Thursday, June 12, 2008

Writing is the best prescription

My friend told me that I should write about Beeno.

That's what got these numerous blog posts started. She also told me that I should write about my dad. I did mention him in a couple of posts, but I need to do a better job of that. Let me put something together.

I have a speech I gave at the SBU Relay For Life event. They asked if I would speak about the effect cancer has had on my and my life. I had to write about my father. The following is excerpted from that speech. It was the first time I spoke publicly about it since his death nearly 20 years ago.

When I was young, cancer was an abstract word, an abstract thought. Distant aunts and uncles died from cancer. I didn’t know these people so cancer didn’t really seem to matter. Cancer was also hushed. No one explained cancer so it wasn’t real.

Cancer became real in 1988. I was at SBU as a student. Your life is a whirlwind when you start as a college student. Yet, things may change so quickly. In a tiny window of time, your spectacular world becomes blinding. The security you know and trust is whisked away. Your life is forced to u-turn or spin or skid - or just stop. Your heart continues to beat and you continue to breath, but you don’t know why - or how. Weren’t these supposed to be the best four years of your life?

How were you chosen to be the recipient of such pain and anguish? And why do you feel so selfish for feeling so?

I had two loves - two passions - writing and biology - you try to figure it out.

I’d wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember, but I’ve also just loved words. Words have immeasurable power. Words make you laugh, cry, scream and hurt. That is power. Power I always expected to use for good so don’t panic.

I was also the very definition of daddy’s little girl. He was my world and I looked to him for guidance, strength, courage, wisdom and encouragement. And he offered it. And I took it.

He was a Canisius grad. He loved that damn place. He wanted me to go. We had gone to Golden Griffins basketball games for as long as I can remember. We had seats near the president of the college - Father Demske at the time. That was cool - imagine sitting near the president. Imagine my dad talking to the president of Canisius College. That was cool! Now I realize talking to the college president is no big deal. They're human just like us, right? Who am I kidding, it is still pretty cool!

He told Father Demske of my college search. Told him I was considering Canisius and - gasp - St. Bonaventure. Oh the horror! And, truth be told, one of the main reasons I was considering SBU is because of the built-in rivalry. I knew nothing about SBU.

My dad arranged for me to meet with the head of Canisius’ biology department. I toured the campus. Met Father Demske (still cool).

Then he drove us to SBU for a tour.

By the time we did that, my focus had changed. I toured SBU expecting to be a mass communication major - as it was called then. I remember the tour. We were with another high school senior and his mother. I felt so sorry for him. His mother never shut up. She just yammered and yammered and yammered. Toward the end, she made a comment to my dad. He hadn’t asked one question or made one comment throughout. “You are awfully quiet,” she said to my father.
To which he replied, “I only speak when I have something worthwhile to say.” Without missing a beat he smiled at her in that manner of his - you weren’t sure if he was insulting you or merely making a statement. It sure shut her up and I chuckled.

As we were leaving, we sat quietly in the car - station wagon with fake wood paneling, perhaps you know it from Brady Bunch re-runs on Nick at Night?

“I’ve lost you, haven’t I,” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said meaning SBU had taken a hold of my soul. He told me he knew I was a goner when he saw the campus. I knew and he knew that I belonged here.

Reconciling with Father Demske was another matter. Even Father Demske had to admit that Canisius’ communication program was no match for the juggernaut built by Jandoli. Canisius ceded defeat!

I came to SBU as a Mass Comm major. My dad tried to convince me to change my major.
“I pay my secretary more than you’ll ever get as a writer,” he said.
I don’t care. I want to change the world.”
I think he knew better than to argue with the naïve optimism of a high school senior.

He was thrilled when I changed my major after my first semester here. Biology.
“But you’re keeping your minor, in Mass Comm, right?”
Of course.

April, 1988
Freshman year

One would think I would remember how exactly I found out my father had cancer. One would think that would be an indelible mark. I cannot. I don’t recall if I heard over the phone (and it would have been the pay phone at the end of the hall on 2nd Fal because we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have phones in our rooms). Or if he told me when I went home for a weekend

I seem to recall he told me he was having some tests done. His doctor thought he might have cancer but wanted to be sure. They did a biopsy on a tumor, he told me. And I remember saying, well, Dad, I hope it’s malignant. Hey, I was a bio major, but I clearly wasn’t pre-med. He said, thanks a lot and reminded me I wanted benign. Of course he was right.

Did that horrible and unmalicious slip-up jinx my father somehow? Of course not, but it doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle with that thought from time to time.

That tumor was malignant.
And it wasn’t alone.
His body was riddled with them.
Big tumors you could see peeking out from his neck, his chest, his abdomen.
My father was diagnosed with metastatic malignant melanoma, a kind of skin cancer. For those who don’t know what metastic malignant melanoma is, here’s the translation - damn bad skin cancer.

My family has always been, is and is likely to always be incredibly optimistic. And I was optimistic and naïve. I was also at SBU - an hour and a half from home. I didn’t have to see my father deteriorate and ignorance coupled with fear kept me at school.

Summer came. My father moved more slowly and deliberately, but I pretended not to notice. He would visit me at the restaurant where I worked for the summer. He would show up without my mom or brother or sister. I think he wanted to be alone - but just a little bit alone. Manhattan and a meal. I would make the Manhattan but I couldn’t now. Couldn’t even tell you what was in it.
His only brother, my uncle, opened a restaurant in the Southgate Plaza. My father was the Vice President of the Plaza. I am sure my father pulled some strings to get him in there. It was his brother, after all.
Opening night and my dad had to leave early. I went to his office, knowing he would be there. I saw him sitting in his chair with his feet on his desk Hindsight will show me how brave his face was.
He was exhausted and couldn’t stay.
Now I think that was just part of it.
Dad, did you know you were dying?
When you found out and resigned yourself to that - did you feel?
Or did you ever resign yourself to that?
Did you know you wouldn’t see your brother’s restaurant fail?
Did you know you wouldn’t see your son or daughter graduate high school?
Did you know you wouldn’t see me graduate college three times?
Did you know you wouldn’t see your grandchildren?
Did you know you wouldn’t see any of us get married?
Did you know you wouldn’t see your wife, love of your life, soul-mate, deteriorate too?

Summer passed to fall and I was back at SBU as a sophomore and as a full-fledged biology major.
My dad tried to get me to come home on weekends but I kept making excuses - homework, tests, papers. I couldn’t handle it. I was 19 with a world of opportunities at my feet and instead of embracing them I couldn’t think past not seeing him, but seeing him was too difficult. How was I supposed to remain stoic when my rock was eroding and too quickly for me to keep step.

The end came suddenly. My half sister called because my uncle called her. She told me doctors were giving him a week. I uncharacteristically fell apart. Turns out I am human.
I loaded my dirty laundry (literal laundry) into the trunk of my car - hey - I needed normal and laundry was normal. And I sped up Route 16 (but not through Franklinville).

My mom didn’t want to tell any of us how dire the situation was. I hated her for it. Who was she to decide? Well, she was my mother and a mother’s job is to protect her children. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was doing the best she could with the information she had.

I got home and she wasn’t there but she arrived shortly thereafter after having visited with my father in the hospital. I started to get angry because she didn’t tell me anything and she cried. Sobbed in fact. In 19 years, I had never seen her cry.
And it scared me to death.
It became real.
In these few short months I had wished away the cancer to the point that I believed - no matter what - it wasn’t getting my dad.
I made my mom take me to him.
Now I know why my mom kept me from him, but I didn’t then. My father, who was 6’4” and about 200 pounds when he was healthy, was 120 pounds lying in a hospital bed. He was yellow and jaundice because the cancer had attacked his liver.
He had few lucid moments because it had attacked his brain.
He would drift in and out of consciousness and when he would, he didn’t know who I was - or who anyone was, for that matter.
How do you reconcile that? My own father didn’t recognize me.
One moment he looked at my mother who was holding his hand and he said Ma (he always called her that), do you know I’m dying? I don’t think she answered him but she kept holding his hand and stroking his hand.
The week he was given lasted one day. It’s a day I won’t ever forget and one I sometimes wish I didn’t always remember.

Diagnosed in April
Dead in December
He was 42 years old
And he was my father.

Dad, do you remember your promise to me?
We talked about education - you with your MBA and me on my way to a Bachelors degree. I asked you why you never got your Ph.D. since you were such a proponent of education and you matter-of-factly told me that in business the only reason anyone would get a Ph.D. would be to teach which you had no interest in and besides, you could make far more money in the private sector. You must have seen the dejected look on my face because you quickly said “I tell you what. When you get yours, I’ll go with you.”
Well, Dad, I finished mine just over a year ago. And I think you had a little to do with that. I certainly toasted you when I finished! As well as every deity there is, but I digress.

This December will mark 20 years since your death.
It gets easier, but never easy.

I heard a cancer survivor speak a few years ago. He spoke of two kinds of people with cancer - survivors and victims. I hated that, primarily because I hate the word victims in this context. It seems so defeating.
I prefer two types of survivors - those still with us and those blazing trails in a higher realm or whatever your beliefs prescribe.
Now before you start thinking I’ve had a drink or a few - let me explain.
My father is dead - how is he a survivor?
He’s right here.
His skill, drive and ambition encourage me. So he has helped me to craft these words.
His courage has helped me to share these words with all of you. To help me wrench open my heart and spill its contents.
His compassion and caring are reasons I am here telling you cancer need not be a death sentence.
His experiences helped to mold my own life.
His is right here writing to all of you.
And he is proud.
Proud that his life, in some small way, may educate and move people to action.
Proud that I have found a voice and am not afraid to use it.
Proud of you - people he has never met - that through your own experiences and with your own survivors - here or not - we may help to eradicate this viscious disease that has caused so much pain.
But yet in that pain.

Thank you, Dad.

[Watch Beeno for me.]


Anonymous said...

Dearest 'Beeno' family:
Just read your beautiful letter.
I lost my beloved Father 35 yrs ago, and while his death was from an unusual Heart Condition, back then, I too, didn't see much of him from age 6 until 16, when he passed away. One day, I'll maybe write about it, but right now I'm trying to do the best for my best friend/spouse, who passed away last year.
May God Bless & keep you safe & secure.
luv sjg

radiosilents said...


This was such a poignant, touching post. Thank you for sharing your experience. Unfortunately, I know something about what it's like -- I just lost my stepdad (who's been in my life since I was 12) to multiple myeloma last week. I am sorry about your dad and about Beeno.

I do still hope we can get together one of these days. Take care in the meantime.