For my 16th birthday, my father told me he had cancer.
It wasn’t until several years later that I found out it wasn’t true. He hadn’t started out with the intention to lie to my brother and I, but as usual, things got away on him. He’d gotten pretty far behind with his child support payments and to get my mother off his back, he told her he was dying. I think she initially met this claim with skepticism (I’m not sure of the circumstances, but he apparently had used this tactic once before when she left him), but my dad spun a very convincing yarn. As a journalist and an avid reader he was a knowledge sponge, and even in pre-Google days he was good at absorbing facts that helped lend credence to any story.
My mother was devastated. And she insisted he tell his children.
He hadn’t anticipated this scenario.
He had a tendency to create lies as a defence mechanism. But as a reactionary, he often didn’t plan ahead and consider how the chain of events might play out. So he kept putting my mother off.
In an ironic twist of events, as a creative writing assignment for school that year, I was writing a play about a middle-aged woman who dies of colon cancer. (Not actually ironic at all, as I had been suffering from abdominal pain for quite a while and held a secret belief that I was dying of just that. This was about 5 years before my ulcerative colitis diagnosis.) Unbeknownst to me, my mother had informed the school of my father’s condition, and when the teacher read my project, he immediately contacted my mother. The parallel was too much for her and she demanded my father tell us about his condition at his next visit.
So he did. And I grieved. I had begun high school with a A- average and proceeded to slowly tank my grades. I missed classes. My mother gave me a copy of On Death and Dying and I worked my way through the stages. But somewhere around acceptance, doubt started to creep in.
For one thing, he didn’t die. Or particularly get any sicker (we didn’t see him much, so that one was harder to be sure of, but he didn’t seem any worse). Once, as an explanation on why he was still hanging around, he sent a copy of a news article about an experimental new treatment that he claimed he was on. But considering how few people were being given that treatment, I was skeptical of how he had managed to get on the list. He wasn’t named in the article, so there was no way of verifying it one way or another.
And then, on a road trip with my grandmother and her friend, while she thought my brother and I were asleep in the back seat, I overheard a conversation that reaffirmed those suspicions. She was angry at him for his manipulation. She accused him of making the whole thing up and expressed her frustration over not being able to do anything about it.
Inside I stewed. I was furious at her for the accusation and felt defensive of my father, but ultimately I couldn’t sustain that emotion. Everything pointed towards her being right, and she was only saying what I had been thinking for a long time.
There was no confrontation. There was no confession. We just all stopped talking about his cancer, and a few years later when his book was published and he was able to pay child support again, he didn’t have any reason to use it as an excuse. And now that he was flush with cash, birthdays and holidays were acknowledged in kind.
That was the thing about my father — when he was wealthy, we’d get envelopes of money for our birthdays and holidays. When he was poor, we wouldn’t even hear from him until weeks after, with a phone call explaining how he’d missed it because he was in an accident, or he went temporarily blind, or some other catastrophic explanation designed to make us feel guilty for being disappointed in him. I think it was more than just guilt that guided his behaviour. In his mind, we only loved him for his money. Our acceptance of that money confirmed this belief.
But really I only wanted contact. Given the choice of guilt money or emotional blackmail, neither option held much appeal to me.
A simple card or a phone call would have been less painful.