Other People’s Pain

It’s easy to forget that I’m not the only person in the world who lost Jim McNaboe. Although my particular pain is unique–no one else in this situation lost her dad to a mysterious form of cancer when she was 22 years old, 15 days after she graduated from college, four years after her mom started battling brain cancer–that doesn’t make it any greater or lesser than other people’s pain. Just different.

My mom lost her husband. She is now a widow. As much as I hurt, as much as I just want to scream and cry until no more tears can possibly come out, as much as I feel like I partly died along with my dad, I can’t even begin to imagine how my mom feels. The thing is, I have one parent left to help me out. She does not have another husband. I have decades and decades ahead to recover, to stabilize, to grow up, to go on adventures, to start my real life. She does not. I am, under different circumstances, a very social being who is often surrounded by friends. She is not. She has to deal with the legal matters, the money, the insurance, the will, the houses, the cars, the bills. I do not. She–KNOCK ON WOOD!–beat her cancer. Her husband did not.

The few times I have gone out this summer, I’ve come home to find Chinese food containers in the fridge. Chinese food is a social thing, something you order with your roommates when you don’t feel like cooking or with your girlfriends when you are moping about boys. I picture her eating at our dining room table, sitting in her usual spot in between my dad’s chair and mine, and I just can’t take it. I think of all the things she and my dad have done together since I started going to Loyola, all the trips they took to the Caribbean and how often they went down the shore, and my heart breaks even more than I thought it could. Everyone keeps telling us that we are not alone in this, but we are. We are alone in our pain, together and individually, and in many ways she is more alone than I am. And yet, she is constantly making sure that I’m okay.

My dad’s best friend Ken is my godfather, and Ken’s wife Kathy is my godmother. Jimmy and Kenny, as they so fondly referred to one another, met in college when they belonged to the same frat, making them friends for almost 50 years. Given our close relationship with them I am very confused and surprised by not telling Ken and Kathy sooner that he was sick. I don’t know if it was because he didn’t want them to see him like that, or just because he thought he would eventually be okay. Either way, Ken had even less time than my mom, my sister and I did to process the severity of the disease, to process that he was going to outlive one of his oldest and closest friends by too many years.

When the oncologist told us my dad would not make it much longer, we called Ken and Kathy immediately after we called my sister. We didn’t say it in so many words but we wanted to give them the chance to say goodbye. Looking at Ken looking at my dad, his best friend of 45 years who he didn’t even know was sick until a few weeks before, knocked out by morphine in a hospital bed and looking thinner than ever and completely unable to communicate…To say it was heartbreaking, torturous, and gut-wrenching would be an understatement.

And then there’s my dad’s pain, physical and emotional. What was he thinking, if anything, those last few days? Did he realize it was going to happen? Was he as mad at the doctors as my mom still is? Where do a person’s thoughts go when he is so heavily medicated? We never had one of those Grey’s Anatomy moments where he knows the cancer has taken hold and tells us all to be brave and that he loves us and will always be with us, that’s not really how it works. Maybe the pain of knowing he was unwillingly leaving us combined with the pain of the cancer itself was worse than anything we feel now. Maybe.

Ironically enough, my mom and Ken are more worried about me than themselves, and I’m sure my dad, wherever he is now, is equally concerned about his little girl. They keep saying that I look so sad and they wish they knew how to help me. Well Mom and Ken, I wish I knew how to help you. I wish I could tell you and myself that everything will be all right, but I do not believe that.


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