I got the shattering news of my dad’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2019. Growing up, my dad had always been my "rock", so I flew back to California as soon as I heard the results.
Seeing it with my own eyes—the weight he’d already lost, the cough I’d hear into the night, and the sobering statistics of his life expectancy was all unbearable. I won’t relive the details of how hard those first sleepless nights were, but it felt light a sharp, painful grip in my chest that wouldn’t let up. I found myself physically praying in the middle of the night to whatever spirit was out there and desperately imploring the trees outside for some sort of comfort (btw, I’m not someone who typically prays.)
What made it worse was that my dad, while not young, was also not old. Still very active at the age of 75, and, in my eyes, had always been far from any glint of death. On top of the diagnosis, he was in the midst of a divorce with my stepmom, and a move from a house he’d lived for 30 years. It was the trifecta of disasters---I won’t get into all the details but it was incredibly stressful, to say the least!
I thought I’d be flying out for a couple of weeks, but it became clear that he wasn’t the fully capable in the way I was used to, and that he needed someone by his side to help navigate all the emails with doctors, lawyers, movers, etc. My trip turned into about six months, with intermittent trips back to Austin to keep my own marriage afloat, and to see a handful of my clients.
In the months I was out there, I spent many sleepless nights, worried about the future for my dad and dealing with serious stepmom drama. It came to a point where I was worried that if I didn’t find some peace amidst it all, I would end up getting sick myself in the process.
For a period of time, there wasn’t a lot of time for self-care, it felt more like dodging bullets, but I would find solace in little things, like walking from whatever Airbnb we were staying out to the car, taking in the beautiful blue sky, an occasional morning run, or dancing to help shake some of the stress out. Don’t get me wrong, we had some fun too, and some good laughs. I was acutely aware of how precious this time was with him, however fraught with logistical drama it was.
Now that he’s through the divorce, has a new home that’s mostly in order, and his tumors are stabilized for the moment, I’m able to return to my life in Austin, and gain some perspective. When I see my dad now or talk on the phone, there’s more time for enjoyment. I dance between knowing his time is limited, yet remaining optimistic that he could be one of the rare ones to live longer than the statistics.
As hard as it is, I realized that for my own sanity and health, I needed to find more peace with my dad’s inevitable ending. I’ve found Thich Nhat Hanh to be an incredible resource (I only wish I had started reading him sooner!) and I’ve started daily practices to get more comfortable with this idea of death.
From his book, “No Death, No Fear”, I’m learning to think of death as less finite thing and more just another stage of life that then allows space for new life to eventually bud.
It doesn’t mean that my eyes still don’t well with tears. But in this moment, I’m able to see my dad as another manifestation of life, which at some point circumstances will cease to permit. The same life-giving force that makes up my dad, is also alive in me, in the California sage-brush, and in the expansiveness of the Pacific ocean.
“Water is free from the birth and death of a wave…..our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. We do not have to go anywhere in order to touch our true nature. The wave does not have to look for water because she is water.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
“Peace is the moment in the heartspace where everything is welcome.” –Tara Brach