My Father's Chutzpah

It was the Matlin chutzpah, particularly my dad's, which got me through the hard times. When kids made fun of my hearing aids, he would tell me to tell them they were just big globs of bubble gum -- want some?
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I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and in spite of what most people might have expected from a young girl growing up deaf, life for me was like one long episode of The Brady Bunch. Despite whatever barriers were in my way, I imagined myself as Marcia Brady skating down the street saying "hi" to everyone, whether they knew me or not. Some called it determination. Others said it was never taking no for an answer. But my Dad has another word for it -- chutzpah.

It was the Matlin chutzpah, particularly my Dad's, which got me through the hard times. He was no stranger himself to tough times, having grown up with an alcoholic father and a mother who married and divorced his father four or five times. Somehow, some way, he developed a sense of humor that he used to help himself, and, in turn, me, when barriers came our way. When kids made fun of my hearing aids, he would tell me to tell them they were just big globs of bubble gum -- want some? And when people on the street pointed to the big hearing aid battery unit that hung around my neck, connected to the aids that were in each of my ears, my Dad would tell them that it was a radio and I was listening to the World Series. It was my father who instilled the "never say no" attitude I carry around with me today, and who instilled in me a sense of wonder, always taking us on adventures in the car, never telling us the destination.

During a visit to California, when a friend of my grandmother's told my parents that I must be deaf because I was not responding to sounds, my father was absolutely convinced that I was simply being stubborn. Back in Chicago, my father was unable to accept the idea that his only daughter might be deaf. Determined to prove my grandmother's friend wrong, my dad fetched a pan from the kitchen along with a spoon and marched up to my room. While I was sleeping, he banged the spoon against the pan but I didn't respond. My dad was devastated. A few weeks later, doctors confirmed what he and my mom were too afraid to admit; I was profoundly deaf. I was 18 months old.

My parents were beside themselves. As my mother told a reporter many years later, she didn't even know there were deaf children out there; how would she or my dad know what to do. But despite the pain and confusion they were feeling, they soldiered on, seeking out schools and professionals to make sure I would get the best of everything. Several doctors recommended that I be sent to schools, hundreds of miles away. But eventually they settled on keeping me at home and sending me to schools right in the neighborhood because they wanted to be the ones to say "I love you" at night when I went to bed.

Surprisingly, through all this, while my Dad maintained the mantle of the jokester in the Matlin house, ready with a quip for me to throw to kids if they made fun of me, he was surprisingly tight lipped when it came to my deafness. He simply didn't want to talk about it. This never was more apparent when after I won the Academy Award, reporters would ask for interviews with Mom or Dad about me, and Mom would offer all the information, but Dad would just sit there. If he did say something, he would tear up and eventually would be unable to finish a conversation without crying. For whatever reason, perhaps guilt, Dad could not talk about my deafness. Somehow, the pain of that discovery was too much for him. As the years went by, I discovered that this was a typical pattern for him; deep and hurtful moments were very difficult for him to discuss or he would just dismiss them. It was such a puzzle to me because Dad was always eager to talk to me about anything and approached life in such a jovial and happy-go-lucky way.

A few years ago, Mom and Dad moved out of Chicago and settled into a condo in Hollywood, Florida. It wasn't unusual to see them in their easy chairs like happy clams or Dad sunning by the pool. They were enjoying their golden years. But Dad began to have problems. First his arm went numb and then his leg. After several consultations, it was discovered that dad had symptoms related to spinal stenosis. Eventually, he had a back operation, but while he was recovering, a doctor told him that he discovered Dad had multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells. I had never even heard of multiple myeloma and immediately began to worry. But Dad assured us that all was fine and he was diagnosed with the mildest form; he told us he just had to go on a regimen of pills, have no chemo and would be around to torture my mom and us for years.

Dad's cancer news was delivered in such a breezy manner, that I didn't even think to follow up with him. When I heard about Stand Up To Cancer, I volunteered my Dad's story and soon a reporter from People magazine was researching an article about my Dad and I. I was happy to refer him to my Dad for more information about his myeloma as I didn't know too much. I thought everything would be fine.

A few days later, the reporter called my producing partner, Jack Jason, to tell him that he had spoken with my Dad and then his doctor and found out that my dad's diagnosis was not what my dad had told us. Dad had Stage three Multiple Myeloma, a much more serious type than he had lead us to believe. When Jack told me, I was devastated. Then I became angry wondering why Dad wasn't upfront with us. It didn't take me long to realize, it was dad hiding in silence and guilt once again. Rather than present us -- those in his family who had to deal with his diagnosis -- with the truth, he chose to hide it under the rug and not talk about it, just in the same way he had a hard time talking about my deafness. It was as if he thought, if he didn't talk about it, it would be fine, or it would just go away. Fortunately, the truth came out and we immediately got dad to a regimen that included chemotherapy.

It's been a year now since Dad's diagnosis, and Dad is as well as can be expected. He's been told that he can live many years with his cancer. Meanwhile, in the last year, Dad saw me talk about cancer on the SU2C broadcast special and watched me deal with it frankly and honestly in interviews in a manner that I'm sure he didn't expect me to. Slowly but surely, Dad began to open up about the fact that he is dealing with a serious form of cancer, but he is also aware that all of us, Mom, my two brothers and all of our respective families, are there for him, supporting him every step of the way. Though I'm not quite convinced Dad is open and ready to pour his heart out to us, he is aware he can't hide from cancer. He is working to get better.

For people who are afraid to TALK about cancer, for people who are afraid to communicate with their loved ones about it, and for the people who want to pretend cancer doesn't exist, either delaying diagnosis or not getting regular checkups, the consequences can be fatal. Doing nothing about cancer will kill you. That's why in honor of my Dad this Father's Day, I'm STANDING UP, encouraging men like my Dad to talk openly and freely when it comes to matters of health. It's up to us to remind our Dads to get regular checkups, and if something just doesn't feel right, to get to the doctor. Tell your Dad to make sure to deal with your family honestly about your fears. No one should ever be ashamed to cry. This Father's Day, let's remind our Dads that family and friends are probably the best weapons one could have against cancer. They can share the burden, potentially provide information and resources or just be there to hold your hand.

I love you Dad. I want us to spend many, many more Father's Days together. It may be true that silence is easy, but believe me when I say that when it comes to cancer, silence is the last thing the world will hear from me. You can bet on it.

I hope and pray the same is true for you and all of our Dads.

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