I thought I was going to lose my father. Two months ago, my dad noticed a mass growing on his chest, one that I dismissed so easily when he jumped in on a video call I was having with my younger brother a month ago. “It’s not going away. What do you think it is?” I had a quick glance and told my dad it was probably nothing. I assured him that I would look at it when I visited home.
With my dad’s and my birthday being so close together and ongoing concerns around COVID, this year, we decided to combine birthday dinners to one weekend. My parents living over an hour away from me usually means staying the entire weekend and taking my cat with me. I have to plan this weeks ahead.
And then it happened. My parents said something that triggered old, deep, painful wounds. “Your dad can’t make Saturday dinner. He has to work over time,” Mom said. Suddenly, my chest flooded with feelings of abandonment, bitterness, and loneliness. The oldest sibling, a daughter, a latchkey kid, and an undocumented immigrant, I had a role to play in my family, and while it is one that I honor seriously, it is one that’s led me to develop a crippling anxiety that I’ve only learned to manage well in the last few years. Deep down, I was also angry that my dad, a senior, was being asked to do over time for his manual job. And with that, I was angry that my dad, at retirement age, felt the need to do over time. With this flood of emotions came the cries of a child—likely that little girl in me who never felt she was allowed to be young. I acted out, hurt, wounded, ashamed.
Struggling with my sense of boundaries but still committed to seeing my family, I cut my weekend visit to lunch. I arrive home, and Dad is waiting patiently on the couch watching TV. “No George?” George is my cat, and I’m tickled that this once grumpy, anti-pet dad now baby-speaks to my cat whenever he sees him. I shake my head. Immediately, he gets up and asks me to look at his chest lump. At this point, this is the first time I’m seeing it in person, and it is much larger than when I’d seen it on video a month ago. Its border is smooth but irregular, and with my dad’s smoking history, I start to worry.
A memory flashes in my mind just ten years ago when my mom was telling me about a biopsy she was going to have. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I responded. The weekend passes and I forget about it altogether, until my mom calls me Monday first thing in the morning. I was a medical student rotating through the neonatal unit at the time, and my mom was not one to call during work hours. Finding the call unusual, I picked up. “I got the biopsy results back.” For a moment, I’m confused. I walk into the hall to get some privacy. “I have cancer,” she spoke softly. The rest of the day became a blur.
At that time ten years ago, I thought about my brothers, the younger still a teenager, who might lose their mother at such a young age. I thought about our own fragmented relationship, one that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to, one that still needed so much tenderness, and one that may not see me graduate with the MD that would make her so proud. I needed more time. Please, more time.
And we got it. My mom has been in remission since having surgery and completing multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Our relationship changed after then. We changed. It was the beginning of a new chapter that we were all ready to start.
After examining my dad’s chest, whatever I felt before didn’t matter. I suspected something serious, but I wanted to be wrong. I wanted more time. Please, more time. My dad tells me that it’s time to head to the restaurant and rushes me to the car. I try to make the most of our lunch, swatting away any distracting pings of worry.
Immediately after getting home, I hop on my parents’ computer to write a message to my dad’s doctor. I describe my observations with great detail, hoping he’ll take my doctor speak seriously and order urgent imaging. My dad has already scheduled an appointment later in the week, and I wrote that I would be calling into the appointment to ask questions and make sure I catch details my dad isn’t able to follow. This is now the third time my dad is bringing this up with his doctors.
My parents urge me to go home before it got too late, but not without sending me home with food and fruits. I’m racked with anxiety and sleeplessness the next couple of days. “Go to sleep,” Mom insists. It’s 8:30 pm, but I’m exhausted.
My mom sends me a text during the afternoon on Lunar New Year. “Imaging consistent with benign tumor.” I’m relieved, as if I’m taking my first breath after coming up from under the water. This was the gift I’d been asking for. It was the only gift I wanted but the most precious one I could dream up.