My father and I had a unique sort of bond, one that was based in mutual guilt, as well as affection and love. We were involved in a freak accident when I was four years old. He was driving the car, and I was the child who slipped beneath the rear wheel, as he reversed out of the driveway. I ended up with a shaved head, a steel pin in my skull, and a life-long anxiety of self-doubt about how my broken head actually worked, or didn’t.
Nothing would ever be the same. My father had to carry me around for weeks after I came home from the hospital with doctor’s orders about a suspension of physical activities. He swiftly became my emotional support in a world that seemed to question how well I may, or may not, have recovered from very risky surgery. My parents had been warned that I only had a less than 50% chance of survival, and that survival would probably entail some form of brain damage, similar to Cerebral Palsy. Needless to say, my complete and total recovery left a great deal of questions, especially in my own head. But, sixty years ago, it wasn’t considered important to discuss a child’s trauma with the child. We celebrated, but never spoke clearly about what had happened.
I was the third of four children in a very active and busy household. And like I said above, my father became the very backbone of my limited emotional support. That remained true even after I grew up, married, and had four children of my own. I began to fear the inevitable: my father’s aging and death.
To combat that fear, I took a course for Hospice training offered to prospective volunteers who would aid in the care-taking aspect of the program. It wasn’t my intention to become a full-fledged volunteer, I simply wanted the knowledge and information, and that seemed like an excellent place to get it. It was. It was only five weekly classes, but it had a profound affect on the way in which I viewed the world around me.
Somewhere, in one of those classes, we were shown a film about a young woman who was dying of cancer. She was very creative and had written a song about her reality, a song that haunted me, yet made so much sense. I no longer remember the song, its actual words, or the name of its author, but its core message was: If you help me to die, I will teach you to live. That was the essence I took away from that experience, unaware that I myself, not too long afterward, would come to fully understand exactly what she was saying.
My father went in for a biopsy, and the doctor told us afterward that there was nothing they could do, the pancreatic cancer had spread to his kidneys and liver. I stood amidst my family, aware that they might not fully comprehend what the doctor was saying. So, I asked the hard question (a role I have often taken), “How much time does he have left?” We were told, “from two to fourteen months, depending.”
He passed away ten months later. During that time, I would drive to the city of my birth, every other weekend. Just to spend time with my parents, do whatever I could, and tell my dad how much I loved him as often as I could.
I was still married, but had entered college and was finding my way through pen and paper. Discovering poetry, the best damned therapy available. Somewhere during that same time period, on a somewhat daring fluke of circumstances, I had entered a poem (at least, I thought it might be a poem) into the first ever writing contest held on the campus. I won first place.
As a result, I had chosen to take my first ever creative writing poetry course. Figured I might as well find out if this was all just a fluke. It didn’t seem to be and I took to carrying a notebook with me constantly. Especially when I would make those quiet contemplative drives to my parents’ home, 150 miles from my own.
Even though I might not have known, back then, that writing would become an essential aspect of my definition, I had already put on one of the most basic qualifications of that occupation. I was an observer, constantly watching, taking in the details of words spoken, body language, seeing the details that others often missed including some of what was never fully expressed.
I wrote poems about what I was observing, but never showed them to anyone. They were too private, too personal. They were my therapy, worked through as I moved through the experience. I was aware that my mother never got beyond the word cancer. I believe she thought she could cure him with good healthy food, and a total clamp down on his cigarette smoking, a life long habit. My father and I both knew otherwise: it was too late for that.
This may seem like the long way around to that last stanza of that poem that brought me those 15 minutes of celebrity, but the person who asked me the questions that originally started me writing about this experience, is also a writer. These experiences were all part and parcel of the images in that final stanza. They are the personal truth behind that writing, what actually fueled it.
(to be continued…)