My phone rang early one morning in the spring of 1998. It was my mom. Apparently, my dad had been missing for 3 weeks. I wasn’t surprised. He’d always threatened to run away somewhere, leaving us helpless. The fact was, we were all waiting for him to take off, hoping that he’d finally follow through on his word.
I knew exactly where he had gone and so did she. But, what I didn’t know is that he was sick. Very sick. His cancer had returned and instead of seeing a doctor, he just let it go. And then ran away.
He called my mom a few days later, from a church in
We later found out that he had left for good, but had gotten too sick to stay. Without insurance and a family to drain and torture, he decided it best to return. And he knew the only way back would be through the church - my mother’s only weakness.
My phone rang again, later that month. “You need to get to the hospital right now, Kristen. I think your dad is here and he’s pretty bad.” An old friend of mine broke hospital policy to call me. I raced to the ER pushing aside 22 years of hate and anger.
He was my height and weighed only 135 pounds. He hadn’t eaten in weeks, and had flown 18 hours plus 2 hours in a limo rapidly replacing cotton in his mouth and sitting silently. He looked like death.
His diagnosis was grim – removal of his tongue and intensive chemotherapy. His decision to avoid treatment and continue drinking left him in dire straits. He’d never eat or talk, again. We all saw the irony – the pain that tongue had caused us all those years was almost enough to make us laugh. But we knew better. And we cried.
He sat at home, most days, on our couch – hovered over a trashcan, drooling constantly, grinding Tylenol and shoving it into his feeding tube. I visited him everyday – my heart hoping for the resolution in my dreams. Where he’d hold me and tell me he was sorry. That he was so proud of me. And that he was wrong.
But that wasn’t the case. He told me a few things. That I should take my brother out more and try to help out my mom. And to me, it was like he was saying he was sorry. So, I believed him, for a little while. But that didn’t last long. Telling relatives I was careless and irresponsible (sure, when I was 8). I screamed at my mother to hold the phone up to his ear so I could tell him that he was about to lose another daughter. But he didn’t care.
The cancer had matasticized to his trach opening. It had grown so quickly that he couldn’t get his trach tube in. And my mom told me I should try to forgive him and visit. And no matter how much hate I had for him, I didn’t want it to end like this. So I did.
Every night, after working 3 jobs to pay for bills I had accrued from my undiagnosed depression, I would drive over there and sit with him. He’d ask for the remote (writing on a magnadoodle) and I’d watch tv with him, in silence.
My grandmother (his mother) was visiting and her presence complicated matters. She was distraught at the prospect of losing another child, and was slowly unraveling. Taking down pictures of my mother around the house, faulting her for my dad’s condition – not providing him with what he needed in life. She called my brother a “son-of-a-bitch” – saying he was ungrateful and unworthy.
And so, as I had always done before, I defended my brother and my mother. It was late one night and my father and grandmother were watching tv. I tried to convince them that we all needed to be positive. We were all scared about my dad dying – but mostly my brother since he had lived his life as my dad’s chosen one.
But the words meant nothing.
“Your brother was being a little shit” my dad wrote.
“I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the only one” I wrote back – speaking to a person who couldn’t respond the same way just didn’t seem effective.
“I’m taking away your car [again]” he wrote. “You don’t deserve it.”
“How are you going to stop me?” I wrote, knowing his frail body could no longer chase me down and rip the keys out of my hands like he had done before. Or so I thought.
“It’s all your mother’s fault” he wrote.
And then I lost it. How dare he? How could he? That bastard. That motherfucking bastard.
The magnadoodle hit me in the eye. I was stunned. Half surprised, half smarting from pain. Suddenly he got up and threw my briefcase at me. I stumbled and then ran for the kitchen – screaming what I can now not remember. I grabbed the phone and tried to dial my mom’s work number. But before I could, he had unhooked his feeding tube and chased me into the kitchen. He grabbed the phone from my hand and slapped me. On my cheek. On my heart.
I stared in disbelief, screaming “Is this how you want it to end? Is this how you want to die? The last time you’ll ever see me is this?”
He nodded “yes.”
And I ran. To the phone. To my brother. And far away.
Through my mother I found out my grandmother called the police the next morning, telling them that I had attacked my dying father and that I was, most obviously, on drugs. My mother asked and begged me to go back.
“What will it take for you to go back?” she said. “He is so sick, honey, and the cancer might even be in his brain.” Lousy excuse.
“He can’t do anything or say anything anymore” I said. “I have to think about myself now. I’m done. It’s over.”
I filed a police report, for my own peace of mind. And after much convincing (not by me, but by family and friends), my mom forced my dad to leave.
They cleaned out our house of anything valuable. They took the civil war gun, my dad’s coin collection – they even towed the ’57 chevy behind them all the way to
I ran to the mailbox everyday waiting for a letter. But it never came. And he died a few weeks later.
My father left us with nothing. He gave everything to his two brothers and his mother. A life of luxury – planes, travels, and lots of stuff was reduced to bills. He did write my mom a letter, at least, perhaps knowing she would not be able to live with the guilt and the knowledge that for whatever reason, she wasn’t there when he died.
I never got a letter, or even a mention in the one for my mom. Just the same old “your dad really loved you” from my mom that I used to get all the time.
We picked him up in a box from the airport. It was the size of a shoebox. And it was sad. People spoke at his memorial – mostly work friends. “Oh Max was so great. Oh Max was so generous.” Oh Max fucked me up more than you idiots could ever fathom.
I never really had a father. He loved me once, when he was young and sober. He wrote it in his diary. Perhaps it would have been better if I had never seen that at all. Because I’m not sure whether my story, or his story is sadder.
He tried to tell me one day that I was nothing. That I would have nothing. And I told him that material things meant nothing. That family and friends were the life source in the world. And that I would prove him wrong.
And so, I did.
I have everything I need and want. I am everything – at least to one little human. And the only nothing I’ll never have… is him.