My father was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma last summer. It's been a long year.
A retired artist and glass-engraver, my father had been awfully fatigued, and blamed it on his age. During a visit with my older brother, Dad landed in the hospital with bronchitis symptoms. Then everything changed instantly. Tests showed it wasn't bronchitis. It was cancer.
Dad, who had already lived 20 years longer than his father, was determined to go longer than his mother had, even if it meant putting me into an early grave. At least I was never under the illusion that it would be Tuesdays With Morrie. More like Mondays With Stubborn Gene: While waiting for his weekly treatments, he barked about the government and the media, whether the other patients wanted to hear it or not.
Meanwhile, my panic-stricken mother was learning to cope with dad's disease. My mother is sweet, sensitive and kind, but her basic medical knowledge owed to years of her own made-up folk wisdom. Through my childhood and adolescence, for example, she taught me that eating too much white bread was a sign of "the sugar." Drinking pop from aluminum cans, meanwhile, caused Alzheimer's. Standing in front of the air-conditioning unit caused Bell's palsy.
When I was little, my mother told me you could tell when a person was dying because their ears would retract inside of their head. When my grandmother was on her own deathbed, I watched and watched, waiting to catch a glimpse of her earlobes disappearing. I must have missed it.
Dad's running joke was that he got cancer because of the Steelers being so terrible — even as he declared his unwavering allegiance to the team by the soft knit hat he wore everywhere, including to bed. He managed to make several Arby's cashiers cry because they put mayonnaise on his sandwiches. Eventually, Arby's donated two whole loaves of bread so he could just stay home until his treatments were over. And throughout, he complained that my driving would kill him before the cancer.
One of my many tasks was helping to create my parents' Living Wills. (If I was going to fill out my father's, we figured, I may as well do my mother's as well.) I'd always thought my older siblings would be the ones who'd have the painful discussion about what my parents wanted their last days to be like. But there I was, driving up to my parents' house, and seeing how they were trying to cope.
The three of us went through questions such as "Who should be my health-care agent if I should be unable to make decisions for myself?" and completing sentences like, "If my doctor decides that I am likely to die within a short period of time and life-support treatment would only delay the moment of my death ..."
For the most part, it was a perfectly normal death, coma and feeding-tube discussion. However, I must have picked up an overly sensitive questionnaire: It also asked questions like "Would you like nice light massages with oils and aromatherapy?" and "Would you like pictures of your loved ones surrounding you?"
"Why would I care? I'm dying," my father responded, visibly agitated by the idea that we would care to bring in a picture at all while he lay unconscious.
I looked over the next several questions and I now realized why my parents were made for each other: Neither of them wanted to be fussed. Even in their dying days.
Amidst several more weeks of chemotherapy, through his exhaustion and my fussing, Dad reached inside himself and finished a few paintings, entering them into an art show for the first time in his life. Then, after several more weeks of chemotherapy, we got the news that Dad was cancer-free. All that fussing actually worked. Two days later came the announcement: Two of his paintings were selected for the show.
All this time, I thought I was taking care of him, teaching him how to survive cancer and painstakingly following doctor's orders. It turned out, Dad was doing the teaching. And we're pretty sure that for some time to come, his ears will remain on the outside of his head.