Forgiving my Dad for Losing His Battle With Cancer
There’s this thing that happens when someone is diagnosed with cancer. The patient is given the statistics and the slim chances of recovery (or considerable chances, if they’re lucky) and then they’re told, “You can beat this. You’re a FIGHTER!” It’s like all of a sudden they’re a soldier thrown into the battle field without any training whatsoever. It’s my understanding that actual soldiers train for many months or even years before entering battle. How could we possibly expect anyone to beat whatever or whoever they’re fighting without training? And are we to assume that everyone of us has a fighting type in us?? If I was thrown into battle at this moment, I’m almost positive I would run, hide, or do whatever I could do to avoid battle for as long as I could. Why would anyone without battle training be expected to beat the greatest battle there is?! Because it’s presented to us in this way, we’re forced to look at it as the patient’s job to triumph. They often do, which is incredible, and the surviviors truly deserve all of the survivor praise, but what happens when the cancer wins and the patient loses? Does that make it the patient’s fault that he/she lost? Does that mean he/she didn’t fight hard or strong enough? Does that mean they just gave up??
And then there’s this thing that happens when someone is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Of course, they’re expected to fight the disease that has already been declared unbeatable. But then they’re supposed to embrace the end of their days with joy and live the rest of their now unfairly short life to the fullest. It sounds so dreamy… Once they’ve accepted that they are dying, they’re supposed to quit their job, travel the world, skydive, and laugh for the rest of their days surrounded by all of their loved ones. That’s how it is in the movies, right? In the heartwarming family drama, This Is Us, (**spoiler alert**) William, whose been battling cancer the entire first season, spends his last days with his long-lost son, Randall, showing him around his hometown of Memphis, playing soul music with his old buddies, introducing his son to all the family he’d never met and laughing the hardiest laughs. He is hospitalized just hours before he passes, and of course, he’d never leave without telling his son how proud of him he is and passing the greatest words of wisdom on. We then learn that he’s already said all of his goodbyes to the other family members through post cards and other heart melting ways. Wow… So even if the patient loses his/her battle with cancer, the battle can’t be that bad if it doesn’t affect the beauty that is supposed to be the end-of-life… right?
Unfortunately, after standing next to my Dad on his battlefield against the all mighty Lung Cancer for 16 months, I know that this is just not the case at all. The battle is brutal. Not everyone is a “fighter.” And the end of life with cancer is not lovely or pretty at all. My Dad’s Lung Cancer first presented itself as a swollen lymph node on his neck. Despite showing no symptoms at all, when we found it, the cancer was already in Stage IV. Dad was never a smoker. In fact, he was an extrememly healthy man, waking up early every morning to get his walk and stretches in before work as a devoted therapist. He ate well, he was energetic, an award-winning and competitive tennis player. Dad lived his life with goodness, positivity, gratitude and so much love. Not that anyone deserves cancer because NO ONE DESERVES cancer, but Dad was one of those great, gentle, kind-hearted humans on this earth who did not deserve to be thrown into this battle. And what so many of us loved the most about him was the fact that he was a lover, not a fighter.
The 16 months of Dad’s battle with cancer was not only hard on Dad’s body, but it was equally hard on his mind. I’ll admit, this was the main side affect that I was not prepared for. After a couple months of slow growing symptoms, everything just exploded. Dad’s body was in unexplainable pain, he was dizzy, he was nauseous, he had no appetite and couldn’t keep food down, his body was thinner and weaker everyday, there were countless emergency room visits after so many terrfying episodes. Once we thought we had one symptom under control, another would blow up. The severity of it all is just not explainable in words. It’s hard to know what really took over, the cancer or the chemo, but none of it was lovely or easy. While his sweet soul fought to stay true and stay in good spirits, for the most part, he wasn’t himself at all. He was sad, angry, quiet and different. Because the cancer came on full force with no warning, Dad was forced to retire abruptly after 30 years of his private practice. We planned as much family time as possible, surrounding him with all the love we could, but he often spent his time on the outside just watching. I could see his mind racing while he sat there but could not get him to share his thoughts. My poor Dad, a man who spent a lifetime helping people, connecting with people, teaching and practicing strong will, gratitude and positivity, now spent his days quiet, alone and in pain. The man who one time taught mental strength could now no longer control his own mind. While the cancer had sent out their deadliest soldiers into battle, Dad had slipped into depression and sometimes it felt like he wasn’t fighting at all.
Since my Dad’s passing, about a year and a half ago now, I have struggled with anger. Of course, this is one of the stages of grief that we hear so much about, so I’ve done my best to let it pass, but lately I’m surprised by it. It’ll sneak up on me when I’m least expecting it. I’m angry at friends who I feel haven’t been here through this process, I’m angry when people say silly things about it, I’m angry at so many who just don’t get it. As I work on releasing this anger because my rational mind understands that no one deserves it, it recently hit me… what if I’m angry at my Dad? Of course, this is a terrfying thought; how could I possibly be angry at my perfect Dad?! He did not deserve his illness. He did his best to be the “fighter” that we all needed him to be, and none of this is his fault. Yet, as I look closer, I realize… maybe I am angry at him. Maybe I’m angry at him for not fighting harder. Maybe I’m angry at him for losing control, for giving up. Maybe I’m angry that he’s not the Superman the little girl in me always thought he was. I’m remembering a time when Mom, Dad and I were sitting together in the living room… I don’t remember what we were doing exactly. Probably organizing the day, between doctor’s visits and the to-do’s for my sister’s wedding we were in the middle of planning. The illness was at it’s peak and things were hectic beyond belief when something hit me. Emotions flooding, I ran upstairs to my room to hide my tears from him. Dad followed me up there. He sat with me for a bit while I cried huddled over on the floor, unable to look at him. After some time, he finally spoke, telling me he was going to be ok, that I didn’t have to worry. He said that he’d be there at my wedding too, that he’d meet my children and that he’d live to tell his story. I stopped crying and allowed myself to be comforted in the moment, but deep down, I think I knew he was lying… Maybe I am mad that he couldn’t keep this promise! And maybe I’m mad that we spent 16 months of his illness trying to ignore the fact that the end was near and we forgot to do all of those lovely end-of-life things that we were supposed to do together. Maybe I’m mad that I sat at his deathbed in the hospice house for 2 weeks saying my goodbyes, singing to him, telling him I loved him and that I’d never let his legacy die. And maybe I’m mad that he didn’t say goodbye to me. He forgot to tell me that he was proud of me, he forgot to pass on those perfect words of wisdom that he was supposed to before he left. Maybe I’m mad at him for everything!
The steps to release anger mindfully start with acknowledging it. They say if it’s never acknowledged, it can cause huge emotional and physical damage. We’re supposed to really look at where the anger comes from, allow it to percolate, and only then are we able to release it. So here I am — percolating and releasing… I forgive you Dad. I know you fought as hard as you could and I know you didn’t want to leave us. I know you’re proud of me. Your words of wisdom are passed on through the life lessons you gave me from the beginning. I forgive you for missing my wedding that I am now starting to plan, I forgive you for never knowing my future children. I forgive you for all of it.
To anyone standing on the battlefield with a loved one at the moment — go easy on them, they’re doing their best. Cancer and chemo are both bigger than us. We have no idea what it feels like to face the end of our lives, this is not a movie, and it won’t always be lovely. Please know that they are fighting their hardest, but also forgive them if the battle is just too hard. Please love them as hard as you can, even when illness is at it’s ugliest. Know that they are proud of you and love you, even if they can’t tell you themselves.