Some say lightning never strikes the same place twice. I know better. I know better because the words ‘brain’ and ‘cancer’ have entered my family’s life twice. The first time with my uncle, and then again on May 19, 2011 with my dad. About 1 in every 50,000 will hear those words together, but our family has endured it twice.
I knew my life had changed when I got a call from my mother while I was at work. She told me that she had brought my dad to the hospital after he rolled over to kiss her good morning and felt like he was flying out of an airplane. She told me they were hoping he had had a small stroke. Hoping it was a stroke. Hoping it was a stroke? What hell must we be about to face if the optimistic point on the differential diagnostic is a stroke?
First they did an CT Scan. My mom and dad both called me to report that the CT Scan was clear, and they were both relieved to know there was no ugly mass growing in his brain. They were still primarily looking for the source of the stroke. Then a few hours passed, and I got a call from my dad. I answered the phone, and heard my dad on the other end. “Bonnie, we got the results of the MRI, and I have, I have a brain. tumor.” My dad choked on the words and I searched for oxygen that wasn’t there. I’ll never be able to forget the way my dad’s voice sounded in that moment.
Of course, he had known that this was likely going to happen. Patients usually liked my dad as a doctor because he cared for them, but doctors he worked with knew he was an eerily brilliant diagnostician. He understood that medicine is mostly an art that had to be supported with science to pacify insurance companies. He had diagnosed his own brain tumor a week before any of the scans. His nurses reassured him that this was exceedingly unlikely, and he went on diagnosing and treating colds, allergies and the occasional bizarre diagnoses that walked into his clinic. He had even told me he thought he might have a brain tumor while I sat in a traffic jam on the way home from a week prior. I had passed it off because he was too healthy, too young, too happy, too special to me for such a diagnosis. But, he had intuitively known what even a CT Scan was unable to diagnose. My dad is a great man; a great man with a brain tumor.
The year that has passed since the diagnosis has not been made up of the fairy tale ‘we shall overcome’ poetics that the cancer culture glorifies. True, there have been moments of strength, kindness, hope… But, cancer can be strangely normal. People will find their way back to an equilibrium, a normal. The differences from cancer come in abrupt moments, punctuated by intense periods of grief, anger, disbelief, and then it returns to its balance.
I don’t know what the future holds. I try to envision the moment when the doctor tells us my dad is cancer free. I also have moments of weakness when I cry helplessly because I can’t imagine walking down the aisle without my father on my arm or holding my first child, knowing that this precious baby will never know the one person who most influenced me. For now my spark, my glow has faded a bit, but still smolders.
A year into this journey, I’m tired and scared. I face each day with courage plastered on my face, and fear wading just below a thinning surface. All I can do is continue to run the marathon, and hope beyond all hope that ‘cancer free’ arrives before my thinning surface is dissolved by the solvent of fear.