Twenty years ago last month, I was in the daze of my first weeks without my mother. I had been attending San Francisco Lesbian Avenger meetings during the summer, and then dropped off during the weeks before and after her early September death.
Finally I called fellow Avenger Masha Gessen. I had to acknowledge what had become evident: that I wasn’t going to be able to come through with whatever commitment I had made at the last meeting I attended – back when I knew my mother was mysteriously ailing, but didn’t know it was a terminal metastasis of her breast cancer, in its final stages.
I told Masha what had just happened – that my mother had died a week or two back, and that all I could do was struggle each day to remember how to breathe and sip and swallow and walk. Masha said: “Come over. My mother died less than a year ago. Breast cancer. Come over right now.” I was staying at my parents’ place in the East Bay, and Masha was in San Francisco. It was late in the evening already, but something in her tone told me I needed to go. I was spinning in an abyss, and her voice was the first thing I had encountered that sounded like it might arrest the spinning, maybe even establish a marker by which I could begin to navigate deep space.
Dad died a week ago today, at 92. What follows is more hagiography than exposé; forgive me. Many factoids are wobbly around the edges. This is just my own vision. If you knew him, you may find much familiar, but I’m sure your mileage will vary. Also many of these are more anecdote than “thing.” As a result, this is the longest post I’ve ever published here, so it’s divided into five discrete pages. For the rest of the month, if and when I post, I may just publish Pops stories from the LD archives. Ninety-two years here, with a generous surplus in the “love” column: it’s the least I can do.
92. Dad was born in 1921 in Seattle, Washington to Jessie Harsha and Edwin Pagenhart. His mother hailed from the Ohio River Valley (her people were Scottish and English), his father from the South Dakota prairie (his people were German immigrants). They each skipped the small towns they grew up in for thrills far afield.
91. His family was in Seattle because his father was captain of the U.S.S. Lydonia, a survey vessel for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and he was charting the Alaskan coastline in the region of Ketchikan. Not long after he was born, Dad’s family relocated for a short while to Berkeley, about a dozen blocks north from where I live now. Thereafter they returned to Washington, D.C. and Chesapeake Bay, MD, places Dad would as likely consider home as any.90. Either the greatest number of years or the most memorable ones of his childhood were spent in Manila, where his father directed the mapping of the waterways around the Philippine Islands for the Coast Survey. Here is his earliest memory, as he jotted it down in one of a multitude of unfinished wisps of autobiography:
The only thing I can remember on my own during those Manila days before I was three: looking eye-to-eye into the face of a Filipino girl or boy from the back seat of our car as we passed the big open front window of her house (nipa), must have been stopped for a moment because we looked straight at each other. She was resting on her arms and we only stared in casual close glance about three or four feet from each other as the car moved onward. That’s all I recall of my first memory of the living world. But it took place just at the end of Dewey Boulevard [ed note: since renamed Roxas Blvd] as Manila turned into the Filipine suburb of Pasay and the road became dirt instead of pavement… auto traffic continuing south had to make its way along a winding street between houses of Filipine nipa and bamboo construction so it would explain a sudden slowdown in driving, allowing me, held in someone’s arms and looking out, to gaze into the calm face of a little girl returning the gaze.
His family returned to D.C. for a number of years, but were back to Manila again in the mid-1930s.
89. He has outlived his younger and his older sister, each of whom were very dear to him, in very different ways. Younger sister first: cancer. Older sister only just last year.
88. Every day when he returned home from his younger sister’s bedside during her short, intense cancer decline, he would walk in the door, put down his things, sit down at the piano, and play song after song, as if he were Scheherazade’s accompanist, each new tune somehow keeping his sister alive another day. He steadfastly held out for a miracle (literally: a “miracle”) up until the 11th hour. “Hope springs eternal” being his operable motto. Duly noting: this was the first family cancer death of three, each as close as possible to him.
Pops: son, brother, friend, student, naval officer, professor, uncle, husband, father, grandfather.
And now, blithe spirit.
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
A month’s daily output here has been dramatically interceded upon by a marked jolt to my Pops’ biographical timeline, in the form of another stroke. He has surprised us by being the proverbial Eveready bunny after past setbacks.
Not so, this time.
This afternoon, my daughter took his hand in hers (first holding it alongside my hand, and then taking it into both her own). For minutes upon minutes on end, she stroked the back of his hand, and then his forearm. Put her soft-soft nine-year-old girl cheek against his hand. All the while, smiling at him radiantly, deeply. As if she knew something he and I didn’t quite. We both looked on in wonder.
(By way of explanation to the children: “Think of DadDad as a magnificent castle, and room by room – sometimes a whole wing at a time –the lights are going out.”)
There she lies
Turning nine before my very eyes
Turning nine before my very tired eyes
Effortlessly, in her sleep
Bigger now than she has ever been
Yet half the age she’ll be when she leaves home.
Tomorrow will be the twenty-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Breast cancer metastasis. Hers was the second in a three-part string of family cancer deaths, the oldest to go (my dad’s younger sister died not very many years before).
My dad had only just retired from his position as a Geography professor just a few years earlier, and had been teaching classes at the local community college, primarily for the enjoyment of it, and because he’d been asked. The two of them were going to write a textbook together, a long-discussed and long-delayed project. Hydrology of California? Something in the field of physical geography. He had met my mom when they were both graduate students in Geography, and hydrology was her area of concentration. She helped draw the maps for his doctoral dissertation, later helped him craft syllabi, grade papers, and, when he was away, guest-taught his classes. She was always a hit.
Everyone complains about cancer but few of us do anything about it. Not because it doesn’t touch us; it does. I don’t know a person whom it hasn’t, directly or indirectly. It has changed (more appropriately rent) the fabric of my family of origin dramatically. (Aunt. Mother. Nephew.)
Most of us don’t do much about cancer because we have no idea what we can do, beyond informed changes in our personal habits. That changes with the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study.For some background: the American Cancer Society (ACS) studies have been instrumental in our learning about how we can prevent cancer. Past long-term studies have demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer; the impact of body mass on cancer risk; the impact of hormones, physical activity, and diet on cancer risk; and the link between aspirin use and reduced colon cancer risk.
The Cancer Prevention Study-3 is now out in the field: it’s a long-term study, running for 20 years, and aiming for hundreds of thousands of participants. They’ve got a lot now, but need more, and I’m writing this post to convince you to join me as one of them. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be part of something very big, and very consequential. Many participate out of a sense of protectiveness for their own or the next generation. Some, like me, will be participating as a way, one among many, of paying back a debt.
LesbianDad is a personal essay/photography blog. It began as a document of my parenthood but, like life, its ambit has stretched to include much more than I expected. My kids call me "Baba," and together we work toward a world in which amor really does vincit omnia.