A couple of years ago, I was involved with a guy whose dad had just been diagnosed with liver and colon cancer. In honor of the family’s privacy, I will refer to this guy as “Dan.”
Dan’s dad had part of his colon removed a couple of weeks before I met him. The day I was taken to meet the parents, I was unaware of the seriousness of Dan’s father’s situation. Furthermore, I was unaware of the dynamics of Dan’s clan.
Living on a mountain outside of the Chattanooga area their entire lives, Dan and his family were what some would call country, to put it nicely. Others may go so far as to refer to them backwards or hicks. These are not nice words.
Now, I wish to make it clear that Dan and his family were not formally educated, but for the most part, they were intelligent people. They worked hard and had strong family ties and values. This was the element that drew me in the first place.
So, I went to meet the family. Walking into that tiny kitchen and living room, I felt as though I were a mobile exhibit on display, like from Ripley’s Believe it or Not or the freaky woman at the circus that had come to town.
Dan’s dad, whom I will refer to as Hank, was cordial enough. He wore his best plaid shirt, buttoned up over his white tee, both tucked into a fresh pair of Dickie’s. His dark mane of hair was slicked back and he had shaved. Hank greeted me with a handshake and a huge smile. His hands were nearly the size of my old softball glove, and just as leathery, making my relatively long fingers look diminutive in his enormous grasp. He was a big man at one time, who stood six feet, two inches. He had kind brown eyes.
Dan’s best friend and his wife and daughter were there as well. Their little girl was five years old. I will refer to them as Scott, Pam and Bella, respectively. Bella and I hit it off immediately, and before long I was talking to her about my guitar, my kids, my puppy and kitty cat, her curly brown hair, her favorite foods and her movie collection. I’m telling you, Bella and me—we clicked.
Now, Dan’s mom and brother were a different story.
I could not help but perceive his brother, referred here as Kevin, as shifty. I had to keep my eye on him. My high sensibilities felt, and I learned later on that they were spot-on, that Kevin was out for only one person: himself. He was there under pretense of visiting his sick dad and meeting his big brother’s new gal, but he wanted to know who his competition was going to be when dad went on to glory.
Dan’s mother, we will call her Mable—well, let’s just say that Jung, Maslow and Freud would have had their hands full with that woman. She stood only about four feet and ten inches and could not have weighed more than ninety pounds soaking wet, but she was the formidable force in that home. I saw it right away. She thought she hid it under a guise of sweet hospitality and endearing ignorance. I knew better.
Dan’s mom and dad lived in a tiny house on a small tract of land. It used to be larger, but Hank sold most of it off when he had lung cancer ten years before and could not physically keep up with the work required to keep his land up and bale the hay.
The eldest of two boys, Dan was the protector of his small domain. After his father became ill, he took on the responsibility of patriarch. Mabel depended upon him at every turn, to help her read and understand all correspondence from medical providers, pharmacies, insurance companies, legal documents, social security, bills—you name it.
After Dan’s dad had the colon surgery, the doctor told him that he must undergo radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate the liver cancer. Hank refused and so he went home. Home health was ordered and a nurse was sent to speak with Mabel about his care.
Mable soon came to rely upon me for help with medication tracking and dispensing, understanding much of what the nurse was telling her about Hank’s care, and so forth. Dan also informed her that I knew a lot about insurance and social security, so she picked my brain like a hen pecks at feed. She was always very kind to me, but I could see something sinister and mean beneath her mask. I pretended not to see it and said nothing to anyone, but I knew it was there.
Dan had to go over there late one evening to fix the television because she pushed a button on the remote and lost her picture. Dan had just changed cable service for his parents and added them onto his account, and she was unable to navigate the remote control.
What was more interesting about that incident, I noticed, was that Kevin was there and could not figure it out, either. Hank, by this time, was usually asleep, or had so much pain medication in his system, he was unable to help. He slept on a hospital bed in the living room and had to wear a cannula for oxygen twenty-four hours a day.
One bitterly cold January day, Hank had an appointment with his oncologist at Erlanger. Mable asked me if I would accompany her, with her sister and brother-in-law, to take Hank to the doctor. She said, with a syrupy-sweet voice and as much southern twang she could slather on her words, “Kim, I know you will understand what the doctor says better than us, so will you go and help us cipher what he says?”
Of course, I said I would go. How could I have refused?
Dan had to work, so I drove over to Hank and Mabel’s and met the entourage there, and off we went to Chattanooga.
After waiting an interminable hour and fifteen minutes, Hank was taken back to an exam room. All five of us squeezed in, Hank on the exam table and the rest of us gathered around him.
The doctor came in, and with some surprise at the amount of people in the room, began to dispense his medical advice with great efficiency.
He looked at Hank with a kindness he had to have been born with and said, “You know that since you declined the radiation and chemotherapy for the cancer in your liver, the cancer has spread. That’s why your side hurts, Mr. Edwards.”
The doctor looked around the room and searched our faces. Mabel held a small hand to her mouth then removed it and asked him, “Will he get over it soon, doctor? He’s gonna be okay ain’t he?”
The only two people in that room who were astonished at this question were the doctor and me. We exchanged knowing looks, and he turned to Mrs. Edwards and kindly said, “No, ma’am. I think you need to get hospice in your home right away.” Then he turned to me and said, “Can you help with that?”
I nodded. My mouth was dry and I felt like I was suffocating in the tiny room. I knew before we had arrived for that appointment that Hank was not going to “get over it” but I was shocked to realize that the rest of them actually believed he would.
The drive home was somber and, for me, excruciating. We finally arrived to Hank and Mabel’s home. I helped get him settled back into his hospital bed and dutifully offered Mabel my services any time she needed me.
As I drove to Dan’s, he called me from work. He asked how the appointment went. I hesitated before I answered, “It’s not good.”
“Well, he’s gonna come out of this, right? What did the doctor say?” He asked me in desperation.
I knew he wanted me to say, “Yes, your dad will be fine. Just as with a bout of pneumonia, or the flu, he can rest and eventually will be back to his normal, healthy self in no time.” I also knew I could not say this.
Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Dan, your dad is dying. The cancer has spread from his liver to the rest of his body and in his lymph nodes. It’s only a matter of weeks now.”
My ears pounded as he sighed and said, “Okay” and got off the phone.
The next morning, Dan was home from work and he sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in his hands, staring inexplicably at the linoleum by his feet. I tip-toed to the coffee pot and poured a cup, then turned around and leaned on the counter. There were no words.
Later that afternoon, he was getting ready for work and he asked me, “Are you sure there’s nothing that can be done for Daddy?”
Incredulous, I looked at Dan and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m only telling you what the oncologist said. Since your dad refused treatment, the cancer spread very quickly. Now it’s beyond treatment because it’s in his lymph nodes and even in his bone marrow.” I stopped for a second, watching his face. He was confused, and determined to find a silver lining. I spoke again, “I’m so sorry.”
Dan shot a look of menace at me, matching the sinister side I saw beneath his mother’s sweet mask the first day I met her. Shocked by his glare, I physically took a few steps back. He stomped out of the house.
A couple of weeks later, I was staying at Hank and Mabel’s as Mabel was having a hard time sleeping, with Hank being up and down in the night. One afternoon, I sat with him in the living room. I had my guitar and I was strumming absent-mindedly when he asked me, “Hey girl, you know any hymns?”
“Well,” I replied, blushing, “I don’t know a lot about playing. I just got this about a year ago and I’ve been teaching myself. What song do you have in mind?”
He grinned and said, “Farther Along. You know that song?”
Grinning in return, I said, “Yes, sir. I know that one by heart.” Then I began to play and sing for him.
Farther along we’ll
Know all about it
Father along we’ll
Cheer up my brothers
Live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it
All by and by.
As I finished the song, Hank was lying back on his pillows, staring up at the ceiling. He turned his head to look at me, and I knew I would not see him alive again after this day. I stood up and put my hand over his and said, “Get some rest. I’ll see you in a while.”
Hank smiled up at me and patted my hand, “I’ll see you in a while, girl. You’re a good girl. Love you.”
Though sad, I left with a peace in my heart for Hank because I knew his suffering would soon end. I also harbored the knowledge that Hank’s death would change everything. Once he was gone, I would be, too.
The next morning as Dan sat at the table after he got home from work, his phone rang. It was Kevin, telling him that their Daddy had passed away just a few minutes before.
I tried to console him, but he pushed me away.
Within minutes we were at his parent’s home. Hank’s lifeless body was lying on his hospital bed with his family surrounding him, as they waited for the hospice nurse and the funeral director to arrive, as well as the pastor of the local church. I stood back, against the wall, and watched as the family grieved Hank’s departure.
When everyone had arrived, the pastor said a prayer for the family. Hank was moved from the bed to a gurney and transported to the funeral home.
The day of his funeral and graveside service, there was snow and ice in the area. My aunt and uncle, and best friend Donna, were all going to come to the funeral. However, the weather kept them at home. I had to go without any of my support system to the funeral of a man I had only known a few weeks. In addition, I had to go sit up front with Dan and Mabel, both of whom had turned a cold eye toward me.
Dan’s ex-wife—excuse me, his wife—I learned after my arrival they were still technically married, was on the other side of Mabel when I made my way to the front pew. I looked at Dan and he glared at me. Shrinking back, I turned around and made my way to the back of the chapel and found an empty spot on the last pew.
After the service, the mourning continued as everyone made their way on snowy and icy roads to the cemetery. I watched as they lowered Dan’s casket into the ground while a bitter wind blew from the north.
After the graveside service, Dan went to a group of people standing apart from the others and began to chat with all of them. His son, daughter, his brother Kevin, and his wife and his wife’s sister all commiserated and comforted one another. I watched from my position by the truck.
Later that day, after family gathered at Mabel’s home to gobble up the enormous amounts of food that had been sent from neighbors and family, I went on to Dan’s to let my puppy out. An hour or so later, I saw the lights of his truck flash as he turned into the driveway.
He walked in, a broken man who had lost his father. My instincts to comfort and console were abated by the cold stare he gave me.
I asked him, “Why are you angry with me?”
This question opened a floodgate, behind which a raging river of anger and bitterness toward me was stored. He ranted about how I didn’t help make sure his dad got better, that I gave up and believed the doctor when he said his dad was beyond a cure. As if this weren’t crazy enough, he continued to pelt me with expletives, peppered into sentences about my behavior at the funeral and making a scene. None of it made sense. I could only stand there trembling as he let out all of his grief and anger on me.
After he finished, he left in a huff and did not return until after I had gone to work my shift at the Senior Care unit at the local hospital. Several days went by in this way.
One day Dan was at the house working on some projects. I arrived from work and said hello to him, only to be given a look of disgust.
I sat down on the bed and wrung my hands.
It occurred to me that for reasons I would understand later, God had led me to this place and this family so I could be of service to Hank. Mabel made it clear she had no use for me anymore, and so had her son.
I calmly got up and gathered my few belongings. I rounded up my puppy and kitty cat, loaded my truck, and called my aunt and uncle in Ringgold to tell them I would be there in about an hour.
Upon leaving, I turned to Dan and said, “I’m very sorry that you lost your father. He was a good man. I could see that.” Dan refused to look at me. I continued, “But you know what? Even though you’re hurting, it’s not okay to blame me. All I did was confirm what the doctor was trying to tell your family all along. Without treatment, he would die. He refused treatment, so he did die. I’m very sorry because your dad was the heart of your family. Now, all that’s left is the ugly, empty shell. You wanted to know the truth but you resented it when I gave it to you. Still, don’t shoot the messenger.”
Dan never looked at me, and I left with my head held high.
I went to my aunt and uncle’s and fed on their unconditional love while I convalesced. I wrote more songs, hid Easter eggs for my second cousins, had breakfast with my friend Donna at The Waffle House, taught my cousins how to draw and use color, walked and jogged two to three miles per day, mowed my aunt’s grass and watched the dogwoods begin to bloom. I hiked trails with Donna at Bowater and jumped in the blue hole at Red Clay with my friend’s kids. I applied for jobs and prayed. I played with my puppy, Coach, and had beautiful conversations with my aunt. I soaked up her wisdom and life stories, and soared on the laughter shared with my family.
I can see things others do not see, and most of the time, they will resent the one who opens their eyes to the truth. As I remember that short affair and my experience with that family, I now understand that eventually they would come to resent me, for one reason or another. All but Hank preferred to walk blindly through life, seeing things only from their point of view, not the least bit interested in learning anything new, least of all, to understand that anger and hate are not the answer.
Tonight, I thought about Hank. He must have known why I was there, and he knew upon his departure his family would turn into a pack of snarling wolves. It didn’t matter to him. He knew both of us would be in a better place soon enough.
And you know something? He was right.
January 14, 2015