It’s been nearly 18 months since my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
I received the news on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, after I came home from teaching a yoga class. The message on the yellow Post-It was brief: “Call your father. Lung cancer.”
Surely that last word was a mistake; how could my father have lung cancer? He was a lifelong non-smoker who took excellent care of himself.
However, it was no mistake—he did indeed have cancer, and it was terminal.
The past year and a half has been surreal, at times. Some days, I forget that Dad has cancer. Other times, it’s all I can think about.
Like many father-daughter relationships, ours is complicated. He was not an active participant for most my life; my parents divorced when I was very young and between the ages of four and 12, I saw very little of him. It wasn’t until I was an adult and moved two hours south of where he lived that we actually had anything that would come close to what most people think of as a relationship.
And even at the best of times, it was strained.
However, watching my father battle with cancer and come to terms with his own morality has taught me a few things:
1. Let go of any romantic thoughts of finally coming together and making peace.
While some people have reported the above happening once they found out that a parent had cancer, there is no guarentee that will happen. In some cases, you may even find yourselves further apart. For a brief time, I harbored the fantasy of my father moving in with me and teaching my-then two year old daughter (his only grandchild) Chinese. However, he politely declined and then shared that he felt “nothing” towards my daughter. Needless to say this hurt me, but it forced me to realize the reality of what our relationship actually was versus what I wanted it to be.
2. Death need not be proud or even dramatic.
My father announced that he was dying in a very matter-of-fact way. There were no tears, no hysteria. As he put it, “I wish I didn’t have cancer, but I do. It’s my reality.” He took the news so well that I thought it might an act to appear brave. It wasn’t.
3. Death may be a relief to both the person dying and the family member(s).
My father is a life-long Buddhist, and he draws a lot of strength from it. He confessed he wasn’t happy with many things in this life and hopes his next reincarnation will be nicer than the current one. While I am not looking forward to his death, I believe that I will feel a sense of relief when he passes. I will no longer have to live up to his unrealistically high expectations nor apologize everything that I see him for not attending law school or not marrying the “right” person. For the first time in my life, part of me will be free.
My father and I both realize we are in a unique position in that we know he has a set amount of time. Friends have asked me if it makes it easier. In some ways it does, but in many ways it does not. I think I have an idea how I will feel when my father finally passes, but I have no way of knowing for sure until it actually happens. While I can mentally envision my father out of life, it is still hard to so because all I am actually doing at the moment is pretending. I know even when I imagine him gone that he is still here and that I can still pick up the phone and call him him. I won’t be able to do that once the time comes.
5. There is no certainty about the future.
Given his health and the type of lung cancer that he has, his oncologist has given him two years minimum. She shared that she had a patient who lived for over six years with the same type of cancer. Therefore, it is possible that he may live as six years or even longer but, he could die before the two year anniversary. In that respect, my father is no different from anyone else in that no one knows exactly when he will die. I said he may even outlive me. I meant it as a joke, but it may be true, for all any of us know.
In any case, I feel as if my father and I have been blessed in many ways. It’s unlikely we will ever have the perfect relationship, but we can work on what we have in the time that is left.
I have also learned a lot about compassion, letting go and forgiveness—even though there are still times when we get angry at each other. I also genuinely admire how my father has chosen to deal with his cancer.
At times, I envy his faith and wish I had even half as much. I hope if I ever find myself in that situation that I will handle it with as much grace and acceptance as he has.
Lastly, I am happy to get to be with him on this journey especially as he wasn’t there for much of my life.
It truly is a gift, even if I had a hard time seeing it as that in the beginning.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise