My Father’s Leukemia

It’s been ten years since my Father died. He called on a Saturday morning when I was sorting stamps to tell me that he had gone to the emergency room the night before. His girlfriend took him with what he called the worst pain he had ever experienced.

It was diverticulitis – a painful infection of invaginations in the colon. Painful but treatable.

During the exam, though, doctors found a hint of lymphoma. He was seeing his personal physician on Monday and they would schedule an oncologist appointment to make plans about how to proceed.

He was dead in three years. His initial bout with lymphoma was easily managed and he went smoothly and predictably into remission. He felt great but was warned that his particular lymphoma can return and he will likely need maintenance chemo treatments from time to time. There was a warning, too, that a lethal lymphoma will sometimes piggyback onto his non-lethal disease. It’s rare and is even more rare to see it before ten or fifteen years of lymphoma.

After a few short months of remission, Dad felt a BB-sized nodule deep in his left shoulder. He called his best friend about it – a physical therapist on teaching staff at USC in Los Angeles (I never got an answer to why he called a physical therapist instead of his oncologist) – who said that he had probably just strained his shoulder. In fact, the enlarged nodules were the first sign of Dad’s lymphoma returning. Soon, the rarer leukemia showed up with a death sentence. We did everything we could: weekly blood transfusions, stem-cell replacement therapy, chemo, and radiation but the two cancers proved too strong. He succumbed slowly at first – you had to stop and look hard to catch it. Then the geyser unleashed until he slipped daily and then hourly. He spent his last day visibly edging away until the life just slipped out of him.

I spent almost every day of his last two years with him. It never occurred to me that taking care of my Father was a duty. A kind of tit-for-tat. In fact, I considered it a great privilege. I hold nothing against friends or family who didn’t participate: death is a nasty game and most people avoid it and I hold no grudge against them.

Knausgaard Taking Care Of Family

Knausgaard is enigmatic about his father’s death. He spends a hundred pages with little introspection mulling over the clean-up of his father’s alcoholism and dying. He knew little nor seemed to care much about the details. What was known was that his father spent the last few years of his life alone, distanced or separated or divorced from any relationships, living with his widowed mother. He apparently drank himself into a stupor each day and night. To button up the estate and bury their father, the Knausgaard brothers spent a week at their grandmother’s home where they are shocked at the squalid mess. Karl Ove decides to clean his grandmother’s house from top to bottom. To make it shine. To take back what his father destroyed. They will have a funeral dinner here and invite the family who will comment on how the elder Knausgaard ruined the place and how the younger boys brought it back to life.

Both boys are happy that their father is dead but Karl Ove still cries. All the time. He cleans and cries. He views the body and cries. He goes to town to buy a lighter and smokes and he cries.

I can identify with this. When I was in the hospital recently for three months with a brain injury, I cried all the time. The smallest thing would set me off. Doctors said it was normal and ignored it. But, to me, it was disconcerting. I applaud Knausggard for including it.

But he only appears to cherish his relationship with brother Yngve. He mostly avoids his grandmother. Even his wife, whom he remembers to call only once, pleads with him not to shut her out of his feelings. He doesn’t cry over relationships or loss. He cries for himself and never – at least in the book – explores the reasons. In fact, a literary critique of My Struggle is that the writer spends little time explaining his raw feelings or activities. He just lays them out for the reader to like or not. Who cares?

The Knausgaard brother’s lack of concern or care for their grandmother disturbs me. For all of Knausgaard’s crying and brooding and fanatical cleaning, he never cares for his Grandmother but is disgusted by her while she sits in her own urine. Often, he is unable to be in the same room with her due to the smell of old and fresh pee and the shit stains all over her clothes. She lives in a kind of squalor that would embarrass most people but Karl Ove, Yngve, and even her own son, Karl Sr., pass her over with a pinched nose but no effort. That the family was outraged over the publication of this sad story isn’t surprising. That they aren’t in jail for neglect is.

I haven’t a clue what my parents did to give me the relationship I had with my father. Somehow, I grew up never wanting to disappoint him. He was where the sun rose and set to me. I would try harder and longer to do better just to make him happy.  I hope to have a modicum of this with my own children.


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I say great literature. My wife says expensive toilet paper…

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