Body Language

My dad died of lung cancer in 1974, at the age of 63.  I was 19 years old. My mom was a Registered Nurse, so we kept him at home as much as possible, until the last hours of his life.  In his healthy days, he was six foot four, a robust 250 pounds or so – nicknamed ‘The Chief’.  At the end, he was down to 180 or less, looking more like a refugee. 

I was in college, living at home, studying at a ‘branch’ campus of a school I hadn’t planned on attending until the cancer changed my plans. I wasn’t too happy about the arrangement at first, but my mom needed the help, and I was the only one of my two siblings available. So I was elected.

Our lives got into a routine in those days.  I took care of the cleaning, while she took care of his personal needs, for the most part.  Eventually, the Cancer Society arranged for a part-time LPN to come in a few mornings a week to give some relief.  The nurse was at least ten years older than my dad, but was a hearty Scandinavian who had already spent hours putting up quarts of home-grown peaches or baking pies, and would leave our house to work the evening shift at the nursing home.

He taught me to cut his hair, while he coached, and eventually trusted me to shave him with a razor.  “So Frank, how did you go deaf?” he’d tease, as I’d hesitantly trim the hair that grew from his ears.

In my free time, Dad and I would play cribbage — of course, he taught me.  My last birthday gift to him was a new cribbage board, on which I’ve since taught my own children.  Or we would watch baseball together.  One of my last memories with him was watching the 74 World Series — the Oakland A’s with their handlebar mustaches and retro uniforms.

Toward the end, when he was mostly confined to his bed, I would help him walk down the hall, or eventually, stand up beside the bed on a walker and walk in place to prevent pneumonia.   While up, he’d peek out of his bedroom window and make some comment about the weather or the neighbor’s car.   We would massage his legs and push against his feet, to keep him from developing ‘drop foot.’  This man who had been a career army officer, and had marched his share of miles, was now unable to walk on his own.

I have to tell you that in his healthier days, my dad had problems with alcohol.  He spent most of his free time at the American Legion, and I can remember my mom making me call there and beg him to come home.  As I got older, I began to realize that every family didn’t have the fights and the yelling.  I learned to be ashamed, and I hated him for it.  In fact, I can remember wishing he would wrap his car around a tree.  Somehow, in the last months of the cancer, that all changed.   We talked, and laughed, and had fun together like normal people. And while the cancer was slowly eating away at his body, God was using it to heal my heart from the anger and hurt.

Ironically, one picture that is indelibly etched in my mind is my dad, every Christmas Eve, sitting in ‘his’ chair in the living room, opening the family Bible and reading the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke before we went to bed.  We were devout Catholics, and this was the only time of year I can remember the Bible ever being opened in our home, other than to enter a death or birth in the ‘family record’ pages.  Despite the annual Christmas ‘fight’ (anyone from an alcoholic family knows what I’m talking about), Christmas Eve was kept sacred.  “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be taxed…”  A tear still comes to my eye when I hear those words each Christmas.

I can only remember one of his drinking buddies ever coming to see him.  Of course, he was shocked at Dad’s appearance and didn’t come back. We learned that cancer was a pretty lonely experience, at least in those days.

At some point, we called my brother in California and suggested he might want to come home.  The two of them spent hours talking, my brother sprawled out on my parents’ bed beside Dad.  Dave took a job as an aide at the local hospital and planned to stay around for a while.

Then one Friday, totally unannounced, an old family friend appeared at our door.  He was a Catholic priest who grew up with my mother.  My grandmother and his mother were the best of friends.  He lived miles away, in New York state, but here he was at our front door.  He came in, visited with my dad, heard his ‘confession’ and performed a home mass.  He didn’t just bring communion, he said mass.  After he left, my father wrote a letter to my sister, who lived a couple hours away in Buffalo.  He told her there were angels in his bedroom.

The following Monday evening, Dad took his last breath. Seeing him in the hospital bed, so still, we realized how frail he had become.

My dad taught me how to make a pie and fry a chicken, how to sew, and how to understand football. He instilled in me a love of good music, from ’50 Timeless Classics’ to the Mills Brothers to barbershop.  He gave me an understanding of human nature.  I carry with me his sense of humor, and the appreciation for a story well told. I’ve tried to pass these things, although not always successfully, to his grandchildren, whom he never knew.

Thanks, Dad. If it hadn’t been for your life, and your death, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Diane on November 30, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I remember you always encouraged me to visit — to tell him jokes. I didn’t go often enough, but I did go a few times. Lovely piece, Mary, and I rejoice to know you found forgiveness before it was too late. Love, “Ye shall find”

    Reply

  2. Posted by Dennis on November 30, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I enjoyed reading and sitting here crying. My mother also died of lung cancer. She lived with us during her last days. I was so glad our kids were able to be around her through the tuff times. How I miss her………. thank you for sharing.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Steve Egidio on November 30, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Mar;
    It has always saddened me that I never got to meet your Dad. But the way you have described him throughout the years of our marriage, I can see glimpses of him in you, in our daughter and in our son (especially in Ben since he is 6 foot 5.5 inches tall). It also saddens me that our own grandson will never know his great grandaddy Frank. I bet he would have been a great great grandaddy.

    Your hubby

    Reply

  4. I had a little more than a year to know your dad. In that time, he was a man to whom I could look up. I didn’t see the stresses in him, your mom, or you; too naive, I guess. Today, I just developed a greater appreciation for you.

    That leads me to bless the home in which I grew up: safe, comparatively tame, and supportive. That blessing gives me cause to make the best use of the advantages that I have been given and to broadcast the advantages forward.

    “The Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.”

    Thank you for the heart-felt post.

    Reply

  5. Thanks for sharing a day of fatherly nostalgia with me today. This is a good story of grieving well, and that is a gift for the writer/rememberer, as well as the reader. Your father would be proud of this “story well told”. Blessings to you and yours.

    Reply

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. From the responses I’ve received, I guess this post touched a nerve. Thanks for letting me share this glimpse into my life.

    Reply

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