Sunday, November 2, 2014

Lessons from Cancer

Postscript before the post: this is completely unedited and was written between 12am and 1am.

I'm pretty sure anyone who reads this blog (when it is randomly updated) will already know that my dad has a cancerous tumor in his leg. He had one last December and got it removed and has another one on the other side now and is getting chemo (if you don't know and need more details, you won't find them here).

It's been, interesting is a nothing word. It's been...illuminating. Yeah, illuminating. It's been illuminating to see my parents through this process. And the other people who care about me. Anyways, I figured some of the things I've learned are worth remembering, so they're recorded here, for whoever feels like they should read them (hi, future me!).

1. Dad knows how to put a bright face on
One of the big problems I had with this whole cancer thing was how much my Dad posted about it on Facebook. I know, crazy, right? Of all the things that could bother me, Facebook drove me bonkers. Part of this was that I didn't like being reminded of it (and thanks to algorithms, Dad's hugely popular updates were always at the top of my news feed). Part of it was that I didn't like seeing the comments on the updates (more on that later). Anyways, I approached Dad about it, and he was a little surprised, I think, but he explained to me that a large part of why he was updating was to keep other people's spirits up. At our church, it seems like a lot of cancer has been going around, and Dad is working on keeping people positive. His updates are always about putting an upside to chemo - heading to the Orioles game with my siblings with a bald head, or watching Ravens games in a hospital room, or still trucking along at what I'm learning really is his number one job - being our dad (i.e. taking my sister on college visits, showing up for family video chats, making it to the dinner table even when he's tired). Most recently (which partly inspired this post), he used the hashtag, #living_with_chemo, and #still_living (PS Dad - cool kids use camel case, like this: #livingWithChemo #stillLiving).

2. Dad lives the "everywhere is a mission field" idea
This past summer, when my Dad's second cancer tumor was discovered and the whole chemo process started, I was interning at the same place where my Dad works. As a result, I got to see how his employees and co-workers took the news, and how Dad presented it. I don't have the exact words that he used when emailing them with updates, but I do recall driving home in the car with him and getting all the details on how carefully he crafted his emails. Dad's former boss (who has retired) wasn't at all religious, but my dad wasn't afraid to admit that we are Christians. He acknowledged the people at work who were praying for him while being careful to not alienate those who don't follow Christ. I'm not saying it was easy for Dad to do all of this, but he was really thinking about it - something that I'm not convinced I would do in the same situation. I know people always say that anywhere is a place to be a missionary, and they will "know you by your actions" but this summer with cancer was the clearest picture I've had of that.

3. Mom never loses her head
This may not be exactly true - I know that my mom has had her share of dealing with this and figuring out what it means and being worried. But seriously, Mom can call me and say "hey, took Dad to urgent care, can you watch the kids?" without batting an eyelash. And then while I am going crazy (because I tend to fall apart) she's just calmly setting things up, driving from Columbia to Baltimore whenever Dad's at JHH (Johns Hopkins Hospital). She's matter of fact about it too - she remarked to me the other day that "Dad and I don't stick our heads in the sand and just pretend something's not happening, but we also don't imagine him with one foot in the grave - we just take the news as we get it and go on grace" (or something along those lines, it's a paraphrase). Does that come with growing up? Being a mom? or is it a unique thing to my mom? Because whatever it is I don't have it and I don't imagine I'll ever get it.

4. Mom and Dad both are trying to treat me like a grown-up
Mom always asks, not tells, me to come watch the kids. Dad always thanks me for watching them afterwards. It's kind of weird. And of course at the same time they're both still trying to protect me some (see below - I tend to freak out), but it's been interesting to see that and realize that yeah, I am a grown-up, so it's time to start acting like one.

5. Ryan is pretty good at dealing with me when I fall apart
I don't want to talk a lot about how I've been doing - people always ask and for the most part at this point, I'm good - it's become the normal and I'm making this HUGE effort to be better than I was the first time around. But even when I'm trying to be better, I still have a very over-active imagination and can let things freak me out (not like my nursing student sister who probably has a way better grasp on this whole thing). And Ryan (my boyfriend, if you don't know, but if you're reading this you probably know) is always OK with taking my calls at that point. When I first heard my Dad had a second cancer, I flipped, and he was there. Every time I've gone to the hospital to visit Dad, Ryan's been there with me (because I hate hospitals, and I always have, even when I was visiting new younger siblings). I'm sure if I didn't have Ryan, I would have gotten through some other way, but I'm sure glad I have him to put back together the pieces when I fall apart.

6. Friends can actually be trusted
This relates to the part about Facebook. Most of the comments on my Dad's post consist of "praying for you" comments, and I have a big problem with this. Because I really don't believe them. And it makes me angry. It feels like it's easy for people to say stuff they don't mean online and that bugs me. But then people prove to me that they actually remember and care. Like my friend Christina asks whenever I see her and texts me occasionally for updates - not annoyingly because she knows it's annoying but just cause she always wants to make sure I'm OK. My friend Julie took me to dinner and helped point me towards God in all of this, and to stop trying so hard to "juggle all the balls in the air". My friend Beverly Twitter messaged me and asked how I was doing, really, and she made dinner for my family (while having two kids of her own) to help us out. My friend Lindsey always answers my texts and brings lightness and normalcy to my updates (i.e. she suggested podcasts for Dad to listen to in the hospital). I don't know all of Dad's friends, but if they're like mine, then they aren't lying about praying, and I'm the one with trust issues.

So yep. Those are some of the things I've been seeing around me while we "live with cancer". If you want to know how I'm doing, this is the post that talks about it. Probably not what you wanted, but it's the real answer. I'm not home day-to-day, so I can't tell you what it's like for Dad. Ask him. What it's like for me is seeing my Dad and Mom rise to the challenge and having God send all kind of people to show me that he's still around and somehow this is part of the plan. I realize this was sappy, and I know I didn't talk about my sisters and brother, but that's because I'm me. I'm not my sisters so I can't tell you how they are. And ask any of my sisters, I've always been kind of sappy.

PS - as mentioned in #6, I kind of have problems trusting people's comments that say "we love you" and "praying for you" so if you're gonna leave a comment, leave a "real" one. ;)


Megan said...

Dear Emily,

I wanted to write something thoughtful and sincere, but I don't know how to express myself beyond saying that I want to send you a hug right now. So, that's it- hug from your cousin, and if you can, pass it on.


Michael Wong said...

Hey Emily,

First, let me start with... we love you! Sorry if that bugs you, because that isn't my intention. But in some situations, it’s just the most fitting thing to tell someone. As you might know, it's a phrase that wasn't used a lot (or at all) growing up in my household, which is probably why you rarely hear it exchanged between your mom's siblings. I guess you can blame it on “old school Chinese culture”? I just usually say, “We’re not the huggy-type of family”. Whatever the reason, just know when I do say it, it’s important to me that you know and remember it. However, if I’m going to take your lead and use this opportunity to be a bit self-reflective, I have to admit that it also helps me to say it. Does that make it a selfish act? I hope not.

The last time cancer hit so close to home was with your grandmother. Unlike your dad, she didn’t decide to live with it. So in her case, it was making her last days as comfortable as possible. Although the situations are different, I’m sure the feelings are the same. For me, what stuck out more than anything was the feeling of helplessness… not being able to do anything to fix things, or not knowing what’s going to happen next. This is a pretty normal reaction, right? It sucks, and it makes you angry. And where do you place that anger? On cancer? On the doctors? On your dad for getting sick? On God? I think everyone deals with it in their own way. Your dad (who I suspect is angry), simply put, is amazing. Thanks so much for sharing your conversation with him, and that his FB posts are meant to help lift the spirits of others. This doesn’t surprise me at all and is a true testament of his character. (BTW, please tell him that his updates do lift our spirits so it’s working.) Your mom (who I think is equally angry) is also amazing. To me, she is and always has been… practical. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she is unemotional, uncaring or overly analytical. I think her ‘practical’ comes from her selflessness. I can almost hear her… “What would getting angry do? How would that help?” Although getting angry may allow her an opportunity to vent, what she means is how would it help your dad, you, your siblings or anyone else but her? I worry about my sister and everything she is dealing with and how much she keeps inside. Maybe I’ll bring her a big glass platter the next time we visit. Something she can break… throw on the ground and scream… finally vent. Could be cathartic, right? Eh, we both know that would never happen.

So since your parents are dealing with it the best way they know how, then maybe one takeaway for you is that you need to do the same. As the cool kids say, “Do you!” (I hope they are still saying that!) So freak out and overreact if you need to… you’re allowed. And if the only thing you get angry about is Facebook posts and comments, then you’re doing a lot better than most. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Maybe it’s not about trust issues but more about being (understandably) angry with the situation and the need to direct that somewhere… anywhere? Don’t forget, it’s a scientific fact that amazing parents have amazing children. For those of us that know you to be emotional and maybe initially over reactive, also know that you are caring, thoughtful, intelligent, determined and have a huge heart. After the freak out, it seems to me you always come back to wanting a deeper understanding, which in itself (especially to a self-proclaimed know-it-all like myself) is an admirable trait. The uncle in me is also happy to know that you have someone close to stand with you. Mad props to Ryan! (a feeble attempt to sound young and hip… uhhh, I mean ‘fresh’… ‘dope’?... dang it!)

For those of us not dealing with the day the day, sometimes all we have to cope is… “we love you!” (Unless it’s a hug from a cousin, which I can’t compete with personally). Do you understand that we really do mean it even if it helps us to say it? I hope so.

-Uncle Mike
#ProudUncle #HopeIDidntEmbarassYou (did I use the pound sign correctly?)