Something happens when someone tells you they have cancer. Something innate and uncontrollable. Even if you don’t want this thing to happen, because it can be against your will and painfully tentative and borderline unthinkable, it does. It just, does. And the happening of this thing, even if it is horribly unwelcome, arguably makes you a better person. For better or for worse.
When someone tells you they have cancer, you forgive.
The “c” word is powerful, capable of erasing years of abuse or neglect or violence or any number of reasons why you’d categorize a person as a horrible human being.
When something is eating away at a person from the inside, shutting down their organs and spreading with emboldened purpose, people tend to forget. From the monumental to the minuscule, their transgressions cease to exist as all focus shifts towards health and prolonged life and a sense of happiness that everyone deserves.
So when I answered my father’s 23rd phone call on a seemingly normal, sunny Saturday, I didn’t realize that I, too, would forgive him for his reprehensible actions.
I was sitting on the recliner I had dragged through my sliding door and onto my apartment balcony. I was sans pants, tanning my legs while reading a book and carelessly sipping on a cold Corona. My body was relaxed and my head was inside a stranger’s and my goal of forgetting that my father had recently beat my mother severely enough to finally convincer her -- after 20 plus years of marriage -- to leave, had been reached.
He had been calling for days, relentless in his attempt to explain what we both knew was unexplainable. This was far from the first time his fists had met my mother’s face or his hands had wrapped around her neck or his force had thrown her to the ground.
In fact, the frequency with which violence was exercised in our house made leaving for college nearly impossible. I desperately wanted freedom and safety and security, and felt horrendously guilty that it was available to me and not my mother.
Why I decided to pick up the phone after 22 phone calls on that otherwise perfect day, is beyond me. It wasn’t annoyance or remission or even curiosity. The closest educated guess I could possibly surmise is that, eventually, I started to pity him. My mother had left, I knew he was alone, and the thought of even him spending any significant amount of time by himself, made me sad.
I guess I just felt sad.
I answered with a deliberately short greeting. He was kinder than normal, sweeter than ordinary, and quick to the point. He thanked me for answering and told me he had something to tell me.
I cut him off, cold and insensitive, explaining that I had already talked to my mother and knew what he did. There was a short pause before he explained his recent savage aggression was not, in fact, what he wanted to discuss.
“I have colon cancer.”
My pause was not as short. In fact, it wasn’t so much of a pause as it was an immediate, silent cry. I felt guilty and heartless and cruel. So cruel.
How long had he been sitting alone in the living room, flipping through television channels and unable to comprehend the weight of his current situation? How long had he been afraid, dealing with the possibility of death, alone? How many times had he silently pleaded that I answer the phone, so he could tell me what was eating away at him?
I apologized profusely through sniffles and sobs, asking him for additional information and if I could help in any way. He was kind and comforting and promised he would share more information if and when he could. He asked that I let my mother know, as she was ignoring his phone calls as well.
And I did, without hesitation.
A month or two later I was back at home, determined to guide my mother through a divorce and my father through treatment. I loaded my shoulders with the burdens of two parents who shouldn’t have lived together, but should have the chance to keep on living.
With each additional, loaded worry came an inescapable, detrimental inability to sleep. I was slipping into a depression I didn’t know, recognize or fully comprehend. In order to manage what had quickly become unmanageable, I made a doctor’s appointment, and that small, self-serving action would reveal the true depth’s of my father’s depravity.
Our doctor was a family doctor who'd seen my family since before I was born. We knew him and he knew us so the professional lines of doctor/patient confidentiality were somewhat blurred. Or, in this case, altogether erased.
I asked him about my father: How was he doing? Which doctor did he refer him to? Has he started treatment? The look of complete confusion told me everything I should have known, way before his words did.
My father didn’t have cancer.
Continued instances of avoidance and fictitious doctor appointments and fabricated circumstances confirmed that it was, in fact, all an elaborate lie. He wasn’t dying. He didn’t have cancer. In fact, he was eating healthy and losing weight and probably in the best shape of his life.
He wasn’t a sad, lonely and terrified cancer patient.
Not then, not now, not ever.
My father had told me he was sick in an attempt to guilt my mother into coming home. He knew that something happens when you tell someone you have cancer, and he was hoping that something was powerful enough and culpable enough and unavoidable enough, to bring her home.
I should be angry, and I’ll admit, initially, I was.
However, the more I thought about him lying, the more I felt somber and compassionate. I even had a few, scattered windows of opportunity in which I could have confronted my father, but I chose not to.
Forcing him to somehow face his lies would have, arguably, been just as ineffectual as our many attempts at forcing him to face his violent actions. Any legitimate argument or common sense accusation would have been met with manipulative answers; carefully crafted to somehow turn his actions into our transgressions.
I wanted to be mad, but I couldn’t. Just like that phone call on that seemingly normal, sunny Saturday, rage gave way to pity.
Imagine the utter hopelessness a man must feel in order to lie about something so serious and life-threatening. I can only assume he was desperate and lonely and remorseful and when his attempts at another apology were dismissed, his frantic determination grew. I know there are things a person just cannot take back, no matter their intentions, and coming to grips with the powerlessness of circumstance can be difficult if not impossible.
I felt bad for him.
I feel bad for him.
He is lonely and regretful and that is no way to live your life, sick or not.
See? When someone tells you they have cancer, you tend to forgive. Even if that cancer is a lie.