Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections on a life

Often lately, I find myself thinking about my Dad. It's been a few years now since we lost him. I still miss him. And I wonder if there wasn't something more that should have happened, some way we could have saved him. I remember vividly the telephone call I got at work that day. My mom and dad both on the line together, something that never happened. And something else new.

"Are you sitting down?", my mother asked. I remember the way my breath stopped in my chest, waiting. For what? For them to tell me it was all a joke and that everything was okay, the same as it was just seconds ago when I was thinking that my deadline for writing my pages was the most important thing in the world?

Instead, they told me that my Dad had been diagnosed with colon cancer and that it didn't look good. My Dad, sounding tearful, told me to look after my mother if something happened to him. I promised without knowing what it meant, without even thinking, still not believing anything could really happen. Not to my Dad, the man who could fix anything, the ever-present rock at the center of my universe who'd made me feel so safe I could do anything, go anywhere. He'd always been there if I needed him, not expecting anything in return except for me to do 'the right thing'.

It seems to me that over the next year I held my breath a lot, waiting. My father went through surgery and a horrific time in hospital - all his belongings were stolen and he had a terrible reaction to one of the drugs they gave him - only to find out the cancer had spread to his liver. He came home and prepared to die. For a while I was angry - with the hospital for what had happened to Dad there, with the doctors for not knowing beforehand that the cancer had spread and for not being able to do something, anything. I was even angry at my father, for having the disease at all. I was a child again, scared, my world out of control.

I am blessed because my Dad and I had the time and perspective to talk about things, to say the things we needed to say and to know how much we loved each other. But it was terrible to watch him give up hope, stop fighting, and let the cancer take him. In the end, he died at home, well-loved, and cared for by my amazing mother, helped by me, my sister, a wonderful cousin who'd lost her own father to the disease, and by a loving contingent of respite workers. He was only bed-ridden for a few days at the end, although he seemed to have shrunk to nothing in the meantime.

I've had other experiences with cancer - friends and family who've succumbed to it or, in a few miraculous cases, beaten it or lived with it well into old age. It is a specter that shadows my life because of heredity, our frenzied lifestyle, and the nature of our bodies. It is the monster in the closet or under the bed, waiting to pounce on any one of us when our guard is down. But people do survive, thrive, and become cancer-free. We are constantly learning - how to spot it, treat it, live with it, even how to prevent it. There is hope. And I believe that's where the difference lies between survival and surrender. Hope.

I wanted my father to do what I had seen him do before when things weren't fair in the world. Rise up and say no, this isn't right and I'm not having it. But in the end, he just couldn't. So I'm going to try to do it for him. Shortly, I will be starting a physical and spiritual journey of my own, traveling to Spain to do a pilgrimage. It'll be the biggest physical challenge I've ever given myself and I'm sure I'm going to love it and hate it and learn an incredible amount. But I'm also going to try to honor my father's memory and the memory of everyone who has left this world too soon because of cancer, as well as pay tribute to the people who are still here fighting. Of course I can't do it alone - I need lots of help. Stay tuned. I'll fill you in on the details soon.

Dad, I'm still trying to do the right thing. Because that's what you taught me. I love you.

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