Life is never simple. You go along thinking things will remain pretty much the same. You awaken at generally the same time each morning. The tasks you do are relatively similar day to day: you take the dog outside, shower, have breakfast, drive to the train. There is a rhythm to life, a rhythm which sometimes seems humdrum. The rituals of life make everyday seem ordinary. You always hear people talking about wanting to break out of the everyday, not realizing that in some ways such a rhythm is life affirming. Such a rhythm appears to be permanent, like a possession you can hang on to, but then something profound happens which folds up that rhythm and throws it away.
10 February 2017, is the seventeenth anniversary of the day, 10 February 2000, on which my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; he died exactly 34 days later. Each year in February I begin to think about those thirty-four days. For me February and March are now the cruelest months because those 34 four days intersect them. I find myself imagining what I would have done differently if someone had said to me on that February day, 'in thirty-four days your dad will disappear and you will never see him again'. Even though we did not realize it, those 34 days were spent trying to recapture the rhythm of the ordinary, trying to hold on to our ordinary rituals.
On television shows about doctors and hospitals, the doctors always seem able to tell their patients exactly how much time they have left. In life as a television show they say, 'You've got 34 days', and then the patient embarks on a life affirming journey which ends in a sad yet beautiful way, but real life is just not like that. The oncologist didn't have a crystal ball; there were no predictions about how much time was left, no inspirational speeches, just a sort of resignation. An explanation of what could be done was offered: radiation, chemotherapy, maybe some surgery, but it would all be to no avail. I remember the oddest things about the appointment, in that strange little room, at the cancer centre. I remember the tiny blue ink stain on the pocket of the doctor's lab coat, the way in which he stood so near to the door, as though he might run away from giving this diagnosis, the unpleasant shade of green on the walls, and the odd sort of octagonal shape to the room, like a stop sign.
Did my father believe it when he was told this was the end of his life, I wonder? In his face that day, as I sat across from him in the oncologist's little room, I thought I saw that belief. Dad had a look in his eyes, a look which was the recognition of an absolute certainty, as though the long awaited answer to a question had been given, and he completely understood that answer.
We spent that 34 days in search of the ordinary, but the unusual kept creeping in, no matter how much we tried to push it away. People came to the house to visit, people we hadn't seen in years, a long line of goodbyes and empty platitudes. There was a long list of phone calls to be made, always starting with an apology, 'I'm sorry to be the bearer of such bad news', always feeling angry that I was the one chosen to utter those words, 'Dad has terminal cancer'. The recipients of the news on the other end of that phone line always seemed determined to say, 'don't worry Jenn, he'll be okay; he'll be better before you know it.' I remember losing my temper with an uncle when he uttered those words to me, losing my temper and shouting into the phone, and wishing desperately for a return to that place, the place with the rhythm of the ordinary.
34 days: Sleeping at my parents' home in my old bedroom, waking each morning, and hoping it had all been a bad dream.
34 days: Shopping for the softest sheets, as though somehow more comfort would take away Dad's cancer.
34 days: Talking to friends and family who did not seem to understand our plight.
34 days: Listening to the whir of the oxygen machine.
34 days: Searching for the rhythm of life, and longing for its return.
(Originally posted 10 February 2012)