[Author's note: This was written for a writing contest in 2004 in which the manuscript was to be a true story. It got rejected because "it wasn't what they were looking for" and, like several of my writings, it got tucked away and forgotten about. Fast forward to 2012 and my New Years Resolution to clean up some of the many unfinished tasks that were cluttering up my home. When I found this, I wanted to share it so that others going through the same thing can perhaps find that they aren't the only ones before I tuck it into my writing files along with other works that have been published here and in other places. Please note that, although it's several years later, I'm just going to write this as I did then, with very little editing, because that's the way I roll......
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"I close my eyes against the tears as memories flood my mind..."
That's how I began the poem that was meant to ease the pain I felt from the death of my father, but it didn't work. Instead of releasing my pain, the poem brings it all back again each time I read it - brings it all back like it was yesterday...
It was actually February of 1979 when it all began. I was 17, a senior in high school - and dreaming of becoming an actress some day. The money didn't matter as much to me as the thrill of standing up in front of a crowd of people and becoming someone else for a while - someone very different from the shy, angst-ridden teen that I was inside. I even practiced my acting in school, where I pretending to be a cheerful, easy going airhead rather than let anyone see past the mask to the "real" me.
My "fantasy" came crashing down around me when Dad announced that he had to go into the hospital for exploratory surgery. He admitted he had been suffering from recurrent heartburn for quite some time and had finally seen his doctor to have some tests run. The x-ray showed a small bunch in his stomach about the size of a golf ball. His doctor wanted to remove it so it could be tested and treated accordingly. Simple, right? Yet that night, I fell asleep praying like I'd never prayed before, begging God to let Dad be okay...
When I went to school on the day of the surgery, I was still praying in a corner of my mind even as I acted as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. While I joked and laughed on the outside, inside I was screaming for God to take my eyes, my heart - anything, so long as Dad was spared! I was still praying even as the doctor took Mom into a separate room to tell her the results of the biopsy. My heart dropped to my toes when Mom came out later, looking shell-shocked, and related what she'd been told.
"The growth was bigger than they thought - about the size of a volleyball. It was all around Dad's intestines, so they removed as much as they could. It's Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and the cells were benign, but they're going to treat it like cancer to make sure that what they had to leave inside dissolves. They're suggesting radiation treatments and chemotherapy."
I had heard about radiation and chemotherapy from such sources as the movie "Brian's Song" and the book "Eric" (by Doris Lund), but I wasn't prepared for what came next. The chemotherapy portion, as least for me, wasn't too bad. Dad took the pills the doctors sent home with him, cheerfully joking about "horse tablets". If they made him ill, he didn't let us see it. The radiation treatments, though, were something else. We would drive the half an hour to get to the hospital in Bangor, where they would pump Dad full of radiation, and then we'd try to drive home past McDonalds, Burger King and similar places, all of which gave off odors that caused Dad to retch uncontrollably.
Dad was finally showing signs of going into remission by the time my graduation came up. With my sister in Boston with a sick child in the Children's Hospital and my mom down there helping her out, preparation for my graduation parties - one for family and one for my friends - fell to my grandmother and me. To this day, I don't know how we pulled it off, but everything went off without a hitch. The most memorable thing about that time, in fact, was when the Drama coach announced that he was giving a Drama award "to a young woman whose talent is matched only by her great courage". I almost fainted when he called my name, and as my feet carried me across the stage to collect the small medallion, a part of me was laughing hysterically. Me? Courageous? What a joke! I was terrified of what was happening in my life, but had no way to stop it, so I was just living the best way I could!
Over the summer, Dad attained remission as I worked as a janitor in the Summer Youth Employment Program and tried to save every penny to go to college. I was determined to go out of state - to Florida, in fact - to pursue my acting career in a school with a really strong Theater program. dad teased me a lot about wanting to be like Marilyn Monroe, but I didn't care, as he was well enough to be teasing me instead of retching and looking ill. At the end of the summer of 1979, I made my move, but things didn't go as planned, so after just 8 weeks in the "deep south", I was back at home, looking for work while waiting for the spring semester to begin at Bangor Community College.
Maybe I shouldn't have been in such a rush to get on with my life - or at least, that's what I began thinking shortly after the semester began. Having been brought up a strict Catholic, I couldn't help but believe that my impatience had something to do with it when Mom called to tell me "Dad's out of remission". I was wallowing in guilt. I suspect that's why, when a cheerful face appeared in my open door and a female voice said "Hi, I'm Barb" that I took one look at the stranger's face - and started bawling my eyes out!
Barb held me that first day that we met and let me cry, listening as I explained why I was doing so after getting her to promise not to tell ANYONE!. My roommate, Renee, gave the same promise and did what she could to help when she caught me sobbing into my pillow in the middle of the night. The only other person on campus who knew what was truly going on in my life was my best friend from high school, who was also attending Bangor Community College, but living at home. The rest, as can be attested to by several other people I met during that first semester, only saw what I wanted them to see - the cheerful airheaded persona I had perfected in high school.
While at home, I tried to be a strong, competent helper as the drugs and the advancing disease took Dad's mind away, leaving us to deal with a man who was sometimes his normal self, but who was becoming more and more the equivalent of a 5' 10" toddler who still had all Dad's wiry strength. Unlike most toddlers, however, he couldn't be reasoned with in any way, shape or fashion and was too strong to be forced into "time out" when he was being bad. When he got to the point of not always making it to the bathroom when he was supposed to, he was also just "with it" enough to know that he shouldn't be getting undressed in front of myself or my brother, but didn't really recognize us as his children. Forcing him into baths at such times became a battle of wills - and often left Mom, my younger brother and I in tears before we were done. For most of those horrific weekends, I spent whole nights staring at the ceiling while the tears I couldn't seem to prevent flowed into my ears, too physically and emotionally spent to wipe them away.
By the time college let out for the summer, both of my older sisters were back in the area and able to help, so I got a job babysitting at a neighbor's camp, going home on my days off to help Mom with Dad. Throughout that summer, when I returned to the camp after a stressful weekend and was offered a drink, I accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered, hoping it would help me to fall asleep without nightmares. Unfortunately, I had also been doing a lot of drinking in college, so it took more than one drink to make me sleepy. After one particularly stressful weekend in July, I was still sitting up with two others, drinking and talking, when the phone rang at 2 a.m.
To this day, I can't explain why I stood up and got my sneakers before anyone had even picked up the receiver, but I had both shoes on and tied and was already starting to cry when I was told that Dad was gone and, considering that I was in no condition to drive myself, I was being given a ride home. My best explaination for my behavior is that, somewhere in my drink-fogged brain, some part of me knew that no one else would be calling the camp at that hour of the day. A couple of family members who noted the smell of liquor on my breath when I arrived home have never forgiven me for those drinks I had, even though I sobered up quickly when teh news came....
I don't remember most of the details of the pre-funeral viewing or the funeral itself to be able to tell who who did or didn't come, but I can tell you that, like Dad, it was "different". At some points during the proceedings, it was the somber, deeply religious Catholic affair with all the pomp and circumstance that such an occasion calls for. At other times, it more closely resembled a raucous Irish wake, with the relatives who had grown up with Dad sharing stories of his childhood that had everyone who listened laughing.
I managed to keep my "public mask" in place well enough to avoid making any huge scenes, but internally, I was in such a daze that I'm surprised I was able to function at all. I remember talking to a few people, most notably the priest who was filling in for our regular reverend at that time and an older relative who lost his own father to a heart attack later that same year, but was I coherent? I can't really tell you that. I was on autopilot, hiding behind my mask and performing the way I thought I should.
I'd like to tell you that my charade ended then, but when I went back to college on a Social Security benefit package for "survivors" (a benefit that was removed while Ronald Reagan was in office), I was still on autopilot. While I continued to go through the motions of attending classes, doing homework, and taking tests, I felt like I was seeing life through a bubble. My ambition to become an actress was almost entirely gone, as if the very reason I had wanted to make a name for myself was buried with my father. I passed most of the classes my advisor insisted I needed to take, barely squeaked by in others, but whether I passed or failed didn't really matter to me. Because it was a free service, I went to see a therapist, who muttered a bunch of well worn lines about how to get past my grief, diagnosed me as feeling gulity about my dad's death because he was an "alcoholic", tagged me as being borderline suicidal, and had me write a bunch of letters to people I felt the need to apologise to should I actually take that step into suicide. I stopped going to therapy when I realized that I was getting worse, not better.
The best thing to come from my return to college was when I started dating a man whom Barb had introduced me to. Between my third and forth semesters in college, he asked me to move in with him off campus, and when I was told on trying to declare my major at the University in Maine at Orono that I couldn't major in writing and still take classes in theater (as I had decided by then that I wished to be an English teacher in a high school and run the drama club after school like the man who had introduced me to acting) because "English and Theater aren't related", I opted to follow my boyfriend, who was moving back to his home town of Fryeburg.
I never did become an actress, exchanging a life under the lights for that of a wife and mother. I have a husband I love dearly and two children who are turning into decent human beings. The guilt I felt over my father's illness and death still come to haunt me occasionally in nightmares, when the strong, seemingly invincible man of my childhood changes before my eyes to the skeletal figure that he was when he died. His bony hands reach out for me while he cackles in glee, and I wake up in a cold sweat, staring up at the ceiling for hours beside my snoring husband while the tears return to follow the well-worn tracks into my ears, afraid to reach my hands out from under the blankets to wipe them away because I'm terrified that disembodied hands will appear to grab me. Whenever I become ill, I press my fingers into my abdomen, searching for any odd lumps that may be forming, praying that I won't find something the size of a golf ball hiding there.
Courageous? If I was truly courageous, would I live in fear of having to tell my children "I need to go have an exploratory surgery"? You decide.