Seven months after my dad’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he is gone, after the kind of week for which the word anguish exists. I flew out to California last Monday with my two girls for a weeklong visit, and he was fine. Chemotherapy had failed him, but he was feeling better without its toxic effects. Suddenly the next day he was unable to eat or drink. For three days he tried heroically to swallow down the smallest sips of liquid. And then it became distressingly clear that it was no use.
We called everyone in. Saturday my husband came from Ohio with our two boys. My sisters-in-law both returned from weekends away with friends. Together we cared for my dad as his body shut down. Monday night it was over.
Hard times are opportunities for growth. I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned in the hopes it may help someone now or in the future.
Death teaches us to cherish life. Cancer survivors are often grateful that their diagnosis taught them to appreciate the time that remains. Since last fall, I’ve talked to my mom and dad every day on the phone. In past years it would have taken years to log the same number of conversations. I spent weeks staying with my parents at their house, spending more hours in total than I would have in years of brief drop-ins.
Last weekend we all spent time talking with my dad. Normally my dad is not a talker, he’s a doer. Working in the yard, cleaning up after meals, playing with the kids, he has never been one to sit and chat. But this weekend we talked, in brief, precious words that we will remember forever.
Fight for your care. And know when to stop. Since my dad’s diagnosis I had fought for him. I researched the disease, conventional treatments, alternative treatments, clinical trials, doctors, hospitals. I couldn’t solve the problem, but I could ensure my dad had the best care possible as soon as possible. I had backup plans. When plan A failed, there was plan B. Then plan C, and D.
And finally there was nothing to do but accompany him on the final stretch. But I take comfort in knowing I did everything I could.
Cancer reveals the very core of a patient’s personality. My dad’s wonderful surgeon at Stanford said that, and for my dad it was certainly true. I learned so much about my dad these last few months. I was not surprised to find him typically stoic, disciplined and more concerned about others than himself.
But I was surprised to find he had great faith. Born in China, trained as an engineer, a man of science, I never would have guessed it. He said, “Whether or not you believe in God, he’s in charge.” Grateful for the life he’d had, my dad was peaceful and surrendered to whatever was to come. “Don’t worry,” he’d always say. “I’m okay.” And I knew that he was and would be.
Witnessing death can be a privilege. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last October, I thought over and over that I could not watch him die. I could not endure the pain his suffering would cause me. I loved him too much to watch.
But the worse things became, the more grateful I was to lend support. I bore witness to his struggle. I honored his courage. It was my privilege to be by his side. Death is a solitary journey. But I told my dad I would hold his hand until his mom and dad were there to take it.
Pain can have purpose. At the end, with great effort, my dad said weakly, “What is the function of this?” I told him that just as coming into this world is a process – nine months of growing in the womb, the long and difficult journey through the birth canal – so too is leaving. Both are miraculous passages. But I couldn’t explain the meaning of the pain.
Now I understand it. Just as Spanish conquistador Cortes burned his ships to eliminate retreat as an option, the human body self-destructs so that everyone is forced to accept there is no going back. In the end the soul is glad to take leave, and loved ones are relieved at the end of suffering. If not for the pain, none of us would be able to let go.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to pray for. Some say that chemotherapy is for families, not patients. I now understand what that means. Families always want more time with their loved ones. But for the patient, the quality of life tradeoff is not always worth the extra time.
In the end, I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. So I simply prayed for mercy.
There are things worse than death. As a kid I thought there was nothing worse than death. But I know now that a life of suffering can be worse. When I was young, I wanted to live forever. But now I know that quality is everything. I have seen how difficult life is when daily tasks are a struggle – eating, digesting, moving, breathing. In my dad’s last days, even an hour seemed an eternity.
My dad was lucky. He had nearly 74 years of perfect health. Illness came the last nine months of his life. Unlike most pancreatic cancer patients who are diagnosed too late, he was able to have surgery, which spared him from the worst of the pain. And though chemotherapy did little to halt the cancer, it bought him enough time to see his last child married. When things became very bad, time was mercifully short, and he had his entire family surrounding him in his final days.
My dad felt fulfilled. He felt thankful for an amazing life that took him from rural China to Korea during the Communist Revolution, through the Korean War, to school in Taiwan, and finally to the United States to live the American dream.
He was self-sufficient, independent. He did not want to be a burden to anyone, and his swift disease ensured that he would not be for long. He thanked me for my constant care in his last days. And I told him it was nothing compared to the countless diapers he had changed for me, the caring through childhood illnesses, spending night after night patiently patting me to sleep at bedtime. He did the same for my four children. And I was honored to return the favor, if only for a short time.
I was in the right place at the right time. I had perfect training to tend to my dad in his last days. We are so alike, I understood him without words. Ten years of parenthood had prepared me well for sleepless nights and care of basic body functions. Four natural childbirths had inured me to the messiness of bodily processes and tuned me into the power of the human machine. I understood the internal, relentless process my dad was enduring. And I knew there was only one way out – no fear, no fight, only forward. And I was glad for him when he completed his journey at last.
* * *
I love this picture of my dad and me, from my wedding over a decade ago. He hasn’t worn glasses like this in years, and I’ve rarely worn makeup before or since. Normally I’m behind the camera, and normally he doesn’t look this relaxed and happy in front of it. But this is how I will remember him, and us.
Photo credit: Michelle Pattee
May God hold your Dad in His arms. Your words of his final days are a beautiful testament from a loving daughter.
You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.
Our hearts are breaking. Thank you for sharing, CG. We will miss your wonderful father.
That is the most beautiful eulogy I have experienced. You are a selfless person that honors your father in life and in death. Thank you for sharing your most intimate thoughts.
My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Your post about your father was such a wonderful tribute to his memory. I pray that you find peace and comfort in the days to come.
So sorry for your loss.
We are thinking of you all at this difficult time. Your words are so beautifully written and such a tribute to a man you loved so much.
My deepest sympathy to you and your family.
Sorry for your loss…loved this post. Thank you for sharing your journey…
What an endearing tribute to your dad. You did an amazing job caring for him. And he was able to let go with so much love in his heart. I am so honored to have been there on his last day.
Lilian, This is a beautiful, beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing this. I am so sorry. love, Justine
So beautifully written. Describes a lot of what I felt but can’t put into words when my dad passed last year. Thank you for writing this. I’m glad I found your blog! Keep it up!
shirley stamen jaffe
Dear Lillian…you honor your father so beautifully…my sympathy and love, shirley (Justine’s mom)
What a beautiful piece that makes me feel that I personally know you and your Dad. Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart.
I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. Our thoughts are with you and your family.
I am so sorry for your loss.
Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. God bless you.
My thoughts and prayers to you and your beautiful family.
I am so sorry for your loss. You and your family are in our thoughts this mother’s day weekend.
You have always had a special gift for breaking down complicated subjects coupled with a grounded perspective on life. What an amazing mentor you had in this regard and others, and how wonderful that he held surprises for you until the very end. All our love!
So yong park
Lilian, I’m so sorry for your loss. Big hugs to you and your family.
This is a beautiful post; thank you for sharing! I’m so sorry for your loss. Grateful that you have such wonderful memories of your dad to bolster you during this difficult time.
So lovely Lilian! My heart is crying even if my eyes are dry!
I love you.
Dear Lil, That was so beautiful and wise, and you are the rock for all your family and friends. Thank you for sharing that with us and for reminding us to cherish our family, friends and good lives that we have! xoxo
Lilian & family… I tried to read your written words but just started to cry when when I saw the photo of you and Henry. I will read it soon, I’m so sorry.
So sorry for your loss. You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers.
May God bless you—
I’m very sorry to hear about your dad. Thinking of you and your family.
Very beautiful post…I’m so sorry for your lost. Big hugs to you and your family.
Gayathri (Akshay's mom)
I am sorry for the lost. He will always be there to guide you through everything in life.
I just came over from Caitlin’s blog (Saveur Fare) and in an effort to acquaint myself, I read this entry under “Family”. It is amazing and I thank you for sharing such personal, raw, thoughts and emotions. Your father raised a beautiful person, from the little I can tell. I’m sorry for your loss.
hi christina – thank you so much for coming by and for your very kind words.
Stumbled on your blog when I typed in ‘leftover, chicken, green beans, asian.’ Such poetic insight, this post. Your dad was lucky to have you.
hi kathlyne – so glad you found me! and i appreciate your words very much.
I too, was by my MIL’s side to see her transition into her final passage. I was traumatised by her sudden death after a short 3-months diagnosis and struggle with colon cancer. I couldn’t bring forth or pen down all my emotions and pain as well as what you have shared on this post. Many thanks for helping to bring a closure to this with such a profound and insightful post. God bless!
dear doreen – so sorry for your loss, but bravo to you for being there for your mother-in-law. thank you so much for sharing.
I’m a newcomer but the more I read your blogs the more you touch my heart and my palate. My heart was pierced reading about your father’s last days and your caring for him. I just finished reading “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. It’s a simple and beautifully written fictional account of the life and death of an honorable man who knew love and loss. Blessings to you and your family.
Feels like this was yesterday. xoxo
oh kim – you were such a huge support. will never forget it. xoxoxo
It’s been years since you wrote this, but I stumbled upon it while reading around your blog learning about your kitchen. As a former counselor, may I say this is one of the most beautiful – and accurate – summaries I’ve read about the experience your family endured. Your faith and resilience is such an example, and there is so much universal truth in the words you wrote. Thank you – it impacted my day today to be reminded of what is truly important in life. Your Dad was a fortunate man to have you and your wisdom by his side while he made the journey!
hi cindy – this means SO much to me. thank you!!! i wrote the piece five years ago, but the experience is still very fresh in my mind and heart.