A reflection on losing my father to cancer.
English 1110 section 13
"Let go, Stew, just let go. It's okay, just let go," were the words the male nurse spoke to my father as he struggled to take his last breaths after his heart had stopped beating. I gently pressed a kiss to his cooling forehead in farewell, acknowledging that this was the last time I'd see him. His snowy white brow carried a scab from the wound he had received the night before as he had hit his head on something while having the stroke. It was the only thing visibly wrong with him - that, his ashen skin, and the lack of breathing. He looked peaceful, serene - almost asleep. There was no sign of the nefarious illness that had led to his death, albeit indirectly.
It had only been a day or two since the doctors had informed my mom that they had not been able to remove all of the tumor, because it ran too close to his aorta. My mom later told me that he had known something was wrong. I believe that is why he decided to give up. The moment the doctors had told us that there was a high likelihood of him developing pneumonia due to the operation to remove the tumor, I knew that he would get pneumonia. Since his childhood, he had had weak lungs and asthma - something I inherited from him. Once he had the pneumonia, it was the lack of oxygen that caused the stroke. The doctors gave him morphine to reduce the pain and let him go rather than prolong the inevitable. He wasn't ever going to go home and his hair would never grow back red, like he always joked it would.
In retrospect, perhaps he should have noticed that something was wrong earlier on. After he took a fall in 2004, I believe, he had difficulties lying down. Still, he never went to the doctor until he couldn't swallow anything anymore. First, my father opted to go to a doctor for alternative medicine, who promptly sent him to a "normal" doctor, who discovered the tumor and took a tissue sample. It was officially diagnosed on my nineteenth birthday that he had esophageal cancer. There was no rhyme or reason to it, since he rarely drank alcohol, never smoked and didn't have acid reflux. In hindsight, the only plausible explanation we have been able to find is his exposure to Agent Orange as a marine in Vietnam.
At this point, both of my sisters were going to college in the United States and were enrolled at Hamline in St. Paul, Minnesota. They didn't return to our home in Switzerland very often - especially not my eldest sister. It had been years since she had last visited. Still, that summer they came. They were there during the short period my father could stay at home, before the hospital decided to keep him there. While he was in the hospital, my mom would drive out to visit him every day and I would often go with her to spend whatever time I could with him. He had long one-on-one conversations with my sisters and me, trying to impart whatever wisdom he could, not knowing if this last battle of his would turn out victorious or not. He was worried for us and wanted to make sure that we were taken care of, going as far as to extract promises from his boss and my, at this point, future brother-in-law, Martin, that they would watch out for us and support us.
My father could be a wonderful man. He would reach out to people and learn about them. He made a point to get to know all of the nursing staff and his doctors, all of whom grew to care about him in return. They never experienced his bouts of rage or his temper, when he would stalk out the door and go on a walk until he calmed down. They never knew his workaholic tendencies of staying at work until late in the evening, going to work on weekends and, after I complained about it, going back to work in the early hours of the morning, only to come back and act as if he had never left. Often, the most time I spent with him was sitting with him, watching him play video games, letting him read to us or reading to him. After his death, my sisters also revealed to me why they had stayed away for so long and what he had done to them. He was not a perfect person by far, but he was my father and despite all of that, I will love him until my dying day and cherish the good memories I have of him.
My father's stroke happened in the late afternoon or early evening of October 19, 2006. I was sitting at home, reading fanfiction on my computer, as the warm autumn sun rays peeked through the lamellae on our windows, creating lines of light on the floor and furniture. The sun was just starting its descent towards the foothills of the Alps that surrounded us. The phone rang and I picked it up. I cannot remember if it was Peter, my father's work colleague, or my mom on the phone. He or she informed me that my father had had a stroke while at the hospital and they were sending a taxi to pick me up and bring me to the hospital. I was to bring overnight stuff for my mom and me. I barely remember the taxi drive, except that the driver was a friend of Peter's and that the orange sun was setting behind the mountains.
Arriving at the hospital, I went up to his room and he was awake. He couldn't really speak, but he was still trying to communicate with us. We contacted my sisters in the United States and Peter booked them on the next available flight to Switzerland, pulling them out of college. My mom talked to my grandfather on the phone, who lived in Roseville, Minnesota, and he offered to come support her, before realizing that he didn't have a current passport. He had just recently had open heart surgery and was in his nineties, but he was still willing to jump on a plane to try and support his daughter in her time of need.
The hospital staff put up a cot in my father's room, stating that too many people died alone in the hospital. As my father lapsed into the coma he'd never awaken from, my mom and I took turns with the cot, but I found that I couldn't sleep. I listened for every labored breath, hoping that it wouldn't be his last, as it took seconds after each exhale for his body to draw in another breath. The next morning, I texted my friends and they came to support me, despite it being a Friday and them having obligations such as work and school. The hospital moved us into a double room to give us more space and in my father's last hours, I sang his favorite songs to him. Some of his coworkers joined us and we spoke of him.
Around lunch time, the hospital staff offered my mom and me lunch, so we stepped out into a small side room to eat the stuffed peppers they had brought us, being the only vegetarian option on the menu. It was while we were eating our lunch that Martin arrived from the construction site he had been measuring at. He heard my father's breathing pattern and recognized it from having heard it on the phone right before one of his friends had died. We followed him in to the room, where we were able to witness my father's last breaths, as Martin fetched the male nurse. The doctor declared the time of death to be 12:30 pm, October 20, 2006 - four days before my father's sixty-third birthday. The drapes on the windows were drawn back, letting the sun shine in, as the mountains he loved loomed in the distance beyond Lake Zich. It was a beautiful day to die surrounded by family, friends and loved ones.
At this point, one of my dearest friends, whom I consider to be another sister, gave me a little stuffed owl in the dreary white halls of the hospital to cheer me up. In the days that followed, I carried it with me wherever I went, calling it Archie after Archibald in the Sword in the Stone animated movie as well as a character from one of my father's favorite mystery books about the detective Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout. That owl remains with me to this day, though I no longer cuddle with it every night, seeking comfort.
The event of my father's death changed my family irreparably. After this, we would never be a "harmonious association of parents and children united by love and trust" (Colombo et al. 18) again. Looking back and remembering the fights between my parents, how my father would regularly undermine my mother, and the revelation of what he did to my sisters - I wonder if we ever were. Certainly, we loved each other - there could be no doubt about that; not with the way he had stood by each other through thick and thin, nor through illness and heath. Moreover, it often was not harmonious, given my father's quick temper, the way he baited my mother, and the frequent fights.
Having already grown used to my father being in the hospital, I barely noticed his absence. I went back to school and distracted myself with it until the funeral. I believe it was on a Wednesday and I had a French test the next day, though my teachers knew what was going on and were cutting me a lot of slack. At the funeral we sang "The Greatest Adventure" for him from the animated Hobbit movie, as it had always been his life motto, though I could barely sing as the tears dampened my eyelashes and cascaded down my cheeks.
After the funeral, standing outside the little chapel and near the entrance to the graveyard, my father's boss clasped my shoulder and told me that I had to be strong and he asked me to support my mother. My friends, my family, and I then went and had a picnic on the shores of Lake Zich, joking around, having fun and celebrating life. However, I took those words to heart in a way that was probably not intended. Instead of mourning with my family, I would draw away from them to mourn in solitude, trying to present a strong front to them. One example of this was one evening, before my sisters returned to the States, when we were all eating together at a Thai restaurant with Martin. Suddenly, I was overcome by my grief, so I went to the bathroom and hid beneath the spiral staircase, where Martin found me and comforted me.
Time has turned much of the aftermath and the time before my father's death into a blur. The one thing that really sticks out is how the Swiss community closed in around us, supporting us in any way they possibly could, everything from helping my mother deal with the estate (since my father had died without a will and his life insurance was still made out to his ex-wife), to flowers and money to help pay for the tombstone, to the emotional support we needed to walk through the stages of grief and mourning. This help poured in from all over: people in the town whom we barely knew, my parents' work colleagues and their families, my teachers at school, et cetera. The Swiss community helped us remain afloat in the flood of anguish and tears, supporting us every step of the way. We were not individuals, we were part of the town, part of a community, and had suffered a loss. That is how a community should act. Yet, my grandmother told my mom, after my mother told her about the support she was getting, that she should stay in Switzerland, because she would never receive that kind of support in the United States.
Today, I see that we were never a normal family. It wasn't just the fact that my father had been married and divorced before and we called his ex-wife "Aunt Sibella." It wasn't just that we followed New Age traditions. Nor was it that we were three daughters with no sons, dogs or cats. It wasn't even that none of us had his last name, despite our parents being married. My parents were not on equal footing with each other and, when my eldest sister married this year in July, she told our unofficial adopted parents, with whom I now live, that they were the model that she and her newly minted husband were trying to base their marriage on - not the parents who had raised them.
I will never be able to understand why my father did what he did and can only hope that he has a chance to learn from his mistakes in future lifetimes. However, it did bring me closer to my sisters - especially my middle sister. When she tried to get people to notice that something wasn't right, I was the only one who noticed and spoke up against it, stating that it was wrong. That was the foundation of the close relationship that we have today.
Today, my mother relishes in the freedom of not being tied to a relationship and not feeling that biological clock ticking anymore. She has moved back to Minnesota to live with my eldest sister, her husband, and their two kids. Their household is multigenerational, biracial (Native American and Caucasian), and the eldest of their kids was born about four-and-a-half years before their wedding. There is no white picket fence and there never was one. Our "adoptive" parents make us feel more welcome and accepted than our biological parents ever did. For example, while my mom would complain to high heavens about me missing the last bus, my "adoptive" father will gladly come and pick me up from school, so that I don't have to take public transportation at night. Thus, in some ways, they act more like parents than our "real" parents ever did.
Family is not what you were born with; it's what you make of it. Family should hold together and be committed to each other, as well as to every single person who has been "adopted" into the family. We may never have had the most stereotypical family but, despite our shortcomings, we will always love and cherish each other, in sickness and health, into the grave and beyond, because that's what family should be about: love and commitment.
Work Cited /
Gary Colombo et al. "Harmony at Home" Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing, edited by Gary Colombo et al., 10th edition, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2016, pp.16-19.