I am 20 and spending the night in my parents home again. I have returned to care for my father who is dying of cancer. Out of his three children, I am the one most comfortable spending night after night awake with him, this man I barely understand.
It is the middle of the night and the house is still. We are in the living room where we have placed my father’s bed so we can care for him more easily. I am watching him sleep now as I sit next to him, holding his hand as I study his fingers. The smooth feel of his hand is familiar and I am a child again, slipping my hand into his as we walk into church, hoping to feel his gentle squeeze, a return gesture of his affection. Instead his eyes open slightly and he mumbles. I let go and move my hand to his forehead and feel the light moisture of perspiration, and I know he is in pain. I move to get his medicine and soon he is sleeping again. I lean back into my chair, at peace with the opportunity to study his face. He is only 53, and the cancer has stolen his jet black hair, leaving unfamiliar smooth discolored skin it’s place.
I have been his daughter for 19 of my 20 years, adopted when I was almost one. He is the only father I have ever known. His wife, my mother, sleeps down the hall. With my two brothers, we have shared birthdays, family dinners, and weekly Sunday mass. We have shared the bond of five people growing up in the same small house. Four biologically related, one of us not.
As I sit with him into the darkness of night, his pain grows stronger, and he tries to get up and leave, as if he has somewhere to go. I wonder if in his confusion he is trying to outrun the cancer, to flee the pain and the cancer that now lives permanently in his brain.
During the day, his classical music calms him. For the first time, I see my father cry and when I question him about it, he shrugs and tries to explain how he is moved by the composition. There is clarity and truth as his cancer grows. He is becoming more emotional, less inhibited and from this terrible illness something wonderful emerges--a glimpse into my father’s soul. One day he tells me a story from my childhood. He takes me back to a moment, when all I ever wanted was his approval. His memory is different than mine. It is very different from what actually happened, as his version is rich with sudden emotion, emotion he originally withheld. He is proud and I can hear the emotion is his voice. I am suddenly eight years old again, I can’t help it. Long after he falls asleep, I repeat his words again and again. After so many years, I am still smiling from the warmth of his his praise. After so many years, I am still that little girl waiting for his love.
As his death draws closer, I am the stronger child, the one most comfortable caring for him. I do not mind this, as I pat a cool washcloth against his forehead and briefly press my lips to his cheek. The hours stretch on, night after night, and the mystery of dark makes his fears grow stronger and the truth of his emotions more clear.
He is my father and I ready myself to say goodbye to him, accepting the great space that will be left in my life, left in my heart, the same space that once lingered between us.