DEAR CAROLYN: I found out my 84-year-old father has cancer; I found out from my sister, who found out from his wife, but both communications were "in secret." My father hasn't told either my sister or me directly. I would like to be able to communicate with him about this, but am not sure how to bring it up. I think his failure to tell us could in part be his own selfishness/insensitivity — he also failed to tell us when he remarried — but also because he doesn't want to "burden" us. To the extent it's the latter, it seems like I should be able to tell him that isn't a problem, but to the extent it's for his own personal reasons, I guess it's his choice?
IN SECRET: It is, though it's one that affects you and others, clearly.
Seems to me the most respectful plan is to accept his decision and drop the subject.
The respect-meets-honesty plan is go back through the source, and ask his wife to nudge him to tell his kids, at least.
If she says no, or if she does it and he says no, then think of this as a gift you can give your father: You play along, and you let him think he's protecting you from all this.
Or, if he's just thoughtless, you play along and let him think he's getting one by all of you.
The it's-his-life-to-manage truth is at its most urgent at the end of life, isn't it? And even if he beats the cancer, 84 still gives him every right to yell you all off his lawn.
RE: SECRET: Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary of my father's death. He, too, had cancer and told absolutely no one, nor sought treatment. We only found out when he collapsed and wound up in the hospital, literally on his deathbed with just days to live. They never even found out what kind of cancer. This left his affairs in a mess: No one knew where the will was; there were no plans for my 90-plus-year-old mother, who was destroyed by his death; there was no chance to put grievances right; no nothing. I wish I could end with good advice — I am still stupefied that he let this happen. At least you know it in advance, won't be surprised to find out in his last hours.
STUPEFIED: I'm sorry. There is no advice here, except to potential secret-keepers: Don't.
RE: SECRET: I went through this with my own father more than 20 years ago. At 88, he had lived with cancer for at least five years (that I know of), had several cancer surgeries and still refused to acknowledge what the problem was. At most, he very occasionally referenced what to do "if anything ever happens to me." The day he died, our very last conversation was who he was supporting in that year's World Series; he was dead three hours later, during my two-hour drive back home from his city. BUT: That was the way he wanted to handle it, and so my sisters and I let him. I've always thought of it as the last gift we could give him.