One of the reasons I gave for leaving Japan was to be closer to my father while he battled cancer. One of my oldest students gifted me with a handmade Buddhist pilgrim figurine, her eyes filled with so much compassion. My manager told me that the student's sister had recently died of cancer. I felt disingenuous for speaking of my father's cancer playing any role in my decision to head home. It had come and gone so many times I didn't take it seriously any longer. The fear and finality that the word cancer had sparked back when he was first diagnosed, was long gone.
When I met my husband, I found out his mother had died of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I couldn't understand how something that had seemed so toothless in my life could have left my husband without a mother for most of his life.
When my dad moved to Arizona five years ago, my sister and I occasionally badgered him to find an oncologist in his new location. He always downplayed it, saying that his tumors weren't growing and it wasn't a big concern. Then last June, he told us that he had bladder cancer. His bladder had to be removed but they hoped that they also removed all the cancer. At first it seemed they had, but that wasn't the case.
In March, my father was taken to the hospital by his brother because his white blood cell count was low. He couldn't continue with his chemotherapy for a while, the new type, after the first round didn't have any effect. My grandmother was also in the hospital. She had been having some problems with her breathing and was on an oxygen tank. By the time we got to Arizona, my grandmother had been moved into a rehab center and my father was about to be released from the hospital. We stayed several days with him. He was still a little shaky on his feet and not eating as much as we would have liked. He never ate very much though.
The day we left, my grandmother was back in the hospital and we stopped by to say goodbye. It felt final. On our way home, my father called to let us know that she had passed.
As March blurred into April, the whole world was screeching to a halt. My father continued his chemotherapy, although sometimes he wasn't healthy enough for it. My uncle wasn't very clear on what was happening but he tried to keep us apprised as much as possible. Then the call came on April 27th. My uncle said my father was barely able to help him get him to the car to take him to the hospital. He hadn't been able to eat much of anything and everything was going right through him. Or actually it wasn't. At the hospital, they found a blockage. We only knew about it because my sister had the brilliant idea of calling the hospital and speaking to a nurse. At last we finally knew what was actually happening. They pumped his stomach in the hopes that his body would relax and pass the blockage. On Tuesday the 28th we found out there was a growth inside my father's abdomen that he had never told us about. It was pressing on his intestines, that was the blockage they found. My father could no longer process nutrients. He wasn't a good candidate for surgery. It was time to say goodbye.
We each called and spoke to him. Many people from accross the country and throughout his life called and spoke to him. He told me that he loved me and that he was sorry that he wasn't going to do the surgery and I assured him that was okay and we just wanted him to be comfortable. He was worried that he hadn't showed his love for all of us throughout his life and he hoped that it had emanated from him even if he didn't say the words. I assured him that we all knew that he loved us.
I cried. I cried so much. The nurse told my sister once they took him off all the machines and tubes he would not last very long. We would not be able to get there in time. But then after they moved him to hospice he perked up and spent the evening talking to my cousins and my uncle. So late that night, my sister and I decided to fly down to Arizona. This isn't a story about the trip but it was surreal and very very delayed. By the time we reached the hospice, my father was no longer conscious. Nevertheless, he hung on until May 1st. We came by to see him everyday but were not allowed to stay overnight in his room due to an abundance of caution with the virus.
He was so small, so frail, so emaciated. He just kept breathing though. We talked to him as though he may still be able to hear us. I prayed and anointed him and let him know that he could go home. He had told my mother during their phone call that he just wanted to go home to his Father. My dad went through times of atheism. He struggled with a belief that there was anything after death, even while he was a devout church member. I was glad to hear him find peace as his life neared its close.
I have always believed that our existence doesn't end with our death. I still believe that. It does not offer me as much comfort as many think it must. I cannot see my father any longer. I cannot hear his voice. I cannot hold his hand. I can't remember the last time my father hugged me. I can't remember what he smelled like. He was never an emotional man. Conversations were mostly us chatting about current events or me updating him on my life and him saying that nothing new was going on with him.
As we packed his things up, we found out my father saved everything. Poems I had written in middle school. Art my sister wanted to deny she had ever created. A shell my mom had written on back when they lived in California in the 70s. The hat my newborn half-brother wore home from the hospital. Keys and coins and old children's toys and a buckeye with a date written on it. There was such a deep deep well of emotion reflected in these little collections of the flotsam of life. We didn't know what half of it meant. He wasn't there to tell us why these things were special. Thankfully my uncle could tell us some stories like the way my father made himself a fidget back in the 60s as a schoolboy. My sister and I found ourselves turning to its comfort again and again as the days went by. I wore one of his hats every morning when we went for a walk to connect to the vastness of this world that rolls on even when we feel broken.
We divvied things up among his children and his nieces and his brother and a few of the women in his life. We threw some stuff away and donated some more. We closed accounts and cancelled appointments. We reached out to the people we found on his phone and to the authors of the letters we found sorted into manila folders in his desk. There was more crying. Little by little we cleared out his room until, just like his cremains, his life could be packed up in a few boxes.
I believe I will speak with my father again. I believe he is at peace. I believe this deeply wounded, deeply scared, deeply flawed man is now surrounded in love and acceptance. I believe he emanates love now. I want that for him. I want him to put away all of his failures, all of his burdens, all of his regrets. I want him to be happy. But the man I knew is gone.
In all of eternity, this is our soul's one chance to live bound by time. Our one chance to experience decay, deceit, despair, loneliness. Our one chance to rise above that, to make an effort and reach out to others. Our one chance to not know things, to discover them. Our chance to be ephemeral, to feel how the end sweetens each moment we are given, how sorrow brings joy into greater relief. I want more time with my dad in this dirty, corrupt, divided world. I want that man who tucked away mementos like a dragon's hoard to let me hug him and tell him that he can cry, he can tell me any story and I will treasure it, any secret and I will forgive him. I want that man to know that I know him and I love him with all my finite human heart.