Losing a parent as an adult is a funny thing. The experience is almost universal, even predictable. Death comes knocking, sooner or later, usually at a parent’s door. But the end of each life is its own tragic tale, filled with details that no one else can know or remember. My father’s death was like the deaths of countless fathers before him. Yet only my family could understand the meaning of it.
When I was 23, I lived in Berlin. I was supposed to be studying German, but instead found myself staying out all night with a new friend who today is my husband. In those days the Internet was shoddy—not quite dial-up caliber, but close. A few times a week, I’d visit a nearby Internet cafe, a smoke-filled den of unemployed Berliners, to check my Hotmail just to let my parents know that I was alive and thriving.
One January morning—it was probably dark and freezing in northerly Berlin—a distressing message flashed on my screen. “I’m going to have a small surgery to remove a rib with a cancerous growth,” wrote my father, trying to be understated. “Don’t worry. It’ll all be fine.” So began his six-year battle, that questionable term from our cancer lexicon, against the tireless beast that is multiple myeloma.
Like many cancer narratives, my father’s began all of a sudden. He was watching The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer as he always did when he got home early from work. I can picture him sitting on the couch in front of the television, devouring anything he could find in the kitchen—tortilla chips on the counter or an entire red cabbage from the refrigerator drawer—because he almost always skipped lunch. He sneezed and felt a sharp pain in his rib, which he attributed to the previous day’s workout. The pain persisted, sending my parents to the emergency room, which led to a series of tests that uncovered the terrible truth. Somehow, this seemingly healthy middle-aged man had been walking around, for weeks or months or years—who knows?—with plasma cells going haywire, mutating, expanding, exploding, under multiple myeloma’s deadly spell.
Eventually, I came home and went to graduate school. Normal life resumed for my family, at least for a while. There were interruptions—new symptoms, hellish lumbar punctures, frantic waits for lab results—but doctors kept the beast at bay by pouring medications at it. When the beast came roaring back to life in September 2008, it was the beginning of the end.
My family took shifts, keeping my father company and helping him get out of bed while he still could. I remember one afternoon, sitting in my former bedroom, now a field hospital, watching the news with my father. Lehman Brothers had just declared bankruptcy, Sarah Palin looked like the next vice president, and there was talk of a collapsing financial system. My father’s eyes were wide with fear. The world was coming to an end and so was he.
Cancer brought my father and me closer together. It created, for the first time ever, long hours in the day that weren’t dedicated to work or work-related travel. There were endless waits for appointments and hospital stays when, lacking anything else to do, we sat and talked for hours. Knowing his days were numbered, not abstractly but for real, unleashed streams of words and new expression. When doctors weren’t busy putting out the fires of cancer’s toxic treatments, we covered everything from the gossipy and frivolous to the personal and profound.
Facing illness, some people seek the comforts of religion. My father, a cultural Jew but a devout atheist, a proud doctor and scientist who came to this country in 1976, did just the opposite. When friends brought over books by Rabbi This or That, offering spiritual guidance, he’d throw them in the garbage and go ballistic: “BUUUL-SHEET!” He even wrote a letter to his disease in a fit of reason, demanding an explanation:
We have locked horns for the last six years and it looks like you are winning. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you want in the end?
My father needed answers. Why is cancer born within us? Why pursue eternal growth just to kill us? Cancer dies when we die, so what’s the point? The conclusion he arrived at was unsatisfying but true: “We are prisoners of our biology.”
Cancer is cruel and powerful—”the emperor of all maladies,” as oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee designates it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name. A few minutes in an oncologist’s waiting room is a reminder, if you needed one, that cancer doesn’t care if you’re the Dalai Lama or Hannibal Lecter, a baby or an octogenarian. While my father anticipated the end, I sat beside him, wondering what it would be like observing death up close. For the first time, I weighed my own mortality. Will I suffer like this? Will my children also be there?
Like most years, our last Father’s Day together was unremarkable. My family never took the holiday seriously, mostly because we believed that mothers were the real heroes. Father’s Day was a throwaway holiday, a Hallmark event. When I was a kid, my mother would reach into the depths of the front hall closet, unearthing slender boxes containing silk ties for my brother and me to hand over, which we did unceremoniously.
But today I relish a reason to celebrate fathers, however commercial or cliché. On this day, I’ll summon his voice and remember his gaze, which have faded over time. I’ll tell stories to my daughter, who never knew her abuelo. I’ll imagine my father not in sickness but in health, watching the news on the couch, yelling about Republicans and eating a red cabbage. For me, it’s Father’s Day without a father that finally matters.