44: Winning the War

44: Winning the War

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Winning the War

Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark.

~Rabindranath Tagore

I remember it like it was yesterday. A sterile doctor’s office and an extremely self-assured doctor. I can picture the room we were sitting in. The perfectly clean countertops and the well-organized instruments. The crinkle of the paper as my father sat on the small examining table and the quiet creak of the door as the doctor walked in.

“Cancer,” he told us, a little too confidently. “He’s got cancer.”

“You must be mistaken,” I said to him as I looked at my father, who had his head in his hands. “I mean look at him, he’s in great shape. There must be some mistake.”

My mother started to quietly sob as the doctor continued to inform us that my father had a brain tumor. It was on the right side of his brain and it was about the size of a golf ball. They could operate but could offer no guarantees.

“No guarantees!” I said to him. “No guarantees! How about a guarantee that he will see his grandchildren grow up or celebrate his 60th wedding anniversary! How about just guaranteeing us he’ll see his son graduate from high school next year!” I was sobbing uncontrollably by then.

“I’m sorry,” he said to us as he slowly turned to leave. “But we’ll do the best we can.”

As we each tried to compose ourselves to walk out of the room, my mother uttered the first word she had said since we received the news. “Why?”

So many whys were running through my head. Why us, why him, why now? Why, why, why? The list could have gone on forever.

As we walked into the parking lot my father mumbled something. I looked to my mother and without saying a word she shrugged.

“What was that?” I said to him.

He looked at us both, and a little more confidently this time, said, “It’s okay. I can beat this. We can beat this.”

It was that simple to him. As if the “this” he was referring to was just a common cold, instead of the rapidly growing tumor that was destroying his brain.

The next few months seemed to drag on. The operation went well and after he recovered from that and a round of chemo he seemed to be doing much better. Several tests later, doctors revealed to us that the tumor was gone. He was in remission. I cried for joy that day, as did my mother. I think the question was in the back of both our minds though: For how long?

We didn’t have to wait long to find out. A few months later I was sitting at my parents’ house flipping through the channels on the TV when I heard my father coming down the steps. He walked into the living room and became eerily still. I remember it so well because it almost seemed to be happening in slow motion. “Help me!” my father yelled. I guess he knew something was wrong because as I ran to his side he started seizing. I lowered him to the ground and ran to call 911.

At the hospital they did a number of tests. MRIs, CAT scans, blood work, you name it and they did it. Once again the doctor came in and sat down in front of us.

“I’m so sorry,” he began, “but he’s got another tumor.”

Inside my head I was screaming, “What, another one? We beat the first one and now you’re telling us there’s another one!”

I slowly raised my head to look at the doctor and as a single tear ran down my cheek, I said to him, “Is it operable?”

As I waited for him to answer I could taste the salt from that single tear as it landed on my lips.

“I’m afraid not—not this time,” he said. “We can try chemo and radiation. Maybe even clinical trials, but we definitely can’t operate.”

The reason for this, we learned, was due to the location of this new tumor. It was growing directly in the center of my father’s brain, in and around all of his optical nerves. The operation was too risky. He could end up blind, or even worse, brain dead. The doctors told us that if the tumor continued to grow, my father would develop Alzheimer’s symptoms. Chances were, they said, he would eventually forget who we were and even who he was. They said he would become incontinent and unable to care for himself. They said his death would be slow. So there it was, my father’s fate laid out in front of us like some path through hell.

When I look back at that day, I try to convince myself that we didn’t give up. I try to picture us fighting just as hard as we had during that first diagnosis. I try to remember telling ourselves we would do anything we had to do to cure my father. Looking back, I don’t think my mother and I ever gave up hope, but what I know now is this: That was the day my father’s outlook changed. That was the day he honestly knew that what we feared the most was happening. He was dying.

Over the next two months we traveled back and forth to Geisinger for chemo and radiation treatments. When they proved unsuccessful, they sent us to the National Institute of Health in Baltimore for clinical trials. Each visit it seemed they added more and more pills to his already large collection. We could have opened a pharmacy in our house. Nothing seemed to be working though. It seemed no matter how many pills we gave him, the tumor continued to grow.

After arriving home from what would be our final trip to the National Institute of Health, I decided to go for a walk. I asked my father if he would like to join me and he agreed. As we walked along the road that day I remember the searing August sun and how it seemed to touch every part of us. I could hear the tiny pebbles rolling across the road when they would catch the toes of our shoes and the occasional rabbit scurrying into the brush when we got too near. I could feel the wind rustling the treetops and ever so gently blowing through my hair. The memory that is most vivid though is the once rugged hand that slowly touched my shoulder and the uncomfortable words that followed.

“What’s wrong?” I said as my father’s weakened hand came to a rest on my shoulder.

And then it happened. My father spoke the words I dreaded hearing.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I can’t be strong for everyone else. I am so emotionally and physically tired. I need my family’s permission to let go.” He cried. “Promise me you’ll take care of your mother. Promise me you’ll see she gets through this.”

What do you say when someone you love asks for your permission to die? I said the only thing I could say.

“I promise,” I said to him in a choked voice.

As I said those two small words I saw relief in his eyes.

“Thank you,” he cried. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

We walked the rest of our way that day in silent understanding.

That was the last heart-to-heart conversation I would have with my father. Two weeks later he was gone. He died three days after my older daughter’s birthday. Her cake and ice cream were his last meal. We had eighteen months with him from that first diagnosis. In another situation that could seem like a lifetime, but to us it seemed no longer than the blink of an eye.

In the days and weeks that followed his death I often asked myself why. Why did God take him? Why not someone else? What I know now is that we aren’t supposed to know the answer to that question, not in this lifetime anyway. To some it may seem that cancer defeated my father, but in truth it is the other way around. Throughout the whole ordeal his faith stayed strong and his smile never faded. Cancer may have defeated his human body, but it could never defeat his soul. He may have lost the battle, but in the end he won the war.

~Laura J. O’Connor

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