Father Knows Something

By Sarah Tomlinson

The author’s father and grandmother in the eighties.

My father is making me a cup of green tea. A small moment for most daughters, but for me, it is momentous. As is simply sitting in the modest studio apartment, just north of Boston, which he rents with his Section 8 voucher — part of the disability assistance he receives from the government.

“Do you want something to eat, Sarah?” he asks.

Tall and broad-shouldered, he peers into his fridge. I’m at one of two chairs at his small kitchen table. His apartment is one room with a twin bed in the corner.

“I have some plums,” he says. “I got some grapes, but they were terrible. They put the nice grapes on the outside, and then, all the ones on the inside were rotten.”

“Thanks, but I’m okay,” I say, feeling guilty that he’s offering me what little he has, given his extremely limited income, when I live in a world of $12 glasses of wine and other indulgences, whether or not I can always afford them.

“I’m your father, Sarah, I can’t help but want to feed you.”

I don’t state the obvious: during my childhood, when the one thing I wanted more than anything else — more, even, than the Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse — was my dad, he didn’t even want to see me. My mom had left him and his compulsive gambling when I was two. Over the next dozen years, I only saw him about eight times, on those rare occasions when he borrowed one of the taxis he drove for work and made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston to mid-coast Maine, where I grew up with my mom and stepdad.

Now, it’s infinitely sweet to receive his care, but also confusing, and sometimes even frustrating and painful. Especially as, every time I visit my dad from my home in Los Angeles, I’m trying to assess how well he is taking care of himself. Although he is young — still in his late sixties — he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 and opted to forgo the traditional treatment methods of radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy, which were recommended by his general practitioner and would have been paid for by Medicaid.

His decision would have been difficult enough to accept, but my reaction was complicated by the fact that one of my best friends, just two years older than me and the mother of a young daughter, had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor several months before my dad’s diagnosis. She had since exhausted all of her treatment options and was trying to make peace with the fact that she’d done all she could. I desperately wanted to take the treatments my dad had snubbed and give them to my friend, even though I knew this defied the rules of the universe.

As an alternative to traditional care, my dad sought out a New York City-based doctor who’d cured his own prostate cancer. This option, thankfully, I could understand and support, because the doctor had tools for assessing my dad’s cancer and a highly specific regimen of supplements and herbs, which my dad would have to be on for the rest of his life, but had been shown to have positive affects on prostate cancer. The problem was Medicaid did not cover the treatment, and my dad could not afford it, so he halved his dosages.

And then, after dismissing the doctor as arrogant, my dad sought alternatives to the alternative on the Internet. He began taking several cheaper herbal supplements, and drinking medical grade hydrogen peroxide, while adopting an 80–20 diet, featuring 80 percent fruits and vegetables and minimal grains and fats.

Or at least my dad tried to do all of this. The problem was that he was always binging — at the track, or at the ice cream and cookie aisles of the grocery store — and then being forced to penitently begin his regimen from scratch all over again.

I was frustrated with my father for his laxness. We’d only been reunited twelve years earlier, when I was 25, and I didn’t want to lose him again. Especially when — from my perspective — he could have easily made choices that would have eradicated his cancer and made it more likely for him to enjoy a long, healthy life — and what did he know about treating cancer anyhow?

A few months after the visit with the fruit, my dad and I were on the phone. I’d gingerly brought the conversation around to the topic of my dad’s cancer treatment efforts. My experience was that if something wasn’t going well — in gambling, in life, in health — my dad opted not to mention it, and I was concerned that he hadn’t raised the subject himself. When pressed, he admitted to cheating on his diet and missing dosages of herbs. I tried to give him a pep talk.

“You don’t know what it’s like, Sarah,” he said. “You’re disciplined.”

“Only because I almost starved when I started out, so I had to write every day, and it became a habit,” I snapped before I could control myself.

I hadn’t meant to try to one-up my dad on the life’s-a-bitch-o-meter, but it irked me when he played the pity card. And then, as my dad continued to complain about how hard it was to stick to his diet, it dawned on me that most people resort to their vices as a way to cope with bad news, rather than give them up. Mid-divorce, or job search, or health scare is usually not the moment when your average person finally quits smoking or launches a successful diet. Quite the opposite. Of course my dad was cheating. He wanted to live. But he was scared, and he felt out of control. And food and gambling were how he’d salved his fears for the better part of his adult life.

I gained a new compassion for my dad, which was much different than my regular old love, and which grew into an acceptance of who he is — the same flawed but remarkably iconoclastic, curious, and aspirant person he’d always been. Of course that’s how he would face down his cancer, by being even more himself, not by becoming a person he’d never been before: disciplined and status quo.

Not long after that phone call, just as I’d accepted my dad for who he was, which helped me to finally forgive him, and love him unconditionally, the person he was began to change. Remarkably, he stuck to his diet — not one hundred percent, but enough that he lost a considerable amount of weight he’d wanted to take off for decades. Now, when he binged, it was on hummus and bread, rather than ice cream and cookies. And he mostly kept the weight off. He started walking — sometimes as much as twenty or thirty miles in a day. And with each of these new positive developments, the low self esteem and negativity he’d been plagued with his whole life began to reverse itself. Or, more accurately, he reversed it.

In the face of a dire diagnosis, he’d taken control of his health and helped himself to feel better, and maybe even slow the advance of his cancer. And in the glow of that success, which functioned on so many different levels in his life, I saw the wisdom of my dad’s decision and was finally at peace with it. Nearly four years after his original diagnosis, my dad is living with his cancer in a healthier and more vibrant way than he ever lived without it, and even with the diagnosis it took to get him there, I’m grateful. Father knows something after all.

Sarah Tomlinson is the author of the father-daughter memoir, Good Girl, out now in paperback from Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster).