My dad was 18 years old during the Summer of Love, when hippies from all across America gathered on Haight-Ashbury with LSD on their tongues and flowers in their hair. He was 20 when Jimi Hendrix played the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and he was 23 when Pink Floyd released the greatest stoner album of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon. But the first time my dad got high was in Room 537 of the oncology ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital. “It’s just so weird, Kevin,” he said, dragging his hand over his face, then looking at his fingers as though surprised they were a part of his body. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
In order to transport him from his hospital room to the radiation facility, the physician’s assistant administered .5 mg of Dilaudid (hydromorphone) in an IV injection timed for slow release to prevent an overdose. My dad described the feeling of drifting down a tunnel, the eerie descent in the elevator, his bizarre conversation with the radiation oncologist as the giant eye of the linear accelerator hovered above him. Only to open his eyes and have a nurse inform him that it was time to go to his radiation appointment.
“What day is it?” he asked.
“Wednesday,” I said.
He nodded, trying to anchor himself to a world where it still mattered what day it was.
“It’s just so weird,” he said.
MY DAD WAS A RELUCTANT CATHOLIC,BUT HE BELIEVED IN JOHN WAYNE.
On Saturday afternoons he sat on the family room couch with a can of Diet Coke watching Technicolor westerns on AMC—The Searchers, Rio Bravo, Hondo, The Sons of Katie Elder. Whether he was dressed up as a Civil War general-turned-cowboy pursuing his abducted niece among the orange mesas of Monument Valley, or a tough-as-nails sheriff defending the county jail from a gang of ranchers, John Wayne was, for a generation of men, the ultimate symbol of self-reliance. A meat-eating, gun-toting Henry David Thoreau.
But this type of cowboy self-reliance has a price. In elevating the macho, it spurns the vulnerable, and for a certain type of man there’s nothing more vulnerable than letting a doctor stick his finger up your ass. My dad knew that prostate cancer runs in our family. He knew that it is an entirely treatable cancer when caught early. But to subject himself to a prostate exam, to run the risk of having a tender part of his manhood radiated or surgically removed, violated the code of the Wild West: die in a gun battle or live forever.While my mom implored him to make an appointment with his doctor, while he came up with excuses year after year, his cancer was growing. There’s no way of knowing when it first appeared. Was it there when I graduated from high school? When my daughter was born? If he’d gone to his doctor in his 40s or 50s, they could have done something about it, but he didn’t, and when he was hospitalized with a kidney stone in his early 60s and the tumor appeared on his CT scan it was too late. In addition to the original malignancy there were exploratory settlements in his spine. The pioneers of his death.
“I wish we’d caught it sooner, but I’m just glad we caught it,” he said when he told me.
As though there was a cure.
As though he wasn’t the man who once said: “if I ever get sick, just take me into the woods and shoot me.”
It’s just so weird. For a long time I assumed he was referring to the drugs, but later it occurred to me that he was referring to everything else: his atrophying muscles, the tumors in his bones, the way simple tasks—going to the bathroom, walking down the hallway—had become Herculean feats of strength. In the early stages he just seemed tired. Then my mom told us that if we wanted to visit, we should come over early in the morning; by noon he was too exhausted to get out of bed. Then the pain became too intense to walk to the bathroom, and he was admitted to the hospital.
It was difficult to see him in such a helpless state—purple blotches on his arms from multiple IV wounds, a catheter bag full of blood, the grimace of pain as he re-adjusted himself in bed and his fierce determination to hide it. But more difficult was realizing that he was in a profound state of denial.
“It’s so stupid,” he said. “In my head I should be able to get up and walk out of here.”
And later, during his third stay in the hospital, when it wasn’t clear if he’d ever go home again, “I’m not done living yet, Kevin.” I encouraged him to follow the advice of his physical therapist. I told him that if he could walk to the bathroom and back, they’d probably let him go home. He agreed to try harder. But when I returned the next day, he was in a deep sleep. My mom said he’d overexerted himself trying to impress the hospital staff. Today he could barely open his eyes.
I said hello and touched his hand.
He gave me a small wave.
It was the last time he walked anywhere of his own accord.
“Where did he come from, before the tall grass?” I recently read Joan Didion’s essay collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In the second essay, titled “John Wayne: A Love Song,” Didion describes her encounter with the Duke on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder. He’d recently lost his left lung and four ribs in a battle with lung cancer. His characteristic swagger and confidence remained intact, but the physical work of filmmaking exhausted him. By afternoon he was breathing through an oxygen tank.
I Googled “John Wayne” and found out that while his lung surgery was successful, he died 13 years later of stomach cancer. The article speculates that this second cancer was the result of hazardous filming conditions on the set of his 1956 movie The Conqueror. The film was shot on location in Utah downwind of U.S. government nuclear tests.
Ninety-one members of the cast and crew, including Wayne, developed some form of the disease during their lifetime.
I thought about those vistas I’d seen on the family room TV as a child. Panoramas of dirt, alien-like rock formations rising out of nothingness, and through the middle of it all, John Wayne riding his horse in blue bandanna and ten-gallon hat. The idea that the landscape was toxic, that a radioactive wind blew through those make-believe scenes, seemed an eerie metaphor for my dad’s sickness.
Joan Didion asks, “Where did he come from, before the tall grass?” The answer: before he was John Wayne, he was Marion Morrison, the son not of a cowherd but a druggist. Didion is reluctant to look too long behind the curtain; she prefers the Duke as myth. The fatherfigure. The model of masculinity. The cowboy who took care of business. But reading her essay,
I COULDN’T SHAKE THE IMAGE OF WAYNE WITH TUBES UP HIS NOSE, TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO KILL THE BANDIT INSIDE OF HIM.
We talked about the basketball game on TV, the crappy day I’d had at work, Portland’s exploding real estate market. Anything but the cancer that was so obviously killing him. Like a good son, I did everything I could to enable the fantasy of his immortality, but then the nurse appeared and asked about my dad’s bowel movement. She checked his vitals and examined his catheter bag. She said she needed to weigh him, and I saw the look of terror on his face, imagining the pain of getting out of bed.
“Okay,” he said.
He pushed his hands together and began rolling to the side, his face twisted in anguish.
The nurse asked if he needed help.
He shook his head violently: no.
Then he was standing, and through the narrow slit in the hospital gown, I saw bruises and flesh like a melting candle. I looked away. My mom suggested we get coffee from the hospital cafeteria. By the time we got back, my dad was back in bed fingering an audiobook he’d ordered from Amazon, a historical account of a Civil War general.
“This looks interesting,” he said.
Doctors have instruments for measuring almost everything: temperature, blood pressure, heart rate. There are CAT scans, MRIs, x-rays; scopes and probes and cameras attached to the end of tubes that can be pushed into a beating heart. But they don’t have an instrument for measuring pain. Instead, they rely on the patient to self-report their discomfort on a scale of 1 to 10.
In the six-month span when my dad’s cancer spread from his spine to his knees and shoulders, and then to so many places that they stopped keeping track, he never reported a pain level above 5. I saw him in complete agony trying to reposition his head on a hospital pillow, only to tell a doctor a few minutes later that he was feeling “pretty good” and that his pain level was a 2 or 3. This in no way benefitted him. It meant less medication and more discomfort. It’s possible that he was trying to protect my mother (who was almost always in the room with him) from knowing how much he was hurting. More likely he was trying to protect himself. To say 7 or 8 would mean admitting that he was dying.
HE MAINTAINED THIS STOICISMRIGHT TO THE END.
I only saw it falter once. I’d been invited to read at a bookstore in Los Angeles. In the three days I was out of town, I obsessively checked my phone, terrified that my dad would die in my absence. But he didn’t, and when I returned and visited him in his care facility, I talked at length about myself—my event in L.A., my writing career, my daughter who was about to fly out to Oregon for the summer. I didn’t realize that we were having the last real conversation we’d ever have together. When I finally asked how he was doing, he told me that his best friend, Roger, had come by that morning.
“We talked for a long time,” he said. “It was—”
His blue eyes opened wide and his lower lip started quivering.
“We talked for a long time,” he said.
Before my dad was sick, I took him for granted. I wouldn’t call for weeks, and when I did, it was usually because I needed something. Now that he’s gone, I can’t stop thinking about him. I’ve taken to wearing his old electrician’s hat. I look at photos of him as a young man, younger than I am now. I have dreams about him where he is very much alive and I have dreams where he is neither alive nor dead.
I understand the appeal of the western. Men die suddenly, shot off the back of a horse. A phalanx of Indians rises up over a hill. Mutual shots are fired. Death ennobles the killed and the killer. But of course that’s make-believe. In this world, cancer killed my dad the way a cat kills a mouse. It took its time. It rendered him helpless and then it watched.