Just when I start wondering whether I’m losing my grip on sanity, I can hear my friend Anthony exclaim I’ve finally activated the godhead and makes me smile.
But Anthony has been dead since September 2018 so it’s a little odd my brain has come up with that. Then again, what is grief but an ongoing conversation with the dead as love straddles two dimensions? As a chronic depressive with frequent suicidal ideation, I’ve learned to make darkness a friend. And as a secular human whose parent is dying of stage 4 cancer, this advanced level of comfort with the unfathomable is quite helpful.
I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of help along the way and not just from the metaphysical realm but from fellow humans who have been holding my hand for a while. They offered me a safe place to regroup, they folded me into their gentle life, and they accepted darkness as part of me, no questions asked. To be among people you can talk to openly about death makes it less daunting, somehow.
It takes away some of that fear of the unknown, turning it into a tolerable thought even when it is coming at you with the kind of velocity you had forgotten about. Like anyone who rides the cancer rollercoaster, there will be moments of respite before it picks up speed again.
And no matter for how long you’ve been anticipating that moment, you didn’t think it would come so soon and now your mind is flailing. Your heart is breaking even though you’ve always known what was coming but you carried that knowledge alone to protect those you love.
That’s what Anthony did and that is what I did for my parents, taking my cue from how my stepmom’s oncologist managed their expectations.
The voice of my stepmom on the phone comes from the depths of despair.
It has almost erased her Southern French lilt and I stare at a painting on the wall to stay in the moment because I’m speaking to a ghost and yet she’s still alive. But not very much, not right now, and I don’t know what this means and we won’t know for another 24 hours and my habit of processing life in print takes a weird turn.
I slip into that parallel state my father has mentioned so many times, serenity, but I haven’t been there before. My life has been restless by default for a while now, maybe since forever with a five-year break at one point; I’m disquiet incarnate. And I understand that what my father means by serenity is numbness, that protective shell we deploy so life can’t get to us anymore.
We detach from everything and everyone and we batten down the hatches to save our hearts and I know this place intimately and I desperately want out but I can’t nail my brain to the page.
So I clean obsessively for a while and when that’s done I bring in the heavy artillery again, Portuguese music that can and will carry me as long as I’m alone. And my thoughts all get jumbled up between America, France, the Netherlands, a year spent living out of a suitcase, home, family, cats. Scrape off the floor, throw at the page, and then there’s something that came from me but makes me double up in pain because it’s not enough.
And I’m sorry if I ever implied love might be enough because it is what saved my life and it keeps saving it but when cancer is killing you?
At some point love isn’t enough anymore and you can’t ever prepare anyone for this, only yourself and I thought I had but I was wrong.
Now that my rational mind is kicking in, it cannot parse mixed messages from my parents who are clearly struggling.
My father would prefer to struggle alone and I’m torn between respecting his decision this time around and honoring the promise I made to my stepmom. I don’t know whether I should get on the first train out of Amsterdam tomorrow morning and come back tomorrow night, just so I can hold their hand.
They’re going back to the hospital for another scan to determine how to proceed with brain radiotherapy, assuming that is even possible. And that my father implied it may not be is worrying as he’s optimistic to a fault; with him, everything is possible. He doesn’t dwell on less favorable outcomes as he considers it a waste of his time to worry about something that might never happen.
Instead, he breaks down the best possible result into a series of tasks and then tackles them one by one, pragmatic to a fault. But the focus I’ve always admired isn’t there anymore. Dad is sitting at the intersection of resignation and serenity, waiting for hope to give him a ride and, well, I wasn’t expecting company.
How far can you stretch the now until it breaks? How much can the human body, the human mind, and the human heart can take before they, too, break down irretrievably?
I have no doubt my father’s love has played a huge role in keeping his wife alive so far and I know she adores him but when she goes, he will follow. And that is as much as I can bear to write about because the carnage doesn’t stop there, alas, and much as I wish it were overdramatic, it isn’t. When the heart struggles, the brain weakens until the two eventually agree to call it quits.
There is a lot of love there, there always was and cancer made us all consider it anew, with fresh eyes and more gratitude than ever.
And there’s no angel with a wingspan broad enough to keep everyone on earth alive, no matter what you believe in, even oncology. You can only keep death at arm’s length for so long before you run out of chances to do so.
Hopefully we get an extra one tomorrow.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.