My dad died in 2013. It was his birthday yesterday.
How It Went
It is Thursday and an oncologist whose last name is Snow has just told my father that he has a few weeks to live. Sometimes poets use snow to signify death. This seems appropriate, like all those poets were psychic somehow.
As I wander through the tiny patch of woods off the Glen Mary Road in Bar Harbor, I think that this is actually appropriate in a bad way though I’ve been trying to spin it into something poetic, something that makes sense.
The doctor’s name is Snow.
A lone crow alights from one pine tree bough to another, leading me down the trail. There are superstitions about crows. One crow is meant to signify death.
“I already know,” I tell the bird as he lifts his shiny wings, “but thanks.”
And about five hours away from me and the crow, Doctor Snow leaves my dad’s hospital room and my sister hands my dad the hospital phone so that I can say hi.
“Carriekins,” he says to me and his voice is cheerful somehow.
“Hey Dad! I love you!” This is the only thing I can think to say. I try to make my voice cheerful, too, but it isn’t strong like pine boughs and it can’t hold up the weight of me or even a crow right now or even a dusting of snow.
I try again and manage to sound chipper. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he says. “How is your day going?”
The first thing he asks, moments after he finds out that he is about to die, is how my day is going. This is how my dad works. He asks people questions. He wants to know how they are doing, what they’ve done, what they think, why they think it. His favorite thing to say is, “I don’t know enough about you. What can you tell me?”
And I never know what to say. I never feel like I have anything to tell. He’s known me all my life. How can he not know enough?
“My day kind of stinks, Dad,” I tell him, stepping on a fallen pine cone. Crushing it will help to scatter its seed, make new pinecones, but I still feel badly about breaking its form. “I mean, it does stink because of what the doctor just said, but it’s good because I get to hear your voice and talk to you.”
It is the last time I have a real conversation with my dad.
The next day they fill him with morphine and move him to a hospice center. He can’t talk because of the drugs. That is Friday. On Saturday, he can only wheeze into the phone. I tell him he sounds like Darth Vader and that I will be there Monday after a wedding I have to go to and after I drop my daughter, Em, off at college.
He dies that night or really early Sunday morning right after the sunrise. He loves sunrises.
Doctor Snow had given him weeks. He lasts two days because of a fast moving, wildly spreading small cell cancer that has already officially claimed the area around one of his lungs.
Before we knew he had cancer, he said, “You know I would go down on my knees and kiss the ground and praise God if I could breathe again. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that something you’d never expect to hear from me?”
And it was.
My dad was a hobbit kind of man. He believed in breakfast and laughing. He believed in second breakfast and laughing even more. He believed in dancing and smiling and telling stories and listening and a third breakfast that included cake. He believed in life and people. He was capable of looking straight into someone’s soul and getting right to the core of what made them special and because he had that gift, he forgave everyone everything. He forgave people all the time and he loved them just as much as he did no matter what they put him through.
Backing Up Ten Days
Right after the Boston Marathon bombings, I am sitting in a Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant with my daughter, Em. People are eating, but mostly everyone is craning their heads, watching the television screen that displays what little information exists about the attacks. My cell phone vibrates and I learn that my dad, who has gone into the hospital three days earlier because he couldn’t breath has tumors. They don’t know if the tumors are cancer. They just know they are there.
On the screen above my head are news people trying to make sense of a tragedy that I have just personally witnessed because I had been at the marathon. I don’t need the television to see the blood and the pain, the hope of people helping, the determination of doctors and civilians and paramedics and cops.
Tumors and Hate
People before me have compared hate to cancerous tumors, compared the way hate metastasizes and invades a society, taking it over the same way cancer takes over a body. It is not new to think about this, but I do. The hate isn’t in the restaurant this night though. In the restaurant, the patrons and servers are still trying to understand how things like bombs can happen in their city, trying to isolate the type of hate that this cancer was, trying to understand it.
Some things are hard to understand. You can label all different types of cancers (lymphoblastic, Kapoki sarcoma, fibrous histiocytoma, ovarian, oropharyngeal), and you can label all different kinds of hate (misogyny, domestic terrorism, international terrorism, fear, self-righteousness, homophobic, racist, religious, ethnic, sociopathic) but those labels are just labels, they don’t get at the core of the hate, the essential interwoven elements of it.
“Grandpa Barnard has some sort of tumors,” I tell Emily, “and fluid around his lung.”
“It is cancer?” she asks.
“They don’t know yet.”
It isn’t for another ten days that they tell him that it is definitely cancer, and a bad kind. In those ten days, I spew out a blog post about the goodness I saw at the marathon; I talk to librarians; I attend a wedding full of love. The doctors aren’t sure where the cancer originated. They just know that it is. My uncle who is in his late eighties immediately starts citing statistics about Raydon. My dad was a firefighter for decades, the volunteer kind. They didn’t have great personal protection equipment. He inhaled a lot of things.
My family has never been a family that has cancer. My uncle wants to find a reason. He wants to understand.
But we won’t ever understand exactly what made my dad’s body become cancerous or where that cancer first struck or even where else in his body that it is.
“There is no point in doing scans,” Dr. Snow says on this Thursday, my dad’s last Thursday. “The only point is that we have to keep him comfortable, manage his pain.”
And this is where cancer and violence part ways. Because as a society we always have to do the scans, always have to figure out where the hate started, what tools it uses to kill others, what elements it needs to thrive. Because as a society, we need to feel safe and we need to be a place where nobody wants to destroy innocent runners or spectators or children or each other. We have to be a place that understands hatred and actively works to try to stop it, to turn it into something good and peaceful.
When my dad finds out about the Boston Marathon he says, “Humans can be so horrible to each other, can’t they Carriekins?”
And I say that they could, but I add, remembering what I had seen at the marathon, “They can be good too, Dad.”
“Yes, they can.” He sighs. “I would have liked to been a locksmith. I would have liked to have a nice, simple job just helping people.”
“You helped people all the time, Dad,” I tell him. “You are a good, sweet man.”
“I wasn’t a great success.”
“Yes, you were. You were a success because you made people laugh,” I tell him. “You were a success because you try so hard every day to be good.”
And it is true. Even at the hospital as he is dying, he is flirting with nurses in a non-creepy way, complimenting their bright orange pants, asking them how they were.
Even when he finds out he has less than a month to live, he asks me, “How was your day?”
That is what good is. That is what gives me hope when cancer tries to infect our country or even our own souls with blame and anger and bigotry. People like my dad give me hope. It is the hobbits of the world, the ones who find the beauty in breakfast or a nurse’s fluorescent pants, who find the love inside a angry person’s heart, who find the kindness and joy and laughter inside a hospital room, these are the people who make our world good. We need more hobbits like my dad. He may have not have been a famous man or a ‘successful’ one, but he was good. Severely dyslexic, he never made it past second grade, always thought he was “stupid” especially compared to his parents and siblings and even me.
But he was the opposite of stupid. He was brilliant. He embodied empathy and kindness. He was unrelentingly good and I miss him. The world needs more Lew Barnards in it. I do, too.
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