I sat at the kitchen computer in my school uniform, trying—and-failing—to ignore the telltale sound of my dad’s slow shuffling as he ambled towards the fruit basket and picked up a small orange.
I hated myself for this then (and I despise myself even more now) but being surrounded by his sickness made me uneasy; it had only been three days since he’d acquired a mysterious migraine and I was already itching for a return to my normal routine.
“How was school? You said you had a test in Quadratics coming up?”
He didn’t talk about his migraine and whether it had gotten worse (it had) or whether medication he had received from the ER doctors had helped (it hadn’t).
“Easy,” I lied. I wished that he’d leave the kitchen so I could return to my computer and, even if only for a moment, ignore the pressing anxiety that threatened to consume me from the inside out.
It’s only a headache, I reminded myself, no need to project your hypochondria onto other people.
It was easy, in the sunlit kitchen, to ignore my racing pulse and the never-ending what-ifs that plagued me every time a family member got sick.
Normally, I could hide it. I could pretend that I didn’t hold my breath every time my brother ran down the stairs too quickly, bracing myself for the inevitable crash that never came; I could pretend I didn’t check my phone obsessively for a missed calls when my mother was more than 15 minutes late; I could even pretend the reason I always insisted on accompanying my sister to Starbucks was because I was addicted to Vanilla Bean Frappuccinos rather than the crippling fear that she could meet the front end of a car or the hands of a stranger.
Except, I couldn’t pretend with illnesses. I couldn’t fix what was wrong with my father—in fact, I didn’t even know what was wrong with him.
So I pretended it didn’t exist.
I watched my dad leave the kitchen, wanting more than anything to hold a cold face towel to his head and take care of him the way he’d always taken care of me. I tried to follow him but my legs felt weighted down like I was wading through molasses. I tried to calm down. After all, I always got myself worked up over nothing. My dad would get better and we’d all laugh about this soon enough.
I jolted awake to the feeling of my younger sister shaking my body. What was going on? My sister wasn’t supposed to be awake for another hour. I opened my eyes to tell her to go away when I noticed her expression.
“Dad won’t wake up. Mom found him on the floor and he won’t get up.”
I’d had variations of this dream for years, even before my dad had gotten sick, with various family members and diseases coming and going depending on the season and my moods.
This dream had to have been the most realistic of them all, though, even more than the one where my mother had massive grape-sized cysts on her hands. Except, my sister’s face was bloodless and all of a sudden I could hear my mother’s screams from the other room as she talked to the 911 operator. Oh, God.
“You’re lying.” Despite the fact that I had spent years of my life worrying that something terrible would happen to someone I love, all I felt initially was disbelief.
After all, horrible things like this didn’t happen to my family. It didn’t happen to my father, whatever "it" was.
“Oh my God,” I said. I would repeat that many more times in the minutes and hours to come. I wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep and pretend the last quarter hour had never happened and my family was still safe and intact. I wanted to go back to last night and tell my dad I loved him before going back to bed.
Had I told him I loved him? I couldn’t remember; I wasn’t usually the type to say “I love you” when I left the room or hung up the phone.
Was this my fault? Was this my karma for my excessive worrying about events that had a lower probability of happening that Leo winning an Oscar? Why couldn’t I turn off my whirring brain which made me terrified of and simultaneously repulsed by my dad’s sickness? Why hadn’t I taken better care of him and why hadn’t I said "I love you" last night?
I didn’t want to be the daughter that didn’t tell her dad she loved him the night before she died.
I forced myself to stop thinking of my dad and instead focus on my sister, who shared his name and birthday. I wasn’t going to be selfish anymore; I wasn’t going to let my discomfort cost my family any more. “It’s OK. They start hearts all the time, right?”
She nodded and I wish that I, too, believed in miracles.
I couldn’t do anything right, could I? I couldn’t even be a proper hypochondriac because I had missed everything. I had missed the fact that my dad went to the bathroom as often as a pregnant woman; I had missed the fact that my dad’s vision was declining at a rate that far exceeded regular aging. I had missed the fact that all of these symptoms pointed to a pituitary adenoma, a type of brain tumour.
While the rational part of my mind knew that I was a 15-year-old girl and not a neurologist, the guilt was eating me alive. Why didn’t I talk to him more and listen to his symptoms? Why hadn’t I forced him to go to his doctors’ appointments, which he missed with alarming frequency? Why didn’t I realize what was wrong?
I had always been able to create mountains out of mole hills when it came to common colds and sprained ankles and yet I had failed my father here, when he needed me the most.
The days and weeks and months after my dad died all melted together in a hazy blur. I started showing up to class late to avoid the sympathetic words of my classmates and teachers. Visits from our community, which was primarily Catholic, fell into one of two groups: there were the people who brought food or even a kind word and offered to pray for us and there were the people who said, with sanctimony dripping off their tongues like acid, “God needed him more,” as if we were selfish for wishing that he was still with us and not six feet underground.
I just wished God could explain why serial killers were still alive when my dad, my kind, goofy, warm-hearted father, was dead and cold and not coming back.
I hated how people were stopping by the house less and less; I hated how people were moving on and forgetting my dad. I hated how I was moving on and forgetting my dad.
There were hours, sometimes days at a time, where I would forget that he was gone and I’d be able to laugh like I was a normal teenager. Inevitably, I would always eventually remember and I would ask for his forgiveness.
Every night as I lay in bed, I thought of how I had avoided him because I was so scared of something awful happening to him and, now that something awful had happened. I would have given anything for even an extra 10 minutes to say goodbye.
Not all my blame was aimed introspectively. After all, he’d gone to seek medical help the first night of the headache and they’d sent him home without any answers and without an MRI.
I was livid that they hadn’t bothered to look inside my father’s head, where I assumed there would be a tumor the size of a grapefruit, so that they could have done something to try and prolong his life. Or even given us an adequate chance to say goodbye.
Part of me, especially now, is terrified that racial bias played a role in his hospital visit—especially the idea that people of color do not feel as much pain as white people and are more likely to become dependent on narcotics.
Having volunteered at this same hospital since then, I know that the doctors may have simply been busy or inexperienced, but a small part of me prays that someone did not send my father home to die because they thought he was playing the part for a script for Oxy.
Three years later, I am far from OK. I still worry when I haven’t heard from my parents and I still pause whenever my brother runs down the stairs. In many ways, I am the wide-eyed innocent 15-year-old who fears that every headache is a tumor.
In most ways, though, I’ve had to grow up before my time. I’ve started to see a psychiatrist to get my anxiety under control and he made me realize that I’ve already been through my worst case scenario.
Anything that my neurotic mind tells me is survivable, because I’ve been through the worst and I’ve made it to the other side. Sure, I have some battle scars, but I’m a stronger person for it.
And I always tell my mother I love her before I hang up now.