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What wasn’t said

Man with v-neck collar kneeling by a toddler girl in a dress and tights in a stroller.

Today would have been Dad’s birthday. He died in 1979 at 68. Happy birthday, Dad. I still miss you.

In 1970, Mom told me Dad was dying. I was 8 years old. I find it curious that I don’t remember telling anyone. Is it because I didn’t, or because they didn’t know what to do with that information, so my declaration fell out of my memory? No one at home was talking about Dad’s diagnosis, and my friends didn’t want to talk about it either. So, how could it be the thing that has so dramatically shaped my life, if they didn’t think it was a “thing”? Or is it that very lack that defined my experience? The fact that here is a girl, who’s beloved father is dying and no one is asking her how she feels about it, how she’s doing, or what it’s like to live with that knowledge?

My memory, which may have played a cruel trick on me, is that Mom told me about Dad’s retirement and our impending move to Washington in the same short info dump. He retired and was moving us to Chelan, Washington, where his older brother lived. She dropped a bomb on me, but didn’t tend to my shrapnel-ridden body.

This, in spite of her over-protectiveness, perverse interest in my bowel movements, and overreaction to my nose bleeds. Doctors, to my germophobic mother, were gods. My mother hung on their every word. She even had a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Thanks to her neurosis, I have had the hands of a 70-year-old since I was 30-something. Without intense diligence to hygiene, a generic germ could literally kill you. I didn’t believe that in my front-matter, but it was there, lurking in my brain’s deep recesses, just like those germs lived in the grooves of the cutting board, like the leukemia killing my dad.

No one talked to me about Dad’s borrowed time, least of all Dad. However, I still remember the name of his first oncologist (Gaston) and knew what white blood cells were when I was still in grade school. After a phone call from the lab, my Mom would announce Dad’s white blood cell count.

Most of my memory of Dad was not of him sick. Most of the time, in the Chelan house he built almost entirely by himself, he was in remission. The reality of my ruddy, strong, tall, handsome father, enjoying gardening, working part-time at the apple packing plant, and water skiing and fishing with me, didn’t match with the also-true fact of him being terminal. How could both be true? Was I living in denial? At 61, I now ask myself whether it was living with his diagnosis or his death that took a greater toll on me.  

One summer day, when I was maybe 11, old enough not to be hiding under my covers, I took refuge there when hearing the soundscape of Dad’s allergic reaction to penicillin. He was on the floor, having convulsions, foaming at the mouth with anaphylactic shock. I heard Mom screaming his name, knew everything that was happening as she frantically tended to him and ordered an ambulance, heard the EMTs, heard Mom and my much-older brother talking. Then I heard the back door close. I was paralyzed. Mom eventually sent my brother back to fetch me. I remember him saying they thought I was asleep. Of course. Doesn’t everyone sleep through screaming?