That biopsy needled must have been at least foot long, as well as metallic, sharp, and all around frightening. To witness the thing made an already crisply chilly hospital room even colder. I looked over to the hospital bed where my dad rested, his back exposed to the world. Then I turned my attention to the nurse who was preparing to plunge the needle. I closed my eyes before the needle was to pierce the skin, and waited. I heard my dad gasp, a signal that the needle had been plunged into his tissue. It was one of the few times that I’d ever heard or seen my dad acknowledge physical pain.
The next visit to the hospital would confirm my worst fears. Dad and I were sitting across the room from a bespectacled oncologist, while the paper that explained his diagnosis was shaking in my hand and twisting my heart. Dad had been diagnosed with a rare cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The diagnosis had been a gut punch to dad, sucking out all of his wind. For a while whispering the word “cancer” was all the response that he could muster.
Despite the smart looking glasses and the receding hairline, the oncologist seemed like he was a very young man, a point of concern for me. For I would have preferred someone older and more experienced. Still, he was an oncologist, and he had to be knowledgeable about the different types of cancer, or else the hospital wouldn’t have assigned him to our case. Dad and I listened intently as he calmly put forth his initial explanation of the disease and then provided us with options for treatment.
When the doctor completed his lecture, he asked if we had any questions. I turned to my dad, who was looking down at the paper in his hand, still silent. No doubt he was still processing this development.
I turned to face the doctor. “So he’s going to have to go through chemotherapy, then,” I said. “Okay. Okay. Do the majority of patients come back to being healthy after they have gone through the chemo?”
The doctor attempted to lift our spirits with the best scenarios: “People have survived ten years with treatment,” he said. “Some have even gone on to live up to twenty years.”
Dad looked up and leaned forward in his chair. “So you’re saying that there is a good chance that I can survive this?”
“I’m saying that people who’ve been diagnosed with this disease have gone on to live good lives afterwards.”
Dad sat back in the chair and sighed. “What are the next steps?”
Dad was seventy years old and already managing a myriad of health issues, as his age and physical fitness were two factors that were working against him. He was also recovering from the impact of learning of his brother’s incapacitation from a stroke, a condition that had taken the life of my grandfather. How does the idiom go? When it rains, it pours. Dad had been drenched by the rain in these last months. But he was still combative and stubborn, often hard and unyielding as the tree bark from a Baobab tree. I knew that as soon as he got over the fact of his diagnosis, he was going to make it his goal to be one of those people that lived twenty years.
The doctor continued. The cancer strikes more men than women, more African American men than white men, and people who are sixty-five years or older. Doctor insisted that the condition is manageable with a proper treatment regimen, but you could never completely eradicate it from the system. Dad would eventually succumb to a death that was an offshoot from this cancer. I’d read somewhere that ninety percent of cancer sufferers died painfully.
I’d read a lot about death recently, seen it portrayed so vividly and often in the movies and television. But now that I was one-month shy of my thirty-seventh birthday, the death of a loved one was foreseeable. It was truly frightening.
My eyes became misty.
I wanted to shed tears, but was stopped short by memories of what happened the last time I cried in front of my father while he convalesced in a hospital bed. I was home from college when he became ill and lost consciousness in our bathroom. Mom and I were sitting at his bedside when the tears started steaming down the front my face. Upon seeing my upset, dad’s eyes widened, his lips became tight. He inhaled a breath, pointed his finger directly at me and said, “Enough of that, Eze.”
I immediately swallowed and wiped away tears after receiving my scolding.
I swallowed my emotions again fourteen years later. For this was not the time for me to project weakness or frailty. Besides, what good was weeping going to do for him anyway? I wasn’t going to be able to cry my dad’s cancer away. My shoulders would not slope forward from the sudden weight of this terrible diagnosis. There would be no sobbing. I had accompanied him to the appointment so that he could draw some strength from me.
I held my breath when the nurse walked into the room, and then I let out an exhale when she smiled and said that insurance would cover the cost of the cancer treatment. I could feel my gears shift into motion after the insurance coverage was assured. We had the tools to push back hard against this cancer.
I turned to my father again. He raised his chin into the air. His jaw was set. He was going to fight this cancer beast. Good. Dad was a fighter, a characteristic that served him well during his journey through this life. Another cancer diagnosis so soon after defeating prostate cancer had been a significant blow to him. But of this I was sure: Dad would do everything in his power to stay alive.
I drove dad home from the hospital. I went into my bedroom, began replacing my outdoor clothing — sweater, shirt, and slacks — with my “home” clothes — tee shirt and sweat pants — when I was beset by an attack by my anxiety and fears. Half-dressed and panicking, I fell back onto my bed. The questions arrived at a rapid fire pace. What would it feel like to be in that hospital room as the cancer feasted away on my father’s body? What if dad were to unexpectedly succumb to this virulent form of blood cancer? What would his death mean for us, his family?