My Dad was diagnosed with Leukaemia the year I turned eighteen. He was 43. How young that sounds to me now. I don’t know what boggles me more: that by this age he had a 20 year old daughter (my older sister) or that he was so young when life as he knew it ended.
It was a massive event in my life. All of our lives. My tall, big, strong, goofy, cool, Bear of a Dad became very ill, very fast. It was a really scary time and my family did not cope with it well. We, who had always been ‘just us 5′, seemed to fracture under the strain of staying strong for each other. It happened very slowly, over many years, like a crack slowly zig-zagging down a wall, so slowly we barely saw it happening but looking back now it seems to me that that is when we started closing away our feelings from each other. Putting things that were too hard or scary to deal with away in little boxes we could shut tight and push away to dark corners of our minds. I pushed away my parents’ comfort, I resisted their hugs because I was scared of their grief, and mine too; scared that if I let it out it would grow too big and I wouldn’t be able to cram it back in its box again. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I wanted to be strong. I wanted it to not be real.
I was spared much of the day to day tedium of illness, being away at university, but it still came crashing in on visits home when I returned to see him thinner and thinner, no hair, brown skin and croaky voiced from the radiation. I still remember vividly the feeling of the cold hard wall behind me as I pushed myself against it, away from him, that strange stranger in the bed who didn´t even sound like my Dad, much less look like him, appalled and terrified by the change in him. It is still painful to think about all these years later. How painful it must have been to see my reaction. Writing this, now, makes me wonder if not seeing the day to day was a disadvantage after all.
I don’t know whether the way we changed as a family would have happened anyway as a part of us growing older and moving in our own directions. Whether we would have started to look back on and analyze past events through different eyes if our mother hadn’t grown so angry at our father. If he hadn’t become so passive in the face of her resentment. If they hadn’t drawn us into their arguments over and over and over again. We can never know. I can try and pull it all apart and pinpoint the where and how but what remains is two bare facts. He got sick and I grew up. And slowly, slowly, everything changed.
Growing up, I adored both of my parents fairly equally. My Mum because she loved me, took care of me and gave amazing cuddles. My Dad because he was strong and funny and my hero. I had the happiest and best family out there, I was a really happy child. Even as a teenager I was quite placid; a people pleaser, just as my oldest is now. And there was no one I wanted more to please in this world than my mother. She had a mercurial temper, though I would never have said that then, after all when we are children our parents and their ways are all we know. She liked things just so and although our house was frequently messy it was always clean and there were always chores to do. My Dad´s work took him away a lot and my mum was the linchpin, she kept it all going, she didn’t work so she was always there for us. Always. I adored her. When I was a teenager we would take really long walks with the dog and talk for hours. Even when I went to university I called her several times a day, just to chat.She had her ways but I accepted her wholeheartedly and without judgement. After Dad got sick, it just all got complicated.
The other night I had this crazy vivid dream about my Dad. It stood out because it felt so real, so significant, and I woke up feeling really happy, thinking ‘wow, what a great dream’. I was back in time (as current me) and came across my dad (as he was just before he got sick). I knew it was my dad, and that I was the one out of place. That he was my ‘then’ dad. And in his life he had a teen me. So I ran into him and I said “dad! dad its me (insert his nickname for me)” and he recognised me and accepted the whole situation, as dream people usually do. And I told him all about our lives as they were now and the whole time I was thinking “should I tell him he is going to get sick? Should I? Is it the right thing to do?”
Sidenote: my Dad survived the leukaemia but the treatments left their mark. By 50 he had had heart attacks, a small stroke. By 55 a valve replacement and a pacemaker. A procedure that found us in the lobby of the hospital mutely watching a surgeon indicate with his hands the large, flabby mass that was apparently my father´s heart, telling us it took them a long, hard 45 minutes to bring him back up after surgery. That he would be lucky to get another 10 years out of it. I have had more phone calls than I care to recall where I thought someone was calling to say he’d died. Despite it all, he has lived 20 years since that first diagnosis, he gets knocked down time and again but nothing has quite finished him off yet. Though every episode leaves a new mark, scoring into those that have gone before to make a deeper wound. The sad thing is that most of those 20 precious years he has genuinely lived thinking he hasn’t long left. Him and me both. It really messes with your head.
So in this dream I wanted to tell him; You are going to live. A long time still. You will see us all graduate university, start careers, meet the men we will marry. Walk us down the aisle, meet your grandchildren. You will love and be loved for so long still. So live. LIVE. Don’t be scared. Please don’t be scared. You are going to be okay. But, like in real life, all my feelings and thoughts went unsaid, pushing at my lips but ultimately giving in and staying put, safe inside my own head. I didn’t tell him. I just told him he had grandchildren who adored him. I guess I hoped this information contained all the subtext needed to arm him for the coming battle. That he would grow old enough to have grandchildren. That they would love him like I did. Like I do.
And then I said, as I went to leave: “Daddy, I have been really really sick, but I am going to be okay”. It felt so important to tell him I had just been through something really serious, really hard. But that I was okay, I had made it through. I don´t know if I meant this to prepare him for his own journey or so that in the future when he heard my terrible news he would already be armed with the knowlegde that I got through it. And with that he hugged me. And I woke up. I felt so happy, it felt like I had really been with him, and been comforted by him, by my Dad as he was then. The last time I really knew him as the person who could shield and protect me. The strangest thing is that the dream was a positive one. Yet when I told my friend about it later that morning, I started crying. And then later, telling H, mainly to comment how silly it was to have made me cry – I cried AGAIN! And I am not a big crier as a rule. It caught me totally by surprise, that a dream I thought was happy was actually making me feel so emotional when I brought it outside of my head and gave it shape in this world.
I wanted to tell my Dad about my dream because to me it was about how much I love him. How sad I feel about everything that happened. He was dealt a shit hand. Leukaemia is a bitch of a one to get. And treatments 20 years ago are not what they are now. He had a tough, tough time. A lot of time in hospital, repeated infections, time in isolation, bone marrow transplant. And in amongst it all the realisation that he had been knocked off the career ladder at 43. 43!! He did go back to work eventually, after about 10 years, but it was never the same. He watched friends and former colleagues move up and up, taking plum roles that could have been his. Buying bigger houses and taking their wives on expensive exotic holidays. He felt like he had been knocked down in his prime, and he was right. The sadness of it still jars me.
But the more I think about it, the less I feel able to share my dream with him. Because it says so much more than I feel I can share with him about how things changed. The irony is that, growing up, my parents were all about talking. Talking over dinner, over drinks. Talk it out, don’t hold it in, talk talk talk. And since I became an adult I don’t talk to them, not truly, deeply, honestly. I feel like maybe there was so much talking and sharing that by the time I became an adult I needed to pull forceably away in order to make my own private space just for me. Close parts of myself off to them to enable me to break away and be myself, make my own decisions. There is more to it than that, of course there is. So many things have happened over the years that have changed our relationship, eroded the channels where once communication flowed so easily. Where did it start? Certainly with Dad getting sick. Also with me moving country. A relationship break up that I didn´t want to discuss with them, a lot of little doors being closed off, on both sides.
It really scares me. Precisely because I adored my parents so much when I was growing up. I love them now, no doubt about it, but as a child and a teenager I truly adored them in that pure hero-worship way kids do. Of course that never lasts, of course our relationship had to change as I grew up and recognised them for the flawed, perfectly normal human beings they were. But even so. I could never in a million years have predicted the twists and turns our relationship would take. And it scares me beyond belief that it could happen to me and my boys. Maybe I won’t even see it coming. They will grow and change. And though I will mostly stay the same the way they see me or interpret my actions may change, and I am not entirely sure I can do anything about it. I can try to not make the same mistakes my parents made. But apart from a glaring few I am not sure that they even made mistakes as such. They were just who they were, making decisions based on that, and love for us… what else could they do? What else can I do? I don’t know where life will take us. What might be lying in store to tilt-shift the memories that I am trying do hard to lovingly lay down for them now.
There is so much I want to tell my kids about my relationship with my parents, one day. Maybe so they can understand them, maybe so they can understand me, themselves, now and in the future when its my turn to be the mental old person. I hope that they will have children because it is one of the greatest truths that until you have your own you cannot conceive of the love your parents had and have for you. When I had my oldest, I suddenly understood, for the first time, how very much they love me. Despite arguments or fights, petty squabbles and grudges. Moving away, not calling so much, pushing away, pushing back, closing doors and minds, judging and being judged, misunderstanding and being misunderstood. Through and despite it all they love you just as they did when you were a soft little dumpling of a toddler in their arms.
So I doubt I will share my dream with my Dad. It was special to me, it is special to me. My parents haven´t given me much comfort through my diagnosis or treatment. They just haven´t. I imagine it is because they think I don´t want to make a fuss, or because they don´t want to bother me. Or because they want to let me come to them, like they have for so long now. The ball is always in my court. And for the most part I understand. I do. But there have been times it has hurt. Times when I thought; you could call to see how I am. Ask how it is going. So that dream hug from my Dad meant the world. It reminded me that he does love me. I really did get comfort from it, as strange as that seems. And I guess that is why talking about it makes me cry. Because it really meant so much.
Our family lived illness one way. I want to live it differently. I am a positive person. I have to see the good in things, the beautiful wonder of the world and how lucky we are to be in it. It is a rare for me not to see the silver lining in any situation. My Dad, for his own reasons, has lived 20 years thinking he was dying but I am not as scared of dying as I am of losing a whole lifetime to fear. I am making an active choice to be positive and happy and believe that good things lie ahead. Because I have seen it done differently and I don’t want that.