Fathers can show sons lots of things: how to buy your first house, how to replace a broken pane of glass, how to cut your meat when you are out in public, but how many fathers show their sons how to die?
In the summer of 1977, he told us that he had cancer. I remember the day when he arrived home with the news. Mom and I were sitting out on the front steps on a warm, sunny July afternoon. Mother sat next to me as I made tape recordings capturing the sounds of meadowlarks in the field across the street. Dad pulled into the driveway and got out of the car. He came up the walk smiling bravely as he approached. When he got four feet from her, he stopped. Shrugging his shoulders like a man who had just won second prize, he said, “It’s malignant.”
Thirty-five years of marriage afforded them such shorthand communication. Mom rose and fell into Dad’s arms. They said nothing more. She buried her face in the crook of his neck and cried softly. Meadowlarks warbled in the distance.
By this time, my father had been in AA for four years. It was his plan to take this way of living into whatever time he had left.
Earlier that day, when Doctor Duthoy had told Dad that he had cancer, my father asked, “Okay, how long have I got to live?”
“Paul,” the doctor replied, “we take these things one day at a time.”
That’s what Dad knew how to do. That’s the AA way and that’s exactly what he did.
Usually there are five stages that we go through when we learn that we have cancer: first, there’s denial, then bargaining, and then anger. This is followed by depression and finally, acceptance. Dad skipped the first four stages and went immediately to the acceptance.
For this, he was judged to be extraordinary by all who knew him.
There is a certain look, a demeanor that is carried by those who don’t have the cancer. Dad’s visitors fell into this approach when they spoke with him. Like undertakers they’d come, with saddened faces, with folded hands, and they would always say pretty much the same thing:
“Oh, Paul, we’ve just learned that you’re sick. We are so sorry.”
“Well, I’m not dead yet,” was his constant reply. “I think you’re the ones that look ill.”
He seemed awfully brave to those people. He was, in fact, not being brave at all. He had simply accepted his situation, and was going on, doing whatever he could do with the day that had been given to him. With humor, indefatigable humor, he would reply to his sympathizers, “Yeah, the doctor said he’d have to remove my testicles to stop the spread of the cancer. I told him that I wanted them replaced with pickled onions.”
Stunned confusion would wash across the faces of his listeners. He’d go on, “This way, whenever I go past a McDonald’s, I’ll get aroused.” (He didn’t use the word “aroused.)
His silly punch line would shatter the moment and into each other’s arms they would fall, laughing, seeing that all was not lost. Then they would talk. He made his listeners feel comfortable. They each thought he was magnificent.
Prostate cancer has a good prognosis. They’ve been working with it for a long time. There is much that can be done, many steps that can be taken to remedy each of the declines that come with the disease. Dad took them all, each in his stride, each, one day at a time.
First, there was surgery, then medication. If that didn’t slow the cancer’s progress, next would come castration. That would mean impotence. Dad seemed to intentionally confuse impotence with impudence and remained a smart aleck throughout. But when the castration with its accompanying impotence became necessary, he found a time to stop laughing.
The night before his surgery I was home with my family. We were gathered in the living room watching TV. It was Dad’s habit to retire at ten o’clock. A former military man, he would always leave the room in the same way. Rising from his big, blue La-Z-Boy, he would stand and remove his trousers in front of everyone. With military neatness, he would fold them over his arm. Then bending down, he would pluck up the shoes that he had removed from his feet hours before, and march off to bed. He always made me laugh. Those big, white, blowzy boxer shorts, those skinny white legs. I’d see him go. He always preceded Mother. She would stay up for the news and then come along later. This evening it was different.
When the news began, he stood and undressed, and Mother stood, too. She looked at him for a long time. She said nothing and at last, they retired together. Arm in arm they slowly climbed the stairs. My heart sank, as I knew they were going off to make love to each other for the last time.
For thirty-five years, they had loved, and tonight would be their final time together. Tomorrow’s surgery would change all that had come before, and this night was their last night for that kind of love. My brother and sisters, sitting beside me, understood the significance of the moment. We looked at each other, but we could not find the words to say anything. Silently, we watched then go.
Dad whispered to Mom on the stairs, “Annie, I have always,” he paused, “loved you.”
The months that followed brought good times and bad. By and large, they were good, but sometimes not. Irascible, Dad would become angry over some small thing. Then he would stop short, ‘stop to smell the roses’ as he would say, and he would apologize for his outburst, no matter how trivial. Then he’d hug the one that he had offended and tell him that he loved them. He did this to me several times and he was surprisingly consistent. He didn’t know it then, but he was teaching me how to die by showing me how to live.
There were more setbacks, inevitable declines, but each of these he took one day at a time. For three years he lived with cancer. And then, after the surgery, after the radiation, after the ileostomy, after the more and more frequent hospitalizations, the end was drawing near. Doctor Duthoy had exhausted most of his options and suggested an experimental procedure that was new and being performed in a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
Dad walked onto the airplane hale and hearty, and returned to us a week later, broken and wan. He came back in a wheelchair looking as if he had aged fifty years. It frightened us all to see this transformation. There, in Wisconsin, he underwent this “procedure.” It was painful, and it damn-near broke his spirit. But more than the procedure, it was something that he learned there that took him down so.
These were young doctors that he worked with there. They didn’t know his AA 12-Step style. He approached them the same way he approached Dr. Duthoy.
“So, how much longer have I got to live?” he asked them.
“Three months,” was their terse reply.
He had never thought of it that way before. Three months. He believed them. Now he thought he was dying, and this shook him—to his core.
He returned home and lost weight rapidly. His hair began to fall out and he wore a nylon stocking on his head to prevent its loss.
For months, my brother David and I had urged him to get his affairs in order. On a Saturday afternoon in June he called us to the house to talk. There was something that the wanted to tell us.
We were all seated in the living room together. David and I sat on the love seat. He sat across from us in his La-Z-Boy. His head seemed large and angular, his face looked pale and thin. Wearing that awful nylon stocking on his head, he talked to us, his grown sons.
“I don’t want to die,” he began. “I’m frightened and I don’t want to die.”
His voice trembled and tears rolled down his cheeks. David and I tried to be brave. I slid my hand down to my side and quietly clutched my brother’s fingers. Tears welled up in our eyes as we struggled to not cry out loud. We had never heard him speak this way, and it frightened and saddened us both. He began to sob. A thick lump rose up in my throat and choked the breath out of me. He went on:
“I don’t want to die. The doctor told me I have three months to live. I told him that I couldn’t pay the bill…so he gave me six months.”
It took us a moment to realize he was joking. He was actually joking through his tears. We suddenly snapped out of it, and together said, “What?!”
He wiped a tear from his eye and raising a single finger to us said, “A lesson, boys. All things with humor.”
I thought, “How can he do that?” But still, this lesson was not lost on me. Nor was it lost on my brother. Later, he told us what he had called us to the house to say. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember the lesson. “All things with humor.”
Dad died magnificently, and he showed me how to do it by living magnificently, with humor and courage and dignity and grace. All, one day at a time.
Fathers show sons lots of things, but Dad showed me how to die.
(c) 2013, Richard Talbot.
Richard Talbot is a freelance nonfiction journalist living in Minnesota. It
is his particular bent to see the most uncommon aspects of the most common
things. His work has appeared in newspaper, magazines, professional
journals, and reprints have appeared in the U.K. and the Asian market in