I remember the last time I saw my grandfather. He was lying in a hospital bed. Cold and hot simultaneously. The flimsy hospital gown betrayed him. He was too weak to cover his nakedness as his family entered the room. I was shocked at how frail he appeared. He was about to die and this terrible secret was not a secret to anyone-not his daughters, not his son-in-law, not even his eight year old grandchild. How painful it has been to retain that vision of that once strong man defeated by cancer as my most dominant picture of my grandfather. It is a memory that I cannot shake.
My father is sixty-eight years old; about the same age as my grandfather was when he died. Dad is also in the final lap of a race that he cannot win. His cancer has overtaken him and the checkered flag is about to be waved. Alissa and I will fly in this Friday, July 22nd, for one final visit.
This isn’t our first final visit. A week before Jenny’s Bat Mitzvah in April we made the long drive to the east coast. Not only was it doubtful that he would be able to attend the service, there was a question as to whether he would even be alive. Somehow he recovered and flew in with my mother and brother, Rob.
I guess the first final visit was in March of 1989. The doctors had found lung cancer. Surgery was required. They rushed him in and removed one of his ribs on the way to taking the top third of his right lung. Over the years I have been there for the removal of his spleen, his duels with Chemo and Radiation, and other assorted hospital pit stops. Each time the doctors are successful at keeping my father alive. Each time the doctors fail more miserably at retaining my father’s life.
My father completely understood his role as provider/head of household. He went to work. He came home. There were no stops in between. His job was to earn a living. His perks were dinner when he returned each evening, a clean home, and a minimal amount of hassle. His duties included cooking breakfast on Sundays, occasionally disciplining the children, and one week of vacation each summer whether he needed it or not.
My father led an orderly life. He wore crisply starched long-sleeve white shirts under his suit jacket each day to work. On Sundays he wore crisply starched short sleeve white shirts around the house. I must have been ten or twelve before I ever saw him wear a sport shirt. For years he ate the same breakfast (coffee and Special K), sent out daily for a sandwich from the same restaurant, and in every way imaginable repeated the same patterns at work and at home.
It was always a special treat for me to visit my father at work. Because it was at work, behind a diamond counter, that Jerry Cunix came alive. He was a delight to watch. Joking, smoking his little unfiltered Pall-Malls, slowly taking the couple in front of him to the sale he wanted to make. He once sold one of his customers a refrigerator. After the sale was completed, he ran down the street to a wholesaler, ordered the unit and arranged for its delivery! Every day was a new performance.
The performance stopped suddenly after the lung surgery. The man who expected to be carried out of his store was too weak to work. He was unable to spend thirty to thirty-five hours per week in a retail store, much less the fort-eight to fifty-five hours he was so accustomed to.
Each surgery, each succeeding discovery of another cancer, followed by another treatment, robbed him further of his strength. For a while he could work twenty-five hours and then it was only twenty. Soon he was limited to sixteen. There were weeks when he could not leave the house or hospital. The economy intervened. Jerry Cunix became a luxury that no retailer could afford. Yes, he could sell, but he couldn’t put in enough time to make a difference.
Now there are no more performances. There is just an old man who used to be 5’11 ½” but now appears to be no taller than 5’8”. A thin man whose body has served as the battlefield in the war between cancer and modern medicine. In a short while a new battlefield will be found and this one will be laid to rest.
I am not bringing my children with me this Friday. The picture that they will carry in their minds for years to come will not be of a frail old man moments from death. It is not fair to them to do that. It would no be fair to do that to my father.