In everyone’s life there are moments of change. Where, in a blink, your life takes a drastic turn. I’m not talking about your fist kiss or high school diploma. These are moments that resonate so deeply within your psyche that the entire trajectory of your life is forever altered. For many of us, having our first child is one such event - when the world suddenly doesn’t revolve around us anymore, and we understand what real love is. Six years as a mother and wife, and my trajectory seemed locked firmly into place, until one moment forced it off its mark… the day my father told me he had cancer.
I knew he was going in to have a biopsy of a mass in his leg, but we all thought it was nothing – just a complication from a recent knee surgery. It wasn’t. My father had a massive Soft Tissue Sarcoma, or cancerous tumor, in his calf. I was terrified. The doctors checked his lungs, supposedly the next stop for this type of cancer, and they were clean. He went through radiation therapy and they successfully removed the tumor. We thought we’d dodged a bullet. But six months later, on a routine scan, our carefully constructed fantasy fell apart. The cancer had metastasized to his lungs.
The reality that my father might die hit me like a sledgehammer. The fear was suffocating. What’s worse, I was completely helpless. All I could do was watch as this man who was, and always will be, my hero tremble in fear as he was taken away for surgery, then stand-by impotently when he woke up in so much pain he could barely speak, and have little beyond encouragement to offer as he suffered over weeks of recovery. Praying served no comfort. I’m agnostic so I wouldn’t know who to pray to anyway. So I just watched as my father slowly recovered and I continue to watch even now as they scan his lungs every three months for more tumors, and worry if this time will be the last. Life goes on day by day, but this worry I carry with me, though at times it only exists as a kernel of doubt in the back of my mind, it is always there haunting me.
Recently, I discovered that an acquaintance of mine had lung surgery. My mind went immediately to my father. I knew with complete certainty what he was going through, and though I was concerned, it wasn’t until my friend was recovered and we were face to face, that I mustered the courage to ask how he was doing. I didn’t know he had cancer. I wondered, but I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t told me. Here was a young man, about my age, who had the exact same metastasized sarcoma as my father, except for one difference… he was sicker. I could feel a slew of emotions all striking me at once, but all I could summon to say was, “I’m sorry.” Then he surprised me. Without a trace of sadness or fear he told me that he wouldn’t “give up the experience.” Of course, he wished he didn’t have to be sick, but he wouldn’t want to give up the experience because he’d learned so much. “You see things differently,” he said and I understood what he meant. You do see things differently. When something so significant touches your life, you cannot pass through it unchanged. For each of us the effect will be different: some look for answers in religion, others achieve a renewed focus on family, and still others become angry and bitter. I can’t say exactly what my friend or even my father took from this experience, but even so I understood, because fundamental to it is a re-evaluation of your life.
That is why, at 36, I threw away my career as a teacher to pursue writing. It’s why I’m pouring my heart out onto this paper with little regard for the risk involved in sharing something so personal with total strangers. My whole life has been an exercise in playing it safe - doing things the “right” way - but life’s to damn short to waste away on being safe. I refuse to continue focusing on a future that may never come. I don’t know about heaven or hell or the nothingness that may be waiting for me on the other side. All I truly know is the here and now: my home, my friends and my family. And for all the pain and uncertainty that surrounds me, I refuse to wallow in the things I cannot change, but focus on the here and now. I may not be able to live forever, but what I can do is live and live well.