Facing death is challenging regardless of how it comes. Humans, as the only creatures aware of their mortality, deal not at all well with death. Impending death, malingering death, looming death, recent death, distant death. I’m sure that there are anthropological examples to upend my theory, but in general we don’t tend to speak honestly and openly about death. And I wonder if that’s because each death, like each life, deserves something different from us.
Humans don’t seem to appreciate knowing we’re going to die, don’t appear to relish not knowing when, and seem rather frustrated at having a very, VERY clear sense that there is no rhyme or reason to who dies or when. The last fact—good people sometimes die horribly and too early while awful people sometimes die peacefully after inflicting the world with their nastiness for far too long—galls me.
Someone I love has Stage IV cancer. Someone I think I hate has Stage IV cancer. I’m not at all proud at how differently I’m handling their concurrent cancers, and yet we are all different in life, so I feel rather abashedly willing to scale my sorrow for the end of lives that actually add to the Universe’s limited quantity of love, rather than hoarding affection and refusing to share. I celebrate the lives of fair and decent and good people, and I petulantly sneer at the death of grotesque and mean and small people.
Is that something that I can even admit? Is that something that I should feel shame for?
A very close friend was abandoned by his father and grandparents when he was young. Starting in middle school, my friend never got a phone call from his father. Never received a birthday card. His dad was too busy with the second family he’d set up across town to bother with his old life. And my friend lived his entire adult life sure his father didn’t care.
Now, facing the news of his father’s impending death, my friend is wondering if he should call. Or visit. Or somehow try to repair the damage done. Somehow, I think, he hoped all these years that his dad would show up on his doorstep, with a giant teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers, begging forgiveness. “Please. I’m so sorry. I was so wrong. I miss you and I love you and you didn’t deserve to be abandoned.” Because he didn’t deserve to be abandoned. And friends and family tell my friend that he is loved and he is lovable.
But because his father never showed that, I suspect my wonderful friend doesn’t really accept that he’s loved.
Hearing about Stage IV cancer changes the dreams of apologies and reconciliation. That day of spontaneous forgiveness, of weeping together and embracing and swearing that you’ll make up for lost time? Doesn’t happen according to plan. And once my darling friend heard his dad was in hospice and unresponsive? The healing moment became impossible. Asking, “why did you choose another family over me? Do you know what that did to me? Did you ever love me? Why not?” Not in the cards anymore.
And that’s a whole different kind of grieving. That’s desperately missing someone whom you have already missed for decades. That’s anger and fear and sadness rolled into the pit of your stomach where you think you’re not allowed to swallow. That’s heavy-drinking and rage grief.
And I’m so sorry. For my friend. Not for his jerk of a father.
I feel, at moments, dreadful for not caring that the callous, heartless jerk is dying. Isn’t that terrible to say? In our culture we’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead or dying, are we…we’re not allowed to cast aspersions on those who selfishly hurt our friends and family because somehow Stage IV means unassailable. Saying you hate someone who’s dying is somehow judged as mean or heartless.
That’s not fair. Because some people don’t deserve to be mourned as soulfully as others do. Which is more heartless: abandoning your kids so they forever think they’re unlovable? Or despising someone who abandoned their child? I think in our culture some people think that the rules change when someone has cancer.
I have another friend living with Stage IV cancer. A good and true and kind friend who goes out of his way for others. He makes people feel at home even when they’re relatively unknown to him. This friend who loves deeply and selflessly, who speaks ill only of those who malign him horribly yet quickly forgives if they offer even the slightest apology—his is the cancer I care about. His cancer I hate. His cancer I want to fight. This is where I put my effort, my grief, my love. I refuse to share that effort, grief, or love with the absentee father.
Don’t get me wrong…I’m supporting the friend with the dying, never-there dad. I’m listening and hugging and nodding empathetically. But I’m thinking terrible things, like how the rat doesn’t deserve a son who still actually cares, after decades of neglect and heartbreak. How he already abandoned children, so it doesn’t much matter whether he’s dead or not.
I’m also supporting the wonderful friend who puts his kids first. Who tells them every day that they’re loved; who has fought cancer for three-and-a-half years facing the scary and the toxic and the uplifting and the devastating with his children and his wife clearly in his adoring focus. Who deserves, if we ever had the folly of pretending that humans get what they deserve, a life as long as he would want.
One man, who might have loved his children but never told them or showed them or even called them, left his family years ago. And cancer will end his life.
Another man, who desperately loves his children and makes them know it constantly, will some day leave his family because cancer will end his life.
I mourn for the dying dad and I mourn for the wounded children. All of them. But I will not mourn for someone just because they’re dying. Life is much more nuanced than that.