We stopped talking. We stopped sharing. And once we stopped talking, there was no reason to not budge anymore.