On Gratitude and Grieving

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This month, it’s been two years since I’ve been in remission.

Technically speaking, I am no longer considered a patient. For most people with my disease, two years in remission means I have outgrown the disease, like waking up from a particularly bad nightmare to find yourself somehow, miraculously, safely cocooned in your bed.

Through the months, my labs have been consistent, my medication reduced, and my body seems to be finally returning to me. Yet, despite the overwhelming sense of gratitude I feel for my health, May will always hold a special, almost bittersweet, sense of joy.

This convoluted set of emotions is especially poignant this month, as my father is scheduled to receive surgery in a week. It will be June by then, and I suppose a perverse part of me is also grateful that this surgery, this horrifying, gruesome shadow lurking behind our family, will be scheduled on a separate month, so that if something catastrophic were to happen, it wouldn’t taint May.

As my father’s disease has ebbed and progressed, I have surprised myself more and more often with ugly thoughts like this. Watching someone I love get weaker and weaker has felt like an eternal game of what-ifs? This surgery should be curative for his cancer, the tiny mass of cells that threatens to colonize his body. When he wakes from anesthesia, he should be cancer-free; back to the man he used to be. It should grant him many more years, filled with watching all the major milestones of my life.

I am confident in the surgeons and the expertise, and I am positive that the healthcare available in Philadelphia is world-class. Yet, despite this, watching someone you love in pain means that you are always paranoid, worrisome, untrusting. At the same time, moving home for summer and living with him again has imbued within me a certain kind of terror. I am not just afflicted with anxiety or simple fear, it’s a unique bone-sharp, muscle deep panic that makes me shy away from spending too much time with him; because if I start acting out of the ordinary, if I start spending every waking moment with him, watching my mouth around him, planning my day around him, then isn’t that accepting that there won’t be more days? More time? Isn’t that giving up?

And what does it say about me if I admit that being around him terrifies me? Or, rather, what would it say about me if I were willing to give up? How could I give up on the man that raised me? The man who made me into the woman I finally feel I am growing to be?

This surgery is dangerous; he is not the ideal patient. Aside from his age, his body has also been rebelling against him for the last decade, seemingly picking up speed as soon as I left for college. As his surgery draws closer and closer, I worry increasingly over what the last words I’ll say to him before he gets wheeled away are. I’m terrified that they won’t be adequate, that, god forbid, if something unthinkable happens, all I’ll have left him with are blanket statements. Yet, I’m also scared if I say something sentimental, if my voice cracks, or I start crying, that the last image he’ll have of me is one condemning him to misfortune: If I break in that moment, isn’t that me accepting that he won’t wake up?

Sometimes, there’s a part of me that really, truly believes if, on the day of his surgery, I simply kiss him on the cheek, squeeze his hand, whisper “good luck” in the space between us, he’ll have to come back. Because what kind of universe exists that would let a father die while his daughter is blissfully, patiently lingering in the waiting room? What kind of world would that be?

There are days when my grief is so deep, so all-consuming, I worry that it will swallow me whole. There are days where I miss him already; so much I think it’ll break me inside. I struggle with balancing practicing gratitude and mindfulness, while also juggling the guilt I feel over any type of happiness I can find in times as dark as these. My friends sometimes ask me how I am, if I’m okay, and I always reply yes, because I don’t think about it most days. If I do, then how could I possibly go on? How could I possibly feel any joy in this life where my father might die?

If I invite those doubts in, then I wouldn’t be able to function. Although I feel unbelievably heavy most days, and many times I have to escape to my car to cry, my parents often tell me, lovingly, that I seem happier than the last time they saw me at school. At home, I focus all my concentration on being okay, sticking to a routine, and smiling. Despite the grief, I function; I go to work, to school, to see friends. In return, I compartmentalize, I take this sorrow and place it so deep inside of me that I have to search for it when I finally find a safe enough time to immerse myself in it.

And this month, in addition to compartmentalize, I try and find room to celebrate my health. And the next month, I will mourn his. I often dig through my memories, grasping for that familiar type of gratitude that buoyed me through the toughest months of my own illness, illuminating the darkest corridors of loneliness I felt engulfed in. However, being sick and watching someone you love be sick are two very different things. Watching someone I love the most in this world grow weaker and weaker, seeing worry lines stretch over his face, listening to his heavy sighing when he thinks I’m not around, has left me scared, and angry. And often, I return to this question: How could I possibly feel any joy in this life where my father might die?

Yet, still, I confess, there are hours, and days, where I still do. Where I laugh and smile and feel inundated with how lucky I am. There are times, like this May, where I walk down sun-dappled street in Philadelphia and look around, really look around, astonished at how amazing this life-this wonderful, grief-stricken, beautiful and painful-life is. At times like these, I look down at my body and marvel over how far it has carried, me from that terrified seventeen year old girl who never thought she would get her life back, to me, now, at twenty, still struggling to come to terms with the many curveballs life has pitched me, but somehow, always clinging to that small flicker of hope.

I don’t know what will happen after his surgery. I find that this uncertainty, this gaping hole of unknowing has been the hardest part. In quiet moments, when I am left alone to wonder what exists beyond the what-if, I also realize that this special kind of uncertainty has been one of the reasons for my gratitude as well: how far things can go, can, develop, can grow…

So, on the day of his surgery, as my mother and I gather around his hospital bed and get our chance to share our parting thoughts, I think I’ll hold his hand, look him in the eye and say, “I believe in you.”

Because I believe he’ll come back to me. I really do.

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