Friday, May 28, 2010

In which I am kind of mean to my cancer-ridden dad - no, just mean - and the shame haunts me still

After I returned to the U.S. from my Peace Corps stint, I stayed with my mom and dad in Minnesota for a few months. I was chafing at living under someone else's rules at the age of 32, not that these rules were so arduous - mostly, I was not used to eating lunch at 11:30 and supper at 5:00, but that's when my mom and dad ate so there you go.

It's not like I had all these friends who wanted me to go out late (I knew nobody in Rochester) or that I wanted to bring men home (again, I knew nobody and how does one pick up someone at a bar, anyhow? my indiscretions seem to involve long-term flirting with Inappropriate Men). I was annoyed that my mother expected me to take out the trash and shovel the sidewalk. The first time I did the trash, Mom suggested I put on a hat and held one out to me. I glared at her - like I was going to put that nasty woolen thing on my head? It was totally unflattering.

Then I stepped outdoors. Guess what? At 30 below, you don't care how stupid your head looks.

The other thing that bugged me was that my car had to live in the driveway instead of in the garage. True, there wasn't room for my car because my parents' cars were in there. But my mom was not working* so why did her car have to stay warm?** I guess because she owned the house. Her house, her rules. Stupid property rights. They are fine for me but I don't like them so much when other people invoke them for themselves.

So I am living rent free with my mom and dad at the age of 32, which is killing me, not just because of the rules but also because oh for pity's sake, what kind of loser lives with her parents at that age?

And my dad, whom I have hardly seen for the past seven years because my parents were working in Saudi Arabia for five years and then I was in Chile for two years, wants me to go to the Salvation Army store with him. He wants me to watch TV with him. He wants me to work on the pine box derby car for the neighbors' Cub Scout with him.

My dad wants me to hang out with him.

And I roll my eyes and say, "Dad! I'm reading a book!"

That was winter 1996. A year later, my dad was in the hospital in San Antonio with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I was still unemployed, having gone through job-searching stints in Washington, D.C., San Diego and back to Austin. When he was released from the hospital after a month, my mom moved the two of them to an apartment and then went back to Italy to intercept their household goods, which they had shipped there for my dad's new as of August 1996 job as a Department of Defense 8th grade math teacher at the Navy base on Sicily.

Someone had to stay with my dad while my mom was gone. My brother and sister had already taken a lot of time off from work. I didn't have a job. Perfect.

My dad was weak. Underweight. Hairless. He felt like crap all the time even though he got as much morphine as he wanted. His chemo made him nauseated. The morphine made him constipated. You may think for yourself what this implies and the absolute love between my parents that my mom did what had to be done to solve this problem.

I was trapped in an apartment with a sick and, as it turned out, dying man.

I was pretty angry about the whole thing. Why didn't bad dads get cancer? It's not like there's not a list of people on this earth would be better off dead. But my dad was a great dad. We needed to keep him around.

So who do I take my anger out on?

My dad.

Oh yeah. Nice daughter.

I tried to be patient, but I didn't always succeed. We had nothing to do. We were in an apartment with rented furnishings. There was nothing worth watching on T.V. We couldn't go out: my dad was too weak and his immune system was too fragile.

One evening, my dad read the paper as I read a book. He kept interrupting me with items of interest from the paper. I would sigh, put down my book, and listen.

Finally, I had had enough. He related some factoid and I snapped at him, "Dad! I know that!"

He sighed and answered in a defeated voice. "Of course. You were always so much smarter than me. I won't bother you any more."

Instantly, the shame welled up in me, going from deep in my belly to the tips of my fingers. Even now, 13 years later, I am overcome with self-disgust as I think about how I couldn't bear to take a few seconds to be nice to the man who had given me life, carried me on his shoulders, pulled my teeth, taken me fishing, taught me to drive, built the beds for my college dorm, dried my tears, told me I was beautiful.

I don't remember what I said after that. Something nice, I hope. I also hope that I made up for my meanness in the subsequent months, but can you ever make up for making your father feel bad? Like he is an imposition because he has cancer and omigosh, it's soooo inconvenient for me?

I don't know. I hope so.

* I was doing temp work, which is hard to find in Rochester because Rochester is home of the Mayo Clinic and what does the Mayo Clinic have? It has medical residents. Medical residents have highly-educated wives and husbands who do things like manage the Payless Shoe Store even though they are lawyers or accountants. This is good for Rochester because there are very overqualified people doing work (although managing people and retail are their own skills and just because you have a PhD in English does not make you an expert on the restaurant business, just saying) they wouldn't otherwise consider. It's bad for other job seekers, though. Tough competition.

** Why does this matter, you southerners are asking? Because when it is 34 below, certain cars WILL NOT START. If they are housed in the garage, they stay a little warmer.


  1. You have very high standards for yourself, chica. Best to forgive yourself, as Im sure he forgave you. All you were was frustrated. We all say mean things from time to time. Did you ever wonder what it must have been like for him, to have people around him be full of love, grief, remorse, guilt because suddenly there is so little time left? Kind of unreal, right? Maybe he actually on some level enjoyed hearing you be 'real' to him. I am sorry you lost your Dad. Your sadness really comes through.

    Seems like cancer only takes the good people. I wonder, why couldn't cancer pick some useless, evil person instead? xxoo

  2. My Mom died 17 years ago (was actually buried this day in 1993), and I still remember two events where I was an unbelievable little sh!t to her. Neither happened while she was ill, but I am still haunted by the fact that I can no longer make it any better. I can't tell her or show her any more how sorry I am. How much I regret that I didn't understand how hard it was for her to give us Chanukah presents the year my Dad lost his job, and how sorry I am that I yelled at her when she gave us a package of #2 pencils one night. The other story is even worse. I feel you, my friend.