When a daughter finds herself overwhelmed by her caregiving duties and unprepared for Father’s Day, she gives her father something he dare not ask for: the stars.
A caregiver’s story by Latria Graham, a South Carolina–based writer, editor, and cultural critic.
When my father got cancer, I put my life on hold to save his. My younger brother was away at school, and my mother had to work full-time to keep the health insurance that my father needed in order to pursue treatment. I was the only immediate kin who could take over the caregiver position—I was reluctant to do it, even though I knew I was best for the job.
Organized, dependable, and a natural fixer, I began coordinating my father’s care. I made concessions: I freelanced instead of getting a full-time job with benefits. I left my graduate program in New York City and made a beeline for the rural agricultural South I’d grown up in and tried desperately to escape.
Our local hospital insisted they couldn’t treat the kidney cancer that was rapidly metastasizing and conquering my dad’s body. When clusters of tumors appeared in his lungs, the doctors threw in the towel. We needed a second opinion, and we found one in Newnan, Georgia, a six-hour round trip from our hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The summer we tried to save his life, after a failed surgery and many complications, my father and I were stuck in Newnan, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves to pass the time. Movies were too long, going for a stroll in the garden was too hot, indoor air conditioning was always too cold. Dad hated shopping and crowds so the nearby mall held no allure.
My father was my business partner, teacher and though it was complicated, my friend. As a child, I could always count on his empathy and compassion to help me make hard decisions. I tried to emulate his quiet resilience in the face of devastating losses. Now that he was ill and our roles were reversed, his behavior became unpredictable.
We both felt trapped. Neither of us was where we thought we deserved to be. It made us edgy, and irritable. Being in close quarters made it worse, but I was terrified to leave him—the one time had I left his side during treatment he had an allergic reaction and coded, and I ran through the halls of the treatment facility when I heard my name repeated over the intercom, followed by a series of emergency hospital codes I didn’t understand.
Dad required round-the-clock care. I needed some help. I wondered what would become of us. Confined mostly to this 400-square-foot hotel room in between doctor’s appointments, our world had gotten astonishingly small. I wanted to change that, somehow.
The annual event was on top of us before I could realize I’d forgotten it: Father’s Day.
I had spent so much time paying attention to tube cleanings, medicine schedules, and family updates that I forgot the holiday until the calendar notification popped up on my iPhone—my heart fell out of my chest. I didn’t know yet that it was his last Father’s Day, I don’t think any of us did. What I did know was that I had no gift to give my father. He had no use for new clothes, and he couldn’t drink the high-end bourbon I would often add to his annual Father’s Day gift bag.
The oral chemotherapy the doctors prescribed took his taste buds first, then it took his teeth, incisors and molars crumbling at the slightest touch, leaving him embarrassed and unwilling to eat. He got his nutrition through a feeding tube now. His annual Father’s Day meal of crab legs, fried fish and fresh caught shrimp had no appeal.
He couldn’t stand baseball, and was in no mood for art. Music was grating to him, when it didn’t leave him in tears. Old R&B songs reminded him of a time when he was mobile, of friends that had since passed on or were otherwise inaccessible. “It is hard to live with ghosts,” he told me. “There are so many things you want to tell them.”
I nodded. I knew. I was living with him, and the man who was in front of me wasn’t the man I’d grown up with, but he was still living. When he laughed, he no longer looked like himself. I wanted a way to buffer the disappointment of what was happening to us.
Stories were our way of coming to terms with the harsh reality of life, handed down from one generation to another by word of mouth. My father’s stories were tales of tricksters and inventions, of men who could fly, riddles and proverbs and anything else he could add to the mix. Part mythology and part sci-fi, rife with superstitions and predictions, I learned stories about the devil and his wife, why God created the Black Walnut tree, How the Milky Way came to be, and How the loon lost her voice.
I had to make our trials into something that he could understand, and I got an idea. I waited for nightfall, then I told my father to get in his wheelchair, draping his favorite nubby brown blanket across his lap. We took the treatment facility’s elevator to the roof, perfect for stargazing.
I come from a lineage of storytellers, and we have always chased the stars. I hadn’t read a star chart in years, but the light pollution from the streetlights below us was no match for the stars we came to see, bright white hot accents against a navy sky.
My father’s family were farmers who planted according to the phases of the moon. Sometimes after dinner, when I was a little girl, our family would pile into the bed of my father’s sultry gold pickup truck, drive out into the middle of the field or parking lot, climb onto the roof of his truck and pick out the constellations we knew.
“We are all made of stardust,” my father told us. He’d heard Carl Sagan say that back in the 70s, and my father’s always been fascinated with the cosmos. Up on that hospital roof on Father’s Day was no exception. It took me fifteen years to understand what Sagan and my father were trying to tell me. We craned our necks skyward until dad got too tired to hold up his head any longer.
I asked him: “Do you remember when they put people up there?” I tried to get him to talk about the lunar landing and Apollo 11, to no avail. He couldn’t recall the details. I had no memories that would make sense to him, but I could tell he wasn’t ready to go back inside to that tiny room, to be trapped again until tomorrow.
I sat on the bench beside him, took a swig of my tea, and said “Dad, let me tell you a story….”
I tried to tell him all I could of the universe that I knew he had not seen.
I told him about the first time I saw the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, when I clambered onto the rooftop of my dorm in college, watching as the sky turned violet, glowing green shafts of light dancing across the horizon. I described the long nights searching for star clusters and the meaning of life in the Ivy League observatory I frequented for class. He listened and nodded, confined to his wheelchair, laughing at the funny parts. I detailed all I knew about the origins of the universe, about the Norse and Egyptian gods I remembered from classes in college, petty squabbles between animals in fables.
“What else?” he asked. I look up, sure that he’d fallen asleep, only to find him fidgeting under his blanket, making himself comfortable, waiting on me to tell him something else.
I kept talking, afraid I’d lose the man I’d found if I took a beat longer than a breath. I wanted to keep him here with my tales, alert and engaged, the way he used to be. I spun a tale about why rainbows appear and a myth of the father of the forest, who led hunters to their doom. I repurposed scraps of the story a friend told me about the fisherman who washed his hands and washed all of his luck away.
I had no more stories, so I went back to the stars. I started with Lyra, the Lyre, Orpheus’s musical instrument in Greek mythology, one of the few constellations I could still identify. I retold the story of Hercules and his twelve labors, dad’s favorite. My goodness, how Hercules suffered before he was granted reprieve. Something I said must’ve been reassuring. No longer restless, dad allowed himself to fall asleep.
As he slumbered, I tried to figure out how to freeze this moment. My father slept, supported by the pillows I’d placed against the backrest of his wheelchair, one hour, then two, until the security guard came around to do midnight safety checks and the snatching of the door handle meeting the bolt woke dad up. I looked out at the blurry bands of light I could see in between my tears. It was time to go inside.
“Happy Father’s Day,” I told him.
“Thanks,” he said back to me—and gave my hand a tight squeeze as the elevator doors closed.
Honor offers a Care Plan specifically designed to support people living with cancer and their families, during and after treatment. If you need respite care, we can help. Call (877) 777-5116 to speak with a Care Advisor.