Father’s Day: A personal essay on love, loss and love
A couple years back I spent a few months woodshedding, taking a class in creative non-fiction at Ryerson University here in Toronto. I didn’t have a specific reason for doing it beyond curiosity, and a desire to tackle a new challenge. On the job I write about other folks all the time but this class forced me to write about myself, and not as the sarcastic know-it-all you’ve grown to know on this blog. There I had to write from a place of uncertainty and vulnerability, a much tougher trick for a writer whose job depends on him sounding authoritative about everything.
I wrote some bad stuff and I wrote some good stuff but until now I hadn’t published any of it.
What’s different today?
Well a few weeks back I learned about So True Stories, a tri-annual event where selected students of respected writing coach Beth Kaplan read their work on stage in front of an audience. The May 31 edition aimed to explore the theme Mother/Father, so my good friend and fellow Kaplan student Neudis Abreu, encouraged me to submit a piece I had written about the last year of my father’s life.
So I did, and I made the cut. Then I made some re-writes and took a deep breath and read it on stage.
Since we’re celebrating Father’s Day I figured I’d share the story here. The video is embedded below, and text is below that.
THESE THREE WORDS
July 3, 2013
Typical Woodlands Rams — we lost the football game, but won the fight. I was on the bench and far from the action when it started but caught the end of the brawl and helped chase some stray Erindale Raiders off our field.
As my team’s foes scattered I patrolled the sideline nearest the bleachers, scowling and strutting in front of teammates, classmates, and pretty girls.
A baritone voice cut through the post-fight buzz and yanked me out of my tough-guy act.
My dad, leaning on the fence, staring a hole through me.
Yeah, it was time to leave. Friends knew better than to tease me about dad embarrassing me like that. Pete Campbell’s intolerance for bullshit was common knowledge.
That October day he was less than a month past cancer surgery, acting like his old self and trying to show us he felt that way, too, even as the tumor doctors couldn’t touch gnawed at his liver. He told my sisters and me he’d live another decade, and we believed him. Much later I learned he had told my mom the truth.
Mom scoured newspapers for stories on cancer research, clipped one about scientists curing a patient by freezing his tumours then scraping them off his liver. Dad presented it to his oncologist, but learned the treatment wouldn’t work on his strain of cancer.
Still, we all had faith in chemotherapy.
The poison ran black through Dad’s veins, killing cancerous and healthy cells alike. His energy waned. His curly hair straightened then fell from his scalp like needles off an old pine tree.
A temporary obstacle, he promised us. He had turned 51 that summer and told us he’d bounce back from this and live till 65. He wouldn’t live deep into old age but this felt like the next best thing. To a 16-year-old, another decade feels like forever.
And when the chemo ended the following winter his energy and hair and appetite all returned and he was again the Dad we knew.
Except he wasn’t.
Six years previous I’d witnessed the bitterest moments of my parents’ divorce – hurtful words hurled back and forth like stones. But after the cancer my folks started sharing things.
Conversations. Secrets. Hugs.
It wasn’t reconciliation but it felt like family again and that made me happy.
Letters from universities recruiting me for football filled our mailbox. Dad helped sort through them and even drove me to London to visit the University of Western Ontario.
Usually on our road trips we visited cities where he had family. He grew up in Chicago as an only child, but in Michigan, he’d had an older half-brother who looked like his twin.
He also had a younger half-sister we weren’t supposed to know existed. Dad and I were in Chicago when he announced we were going to see my aunt, and 10 minutes later we were at his sister Julia’s bakery, where she hugged me like we were never strangers and plied me with sweets.
Moments like those I felt loved and trusted and, most of all, grown. We were old enough to learn family secrets and Dad chose me to know first. These weren’t just father-son moments to me. We were relating man to man.
After the first round of chemo ended and Dad’s strength returned we started spending Friday nights at his place again, talking and watching movies.
That summer I noticed his gait stiffen but I figured his back was acting up again. His energy dissipated, but who didn’t feel sluggish in muggy summer weather?
Dad was six feet tall and sturdy, even after the surgery. But I couldn’t explain why the pounds melted away, so I didn’t try.
One Saturday morning nearly a year after his operation I sat on the couch in his apartment. He eased into his new leather recliner and mentioned the pain in his legs, and the increasing physical strain of simple movements like walking and cleaning his kitchen.
“Is it your back, Dad?”
“Morgan,” he said. “It’s the cancer.”
The sentence sucked the air from my lungs. I sat and stared and groped for words but found none.
But dad assured me he would be fine.
He said he was scheduled to start another round of chemo next month. He told me he would still drive me to a football camp in Waterloo the next weekend, then handed me $20 and sent me to the barber shop. School started Tuesday and I needed a fresh haircut.
But the pain in his leg kept throbbing, and his back grew stiffer. By the next night he needed a cane to walk down the hall, and by Tuesday morning he was in the hospital. When I arrived drugs had dulled his pain and he was sitting up in bed chatting with a pastor.
My dad never went to church.
Mom pulled me aside and told me dad wouldn’t accept me skipping football on Saturday, but I would need to find somebody else to drive me.
That’s when I knew.
Overnight his legs kept swelling and by morning the whites of Dad’s eyes had turned yellow. When I returned the next afternoon he wasn’t asleep but wasn’t quite awake, thanks to heavy doses of painkillers. I stood next to his bed and rambled to him about school and football, but stopped talking when I saw he couldn’t respond.
The nurse said he could still hear me, and urged me to keep speaking. I couldn’t summon words. I held his hand until it was time to leave.
I tried not to process how much I would miss him at all the big events looming just that school year – football games, track meets, graduation. And I couldn’t think ahead to how proud I would feel, years later, when folks would point out how similar I was to him. Even in bad ways.
“Morgan, you don’t communicate,” some girlfriend would say.
“Yep,” I would think. “I’m Pete Campbell’s son.”
But I couldn’t dodge the hospital and the painkillers and the grownups huddling with doctors just out of earshot. I felt scared and exposed. It felt like losing a suit of armour. Dad had started treating me like an adult, but I was about to learn just how much growing up I still had to do, and it terrified me.
What if I wasn’t ready?
After midnight I climbed out of bed, and retrieved a notebook because I was still too proud to kneel and self-conscious about praying out loud. I sat at my desk, found a clean page and hunched over it.
If you’re listening, please let him live…