How to be a good daughter when your father has cancer

By Melissa Fraterrigo

1. Fixate on his hair. He doesn’t want you, your brother or sister to visit, but you’re here because your mom has asked you to help her move the furniture. After seven weeks of chemotherapy and daily radiation, according to your mom, the rugs in their two-story house need to be cleaned. Still, after you’ve moved the furniture and your dad has offered a few comments and it doesn’t seem like he’s going to yell at you, sit next to him on the couch and tell him about your daughter who is away at camp.

Tell him about the fact it was 48 degrees that morning in Traverse City and she’s determined to be a part of the Polar Bear Club, where you jump into Lake Arbutus every day soon after rising. “Man,” he says, shaking his head, and you keep your eyes on his face, the white hair fluffed right above his glasses. From where you sit you can’t see the spots at the back of his head, the pink skin that’s been there for 78 years—well before you—and only now visible.

2. Talk about the good times. As kids, he used to take you, your brother and sister out on Cedar Lake on Saturday afternoons with a cooler of pop, a bag of pretzels, and four apples. When he shakes his head and says that was a long time ago, tap down your urge to say it wasn’t.

3. Don’t look at his clothes—the same shirt he was wearing last week or baggy sweatpants, the drawstring pulled tight. Don’t look at the divots in his cheeks, the hollowed-out eyes. When you see his hands trembling to open the door so he can go outside and wretch away from you, fill a glass of water or take a cherry from the fruit bowl and pop it into your mouth. Force yourself to chew, to taste the sweetness, to let the sweetness register as such. Try not to think about the step he had to take to get out of the house or the lip of the doorframe he must go over to set by himself in a lawn chair with his Ensure and a box of tissue. Spit the pit out in your hand. Unlike him, you can still taste. Still swallow. The pit a miniature stone in your palm.

4. Bring him things. A book of photographs from WWII, twelve years of your grandma’s Moose Lodge membership cards, her signature swimming along the bottom. He’s too weak to read, but you hope the sight of his own mother’s script moves something in him.

5. Don’t ask about the pain or weight loss or the scabbed-over burn on the right side of his neck where they’ve been radiating the tumor. As much as you want to know what he’s going through, for once, don’t ask. Instead, look at the framed pictures on the wall of your nieces and nephew, your own kids. Try to remember them in the turquoise dresses with the sketch of the Eiffel Tower along the bottom, standing in front of your brother’s house in Chicago on the day his daughters made their First Communion.

Your husband was working that day, so you drove up from Indiana by yourself with the girls buckled in their car seats along with books and snacks. On the way home they watched a movie and the candied soundtrack filled the car as the sun slunk low, the high rises receding in the distance, the silent hum of the car, the knowledge of their breathing, even though you couldn’t hear it from the driver’s seat, they were so little, their chests motoring up and down as they laughed along to the sound track ,and you took them home.

6. Tap down the urge to tell him you’re sorry, even through you are deeply sorry that this has happened to him. You don’t know why you’ve always felt responsible for his happiness, but you do. Maybe it has to do with the fact you can imagine how dreadful it was for him to lose his father at age 13 and for him to not know when his next meal might arrive. You don’t know how good you have it, he frequently said when you were a child. And even through he’s lived a long life, it doesn’t seem fair that he must undergo additional pain. If you were a churchgoer, perhaps you’d ask a priest: Why does God allow some to go through such pain? Even if there was a good answer, you’d block it out.

7. Resist the urge to tell him everything: that you used to steal dollar bills from the envelope in his underwear drawer so you could buy Fudgsicles for you and your sister at 7-11. When your sister tried out for the new dance teacher and the company mailed an application to your parents, you took that envelope and tore it into pieces, burying it beneath the coffee grounds in the garbage can. One time you were driving too fast in your old Subaru on a snowy road in Pennsylvania; you drove off the road, and as the car was careening off the highway, you thought of your grandmother’s face, your father’s mother, and believe she kept you safe.

8. Pull weeds, put the cans at the curb, set out the lawn chair sand cut their lawn. Your mother teaches you how to start the riding mower, but you have to learn the rest on your own. You like the jostled feeling of moving so high off the grass. The whole time, you know your dad is likely watching you from his armchair, if he’s still awake, which is unlikely. He naps all the time now. Tell yourself this is okay. Tell yourself he is healing. When you make perfect lines on the grass think of him telling you you’ve done a great job.

Melissa Fraterrigo teaches writing at Purdue University and is a mother to two in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her father is recovering from cancer. 

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter.