How My Father's Cancer Brought Us Together, 12 Years Later

My father was more icon than a real person to me. A superhero who did it all with a robust work ethic. Growing up, I’d be asleep when he left in the morning and in bed before he returned. Our closest work-week interaction would be when I momentarily woke up to the comforting sound of him rustling the newspaper and reheating dinner at night. Just another day in the life of my protector.

Weekends provided my only bridge to him. He coached my soccer teams, watched the NY Giants with me, and on Sunday evenings we’d play basketball on our back patio. We never spoke about feelings and I rarely saw him smile, but sports established a bond. I owe him so much, with my passion for sports way up there.

One night I awoke to a coughing fit of his, but it was still cold season so no big deal. Only it never stopped, and soon Tums wrappers littered his desk. Coughing turned into vomiting. Is this the flu? Nope, it was a monster — esophageal cancer. But hey, 13-year-old me knew my father was special and doctors were practically wizards. They’d remove it, and all would be back to normal. What else would they tell a kid?

Reality doesn’t abide by such tropes. Fueled by an obsession to tear families apart, the tumor had grown to an inoperable size. Months of chemotherapy illustrated his will to fight, but more so cancer’s brutal desire to drain the soul. I didn’t know it yet, but time was running short.

One dreary October evening, my parents called me up to their room. They flanked me, with Dad unable to make it two sentences before breaking down in tears. The sudden disappearance of my stoic guardian’s armor stunned me, this just didn’t compute. The best way I can sum it up is a line from Remember the Titans (spoiler alert) where Julius is in denial of Gerry’s paralysis,

“You can’t be hurt like this…you’re Superman.”

He settled into my parents’ bedroom upstairs, knowing he’d never walk back down. It’s embarrassing to admit that I only went up there twice, but it was apparent that we hadn’t learned to communicate without some active catalyst. We sat in silence watching basketball. I later learned he was too scared to let his son see him so vulnerable. So I ran away, hiding downstairs where neither of us could hurt. That is until the hospice nurse told us it wouldn’t be long now. It was time to say goodbye.

December 10th was an inappropriately beautiful day, considering what it had in store. The ascent up those stairs was my Everest, but there’s no gear one can buy to assuage the elevation of this climb. His eyes were glazed over, looking outside. Maybe that’s why the sun was so sharp. “I love you so much, Dad”, but there was nothing left in the tank. No eye movement, no blink, nothing. I still beat myself up for robbing us of our goodbye. That was the night he came back downstairs.

The wake brought on a horde of strangers, people I had met long ago (“look how big you’ve gotten”, “you look so much like him”, and so on), but all I absorbed was how much better they knew him. People who hadn’t seen him in years spoke in depth about this man, and all I could do was meekly nod and thank them for the kind words. I felt like dirt. Why didn’t I fight harder? They all knew him, and here I stood with turned-out pockets when it came to my own father. I wasn’t worthy of grieving, ashamed of my efforts.

For several years I festered in self-pity about how I never got a chance to know my father, all while blaming myself for not begging him to go to his yearly physicals. I was a kid, but so what? I was his kid, and if anyone could get him to go, it’d be me. I was so focused on the negatives that I failed to embrace his great qualities, to give myself a way out. I wanted to be angry, to hate him for leaving me, and to hate myself for letting him.

Those moments still hit, but then I started thinking about the human behind the “Dad”. As I got older, I felt a greater appreciation for who he was in the context of a man and not this mythological warrior who fixed everything or beat back the monsters in the closet just by being in the next room.

I interrogated anyone that might have a piece of the puzzle and pored over our home movies. One VHS tape showed him practically giggling with little ol’ infant me. Cut to another clip and he’s asleep with me in his arms, or beaming with joy as I sit on his shoulders. Who is that guy?

Pictured: Me, my already huge feet, and one smiley father.
Pictured: Me, my already huge feet, and one smiley father.

His sister told me tales of their upbringing, which painted a picture of this rebellious youth with an afro over my rather clean-cut businessman. I met with my godfather, his best friend who delivered the eulogy at his funeral, over some drinks and heard about their office shenanigans — it was so refreshing. No longer chasing a ghost, I was simply getting to know him. Stoking the embers of a long-lost flame.

He was an ordinary guy. A compassionate and hard-working fellow who loved his family, but no superhero. He burned everything he ever cooked, hit his thumb with the hammer every so often, and was scared in the face of death. He faced it head on anyway. It’s funny how one’s definition of “hero” changes.

I’ll never be completely free of regrets when it comes to this, but I feel much more at peace now. So my father wasn’t Superman, but I got to trade in that cheap novelty for a genuine relationship. While he can’t physically be here with me, we still grow closer every single day.

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