When My Father Got Sick

The worst part about taking care of my father while he recuperated from cancer was watching him face his regrets

The first time I saw my father after he left the hospital, the biggest shock was how small he looked.

My father got sick right after his 65th birthday, which, in a way, was fortunate, because it meant he had Medicare. His initial diagnosis was pancreatic cancer, but after weeks of being in the ICU, gravely ill and not improving, his diagnosis was revised to lymphoma, and his health began to improve with treatment.

Six weeks after the initial diagnosis, my husband and I returned from visiting our children at overnight camp to find my father sitting on our sofa, alone, waiting for us. My brother had driven him to our house because my father's wife had decided, while he was in the hospital, that she no longer wanted to be married to him. Homeless, with very little money to his name, he came to live with us while he recuperated and underwent chemotherapy. By default, I was now his caregiver.

He sat on that sofa, his formerly muscular and toned body withered by illness and a 60-pound weight loss. His bald head, with his large round eyeglasses perched on his nose, brought to mind a turtle peeking out of its shell, apprehensive, defenseless.

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My husband went to work each day while I, a stay-at-home mom whose kids were gone for the summer, spent the hot days in the company of my father in an air-conditioned cocoon. While my father loved me—that I knew for sure—he had a bit of a blind spot when it came to women, and considered us to be amusing but not terribly interesting. There was a lot of time spent sitting together as he watched his beloved Fox News while simultaneously keeping an eye on the stock market, though he had no money invested there. Playing the market had once been his career, and he still loved to play the odds and pick the winners, if only on paper.

I cooked for him, of course. I went to Target and bought him an entire new wardrobe, because his belongings were all at his wife's house, 50 miles away. I tolerated Fox News because I knew he enjoyed it. I drove him to and from his chemo treatments, brought home ice cream and cakes to entice him to eat, and watched, bemused, as he sat in the backyard, no sunscreen on that bald head, lifting five-pound weights to try to build up his body to his pre-illness fitness level. No matter what else had gone wrong in his life—and there was plenty that had—he'd always looked terrific. Not anymore.

I helped him write letters: letters to my mother, to his second wife (it was his third that had left him in the hospital), to his former business partners, to his grandchildren. I sat with him as he slowly typed his missives, begging forgiveness for bad choices he had made, sharing words of advice for my children based on the things he had done wrong.

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"Learn from my mistakes," he wrote.

He took a lot of naps, exhausted from the cancer, but also from thinking about all that had gone wrong in his life. He wept. Tears of regret streamed down his cheeks as he talked of things he could have, should have, would have.

"I should've paid more attention," he said. "I remember so little about when you were growing up."

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"I should've thought things through more carefully," he said. "So many choices were the worst ones I could've made."

He was so terribly scared of dying. He wasn't ready at all. I think I felt as much pain listening to him as he did talking.

It wasn't easy to see my father so vulnerable. It wasn't easy to be faced, each day, with his ailing body, his worried face, his sad, sad state of mind. I braced myself and never let on how much pain I was in, seeing him in so much pain. I collapsed in my husband's arms more than a few times, weighed down by responsibility and grief and, yes, even anger. I discovered that I wasn't equipped to be this kind of person, selfless and tasked with caring for someone who had never quite cared for me the way a father is supposed to. But I kept on feeding him and washing his clothes, and reassuring him that he would get better—which he did, for a little while.

My kids returned from camp, and our home shrank from moderate to tiny. But the children seemed to perk my father up. What he had lacked as a father he more than made up for as a grandfather. We had family dinners nearly every night and he'd quietly beam as they sat and talked about their teenage lives.

On Rosh Hashanah eve that September, the doctor called to tell my father that he was in remission. The treatments had worked, and the cancer was gone. When we went to temple the next day, I held my father's hand, thankful that he was there, grateful that I had more time with him.

Two years later when he died, I wasn't there with him. He was miles away being cared for by his second wife, because I simply couldn't do it again when the cancer came back. When she offered to care for him, there was no choice but to say yes. I deeply regret not being by his side when he was dying, but I will never regret the months I spent with him, watching Bill O'Reilly and eating coffee ice cream. I did the best I could.

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