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“…but it doesn’t really matter, ‘till it’s happening to you...everybody breaks…sometimes…” the lyrics sang out as the chords faded. The vocalist’s somewhat feisty but gentle voice seemed merely a vessel for expelling his soul. I could not believe how true the words were, and lately, they have become so much more meaningful, ever since cancer happened to my family, to my dad. And even though this entire experience is new for me, it already has broken me open, forced me to face the reality of life and rely on others besides myself.
It all started with the snow. That damned snow in April. It was freezing, but just barely, so the snow was heavy. My dad, being the considerate person he is, was out shoveling before I left for school. A few days later, he was limping around the house. He had overstressed the joint in his hip while clearing the driveway. He said it had its little flare-ups every so often, but this time I noticed it. I never even had known prior that it acted up. For days, he stubbornly refused any medical attention, insisting that it would get better in a few days like it usually did. Mom finally got fed up and made an appointment with the doctor. She is all about action.
I was pleased to see he was being checked out. After all, it must be a nuisance to hobble around painfully. It was a few Saturdays ago when, while I was out, my mom called. I noted tenseness in her voice, strained like a singer out of their range.
“…so dad went to Dr. Fischer today, and he said his hip is okay, it’ll just take some time to heal. He also, though…found some kind of a mass on his neck.”
She told me that his hip did just need time to heal up, but that the doctor had noted a mass on his neck. It still puzzles me why I didn’t seem exceedingly worried about that. I had not exactly brushed it off, but I didn’t have the typical skydiver-plummeting-into-my-stomach feeling I got when I heard something shocking.
Doctor appointments were made promptly, and the news to follow wasn’t positive, although it also wasn’t the worst we expected. For the next week, I attempted to decipher how to handle the drastic and eminent change as well as how to act at school and how to let my friends know. I struggle with sharing my feelings and thoughts, so it was a hard subject to bring up. And I was still waiting for that profound worry that I anticipated, that would sneak up behind me, pounce and overtake me. But it didn’t really come, and I was left wondering, Do I really care? Where are the tears? When will the reality set in? The only time I noticed that tears were festering in my eyes was when my friends inquired about my dad’s condition and I had to reluctantly tell them. I usually struggle to hold back tears, so when their abundance was scare, it almost worried me. I continually asked myself the same question: Do I care? Each time I adamantly answered yes, but I still couldn’t sort out my feelings, understand their strange behavior. I spent the next few days in a blur, migrating between my school life and family crisis.
It was one night before another medical test when my mother entered the den as I was finishing up homework. She grabbed a chair, and rocked. She always rocks when she’s nervous. Her eyes became flooded; I had never see mom cry more in the last few weeks than in any other time of my life. It was a real burden on her, I could tell.
“You know what dad told me yesterday?” she continued, lips trembling slightly, holding back a sob. “He told me all this is a really big burden to carry,” she finished, looking up at me with strained, troubled eyes. Around me, dad had relatively acted normal. I must have inherited his “internal feelings” gene from him, because from what I saw he was handling everything calmly. Apparently the preliminary cancer diagnosis was cutting him deeper than I originally thought. He must be a good actor. I felt almost lied to, that he wasn’t telling me how concerned he really was, but I was also aware of his need to protect his daughters from their own worry.
More extensive examinations were completed, and it was the night before they were meeting with the doctor to discuss the results. My parents had gone up to bed early; stress really wears you out. I was startled when the phone rang. Reading the caller ID, I knew it was my aunt Eileen. I assumed she was calling to talk to my parents. She was a nurse, so she understood and answered many of the questions they had. I let it ring, assuming my parents would answer it upstairs. They didn’t. Again it didn’t surprise me; usually when she calls, my mom groans because she talks for hours. I heard my mom’s cell phone ring seconds later. Feeling guilty, I answered. Hearing her bubbly voice through the receiver, I could almost picture her slightly frizzed red hair, her aging but red, energetic face. I let her know my parents had gone to sleep early, but she wasn’t discouraged. She called to speak to my younger sister and me.
“I just want to see how you guys are taking everything. Your parents are really stressed out, and they probably aren’t telling you a lot. So tell me what you know,” she requested. I went down the line of what I did know, which I realized wasn’t much. Noticing this, I realized I hadn’t probed more information from them than they gave me.
“So talk to me, Elizabeth. Ask me what you need to,” she encouraged. I struggled through a few questioned, caught off-guard. “You’re wondering whether you’re dad’s going to die,” she inferred. My aunt couldn’t have been more on-point.
“Yeah,” I weakly mumbled. My lips were quaking a bit. Now the tears were here.
“Do you want the truth?” she questioned.
“Sure—yes,” I responded, correcting my answer to sound decisive.
The truth, it turned out, wasn’t bad. In fact, it was inspiring. She explained that his prognosis wasn’t good, but it wasn’t awful. She admitted the cancer had spread, but to none of his major organs. She emphasized this.
“I’m more worried about your mom right now that your dad. She’s the one with the untreated high blood pressure…I don’t believe the Good Lord is ready to take your dad yet. I’d say it’s more likely he’ll die of old age than from this cancer. It’s very treatable, and there have been so many advances even within the last five years to treat this stuff,” she continued. Her words seemed to, in a magical way, remove so much strain on my back I had not even realized was there. For an instant my mind wondered if her message was sent from God, letting me know that everything will be okay. I had been praying each night for exactly that, and maybe my prayer had been granted
We hung up after she made sure I had her cell number in my phone and I had promised to pass on this information to my sisters. I slept soundly that night.
The following day was an improvement, too. I immediately found it easier to update my friends on the situation, and told them of my aunt’s unexpected call to me. I realized that my perceived indifference towards what my dad was dealing with wasn’t that at all. It was a deep spiritual awareness that I didn’t know I had. All along I think I knew that it will all work out. The call simply drew my attention to it. It was like a “CAUTION: Wet Floor” sign making me aware of something I didn’t notice.
I feel that without the short but probing conversation with my aunt I would not have been able to move on and focus on dad as soon as I have. I have found I cannot do everything alone, and others sometimes know better than you do how to handle certain things. Just the same, dad can’t take this on alone, either. And I now can be Eileen for my dad, assisting him in strengthening his faith in healing and determination to return to normalcy. The fight ahead will not be easy, but I already know the end result. Joining hands as a family, we can all yell confidently, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let cancer come over!” because we all know it cannot penetrate our loving grip. We will win the game.