The Phone Call
When the phone call comes, the news is so unexpected and terrible that I literally forget to breathe. After endless, agonizing seconds, I finally manage to gasp, “Dad? I don’t understand. What did you say?” His words hit me like a sucker punch. Cancer. Esophageal…Pancreatic… Not long, maybe a year…
I cannot get there fast enough. When he opens the door, he smiles, but that only makes me feel worse. Cancer.
Later, cradling a cup of coffee that I do not want, we sit together at the familiar old dining room table. Dad patiently explains his diagnosis in colorful, awful detail, and I press my lips together in a hard grimace, holding back my tears. Finally it is my turn.
“Dad” I begin woodenly, “Have you researched the types of cancer you have? I mean, have you looked them up on say, the Internet? Or at the library?”
He just stares at me. Finally he says, “I expect I’ll get to that in awhile…perhaps.” At that I fall silent, unable to voice my disbelief at this calm acceptance of impending doom. Isn’t he even curious? I glance out the wide bay window set into the dining room wall at a frozen February lawn and feel my world shrink to a small patch of brown grass I see lit by a lazy sun.
“Do you feel okay?” I ask, without looking at him. “I suppose so,” he answers noncommittally. “Just the usual aches and pains of getting old.”
I nod dully and turn back to study his profile, trying to think of something to say.
My dad Ken is 80 years old. That’s old, I guess, but his parents lived well into their 90s, so – he’s not THAT old. Dad grew up in an obscure little farm town in North Dakota named Cando. Can’t do Nothin’ in Cando! In the winters, snowdrifts piled so deep and high against the tall brick houses that a child could easily sled right from his second story window to the sidewalk before trudging down the road to school. In the sweaty hot summers, most kids helped in the fields and then played until dusk when real dinner bells would ring out to call them home to supper.
“Um, Dad?” My voice sounds surprisingly normal. “Did your doctor recommend any chemo or radiation? Or…anything? What did he suggest?”
His reply genuinely startles me. “Oh, we talked a little about chemo, but when I told him I’d rather just let the disease take its course, well, he didn’t disagree. All that stuff would take so much out of me.”
What? Is this my Dad? Just giving up? I can’t believe it! Back in Cando, when young Ken made up his mind to become a lawyer, he fought the odds then. Tough weather conditions made for tough people, “get your dukes up” kind of people. The small-town boy earned a law degree, moved halfway across the country, and ended up in Chicago raising a family and living a nice life. He was intelligent, and aggressive, and maybe a little cocky, too. Who is this passive man before me now?
I am suddenly flooded by a fierce urge to grab his shoulders and shake him out of an obvious voodoo-doctor-induced trance of acceptance. The feeling is so intense that, instead, I set my coffee down and pull on my jacket. I head outside and find that brown spot of dead grass, where I stand huddled against the cold, cold wind. My face feels raw where the icy breeze scrapes across my tear-soaked cheeks, so I lift my hands to my face in an effort to warm them. But it doesn’t help. They just keep hurting. Cancer. I cannot think.
Will winter ever end?
My self-pity disgusts me. Of course the winter will end, it always does. Spring will come. Time will go on. I am suddenly reminded of a saying I read somewhere: “Time takes things away from us if we don’t fight to keep them.” If we don’t fight…
My heart pounding, I hurry back into the house and embrace my dad in a long, hard hug. “I’ll be back next week, and we’ll talk some more,” I promise (threaten?), and then I’m gone.
The following Sunday, I arrive at Dad’s house a little before 9 in the morning. For countless hours over short days and long nights I have neglected all else to research his cancer on the Internet. I’ve followed link after link to examine both traditional and alternative therapies. I have sounded out scientific terms and struggled to understand complex experimental treatments. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I’ve skimmed through blogs written by cancer survivors, looking for evidence of certain hope. When my eyes finally ache from staring too long at the computer screen, I have taken brisk walks to the local library, where I pull out complicated medical texts from the reference section and examine them closely for additional clarity. On two occasions, I have visited clinics, where I am offered educated opinions on courses of action. I am obsessed. I am a Cancer Warrior.
When Dad opens the door, I lean in to give him a quick kiss before brushing past him to the dining room. At the table, I spread out the papers and reports gathered over the past week. Dad watches from the doorway, his expression unreadable. When I am done, I look up at him. “Sit down for a minute, okay?” I try not to plead. Reluctantly, he parks himself at the end of the table and folds his hands in front of him.
I take a deep breath and start talking. “Dad, I’ve been doing some reading. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of investigation, Dad, and I thought I’d tell you about what I’ve found out.” I pause to gauge his reaction, but he simply waits for me to continue. I rush on. “Dad, there are so many options available for you to consider when it comes to cancer treatment. I’ve read a lot about lethal forms of cancer this week – and yours is bad – but you don’t have to just sit down and die, Dad.” I am very enthusiastic now. “There was a man named James O’Connor – he went by ‘Rhio’ – who was diagnosed with another deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma in 2001 and given about a year to live – like you. Dad, doctors told him to just basically give up and take a cruise with his wife and then come home and die! But he not only refused their advice – he actually survived 6 years longer than they said he would by taking control of his own destiny!”
Dad glances up at me briefly before his gaze drifts back down to his folded hands. I stumble on determinedly.
“Listen, I’m not talking about just the conventional approach to cancer treatments. You know, the chemo and radiation. Rhio checked into nutritional therapies – you could do that! – and reviewed alternative treatments, and talked to experts, and just educated himself to the point where he beat his prognosis! And Dad, he wasn’t the only person to be told he was going to die, who made up his mind to live. Here, Dad, I’ve made a list of the people I talked to, and the websites you can look at…”
My voice trails off into a painful silence. Is he even listening? I cannot tell. Slowly, I sit down in my chair and begin to weep. At this, he lifts his head and sighs quietly, reaching out a hand for the papers. “Well, it all sounds very…interesting. Thank you. I’ll certainly have to take a look at this”, he says politely.
Six years later, on another February morning, I sit quietly in my kitchen with a second cup of coffee, lost in thought. Outside, a brisk breeze scatters leaves across a winter-weary lawn, and squirrels skitter back and forth, searching for forgotten horse chestnuts beneath a bright sun. It is 4 years since the cancer took my dad. Too soon. Although I no longer despair over his decision to simply wait for death, there are times – and this is one of them – that I miss him so much that it hurts.
But the war against cancer continues, and I, Cancer Warrior, stand ready to do battle. I have learned how to question the experts; to defy the absolutes; to explore the possibilities; to welcome the absurd; and to open my mind to the sheer beauty of the journey we call life.
If the phone call comes for me, I will try not to be afraid. I will welcome the chance for a miracle, and reach out to everyone and everything for help. For this I believe: There is a part of us all that can rise to the challenge of a search – and a diagnosis of cancer might be a very good place to begin.