Losing A Father To Cancer and Learning Forgiveness
I lost Dad to cancer and I thought I was OK with it, until I saw him that last time.
I had no idea his passing would have such an effect on me. There was some resentment, disappointment and regret between us. He's my dad but we had grown apart over the several years. He suffered during the last year of his life and he wanted Physician-Assisted Dying, prescription medication to end his life. He asked me to come to see him about a letter he was expecting in the mail.
Me: “It’s hard for me to leave and do the 7-hour drive or take a flight. How about instead of coming all the way there to read a letter and make a phone call, I could handle it from LA. When they give you the meds, I could fly there and be with you.”
Dad: (his voice strained from thrush): ”Fine! If you don’t want to, I'll find someone else to do it.”
Through Dad's friend, Tim, I tried to figure out a solution, but Dad said there was no longer any need for me to come. A few days later, Tim, called. Dad looked really bad and we needed to come up. In the evening, I headed out with my brother, Don, but on the way there, the nurse called. Dad had already passed. He didn’t even know we were coming, we wanted to surprise him.
Don and I continued on and made our way up to Pacifica, arriving after midnight. Dad’s friend, Ms. P would meet us there. As we made our way to down the hall, I thought “It’s over. It was what he wanted; he didn’t want to fight. He wasn’t in pain anymore.” I thought I was in acceptance. As I walked in, I caught a glimpse of him lying in the bedroom and I went hysterical. He was totally emaciated, he was so thin that his face was sunken, taking on a different shape. He didn’t look like himself.
Instead of going in there, I sat down in the living room and cried. I hadn’t cried that hard in my life. I had no sense of time, but it felt like a while. I went in and sat down beside him and apologized repeatedly and uncontrollably through tears. I couldn’t stop, I must have said “I’m sorry” over a dozen times.
Ms. P, my brother and I stayed up into the morning and talked about Dad. I learned that he met Ms. P on a bus going from San Jose to Orange County. She told him of a bad relationship she had with a man, whom she eventually left because of her conversation with Dad. I learned that he was really proud of Don and I and would show our photos and boast that I bought my first condo or baked pastries; or that his grand daughter started karate class. I learned that he never was affectionate with Ms. P, but during the last few weeks of his life, he would reach out for her hand as he napped. Don and I would reminisce about the bedtime stories Dad would tell us. They were usually funny but always entertaining, the three of us would end up howling with laughter.
We were all exhausted and went to sleep at dawn. I woke up every now and then, sobbing back to sleep. After getting out of bed, I looked in the mirror. My eyes were so red, puffy and swollen, I looked disfigured.
THE UNEXPECTED REGRET TO COME
For months afterward, I would be okay during the daytime. At night, when things slowed down and got quiet, I would think about him and get sad. As I turned off the light, I started remembering how bad he looked the night he died and I felt terrible regret. I thought,
“I should have come sooner.
I should have called him one last time.
I should have called right away to let him know we were on our way up, maybe he would’ve held on a little longer to say goodbye.
I should have stopped trying to save him when he didn’t want it, I should have created more happy moments instead.”
TALKING MYSELF OUT OF GUILT
Repeatedly revisiting those thoughts wasn’t doing me any good. I think of it this way--if I were in Dad's shoes, I would not want to see my son/daughter suffer and feel guilty or sad about anything, especially me. And I did my best as his daughter and he did his best as my father. I know he had a lot of regrets about family. I now see that even though we let go of what he did or didn’t do in the past, he still held onto it. He never forgave himself for the husband he was to Mom, for the heartbreak he caused, which forced her to leave. At the funeral, a friend of his told me that Dad was depressed for a long time, that he was sad about my parents’ divorce. He never recovered from our family splitting up.
Just a few years ago, Dad called Mom and said (from the literal Vietnamese translation), “I have fault with you.” My mom replied, “It’s all in the past, let’s just move on.” But he didn’t. Holding on to the guilt took the will out of him and it took the life out of him.
REGRETS, NO REGRETS
I wish I reached out to know him more as a person, not just as my father. I wish I understood him more to know where he was coming from. My brother was the one to bring him movies to watch and went out to pick up pizza like Dad asked; I was the one to bring him herbs and supplements, trying to coax and eventually scold him into taking them.
What I do not regret is questioning his reluctance to try cannabis for his headaches. He had refused, so I asked, “Why are you OK with smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol but not with marijuana?” And all of a sudden, he was open to it. “OK, OK, I’ll try it”, he said while nodding.
After using the ointment on his scalp, he stopped complaining of the pain and went back to browsing on his phone. I’m glad I nudged him to try it and I’m grateful for Tim’s generosity and supplying the products. More importantly, I’m grateful to Tim for being a friend to Dad.
To me, the worst thing is to not take something away from what has happened. It’s brought awareness to me that I wouldn’t have experienced in the same way. Now, I want to pay attention to my mom more as a person, not just as my Mom.
I want to become a better listener and listen to what she needs, not what I think she needs, or anyone else for that matter. I told my brother that I wished I wasn’t such an asshole. I wished that I just was happy for Dad when he bought a new car, instead of thinking what a bad decision it was. I learned later that he had been diagnosed with cancer around the time he bought it. It was his way of living out his life the way he wanted.
I've worked on forgiving myself. Surprisingly, the grieving and guilt over his passing has lightened by so much, so quickly. Now, when I feel sad about him, it’s more of missing him.
I like to think his energy is around me and I would sense what he would do or say if he were here. He hops in and out of my mind, making funny comments or laughing. “You can’t be a spy!” he would laugh and say, if one of his kids did not see something obvious. During his memorial service, there was a ceremonial prayer with food and tea at the altar in a separate room. I pictured him poking into the room and nodding to himself, pleased with how we were honoring his memory.
ARE YOU GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING?
Reading about this may be sad or hard to take in but I wanted to share where I’m coming from. Maybe you are going through the same thing with someone close to you. Maybe you feel that you should have done something different or said something different. It takes a lot to grieve and to process loss but it’s not selfish to want to be happy. You don’t need to feel helpless despair for a long time to prove your love.
I’ve spent the last few years in an entirely different place, mentally, physically and spiritually. I’ve experienced breakthroughs when I release self-imposed guilt. Right now, I’m in a happy place. It would serve you best if you did the same and forgave yourself. The burden of guilt is so heavy, and it does no one any good to keep it alive. It exists in your mind and you need to release yourself from the torture. They are gone now.
At the end of the day, we tried to do right by them the best way we knew how. It’s okay to forgive yourself. The best way to honor their passing is to learn from it and let go.