There have been people who have not been in my life for many years — at least not much. My father, for instance, has been absent for most of my life. Totally absent. He doesn't call, doesn't visit, doesn't even send a birthday card. His expectation is that I come to visit him. And when I do come to visit, a six-hour drive, he won't cross the room to say hello. He waits until we run into each other during the mingling at the family gathering before he'll say hello. In the over 20 years I lived in Wisconsin as a child and adult, he visited twice. In the 11 years I lived in Washington, DC, before my diagnosis, he never came to visit.
The problem with this has been that I have blamed myself for my father's behavior. Throughout my childhood and adult life, I thought he was absent because of something I did or said. I thought there was something wrong with me, and that if my father didn't love me, no one would. It has taken years of hearing the phrase "your father blew it" repeated to me a million times in order for me to realize that it was he, not me, who is broken.
But then I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, and my father began calling me weekly. I refer to these as the 'cancer calls' — my weekly 'cancer calls.' I wasn’t sure why he was suddenly calling. I suspect it was because he expected me to die. In a way, though, it was nice that my father was making an effort, any effort, to be in contact with me.
But these calls came at a price. As he kept calling me, I started thinking that maybe he had changed, maybe he was going to make time for me. Somehow though, even with the calls, he was managing to be absent while being present. For example, because he was phoning me, I thought it only fair I return the favor and call him. One day I unwittingly called while my father was in the middle of a meal. It became quickly apparent that he didn't really want to talk. But instead of asking if he could call later, he simply got off the phone and never called me back. As a friend put it, "he wants to pay attention to you, but only on his terms." That’s like being the family dog who is kept in an outdoor kennel, and is only petted when it’s time to be taken to the vet. It's a lonely feeling.
But still, my father continued to call me every week. Midway through my first series of chemo, my father decided to visit in order to help out the weekend after that week's chemo dose. Over the years, besides the summer divorced-child visits, my father has made very little effort to see me or be in contact with me. The fact that he was making this much effort shocked and lulled me into believing that perhaps he had changed, perhaps he was starting to be the caring father I had so desperately needed all these years.
The visit was set for a month away. My father would drive up Friday, help me the night of my chemo, and stay the weekend. The day before his scheduled visit, I hadn’t heard from my father, when he’d be arriving, etc. Typically my four-hour session of chemo would end at 5:00 p.m. Friday, and the person staying with me that night would arrive about 6:00 pm, help me get dinner, and stay the night just in case something happened, since I lived alone.
Late in the evening before his scheduled arrival, my father emailed. He emailed, didn’t call. He wrote that he would be leaving after work on Friday and arrive at my house late Friday night. The six-hour drive to my house meant he’d arrive maybe 11:00 p.m. or 12:00 a.m., requiring me to wait up for his arrival. This waiting would be after just having had chemo and in the midst of post-chemo exhaustion. The idea that my father couldn't take the afternoon off from work to arrive earlier in the evening on the day of my chemo stupefied me. It spoke of insensitivity and self-centeredness, rather than of true caring and help.
After reading the email, I broke down into sobs. My father yet again was choosing himself, his schedule, over helping his treatment-beaten daughter. He once again was not being the father, the supporter, I needed. I sobbed over the phone to friends. I was devastated, my heart broken yet again. My friends said the same thing, but it was my friend Frank who put it best. As he explained, "An a------ with a daughter who has cancer is still an a------."
That hit home. Both my friends Lisa and Frank spoke to me of doing what I needed in order to care for myself. I should ask my father to either come the next day or stay in a hotel if he arrived late on Friday night, so that I could get the rest I needed. I was advised to find someone else to stay with me Friday night. My friend Lisa volunteered — God bless her.
I got the message. Do not expect anything from my father. Cancer had not woken up the care in my father. I needed to take care of myself. It was important for me to value myself enough to not agree to things that would harm me, like waiting up in spite of post-chemo exhaustion, so that my father could arrive at his convenience. This was about me and my physical and mental health, and I needed to protect it.
At my request, my father agreed to come the morning of Saturday. I spent Saturday with him, and he left early Sunday morning. When he left, my father gave me money to help defray some of the cost of my treatment. The money was greatly appreciated. My father had refused to help pay for my college education, but apparently he could help pay for some of my cancer. The man is apparently motivated by guilt. I’ll take it. I needed the money.
As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, acceptance is the key. Cancer does not change relationships, unless both people are willing to change. My father always will be absent because of his own problems. It’s not about me. In fact, after a period of time, my father's calls became less frequent, and now he doesn't call at all. I guess he decided once I'd stayed alive long enough, that I was going to live after all, so he didn't need to feel guilty anymore. I am now still alive almost four years after first symptoms of the metastatic breast cancer.
Family is who speaks to the heart, not who you were born with. I feel hurt and sad that my father is not there for me. Still, it is what it is. I need to focus on and cherish my family of the heart. Some of these people are blood, some are not. They are all family.
A friend once told me to stop trying to go where the light was red, and instead go where the light was green. I thought my friend was a brilliant giver of advice. This was advice that made good, practical sense. Then, my friend informed me she'd gotten the saying from Mr. Rogers. At first, I laughed, but it was still the most brilliant advice I'd ever heard. Apparently, Mr. Rogers was a very wise man. Green is a very good color. Now, I'm going to call one of the members of my family of the heart. I sure am grateful for them.