Exactly thirty years ago, my father, age 69, died from bone cancer.
Five years before his death, doctors diagnosed him with prostate cancer. While Dad, in denial, spent several months deliberating how he should treat his cancer, it spread to his lymph nodes and that was pretty much that.
The five years between Dad's diagnosis and his death was, for our family, a journey into hell.
My mother, who had known nothing or no one else in her adult life except my father, was in crisis. Two of my sisters lived out of the country without easy access to the U.S. A third sister was a high school teenager. Dad's condition overwhelmed all of us.
In 1977, I lived in New York. Mom and Dad were in Los Angeles. As Dad's final weeks approached, I could think of nothing except him and his fate.
Sometimes when I visited Dad was home. Other times he was hospitalized. But wherever he was, his will to live dominated his spirit.
Once when Dad was at home, I organized the monthly bills for his signature. A renewal from Sports Illustrated was among the invoices. I asked Dad if he wanted to renew. Even though Dad certainly knew that he had little time left, he replied: "Yes, for five years."
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, even though death is at your doorstep.
In the hospital, Dad never slept at night. We would stay up to watch talk shows and late movies. Although Dad didn't speak of it, I'm convinced that he was afraid to sleep during the dark hours for fear that he wouldn't wake up. But every morning at dawn, Dad would fall off.
Sometimes when I came to visit, Dad would greet me but then turn his back. For the rest of the time I spent with him, he barely uttered a word.
At the time, my feelings were hurt. But I later realized that my frequent trips from New York were a sure signal to Dad that he was critically ill. And, as I also later learned, if you're dying you cannot help but being envious of those who are living even if they are your own flesh and blood.
Dad was the typical Italian patriarch. Death was never discussed…not even hinted at. None of us dared to broach the subject. Only a last-minute intervention by our family lawyer insured that Dad wrote a will.
I last saw Dad at the UCLA Medical Center. He had season tickets to the Bruins basketball and he encouraged me to go to the game that night. Reluctantly, I went. And when I returned, Dad spoke his last words to me: "Did they win?"
Since death was a forbidden topic, a lot went unsaid between my father and me. Luckily, Dad told the nurses, as they later relayed to me, that I was "a good boy" and that he was "proud of me."
As comforting as those words were, I wish Dad had spoken them directly to me.
But even more I wish that I had been more candid with Dad about my own love for him. Although I learned many of life's valuable lessons from my father, I also picked up from him the undesirable trait of keeping my emotions in check.
Three decades have passed since Dad died. I think of him many times each and every day. Gradually, I have been able to block out my tortured memories of Dad's slow decline from a robust and vigorous man to a mere skeleton. Now my thoughts are of our many happy days together.
This year on Father's Day, I'll be in Western Pennsylvania with my son and grandchildren. You can be sure that I will tell them all—many times over—how much I love them.