Just before his 65th birthday and not too long after I turned 40, f@*%ing cancer took my dad.
It had started as kidney cancer four years earlier. Surgeons assured us that they were able to remove it all, and that life would resume as intended. They were so sure, they didn’t even follow up with him too closely.
But what they didn’t know at the time, what they couldn’t see from just his kidney, was that, silently and stealthily, the cancer had snuck into his lungs. And in the coming years, would flourish there and even move into his brain.
They had no way of warning us that actually, we only had four years left with him. And that most of those would not be very good. That he wouldn’t live to celebrate his youngest granddaughter’s first birthday. And that there would be tremendous suffering and sadness for him and all who loved him.
That was seven years ago. In the first few years after losing him, I gave myself a break, and allowed myself to grieve. I was gentle and kind with myself, as one might be with a child. Joyous occasions instead brought me sadness. I tried to honor that, but still enjoy what was in front of me, so as not to miss any more joy with my own kids.
But now, so many years later, it doesn’t feel right to still be so sad without him. To miss him every day, and sometimes even to still reach for the phone to call him and tell him something that I know would make him laugh.
Something has been tugging at me recently, and I have lately been especially missing my dad.
I’ve also been in an Anne Lamott kick, reading three of her works in a row (Bird by Bird, Hard Laughter, Traveling Mercies). And there’s nothing like an Anne Lamott marathon to make one miss their dad. She lost hers to cancer as well, when her handsome, youthful dad was just in in 50s, and she was just in her mid-twenties. A writer himself, he never got to see (on this Earth anyhow), his daughter flourish into a beloved and significant writer.
“How could you even begin to live with this desolation, with no longer having the love of your father?” — Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
“It’s so different having a living father who loves you, even someone complex and imperfect. After your father dies, defeat becomes pretty defeating. When he’s still alive, there are setbacks and heartbreak, but you’re still the apple of someone’s eye.”
See what I mean?
And then there was something else this week. Aside from our three human children, Husband and I have a fourth baby: our charity which Husband started right after we were out of college and first married, both of which happened to coincide. As a two-time childhood cancer survivor, one of Husband’s top priorities was to give back to the cancer community, which gave so much to him. He started Cancer for College, a non-profit which grants college scholarships to cancer patients and survivors. We have been doing this work for the past 23 years, and we have been honored to watch it grow into something bigger than we ever anticipated. To date, we have granted $2 million in scholarships to over 1,000 young cancer survivors.
Most all of the stories of these kids have a happy ending. They have been through unspeakable trials in their lives, and yet, come through on the other side. We see a common thread in these kids: determination to get back on track, go to college, give back to the cancer community. We are currently conducting a survey of our scholarship recipients, and thus far, out of more than 100 people contacted, there is a 100 percent college graduation rate. We feel blessed to be a small part of their success.
But this week, we received the worst news from two different recipient families: their daughters had lost their battles with cancer.
In our family, we have never allowed our kids to say “it’s not fair.” We’ve always taught them that there is no such thing as fair. There is, and there isn’t, and that’s the way it is. But f@*%ing cancer winning again? That’s unfair. Cosmically unfair.
My heart aches for the families, and all who love Isabella Corcelli and Taylor Helland. But mostly, my heart hurts for their moms. Moms who prayed over their beautiful daughters, who had to watch them suffer through so much, worry over their future and health, celebrate as they healed and survived, only to lose their precious girls far too young. I can’t imagine the enormity of their grief or how they will find the strength to move forward and without their beloved child. It seems an impossible task. I pray for those moms to find comfort, strength, peace. Somehow.
“…if I live to be a hundred, I will never understand why this man got a brain tumor.”
“It did not make sense to me that Frank, who is the most aggressive bore I know, was sixty-eight and in good health while my father had just had a brain tumor removed. Why not the hostile bores?”
–from Hard Laughter by Anne Lamott
And why is it that good people, viable, loving people — young people — get things like metastasized cancer, or a rare one percent cancer, or colon cancer? Who expects their 14-year-old sweet and good daughter to turn up with colon cancer for crying out loud?
And so, the heaviness weighs on me. I think about my three kids. Not mine really, just entrusted to my care. On loan from the Universe, or God, or whoever aligned the stars to bring them into my life. I am eternally grateful for being granted their guardianship. I swear I’m doing my best to honor You through them.
Hopefully I’m getting it right. For 40 years, I had a wonderful teacher and role model.
Thank you, Dad.
“And did you get what you wanted from this life even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on earth.” — Raymond Carver
“I was desperate to fix him, fix the situation, make everything happy again, and then I remembered this basic religious principle that God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain but to fill it with his or her presence..”
“But when I grew up I found that life handed me these rusty bent old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”
–All from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
This post first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas.