Who Knows What Will Happen Next?
My naive eight-year-old self was so very wrong when I believed my world was untainted by flaws. I grant that it seems a bit hyperbolic to call my world perfect when sometimes my parents argued, when there were tough swimming practices to attend in the winter time, when there was the occasional mean girl at school. I only wish that I could have made more sense of my parents’ consistent
admonitions to my sisters and I, “live every minute of your life right now to its fullest, who knows what will happen next?” I arrogantly brushed off those words they used to “scare me”, or I thought, for my life was perfect and it could not get too much worse. At the very most, I mentally prepared myself that some problems will arise here and there, but none of them will be large enough to strike me down. I realize, now, that no amount of precaution from my parents or my self preparation would have equipped me for what I was about to face. And compared to what was going to happen, those childhood days were indeed precious.
I remember very clearly on that January night of 2010 when my twin sister and I stepped out of our ballet class, sweat-covered and relieved that the boot camp of the day was over. We shimmied our blister-covered feet out of our pointe shoes and sat inside the nearly empty lobby. We were waiting unusually long that day. The familiar honk beckoned us to hurry out and into the heated Mazda. It must have been below five degrees outside.
We bursted into the car, “Hi guys! What’s for dinner?”
There was silence. We were taken aback, “is everything okay?”
After a pause, our mom spoke, “do you know what cancer is?”
We could sense the angst she attached to the c-word. Immediately I thought to myself that someone in our non-immediate family was diagnosed with this illness. We were quiet. I wanted to say that the only time I have ever heard of the c-word was when we learned in school that Terry Fox had cancer in his leg. It was a very rare disease that only affected a tiny population. There was dead air while our dad drove. For the rest of the ride home, the awkwardness was relieved by the annoying and petty conversations of the radio hosts. The “obstacles of dating” was
so trivial—why can’t they just shut up? It was the
moment we hit the salt covered driveway when my perfect world shattered. And it was that moment when I wish I could have reversed time and did something to prevent these seven ominous words from
entering my fourteen-year-old ears.
“Your father has stage three colon cancer,” my mom blurted and it broke into a cry.
My heart dropped, and it’s not that feeling you get when you sit in a Splash Mountain roller coaster in Disneyland and plummet vertically down a slope that is basically y=0. The difference between the ride and this is that my life will forever be changed with finding out about my dad’s diagnosis.
We felt like our world came to a complete halt. I was angry that the world kept spinning. At school, people smiled, joked about “just wanting to die”, and complained about their pathetic little problems. How could they go on like that? Everyone would not understand what my sister and I were so occupied
with—we were consistently late for school and we could not make time for our friends. “You don’t
reciprocate our friendship,” they would complain. But how can I even bring myself to frighten them with the c-word? How do I break it to them that “my dad has cancer?” It was terrifying to even hear myself say it. I was strangled between my own ego—of appearing put together to everyone—and my own inability to reconcile the truth. As much as I wanted to dismiss this all as one traumatizing nightmare, I had to come to terms with the awful reality.
Our dad had no intention of letting this cancer
destroy our family or to let us witness his weakness or pain. He put up a strong front and he participated in our lives as normal. We knew that the battle against cancer could be won. But we also knew that the odds were little, especially for a person with a diabetic
history of our dad’s. We remained hopeful that our dad could defy all odds. I believe he thought so too, and he was determined to keep the world spinning for us.
We all knew that my dad was the biggest foodie. He thinks, talks, dreams of food in the most reverential way. There was no possibility that cancer was going to rob him of this fetish. The chemotherapy cycle was a brutal one: he went in for treatment, he came out weaker, he rested for a few days, he finally became slightly stronger and re-gained some appetite, then it was time for treatment again. It was a wretched and ruthless clockwork of excruciating pain. With the tiny window in the cycle where he managed to gather some strength and appetite, we would check in at his favourite spots. I remember going to one, just the two of us. The lady came over to pencil our order when my dad whispered softly to me, “order whatever you want, I’ll just have what you can’t finish, I can’t eat that much anyway.”
“But…” I started.
“No, as long as you’re happy, I’m happy,” he insisted. He smiled and patted my shoulder.
I ordered his favourite slow-cooked chicken noodle soup in the largest size possible. I gulped back tears when it occurred to me that even though he was a cancer patient, my dad still put me before him. Pretending I had itchy eyes, I quickly wiped my tears away. I knew he didn’t allow me to feel sad.
He was the oddest of dads. He would never get mad at us. Actually he would occasionally get mad at us, that is, when we were hurt. When we got a bruise here or a scrape there, he would be very upset. “Why didn’t you take better care of yourself?” he would
demand, “when you hurt yourself, I feel like I am hurt.” Our emotional well being had a tremendous amount of impact on his. He derived his happiness from our happiness, his sadness from our sadness, his excitement from our excitement, his anger from our anger, his pain from our pain. Our hearts were connected. During his eight months of treatment, it was more important than ever that we tried to appear as happy as we could be. We had to suppress our pain.
The cancer was growing and the chemotherapy was ceasing to run its course through my dad’s fragile body. The endless treatments were taking more of him away—his zest for life, his clownish persona, his quirky little ways. But I still recognized him and not even the ruthless spreading of cancer could distance us.
I wondered every day, what I could have done to prevent all of this from happening. Why couldn’t I have been a better daughter? Why did I cause him to have so much stress?
I wished with all my might that I could have bore some of his pain myself. I wished that
I could stop the cancer with continuous prayers to God like they taught us at church, with a magic wand, with some transformative medicine. My heart ached to watch our strong, goofy, kind
panda-bear of a father become weak, reserved, and thin. It broke my heart to watch him try to be strong and tell us that he is okay when clearly the chemotherapy was merciless and the tumor was winning. I hope he realized that it was not in the battle with chemotherapy that he could model his resilience, it was his strength of character throughout the past fourteen years where he showed us how to be selfless, kind, and appreciate the little things.
One of these things that always lifts up the corners of my mouth and makes my heart full is when I think about that one summer day when I went to work with my dad. He took out a lottery ticket. I wondered if it was even worth buying lottery tickets if our odds were so little. I remember fondly that he insisted I be the one to pick the numbers, so I did. Just before we handed in our lotto ticket, he whispered “you never know if you don’t try!” The machine swallowed the ticket as we anticipated the results. The ticket flew out of the machine and my father read the bubble pink ink while I crossed my fingers and toes. Shooting a big smile at me, he told me that we won the biggest jackpot of all—enough money to treat ourselves to ice cream. I was ecstatic and in that moment, while indulging in fresh mango sorbet, the six dollars was the best jackpot an eight-year-old could ever ask for.
On November 25th 2010, I said farewell to my dad. It was snowy and peaceful that Thursday. I held his hand to the very last moment and watched him draw his last breaths. He even attempted to make a sound in the very end. My uncle told us he was trying to say “goodbye.” I planted my face into the
sterile hospital blankets of the palliative wing. I couldn’t believe he was still trying to use his last breaths to squeeze out a goodbye. But then again, it was in his nature to do such a thing. My uncle pointed to a butterfly wall sticker in the lobby and told me that my father is that ravishing butterfly and he is finally stretching his beautiful wings. He has shed his cocoon that cancer has taken hold of. This gave me comfort but I knew that I would never be ready to say good bye to him.
Where did the time go? Everything happened within one year. I was and still remain in shock. I am always trapped in an illusion that I am saying good bye to him as if I am bidding farewell to a distant relative who lives half way across the world. The illusion breaks when we sit at a table of four instead of five, when we downsize from our Hankin home, when I go from saying ‘my parents’ to ‘my parent’, when I cross the stage to receive my high school diploma, and when I check mark “deceased” when asked about my father on my university application. The reminder of his permanent separation from us becomes all too apparent in these subtlest of moments. He isn’t coming back.
My naive eight-year-old self was so very wrong when I believed my world was untainted by flaws. I think this is what my parents meant when they told me to seize every moment. Those fourteen years I had with my dad were precious indeed. He left me with little doses of lessons scattered throughout. He filled us all with warmth and love and he most definitely modelled a strength and limitless courage that continues to inspire me. The butterfly flew to a better place, the world is still spinning at its steady pace, and I have hit the biggest jackpot. I am determined to seize all of life’s goodness, because who knows what will happen next? I don’t intend to live in fear, I intend to live happily and fulfilled—that’s what my dad would have wanted for all of us.