On April 1, my father would have celebrated his 99th birthday.
When he was 87, he learned that he had inoperable lung cancer. When he told me, I was surprised how sad I felt. He had always been relatively healthy — despite having the usual cardiovascular problems of older age.
I thought I was prepared for the inevitable. I wasn’t.
As an adult, I always felt distant from my father. We spoke different languages. He was a scientist, technician and an engineer who lived in the world of facts, symbols and numbers. I am a psychologist, who lives in the world of people.
Sometime before his illness, he said to me quite earnestly, “You know, Paul, you’ve done pretty well for someone who doesn’t know anything.” I understood exactly what he meant. I knew little about chemistry, physics and mathematics. I thanked him for his compliment. He meant it sincerely.
My father didn’t go to father school. He went to engineering school.
He had limited interest in his grandchildren or in me. In his retirement, he wrote a memoir and included only a few pages about his family, a counterpoint to the real interest in his life — his work. Why is that we sons are so often disappointed in our fathers?
I am like all sons. Even though my hair is gray and thinning, I wanted to be recognized, appreciated, acknowledged, greeted and feted by my dad. I wanted him to see the real me. I wanted him to teach me, coach me, inspire me and guide me when I was lost. I wanted him to give me courage when I was afraid and to hold me when I was lonely. I wanted his wisdom to pour forth into my soul so that I would know who I am.
But how could he live up to my expectations? He could only give me what he had. What will I have of his that I can pass on to my children?
Once my father stood tall, larger than life. He held my small hand when I crossed the street. On Sunday mornings, we drove to the bakery together. He brought bagels, cream cheese, lox, pickled herring, smoked whitefish and a box of brightly colored Danish pastries. I helped him lay these delights on our big table for the family to admire. I loved those Sunday morning feasts.
When my father paid the bills, I would hide under his desk in his office. Did he know I was there in his sanctuary? This is how I would get close to him.
My father decided to forego chemo, which would have done little for him other than make him sick. He lived in New York City, and during his last year, I flew to New York once a month, taking the night flight on Thursday evening and returning to Seattle late Sunday evening.
I would sit with him in his apartment, listening to him talk, watching him grow smaller and thinner every month as the cancer consumed his body. I called him every day that year. Most of our conversations were short and superficial. But some traversed deeper ground.
During the course of his illness, we became closer. I spent the last three weeks of his life with him. He was frightened at the end — not of death, but of the loss of control and bodily function as he was dying.
Toward the end, my brother and I sat at his bedside. He looked up with a smile. “I’ve had an interesting life,” he said. “I want you to know — both of you are good boys.” What more could a son ask for?
He died several days later, a few weeks after his 89th birthday.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.