WOSTER: Cancer took Dad quicklyIt’s been 44 years since my dad passed, back in the heat of an August evening at the hospital in Chamberlain. Cancer took the big, strong farmer faster than his wife and five children could understand.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
No child who had even a mediocre relationship with a father ever forgets that relationship, or that man.
For me, it’s been 44 years since my dad passed, back in the heat of an August evening at the hospital in Chamberlain. Cancer took the big, strong farmer faster than his wife and five children could understand. One day he was Charles Atlas, strongest man in the quiet farming countryside northeast of Reliance. The next day, or so it seemed, he lay in a hospital bed, struggling to draw shallow, rasping breaths, oblivious to the presence of family members in the room or out in the hallway.
When I tell that story — which I don’t as often as I used to, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember it as clearly as the night he died 44 years ago — I often say the whole thing happened so quickly that we really didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. That isn’t quite true. We didn’t say goodbye. That’s true.
And there wasn’t a lot of time to say goodbye, that’s true — barely two months between cancer diagnosis and funeral. There was time, though. We just didn’t manage to use it for goodbyes.
For the most part, we pretended it wasn’t actually happening, that things were normal, even as my dad lost weight and the ruddy color of a lifetime under the Lyman County sun on a tractor or a combine, as his wide shoulders shrunk and his powerful forearms became loose skin over bone.
He lived with cancer and died of it at a time when most folks in polite conversation didn’t talk about Cancer (which always carried a capital letter “C” when they thought of it or whispered it in a half-fearful way). They didn’t talk about it openly, and they certainly didn’t talk about it to the person who was suffering with the disease. That simply wasn’t done.
A few, select people did talk of cancer with my dad. I wasn’t among them. On the couple of visits home between his diagnosis and death, we talked, as he reclined in an old-fashioned, plastic-webbed lawn lounger, of baseball, of my experiences in the world of sports writing, or of the weather. We talked often of the weather, whether it would rain, whether the last shower dropped any moisture on the dry fields of Lyman County, whether the wind did any damage up north the previous day.
I can only imagine how little he cared whether the wind had done any damage up north the previous day or whether I’d had a fine time covering the golf tournament at Elmwood the week before. But we didn’t talk about what was the only important thing to either of us at that time, and for a long while after he died, I blamed myself that we hadn’t.
I don’t feel much blame these days. When I think of those times, I still sometimes wish I had asked the questions and learned what he was thinking and feeling as he lived with the sure knowledge of his impending death. It would be nice to know what he thought at the end, of his life, his family and friends, his kids, his middle son. I’ll never know except by the way he lived for the 56 years up to that short summer of the cancer diagnosis.
What I know from the way he lived is that he loved being a farmer. He could appreciate a sunset after the worst of hail storms as much as a sunrise on a pasture with a couple of newborn calves among the herd of Herefords. He found great reward in simply working hard and making progress toward a goal, whether the goal be finishing the harvest on the last field of winter wheat or moving the last stack from the alfalfa field over west back into the farm yard for the winter. He found pleasure in singing at the top of his lungs as he stood on a tractor in a swirl of dust, and he found pleasure in sitting quietly in the living room after supper, just reading “Life” or “Look.”
He taught me much in how he lived. He just didn’t live long enough to teach me everything.