Chapter 18: Higher Stakes
That word: TERMINAL. It rings in your brain like the endless echo of a loud bell. You can cover your ears, muffle the sound, and distract your mind, but the ringing is always there. That word is always there.
Before this diagnosis, I had only used the word to describe that final station on a subway line. I was reminded of its more sombre usage with my second diagnosis. I have always known “terminal” could be used to describe that final stage of cancer just before death, but having it used to describe your own cancer evokes a new kind of relationship with the word.
You see, the word “terminal” didn’t just apply to me and the severity of my cancer. The terminal nature of my cancer stretched beyond its effect on me and reached my family and my children. It foreshadowed the termination of my presence at birthday celebrations, school graduations, perhaps weddings—even the births of grandchildren. It heralded the end of my active role as father and signified the beginning of profound uncertainty for my young children.
Terminal shoved my parents into unimaginable emotional turmoil as they faced the real possibility of burying yet another child in the near future.
Terminal attacked the promise Cynthia and I made to one another for a long life together, filled with the love we had finally found in one another, threatening to make it unfulfilled.
Terminal was the harbinger of the end of lifelong and dear friendships with people I hold in high esteem and the premature end of a business I spent 25 years developing.
I was in no kind of emotional state to share this news with anyone close to me, yet I was navigating this diagnosis in real-time while the regular schedule of my parenting and daily life played out. The only person aware of the morose reality of this awful situation and my accompanying feelings was Cynthia.
I was never one to cry, but now, I cried in private—a lot—and sometimes with Cynthia. My emotions were occupying a place that I had never seen in myself, and although I knew I was in a new place, the fluorescence of paralyzing fear was unmistakably blinding. I couldn’t see. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t.
Yet every day, I awoke and donned my emotional armour. I was determined to protect my kids and family for as long as possible—until I was ready to reveal the facts and far- reaching implications of my disclosure— until I could help them manage the anticipatory anxiety of my untimely death.
While this approach parallels the emotional path I took during my first cancer diagnosis in 1991, when I needed to manage my own emotions before I was able to help others, the similarity stops there. This time, there were two huge differences: my kids, Ethan and Hila. They were twelve and nine years old, respectively, and not yet emotionally capable of receiving this news. So, my go-to approach was to wait to tell them for as long as I could.
Thankfully, the initial shock of this cancer diagnosis subsided much more quickly than it had the first time around. As much as I didn’t want it to be so, this was familiar territory to me. It was a different cancer, and it was at a different time in my life, but this time, I had more to hold onto to steady me. This time, there weren’t as many “unknowns.”
When I pushed through the fog that was the shock of my second cancer diagnosis, I was surprisingly met with a world of motivation and hope. Even with modern medicine, when doctors designate the stage of cancer to be terminal, this usually signifies certain and imminent death to many. Indeed, terminal loomed over me like a rain cloud ready to pour— but my life had changed so much over the previous 25 years that the ground under my feet allowed me to steady myself. I was able to look forward positively; the rain be damned.
I had two children who were dependent on me and years of joy to look forward to with them, Cynthia, and our families. Imagine my elation at finally finding the love of my life, the one who had been holding the key to my heart all along, and then this—this terminal diagnosis?
I was not going to let that go so easily.
Don’t get me wrong; the diagnosis was akin to the explosion of a nuclear bomb. The utter devastation made it difficult to breathe. These pillars in my life, my children and Cynthia, and our families didn’t make my second diagnosis less important or less serious. They did give my life, however, more importance and even more relevance, adding to my reasons to push through.
The stakes were higher now, much higher than in 1991 with my first diagnosis. I couldn’t die—not now. It didn’t matter that the second hospital we attended in New York for a second opinion and the third hospital in Houston, for a third opinion confirmed this awful diagnosis; it wasn’t my time to die. It couldn’t be my time.
My greatest fears were that I wouldn’t be able to full my obligations as a father, as a son, as a life-partner, as a member of my family, and as a friend to so many. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil the promise I made to myself 25 years earlier.
In 1991, I had vowed to live a complete life. I had vowed to live a life in which I was able to experience what most people experience. I was going to attend every school graduation and milestone for my children. I was going to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding, and I was going to give a rousing toast at my son’s. I would be able to revel in the satisfaction of watching my children develop into well-rounded and functioning adults. I would witness with pride as they did what they loved in life, and I would help them through difficult life transitions with the emotional tools I’d tried so hard to instil in them.
Although those dreamy possibilities that every parent hopes for were disintegrating right in front of me, I was determined to hold on to them, not let them fade. I convinced myself these would still be possibilities for me while I faced my second diagnosis.
Even with this new depth of meaning to my life, even with these new reasons for living, I was faced with the realization that eliminating the cancer was no longer an option. Terminal. The cancer had freed itself from the confines of my head and neck and migrated to my lungs.
I had more reasons to fight this time, but the fight was going to be harder—something that I didn’t fully appreciate until all hope was lost.