Cancer’s just a word until you witness it ravage someone you love. And if you are with that person, that loved one, when they take their last breath, it changes you forever. Sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Four years ago this month my father died of colon cancer after it had taken over his body and took up residence in his liver. In a previous post I wrote in detail about my experience with caring for him in his final weeks, days, hours, and minutes. Sometimes it feels like four years ago, and sometimes it feels like four months. Sometimes it is a compartmentalized sad memory, and other times it is still raw, and my grief can overtake me in an instant.
And at these times I wonder – how much longer will it be like this? I read or heard somewhere that it takes ten years to work through the loss, to get to the place where you still miss them – you always will – but the grief no longer weighs over you as heavily, as unpredictably. You are close to a place of peace.
I feel my dad in unexpected places and in different ways. Last week I was driving home from work the day after the anniversary of his death and it hit me, like so many other times in the past four years, that he’s gone, he’s really gone. And I sobbed as I continued to drive, the thought occurring to me that it would be safer if I pulled over. And then I imagine that I’m being pulled over by a cop, and he comes up to the window and I’m crying and he thinks I’m just trying to get out of a ticket and I say My dad died and he asks when, and I say Yesterday, because that’s the truth. And he asks me for more details to determine if I’m telling the truth so I answer his questions and he must be convinced because he says I’m sorry and tells me to wait until I’m calm and drive safely. But I never pull over and I never got pulled over and I keep driving, gasping, trying to stifle the sobs, and I get home and pull in the driveway and go into the house and cry even harder and wonder Where is this coming from after four years?
Fortunately, it’s not always in sad ways that I feel him. A month ago I went to see a regional choir concert. At one point only men were on the stage, and they sang a song in their deep, resonant voices that reverberated throughout the theater. My dad was a singer, a tenor. I loved his beautiful pitch-perfect voice that I heard throughout my life and am blessed to have several recordings of it. So I’m sitting there in the theater listening to these men’s resounding voices fill me with memories, and suddenly I feel his presence, strong and certain. He is there hovering around me, and I smile, basking in the warmth. A lump forms in my throat but I take a deep breath and continue to smile, happy to have him near me, enjoying the ethereal singing that brought him.
That word – cancer – now has a profound meaning for me. For some it is a raider that must be conquered, for others it is a thief. For me it is both of those things, but it is also a lens that makes me view life differently, knowing that it should be lived fully and openly. That dreams should be chased and trips should be taken and people should be hugged as often as possible. That we should love with abandon and live without regret. And for that, I am surprisingly and inexplicably grateful.