The Foreign Language of Feelings
“Hey dude I got the results back,” is how my dad started the conversation. “I have prostate cancer” is how he continued it before the silence. A silence, which probably only lasted a few seconds, but was long enough to allow for a lifetime of memories to rip through my head.
Despite whatever challenges we’ve had in the course of our 44-year relationship, my dad and I were deeply connected during this silence. Not always comfortable with intense emotions, my father’s dad instincts quickly kicked in and he made every effort to calm me. They caught it early. No surgery. No chemo. A little radiation. No worries. I played along. Right, Dad, no worries. Maybe you can ask the doctors to work on your brain while they’re working on your prostate since you’ve always had your head up your ass. Ha, ha, ha. That’s how we’ve always done things – sarcasm and humor to avoid the threat of sharing any real pain or fear.
My dad has beaten cancer once before – a situation far worse than the one he faces now, but cancer is cancer. And it’s scary. Regardless of the fact that this cancer is as he said, “A walk in the park,” news like this causes clichés to roll like movie credits: Life is short. Get busy living or get busy dying. Dance like nobody’s watching. And any number of other inspirational quotes that are displayed daily on Facebook status updates and Twitter timelines near you.
Cliché or not, though, these are the very real feelings that all hit me square in the chest. Right in the heart. I felt pain. Pain for my dad. Pain for our relationship. I know he’s putting on a brave face, but I know he’s must be scared. Even just a little. I wish he could tell me that. I wish I could tell him that I was scared, too. Even just a little.
As soon as my dad and I hung up the phone, my own dad instincts kicked in and I thought of my six-year old son. My God I don’t want to ever have to tell him news like this. Much less deliver it twice, as my dad has now had to do. I can’t imagine it’s easy to say, “I have cancer” out loud, much less to tell your kid about it. But, if I do have to sometime tell my son that I am battling some horrible disease, I hope that we’ll be able to just face it for real. Not with sarcasm. Tears. Laughter. Emotions. Whatever it takes.
Whatever it takes. Maybe “whatever it takes” is exactly what my dad and I are doing. Maybe we are being real. Maybe this is our reality. The one where sarcasm reigns. The one where talking about the U.S. National Soccer Team is code for “I love you.” The one where “Fuck you very much,” is a catch-all like Aloha or Shalom. This is how we communicate and I should be grateful that we both translate this language into what we really mean. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on our relationship.
During the life flashing mental slide show that played during the silence of our call, I saw my dad refereeing my soccer games. I saw the World Cup game we went to in 1994; I saw vacations; I saw him running marathons and I saw his atrocious 70’s porn ‘stache. I saw our trip to Wrigley Field, his reward for beating cancer the first time. I thought about the endless sports and soccer conversations that kept us talking when we otherwise wouldn’t have. And what I know is that regardless of our frequent “language barrier” and the challenges that life creates, I love my dad. While it might be easy to think, “Of course you love your dad…he’s your dad,” I feel fortunate because I’m not sure everyone can actually say that.
I think we’re sometimes too hard on ourselves and our relationships. We have expectations for the way things should be instead of understanding, accepting and cherishing the way things are. I know I’ve been incredibly hard on my dad and our relationship over the years. But, I’ve learned to understand and accept that his constant “How’s business?” question is about love and his desire to see me to do well. It’s not that he doesn’t trust my ability to be successful. I’ve learned that when he says, “I don’t worry about your brother, but I worry about you,” is simply that. I’ve learned to stop holding him to a higher standard, accept that we all make our mistakes and forgive. And I’ve learned to forgive us both for our relationship.
I’m never going to be the guy who has all these great life affirming, “My dad always said” quotes. The most famous thing he’s ever told me is, “Seventeen will get you 20,” with “always carry enough bail money” a close second. (So it goes for the son of a criminal defense attorney.) For a long time, however, I think I made that the measuring stick of a father-son relationship. I was always jealous of my friends who were constantly rolling out the “My dad always said” pearls of wisdom. As a result, I thought our relationship wasn’t what it should be. I held it against him. Against us.
But that’s not my dad. My dad is the sarcastic guy who is going to make everyone in the room laugh. My dad is the inappropriate guy. (You wonder where I get it?) When I really think about it, though, he’s also the guy that told me, “You can’t hit it if you don’t swing,” and “You can’t score if you don’t shoot.” He may have been talking about Little League and soccer, but I try to live my life by those quotes. Nothing gets accomplished without taking your swings and/or shots. No goals. No dreams. No visions. If you just stand at the plate and watch the pitches go by – you’ll find yourself watching the game from the bench. That’s a pretty good gem. So swing dad. Take your shots. And crush this cancer just like you did last time.
And dad? How about that U.S. win over Italy?