Yes, cancer sucks.
Okay, that’s an obvious understatement, but it’s about the most descriptive adjective I can use in print without resorting to words I promised by 14 year old daughter I wouldn’t use. It definitely sucks most for the person who has cancer, but it is not easy being a bystander to cancer either.
It’s pretty amazing to think that I didn’t actually know anyone with cancer until sometime in my thirties. It was then that my friend Kristy was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time at the age of 30. Her first battle with the dreaded disease was when she was 25. The first time, she opted for a lumpectomy, but the second time she went for the bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) with reconstructive surgery.
I remember visiting Kristy in the hospital a couple of days after her surgery. She was alone in the room when I entered, and she was crying because the pain was so intense. When she saw me, she immediately wiped her eyes and apologized to me. She apologized to me for crying. For being so weak.
In that moment, she became my hero. Not because she was so strong, but because she was so brave.
The covers of blissful ignorance were ripped viciously from my eyes that day, and the realization that bad things happen to good people struck me full force. I’d known this all along, of course, but now I was witnessing it first-hand. Kristy was one of the kindest people I knew. And if cancer could strike someone like her, it could happen to me, too.
I never looked at my life in quite the same way after that.
Cancer didn’t touch my life again until six years later when, fresh from my honeymoon where my new husband and I were living once again in ignorant bliss, I receive a phone call from my father telling me he had esophageal cancer. My mother had passed away only 11 months before and suddenly my entire world started spinning out of control.
Oh God, please let my father live. I had never really needed him before, but I sure needed him now.
My father and I loved each other dearly, but we’d also had a somewhat contentious relationship. He would say something hurtful, I would get defensive, and he would yell at me, tell me I was being too defensive. And so it went. I cursed the fates that took my beloved mother before my father, but I would soon come to understand why it was so.
Several months after my mother’s passing (and before my father’s diagnosis), my father and I had a huge fight on the phone. He once again said something hurtful (this time it involved my mother), I once again got defensive and so on. I slammed the phone down and vowed I would never speak to him again. And then I had an idea. I would write him a letter.
In my letter I told him that the reason I was always so defensive was because he was always attacking me. That nothing I ever did was good enough for him (I was a college graduate and a CPA for crying out loud), and that I felt as though he couldn’t love me unless I was living my life according to the Book of Dad. I mailed the letter (he’s was an old fashioned kind of guy) and I waited. And waited. And then, about 3 weeks later, I got a letter back from him.
In his letter he told me that I was absolutely right, and that he could never see how hard he was being on me. That of his 8 daughters (yes, I’m the youngest of 8), I was the most like him, and he had his own vision of how my career should go.
He validated all the pain and all the insecurities that I’d felt my entire life. And in that single act of reading his letter, I forgave him. He asked me for a second chance (while stating that he did not deserve one), which of course I gave him, and in that moment, I knew why my mother left before he did.
I will be forever grateful that we mended our relationship before cancer because I knew it was from his heart, and not borne out of his need to make things right before dying.
And so the cancer journey began for us. I took my dad to endless doctor, radiation and chemo appointments because I was the most geographically located to do so. And as we would sit in the waiting rooms together, he would ask me which of his possessions I wanted, tell me what his desires were regarding his “girlfriend” (don’t ask), and how, as the executor of his estate, he wanted everything settled (including the disposition of the home he and my mother had shared for twenty years).
It was heartbreaking to watch a man who had once been larger than life fade away before my very eyes, but I was grateful that we were, at last, becoming friends.
After dropping my father off at home and tucking him into bed before heading back to work, I would sit in my car and cry. I’d cry for my father, and for myself, and for the family Christmases that would be no more. And then I’d go back to my job. At least until they fired me for missing so much work.
My father put up a valiant fight, and just as he had been at the age of 14 when he stole his brother’s birth certificate, joined the Army, and fought valiantly in World War 2, he was a true soldier to the end. A noble warrior.
And when he died, I became an orphan.
Everyone’s life has been affected in some way by cancer. How has it affected your life? Do you draw inspiration from the courage and bravery of friends or family members who have battled cancer?
Repost from October 1, 2013