My dad died on September 29th, 2019; he had just turned 75 years old. A month prior he seemed fine. In the years preceding his death, he had some health complications. He needed to have a heart valve replaced, but prior to that surgery, they discovered he had lymph cancer and began chemo treatment. Fortunately he beat the cancer, had his heart surgery, and should have been on his way to his twilight years.
His family was a military family. My grandfather was a Naval Captain, he and his brother both went to Annapolis. He flew A-4s, A-6s, and A-7s in Vietnam. When I was going through his possessions after his death, I found several medals and commendations for his service, but I never knew much about his past. Truth be told, I really never knew much about him at all; he played his cards close to the vest and was often distant with me and I’m guessing my brother Paul as well.
In elementary school, he coached my YMCA basketball team and we shared a love of watching the Warriors on TV. However, as I got older, he became more distant. I was a pretty good runner in high school. Our cross-country team made the California state finals my junior year, and I was the number two runner on the team. I also ran track and qualified for several CCS final events, including the 400 and 800 meter runs. But he never attended any of my events. He had his interests, and I wasn’t one of them.
Last summer after his birthday in August, he started feeling drained of energy and had to make several trips to the emergency room. His blood platelet count was dangerously low and he had to receive platelet transfusions. They did a screening for cancer but didn’t find any noticeable tumors. The emergency room visits kept happening, and finally they did a bone marrow biopsy the second week of September.
The biopsy results take a week, so after a week I called to check in and see what the prognosis was. “How about you drive up here this weekend and we can talk about it.” I knew something was wrong, that he probably had cancer and wanted to tell me face to face.
I never heard my dad say he loved me. Ever. I never saw him cry, either, even when his own father died when I was 16. Maybe it was his family background with the military. Maybe there was something he secretly knew about me that prevented him from saying it. Maybe he just couldn’t experience the love for a son because he never had it with his dad. As I grew older, I felt more and more distant from my family. Not feeling loved is the worst feeling in the world, especially from a boy’s father. I grew emotionally distant and I’m still emotionally distant with a lot of people. It takes A LOT for me to open up to other people. If you’ve ever seen me cry, count yourself lucky.
I joined the Marines largely because of him. I had graduated high school and needed a kick in the ass to get me going, so why not pursue the family business? My dad was a Naval Reservist during my childhood, so I decided to join the Marine, Reserves for four years and possibly pursue a career as an officer. Needless to say my experience as an enlisted Marine soured me to a military career (there’s a reason two out of every three Marines never re-up after their initial contract is up), but it did give me the kick I needed to finish college and leave home. I think I was trying to make him proud of me more than actually wanting to serve.
I realized that I never heard my dad say he loved me years ago, and secretly wondered how much it changed my life and behavior. Not being able to cry freely because I can’t feel that emotional depth is weird. (One of the first times I’ve cried during a movie is at the end of Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner’s character is able to have a catch with his dad. It’s an intimate father-son moment that he thought he lost forever, and something I never experienced as a son). You constantly second-guess your self-worth and secretly wonder if other people like you, or are just putting up with you as I felt my dad may have been doing for me.
I never told him I loved him, either. Maybe there was an understanding; we both respected each other, but the emotional connection required for that kind of bond wasn’t there. I would always end our phone conversations with “Talk to you later.” I guess it was my “As you wish” to a dad I idolized but never felt that same pride from him.
As I drove up to see him the weekend he was going to tell me about his cancer, he had to call 911 and be taken to the hospital. He called me on the drive, but I was still over an hour away. He was feeling sluggish and void of energy, so I agreed to meet him and Mom at the hospital.
The doctors couldn’t diagnose him. His heart-rate and breathing were elevated, a sign of an infection, but they couldn’t find anything on the x-rays or other tests, except for possibly something in his lungs. They gave him everything, anti-fungals, anti-virals, anti-bacterials, nothing worked. He was dying, and I resolved to tell him that I loved him before it was too late.
A few days before his death, before he went into an induced coma with a breathing tube, I visited him one last time with my mom. He was conscious and in good spirits. One of the last things he said to my mom was “Aren’t we lucky to have two great kids that can take care of us like this?” with a smile on his face. I was still hoping he’d pull through at this point. I told him to keep fighting, that we’ll take care of mom, and that I loved him. He said “I love you, too” in a flippant way, but I felt somewhat vindicated or relieved. To hear him say that allowed me to let him go. I knew that I had a peace with his passing, which happened a few days later. (In the end, we discovered he had pneumonia, but because his immune system was so compromised by the bone marrow cancer, his body couldn’t fight off the infection, which led to septic shock).
I don’t have kids, and I’d probably be a terrible father since I’m so emotionally distant and aloof most of the time. It’s just how I learned to cope with growing up in a home where there was an absence of any emotion. But I think the thing I learned with my dad is that in the end, he did love me in his own way.
Love is foundational for human relationships. We all want to love and be loved. I especially want to feel loved. Hearing the words is one thing, experiencing the genuine emotion of love, being totally vulnerable and accepted, is another. I hope we all are able to find people in our lives that can love us with all our flaws.