My dad and I have never been all that close. My father, like his father before him, isn’t much given to chit-chat. He says what needs to be said. There is no such thing as an awkward pause in a conversation in his world since almost all conversations involve more pauses than words. I was never daddy’s little girl. I have no doubt that my father loves me, but I’m not sure he’s ever said it. It’s alright though, because I know it just the same.
When I was roughly five years old, my dad took me to his union’s Christmas party. It was in a huge banquet hall and every child in attendance got to walk up in front of everyone and get a present from Santa. My father walked me up there to get mine, squeezing my hand so that I wouldn’t be afraid. When we returned to the table and I opened my present, I was devastated to find that it was a tote bag. A tote bag. What does a five-year-old have to tote exactly? My father, sensing my disappointment, stood up, grabbed my hand and walked back up to Santa. He explained that a tote bag was not what I had my heart set on. So Santa and his elves searched through the bag and found me a stuffed animal instead. To this day, I’m not sure if it was a dog, a bear or some alien species unknown to earth. It was, in fact, an ugly little thing that had a vinyl heart on the front that said Clara on it. Clara became my new favorite stuffed animal of all time. She became a symbol of my father’s love. She was a tangible reminder that my dad would look out for me always, even when I didn’t ask. I still have Clara. She still watches over me.
Ten years ago, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Before I had this blog, I had a journal I used to write in. The entry for that day simply has four words written in the middle of the page:
My dad has cancer.
That’s all I wrote. That’s all I was capable of writing. Almost all of the members of my immediate family have had cancer. My sister and I have had skin cancer. My mom had skin cancer on her face. This was different though. It wasn’t the kind of cancer that the rest of us had. It wasn’t on the surface like ours. It was deep inside him, past all the skin and tissue and sinews on his bones. A lot of it. He had to go through chemotherapy. He was weak. He couldn’t walk. He was vomiting more than he ate. He looked desiccated. He had lost all of his vigor. He was no longer the tall, strong man with the warm hand. He became a wrinkled, thin, gray ghost of what he once was, but he survived. He’s been cancer free for six years now. He never did regain all that he lost, but he survived.
I’m not afraid of death. Really, I’m not. The unknown is scary. When you’ve become intimately familiar with it like I have, it’s no longer scary. Death is the inexorable outcome of a life well lived. I’m not afraid of death, but I am terrified of dying.
Dying slowly, in pain, from a thing like cancer is what scares me the most. Being hooked up to tubes and needles and censors and machines, living our your final days in a hospital bed, not being able to walk on a beach or sit in the sunshine on a nice day, that is scary. When most people think of their death, they probably think of a quick, painless event where they just go to sleep forever at a ripe old age or they think of getting hit by a bus and going just like that. But, dying slowly, painfully from a bloodthirsty parasite is a fate people don’t like to think about.
I’ve had cancer.
When I had cancer, I thought of it as an alien invader. It is something evil inside you that is doing it’s best to kill you. I wanted it gone. I hated it. I hated my faulty Nordic skin for being susceptible to it. I hated my genes for allowing it to be there. I hated that most of my family had experienced the same thing. I have an omnipresent reminder in the form of a gash over my heart of just how fragile this life thing really is. When I see that scar, I remember how lucky I am that it’s gone and that it won’t come back. At least, not there.
When I look at that scar, I get angry. I get angry at the alien for trying to do my family in. I get angry at a world where my dad would get it on his bones and my mom would get it on her face. I get angry at the unfairness of it all. I get angry with myself for being so woe is me, and for not not manning up and dealing. Anger is my go-to emotion. It’s not healthy, but at least it’s an emotion.
Anger just masks the fear. When I think about my death, which isn’t all that frequently, but often enough to be on the big list of things I think about, I’m alright with the concept because I have no other choice. But, when I think about dying from the big C, which unfortunately for me is a real possibility, I am terrified.