By: William T. Hathaway
When the doctor told dad he had fatal leukemia, he really fell apart. He wasn’t ready to die and couldn’t handle the finality of it all. The doctor tried to soften the news by saying the treatments would contain the symptoms and minimize the pain, so he could enjoy what time he had left, even though it wouldn’t be much. How much, the doc couldn’t say. “Sometimes it takes six months, sometimes longer.”
Dad wished the doc had just shot him right then. To live under a death sentence, to feel time running out with nothing to do about it, seemed to make life not worth living. He got so depressed he couldn’t take care of himself. Everything seemed too much trouble.
Dad was sixty-eight and had been alone since mom had died four years ago. Up until the diagnosis he’d done OK on his own. I’d stop by a couple of times a week to check on him and help out. Considering a single man lived there, the place was pretty clean, and dad stayed busy with his hobby — ham radio. He’d send Morse code messages to buddies all around the world.
After the diagnosis, though, the sink would usually be full of dirty dishes and the corners full of dust. He was listless, and I could tell he wasn’t eating right or getting outside enough.
After talking it over with my brother and sister, I decided to move in and help him. Dad and I had always gotten along well. Since my divorce two years ago I’d been living alone in a small apartment. My daughter was grown and living in California. Moving in with my father seemed the right thing to do. It would even save rent.
Although dad was willing, he didn’t respond real enthusiastically to the idea, which disappointed me, but I knew it was just because of the apathy about life that he’d fallen into. After a couple of weeks I was pleased to see that my being around cheered him up. I got him on a good diet, and we went on outings together. I even got him to work in the garden.
One night he cried out in his sleep. Our bedrooms were across the hall, and his cry woke me up. I went in to check on him, saw he was shaking with terror, slipped into the bed, and took him in my arms to comfort him. Gradually his tremors eased, but he held on to me and continued to sob. “The dreams … they’re the worst. My hands were falling off … like old gloves … and my blood ran out all moldy. Nothing I can do.”
“Just a dream,” I said, but that rang false. It wasn’t just a dream … and he was right, there wasn’t anything he could do … but wait until it caught him. At least I could be with him and help him so he didn’t have to go through it alone.
We held each other in the bed a long time in a wonderful closeness. He was naked, which embarrassed me, but I was feeling like a nurse, so it was OK. He fell back to sleep, and I went back to my bed.
Next morning he thanked me and told me how I used to be the one who had the nightmares and would come in for comfort, crawling into his and mom’s bed crying about a monster. I didn’t remember but was glad to be able to return the favor.
His nightmares got worse and more frequent. Several times a week his cries would wake me, and I’d come in and hold him until the fear went away. Sometimes we’d both fall asleep afterwards. I wondered if it might be better if we simply slept together, but the idea made me uncomfortable.
One night dad was particularly upset. As he moved restlessly around, his head came against my breasts. It stayed there. He stopped moving, except to snuggle deeper into them. I held him close against me until he relaxed, the trauma of the dream passed, and he returned to quiet sleep. The power of a woman, I thought, the power of love.
As the weeks went on and the nightmares continued, we found ourselves more often in that position: his head on my breasts, my hand on his head, stroking him. This seemed to do him the most good, have the most soothing effect on him. Sometimes he’d have his cheek against one and his hand against the other, resting quietly. I was so glad to help him that I pushed any sexual thoughts away. This was hug therapy, I insisted. I thought about wearing a robe over my nightgown but didn’t want to.
One night he cried out, and when I came into the bed he didn’t fully wake up but remained in a kind of desperate half-sleep, murmuring and quivering, rolling back and forth. As I tried to hold him, the movements must have opened a button on my nightgown because when dad nestled into my breast this time it was bare. Instinctively his lips found my nipple, and he began to nurse.
This is going too far, I thought. No!
But I could feel him becoming totally calm as his anxiety drained away. I began to cry very quietly, tears sliding out of my eyes, mouth shut. This was wrong, sinful, a voice said. Letting your naked father kiss your breast. Stop him … now!
But how could I stop him … and how could it be wrong? This was helping. Dad was dying, and this was making what life he had left a little more bearable. I knew the peace he was getting at my breast was more important than whatever the voice might say.
The next time he was thrashing desperately around and I slipped into his bed, I unbuttoned the nightgown myself and gave him the breast, stroked his head while he nursed. Dad grew still and in a few minutes was breathing quietly and in a few more was asleep.
We didn’t talk about any of this during the day. I didn’t want to break the spell. This was giving him the only contentment he’d known since the diagnosis.
One night, though, dad didn’t just fall back to sleep with a sigh. He began touching me. Touches that were full of need but very gentle. On my stomach … my legs ….
I froze with fear. But I couldn’t stop him, I had to let him do what he needed. He kissed me, his lips also full of need but very gentle. His lips melted my fear, and I kissed him back.
Suddenly I knew I had the power to heal him. I might not be able to heal his cancer, but I could heal HIM. That was more important.
I took the nightgown off. As we made love, I felt waves of energy pouring from me into him, and the more I gave the more I had to give. He was my father. He’d given me life, and now I could give him a bit of it back.
Dad didn’t have any more nightmares. We slept together every night after that and made love often.
Up until then I’d pretty much lost interest in sex. After menopause and the divorce, it seemed why bother, what’s the big deal. Now at forty-nine it was a big deal again. Dad’s lovemaking was slow … and satisfying … for both of us. Each moment of it was life in all its precious, fleeting fullness.
We fell in love in a whole new way. Both of our lives opened out into an Indian summer of passion, a bittersweet honeymoon. Dad found a new zest for life. We flew to Hawaii where he’d always wanted to go, swam in the Pacific, walked hand in hand beneath a tropical waterfall, and in the condo I did a silly hula dance for him wearing only a flower necklace.
Of course we were hoping for a miracle: The power of love would drive out the evil demon of cancer. And of course it didn’t happen. Dad’s new lease on life was short-term. The leukemia got him, but every minute until then was appreciated.
This was our spark of love in defiance of the dark void. This was life on the run in a race it could not win, but the running was the point of it, not just against time but against all the repressions that hold people back from loving, all the little daily deaths that society demands.
Life is short and mostly unhappy. If we can find a little joy that doesn’t hurt anyone else, we have to take it. No one can tell me what we did was wrong.
William T. Hathaway’s first novel, A World of Hurt, won a Rinehart Foundation Award. His new one, Lila, the Revolutionary, is the story of an eight-year-old Indian girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Chapters are posted at www.amazon.com/dp/1897455844. He was a Fulbright professor of creative writing at universities in Germany, where he currently lives. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.