Monday, May 18, 2009

On Staying and Going

By Mike Corey * Other Mike Corey Posts

She called with a pretense.

“Have you made your law school decision yet?”

The answer is complicated, and begins with a cliffhanger. “Sort of.”

It’s why my blogging has been so sparse. How paralyzing waiting can be. My quasi-decision articulated—“I’m going here, but may be going there if I sneak in off the waitlist”—she revealed her reason for calling after a few moments of silence.

“My dad may be dying.”

He had been sick for years, I knew. But a bout with pneumonia to a body long-weakened by illness can be deadly. She knew it, and had flown from one coast to another to be by her father’s side amidst law school finals because of it. And now she wanted to know if she should stay, if she should abandon her summer clerkship, if she should just be by her father’s side.

I have become a de facto authority on conundrums such as these because of my unfortunate membership in the fraternity of sons who have lost their young fathers to cancer. My dad passed away in February 2005, with a few months remaining in my senior year of college. I met this girl a few months later, after she’d read an article I’d penned in the school magazine on my father’s life and death. She just wanted to share her sympathy then; now she wanted something more.

The problem she faced was all too familiar.

“I don’t know how much time he has left,” she said. “I have to believe he’ll be here in August, and a year from now, 20 years from now. But if something happens, I have to be here.”

These words were hard to hear, particularly when buttressed by the need for advice:

“What should I do?”

The only right answer, I confessed, is that everyone has a different answer to that question. Some people cope with situations such as these by dropping everything and entrenching themselves bedside; some need distance (geographic or otherwise). But most need a balance of the two.

I had fallen in the latter camp when my father was ill. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer during the first week of my senior year, he was scheduled to have surgery that November after several weeks of intense chemotherapy. I flew back and forth between Durham, North Carolina and Columbus, Ohio all fall, and negotiated an arrangement in which I would remain home after Thanksgiving break, coinciding with my father’s surgery and recovery in intensive care. I sent in my final exams over e-mail, as well, even as my father’s healing regressed.

It was at the start of the second semester when the thought first precipitated: “I have to be here if he dies.” I had made a promise to my father that I wouldn’t go back to school until he’d left Intensive Care, but as that grew more and more unlikely, I had to make a choice to stay or go.

I remember that conversation. Sitting in an empty waiting room at 6 AM, my father’s health had suddenly deteriorated. While he was coughing up blood in the other room, my dad’s doctors and closest friends sat down with my mother and me. One by one the doctors told me to go back to school, that if anything should happen, they would keep him alive until I could fly back from Durham. I could only say it once: “I have to be here.”

Six weeks later, I was awoken by phone call from my mother in Columbus. I had continued oscillating back and forth along with my father’s health, but now I would need to return one last time. His kidneys had begun to fail.

The time between then and my arrival at my father’s bedside was ungodly. My mother put the phone by my unconscious father’s ear, and I sputtered through tears in telling him I loved him, and that I was coming. I sat miserable on an airplane with business travelers, and began to sober up on the familiar car ride to the hospital. 6 months it had been in those halls, with those noises and nurses—with my dad. I had read to him, listened to him, spoken to him, telling him everything he would need to know, everything I needed him to know. He had become my best friend in those months, knowing each other as adults, not just as a father and child, but as men.

And that is what I hoped for my friend, that she and her father could be as close as they'd ever been before he departed this world for the next. She had to have the chance to achieve that, whether she stayed by his side or returned to school and continued with the plans her father had long hoped she would make for herself.

I remember in the final hours, a priest that had never met me came to deliver a blessing over my father. I had refused to move or to let go of my dad’s hand while the prayer was uttered, my stubbornness prompting the priest to tell me that he would never be so lucky as to have a son by his side in his last moments. And then the priest said he loved me.

It infuriated me then, the sentiment seeming so disingenuous. Love isn’t instantaneous, nor can it simply be expressed. Love was what I had for my father, and in those cruel seconds when death appears and disappears, love is all that death sees fit to leave behind. To be there to witness it, to help my father make that journey, was a blessing regardless, one I fervently hope my friend may have when her father’s time comes, hopefully some distant day far away from here and now.

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