Mark S. King

Outliving My Father

Filed By Mark S. King | July 26, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: cancer treatment, death of a father, dying family member, fatherhood, HIV/AIDS, LGBT families

The descriptions of his decline, in whispered calls from back home, had a dreadfully familiar feel to them. Weight loss at a frightful pace. Losing interest in the world. Suddenly looking very old indeed. Most gay men of a certain age have heard those words, have seen the patient, have buried the friend. This case was different, though. It wasn't AIDS, it was cancer.

Dad and Mark.JPGAnd the patient was Dad.

The disease had swept rapidly through my father since his initial diagnosis. The inevitable was approaching, but the territory was completely unfamiliar to my family, who hadn't seen a death in more than 30 years. They were about to get a tour through hell. I have traveled it many times.

"Well, he's lost a lot of weight," Mom said on the phone, "and sometimes, he will say the same thing more than once. That does scare me a bit." You think you're scared now, I thought.

"Have you checked into hospice care?" I asked. It's exhausting for a man in his thirties to care for a dying lover. Mom was 75.

"Well, no, honey, I thought we could wait on that..." Her voice drifted.

Something inside me went on AIDS auto pilot.

"Call the doctor and ask about hospice care," I practically ordered. "They can help avoid another hospital stay, Mom." The family would do anything to prevent that scene again.

I flew home within days. Still no hospice care. My family was stunned into inaction, it seemed. Had anyone spoken to dad about getting nursing help, about his illness, about how everyone was dazed into speechlessness? Heads shook slowly, eyes looked downward.

After 15 years living with my own HIV infection, my medical choices - powers of attorney, "no resuscitation" instructions - had long been settled. Mom was uncomfortable with the decisions, much less the reality.

On my second day home, I found myself alone with Dad. He was bundled on the sofa, and whatever his thoughts, they seldom found words. His condition looked hauntingly familiar, leading me to a nonsensical conclusion. "Dad has AIDS," my mind insisted.

"Can I talk to you about what's going on?" I asked him.

"Yeah..?" he said weakly.

"This is really horrible Dad, and everyone is freaked out and doesn't know how to act." His eyes never left me. "Mom is afraid to ask for help. You need a nurse. Do you think that's okay?"

"Well... yes. I do." He meant it. "Your mother... your mother works very hard." I took his hand. "This is hard for your mother, I think..." he continued. "Your mother and I, we are one mind, together. One mind."

I had never heard anything so romantic from my father. He saw it in my face, and he found the sadness, too.

"Don't worry," he said, and his hand tightened around mine. "It's okay. I'm all right. This is all right..."

I wanted to say everything at once. Every declaration of love I had for my father, the retired Colonel who loved his family fiercely, laughed heartily, and equated only happiness with success.

"I will talk about you my whole life," I said. "All the stories, all the things you've done for us... but how do I explain you to anyone?" My voice choked, and my attempt to properly organize my father's last days was awash in unexpected tears.

I looked up and was stunned to see damp eyes staring back at my own. A tear escaped and rolled tentatively down and across his cheek, as if unsure of the path, so alien was the terrain.

We began words and abandoned them, floating silently in a moment I hoped could delay the inevitable. I thanked God for a gift that, in the distorted world of AIDS, I had wanted so badly over the years. I would outlive my father.

Only after having collected the courage before to say goodbye, to realize the fear and talk about it anyway, did I have the strength to address it with my dad.

This is not a story about AIDS. But it is a story because of it.

(This was originally published in The Advocate in 2001, long before I began blogging. Thanks for letting me share it with you now.)

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As I had not read the piece when it was originally published, I thank YOU for sharing it with us again. It was very touching.

the_czarina the_czarina | July 27, 2011 1:35 PM

Having 'discovered' you only a year or two ago, I am reading this for the first time, and it wasn't until the line "After 15 years living with my own HIV infection" that I realized this was an older piece.

I lost my father to congestive heart failure just in December 2010.
I'd lost my mother 15 years ago, but she had been ill for many years so there was the sense of the 'other shoe dropping', we had a long-term difficult relationship, and I had made my peace with her. Frankly, her death was neither a surprise nor exceptionally painful.

But my Dad was my mentor, guru, role model, first responder, teacher, financial advisor, tax maven, personal shopper, personal comedian, and, in many ways, best friend. He was a die-hard liberal, and taught me the values I cherish most in myself. I am an activist straight ally, and perhaps wouldn't have been if he were not a natural, quieter ally himself.
I left New York and relocated to Florida to spend his last 6 months with him.

It was the most poignant, painful experience of our lives, but Dad was lucky. His wife was younger, a former administrative assistant who got things done, and the whole family was medically savvy. He had excellent discomfort control(congestive heart failure is not as physically painful as cancer, typically), excellent anxiety control, live-in aides, and we did hospice-at-home for the end. I miss my Dad so much.

As I'm sure you missed yours.

Yes, Mark, thanks so much for reposting this. Beautiful story. I always love your reflections.