What I remember is wanting the truth and knowing that no one was giving it to me. My older brothers, my mom, the doctors and nurses—even my dad on the days he was well enough to talk—there never seemed a clear answer to anything anymore. I was in college already; we’d been going through this cancer thing for years, and I believed I could handle the non-sugar-coated version. I needed the truth. Only now, in light of all the changes my family was going through with my father’s treatment at a halt, any kind of truth I could hang on to didn’t seem to exist anymore.
Like any kid, I had long since started to feel exhausted from being so angry and scared all the time. My dad was dying; we knew this. What we didn’t know was exactly when it would happen—no one can know these things, of course, but such unpredictability unnerved me. All my life, my dad had been so strong and confident, never afraid to be goofy but never afraid to take charge either. Seeing him turn thin and weak during the course of his illness in the previous four years forced me to confront the reality of his and maybe even my own mortality, although uneasily.
He’d been strong enough to lift me by the back of my pants until I was 15 years old, and here I was at nearly 20, helping him to bed for the last time. I remember thinking as I tucked him in, it shouldn’t be like this.
Though he was physically still with me, I was already beginning to miss my father before he actually passed away, because his role had long since changed so significantly. My mom, my two older brothers, as well as many other friends, relatives, and I all became caregivers to my father in one way or another, forever changing the dynamic of our respective relationships with him. And by the time he entered the final stage of his illness, my dad was already truly starting to detach. I missed him more and more with each passing minute because, as the cancer took over his body, I could feel him drifting further away.
Some of these emotions were incredibly overwhelming, especially because I was unable to get consistent, restful sleep. The days blurred into one another, and I spent most days surrounded only by my family members and hospice nurses. What few friends kept in touch with me during what was, for them, an “awkward” time, barely stopped by to say hello or call, leaving me feeling isolated and out of reach. Without outlets for my stress and anxieties, I struggled to control my emotions—which is a cowardly way of saying I acted like a straight-up brat.
Finally, my uncle called and said what no one else would say: the truth, which was that my father was going to die, and that it could happen any minute. He told me that whatever decisions I made in those minutes would be ones I’d have to live with for the rest of my life. His advice was to “Just. Be. Loving.” My uncle was right—my father was going to die, and it was going to happen at a moment that wasn’t of our choosing or our knowledge. What if Dad died before I had time to grow up? I couldn’t let that happen. I didn’t want him to remember me that way, as a brat. As a child. I wanted him to die knowing that I had grown up, and I desperately wanted to grow up in time for him to see.
What I couldn’t know (because you can never know things like this until you go through them yourself and then, suddenly, know) until after my father died that snowy December night, is that I would be forced to grow up the instant he was gone—the very second I became a fatherless daughter. It was only then that I understood how important it had been for me to work so hard at being the best possible version of myself that whole time Dad had been sick. I was never going to get those days back—would never have another conversation with him, another hug or kiss or shared meal across the kitchen table, would never wake up and hear his voice as he shuffled down the hall in his slippers. All I had left were memories.
Knowing that a parent has only a short amount of time left to live is enough to make anyone—young or old and everywhere in between—feel like bursting at the very seams that hold everything together. During all the worst, most trying moments in life, I’ve learned that my uncle’s advice stays true no matter how old I get or what challenges I face. If you begin from a place of love, you’ll be okay. Just start there.