He died of lymphoma on September 15th, 1985 at 10:22 pm. I was 21 years old. At that moment, a man I never really knew, passed into the aether, and was crushed tight to God’s bosom. Found by God and lost by me, he is to this day, an enigma and my regret. He was my father.
We spoke precious little while he was alive. A sense of quiet desperation peppered his disposition. A staunchly stoic individual, his upbringing in the wild, velvet foothills of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan burnished a certain leathery sheath to his already withered spirit.
I saw my father cry only three times. Once, during a conflict with my younger brother, whose pained cry (he was only a kid after all) of “yea, well, you’re not my real Dad, so I don’t have to listen to you,” saw him descend into bitter weeping (all three of us are adopted). On another occasion, my Mom was reacting to my new but immature faith, a faith terribly demeaning to anyone outside the tiny club I then called Christianity. My own inability to navigate the complexities of this new life of faith had thrown a monkey wrench into the heart of our family. My Mom was hurt and let me know about it. Dad tearfully held my hand, recognizing in me his own lostness in the world and responding as he generally did, silently, but deeply.
I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so he didn’t have to be alone when he got his biopsy results. The very fact that the doctor couldn’t tell him over the phone had already primed the pump as to what we could expect. I sat in the waiting room while he consulted with the doctor. What seemed like days passed until he finally emerged. Tears drew lines down his ashen face. It was the third, and would be the final time, I ever saw him cry. His words haunt me to this day, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”
The denial in his words bespoke a terror I had hitherto not seen on his usually emotionless face. He was genuinely afraid and communicated as much in the only way he knew: cautious deflection. Perhaps if he treated it like a bad cold it might just disappear like a bout of coughing or a snotty nose. And, as we would discover later, he had most likely lived with the growing cancer for a number of years, successfully hiding lumps even from my mother. These may have been the actions of a man too rough ‘n tumble to be bothered with such matters. More likely, they picture someone lacking the interpersonal skills necessary to build a supportive foundation upon which he could pilot these stormy waters.
He was as lost as we were.
In the months that followed we learned well the half hour journey from our home to the Tom Baker Cancer Center where he would be subjected to one test after another, one trial after another, one failed approach after another. He lost half his body weight and was an eerie shade of grey-green. Ultimately, he was admitted as a long-term patient. I learned how to help my own father shower and use the toilet. Any preexisting awkwardness was forced out in this new and vulnerable frontier. Old fears and presumptions fell away every time I helped pull his pants back up or helped him into pajamas before he fell, exhausted, into bed.
I was studying classical voice and choral conducting at the time and would often sit by his bedside reading and even humming pieces I was to have memorized for the following morning. From time to time I’d look up from my textbook to be sure he was still breathing, only to catch him looking back. Our words were few to none. But, to us, those looks bore volumes of communication unnecessarily crowded by such things as talk.
In the early evening of September 15th we had been made aware by the doctor that he had contracted pneumonia as a result of increasing weakness and the pure oxygen that was keeping him alive. Ironically, in so doing, it crystallized his lungs, turning them into glass shells. He was given zero chance to live off the respirator. Despite the knowledge that this day was coming, we stood like plastic dolls, unable to speak.
This reality had us cornered, and we succumbed to its horror, saying our trembling goodbyes. I bent over to kiss his forehead, whimpering quietly in his ear, ”Goodbye, Dad. I love you. I always have.” It was one of the few precious “moments” we ever enjoyed together. He would be dead two hours later.
My father was that man about whom one says, “He was someone I never knew.” I cannot say however that he wasn’t the father I needed. I was as negligent and uninterested as he was tense and unable to forge anything substantive in our father-son relationship.
They say regret is a wasted emotion. Maybe so, but few emotional triggers are more difficult to undo. It lies in wait every time we are reminded how our successes bowed to failure, our fears grew through inaction, our relationships dug themselves deep into a quicksand of mutual ignorance or naïveté.
In the years that followed, I’ve been forced to come to terms with my passivity and self-driven carelessness regarding my father. It has left me struggling with mountains of regret and the self-loathing it can generate. Left untended, regret can cloud the soul and create blockages to the inflowing of new love, new relationships, even newness in old relationships.
With my Dad it wasn’t about forgiveness. It wasn’t even really about misunderstanding. I am ashamed to say that, for me it was, quite frankly, lack of interest. He was everything I was not but secretly wished to be: unyielding, unflaggingly committed, self-denying, self-forgetful, self-reliant, with a willingness to forego relishing in his fears in the interest of those he supported and loved.
My lack of interest and passivity crashed headlong into his inability or perhaps tentativeness to face something he’d never known himself, tenderness. The casualty? Relationship.
Since then I’ve done a poor job, although with lessening self-flagellation, at honesty and intentionality in human relationships. Friends, pastors, colleagues, and spiritual directors have all shared in this journey with me. The one message most readily cobbled together from their loving advice is this: if the gospel tells us anything it’s that there is always redress for regrets. The Way of Jesus keeps open the door that leads to new and renewed relationships, to companionship for the lonely and an anchor for souls adrift.
I miss my Dad. I regret never really getting to know him. I miss what might have been. But, the Way of Jesus, lived with courage, promises second chances for chances not taken.
Picture of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan found here