It’s been two and a half weeks so far, this time. It’s agonizing; this hospital room seems to shrink with every breath I take. With as many times as we’ve been here, you would think I would be used to this by now. The sad fact is that I feel the same restless anxiety every time we’re here; I think I’ve simply found a way to hide it better. I have realized I have to at least pretend to be the strong one, for both of them.
I rub my face and sigh, trying to shake the weariness from my soul, and I glance over at the bed where my wife is cradling our daughter. My wife…my god, Megan astounds me every day. When Emma first got sick, we decided that I would keep working, and she would handle as much of the day-to-day medical stuff as she could. She’s been such a soldier for the last five years. Doctor’s appointments, referrals, second, third, and fourth opinions…all the way from the diagnosis, through the chemo and the radiation, and now…here we are again. I could not have asked for a more graceful woman to walk through this with. In everything she does, she carries this royal air, like a strong, quiet queen attending to her business, holding her head high, no matter what.
And then there is our little girl. Oh, Emma; sweet, bubbly Emma. It kills me inside that she has to go through this. She was first diagnosed when she was only three years old. We fought the cancer for almost two full years before she went into remission. My baby girl…she’s…she’s such a strong-hearted little one. Only eight years old, and able to go into every appointment and treatment with a smile on her face, regardless of how sick she might be.
In and out of treatment for the last couple of years after her relapse, I hold onto the hope that she’ll recover and that we’ll beat this, but…ugh, I shouldn’t even let myself think like this. I have to be strong. I have to be their rock. Megan can’t carry all of this by herself; I feel atrociously guilty that I let her be the one who was there for Emma through all of this. I know she’s her mother, and she would have been there no matter what, but I am still conflicted. I should have been here; unfortunately, hospital bills add up quick, and one of us had to work…
I look out the window for a moment and try to clear my head of the thoughts that are constantly swirling there; I can’t even get away from them in my dreams. I am at least able to calm myself down a little bit, and I blink away the tears that are forming in my eyes. No time for crying. What else I should be doing, I don’t know, but I am fairly certain there is no time for crying.
I take a slow, quivering breath and shiver. It’s a strange feeling, sitting in this chair again. It’s familiar, and in an odd way comforting, but at the same time, it is unnerving. I feel anxious and on edge, but I know there is nothing I can do. If I had to fight someone or build something, or if some amount of force could heal my daughter, I would not be sitting here. Instead, I must rely on the medical prowess of the doctors and nurses here. I must rely on the medicine, and in some cases, the poison, to do their job.
It destroys me, inside. I can’t do anything for her, for either of them. I am supposed to be their provider and their protector, but I cannot save them from this. I cannot whisk my little princess away from this evil disease; she must endure it. I cannot wash the pain and the fear and the confusion from my wife’s heart; I can only hold her as she weeps. I must tell them that everything is going to be okay, and make them believe it, even though I myself am beginning to lose hope.
I have cried, I have screamed at the sky, I have begged whatever god might hear me to take it all away. I have driven my truck into the middle of nowhere and vented my frustrations by beating the ever-living snot out of a tree stump with a baseball bat. Broke the bat clean in two. It didn’t change anything; I thought maybe it would make me feel better, or at least not as pent up. Instead, I was left lamenting the fact that I only brought one bat, and I was once again alone with my thoughts.
I look back over to my girls, cuddled up tight in that tiny little hospital bed, and I almost wept again. I thought I was too much of a man to have my heart broken, and now it has become a daily occurrence. Every time I see Emma and she smiles at me, sick as ever, I break. My soul is just…crushed. We have watched her wither away slowly over the last five years. We have slowly watched our little girl die.
I’m not going to blame god or the universe or fate; unfortunately, this is life. These are the cards we have been dealt. It is far from fair, but I am at least sound enough of mind to realize that life is not fair. The world does not owe us anything. However…what the hell is this mess? A three year old gets cancer? Why was it that this beautiful girl had to suffer so much at such a young age? Why did my wife have to watch helplessly as it all just…happened to us?
Even with all the stress, and with all that we have been through, it warms my heart to see the two of them like this. They are asleep, holding each other close. They are so tranquil, unencumbered by the weight of the world outside their dreams.
I walk out to the waiting room where the other fathers in the oncology ward are gathered. This little room has become our sanctuary; we come and sit here, sipping absent-mindedly on instant coffee, breathing in the sickening scent of disinfectant cleaner and aerosol spray that has become so normal to us all that it is both comforting and disgusting at the same time. This room, this scent, this atmosphere, it is the perfect cross-section of what our lives have become. We are trapped here, enveloped in both solace and chaos. The world outside these walls knows nothing of our circumstances. Occasionally, we will watch the cars go by on the highway through the waiting room window, imagining what their lives must be like; wondering what normal life feels like.
The nurses here are fantastic. They understand what we are going through, to some extent, at least. They are with us through it all, walking us through the various visits; they have become almost family, in that way.
A year or two back, I overheard one of them consoling a family that had just received the news that we all dread; it was actually the first time I heard the “T” word used. Terminal. The thought of it sends shivers up and down my spine.
Her words were honest and blunt, but to someone in the middle of a place like this, they were oddly encouraging.
“Love is a painful thing,” she said quietly, stroking the mother’s shoulder. “It is a wonderful thing, but sometimes, it leads us down paths that we would rather avoid. Loving someone can be absolute hell, especially when it brings you here. Sometimes love means helplessly standing by and watching as that person you are so desperately holding on to slips away. It can be utterly devastating, but…it is surely still worth it. Every second, every slight memory, becomes a treasure. As time goes by, those memories mean more than anything else in this life. I am so sorry that you are here, and that this is what your fight has come to. I wish things could be different. Sometimes, the cards you’re dealt can’t be changed, and you have to find a way to live with that fact. It’s a shame that the greatest things in this world can lead to the most painful tragedies.”
At least that’s how I remember it. It was probably a lot shorter, and maybe not quite so eloquent, but it struck a chord in me. It reminded me of a song.
“Love is watching someone die…”
Dear god, is that what I’m doing? I certainly hope not…