Remembering my father
I lost my dad to cancer six years ago tomorrow. And it’s been a weird six years. Five of them have been spent working in politics with late October being the worst possible time to mourn, much less heal in any real way. Five years working for candidates that, had they been elected earlier, might have even helped my father and my family. Noble causes they may have been, this is the first anniversary that I haven’t been moody for weeks, haven’t had a pit of anger boiling over in my stomach, and haven’t needlessly lashed out at the people around me. Maybe it’s time, plain and simple, but maybe it’s the distance I now have from that part of my life altogether. Championing health care reform and the politicians that support it in honor of my father has been… exhausting. And has kept those painful memories raw for a really long time.
My dad had been sick my entire life. We went through tumors on the heart, skin cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer before it metastasized. My high school years were filled with uncertaintanty and unfavorable predictions from the doctors. My college years were the same. The end was horrible and slow. The reality that you could work hard your whole life, do the right things, and simply hit a liftetime insurance limit will affect my political views forever, but the reality is that he also would not have lived another twenty years had Barack Obama been elected sooner or health care been reformed quicker. And I need to forgive myself for whatever crazy notion I’ve been holding onto that I should have worked harder.
In 2009, before health care reform was passed and as I watched my father quit chemo and prepare to die, I wrote a scathing letter to the President. I had just spent a year devoting every waking moment to his election. How could my father still be failed by the system? How could the President not work harder to get the public option- to make the proposed law as strong as it possibly could be for people like my father?
His reply letter arrived a few weeks after my father had passed. And it was very human. He was doing everything he could. But yeah, good people are failed by this system. And the final law isn’t perfect. Good people will still be failed. But every good intention was being put forward to do everything he could.
My family and I have had an unconventional relationship since my high school years. A fundamental difference in opinion on pragmatism and what exactly were realistic goals saw us estranged during my senior year of high school. I lived with another family for a time, my teacher’s family, and we had epic blow outs over college plans. It took many years for me to understand that my parents did always want the best for me, and saw their actions as sparing me the heartache that so often comes from aiming too high with no backup plan. I’ll admit, I wasn’t practical at all, and had the most unrealistic of goals for a meager girl in a trailer park. But the Ayn Rand junkie in me saw the logic in every piece of ivy league correspondance, every meeting arranged, every 5 in an AP course, every impressive ACT and SAT score as proof that I could aim that high- that I was immune from pragmatism in a way. I could afford to not have the (perhaps overly cautious) backup plan they desired with community college applications. And I rejected their attempts to ground me whole heartedly. In the end it was a tragic mix of young hardheadedness, a (naively principaled) refusal to placate them even a little, and the miscommunicated frustration of my parents. It didn’t help the situation that I was right in the end, at least on face value.
This background made my father’s impending death even more difficult to comes to terms with for a 24 year old, who was just coming back into the realtionship when he took a turn for the worst. I felt the pressure from my friends and my teacher’s family (who I was still periodically living with), and everyone around me, to not only appropriately deal with his passing at a young age, but also somehow make peace with a broken relationship I did not yet even have the maturity and time to have fully processed before it was too late.
Everyone jumps to tell you to let go of the past, to make peace, to forgive, in those difficult times. But it’s not a switch. And even if you have every good intention and try to do so, without time and a real understanding of the dynamics and what happened in the relationship, you can’t just magically come to that understanding. Though it may feel good in the very short term to think you did.
It took me a long time to understand what had really happened between my parents and I back in high school. And I had to grow up a bit and experience the world before I could get there. I never did have that “moment” that people say you should have. The moment where you forgive fully and let go of the past and have that mutual understanding that you are both healed. My father was in hospice care at my childhood home and had lost the ability to communicate while I continued to grapple with what I need to say or feel to make it all right.
There was a clarifying moment for me in those days as we waited for him to fully leave us, that I realized that any understanding at that point would be only for me. And as much as I wanted to be there, I wasn’t. I was still so angry, so hurt, that my father never seemed to believe the best in me. That when Harvard reached out to arrange a face to face back in 2004 he refused to drive me and said I was only being silly with my dreams. The sentiment could have been better communicated, certainly, but all this heartache simply because a father feared so much to see his daughter crushed by the societal and economic circumstances that he felt helpless to improve. My father was a blue collar worker who followed every doctrine of the so-called American dream, but he also knew he would never be a father who could afford even a little bit to send his daughter to Harvard.
But with time has come that understanding. Perhaps it’s all the more tragic that I do understand it all now. But that time has also made the grief more bearable each year. I didn’t have the chance to say what needed to be said back then, but I get it now. And this year, for the first time, I can look back without the anger and guilt that has consumed me on each anniversary of his passing.
This year I remember the good times.