“My father died of lung cancer in 1984,” I have said to everyone who has asked me in the past 33 years. I have told it, just that way, to doctors who were studying my own cancer diagnosis at age 40 and asking about my family history.
“Lung cancer,” the doctors say, “Was he a smoker?”
“No. It was just a fluke,” I say.
I don’t want to think about his body, alive or dead. They ask, and I have to push away a memory of him lumbering toward me, smirking, his robe open and exposing himself. On the examining table, discussing what my chemo regime will be, I have to work to push away thoughts of what came after his walk down the hall. So many walks down the hall.
I snap back to Connecticut, 21st century. I have problems in the form of a cancer diagnosis but no longer have the problem of him sexually abusing me.
When my father was alive, and for many years after he died, I didn’t know about the abuse. I couldn’t let myself know. I stored it away in jagged images, untouched by sense or meaning, inaccessible to knowing.
I even mourned his passing. And praised his legacy.
Until one rainy April evening when I was 38 and my brain showed me something—like an inner silent movie—that I almost couldn’t make sense of. I screamed so loud and so long that I woke my children. Then suddenly, I knew what I was looking at, and everything fell into place.
Summer of 1983.
I flew from my home in Chicago to his home in Alaska. He was supposed to be turning his life around—new girlfriend, new job after years of wasting his law training on working in a cotton gin. While he went to the office, I stayed home in his sunny, open-floor-plan house, rotating through his collection of vinyl.
Every pillowcase in his house and every pillow underneath the case was stained brown with his blood. It didn’t wash out in the laundry. He had a sore behind his left ear that bled continually. It wouldn’t heal. It had been oozing like this for more than a year.
I heard the adults—the girlfriend, friends, his sister—tell my dad that he should get the sore looked at. “Really,” they urged, “it’s worrisome.” He would grunt and shake his head. Pre-internet, there was no WebMD to check. He brushed it off like they were mother hens.
Unless you’ve spent time in Alaska, you can’t imagine how scrubbed the summer is. It’s like a picture of hope. After days and nights in pitch black or strange shadow, after snowy months, the whole world packs its color and vitality into ten short weeks. Even the lupine by the side of the road seems to shout: “Look at me! Hurry, look at me, before the dark returns!”
We took a float plane into a park service cabin, packing in food and water for a week. From the air, I could see grizzly bears lumbering on the mountain slopes, foraging for food now that their long sleep was over. I knew we’d be just a morsel for them if the plane crashed and we landed there instead of on our intended lake. We arrived safely, then unpacked.
There is a photo from that week. My hair is pulled back into a bun. My dad is wearing an army-green T-shirt, strained over his large middle. There’s a bonfire behind us on the beach. We stand together, looking down, our foreheads touching. Not a father-daughter pose. A pose for a lover. A pose for a spouse. And we are—sadly—lovers: through terror and continued abuse, he has made that true by force and fear. I am not a willing participant, but there’s no resisting. In this photo, I am still many years away from that first—telling—flashback. Here, on this mountain beach, I am immersed in the only life I’ve known with him. And the trained eye can read it all in that pose.
In July, my dad developed a cough. It dogged him at work and at home and he sometimes had to pause a conversation for a coughing fit, holding up his hand to say “just a minute” and bending over at the waist as the cough took hold of him. It bothered him more than his weeping ear; he went to the doctor in Anchorage.
We all waited a hushed week for the test results. I wasn’t allowed to sing in the house or the car, and no one cooked dinner. My dad wasn’t up to much; with his energy sapped, I got a break from the abuse.
When the news finally did come, it was not good. There was fluid in his lungs, the doctor said.
Things unfolded quickly. They sent him to a hospital in Seattle for diagnosis, surgeries, and treatment. They found that he had advanced lung cancer. They tried aggressive treatment, but it was too late.
He lost more than 60 pounds in a few months and, by Christmas, looked ghastly (he was over six feet tall). He had strange, wispy hair by then, most of it wiped away by chemicals. He was still pretending that he would live, as he had pretended that his sore would heal, as he had pretended our relationship wasn’t utterly toxic.
By January, we knew he didn’t have long. We looked at his lashless eyes and his wasted body and we prepared. He died in April, nine months after his diagnosis.
Those stained pillows and pillow cases all over the house. A sore that wouldn’t heal.
Then—so quickly—a deadly cough leading to the death of my abuser.
I have found a lot of reading to suggest that his sore-that-wouldn’t-heal might well have been squamous cell carcinoma. Treatable, but not if you ignore it.
Left alone a year or more, the place squamous cell goes when it spreads is—you guessed it—the lungs.
As with all other things regarding my father, there is the official story and there is the real one.
At his funeral and for so many years after, the official story was this:
Talented man struck down in his prime.
Tiny-bit troubled man (hard to ignore he had walked out on a marriage) just turning his life around is unfairly struck down by aggressive cancer.
Brilliant lawyer, pianist, basketball player, full of potential, struck down before midlife.
And then the real version:
Mentally ill man ignores obvious signs of illness until it’s too late.
And his death halts 11 years of sexual abuse he has subjected his daughter to.
The real version shifts the story. Holds it toward the light.
My father was dissociative. He had ways—in his mind—of not seeing truth. When an abuse session was over, when his crazed and raving voice and expression had returned to something more civilized, he likely would have honestly denied knowing about the abuse. He might have even taken me out to lunch. Until the next time.
The same fog came over him as he coped with his health. Even days from the end, he was insisting to us all that he wasn’t sick. “Don’t look so sad!” he said from his hospital bed.
A non-smoker? Lung cancer so young? said the doctors. They didn’t know about the missing clue, a houseful of stained pillowcases. In his depression or paralysis or straight-on suicidality, he chose to ignore something very important and it cost him his life.
For many years, I mourned his death. I abruptly stopped mourning it once I remembered the abuse I had suffered at his hands. Wouldn’t anyone, really, wish their tormentor dead in those circumstances? Perhaps he gave me only one gift and that was his death.
Once he was gone, my cells began to reknit. There was no abuser to visit on holidays and school breaks. There were no longer two realities I was forced to shuttle between, as I had done all the while I couldn’t know about or tell about the abuse. I could be in my other, safe family—the one my mother and stepfather had built—and read books, look forward to family dinners and the evenings after them, play with my two younger siblings.
Common sense would say I shouldn’t be making diagnoses on someone long dead using scraps of memories and the internet. Common sense would remind me that I’m not a medical doctor. Regarding that undiagnosed squamous cell carcinoma and its unchecked path to his lungs hastening his demise, I have never been more sure of anything in my life. He died as he lived: caught in wishes and lies, looking the other way. It’s just a sore; it’s just a cough. This path is a coherent narrative arc from his cradle to his grave. Look away, not toward.
To save myself—temporarily—I learned to dissociate. A master dissociater taught me not to see the abuse. He’s gone now and can’t hurt me; I no longer need to lie to myself or to look away.
The week of my fortieth birthday—the first time insurance would cover the cost—I went to my first mammogram. The technician quickly moved me into ultrasound, trying to disguise her evident concern. She called in another tech, and then a doctor, and then two. The four of them consulted, and then told me to get dressed. I learned that day—confirmed by biopsies within days—that I had breast cancer. Because of my age, the staging, the age of my two young daughters, treatment was aggressive. I had four surgeries in a year and a full course of chemo. And I recovered.
My father and I both had cancer before we were 40. Only one of us survived it.
I looked toward the threat that might be headed my way—and caught it early.
He looked away from a houseful of signs—and caught it too late.
If our float plane had crashed flying out of the mountains that July week, we would have been devoured by grizzlies on the mountainside. It would have been an honest death, marked by their honest hunger and instinct, and our honest fighting and surrender. But we didn’t crash. We survived and made it back to Anchorage—where the charade began anew, the one about the poor, talented man struck down in his prime by surprising out-of-the-blue cancer. At fourteen, I couldn’t have named the feeling, but I longed for the honest outcome over the continuing lie.
When he died, ravaged by that “surprising” cancer, he took my life’s terror with him. That rainy day at his burial, I couldn’t know I had cause to celebrate. I had no way to glimpse it yet, but the truth was coming at me like a freight train. That saving truth would land in my bedroom one April night with my first flashback and, eventually, it would set me free.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/RLEVANS