A personal programming note, and a comment on strong and weak ties

Cross-posted at the Incidental Economist and RBC.

I haven’t been lighting up the internets much lately. I’m away helping to care for my dad, who has kidney cancer. On Tuesday he had a radical laparoscopic nephrectomy. Amazingly, he was home the next day. He is recovering nicely. Hopefully the surgery has addressed this cancer. I’ll have more to say about this care episode and others on another occasion. For the moment, I will offer two observations.

My dad is 84. He’s been married to my stepmother Arlene for 34 years now. He’s been semi-retired or retired for most of those years. He worked for 35 years as an engineer. Like many engineers of his generation, he made a heavy life investment in his employer. The return on this investment was to be squeezed out in the wave of mid-1980s leveraged buyouts that, in his particular case, left a broken-up company and many broken implicit contracts before the pertinent corporate raider, Paul Bilzerian, found himself in legal jeopardy.

Although my dad definitely missed the paycheck and the dollars in his once-overvalued pension, in many ways he was happier. My stepmother was a teacher in Bergen County, New Jersey. They were fortunate to have bought their home years ago. Things worked out.

My dad has used his time to engage very fully in the lives of my sister and me, but also the lives of my four step-sisters, and (later) their partners and children. It’s never easy to be a step-parent. Many men aren’t welcomed to really do it. Many more screw it up or don’t engage.

That’s not my dad. He’s much more giving with his time than his friendly but work-centric son. And it shows….No one does it perfectly. But I can’t count the number of late-night phone calls, trips to the bus station, omelets cooked to cheer a momentarily-heartbroken teenager, the quiet or gruff advice, or non-advice, offered depending on the occasion. He did most of the cooking and home maintenance. He cared for his nonagenarian mother-in-law for a demanding period at home.

Now he is sick. As I said, he’s recovering nicely, but he’s doped-up and in pain. Laparoscopic surgery is less invasive; it’s still major surgery. My stepmother is 82, and needs help. There are many mundane, tiring, difficult, and intimate tasks that someone—though no one in particular—must do to help. And we are all here from all over the country doing the work, without ambivalence or much fussiness. We’ve pretty-much put aside the usual sibling differences and complaints to show our A-game in this demanding moment.

That’s the strength of strong ties. These ties don’t just appear. They are built and maintained over the decades and years. My dad has put in the work, and done so seriously and graciously. So it’s a pleasure and an obvious thing to do for him what he’s done for us in this show-don’t-tell moment in life.

I should mention the strength of weak ties, too. My academic job and my midlife-crisis journalism career have given me some of the best weak-ties one could ever want. My dad has a rather unusual cancer. One doctor friend looked over my dad’s case-notes and passed them on to pertinent experts to ensure that his physicians were following a smart treatment course. Another doctor friend connected me with an excellent urologist, who provided the gateway to excellent care.

My dad has gotten nice cards, books, and letters from journalists and health reform activists I’ve worked with in recent years, too.

I’ve gotten a lot of support myself, including from this blogging and policy community. It doesn’t matter whether you are 15 or 50. It’s scary and a little disorienting to see your dad sick, especially with the word “cancer” attached. Since I have the emotional age of roughly an eight-year-old, I have especially appreciated the support.

This is a difficult and scary moment. It’s also a gratifying one. It has brought out much to appreciate in the way my dad lives his life, and in the relationships we have with each other. It takes work. It’s worth it.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

7 thoughts on “A personal programming note, and a comment on strong and weak ties”

  1. “Since I have the emotional age of roughly an eight-year-old..” I’d be scared to meet the Chicago eight-year-olds you know.
    You and your brave father have our support anyway.

  2. Howard,

    It isn’t easy, but you’ve discovered that already in other ways. However this works out (and I certainly hope and pray it works out for the best), you have done a good thing. I’m glad you have a job that made it possible.

  3. I am visualizing a full recovery. 84 is the new 65. Which is the new 50.

    We are all 8 years old inside, imho. What’s different is knowing it.

  4. Truly touching. And, as usual, very, very well-written. Here’s to wishing your dad a smooth and full recovery.

    Weird, pedantic question: where is the demarcation line between strong-ties and weak-ties.

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