My dad died on Thursday, July 3, 2014. He was 78.
He had pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis had come three weeks — weeks
I’ve seen — hell, spoken with — those who’ve fought the Big C and won, dueling with the onslaught of a toxic invader like it was some lumbering, slow-moving beast. I’ve heard about the way many people are able to valiantly, successfully throw chemo and scalpels and radiation at the Shuffling Zombie Tumors in their lungs or their breasts or their brains or their various nodes and nodules. My own mother is a prime example.
The thing makes no sense, right? What kind of dumbass disease kills the host that feeds it? That’s why I’d always assumed that cancer was a slugfest, a UFC fight that usually progressed to the point where the combatants were just rolling around, kidney-punching each other until a whistle blew. The cancer didn’t really want to “win,” right? Right?
Wrong. The invader that offed my old man was a Blitzkrieg Stuka bomber. Dad was devoured in the Speed Round of Death. Shredded by goddamn Ninja Cancer. It hid in his guts, getting stronger, then it attacked like a rabid dog.
So this is not an Inspirational Cancer Story. It’s not a tale about someone who kept punching for years only to beat the sinewy creep into submission or succumb gently whilst proving his/her bravery in the face of a snickering universe.
No, this is no long day’s journey into night. This is a slap in the face. This is a car accident. This is a random gunshot from a wasted junkie. This is falling off a ladder while cleaning the gutters. This is a massive heart attack or a stroke or a bite from a killer whale.
This isn’t how people die, dammit. At least not from cancer, right? They’re not sitting up, insisting you take a limited edition print off the wall to remember them by one day and slipping from oxycodone sleep directly into oblivion the next. It’s simply not fair that a guy with my dad’s wisdom, his accomplished study of theology, law and art can simply vanish. Where did that knowledge go, those parts he hadn’t time to either scribble down or dictate? How can all of that simply cease to exist?
Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps what the old man believed — connection to a higher power — means that all of that information, thought and feeling he’d amassed since 1936 has bridged like some brilliant electric arc into a larger consciousness that none of us can understand. Dad, in fact, made it clear in his funeral sermon — one he'd written himself — that anyone who claimed to know the mystery of the creator fully was either a charlatan or a fool.
Don’t get me wrong: my dad was a member of the clergy whose faith was unshakable. But he disagreed vehemently with Biblical literalists, and in his final homily reminded the mourners that the scriptures were words penned — and edited — by men.
And, yes, some little shred of that brilliance that shone on our sad little rock was bequeathed to me, my brother, our kids, people he touched. I went back to what I wrote on social media the day my father died:
“The things Dad passed to me were a love of the spoken and written word, a deep aesthetic appreciation and a fondness for a broad variety of music. The man dug piano jazz, surf rock (back in the day) and bought the first CSN album the very the week it came out, I think — he heard ‘Marakesh Express’ and was immediately hooked.
He held degrees in theology, law and even art later in life. When I was younger, he'd bust me out of school whenever a new Bond movie came out. We'd play hooky and watch 007 at a matinee showing in Catonsville, MD. He understood my love of the movies, and he ensured I could see R-rated stuff in the theaters because he trusted my intelligence. I'll never forget seeing The French Connection
films with him, not to mention every old Woody Allen flick from Sleeper
And as I read that back, those few graphs that I’d hammered out into the digital void while choking on my anger, I realized that it was an Annie Hall
moment that summed up my rage about my father’s ruthless disease. It’s some of the last lines of the film, delivered in typical creepy/conflicted Allen style by the character he played called ‘Alvy Singer:’
“There's an old joke - um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.”
It’s true — our relationship was complex. There were a multitude of issues we had to work through as father and son both before and after my parents’ divorce. But Dad’s last three weeks were too small a portion. The reverend, the attorney, the photographer and painter had less than a month to share what he’d learned. I don’t know if three months would have been enough, or three years, or three hundred. I only know that we who are not yet of the ether are decidedly dumber now that we’ve lost him.