The “C” Word

It took me a long time to accept that my mom had cancer. The tumor in her brain manifested itself for the first time toward the end of my senior year in high school, and for a while we debated whether or not she should have surgery to remove it. The chances of her coming out of surgery alive were good, but the chances of her coming out as the same person, with the same intellect, were grim. She defied the odds, though, only losing an almost undetectable amount of short-term memory and having one bad reaction to treatment. Do not get me wrong, it was a terrifying time for us, but everything turned out okay. I do not discuss this often, perhaps because I fear I will “jinx” it and the cancer will come back, so you can imagine my utter disbelief when I was told my father, too, had cancer.

My mom called me at school on February 20 to inform me that dad was in the hospital. She said it was something to do with the back pain that had been bothering him since Thanksgiving. She avoided uttering the dreaded “c” word, but I sensed it coming. That night, and the following weeks, terms like “MRI” and “PET scan” and “biopsy” and “malignant” swirled around my head, and I just could not believe it. How could this be happening again, to the other parent, to me? How could something so dire go undetected for so long? Were we really going to survive this a second time?

Each time I saw my dad after that initial visit to the hospital he looked skinnier, sicker, older, more defeated. I was constantly amazed and terrified by the change in him, but I tried so hard to stay strong for him. For my mom. My last few months of college were tainted; I felt constant, literal pain in my heart that I could do nothing about, could talk to no one about. No one understood, no one cared enough, either because I didn’t tell them or didn’t let them. Graduation weekend was the worst of it for me. My dad, who had annoyingly talked about this event months before I even cared to think about it, was barely able to stand up let alone go out to dinner and celebrate like rest of my class and their families. On the day of the ceremony I didn’t even want a picture with him, I didn’t want to remember him looking like that. He was in an unimaginable amount of pain, his mood and appearance deteriorating by the minute.

Three days after I graduated college my dad was admitted to the hospital. I sat with him every day doing crossword puzzles, reading, listening to the doctors and talking to the nurses, bringing him things from home. One day he asked the radiologist if this would kill him, and the radiologist looked him in the eye and said no. I did not believe him. Every time I looked at my dad, at how weak he had become, I thought, how could it not? I tried to start making peace with it, not necessarily giving up hope but accepting the incompetence of his doctors, and the field of medicine in general, to do much about this disease we still know so little about.

My mom found out on her 58th birthday that her husband was going to die. It was the first time my dad’s oncologist finally admitted that the cancer was spreading faster than any treatment could work, that they still had not identified a source, that the only thing left to do was “make him comfortable.” As soon as the doctor said “hospice care,” I knew I had known this would be the outcome all along. No, we would not get through this a second time. Two nights before he died I wanted to sleep at the hospital because I was in a panic that he would just go in the middle of the night with no one around, but I also felt guilty leaving my mom alone in the house. I silently begged him to hold on at least one more day so that my sister (who was on her way from Chicago) and his best friends, my godparents, could be there. For once in our 22 years together, he listened to me. When my mom and my sister and I left the hospital the next night, I was eerily calm. I woke up Sunday morning to the irritating sound of our phone ringing, knowing that I no longer had a father. It was the first time I had ever seen my mom cry.

My dad is gone. Some horrible, incurable, unknown form of cancer spread quickly and mercilessly throughout his organs and bones and took him from me. The person I had come to know since February 20 was in a great deal of pain, and I feel some relief to know he is not anymore. But what about the person I’ve known since January 8, 1988? Where is he? Why isn’t he here anymore? He was nowhere near ready to leave me, my mom, my sister, his granddaughter. I don’t know how to live in a world without him.


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