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It's ok to talk about my Dad's illness - but it can be the hardest thing

Opinion

On Sunday, Matt Clemow will celebrate his first Father’s Day as a Dad. But the celebration will be muted – and poignant – as he spends the day with his own Dad, whom he feared would not live to mark the milestone.

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My Dad has inoperable, terminal cancer.

This is a six-word sentence that no one ever wants to be faced with, and I doubt I’m alone in having had no idea how to deal with it.

The #itsoktotalk social media campaign this week has led to me to rethink about why it is so important to share our fears and grief with each other.

Being forced to face my Dad’s mortality has come on the back of my mum’s own dice with lung cancer last year. That was when I first faced the awful four-word reality that my parent has cancer.

I responded by doing what men of my age generally do – by largely ignoring the seriousness of what lay ahead until it became too much.

With both Mum and Dad, I’ve been consistent in this predictable approach. I’ve shared my thoughts with friends over texts, had a casual chat over wine with colleagues here and there but then completely fallen apart under the pressure of it all at a random event every other month. And repeat.

Most importantly, not once have I been brave enough to tell either my Mum or Dad how scared I actually am. We are running a kind-hearted, well-meaning protection racket: I won’t be blunt with them provided they aren’t with me.

I assume this is the standard behaviour of people too afraid to face what is coming at them, and too awkward to know the appropriate way to socialise these horrible, non-Instagram friendly thoughts.

Both parents at the same time may seem unlucky – Mum’s six week treatment lasted until the week our son was due to be born – but I’m lucky because I get to spend Father’s Day with my Dad on Sunday.

It's ok to talk about my Dad's illness

Matt and his Dad on his wedding day.

And I’m fortunate because I’m buoyed enough by the warmth and honesty of people to now share my closest thoughts.

I started writing these thoughts in May, while watching my nowhealthy Mum spend Mother’s Day with my own son, her darling grandson – her first.

That morning was like a window into my childhood, a beautiful, front-row time machine seat as she fussed over Oskar in ways I simply know she fussed over me.

The joy.

One coffee later, and with my nose in my laptop, I could hear Oskar upstairs with my Mum and my stepdad – all three giggling ridiculously and having the times of their lives.

Downstairs, I had tears streaming down my face because I couldn’t even be sure Dad would make my first Father’s Day.

Dad’s trouble started in April – and it was a lump in his neck. He was his general, laid back, nonchalant self and was making jokes – but he kept calling me back with updates. I largely ignored the possible scenarios but I couldn’t put aside his fear.

Within just one month we were staring down a long, horrible tunnel into the unknown – and the few knowns were terrible. We knew, from very early on, that my Dad’s cancer was inoperable and terminal.

Inoperable and terminal. The four words had become six. Bam.

I started writing this because writing is the only thing I know – and want – to do when I think about this.

I found it hard to talk to people. Now, like then, I’m still not ready to be the brave one, let alone the needy one. I’m a step beyond overwhelmed – a word not yet found.

Using my professional training to write this public column somehow provides a more comfortable forum than the dinner table.

Why is this? Is it being the proud guy in his mid-30s? Is it being an only child? Is it being a privileged white male? What is it that makes my gender and generation so averse to facing up to grief and mortality and, in particular, men’s health.

This is exactly why #itsoktotalk is so important, to encourage people to talk to those around them in whatever way they feel most comfortable, to find ways to let people in.

It’s ok to talk about the frailty, the uncertainly of life. It’s ok to contemplate something horrible and respond by holding those so precious to you a little longer, a little tighter.

Dad’s a tough bugger, much loved. And on Sunday, we get to celebrate Father’s Day. My first; his hardest-fought.

The four months between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have been absolute hell. Between are the sentences I keep writing and deleting.

But we’re all still here. He is healthy and actually in pretty good nick. The growth in his neck is at bay for now and doctors tell him to enjoy life while they keep a watchful, fearful eye on what comes next. And we will do all of that, with love and hope.

It's ok to talk about my Dad's illness

A young Matt and his Dad.

I’m truly heartened by the small things. Dad already has two loving grandchildren from my sister, he has my brother and me, who he has moulded and guided more than he would admit. He has a loving wife – my stepmother – and adoring sisters, nieces and nephews. He still has his Mum, my Nan – our matriarch.

But every happiness has an equal and opposite sadness. My stringbean nephew will want his Poppa at his first game of colts footy, my crazy-brave niece will want to share with her Poppa all the stories where she took on all the kids at kindy and won.

I want my Dad to be the calm, kind and caring influence to my Oskar that he has always been to me.

Most of all I just want him to keep being my Dad.

My heart bleeds – but we will be together on Sunday.

And I’ll tell him, and myself, that #itsoktotalk.

Matt Clemow is a former journalist and political advisor. He is currently director of Property and Consulting Australia and outgoing General Manager of the Committee for Adelaide.

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