The Biggest Mistake of My Life

It has taken me a decade to write this post. It has existed in my mind in one version or another since the day my father died. I could not think of a good forum for it, nor could I, for a long time, face the emotional upheaval that would accompany its writing.

My father, Lyle Harold Wall, died of prostate cancer in Parnay, France on December 29, 2004. I was due to see him on January 2nd 2005. On December 29th I was in my office, in San Diego, California. I was not where I needed to be. I was not where I wanted to be, and in hindsight I can say I was not where I should have been.

My father’s fight with cancer had been anything but mundane. The radiation therapy was uncomfortable. The hormone therapy stripped him of his masculinity. The alternative therapies he sought out were each more bizarre than the previous, and left him feeling helpless and in no better health. The cancer receded for a while, things even looked like they might return to normal, then it came back.

In the Summer of 2004 we left my father at home to attend my cousin’s wedding. My father was too tired to travel and wished to stay back and rest. When we returned we found him on the couch, his abdomen swollen as if he were pregnant — his bowel was dying, it was the beginning of the end.

It started with a colostomy bag, this was the first nail in his proverbial coffin; the blow to his ego, his sense of self and dignity was colossal. As we all adjusted to this invasion of his privacy and his big intestine I watched him become more and more withdrawn. I remember accidents, moments of extreme shame, that for the sake of his memory I will not go into. In August I left to start my post doctoral fellowship in San Diego, both relieved to no longer be privy to his daily misery, and excited to start a new phase of life.

In late October 2004 my mother called my brother and me, urging us to come back home. This was it, the cancer my father had been battling for the last 10 years had finally won. He had repeatedly been hospitalized, and was not getting any better. She and the doctors feared he would not survive for long. We responded to the call of duty and love, we took time off of work and our daily lives to travel back home to France. There my father lay in a hospital bed, frail, gray, angry, scared and dying.

We were so very fortunate to have an amazing oncologist, who had been trained in the U.S., was fluent in English, and understood the difference between American mentalities about health (the patient is king, and has the right to all knowledge about his condition) and the French ones (the doctor knows best, if you are terminally ill and they don’t think there is any use in telling you, they will not share the information with the patient or the family). He explained my father’s condition to us, and then he and my mother entrusted me with explaining it to my father.

My father did not want to die, he did not believe he was going to die, he was angry that he was dying. When he first found out his condition was terminal a year earlier, he didn’t tell us; refusing to accept the news himself.

In our family, I am the mediator, the therapist, the one who made people talk about the things that bothered them. I was also the go between when there were arguments. I was the one who said hard truths out loud. I tried to lived by one of my guiding principle — speak in truth.

I remember sitting by my father, who grumpily complained about the pain in his shoulder. I pointed out to him that the pain came from his cancer that had metastasized through-out his body. He bitterly rejected that explanation, and in the same moment, shut me down. This is something he had NEVER once done in his life.

My father and I had a special bond, one which was predicated on shared wonderment at the world, unconditional love, openness, mutual respect, and from the time I was a small child, an understanding that we were allies in this life. He never dismissed my ideas because I was a child, never shut down a theory, question or conversation. He was ever open to me, and I to him.

Over the next couple of weeks my brother and I went through the mounds of documents, files and papers that littered my father’s home office. We undertook the organizing that my mother felt overwhelmed by. We called banks, insurance companies, brokerage accounts. We had my father sign accounts over to my mother, did everything we could to minimize her distress and work once the inevitable came (there was no will). Through it all, my father grew angrier and more withdrawn. We were betraying him by not rejecting his death. Gone were the conversations, the love, the tenderness. All were replaced by pain (physical, emotional and mental), resentment and unyielding denial.

Fifteen days went by and I thought I had to go home. I thought I had to work, to honor the responsibilities to my fellowship. We all knew my father had at best a couple of months to live, but instead of staying put and spending the time with him I chose to do “the right thing”, the responsible thing and get back to my work, my patients and my employers. Because who on earth takes two and a half months off from their responsibilities to stay with their 76-year-old father who is dying of cancer? Me, that is who should have.

It would have put me back at least that many months to get licensed, it might have even cost me my fellowship (although with what I know now I don’t think I would have been fired), but it is exactly what I should have done for myself. The worst part, is that I knew it. Somewhere deep inside I knew that the responsible things to do, was not the right thing for me. I knew I needed to stay, not just for my father, but for myself.

By the time I saw my father again he was a corpse, mummified as it was, all skin and bones. In our last conversation he was delirious and hallucinating. I had to call my mother’s cell phone to have her take the home phone away from him. The last conversations I had with my father, was not the last conversation I wanted to have with him. Both when I left him at the hospital in November, and when I left him on the phone in December I spoke to a bitter man. One who would not let me tell him how much I loved him. A man who had long forgotten how amazing his life had been, how much he was cherished. All he saw was that we were giving up on him. All he felt was pain, anger and resentment.

I never really got to say goodbye to my father. I never got to let him know in his final moments how much he meant to me and how much I cared about him. We didn’t get to talk about all the things that I would miss having him share with my future children.

I try not to live with regrets. I try to make every failure, every loss, every moment an opportunity to grow and learn. To this day, however, going back to work and to my life in San Diego it is my single biggest regret. I left and went back to work. I didn’t stop to think of the cost of the choice I was making.

Despite the regret I have in fact learned the most valuable lesson of my life from this. It is fundamental to my work as a coach. It is the essence of Life in Focus and how I now live my life. I learned to slow down and really consider what I need, to stop procrastinating in life, and work towards those things. I learned to live my emotions fully, to take chances when I can. Most of all I understood that right is not always right for me, and at the end of the day that the latter is far more responsible of a choice.


Originally published at lifeinfocussd.com on July 27, 2015.