Posted by Rashawnda Williams
"The cancer has grown back," he croaks through the phone. "This time it's on the left side of my throat." He wheezes. "There isn't much the doctors can do." His body won't take the radiation. This isn't the first time the cancer has come back. It has come and gone like an unwelcome friend. I take deep breaths. I don't know what to feel. My throat burns, and my eyes glaze over. I feel like crying, but the tears won't come. Maybe I don't have any more left to shed. I hang up the phone.
"It's so hard to talk to him," I say to Ky'lend, my friend who just looks at me through his square rimmed glasses. Ky'lend doesn't respond. He shifts in his chair and tugs on his shirt. He reaches his hand to his hair as if to run his hands through it out of nervousness, but there is nothing there. He stops. A silent sentence passes between us; we both know what it is like to rarely see a parent. We know the pain of absence. We know the pain of sickness.
I have always known my dad as sick, it was a part of him, and it informed his nature; the cancer had always been there. When I was younger I never fully comprehended the extent of the disease, I couldn't explain it. The answer would be insufficient, incomplete. I would sound out the word just like they taught us in school. "Kan-sur". I would say how it is a noun and is pronounced with two syllables. I would explain how it's a serious disease in which some cells in the body grow faster than normal cells and destroy healthy organs and tissues. I could recite the textbook definition, but it's taken years to truly understand it. My understanding and perception of cancer is always changing. Cancer isn't a noun, but a verb. Cancer is alive, it grows and festers; when your heart beats it beats with it. It is as much a physical state as a mental one. It changes a person. It can kill both body and soul.
After the news from my father, I needed to clear my head. I say a quick goodbye to Ky'lend. I take more deep breaths. What did this news even mean? Was he going back to the hospital? Was he going to die?
Death. So finite. So inevitable. You shouldn't speak of the possibility of death. And, a doctor shouldn't say, "I'm sorry, you have cancer." He should say, "Your body will slowly break down. You will be at war with your body. It will fight hard, but you must fight harder." I have never known my father without cancer. It has made his body frail and his face gaunt. It has taken the breath from a once strong man. It has eaten away at his throat leaving a patched up hole.
Because of his tracheotomy, my father and I have never broken bread together. He no longer uses a fork or spoon to eat. He is forced to ingest bland chocolate flavored protein shakes. We never had those family dinners, where everyone would sit at the table and laugh while eating with our mouths open. Not us. I eat by myself, while he sits in the other room. He had a feeding tube, which goes from his stomach, right above his belly button directly into his stomach through the abdominal wall. It looks unnatural and uncomfortable to look at.
One time when I was in the CVS my mom caught me staring at a package of his favorite brand of protein shakes, Boost. It was Christmastime, I was about eleven, and I hadn't gotten my dad anything for the holiday. I had no idea what to get him since I didn't see him often. I wanted it to be good. My gifts had remained the same for every holiday. Christmas a DVD, Birthday a DVD, and Father's day a DVD. I guess I could feel guilty, but I didn't know what to get someone who spent so much time at home. Really though, I had no idea who he was and what he would like. I remember my mom suggesting I buy him the protein shakes for Christmas.
Since he receives disability checks and can only afford a modest apartment, my mom and I both knew paying for things other than rent was a struggle for him. I knew mostly from my lack of received Christmas or birthday presents over the years. The ones I had gotten meant nothing because I was too young to remember, so maybe my guilt didn't mean anything either. Maybe my mom was being sarcastic about buying the protein shakes as a present. I wish I knew what she was thinking; I like to think she was serious. Like all the other holidays and future holidays I settled for a DVD.
"What would you like to eat?" I said, my young round face and large gullible eyes stared at my father. It was during one of my rare summer childhood visits. Mealtimes were always sensitive; mostly my dad would cook for us. Even without going through the mechanical digestion process of chewing and swallowing, food he was a good cook. His years of aimlessly sitting in front of the TV watching the Food Network had paid off. Since I was the one visiting, the decision of what to eat wasn't mine, and I wasn't allowed to be picky.
"Pork Chops!" My half-brother, my father's son, exclaimed. It was a delicacy I had never been able to try, pork was never allowed in my mom's house. The only pork I had tasted was cheap cafeteria pepperoni pizza and the only reason I had was because of a dare. My father was having one of his good days, not spitting phlegm into the mounds of paper towels he carried around. We were in the kitchen as he pulled out the frying pan. My nostrils filled with the scent of fried grease. My brother and I were shooed outside to play while he cooked.
When we stepped outside it was hot. I could feel the heat on my skin. After a short period I began to sweat. I looked to my half-brother; we stared at each other unsure of what to do as we stood around. He sat on the porch as I sat next to him; it was a game of Simon Says in my head. Whatever he did, I did. I didn't know what else to do. This wasn't my home. We headed back inside as my dad called us to the table to sit. I sat immediately because my plate had all ready been made. There were two pork chops and what looked to be potato salad on a paper plate. I never liked potato salad. It was slimy and had a tart sour flavor.
"Well aren't you going to eat"? I ask my dad with a full mouth before I bring a greasy chop to my lips. I knew that he didn't eat, but I always asked. I could never imagine not being able to eat.
As I think of the memory, I clutch my stomach and swallow repeatedly to control the urge to throw up. I had not tasted meat in a couple of years and the thought of eating dead animal flesh makes my stomach churn. Animals are my friends and I don't eat my friends. It wasn't the only thing upsetting my stomach. The thought of having to return to the hospital scared me and made me nervous. Hospitals were always white and cold. They lack empathy. Last year, he was hospitalized because of pneumonia. His immune system was as fragile as a china doll. He was so sick he was forced into a medically induced coma.
"You should go talk to him," the nurse said to me, "Sometimes people in comas can hear what you are saying." I thought what she was saying was bullshit. Despite that, I was desperate enough to try. I walked through the stark white hallway, the soles of my shoes squeaked. It all felt over exaggerated, like something out of a movie. Once I reached his door, I walked through, and walked to his bed. The room smelled faintly of mothballs and antiseptic. I didn't know what to expect when I saw him. I didn't know what a coma would look like up close. My father looked like he was sleeping. He looked peaceful. His physical appearance was noticeably deteriorating. He looked severely under weight and sickly. I didn't think people with darker skin could look pale but he managed to somehow.
Cancer stole the father that could have been. The one that my mom would still be in love with, skin dark as the night sky. Sometimes I imagine that I know the once tall, strong, robust man she fell for, eating medium rare steaks and burnt pork chops oblivious to the poison growing inside his body. He would hold his head up, and his teeth would gleam white and sparkly. The charming smile that all the ladies fell for, the way it contrasted against his ebony skin.
Cancer stole my childhood that could have been. We never went fishing nor went to the playground. We never had the hallmark daddy's girl relationship that many of my friends had. Whenever I see young girls with their fathers I feel jealous. I never even knew what it was like to take a walk with my father. He couldn't be outside for more than five minutes. If he stayed out too long he would become weak and drowsy. His breath would quicken and he would have trouble breathing. Being outside also causes him to spit mucus constantly as well as having a chronic cough. If he ever swallowed the mucus he could die. Any chance of doing "normal" things with him was almost impossible. We would never go to a movie or go out to dinner. He will never be in the audience at my fast approaching high school graduation.
I've always been told I looked like my mother. I didn't share my father's skin, his lips, or even his nose, but his eyes. Eyes the color of tree bark, each groove telling a story. The more you looked at them, the more you can read the story. He gave me eyes that I have been told were beautiful many times over. For this I am grateful to my father. My eyes, his eyes, are one of my best physical attributes, if not the best, but they are my strength and my weakness. I can use them when I need too, but I usually avoid eye contact. It has gotten me into trouble, so I just glance at people here and there, never longer than a second. It only takes a second. I first noticed the resemblance while looking at a photo from his wedding. He looked robust and athletic. Confidence permeated through his eyes. That picture was taken before the cancer and before old age, since I could tell gravity has tugged down on his eyes. A weary old man replaces the athletic robust man in the photo; the confidence had been replaced by sadness. Everyone felt the tragedy. It was as if the cancer lay dormant for years. Emerging as I was pulled from my mother's womb, plotting out its lengthy existence.
If the cancer had not happened who knows how my life would be. Maybe I would have a better relationship with my father, maybe I wouldn't. Although I would like to imagine I would. We could go to places. We could do things outside of his small cramped apartment. We could talk on the phone for more than minutes at a time without him coughing or spitting into a paper towel.
Before I hung up the phone with my father that day, the news of cancer wasn't all he told me. My father told me that he was preparing for death. He told me he isn't afraid anymore, and that he has endured enough pain. The unspeakable is coming- the finite. I am not ready to except it. It may not come until next year or the year after, but it will happen soon. He won't be there when I graduate college, or to walk down the aisle with me to give away my hand in marriage. He will never meet my husband or his grandkids.
All I can think is I should have fought harder to salvage our relationship. I should be making more of an effort to get to know him before "it" happens; at least I could have that. I can't get past the emotion, the anger and sadness of his disease. The anger and sadness I harbor somewhere deep inside of me because he was not the father I needed. Even though he has been as strong as he could be and has held on for years, it is not enough. I have come to realize I can't be mad at him. He has tried his best, and has given it all he could.
What more can I do? What more can he do? I have prayed, but I know my disillusionment grows stronger every time I stand on my knees and clench my hands tightly. Sometimes in those moments of prayer I get lost and forget what I was praying for. I forget who I was praying for. Those moments I feel that it's just me in the world. I sit quietly waiting. I don't know exactly what I'm waiting for, but it's like a wave of energy passes through me. Those split seconds of my life are beautiful. They are also painful. I feel clarity and understanding.
To release pain I have to forgive. Forgive myself, forgive my dad, and forgive the cancer. I can't be mad at him and I can't be mad at the cancer because all it wants is to be alive just like the rest of us.