“So… what are the odds that you’ll make it through this?” I was almost too afraid to ask. “Well, there IS a chance, but there also isn’t. I’m going to focus on the percentage that’s in my favor. But if you really want to know the numbers…” I didn’t. If there was a chance– even if it was a small chance– we would beat this. We had to. Death wasn’t a possibility I would allow myself to comprehend. I was only 18. He had been in remission for almost 10 years since he was first diagnosed with Leukemia, but this time around I was old enough to understand the reality of the situation. I knew it had come back with a vengeance, and I was terrified, but I relied heavily on my dad’s positive outlook for strength and courage. He probably sensed it. But more than that, I don’t think he could help it. He was always the most positive person I knew. Positive thinking is powerful. But was it powerful enough?
Cancer has changed me. Yes, it has changed me in good ways. It has bitter-sweetly taught me about love, compassion, the miracle of life itself, what’s important and what’s not. It has taught me how weak I am, but how strong I can be. It has strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father and taught me so much about myself that I never even realized. It’s definitely been a continuous journey of learning and struggle. Eleven years have passed and every day I still continue to struggle. I try my hardest to be more like my dad and to live in a way that would make him proud. To be strong and positive. To be helpful, caring, encouraging and happy. But more often than not, it’s hard work. I may put on a good front, but I’ve fallen many times along the way. What many people don’t understand is that cancer also changed me in a way I am not proud to admit.
It was a typical hot August day. I stood looking out the hospital window and down at all the people busily walking around, going on with their lives. I looked over at the never-ending bustle of cars, the trees and flowers moving in the breeze, the cheery sun shining over everything. I hated all of it. I wanted to break the window and ruin that perfect world I no longer belonged to. I recently found out Dad was terminal. Any trace of hope I had futilely been clinging onto was completely shattered. My world just ended. The world just ended! How was everyone else continuing on without a care as if nothing happened?? It made me so angry! My dad, my strength, my best friend WAS GOING TO DIE. Not “he could die.” That would imply there was hope. He WOULD die “within a few days” they said. I couldn’t understand how it was happening to us. This can’t be real. It was just a terrible dream. A nightmare. I dragged myself out through the hallway and into the bathroom to be alone. I locked the door and curled up in the corner of the dirty bathroom floor, shutting my swollen eyes and desperately trying to wake up from this horrendous nightmare. WAKE UP!! I opened my eyes. Still here. I could barely breathe. I didn’t want to exist anymore. I shut my eyes again, trying to disappear forever.
Flashbacks of the days leading up to his death still torment me. Flashbacks so real and raw and painful, they bring me to tears and knock the wind out of me every time I relive it. I can’t talk about those memories with anyone. Instead I try to forget them. Staying busy and involved with something to block out any feeling has become my way of protection. It numbs the pain temporarily. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget them. They always inevitably resurface, breaking me again. I have yet to experience anything as painful as looking straight into the eyes of someone I love in their last hours– to see agony, confusion, and exhaustion– and being completely, totally helpless. Standing by while watching a loved one experience their untimely death can be a dark and unbearably lonely place that’s hard to describe to people who haven’t been there. Because there are no words to describe how heart wrenching it is. I’ve heard others who have experience it describe it as hell. And that sounds about right. I believe in eternity, and seeing and being with our loved ones again. In that knowledge I found peace, but it didn’t lessen the sting. My sweet aunt so perfectly put into words how I felt, and continue to feel, “Sometimes it’s so sad, so very hard to wrap your head around eternity, when your heart feels you’ll barely make it through the day.”
Sometimes I get so angry that his life was taken so soon. Grieved that I don’t have him here with me to share with him all of my accomplishments. Grief used to consume me when I went to my friends’ weddings and they all danced with their fathers. I would have to nonchalantly sneak away until the daddy-daughter song was over. It was too overwhelming. Now that I have my own children, the struggle continues. My dad would have been such an amazing grandpa, and every day my heart hurts knowing that I’ll never get to see my kids grow up with him. I show pictures of him to my kids. “Look, it’s Papa,” I say. “You mean your dad?” My 5-year-old will reply. I fight back the familiar burning tears. He will never know my dad as his grandpa in this life. Sharp stab through my heart. In the past, I would have let this grief consume me. (Actually, to be truthful sometimes I still do.) But I try to remind myself of what President Kimball said, “Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding, then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death, and if these were not, there would also be no joy, success, resurrection, nor eternal life and godhood.” How can I appreciate joy now if I never feel sorrow? The only way to take sorrow out of death, is to take love out of life. And what kind of life is a life without love? I look at my kids and my heart swells, soothing my stab wound. A life without love wouldn’t be worth living. Eleven years later, I have finally accepted grief as a way of life, knowing that I will continue to struggle until the day I see my dad again. The intensity of the pain will never go away. But I have changed. It may have been– and might continue to be– a dark road of change, but I will always come out stronger.
Someone recently told me “If someone dies from cancer, that doesn’t mean they lost to cancer.” I have never had cancer, but many times I have almost lost to it. I’ve realized how easy it is to let myself become consumed with anger and sadness. Anger and sadness is a natural, necessary part of the grieving process. Russell M. Nelson says, “Mourning is one of the deepest expressions of pure love. It is a natural response in complete accord with divine commandment: ‘Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die.’ (D&C 42:45.)” But when I allow myself to be consumed by it I begin to lose joy in the everyday things. I said earlier that I have learned how weak I am, but how strong I can be. I have been pushed to my breaking point. I couldn’t get back up on my own. My favorite scripture since I was a freshman in high school is John 14:18 “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come unto you.” In countless times of despair, these words have come as a reminder that I always have help. It is through leaning on the strength of my Savior that I am able to gain strength.
Several days before my dad passed I would sit next to him and just visit. The TV would sometimes be on in the background, usually news updates on the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. News updates that I apathetically brushed off. I will never forget what he said about it though: “I feel bad for all those people. All those loved ones lost. It almost makes me grateful for where I’m at. Reminds me that things can always be worse.” At the time, his words confused me. I selfishly thought, “It can’t get any worse than this. I’m losing a loved one just like all of them!” He was literally days away from the end of his life, and he was the one being positive! When I think back to those conversations with my dad, I now understand the power in his positive attitude. While being positive may not have had power to keep him alive, it gave him the power to beat cancer. It can give each of us the power to find joy and happiness.
- Heather Taylor