I’m working out with weights in the gym—pressing 17.5 pounders above my head and then squatting and bringing them down to my ankles. After counting 16 reps, I stand the weights upright in front of me and look at myself in the mirror. I watch a thirty-something young man in back of me perform his reps with grunts that turn his face beet red and cause me to be prepared to resuscitate in case he has a health emergency. Then I focus on my own face and wonder if anyone can tell if I have cancer.
What does cancer look like? Is it based on the after effects of chemo or radiation, or is it a combination of an abrupt lifestyle change coupled with a fear of dying a slow and horrifying death? Does it make one pale or old before their time? Sometimes I feel a pain in the area of my right breast and wonder if the cancer is secretly stealing all the nutrients to feed its selfish cells and preparing to ravish me from the inside out.
I begin to cry. It’s not a weeping that others might notice, but more of a quiet sorrow with tears slowly making an entrance down the sides of my cheeks. I wonder if anyone at the gym has cancer or is a cancer survivor. I think about announcing it to the room full of men and women working out, but instead I stay focused and continue my lifting, squatting, and grunting as I work myself up to 20 pounders.
It’s a Wednesday night before the holidays. I call my father in the morning. He doesn’t answer, so I leave a message for him to call me back. He’s 98 years old and lives in Chicago with a woman who is 31 years younger. She and I speak only formalities even though we’ve known each other for years.
Father has dementia. It has worsened in the last six months. I want to tell him about my cancer. I want to hear his “I’m so sorry” or “Don’t worry or “Everything will be fine.”
He calls me back that evening. His wife most likely dialed the number for him. I tell him nothing about the cancer diagnosis because I know he won’t understand or else he will say something that is inappropriate. I want to tell him how much I miss mother, his first wife who died in a pedestrian accident 20 years ago. I stop myself for fear that he won’t remember the woman he spent 52 years with or he won’t understand what I’m saying. There is a silence of ten or fifteen seconds between us. I press the mute so he won’t hear me crying. He’s confused and I hear him say to his wife, “Something happened. I don’t know where she is.”
I compose myself and bring the phone back to my ear. “I love you Dad.”
“I love you too,” he says in his cheery weak voice that breaks up with each word as if he has a bad case of laryngitis.
Less than a week later, Father takes a turn for the worse.
Now I have a reasonable justification for delaying radiation therapy. I no longer need to use the usual excuses like, “I have to do more research,” or “I’m not sure which method is best for me,”, or “I don’t think I want to undergo any type of treatment.”
Father died on Christmas day. I have to fly to Chicago, attend the funeral, and deal with family matters that surface after a death. My new research focuses on buying airline tickets, making hotel reservations, and dealing with a loss. Radiation treatments can wait. Chemo treatments can be set aside. I’m putting my cancer on hold.