He stopped in the middle of a snow-covered dirt road near our house in Parker, as if he couldn’t wait a moment longer to relate the following:
“This hat that I have on my head comes from Lancaster’s. Which is a little Western store on East Colfax, so far east that it’s almost in Kansas, where the cowboys in the eastern half of Colorado like to shop for their boots, hats, buckles, guns.” He counted them off on one gloved hand. “This summer I took myself over there because I knew I could get a beaver hat at a great price in the heat of August. Because no one is buying beaver hats in August.”
That was my father, age 59 in January 2002, on one of those Colorado mornings when the fresh snow and clear sky stretch time like notes on a soundstage. I stood watching him through my video camera’s viewfinder: my father, who many in Denver knew as Dr. David Rubinstein, psychiatrist, medical director, and staff physician at several area hospitals for more than three decades; my father, the Bronx-born Jew who grew up on welfare and became a Colorado horse owner; my father, with whom I never got along growing up but who—for reasons I couldn’t yet explain—had unwittingly compelled me earlier that week to begin documenting his every move; my father, the doctor turned cancer patient, then in year 11 of an illness that was supposed to have killed him in three.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” is what he said. Sometimes he repeated this phrase real fast, adding that that’s how he heard it in his dreams. It was what the radiologist had said to him in November of 1991, after reading my dad’s X-rays, which showed not only a malignant tumor in his prostate but also blurred lines around the gland indicating that the cancer had already spread to several nodes.
When the call came I was in a dorm room on the Upper West Side of New York. I was attending Columbia University’s graduate school for journalism, only a few miles from the Bronx apartment my parents lived in when I was born. Both of them were now on the line. “I had some test results that weren’t so good,” my dad said. “I may have some form of cancer.” Then it was my mom talking, kind of slow and about things we already knew. “So you’re still coming next week, right?” she asked, as if I’d ever canceled a Thanksgiving trip home. “Wednesday, you get in around 7. I’ll be waiting at the regular place.” Then dad wanted to talk to me, alone. After the click, he lowered his voice. “I can’t believe I neglected myself,” he said, as if to confess something, perhaps even to me. “I see patients every day, but I hadn’t had a checkup for years.”
I sat on my wafer mattress, blinking at the wall, numb. Over the next few days, my parents spooned me information like I was a child: The doctors didn’t think it was a good idea to operate. The reason not to operate was that it was an unnecessary risk. The reason it was unnecessary was because the cancer had already spread. The cat was out the bag, so to speak. That’s what the radiologist said. My dad had three years to live.