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.
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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