I give you fair warning - what will follow has already made at least two people cry. Okay, one of those people was me, while writing it, and so you are pretty much guaranteed not to have that same experience. But the other person was a completely unrelated reader who cried just from reading it. I was simultaneously sorry for having made her cry and proud of myself as a writer, for successfully conveying emotions that powerful. At any rate, consider yourselves warned.
Background: In C&I we were assigned to write a personal narrative. From the prompt: "In this narrative, describe a particular incident that occurred during your adolescence and that helped define who you are today. In relating your story, include as much sensory detail as possible about the incident, so your reader can share in the experience... [T]ry to create a voice in the narrative that reflects who you are as a person today." And so, I give you my personal narrative...
I remember most of my father’s six months of cancer was, for me, an internal power struggle between two emotional responses: a sort of hysterical denial, and a blank acceptance. After the first doctor’s visit, we waited to hear the results of the test, and I kept thinking it would turn out to be nothing, because these kinds of traumatic and melodramatic things just don’t happen to people like me. They happen to guest speakers on Oprah and “Behind the Music” celebrities, but not ordinary people like me. That sort of denial continued for me throughout the next six months, but was often contrasted with a sort of numb acknowledgement that this was, in fact, happening to me and changing my life forever. The night before he died, the nurses told us he had slipped into a coma and would almost certainly pass away sometime in the night or the next morning, and I just nodded my head sedately, staring blankly and seeing nothing. I probably looked empty and lifeless to them, registering no emotion because, to be honest, I wasn’t really capable of feeling any in that mental state. In both cases, however – both denial and acceptance – I was avoiding confronting the enormous big deal this really was. Rarely did I really sit back and think, “I’m sixteen years old. I’m sixteen years old and I’m watching my father die. That’s not normal.” But every so often, the oppressive understanding of reality would hit me.
I don’t remember now why we went for the walk in the first place, nor do I remember if anyone else was present when we left. It’s possible my aunt or step-mom or someone else suggested my dad take a walk to get some exercise; maybe we’d been alone and I suggested it. It’s equally possible that my father decided the walk for himself, because he was restless, or just because he was scared of how much time he’d spent in that hospital bed. The reasons are unimportant now, looking back. Somehow, we ended up wandering the halls of the hospital’s third floor, my father, shuffling along in his hospital gown and paper slippers, and I, my flip-flops slapping at the ground and echoing noisily as we walked the empty corridor. It felt isolated and impersonal, especially when noisy chatter floated to us from the nurse’s station by the elevators, accompanied occasionally by an official-sounding beep or buzz. Where they were there was activity and a busy sense of urgency; where we trudged along there was only a heavy silence made obvious by the pulsing of the fluorescent lights humming through our brains.
We walked slowly, without speaking. Three weeks in a hospital bed had taken their toll, and my father, ever the imposing figure, walked with his arm draped across my shoulders, stooped over and leaning on me for support. My arm, in turn, was around his waist, and I did my best to provide some assistance. Since I was slightly taller, our positioning was awkward, and our steps were just barely out of sync, causing our bodies to shift against each other uncomfortably. I thought it might be less awkward if I bent down a bit, slouched and bent my knees, and got myself so that I was below him. It wasn’t hard – he was only about an inch or so shorter, so I didn’t have far to go. But as soon as I did it, he said, “Don’t.” I looked at him, surprised by the intensity in his voice. His face was set gravely, and I remember noticing for the first time the tiny lines around his mouth and above his eyebrows. His eyes looked hollow, but at the same time I saw in them a sadness so deep I thought it might drown him, and he said, “You shouldn’t have to do that for me.” I realized in that moment the shame my father felt for his weakness, but even more than that, I began to see the helplessness he felt for his situation. This was the man who made a promise to me the day I was born – to care for me and protect me and love me forever. And after only sixteen years, he was, in his own eyes, failing to keep that promise. He found himself completely unprepared to keep me safe from his own sickness, the cancer ripping through him. I had been seeing his pain from only one dimension – the physical – but he was suffering more than I could understand. His suffering encompassed not just his liver or his bedsores or his nausea, not just his chemotherapy or his blood tests. On top of all of that he had layered my pain, and the pain of my sister, too; he took on all the emotional hardship, all the failed schoolwork, all the strained friendships, and most of all, all the complete bewilderment we felt as we struggled to deal with growing up too soon. And despite his best intentions, he couldn’t actually make our pain go away, and that shamed him. I hadn’t realized until that moment how thoroughly confused our roles as parent and child had really become – how, in a way, those roles cannot help but become confused as children grow – but I saw it then, as I acknowledged my own despair: I wanted to ease his pain, to take it as my own if I could, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about doing so.
I paused for a moment as I acknowledged the sheer unfairness of the situation and my own helplessness to make it better. Then I stood up straight and looked ahead, and we continued our walk, my father and I, shuffling along the hallway and each silently sighing our regrets.