There and Back Again - My Dance with Parental Cancer
This week I found out my mother has breast cancer.
I thought I was done with cancer. My dad had it. Hell, he had three different kinds. The prostate cancer was cured and the bone marrow cancer was in remission. The leukemia killed him. I was 21 when he was diagnosed with the first cancer. It floored me. I, unknowingly, sucked up all my emotional reserves and placed myself in a state of suspended animation. I shut down completely. People didn’t know it but I was constantly weighing the pros and cons of suicide. The lists were always close. It was the love I had in my life that consistently stayed my hand. But I thought about it. Sometimes I still think about it. It brings me peace.
I struggled with my dad’s illnesses. There was such relief when the prostate cancer was cured. Relief that turned into horror when the multiple myeloma was diagnosed. I’d never even heard of that shit and all the research was dire. They gave him less than a year, but my dad was a fighter. He outlived everyone in his cohort by more than 8 years. His quality of life dwindled exponentially. The last time we traveled together was in 2006, three years before he died. It remains the best trip I’ve ever taken.
I couldn’t live near my parents. It was too hard for me to maintain my sense of self near them. I spent nine months at home when he was first diagnosed and I almost self-destructed. It was too raw, too painful. It was all so overwhelming. I tried my best to stay numb and when I couldn’t do it on my own, I turned to recreational. I drank too much every night, sought solace in random hook-ups, and drowned under the waves of my self-loathing. After six months of talking myself out of dying, I chose to save myself and moved away. I learned to live with my guilt; it was a much easier voice to silence than my self-hate.
My dad would call me on the phone and we’d cry together. Sometimes I’d try to be strong while he cried. Other times he’d try to be strong while I cried. Visibly dying made him a better father. It made him kinder, empathetic. He pushed less and supported more. He laid his vulnerability bare and we shared it, together. Despite the distance, I felt closer to him than I ever had before.
When he died my world shattered. Everything went silent. I could barely remember to breathe. I felt horrible - guilty for not being physically with him more. I cursed my weakness and my selfishness because I deprived myself of more time with him. Then, in the end, I sat next to him and talked him into letting go. He was in so much pain all the time and if he was suffering to help me, I had to let him know that I would be fine…eventually. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I still hate myself for it. He woke up for a bit. Ate some ice cream. And then I learned what a death rattle sounded like. And after he was gone, I slept without medication for the first time in months.
There was a tangible relief in it being over but I would sacrifice it if it meant that I could hear his voice again. Hold his hand again. Talk with him again. Do anything with him again.
Over time, I slowly picked up the pieces of myself. I slowly realized how much of myself had been invested in him and his illness. Even 600 miles away, it directed my life. I stopped working dead-end jobs and went back to school. I graduated with a 4.0, met my future spouse, started working on projects I respected, and learned to respect myself. I shaped a better life for myself and I am so angry that I couldn’t do this while he was alive. I am so fucking enraged that I could only move myself forward once he was gone. I hate that my ambition went into stasis when he became sick. I hate that I wasn’t strong enough to overcome that so that he could see me grow and be proud of the daughter he helped raise.
But I learned to live with myself and my mistakes. I learned to accept that I did what I needed to continue existing while living with overwhelming pain. I wasn’t weak. I was desperate. I shut down all systems except life support, and I survived. I survived my dad’s cancer, even though he didn’t.
Now I get to start all over with my mom and I’m scared I’m going to survive her cancer without her, too.