I was 16 when I knew my father was going to die. Not that sort of adolescent epiphany where you realize life is a ticking time bomb and all members of your family will eventually be gone. No, this was different.
It was a cold rainy February morning my junior year of high school. It was a day like any other; I forced myself out of bed and into one of my endless jean and T-shirt combos. I padded down the stairs to my mother’s room and found her under the blankets, sniffling while on the phone with someone.
You know when you just know that something is off? I knew that it wasn’t a good phone call. Her tearstained face appeared from the covers. My father had cancer.
My world collapsed around me. We were both crying. I ran back upstairs to my room and called him. You should know that before this, I’d seen my dad cry maybe twice. He was sobbing on the phone to me. It was the shitty beginning of an even shittier end.
My father was a physician in upstate New York. A mildly autistic man with a heart of gold, he was my hero. He was the smartest man I’d ever known.
My parents were still married; but he couldn’t get a job in our town so he drove to see us on weekends. This happened on a weekday and we couldn’t be with him. I learned that they’d known the day before.
Being a doctor gets you expedited results and appointments. He’d barely gotten off of the CAT scan table when the radiologist told him. Metastatic renal cell carcinoma, stage four. Mets to lungs, coccyx and right sacrum. Incurable kidney cancer.
He tried to tell me that it would be okay, he’d get radiation and chemo and he’d take pills that stave it off. He’d live as long as he could.
I watched the radiation fail. Then I watched the experimental chemo he received through a PICC line in a New York City hospital fail. Three rounds of this, to be exact. He had a kidney removed. He took pills that made him lose his sense of taste, his hair, and gradually his spirit.
This past August, almost three years after his diagnosis, he ended up in the ER with sepsis. We knew he couldn’t work anymore; he had to come home with us. He’d worked throughout his whole illness. He couldn’t imagine after quitting after 30+ years of practicing medicine. He couldn’t fight anymore. At 61, he came home with us on hospice.
I was a freshman in college until a few months before August. I took time off because I knew that he was dying. I wanted to help my mother take care of him.
I watched my father, the most brilliant man I’d ever known, die. The same man who could tell you what day of the week you were born with a calculation he did in his head. The man who called me five times a day when he couldn’t be with us. The man who met my mother on an AOL chat room site the same day they got their very first computers and fell in love with her almost instantly.
At first he just lost weight because he couldn’t bear to eat. Then he couldn’t walk without help, and would wake up in the middle of the night calling my name, trying to find me. Then he couldn’t hold a conversation. He sometimes forgot who I was.
I remember one night when we thought he wouldn’t make it to morning. I was sobbing by his bedside, clutching his hand. He suddenly leaned over, touched my face where tears were falling, and asked me why I was crying. The last lucid thing he ever said to me was “Chloe’s a very smart girl. She’s very perceptive.”
A few days later he woke up gasping for breath. He couldn’t talk, couldn’t do anything.
A hospice nurse rushed over and told us he had a few hours left, at most. I spent that day beside him, eventually ending up in the hospice bed with him. For the last time in my life I held him, kissed his face and told him how much I loved him, how much I’d miss him. I held his hand until it fell from mine, and he breathed his last breath.
He was a shell of himself, a skeleton with a thin layer of skin covering his bones. I ran upstairs while my mother called the funeral home. Later they told me that they couldn’t get his mouth to close. His heart didn’t stop beating. I imagine it furiously strumming, unable to let go of his life. The pain was ultimately too much for him to bear.
I cry as I write this, at my mother’s dining room table inches away from where his hospital bed was. It’s June now, and Father’s Day was on Sunday. He’d have driven from work to see us, calling me to tell me he was on his way. Now all I have are memories that send me into a tailspin of anxiety and depression.
Each morning I wake up thinking it was just a nightmare. It was all one big horrible nightmare and he’ll be calling me any minute now to ask what I had for dinner or what I thought of that "Game of Thrones" episode.
It’s as if my grief is a vast body of water. I can’t swim across it. I can’t even dip my toe in to test the warmth. My pain fills every crevice of that ocean, and I can’t even begin to float. In the fall I’ll be starting classes again. Life will continue to go on.
I imagined staying in bed on Sunday. Not looking at social media even once for fear of being triggered by a friend’s post dedicated to their father. Instead, I decided to honor him in the best way I know how: watching his favorite movies. "Fiddler on the Roof," "Blazing Saddles," "Annie Hall," "Die Hard," "Indiana Jones" and "The Producers," to name a few. I’ll begin to dip my toe into the vast waste of my grief.
Promise me something, reader. If you’re able, hug your dad. Multiple times. Thank him for just being your dad. If you’re in the same boat as me, well, take my hand. I’ve heard the water’s fine.