The Letter I Wish My Father Had Written


I was 23 when my father was diagnosed with liver cancer caused by hepatitis C. He died six months later during my senior year of college. He was hundreds of miles away getting free treatment at the Indian Health Services hospital near the Cherokee Reservation. I never saw him during treatment and I didn’t go to his funeral. It’s my biggest regret, although our last words, over the phone, were “I love you.” I didn’t tell him I was scared because he was dying of cancer and my boyfriend was diagnosed with lymphoma just two weeks after my dad’s diagnosis.

This is the letter I wish my father would have to me, the daughter he called “Gril.


I know I keep asking when you’re going to come, but it’s just something you’re supposed to say. You know? Like, “Please donate to a cancer charity in lieu of flowers for my funeral.” But I want those flowers, already wilting like me. Does that make me a selfish person?

Oh. Did I tell you I’m going to be cremated? I don’t want this body anymore. It’s broken. It didn’t even last me 65 years. I’m sure you’ve guessed, but most of my hair has fallen out. Isn’t is crazy that it stayed so pitch black and down to my waist all these years? Sometimes in the morning, I still reach to braid it. And my head gets cold. And my shoulders and back. I’m cold all the time.

Well, the beer belly’s gone. No matter how much they make me eat, nothing sticks anymore. I wish I could enjoy it, this excuse to eat all the collard greens, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and beer I want. Not the beer, not anymore. It doesn’t sound good, and the doctors wouldn’t let me have it anyway. Neither would Karen.

I never thanked you, either. For being so accepting of her. It was so easy for me, but I guess it couldn’t have been for you. And I’m sorry. Sorry that I just disappeared when you were fifteen and left you with your crazy mom. I guess I got out before you did! Haha. I’m sorry I told you that you couldn’t come with me, either. Couldn’t live with me, and that I got as far away from Oregon that I could. But I needed Karen, after all those horrible years. Plus, I know you didn’t really need me.

I knew more about you being kicked out and living in a car than I let on. I mean, I had to sign those papers, didn’t I? Giving up my rights to you so the government could call you “abandoned by both parents” and you could get all those student loans for college?

You were almost grown by then anyway, and I know it’s been a long time, but a little nip of guilt just keeps eating at me about that. It’s almost as relentless as the cancer. Sorry about that.

Ah, cancer. I kind of knew it all along. I didn’t know it was cancer cancer, but I knew it would be something. It’s destiny, don’t you think? That’s what I get for killing my mom coming out of her and making all my brothers and sisters motherless. I think they cursed it on me, or maybe I’m just imagining that. But who would have thought? Hep C. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m a junkie, but you know. I can’t even get laughing gas at the dentist without throwing up.

It was the squirrel, you know. The one with the big bushy tail on my forearm you always liked? God, that was stupid. But you get bored in prison. We didn’t even know what Hepatitis C was back then. It was the 70s, what would it matter if I got a prison tattoo? And who knew it caused cancer? The people who think I got liver cancer from drinking, you better tell them I wasn’t a drunk. It wasn’t from drinking. Please. Please tell them that.

I know you don’t like hearing my voice on the phone now, and that’s okay. Remember when you used to get really embarrassed about my accent when we went through the drive-through at Wendy’s and they couldn’t understand me? I’m sorry about that, but I still want to hear your voice.

And I’m proud of you. I guess I’ve never told you that. Of what you’ve done and what you will do. I never thought my kid would go to college. Get accepted to grad school. I dropped out of high school, and now here you are. You look just like your mom, but you’re so much like me. You have that wandering in you. You need to watch that. Be careful, because you just might wander so far away you can’t come back.

I do love you. I know I never said that enough. Or at all, I guess. Did you really need me to? Didn’t you know? I’m sure you did, I’m sure you knew. You had to.

That’s all I have to say, I love you. I love you. Do you remember—no, you were too little. I used to balance you on my arms and fly you around like you were an airplane, or I was. We both were. You loved it so much.

That’s how I’ll remember you as I’m leaving. And here, I’ll tell you a secret: I’m glad. I’m glad I won’t die old, all crippled up and alone. I’m glad you won’t see me that way, and I’m happy you won’t see me this way. Remember me as I remember you: Young, happy and spilling over with the vibrancy of life.

I love you, little girl.