4 min

Thoughts on learning my father has cancer

Does he have any regrets about smoking or about how he rejected me?

Credit: ThinkStock

So, my dad is dying. Cancer. Lungs. No big surprise for someone who spent several decades of his life sucking back as many cigarettes as he could fit in a day. But somehow it’s still a shock.

I guess it’s hard for me to reconcile this new cancer patient with the powerful, intimidating man I grew up with. It’s difficult to imagine his body – that husky body that shoved me, hit me, slapped at me and rarely hugged me – dwindling and shrinking into a frail husk. Impossible to imagine that voice wheezing with weakness, the resonant baritone that so often filled my ears with remonstrations on my manner of speaking, my gait and the feminine way my facial features had aligned themselves. 

I haven’t seen him since the diagnosis. Hell, I’ve seen him less than a dozen times over the last 20-odd years: brief greetings when our paths crossed during a visit to my sister’s house (they live nearby). These perfectly polite exchanges about the weather or renovations or any of the other mundane happenings adequately passed for conversation with someone from whom you’ve freed yourself but can never forgive. 

It’s an old story, of course, the whole gay kid thing. Parents, horrified at their son’s increasing effeminacy, figuring they can toughen him into a man by heaping disapproval, scorn and abuse upon his head. Old story; I’m one of millions, and my history is far less horrible than many others I’ve heard.

But now he’s dying. 

When my sister first broke the news, in a tearful phone call foreshadowed by an ominous email, I’m afraid my initial response wasn’t terribly empathetic. “Fucking smokers, what do they expect?” was, I believe, my incredibly poor choice of words. I often feel that way, having spent a lifetime holding my breath in order not to hack and cough as I pass through their seemingly omnipresent, ghostly halos

But it was particularly galling, given that this is the man who treated any attempt to open a car window as a personal insult to his gods-given right to smoke in an enclosed automobile, children be damned. The deafness in my right ear is a lingering testimony to his and my mother’s addiction, having healed badly after a burst eardrum due to a house filled with the second-hand exhaust of two heavy smokers. 

It wasn’t just the fact that he smoked, really. It was the angry belligerence with which he did so, blowing streams of the stuff in my direction because he knew it would make me cough, offering him yet another opportunity to berate me for what he saw as my judgmental reaction. I often wonder if this was part of his plan to make a man of me or just a way to exact revenge on the sissy he’d inexplicably produced with my similarly minded mother. 

I don’t plan on going to the funeral. I love my sister and her daughter, but going would not only be the height of hypocrisy, it would be an agonizing rebuttal for the zero-to-17-year-old who suffered under his homophobic parents’ regime. I’m just waiting for someone to throw that old chestnut about blood being thicker than water in my direction . . . as though blood ties mean anything when your DNA is dripping all over the floor, courtesy of a split lip. 

The hardest part is watching my sister suffer through it. She’s there for the chemo, for her 10-year-old daughter’s tears, and for our boozy mother whose nightly drinking has done nothing to dull the nastier parts of an already-bleak personality. I try to be there for her in emails and on the telephone, but I know I’m failing her. 

And why? Is it really so important that I keep this distance, that I perpetuate the divorce my parents initiated back when they threw my teenaged ass out of our home? I look at myself and I don’t know. I look at my own son, adopted two years ago, and can’t answer. But as I gaze at him, I also can’t imagine any undeniable part of his biology and character that would make me abandon him. Trust me, that’s not a statement made lightly, as we are currently suffering through the final days of the Terrible Twos, followed, I’m sure, by Thoroughly Horrible Threes. 

How on earth could my own dad have rejected me so utterly, based on something so trivial as which gender appeals to me? I mean, I sort of get my mother’s cruelty: she was just damn mean and liked to take it out on me. She made enemies easily and kept few long-term friends. But everybody loved my dad. He was kind, thoughtful, funny and friendly. His quiet displays of generosity inspired me, his can-do attitude at fixing things (even if they often moved into couldn’t-do territory) and his gentle respect toward the elderly and infirm.

So unlike my mom, here was a genuinely nice person who was so repelled by his son that he couldn’t share a house with me; whose lip curled in disgust when meeting my eyes or hearing my voice. For years, I thought that maybe he held regrets over his actions, that maybe he’d let go of his prejudice and felt sadness over how things had gone. But recently, at the funeral of a close family friend, I finally clued in that his obvious discomfort at being in my presence wasn’t due to twinges of guilt or unrequited fatherly affection. He simply doesn’t like being around me. It was clear as he edged away from me in public, in the aversion of his eyes during our distantly polite greeting, contrasted so starkly against the sincere warmth with which he welcomed others. 

A few weeks later, he received the diagnosis, a surprise to himself and his doctor after a routine check-up detected small changes in his lymph nodes. I can’t help but wonder how he felt in those moments. Did he regret those long years of smoking? Was he fearful of the quality of his death as the cancer slowly consumed his body? Were there thoughts of the past, now that the future was certain to be brief?

Of course, there’s no way for me to know. But I am sadly certain that, whatever the thoughts and feelings he has about his impending demise, few of them will be of the effeminate homosexual that used to call him "Dad." And no matter how many years have passed, no matter how many loving people I now have in my life, that still leaves me feeling terribly, terribly sad.