I didn’t call him enough. I can see that now. That’s on me.
Instead, I ran, just like I always did. I took the path of least resistance with my father because, well, that’s just the way Tom Graves wanted it. In the 59 years he walked the earth, in particular the 35 he spent with me in his life, you could count the number of times things didn’t go his way on two hands. Maybe one.
So when he diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer in the fall of 2009 I did what he wanted. I let it go. Treated it as just another thing on his plate, like the property flipping business he started in retirement. A chore he would take care of on his own terms, thanks for not asking.
So I didn’t. He began chemotherapy in September, 2009 and I made exactly zero change to our routine. I think during his first four months of treatment we might have talked twice. And when we did, it wasn’t about cancer. What questions I did manage to squeak out (note: my father remains the toughest interview of my life) were met with a simple “Oh, dad’s fine” and the unmistakable subtext that trying to work on a followup was completely unnecessary.
Being 600 miles away in Kentucky and preoccupied with a job and an infant son, I was only too happy to go along. I could hear the frustration in my sister’s voice when she talked about her inability to communicate with him and I wanted no part of it. Better to pretend that everything is fine rather than deal with the messy emotions that come with true honesty.
It’ll be fine, I convinced myself. This will be just another one of those things that he handles alone, like the three heart attacks he suffered between his mid-40s and early 50s. The ones he basically walked off like a bad cold.
He was so fiercely private about his health I literally had to invent an excuse to come home when he underwent surgery in January, 2010 for what he kept referring to as a “blockage” in his intestine. When I surprised him in the hospital, I lied and told him I was in town because a high school friend was having a bachelor party. Seeing him laid up in bed, his body dulled yellow by chemo and nausea forcing him to spit up into a wastebasket every few minutes was jarring. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound in his prime monolith I remembered couldn’t have weighed 170 pounds.
And still, the charade continued. I hung out with him before he went into surgery. We talked about my upcoming Olympic assignment. We talked about Colin, his grandson. We talked about the Redskins (because we always talked about the Redskins). We kept it light.
The day I flew back to Kentucky, I stopped by the hospital to chat. He appeared exhausted but OK. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the last time I saw him alive, but it kind of felt like it was. It was pleasant but my most vivid memory was how I basically tried to get him to tell me he was proud of me. I needed to hear it. He obliged (kind of) but it wasn’t quite the heartwarming “movie” moment that I’d fantasized about. It felt forced (by me, not by him). I hugged him and left, already preoccupied with thoughts of the Vancouver Olympics.
Barely a month later, he was gone. It wasn’t the cancer technically. His heart, weary of the fight, gave out. I spoke to him a couple of days before that last heart attack. He was back in the hospital and high on pain medication. He thought I was his girlfriend when I initially called. I think the entire conversation lasted 97 seconds. Enough time for one last “I love you” from both of us. While I was able to get home and be in the room when they turned the life support machines off, there was little doubt he was already gone.
Four years later, I still don’t know what to make of his death and how it impacted my life. It’s funny. I miss him more now than I did two years ago. Maybe it took cancer (in some small way) to find the common ground that we failed to reach as adults.
My cancer is different (thank God). I’m not going to die. Not even close. While the first cycle of treatment was a little bumpy (I’ll blog about that later) I’m amazed at my body’s ability to handle constant bombardment of medicine, whether it’s Velcade or the Rituxin that is treating the cancer or the fistful of pills I take daily to ward off the side effects. The early numbers are encouraging. And while I may be in treatment longer than anticipated, my resolve _ thanks in large part to the support of my wife Ellie _ has only strengthened.
Yet sitting in a chair for hours on end (my Rituxin days are a good 7-8 hours long, as are the days when I receive blood transfusions) gives you time to think. I can’t shake the idea of what treatment must have been like for my father.
The thing that has frustrated me the most since this thing has started is the knowledge that I can’t predict on a given day how I’m going to feel. I’ve called out of assignments on my way to them because I’ve been hit with a sudden fever or weakness. I can’t imagine how difficult and painful ceding that power from his mind to his body must have been for dad, who never met a situation he couldn’t find a way to immediately take control of. I imagine it was infuriating and agonizing. I’ll never know, though. I never called to ask. I happily took ‘no’ for an answer.
I shouldn’t have. I wasn’t a kid when he went through this. I was 35. I was a husband and a father. I was a professional with a career. Yet the balance of power in our relationship never evolved. In many ways I was still the 10-year-old who famously told him once that I didn’t have to do my homework anymore because I was a big kid. He responded by grounding me.
I fully understand that some of this is on him. That he kept nearly everyone, from his parents to his brothers and sisters to his children, at arm’s length. And because he had a force of will unmatched by anyone perhaps on the planet, we didn’t fight it. We should have. I should have.
The guilt of failing to do that ebbs and flows. I don’t feel it quite as acutely as I did in the immediate aftermath of his passing. Instead, I just miss him. I would have liked to see him as grandfather. He saw his grandson Colin once. He never met my 2-year-old daughter Catherine. I bet she would have owned him. The thought of it makes me laugh.
One of the blessings (if you can call it that) of this illness is that it has forced me to empathize with him. The differences and distance that had us reach out from neutral corners most of the time has disappeared. I feel closer to him in a way. I was wide awake at 4 a.m. last week (thanks steroids!) when I envisioned him walking into the bedroom. He filled the frame (he always did). I didn’t hallucinate but the image was so clear that I started to cry. For years during young adulthood he was on the periphery of my life. Now that I finally have the courage to want him to be a part of the nucleus, he’s gone.
Colin asked Ellie this morning who my dad was. She politely responded “Grandpa Tom” and the name didn’t register in Colin’s ears. Part of that’s on me. I haven’t talked about my dad enough, perhaps because I never talked TO him enough.
Yet Colin needs to know about his grandfather, even if I’m still learning. He needs to know that the reason I do what I do for a living isn’t because it’s cool or because I think I’m good at it. I do this because sports was the one thing my father and I could talk about.
He took me to my first football game when I was 8, the 1982 NFC championship between the Redskins and the Cowboys. Three decades later I can still hear the crowd at RFK chant “We Want Dallas.” The Redskins won. My father was joyful. I was hooked.
I have no idea how my relationship with Colin will evolve over the next 30 years. I want us to be friends when he’s my age. (Hell, I want to be alive when he’s my age). I hope we’re close. I know one thing’s for certain. I won’t raise him to take no for an answer from me. I won’t let him be satisfied if I try to keep him at arm’s length. If that’s the lesson I take from my father’s death, so be it.
Thanks Pop. Sorry I didn’t call enough. For both of us. It won’t happen again.
Dad was a big Motown/R&B guy. I’ll let Marvin show you out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph0aELhsQoc