There are defining moments whose anniversaries give us, as a society or culture, pause to reflect, remember or for future generations to learn about from those who were there that day. Such things bring us closer together as a community. Families also have these defining moments as well.
For me, it began with a note taped to my Dad’s front door. Actually, it began about 6 weeks prior to that when the open communication we’d always had, tightened. I didn’t catch it at first; long-distance phone calls even with FaceTime still don’t allow you to pick up on all the nuances of interpersonal communication that can be felt within a millisecond of seeing your loved one in person. Like their pallor. Before all this, pallor was a word I came across in literature and never once attributed it to a person in my life. But, I was living overseas, and on the screen and through the line, my Dad looked and sounded the same as he always had – that constant in my life of strength, wit and wisdom.
But he didn’t say anything about the cute care package I’d had delivered to the house. I’d known that he was going in for an endoscopy because he’d been having trouble swallowing and the family doctor told him that she suspected that the “flap” on his esophagus had worn out. Or something to that effect; it’s hard to be cavalier about it now, even when characterizing my thinking back then. That was before I realized how vital it is to understanding precisely what the doctor said, what that translated to in lay terms, and very specifically what that meant to someone’s life – no, my Dad’s life, and therefore, to mine.
Between then and arriving at my parents’ door where a taped note greeted me, my world had changed in concept, but not in reality. Because when you are caring for someone from a distance, it’s easy to pretend. Nothing is real until all your senses can absorb the situation. And I think that despite my tears and attempts to comprehend that Dad was dying, understanding was completely impossible until I went home. My father-in-law had once said that Christmas was the hardest time in the ER because it is when visiting family finally come face-to-face with the frailty of their loved one.
There was the flight to Amsterdam and the flight to Portland. The interminable delay getting the rental car and the 90-minute drive home. Perhaps I fooled myself into thinking that my presence would make a difference; that I would arrive and I’d be just the thing to cure Stage IV Esophageal Cancer.
Instead, my arrival was preceded by a note taped to the door. “Dad is very sick. He’s in bed. Sorry that you had to come home to this. – Mom”.
My Dad? Sick in bed? Never. I couldn’t then and can’t now recall a single day when my Dad was too sick to get out of bed. No. He was the generation that got up and got dressed, every day. He put on his work boots before the sun rose and didn’t take them off until it was quitting time. But two days after his first radiation and chemo, at four in the afternoon he was still unable to get up.
I quietly let myself into the house only to come across that cute care package – the vintage medicine cabinet with pill bottles full of candies – unopened in the corner. A reminder, I guess, of going into a medical appointment thinking there was an easy fix and coming out knowing there was no cure.
While I clearly remember the moment I learned that cancer was suspected and the middle-of-the-night email, text and phone call exchanges when it was confirmed; it wasn’t until I faced that note on the door that I was forced into accepting the reality. Nearly four years later and each time I walk up to that door at my parents’ house, I relive that experience, which I truly consider as a defining point in my life.
Having heard the diagnosis wasn’t enough to prepare me for that moment. Nothing prepared me for it. And I share this with you because second-guessing ourselves and beating ourselves-up for being so caught up in our own lives that we didn’t “see” the signs has become habit. Nothing prepares you for the diagnosis….nothing.