I attended my dad’s funeral in March 1993. We had not spoken for a few years. My mom called me out of the blue and said, “David…I have been waiting a few weeks trying to figure out how to tell you this. Your father is in the hospital and he’s been told he has two weeks to live.” She thought I should know this in case I wanted to see him before he passed. I did not. After a week or so, I finally decided to visit him.
His life had proceeded since we last saw each other, and I was on a completely different path. While my brothers had updated me on some of our dad’s activities, I had lost all contact and interest in his life. He was still in the hospital when I decided to see him. I thought about how our meeting might go, with him on his death bed and us not speaking or seeing each other for several years. What would we talk about…the weather? I was angry with him. Dying would not change this. The more I thought about all of these things, the less likely it was that I would go to his hospital room.
To me, he was a horrible person and father. The things he did to me and to my family were unforgivable. At some point in my young life, I promised myself that when I got big enough, old enough or whatever it took, I would never allow anyone to ever harm me. If I did go to see him, it would be brief and on my own terms.
On my way up the hospital’s elevator, it took all of my power to walk out and toward his room. He was trying to die and I was trying for a re-birth. Why would I want to mess up this natural process? We were both men who had made our life choices. He had his chance, and to me, he wasted his life. I was determined not to do the same. My steps towards his death room were steps back in time. The sick feeling in my stomach and the overwhelming fear that was washing over me were the same feelings that happened every time his car pulled into our home’s driveway. I relived the fear of not knowing what condition he would be in lying in his hospital bed just like I did as a kid as he stepped out of his car.
I let it be known to my mom what day and time I would see him so that news would get to him. Neither of us needed any more surprises. When I finally entered his room, he looked at me and said, “Hey…it’s David, come on in, son.” He was in a typical hospital bed with the back tilted up. It seemed the only thing he was connected to was a heart monitor. He had aged in the two plus years since I had seen him last. His hair was mostly gray and his face looked like a layer of skin over bone. His cheeks were sunken in and his eyes were wide open. White sheets covered his large belly, but his exposed shoulders and arms were noticeably thin. His little finger on his left hand was totally black and his ring finger was black from the tip to the second knuckle.
The only other person in the room was an older lady. He introduced her as his girlfriend, but I did not catch her name. She looked like every other girlfriend he had since divorcing my mom. We were still and hushed as our eyes tried to take in two absent years. The window in the back of the room had a few cards sitting in the seal. There were a couple of vases with flowers sitting on the night stand next to his bed. Finally, his girlfriend said, “Well…I am going to leave you two alone for a while.” This sent a pulse of panic through me. There were no buffers between my dad and me now. I just nodded as she walked past and out the door.
As I looked back at my dad, he raised his cancerous black hand and said, “They say I have cancer.” We both looked at his rotting hand. “This cancer is not from drinking and smoking,” he said. “Some people just get cancer.” I know this statement’s purpose. It was a self-lie. It was a lie to protect the mind from the brutal, cruel truth of a life spent addictively smoking and drinking. I was not there to expose the truth to him, but to myself. I saw the truth.
He asked me to sit down in the lounge chair next to his bed. I felt better standing just inside the doorway, but slowly made my way to sit down.
“I hear many things about what you are doing and I am proud of you,” he said. He paused, then continued, “I have wanted to tell you and your brothers how sorry I am for the way I have treated you all. There have been thousands of times I wanted to say sorry, but I never could. When people drink alcohol they do things they don’t mean to do and say things they don’t mean to say.”
As much as I wanted not to cry, I could not hold back. I tried to hold it back by rubbing my face with my hands. I was close enough were he could touch me with his black hand. He was patting me on the shoulder saying, “Don’t cry son, please don’t cry. You’re going to be ok, you’re doing good.”
I quickly composed myself, stood and let him know I needed to leave. I leaned down, we hugged, and I walked back to the elevator and back outside. The sun was out, but it was raining lightly. It was March, spring time in Louisville. The trees and flowers were out. There was new life all around me. My life was new. My dad died March 3, 1993, a couple days after our visit. I did not see him again until he was in his casket at the funeral home. His suit covered his boney chest and arms. His black fingers were pink again.
At the funeral home, my oldest brother told me that dad said he was going to leave me $100 but didn’t because I did not return to visit him again. In my mind I wanted to say, “Fuck him and his $100,” but I didn’t. I moved on. Everyone who cared about me said I should be respectful, stay close to the casket and support folks who came up to see him. I followed those directions. I was somewhat shocked when I overheard some of the conversations between the people who came around his casket. Some of the folks who had considered my dad an alcoholic and didn’t have too many good things to say while he was alive now had a different attitude. I heard them say things like, “Poor Buzzy, it is sad cancer took him. He was a good man. He never met a stranger. Cancer is a terrible thing.” When he was alive and an alcoholic, he was a bad person. Cancer and death cured his badness. People did not feel sorry for him when he was suffering from alcoholism. They saw him as a terrible human being, just like I did. The disease of alcoholism causes no one to feel sorry. It causes harm and leaves a path of destruction. Trying to clean up this mess in the last two weeks of life is pointless. I was not going to follow this path. I did not want to be a bad person trying, at the end of my life, with two-weeks remaining, to become good again.
I admitted I was sick. I have an illness and it is called alcoholism. I did not want to be in a hospital bed with a black hand and heart, explaining to one of my kids that my behaviors were in no way connected to my health. Behavior and health are inseparable. Honesty is also connected with health. Untreated alcoholism (e.g., harmful behaviors, lying, etc.) is worse than cancer. Cancer allows for some level of sympathy.