When the doctor told dad he had fatal leukemia, he really fell
apart. He wasn't ready to die and couldn't handle the finality
of it all. The doctor tried to soften the news by saying the treatments
would contain the symptoms and minimize the pain, so he could
enjoy what time he had left, even though it wouldn't be much.
How much, the doc couldn't say. "Sometimes it takes six months,
Dad wished the doc had just shot him right then. To live under
a death sentence, to feel time running out with nothing to do
about it, seemed to make life not worth living. He got so depressed
he couldn't take care of himself. Everything seemed too much trouble.
Dad was sixty-eight and had been alone since mom had died four
years ago. Up until the diagnosis he'd done OK on his own. I'd
stop by a couple of times a week to check on him and help out.
Considering a single man lived there, the place was pretty clean,
and dad stayed busy with his hobby -- ham radio. He'd send Morse
code messages to buddies all around the world.
After the diagnosis, though, the sink would usually be full of
dirty dishes and the corners full of dust. He was listless, and
I could tell he wasn't eating right or getting outside enough.
After talking it over with my brother and sister, I decided to
move in and help him. Dad and I had always gotten along well.
Since my divorce two years ago I'd been living alone in a small
apartment. My daughter was grown and living in California. Moving
in with my father seemed the right thing to do. It would even
Although dad was willing, he didn't respond real enthusiastically
to the idea, which disappointed me, but I knew it was just because
of the apathy about life that he'd fallen into. After a couple
of weeks I was pleased to see that my being around cheered him
up. I got him on a good diet, and we went on outings together.
I even got him to work in the garden.
One night he cried out in his sleep. Our bedrooms were across
the hall, and his cry woke me up. I went in to check on him, saw
he was shaking with terror, slipped into the bed, and took him
in my arms to comfort him. Gradually his tremors eased, but he
held on to me and continued to sob. "The dreams ... they're
the worst. My hands were falling off ... like old gloves ... and
my blood ran out all moldy. Nothing I can do."
a dream," I said, but that rang false. It wasn't just a dream
... and he was right, there wasn't anything he could do ... but
wait until it caught him. At least I could be with him and help
him so he didn't have to go through it alone.
We held each other in the bed a long time in a wonderful closeness.
He was naked, which embarrassed me, but I was feeling like a nurse,
so it was OK. He fell back to sleep, and I went back to my bed.
Next morning he thanked me and told me how I used to be the one
who had the nightmares and would come in for comfort, crawling
into his and mom's bed crying about a monster. I didn't remember
but was glad to be able to return the favor.
His nightmares got worse and more frequent. Several times a week
his cries would wake me, and I'd come in and hold him until the
fear went away. Sometimes we'd both fall asleep afterwards. I
wondered if it might be better if we simply slept together, but
the idea made me uncomfortable.
One night dad was particularly upset. As he moved restlessly around,
his head came against my breasts. It stayed there. He stopped
moving, except to snuggle deeper into them. I held him close against
me until he relaxed, the trauma of the dream passed, and he returned
to quiet sleep. The power of a woman, I thought, the power of
As the weeks went on and the nightmares continued, we found ourselves
more often in that position: his head on my breasts, my hand on
his head, stroking him. This seemed to do him the most good, have
the most soothing effect on him. Sometimes he'd have his cheek
against one and his hand against the other, resting quietly. I
was so glad to help him that I pushed any sexual thoughts away.
This was hug therapy, I insisted. I thought about wearing a robe
over my nightgown but didn't want to.
One night he cried out, and when I came into the bed he didn't
fully wake up but remained in a kind of desperate half-sleep,
murmuring and quivering, rolling back and forth. As I tried to
hold him, the movements must have opened a button on my nightgown
because when dad nestled into my breast this time it was bare.
Instinctively his lips found my nipple, and he began to nurse.
This is going too far, I thought. No!
But I could feel him becoming totally calm as his anxiety drained
away. I began to cry very quietly, tears sliding out of my eyes,
mouth shut. This was wrong, sinful, a voice said. Letting your
naked father kiss your breast. Stop him ... now!
But how could I stop him ... and how could it be wrong? This was
helping. Dad was dying, and this was making what life he had left
a little more bearable. I knew the peace he was getting at my
breast was more important than whatever the voice might say.
The next time he was thrashing desperately around and I slipped
into his bed, I unbuttoned the nightgown myself and gave him the
breast, stroked his head while he nursed. Dad grew still and in
a few minutes was breathing quietly and in a few more was asleep.
We didn't talk about any of this during the day. I didn't want
to break the spell. This was giving him the only contentment he'd
known since the diagnosis.
One night, though, dad didn't just fall back to sleep with a sigh.
He began touching me. Touches that were full of need but very
gentle. On my stomach ... my legs ....
I froze with fear. But I couldn't stop him, I had to let him do
what he needed. He kissed me, his lips also full of need but very
gentle. His lips melted my fear, and I kissed him back.
Suddenly I knew I had the power to heal him. I might not be able
to heal his cancer, but I could heal HIM. That was more important.
I took the nightgown off. As we made love, I felt waves of energy
pouring from me into him, and the more I gave the more I had to
give. He was my father. He'd given me life, and now I could give
him a bit of it back.
Dad didn't have any more nightmares. We slept together every night
after that and made love often.
Up until then I'd pretty much lost interest in sex. After menopause
and the divorce, it seemed why bother, what's the big deal. Now
at forty-nine it was a big deal again. Dad's lovemaking was slow
... and satisfying ... for both of us. Each moment of it was life
in all its precious, fleeting fullness.
We fell in love in a whole new way. Both of our lives opened out
into an Indian summer of passion, a bittersweet honeymoon. Dad
found a new zest for life. We flew to Hawaii where he'd always
wanted to go, swam in the Pacific, walked hand in hand beneath
a tropical waterfall, and in the condo I did a silly hula dance
for him wearing only a flower necklace.
Of course we were hoping for a miracle: The power of love would
drive out the evil demon of cancer. And of course it didn't happen.
Dad's new lease on life was short-term. The leukemia got him,
but every minute until then was appreciated.
This was our spark of love in defiance of the dark void. This
was life on the run in a race it could not win, but the running
was the point of it, not just against time but against all the
repressions that hold people back from loving, all the little
daily deaths that society demands.
Life is short and mostly unhappy. If we can find a little joy
that doesn't hurt anyone else, we have to take it. No one can
tell me what we did was wrong.
Tom Hathaway 2009
Hathaway is the author of TABOO:
A MEMOIR, which is published by Dandelion Books and
serialized on Sliptongue (click HERE).