My Father, My Colonoscopy (as featured in the essay collection, Midlife on Fire)
Before mid-life, I always feared change.
As a kid, I was terrified of becoming an adult. My diaries from the 70's attest to my desperate and pointless quest to cling to childhood. That sweet spot between drowning and driving remains one of the happiest times of my life. When the monster of puberty reared its hairy head, I had no interest in shaving my legs, getting a bra, or dating boys and the idea of getting my period felt like a death sentence. I loved being a kid. Loved it. Somehow, I knew even from a very young age how lucky I was to be loved and cared for unconditionally, free from obligation except attending school and feeding my rabbit. Although my parents had no identity as independent people outside my own needs (that would take another two decades), I understood their life was much harder than mine. I could see how we kids were sheltered from the struggles of adulthood, and I wanted it to last forever.
Alas, no such luck. My twenties were spent building a career, missing my teens and worrying about my thirties, and my thirties were a blur of putting off creative passions for corporate safeties and checking off the marriage and kids boxes before forty. It wasn’t until I turned 50, safely halfway on this reckless journey, that I understood what being present really means: letting go of what you can’t change about yesterday or control about tomorrow. Enjoy your station, even if sometimes the station doesn’t have the right trains, destinations, or any decent restaurants. You know that saying about youth being wasted on the young? It’s so true it hurts. Physically.
Which brings me to my colonoscopy. At 50, I was now roughly the age my father was when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was time for this coming-of-middle age rite of passage. Not as thrilling as losing your virginity or birthing a human but a milestone, nevertheless. Yay!
In middle age as you’re busy first keeping your kids alive and then keeping them from becoming assholes, your own parents age privately. We arrogantly assume they have nothing left to teach us. The roles are famously reversed, and often we become their caretakers as their needs grow and our children’s diminish. I imagined that as my mom and dad neared eighty, I’d be driving them to a variety of doctor’s appointments and apologizing for their inappropriate comments. I never thought I’d hear myself say, I can’t meet Tuesday, my dad is taking me to my colonoscopy. My husband was away, and since driving yourself after narcotic sedation is a bad idea, my dad offered to take me. His golden years enthusiasm for driving was mysteriously absent during my teenage years of needing a ride to the roller-skating rink.
I had a demanding job, two needy dogs, a husband, two adolescent boys and a house full of stinky cleats - I didn't get much one-on-one time with my Dad, even though he lived close. Our lives now have reversed rhythms, just like Harry Chapin warned in “Cats in the Cradle.”
He picked me up early, beeping the horn in the driveway like one of my high school dates he’d disdained.
“Are you off work today?” He was always interested in hearing about my job. I’d been in corporate communications for the past decade, rising through the ranks of several companies to the point where I now regularly conversed with CEOs and Chairmen. I’d contemplated changing careers to pursue writing full time and even made a halfhearted leap a few times - but that fear of change… still living rent free in my heart and soul. Safety was an addictive drug, golden handcuffs too comfortable to shed for the unknown.
“Of course I’m off today,” I said. I am a very driven person (thanks in part to him) but even I balk at checking email from the colonoscopy table.
We’ve always gotten along (aside for a brief and indiscreet motorcycle tryst when I was 16). Our relationship is unremarkable. Our lives are like anyone’s – our shared moments at once personally historic and publicly mundane. Now that we are both AARP members, there’s no point in analyzing how different or similar we are. I inherited his sense of humor and spectacular impatience, which only ripens with each passing year for both of us. I used to try to change him, but these days I don’t have the appetite for a pointless argument like I did in my twenties or thirties. We’re in the mezzanine of life now. We’re free to be… friends.
On the way to the hospital, we discussed the Brett Kavanaugh nomination hearings, which were going on at the time. We’re both generally loath to discuss politics, having endured our fair share of disastrous holidays after too many cocktails revealed family members’ preferred news sources. But somehow this felt different; everyone was talking about it. The stakes were high.
“Can you imagine being held accountable for everything you did in high school?” he wondered. “No,” I said, recalling faintly other motorcycle incidents he still didn’t know about. “What was the worst thing you did? In high school?”
“Well,” he began, “I never assaulted anyone, but we did a lot of partying, a lot. And…I got arrested for stealing a model airplane engine at Woolworth’s.”
This made me laugh out loud.
“I got caught stealing earrings from Bradlee’s!” I gushed. Now it was his turn to laugh, but he quickly composed himself. “Does your mother know that?”
I said she didn’t.
“Let’s keep it that way.”
As he dropped me off at the hospital, he said, “Have fun. The drugs are pretty great.”
It’s funny how you talk to your father differently at each stage of adulthood. I remember him telling me to “toughen up” when I cried during my first semester at college. I remember him urging me to “get a plan” when I quit my first job in New York City and moved home, and that if I didn’t have a plan that I should “get a plan to get a plan.” I recall being annoyed with him for inviting a pompous ass to my wedding - someone I didn’t know whom he’d just met and wanted to impress. I remember him crying tears of joy when I told him that at age 39, I was pregnant. But mostly I remember his stubborn insistence that I strive for more, pursue my dreams and no matter what, have a better life with more opportunities than he’d had. Sometimes I blame my commitment to a corporate job instead of a creative life on this - because it’s easier than blaming my own choices.
As I sat in the lobby awaiting my first colonoscopy, I thought: here I am, officially in mid-life. The age where the thought of your children having sex is almost as upsetting as the thought of your parents having sex.
I am very lucky that my parents are still healthy and independent. I feel myself growing older and more like them every time I fail to understand my kids’ music or hair. I would rather steal away to bed with the newspaper than stay out late, and the idea of two hours of being mentally absent from the demands of adulting makes me positively giddy. Even if the price is having my lower colon invaded with a small tube. At 50, sleep the new sex, a subject of fantasy. I now feel about sleep the way my teenage sons probably do about sex. That is, I think about it constantly, crave it, can’t get enough. And when I’m not getting any, I sneak away to my bedroom to do it by myself. If someone walks in the room and catches me in the act, I quickly compose myself and pretend I wasn’t doing it. At least I don’t do it in the shower. Yet.
After my procedure, I awoke to a cheerful nurse informing me that I would not be allowed to leave until I farted.
“Your colon is full of air, from the procedure. You need to let it go or it can be very painful.” I must have looked skeptical, because she leaned in and whispered, “Don’t be embarrassed - I’ve heard it all. It’s not even funny to me anymore.” I made a mental note to ask Dad if this was a normal colonoscopy thing. What a gift, to break wind with reckless abandon before a stranger, and be praised for doing so.
I dressed and another nurse led me to the waiting room. Spotting my dad, she announced, “And here’s your …significant other!” I gave her a look. “Well, I don't want to assume he’s your husband.” She winked.
“He’s my father!”
She was promptly embarrassed; my dad was delighted. Still groggy and weak from fasting, I held his arm as we walked to the car.
“Did they make you fart?”
“Yes. And it was excellent.”
Dad asked what I felt like for lunch. One’s first meal following a colonoscopy is no small decision. The sensible (50-year-old) side of you knows to ease back into the eating world with caution. You haven’t had a real meal in 5 days, and have spent a lot more of that time letting things out than in. Days of white bread and skinless chicken washed down by broth had left me hankering for anything green.
“I could really use a salad.”
My father promptly pulled into Jimmy’s Steer House in Arlington, a classic dimly lit, red banquette restaurant known for its prime rib, buttered rice pilaf and lobster rolls. I knew the menu intimately because I’d waitressed at its sister restaurant in the mall during summers in college. At high noon on a Tuesday the only thing older than the restaurant itself was its clientele. Aside from a squalling newborn, I was the youngest person there, and I was old enough to have a colonoscopy. A slow-moving gaggle of elderly women were being carefully led to a large table by the hostess. Some of them could barely walk or see, but they were decked out in shimmering scarves and brooches, pastel blazers and sensible slacks, and their hopeful perfumes filled the air. They ordered white wine. My father gave them a once over. “Well, their husbands are probably all dead, so they may as well have fun,” he said. I opened my mouth to protest, then decided I agreed with him.
During lunch we gossiped about my siblings, shared food (I ate his fries) and discussed the state of our country. I asked how he would compare today to 1968, the year I was born. “Did it feel then as divided and scary as it does now?”
“Worse,” he said. “It felt like the world was going to explode.”
“That’s how I think it feels now.” He nodded. I paid the check, and he feigned surprise, a practiced move that must feel very satisfying after raising three kids who now make their own living.
He asked about my job, my 401(k), my stock, health benefits, the company politics. He was determined, I thought, through this rigorous questioning, to ensure I avoid some of the mistakes he did (retiring too early, selling to cover when exercising options, studying tax implications before doing anything from breathing to making home improvements). I knew he was proud of my corporate accomplishments, the title and salary. I didn’t know if he would be prouder if I made a living as a successful screenwriter or novelist, the dreams of my youth. I’d never asked him, because I didn’t want to know.
We were silent on the drive home, and I nodded off a few times, savoring the four thousand calories I’d just consumed. Pulling into my driveway, he turned to me. “Do you think… you’ll ever start working on another book?” (My previous two novels remain widely unread and critically unacclaimed, despite both my parents’ gushing endorsements.)
Generally, I hate this question, but it had come out of nowhere and the narcotic had left me calmer than usual, so I didn’t get defensive.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “Now that the kids love their friends and Fortnite more than me, I seem to have more… mind space.”
“A game where you pick a costume, kill everyone you see and… never mind.”
He took a moment before speaking - something he and I rarely do.
“Well… I know you have to make money, but… you have a talent, and it would be a shame to squander it.” That stung; Dad wielding a two-dollar word like squander as a weapon for my own good. There it was. You can do more. You can be better. Take your opportunities - the ones I never had.
He put the car in park and let the engine idle. I asked if he wanted to come in. “No thanks, I have to get back to mom.”
I hugged him, went inside and began to write.