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(Emily Flake for The Globe and Mail)
(Emily Flake for The Globe and Mail)

the essay

Cancer connection: Dad and I bonded through hair loss and nausea Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal story submitted by a reader. Got one to tell? Check out the guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Long ago, my dad phoned to tell me he had prostate cancer. It was the first time I’d ever heard him cry.

As is often the case when facing a great fear, like one’s own mortality, or trauma, or a grievous loss, good things can come out of bad.

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One good thing about my dad having cancer was that we became phone buddies for the first time. I’d call to see how he was doing, or he’d call to fill me in on his treatment.

His humour was new to me. When taking medication to reduce his testosterone, he told me he was finally getting in touch with his feminine side.

He had the other radiation patients in stitches while they sat in the cancer centre waiting for “their turn for the burn.” And I began to groan as the jokes started pouring in by e-mail (why on earth had I encouraged him to get a computer?), although at the same time happy knowing that he was thinking of me.

His treatment progressed well, and over the next dozen or so years he and Mom carried on their lives with their usual vigour and fun, with a renewed appreciation for their life and love. Our calls were farther apart, but our connection was better.

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, besides having thick heads of hair and great blood pressure and cholesterol readings, my dad and I really had something in common.

It was then that we began to forge a deep and lasting bond, one that was uniquely ours, and based on more than the surface experience of having cancer. It was more intimate, more in the present moment, more relaxed. No one else but us could really understand the fear, the strength required to get through it, and the ongoing undercurrent of “What if it comes back?”

During my treatment, when I talked with my folks on the phone, Mom was as loving as always, calmly supportive, asking about healthy eating and hair loss. When my dad got on the line, he got down to the nitty gritty. “Are you throwing up?” (No, they have magic pills now.) “You sure lose your control, don’t you?” (Yeah, you know how I’ve always liked having that a lot.) “I’ll bet you save a lot on shampoo.” (And on conditioner, perms and cuts.) “Man, I get scared thinking it’s going to come back.” (Me, too, Dad.)

My treatment was finished in June, 2005. Dad sent me an e-mail, which I saved:

“WOW!!!! It's over, and if it ever bothers you again that *%#+*&# is going to get a real licking that will make this treatment seem like a holiday. NEVER in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be sitting in front of a thing called a computer punching out a letter to our daughter who just finished fighting the battle of her life. I knew she would win, because I realized how determined she can be early in our lives, when going to your room was better than eating your peas. It's got to be great to be thru your treatments, SO now on with the rest of your life.”

I cried for hours, from relief, gratitude and exhaustion. Then I got on with the rest of my life.

As always, I sent him a Father’s Day card that June. This time, I added something extra – a “thank you” list of some of the wonderful memories I had of the many things he had done for my brother and me when we were small. Like spending hours building a rink and re-icing it every couple of days in weather that froze your eyelashes shut; being Santa Claus when he wasn’t working midnight shifts at Christmas (I started to get suspicious when Mom suggested that instead of milk and cookies, Santa might like a rye-and-seven and a bowl of peanuts); patiently teaching me how to water ski at Candle Lake (one passing leech finished me from ever trying that again); driving all the way from Saskatoon to Watrous, Sask., to fetch me the night my little Vauxhall bit the dust.

Each of us has many such meaningful memories of what our parents have done for us, but often we are too busy or shy or even afraid to tell them. Or maybe we simply can’t appreciate those things until we ourselves are much older.

I am so glad that I decided to share some of my memories with my dad on that Father’s Day. Because, in that e-mail he also wrote:

“I have read your card a number of times with tears sneaking in, as you brought back memories that I had lost thru time. In the later years of life, when your family has left the nest and you’re losing all your friends, and the world has gone from horses to jets, you live on memories a lot of the time. So when your daughter gives recognition that her parents had a positive effect on her life, she has given you the most precious gift you could receive.”

Dad died four years ago.

It’s strange on Father’s Day, not having him around to call. Memories are nice, but they just don’t cut it. This Father’s Day I hope that everyone who is lucky enough to still have their dads in their lives calls to share some of their own memories and say, “I love you.” A year can change everything.

Linda McLean lives in Courtenay, B.C.

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