If my Dad heard me express sympathy for a friend with cancer, he’d often say,
“What’s the big deal about cancer? I’ve had cancer for 20 years, and I do everything I want to. I just ignore it.”
It was mostly true. When he was 70 doctors diagnosed prostate cancer that had spread to his bones. There were lesions on his spine, hip, and sternum. His doctor told my mother he’d be in a wheelchair within two years. He lived to be 93 and was still able to climb stairs until EMTs carried him off on a stretcher five days before he died.
I say “mostly true” because his last two years were very difficult. He took a lot of pain killing drugs and fell a lot – but miraculously never broke a bone. And he never complained.
I, on the other hand, used to complain to my husband about Dad’s stubbornness. He adamantly refused to sit, even temporarily, in a wheelchair. But he could not stand for long. So, activities with Dad were limited to church, movies, and eating out. Even though DC has wonderful museums, Dad couldn’t take them in. We couldn’t take him to the zoo with our grandchildren, though he would have enjoyed it. Baseball games, which he used to love, were out. So was travelling – mostly.
Once Jerry and I were going to a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Dad had never seen the desert, and I wanted to show him the red rocks of Sedona. But we had not invited him because, privately, we could not figure out how he could possibly get through the airport on his own two legs. Finally, though, I took the plunge.
“Dad,” I said. “Would you like to see the desert? Here’s where we’re going.” And I showed him pictures of the desert and Sedona.
Long pause. “Well,” he finally said. “I’d love to go. But I’d be in the way. I can’t walk very fast.”
“That would be hard in the airport,” I agreed. “With luggage and all you have to do with security. But if you’d be willing to use a wheelchair, just to get you on and off the airplane, we could do it. In fact, it would help us all get through security quicker.”
He thought it over for 24 hours and agreed. And he had the time of his life!
Since Dad died I’ve had a lot of time to think about his refusal to see himself as a cancer victim. His denial had a price: he would not admit he was dying, and so we could not use hospice. Funeral plans were also forbidden turf. He cut himself off from a lot of activities by refusing to sit in a wheelchair, even temporarily. He sometimes seemed to lack compassion for others who suffered from serious illness. But he loved life until the end. And he climbed up and down the stairs to his apartment in our house until he died!
I’m glad I didn’t try to convince him that his cancer was killing him. There are times when denial may be the most compassionate – and even realistic (!) – path.