The Masks We Wear

by Josephine Mahoney

My dad and I are almost the same person. He is tall; I am tall. He gets freckles; I get them too. His laugh is excessively loud yet infectious all the same. So is mine. We both enjoy the treacherous terrains of different mountain ranges, and the exhilarating, adrenaline pumping feeling when our eyes see the peak. We delight in the fierce wildness of the beach in winter, the bitter wind whipping across our faces, the ocean crashing with an unrestrained roar. We are silly. Potty jokes still make us laugh. We sing like frogs; we dance like idiots. And we are stubborn. Oh so stubborn. The only difference between us is that my Dad is dead, and I am not.

Losing your best friend at seventeen sucks, especially when it is sudden. I was in the middle of my last year of boarding school in Australia when my Mom broke the news of his illness to me. Home for my first term break, the last thing I expected to hear from her during the car ride was “cancer.” Cancer. Cancer is curable, right? It’s probably not that serious. Dad is the strongest person I know; there is no way he would ever be a victim. I did not understand what “stage IV” or “terminal” meant until I saw it for myself: the slightly emaciated figure lounging in my Dad’s chair, the pale face uncolored by the usual effects of rosacea, the full head of hair similar but unmistakably different. Who was this victim? My Dad was strong. He was immortal. Who had he become? After only two months apart, I felt like I was looking at a stranger, and it scared me. But I was strong. I forced a smile on my face and greeted him.

“Of course school was great!”

“Yes, I am still planning on going to California.”

“You look like you’ve lost that beer belly, Dad.”

I never asked my real questions or expressed my real thoughts. I put on a mask to hide my insecurities. I did not cry that day.

My quest became to make my Dad feel as comfortable as possible. Normalcy was key. Do not ask the tough questions. Be sarcastic. Talk about all the good times. I would search the Internet for thoughts on “How to Talk to People with Cancer” or “Why Acting Normal is Beneficial to Cancer Patients.” There was an endless amount of suggestions. I would have a question, the computer would pop out the answer, and I would test the advice on my Dad. The result was almost always positive, with good conversation and bouts of nostalgia. We talked about the past but never about the future. It was a system, and I was the machine that ran it. I  worked as efficiently and tirelessly as the I.V. bag attached to his arm. The drip, drip, drip of the I.V. merged with the tap, tap, tap of my keyboard.

I thought I was handling it perfectly. My Dad seemed happy when he was with me, and I with him. After all, we were so similar –– how could we not be happy? But  the system was not perfect. The machine began to crack. The smaller his body became, the bigger I stretched my lips in a pretend smile. The same stories did not work on him twice. Prolonged bouts of silence increased with each increase in medicine dosage. I was about to become unhinged with the number of secret thoughts bubbling up inside of me. Words spewed out of my mouth before I could stop them.

“I don’t want you to die.”

And suddenly, like one snowball causing an avalanche, I cried for the first time on an abnormally warm April day. My Dad would never see me graduate high school. I could not see. He would never see me graduate college. I could not hear. He would never be able to interrogate the first boy I brought home. I could not feel. He would never walk me down the aisle, hold my first child, become a grandparent, grow old with Mom, or watch me grow into a beautiful, successful adult. I could only talk. He would never do any of it, I told him as tears streamed down my face and clogged up my nose and mouth. My words trickled up and dried faster than my tears did. By the time I could see again, I was confronted by a look of absolute helplessness on my Dad’s face. Two words forming on his lips.

“I’m sorry.”

My Dad is like me. Of course he was thinking about the same things I was. He was thinking about them more than anyone. But what could he do? He put on a brave face, like mine, but under his mask was only helplessness. The one thing he wanted more than anything in the world was for his family to be happy, but we could not be happy without him.

I became a stronger, sturdier machine. I put up my boundaries and closed the gate to my heart. I flipped the switch on my emotions. My worries buried themselves in the dark. The only way I could keep it that way was to talk to my Dad less and less, which was no problem considering his ability to speak was deteriorating faster than my will to speak to him. I did not want to hurt him. I did not want to hurt myself. I became comfortable with just listening to the sound of his soft breathing, calmer than it ever was in health. The systematic beeping of his health monitor became my lullaby as I slept beside him. But deep within the darkness, my heart ached for the comfort of his voice.

His last labored breath came out as a final effort to say goodbye. It was not until his hand squeezed mine for the last time that I realized my mistake. I had spent the last couple of weeks avoiding the hard questions, and now I was left with a void the size of my heart. I did not want to look weak, so I never received the answers I needed to move on. Our awkward smiles, our forced laughs—we were only hurting each other. It hurt to talk about a future without each other, but it hurt even more now to be in that future without any clue what to do. The system that was running my life could not function without my Dad. I cried for the second time that night. A heart-wrenchingly empty cry that hurt so much more than the first one. Was this void my Dad’s fault for not being able to respond to me on that warm April day? Or was it my fault for not confronting and comforting him when he was in pain? The fault lies with both of us for wanting a happy fantasy over the harsh reality. This type of situation required a combination of jarring honesty and pretend normality; we just focused too much on the latter. A sacrifice of valuable time together for the façade of normalcy.

My dad and I were almost the same person. He was tall; I am tall. He got freckles; I get them too. His laugh was excessively loud yet infectious all the same. So is mine. And we were stubborn. Oh so stubborn. Too stubborn to acknowledge death, to cry, to take off our masks. Although I berated myself for not being honest, my façade did bring him occasional happiness. I realized that there are two halves to successful caretaking, confronting the issue at times and forgetting the issue at other times, but I have also accepted the impossibility of attaining a perfect balance between the two. There is no right way to handle the death of a parent. I take solace in knowing that when we held hands for the last time our thoughts became one.

I love you.