My Father. My Teacher. Myself.
My father, David Alexander Sloane, would have been 81 this week. He died four years ago after complications caused by a powerful dose of chemotherapy intended to slow the spread of his rapidly metastasizing prostate cancer.
I still think about my father a lot, especially this time of year. He was a powerful force in my life. I loved him but was often scared of him: scared of his anger; scared of disappointing him; scared of looking like a fool in front of him; scared of not being enough like him; scared of becoming him. Like most father-son relationships, it was complicated.
My father had a challenging relationship with his own father, Samuel, but this didn't prevent him from joining the family law firm. I decided, in high school, that I wouldn't follow this path into the family business. When my father, disappointed, confused maybe but not angry, asked why I would turn my back on a ready-made career and more than comfortable lifestyle I told him it was because he never seemed happy. He didn't ask me about it again.
My father tried hard to develop a different kind of relationship with me than the cold, formal relationship he had with my grandfather, even after he separated from my mother and moved out of the house when I was 13. Despite the gruff, macho persona he projected out into the world he was a very loving and affectionate man. He hugged and kissed me and told me that he loved me all the time, even as I grew into a man myself. He made it ok for me to be masculine and loving and affectionate at the same time.
We were very different, though. I was a sensitive, artistic kid and he wasn't much interested in art (though he loved music and had a killer record collection, which I duly raided as a teenager). But I always felt loved and supported by him, despite his often mocking and sarcastic sense of humor. I return to this constantly as I navigate my relationships with my own children, who are all well on their to adulthood. At every opportunity I opt for loving and affectionate and avoid mocking and sarcastic.
Our differences -- in sensibility, in taste and preferences, in how we made sense of the world -- meant that my dad didn't always understand my choices. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013, thirteen years or so after his own diagnosis, my father recommended, vociferously, that I heed the advice of the first two surgeons I consulted and have my prostate removed.
It was very personal for him, and not only because I was his son. He had come to believe that he had made a grave error in the course of his treatment. After his diagnosis he had opted for radioactive seed implants, state of the art at the time, but his cancer had returned after seven years of remission and had spread to his lymph nodes and bones. Surgery was no longer an option for his advanced prostate cancer.
For the rest of his life he had to rely on a combination of chemotherapy, radiation and a steady dose of testosterone-blocking hormones to slow the spread of his disease. But this treatment regimen significantly impacted his quality of life. He was happy to be alive, to enjoy his grandchildren and to serve his many grateful law practice clients but he was often uncomfortable if not in debilitating pain and felt betrayed by his body. For someone who so closely identified with his masculinity, turning the testosterone spigot off was a bitter pill to swallow.
The dose of chemotherapy he received shortly after his 77th birthday knocked him down and he never really got back up. His immune system, already weakened from previous treatments and a generally unhealthy lifestyle, was spent. One medical calamity after another besieged his body and kept him confined to hospitals for most of the last few months of his life.
I sat with my father, by his bedside, for days on end during this time. I couldn't help but see myself, one all-too-possible future, in his (our!) encroaching decrepitude, the life force draining out of his (my!) once-robust body, and it scared the fucking bejeesus out of me. Seeing my father suffer as he neared the end of his life was a powerful way to reckon the value of my own health.
As a young man I judged my father harshly, and unfairly, for what I judged to be a lack of curiosity. He was smart, successful and always generous, providing for everything his children needed and most of what we wanted. But I wanted him to be worldly, to travel, to grow beyond his provincial Patchogue roots (Patchogue is the town on Long Island, NY, where he grew up and to which he returned after law school; it's also the town where I grew up). I wanted him to want a larger life for himself. He never ventured far, however; and wasn't really interested unless there was a boat involved. He often seemed uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. He was really his happiest, felt most comfortable in his own skin, when he was working. When he was playing the part of David A. Sloane, Esq.
What I've come to realize is that what I really wanted was for him to be more curious about me, about the things I was interested in, so we'd have more in common than our affection for New York sports teams. What I really wanted was for him to stretch toward me, to engage in what I was interested in. This was hard for him, though. It wasn't until I became an adult and started bumping up against the challenges he could relate to -- family, marriage, career, health -- that he came to really see me, someone who's interests, though not interesting to him, are nevertheless worthy of interest. And it's no coincidence that this is when we grew closest.
I'm grateful for the time my father and I got to spend together toward the end of his life even though it was hard and terrifying and terribly sad. And I'm grateful for the things I learned from him throughout our 51+ years together, both the things he explicitly taught me and the things I learned by watching how he operated in the world. Like all of us, he had qualities both good and bad. I've tried to emulate the good and not only forgive the bad but be grateful for what it taught me.
Thanks for everything Dad. You are and always will be missed. Happy Birthday. I love you.