In Toronto, my oncologist, my surgeon and an MRI all confirmed my friend Eli’s and my suspicions. Surgery has been scheduled for October. I slept on the flight to Thunder Bay, on my way home to Marathon, Ont., and woke up remembering a phone call from my father.
It was 2007. He wanted to visit me. I was living part-time in Toronto then, receiving radiation treatments and trying to fulfill my duties as the moderator of The United Church of Canada.
I told him not to come. “I am too sick,” I said.
He said, “I’m coming.”
At the time of the call, I wasn’t in the office. Staff moved a sofa into my office so that I could rest. But surrounded by such productivity, my irradiated, post-surgical body — the slab of flesh and bone relocated from my back to my face — felt like an offence to all that efficiency. So I gathered up the remaining wisps of my hair and irradiated ear, and retreated to the condo.
I have a high pain threshold and an above average capacity for suffering, but I am private about it. I cope by going inside myself. I lack the energy to host the questions and worries of others. When my father called to announce his intention, I explained this him: “Dad, I’m just so exhausted.”
“I’ll bring some food,” he persisted, “We’ll have lunch.”
“Don’t, Dad, please. Everything tastes like wood, tinfoil or rotten peaches. I can’t keep anything down. The smells.”
“You want comic books?” When my brothers and I were sick as kids, my father brought us ginger ale and Archie or MAD comics. I laughed in that tender way that catches in your throat and causes your eyes to sting. I was 48 and — as a father, myself — still bringing comics and ginger ale to my own adult children.
“Dad, I’m just too tired to visit,” I said again.
“Okay, we’ll nap.”
He drove down from Owen Sound, Ont. and we napped. My father dozed in a recliner and I slept on a sofa, beneath a blanket in spite of the summer heat. The sun bathed the living room with light through the easterly wall of glass, illuminating our resting bodies.
My father’s breathing then changed. We were awake. He said, “I talked with Raphael. That’s why I had to come today.”
Raphael was my grandpa Neil’s — or Aneillio’s — father. My father’s grandfather. Raphael, a peasant from Naples, immigrated to America. He was a widower and an irresponsible father. Soon after landing in New York City, Raphael married an opera singer and abandoned his six kids to the streets of Brooklyn. Aneillio was 11 years old when he last saw his father. My father, as a result, never met his no-good Nonno, Raphael.
“I have been praying to Raphael,” my father said. “That’s what I came to tell you.”
“Thanks,” I said, chastened.
“He came to me. Raphael.”
I imagined Raphael, appearing to my father, wearing an undersized, threadbare suit and a battered hat tipped rakishly on his head. His shoes scuffed.
“I told him,” my father continued, “‘Raphael, you were a lousy father. You abandoned my father. He suffered a lot because of it. So did I.’” I could hear him swallow across the room. Our gazes were still fixed on the ceiling. “I told him that I was going to finally forgive him for all the pain he caused. Then I asked him to hear a father’s plea for his son.” My father paused. “Raphael promised to look out for you.”
Looking up through the condo window, I watched a jet cross the clear, blue sky as it descended into Toronto. I whispered, “Thank you.” and added, “Raphael, one of the archangels.”
“Raphael means God heals,” my father said. “So, we will be okay.”
It was after he had gone — after we embraced and kissed at the door, and I laid back down on the sofa — that it occurred to me: He said that we, not you, will be okay. We will be okay. We both would be okay.
My father died in 2012, joining his father and grandfather in the mystery of life beyond life.
From the plane, as we descended into Thunder Bay, I saw light dancing on Lake Superior, thousands of metres below. I thought that we — everyone who loves and worries for me, not just I — will be okay. On the Camino de Cancer, we cannot afford to dismiss such mysteries easily.
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