A story about not saying goodbye

My dad died. Not recently, though - it’s been 15 years as of today. Although much time has passed, this story still haunts me, and occasionally memories of those days surface. I often thought about writing it down to get it out of my head, and also to preserve the memories before they fade. I’m afraid some already have after all this time. But I finally did it, and here it is. There is no reason to publish it other than to break with the zeitgeist of sharing only the good stuff. Sometimes life gives you shit, and you have to deal with it. I suppose everyone has moments like that in their life. Some have more, some have worse. But it’s no competition. Those stories can be powerful tools to ground yourself. Reminders to put the everyday drama into perspective. That’s how I like to see it.

My dad was an old-school man. A manly man. The type of man who never seemed to get sick. The only doctor he frequented that I can think of was the dentist. When there was an issue, he would let the dentist fix it on the spot. Without anesthetics, of course, because who needs that? Instead of getting sick, he had what he probably would have called “little accidents”. One time, he fell off the roof onto a fence with barbed wire that ripped out a piece of flesh from his inner thigh. What do you do? You get it stitched together and move on. Another time, in the summer, he stopped working in the garden because he got a little dizzy. “It’s because of the heavy sun”, he said. A couple of days later, it turned out that he had had a stroke. What do you do? You recover and move on. That’s how it works. That’s how it always worked. I remember a lot of his little accidents, but even with those, he always seemed to be fine.

It was in 2006 when I noticed that something had changed. My dad had lost weight. When I asked him about it, he told me that he was pretty busy at work, driving around all day, and often only had soup for lunch. But he was glad to have shed a few pounds. And I agreed with him. He was looking good. But by the Christmas holidays, he had lost more than a few pounds. Disaster was already on the horizon. When he called me one day to tell me that he had gone to the doctor, I knew it had to be serious. They had found something in his stomach but weren’t sure what it was yet. I wanted to ask him what the doctors thought it might be, but I was too afraid to hear the answer. The awkward pause in our conversation was answer enough.

The results weren’t long in coming and confirmed my fears in the first week of January: Stomach cancer. The following week he was already in the hospital for treatment. Of course, the whole family came over for a visit. My wife and I got him a children’s book called “Everything’s gonna be fine”. That was what we thought after all. We went to the cafeteria, ate cake, drank coffee, and chatted. My dad - the guy who had eaten half a cake by himself on several occasions - barely touched his slice and his coffee. He seemed a bit stricken and would sometimes do this strange humming. But he was still cracking jokes and told us about the port he would get for chemotherapy on his shoulder. The situation wasn’t pleasant, but everyone was optimistic. At least on this day.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan. His condition got worse within days, and on our next visit, I had to push him in a wheelchair to the cafeteria. A couple of days later, he didn’t want to leave the bed anymore. I learned that his humming was a coping mechanism to deal with the pain. Hearing how it changed over time - getting longer, becoming more intense - was a scary insight into what he was going through. Therapy had not yet begun, and the doctors continued to delay it to conduct further tests. It seemed that no one knew what was going on. I clearly didn’t. Looking back, I assume my dad already saw it coming. From everything I know about him, my best guess is that he didn’t want us to know. He was never good at speaking his mind and sharing his feelings when it came to these types of things. A trait that rubbed off on me so well that it hurts.

The visits became harder and harder to bear. This disease showcased its ability to break and humiliate. Not only the person who had it but also everyone in its surroundings. For some reason, I thought I had to act strong, while everyone else took turns breaking down in the hallway, under the pretense of grabbing a bottle of water. I kept asking him if he needed something, and he would reply, “Jim Beam and Coke, please.” I laughed and told him that this didn’t sound like a good idea. I was probably as wrong about that as I was about the idea that I had to act strong. But I kept my mask on and saved it all up until I finally had my own breakdown in the car. My wife took care of the hour-long drive while I was staring into the void, trying to process what was happening.

I was still naive, thinking that the therapy would soon begin, when my brother brought the crushing news. The cancer had already spread to other organs, eliminating every possible therapy option. It was too far, too late. All the doctors could do was to prolong his life. Considering the condition he was already in, this only meant postponing death. This was already hard to swallow, but there wasn’t even time to digest. When I saw my brother’s name on the phone again, I knew this wasn’t good news. He had returned from the hospital, and it was terrible. My dad’s condition was spiraling down, and he wasn’t sure how long he would hold on. I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, “If you want to see him one more time, you better come over soon. But consider if you really want to do this… it is bad”. I was paralyzed and stared into the void again long after the call ended. I didn’t know what to do. The realization that I’d never forgive myself for letting the chance to say goodbye pass came late. I called my mom to tell her that we were on our way to pick her up. When we arrived, she told us that my brother was on his way to join us. But as we were waiting for him, the telephone rang. My dad had died.

Dad and me somewhere in the desert in Greece