The Day My Father Asked if It Was Time to Let Go

It seemed impossible to answer, but I knew that he only wanted my honesty

Barbara Becker
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

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Around the time of my wedding, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It had been detected early and handled quickly. By all medical estimations, he would die of something else long before prostate cancer would ever reappear and become an issue again.

Now, well into his eighties, he had a routine test of his PSA levels, and his urologist discovered that his numbers had shot back up. He was also experiencing severe back pain. My mother called, sounding uncharacteristically rattled.

“I don’t want to talk too loudly, or I’ll wake up your father,” she whispered into the phone. “He’s not doing well. He cries out in pain all night long. Next week his doctor wants to do a bone scan to see if the cancer spread.”

I offered to take my father to his appointment.

At six-thirty in the morning, at the hospital where my father had worked for most of his career, I filled out the paperwork for tests that would take a good portion of the day. A young technician injected a small amount of radioactive tracers into my father’s left arm and told us we would need to wait while the solution traveled to his spine, allowing them to capture a reliable image of what was going on. We should be back for the bone scan in three hours.

When the three hours had passed, Dad and I went back upstairs to the still-crowded waiting room and sat in the hard leatherette seats. After a few minutes, the technician called Dad’s name. He helped my father walk across the room and suggested I remain in the waiting room. I absently watched the television broadcast of continuous news clips.

After about thirty minutes, my father reemerged. He seemed distant, as if he had fallen asleep during the procedure.

“Your doctor will call you next week with the results,” the technician said, patting Dad on the back. I scanned the technician’s face, looking for a hint as to what he found, but could tell nothing.

Back in the car, I buckled my father into the passenger seat and then drove out of the parking lot and through the neighborhoods adjoining my childhood home. I remembered him telling me as a kid what it was like to head home after finishing a long surgery. “I’d smell fresh-cut grass and barbecues and hear children playing, and it would make me so happy to be coming home to our family.”

“You know,” Dad said finally, breaking the reverie, “I can’t read words anymore. I know that. But I still know how to read a scan of the spine.”

“So you were watching when he did the procedure?”

He nodded and looked out the window. “The news is not good. There are spots up and down my spine. But don’t tell the lady of the house, please. It would really upset her.”

I bit my lip to keep it from trembling. I wanted the roles to be reversed again, to pull the car over and be wrapped in his arms, seeking reassurance. Finally, I glanced over at him. “Okay, Dad,” I said. “It will be between us for now.”

I knew my mom would learn the news of the metastases in a few days, but somehow keeping his secret felt like the surest way to honor him. And I didn’t know how many more opportunities I’d have like that.

Eight months later, it was my mother who was in the hospital for a pacemaker. It was a procedure that is, in most cases, relatively straightforward. But the one-hour surgery had turned into five hours, and in the process, her lung partially collapsed. It would take a few more days for her to recover.

I returned to my childhood home to stay with my father. To cook, to put in his eye drops three times a day. To bathe him, and to help him to bed. I even brought along the copy of Walden he had given me years before, thinking he’d like to hear it as he went to sleep. He wasn’t interested.

Instead, I read him the children’s book Robin Hood that my mother kept in a bookcase for her grandchildren, slowly turning the pages and showing him the pictures. He seemed particularly amused by the Disney version of the bumbling Sheriff of Nottingham.

One morning before breakfast, the short window of time each day when his mind was at its clearest, he turned to me from his seat on the couch and asked, “When’s my birthday?”

His frame looked small under his red-and-white crocheted blanket, but his eyes were alert and fixed intently on mine.

“You’ll be eighty-eight this summer,” I told him.

He raised his eyebrows, as if surprised by the number, then paused to formulate his next words. “I’ll try to make it till then, and then I’ll slip away.”

My breath froze mid-inhalation. I thought I should hug my father but stopped myself, knowing it would cut short the conversation about dying he seemed open to having right then and there. I sat down next to him and fought to compose myself.

“Dad, you’ve lived such a long and meaningful life, and you’ve touched so many people. You can feel great about that,” I began. “You’ll know when the time is right to let go.”

“But do you think it’s right?” he asked.

I noticed my lower lip quivering once again and bit it gently. How does a daughter who loves her dad answer a question like this? I knew that he was asking for nothing but my honesty.

“Yes, Dad,” I replied finally. “I think the time is about right.”

Those may have been the hardest words I ever uttered. I was surprised that I had held it together and felt a quiet relief in having spoken the truth.

Later that day, as I was unloading groceries from the trunk of the car, I noticed that I had bought my father V8 Original instead of the Low Sodium. Only then did I lose it. I leaned against my car and sobbed uncontrollably over buying the wrong stupid V8.

Maybe we’re not all destined to care for our parents’ ailing bodies. Maybe we won’t ever be called upon to answer their hardest questions. But I think we could all use V8 moments sometimes — moments when the small things become stand-ins for the larger ones, allowing the pain to begin its slow and inexorable release.

EXCERPTED FROM HEARTWOOD. COPYRIGHT © 2021 BY BARBARA BECKER. EXCERPTED BY PERMISSION OF FLATIRON BOOKS, A DIVISION OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS EXCERPT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.

Barbara Becker is a writer and ordained interfaith minister who has dedicated more than twenty-five years to partnering with human-rights advocates around the world in pursuit of peace and inter-religious understanding. She has worked with the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and she has participated in a delegation of Zen Peacemakers and Lakota elders in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. She has sat with hundreds of people at the end of their lives and views each as a teacher.

Barbara speaks on a wide range of topics, including deepening our sense of meaning and spirituality and mid-career pivots. She lives in New York City with her interfaith family.

This essay is part of our Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve column.

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Barbara Becker
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

Barbara Becker is the author of “Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End on Mind” http://barbarabecker.com/