Loss Photo of a father holding his toddler daughter, circa the early 1980s

Published on August 24th, 2021 | by Jennifer Samson-Acker

2

In the World Where My Father Is Dying

I remember a trip to California. I was driving on Mulholland on a day that felt like a dream and pulled off the road to buy strawberries. They were blood red and dripping with their perfect juice. I didn’t bother to wash them. I couldn’t stop myself and thought I’d never get full of those strawberries.  

I kept imagining that day in the final weeks of my father’s life, the way the dust kicked up on the roadside, the warm, dry air and the sky, blindingly bright, and the blood-red strawberries in my mouth. In the final weeks of my father’s life, I came to realize he would never again enjoy a perfect strawberry. And I wondered if I would ever again bask in pure delight like I did that day, without a longing for what the world felt like before my father was dying. 

Photo circa the 1990s of Jennifer Acker as an adolescent in a yellow Benetton T-shirt. Her father, in a striped golf shirt, has his arm around her shoulders and is leaning his head on hers. Both are smiling.

When my father was dying, I preferred the foods he did: smoothies, applesauce, and soft cookies. When you chew, you have to process, and I couldn’t process what was happening. 

*

Like him, I run to the toilet often, my stomach churning with fear, his with imminent death. My heart beats too fast; his too slow. His muscles are wasting.  It feels like mine are too; when I exercise my body is heavy and weak and I’m out of breath before I begin. 

It becomes my habit to collapse in the shower; the loud hot water opens deep wounds that make it hard to breathe. And I understand my father will never know again this feeling of standing under hot water and being cleansed; he’s too weak for that now.  

When my father is dying, I lie awake at night with uncomfortable words stuck in the front of my brain: rare, progressive, incurable. Words like window clings that have been left on too long and I can’t peel away.  

*

I play over in my mind the day, not so long ago, that my father, the former football player, was excitedly running up the steps at the college stadium for the Big 10 football game, and I yelled, “Wait up, Dad!”  

I can see his rosy cheeks, and his body is lithe and free, save a deadly mutation lying in wait. 

I think: There is no way. You’re an exception, Dad. 

Photo of Jennifer Acker's father—a smiling, balding older white man with glasses—and her two young daughters, who both have brown hair and smiles

I brag to his oncologist about his nimble steps up flights and flights of stairs. But when I say this, sure that it means something, the man with the white coat just swivels his chair around from the computer and says, 

“That’s great,” in too sober of a tone. 

Then, right there, the heavy unspoken words float up again in a tiny room with cinderblock walls: 

rare, 

progressive,

incurable.  

I realize, in the corner of that room with no windows, there is no way out; we’re just in the first quarter of a game, a game we’re not expected to win. It becomes clear that the only way to cure the virtually incurable will require a high-risk operation with a small chance of efficacy. And I, his only child, must deliver a perfect pass, with little time left on the clock: my stem cells for my father’s life. 

*

In the world before my father was dying, I remember when hospitals were hopeful, exciting, and filled with surprise—jelly smeared on my growing uterus, ultrasounds listening for the thump, thump, thump, nurses asking if I wanted to know the gender. I wanted the surprise. Everything was a brand new, wonderful surprise. The unmistakable screams of new life, pinching pink chubby cheeks and staring at tiny toes. And my breasts full of liquid gold; my body is so capable of sustaining and nourishing new life.  

*

In the world where my father is dying, I stand alone in quiet corridors with COVID-19 and cancer mixing in the air, and variant viruses lurking. There are no good surprises left. There are only infusion centers filled with bags of blood and poison dripping into the veins of the dying. There are doctors with tired, vapid eyes; their humanity hidden behind masks and PPE. There are ambulances quietly waiting in a line, makeshift tents assembled on cold pavement, and there are too many lost snowflakes falling on nothing beautiful, and there is my father behind enemy lines, mixed in with the dying. 

I wonder if there is any liquid gold left here.  

*

In the world where my father is dying, I lie awake at night and imagine my blood being drained, gallons of it, until they find the perfect stem cells that will save my father’s life. I imagine my blood slowly dripping into my father’s veins until he isn’t dying anymore. 

I tell myself: They’ll turn my blood into liquid gold, Dad. They’ll knock out incurable, progressive, and rare in a one, two, three punch. I become attached to this fantasy of my blood saving my father’s life. 

It’s getting late though; the fourth quarter is here. And I hear in his voice that my father is too tired to play in the game. He calls and pleads for more juice. He’s so thirsty. I whisper into the phone, “I love you, Dad. Wait for me to get you out. I’ll be there soon.”  

Photo circa the early 1980s, featuring Jennifer Acker's father, a white man in a plaid shirt, smiling as he holds his infant child

I call nurses and doctors and scream through the line. I’m no longer a daughter; I’m an enraged mother. “Just give my dad a glass of juice!” 

And while he’s alone in a hospital room, I dream of holding tiny perfect babies, I dream of being five years old and my father pushing me in a wheelbarrow full of leaves under an October sky, and I dream of  blood, and I dream of my grandmother reaching for her son. And I know before I know. I know in only a way a daughter can know that her father is going to die. My quiet voice suddenly fierce, I make demands I didn’t know I was capable of. “Let my father out now. He’s dying.” I yell at doctors whose eyes I’ve never seen.

And when I reach my father, he’s sitting outside in a wheelchair, yellowed and frail. Wet snowflakes fall around him and melt on him. A nurse pushes him to me, and we carefully load him into the car in the same way I once did my newborn babies. I feel acceptance and loneliness in one breath. 

There will be no perfectly delivered pass. There will be no stem cells from a daughter for her father, spun into gold. 

*

It was in the glow of an August sun I brought my daughters home and into the world for the first time, and now in December’s darkness, I bring my father home, for the final time. 

I remember starlit summer nights when my daughters were small. We’d come in after dark with fireflies in mason jars. Their bodies exhausted, they’d stumble up the stairs to bed and climb for their beds. Too tired for their nightly bathing ritual, I would just wash their little faces, hands and tiny feet and tuck them into bed without a bath. And this will be my last offering to my father, to lift him from the couch and help him to his bed, to remove his shoes and gently wash his face, and then hands, and finally feet, and to tuck him into his own bed, for the final time. And I hope it was enough.

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About the Author

Jennifer Samson-Acker is a freelance writer and has spent time during her father’s cancer diagnosis interviewing and writing profiles on patients living with rare blood cancers. She has taught English and yoga and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Secondary Education from Moravian College Bethlehem, PA and a Masters in Teaching English from the University of New Hampshire. Jennifer lives in Nazareth, PA with her husband and two daughters. Anne Leibovitz’s quote, “If it makes you cry, it goes in the show.” hangs above her desk. 



2 Responses to In the World Where My Father Is Dying

  1. Ann Lokey says:

    Jennifer is a gifted writer of keen insight. I have known her since she was a young adult. I knew her dad as well. To read her writing now is a great joy. There will be more great work to come from her to be sure.

  2. John Serrao says:

    Jean’s story brought tears to my eyes. I used to sit with her Dad and watch her and my daughter, Holly, run high school track and cross country, and Bruce was Jenn’s biggest cheer leader through all her competitive years. He always had a big smile and loved being around when Jenn competed.

    Jenn is a wonderful writer and her story certainly reveals all the love she felt for her Dad, as well as all the terror, fear, and frustration she felt when she was losing him.

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