I know it was a Tuesday, but for some reason the date 26 September 2007, a Wednesday, sticks in my head. It doesn't matter which is right. That's the day I found out my dad has non-small cell lung cancer.
The emotions I felt that and the days immediately following were difficult to identify. There were pain and fear, to be sure, also other less son-like or familial feelings. There was anger (my dad's been smoking since his early teens and everyone, inlcuding him, knows full well the cause of his disease), admiration (the way my dad handled the news and discussion about his disease, treatment, future, etc., was so uncharacteristic of our past relationship it was actually a refreshing change), even relief (not related to the change in relationship, but something much darker and more selfish).
This news came early in the week preceding the annual salmon fishing trip with my dad (and occasionally my brother) in Benzonia. It was a sombre thing, preparing for this trip. Normally I'd be reserved and closed, ready to defend against any criticism or return any generic lashing out due to uncooperative hardware, physics, weather, etc., in kind. I typically become a different man when I'm with my dad out of habit and necessity. Due to the grave news of the week, however, this didn't happen. I was open and ready to help no matter how filthy the language or energy was that happened to be thrown my general direction. I was making an effort to remember that this man is my dying father, and it was damn near pathetic. I believed that this may be our last fishing trip together. It still may be.
Truth be told, it was refreshing and relieving to unchain myself from reactions to my father's life of ire. What I discovered was a fear beneath it, a very childlike fear. In my eagerness to spend such precious last weekends with him, I wanted to talk to him, to ask questions and hear answers, to learn who this man was who had raised me, or tried to as best he could. I made a very dramatic effort at discovery worthy of any Hollywood performance.
But I discovered something else, too. As we drove, despite my dad's frailty and sickness, he was still smoking at least one cigarette per hour (actually, a great improvement for him) and carelessly spewing his negative talk and occasional prejudices like nothing had changed. I was surprised, I was saddened. I was sobered.
What I'd discovered was that no matter how sick my dad gets, he is still the man I've known my whole life. He is still a mean old fucker when he wants to be. The news of the disease hadn't changed him the way it had changed me, and this was both disappointing (selfishness) and reassuring (stability).
Throughout the fishing weekend, his crotchetiness resurfaced in new expressions of father-son interaction. He practically called the National Guard when I failed to return from going to get food. He thought I meant McDonald's down the street when I'd actually gone to a local bar for a burger and beer, then scouting out the local bike trail. While visiting with his friends at another campsite the next night, we both had drinks, but he had the gall to criticize me for going back to party after I'd carried his drunk ass back to our camper. More than once, I had to remind him that I'm a grown man. By the time we drove home, I was content to read my book and settle for intermittent conversation between long bouts of silence.
So finally, I discovered something else: I must love my dad the way he is, no matter what. Whether he's sick or healthy, a saint or an asshole, he is who he is, and he's also my dad. True, he may be dying, and I must not waste any time, but to change who I am as a result of his cancer, or try to change who I think he is, would be to cheapen the relationship we've slowly built as grown men over the last handful of years.
I still do not know that much more about my father. I never got the stories about his Army days, or the girl in Panama he occasionally talks about, or the places he's lived, or his history with him mom and sister, or why he hasn't spoken to his own father in 30+ years, or the jobs he's had. But I do know much more about myself, and am much more accepting of who my dad is and what I do have with him. And for today, that will be enough.