I'm not sure what kind. I just know how it affected you -- how you watched him waste away; go from being the loving father and grandfather that doted on his kids and grandkids alike, to being in a hospital bed, body little more than skin stretched over the bones, gone; how cancer ate him from the inside out and left him wailing in pain, asking for a relief that you could not give.
"I don't want to die like that," you must have said, at some point. "If I..."
You were afraid, afraid of what it could do to you.
That must have been where it started.
When your sister died of breast cancer, in much the same way -- when you watched her go through chemotherapy late, much too late, lose all her hair as well as both breasts, and still rot from the inside anyway -- did that solidify your fear? There were other deaths, by then -- you'd watched other members of the family die; sat with them as they did, helped where you could. You were always soft, kind-hearted -- when someone asked for help, you couldn't say no, and so yours was the bedside vigil, the nursing in lieu of hospice that couldn't be afforded.
You were with her when she died, or so the family legend goes.
That must have solidified your fear.
There were others, other deaths.
When your daughter worked in an oncologist's office as a physician's assistant, did you tell her not to tell you, about the patients, the ones that died, especially not the pediatric patients? Or did you pretend that it was fine, fine, everything is fine?
You told me about all the family, everyone that you'd loved. I heard all the stories -- about the time the dog was left at the rest stop ("they must have followed us up the highway for five miles, hollering and pointing at him sitting in the front seat, his tail wagging"), the island and how you'd loved life out there, picking salmonberries and telling the kids not to eat the mushrooms they found, my mom and uncles all together. The cockatiel that had loved you and only you, the irises in the backyard and rebuilding the root cellar at your mother's house, after the roof caved in. The good stories, and the bad. You taught me how to embroider, and you told me, quietly, as we sat working on what would eventually become pillowcases, how you'd almost had another child -- how you'd miscarried, "but it was the 60s, we didn't talk about it, but I still wonder..."; my uncle's divorce that had nearly ripped the family apart; the neighbor's daughter who had shot herself, how her mother had been the one to find her, and you were the one to comfort her.
We talked about the good, and the bad, but I never heard you talk about your father, your sister.
I didn't know how he died.
I didn't know you'd had a sister.
We talked about the good and the bad, both together, "because you can't have life without pain, it's getting through that pain that defines you" -- but we couldn't talk about them.
We couldn't talk about your fear.
When my great aunt Beth died of cancer, in 2004, I saw how you reacted. I saw the brittle way you told everyone that she had passed, saying that you thought it was from grief. Her husband had died the year before; she'd been diagnosed a year or so after his passing, and succumbed quickly.
I remember you telling me, the day you found out: "Beth has cancer," the way you crumpled, because you knew it was a death sentence, and what an unpleasant death.
"I want to go in my sleep," you said, around then. "I want to go to sleep and never wake up again. I don't want to suffer."
You were thinking of Beth, when you said it -- of the other cancer deaths. I could see it in your eyes.
I don't know when you first got sick, just that you did.
It used to be that it was Grandpa, who'd get sick after every meal, who had what we thought (fearfully) were the signs of stomach cancer. He made a production out of it; it wasn' t unusual to see him bent over in the bathroom, complaining of pain after eating anything at all.
"GERD," said the doctors, when he finally went in. "Eat smaller meals, spaced out through the day, and avoid eating the foods that give you heartburn."
Did you mention to them, then, that you had been struggling with symptoms for years? Did you mention your own private distress -- bleeding from areas you weren't supposed to bleed from; the constant stomach upset, the phantom pains you were assured were nothing important?
"Gallbladder," said one doctor. "We should think removing it" -- but he forgot, between one appointment and the next, and you, relieved to know that it was something as minor as that, not the phantom of cancer, a bad death -- you didn't bring it up again, did you?
How long were you sick? How long did you suffer?
These are questions we don't have the answers for.
I know my mom went to see you, and you were so sick you couldn't get out of bed.
I know she had a difficult time convincing you to get out of bed: we need you to stand up so we can take you to the emergency room, met with, I'm fine. I don't want to go until I've showered and done my hair. I don't want to go.
Somehow, she convinced you.
"Gallbladder," they said, at the hospital. "It needs to come out. This happens all the time; don't be afraid."
But you were, weren't you?
I wonder if you knew, when they put you under, just what you were up against.
I want to think you didn't. I want to believe that you thought it was routine; that there was nothing to worry about.
I know better, but I still want to believe.
They brought you out less than an hour after they'd put you under, and we all knew.
"Tell me," said my mom. "What are we looking at?"
Metastatic cancer. No idea how far it had spread or how bad it was.
"Six months to a year," said the oncologist. "At best, and that would involve chemotherapy."
A pause, then: "You don't have to make a choice now."
We waited for you to stablize, after surgery, and then we made the only choice we could: to take you home.
"Should we tell her...?" was the running question of the night.
Do we have to? -- unspoken, but there, all the same.
The type of cancer you had was supposed to be largely painless. You were disoriented, after surgery -- we didn't want to make it worse.
We all knew, just what you were afraid of.
We opted not to tell you; to carry on and press ahead as though nothing was wrong. To do otherwise would have meant revisiting the past, acknowledging your fear -- and we couldn't imagine doing that to you.
The last time I saw you, I sat with you for two hours. I held your hands and talked to you about what you would do, once you were better. I did what I had been told to do: kept the conversation light; talked to you about what the neighbors were up to, what I had been doing for work, what I was looking forward to doing, how pretty your garden looked, with all the flowers in bloom.
We talked about the future, and you hesitated, when you said that you had plans for the fall.
I think I knew, then, that you were aware: that you were dying; that despite our best efforts not to tell you, you knew.
I squeezed your hands and told you, I'll be all right, I love you, I'll carry on.
That was the last conversation we had.
The night you died, the family was with you.
You were in pain -- something we hadn't been told to expect -- but you were brave about it.
You didn't want to give in. You didn't want to ask for pain medication. You wanted to be brave.
My mother gave you morphine, given to her by the hospice people, and you fell asleep.
"It's okay to go," she told you. "I'll take care of Dad," and that is when you passed.
I have so many questions now, which will never be answered, not by you. This is the great unfairness of death -- the unfinished conversations; the things that we wanted to say and did not get a chance to.
I want to know, how long did you know? The kind of cancer you had is usually not found until it is too late; even in its early stages, the prognosis is poor, and it is difficult to operate on.
I want to know, how long did you know?, so I can ask: were you afraid?
I think you must have known for a long time. You'd had symptoms for years, after all. You must have known, on some level, what the score was.
I don't know why you didn't tell us.
I know what you were working against, the fear. When you knew, you had a choice to make: give in to that fear, your terror of your own death, or continue to push forward and live as though nothing was wrong.
You pushed forward. I love you for that.
I just wish you hadn't had to do it alone.