But having a good attitude about cancer? It was a test. Who wanted to have that word thrown at them at 42? Let alone to tell their 12-year-old daughter what was going on.
A few days after my diagnosis, I knew it was time to tell Emma what was going on. I didn’t know how much she knew about cancer or if I should even use that word. I wanted to spin this in a positive way, and make sure that I had the right attitude about it, so I could keep her from being too scared. I kept reminding myself we really didn’t know what we were dealing with yet. Keep it vague and she’ll never know what deeply this scared the shit out of me.
Lissa and I discussed for hours how to best have this conversation. Should we be together, or should I do it on my own? Do we keep it from her? But I knew she could sense something was going on. I felt, in the end, that it would be better to explain to her as best we could, rather than have her feel left out and confused.
I couldn’t help but think back to when I’d told her about Lucy. As I’d guessed when she was a baby, Lucy passed away when Emma was 8. While it was definitely a conversation I didn’t look forward to, when I’d thought about it before, I hadn’t taken into account how devastated I would be. I was just thinking about Emma. But when Lucy died? Wow. I was a basket case.
Lucy was the first dog I ever had. I never grew up with animals, and so when Lissa broached the idea of adopting a dog, I was reluctant. I didn’t really know what this relationship would entail.
We visited several area pet rescues without any progress. I knew what I didn’t want in a dog, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted. And then, one day, we arrived and I saw Lucy. I don’t know how to describe it except that I knew the moment I saw her that she was the dog for me. She was a German-Shepherd-Rottweiler mix. An enthusiastic puppy. Every time we took her to the vet, he would look at her paws and say, “Oh, she’s going to be a big dog, probably 40 pounds.” But each subsequent visit, he would add another 10 pounds. Lucy topped out at 100 lbs.
After mellowing out after her puppy years, Lucy was the perfect dog. She was well behaved and never even needed a leash when I walked her. If I stopped, if she was ahead of me, she’d turn around and come sit by my side. She hated strangers and had a vicious bark, but if you crossed the threshold of our house, she was your best friend.
She was my dog. She always wanted to be next to me. I didn’t realize how much a dog could give you. The amount of joy they express when you come in the door whether it’s been 5 minutes or 5 days.
And Lucy and Emma? They were truly sisters. Lucy was so patient with Emma as she grew up, got bigger, and wanted Lucy to be her playmate. There was one Christmas morning in particular that Emma received a toy hair styling kit for Christmas. I walked into the living room with a cup of coffee to see my massive, 100 lb. dog patiently getting her fur blow-dried and curled with the pretend tools.
When the summer of 2010 rolled around, and Lucy was 15, she started to slide downhill. Sleeping more, eating less, having accidents in the house. We knew the time was coming.
That August I attended a Star Wars convention with my 15-year-old nephew in Florida. We were gone 5 days and when I got home, Lissa approached me as I was unpacking my bags, still on a high from my experience. She sat down on the bed.
“I didn’t want to ruin your time but things aren’t going well with Lucy.”
I immediately stopped what I was doing and listened to Lissa talk about the vet visit and that Lucy was dealing with liver failure.
“What did he say?” I asked. “Is there anything we can do?”
Lissa shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “We could spend thousands of dollars on surgery but it would buy us a few months at most.”
I sat there, looking at my hands. I hated that it had come to this. But I knew, I just wanted to help Lucy. If she was so uncomfortable, we needed to do this now.
I went to the vet that afternoon and said goodbye to Lucy.
Emma was in school and while I knew that it would be hard to explain that Lucy was just gone, I didn’t want her to have to say goodbye. In so many ways, I thought that would make things even harder.
Then it was the moment I had been dreading for 8 years. I had to sit down with my daughter and explain that Lucy wasn’t here anymore. I had to break my daughter’s heart, when mine already felt shattered into a million pieces.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
Emma was now 12, truly growing into a young woman. She’d been exposed to the heartbreak of life more that I wanted. Just a few months before my diagnosis, my dad had unexpectedly passed away. He’d gone in for a biopsy to make sure he didn’t have lung cancer, and a couple days later, his lung collapsed, he went into a coma and never woke up. Ironically, the biopsy came back clear. But it was too late. Pops was gone.
It hadn’t been easy sharing the news with Emma. But her grandfather was old. She’d had friends who didn’t have living grandparents and knew that it was something that happened. But a parent being sick? Did she know the word cancer? I knew that she would probably grasp more than I expected. I just needed to focus on the facts.
I sat down with Emma. I slowly broached my illness. I probably had cancer. I would have to have surgery. If everything went well, it would be cut out and that would be it.
I definitely minimized my fears. She cried. I held onto her tightly. I told her it would be alright, knowing it might not be the truth.
In the days that followed, I could hardly look at Emma, fearing for her potential loss. Yes, I was scared by the diagnosis and waiting to see what our treatment plan would be. But mainly I just kept thinking about Emma. About how young she was. Of how difficult it would be for her to grow up without a father. Of how much I would miss if I couldn’t beat this.
I consider myself a fairly even-keel person. It takes a lot for me to visibly show emotion. But I found myself standing the shower, sobs wracking my body. We were still waiting to learn exactly what we were dealing with. The diagnosis was vague without a lot of positive options. All I kept thinking was that I could die within a year. I hadn’t yet had a chance to make a difference in the world with the exception of my family. Was that enough? I didn’t know.
I tried to remember all the quotes I’d written to Emma over the years, look through my list of favorite sayings. How could I dance in this rainstorm? How could I see a glimmer of light so as to see a rainbow, something I would never have seen if the rain wasn’t there? But I couldn’t find a glimmer of light. Anywhere.
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