“Hey, kiddo, don’t use the bathroom, A. is sick,” my dad bellows from the other side of the door as I’m still emerging from yet another too short night.
The only way I can be by my parents’ side in Europe is to work as much as possible. Thankfully, my work is portable and affords me total flexibility but it is still a very long way from paying much. Juggling work and family leaves hardly time for anything else, including sleeping. But I’m still young-ish, healthy-ish, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to look after those who’ve always looked after me.
I prick up my ears and hear a strange sound quite unlike vomiting that chills me to the bone.
As I get to the living room where my stepmom is compressed into the sofa under a pile of blankets and propping herself up on one elbow, I realize she is sobbing.
Kneeling down, I place a hand on her shoulder, rubbing it lightly. Dad is in the kitchen, preparing to dispense another dose of antiemetic medication so I quietly ask my stepmom what’s going on. I know her crying has to be about something other than vomiting, which doesn’t faze her anymore.
“I’m so worried your father might collapse,” she blurts out.
This tells you everything you need to know about my stepmom.
Back when she received a Stage IV cancer diagnosis in September 2018, her first thought was also for my father as she asked me to be there for him. At the time, she meant taking his calls, checking in regularly, in short whatever it was I could manage while half-way across the world. I understood right there and then it would never be enough and set out to earn my airfare to Paris through writing.
Within two days of getting there, I understood Europe was where I needed to be, not America.
And she has just confirmed this.
Dad comes back, sits down on the other sofa, and takes her hand.
He looks exhausted.
Over the course of three months, I have ample time to familiarize myself with my parents’ new reality.
It soon becomes my own. When my parents ask me to walk in with them for an appointment with the oncologist, I see how he has been managing their expectations. By focusing on the positives to preserve my stepmom’s mental health, he has shielded them from how dire the situation is.
That he was able to make that call is a testament to his extensive professional experience and deep humanity. I know my parents and if they were fully aware of what Stage IV means, they’d likely have both keeled over a long time ago.
So that’s what I’m here for, I carry that knowledge so they don’t have to.
My father, meanwhile, is managing his wife’s day-to-day treatment. If he could absorb her cancer and be sick instead of her, he would. Instead, he’s running himself ragged and has collapsed in on himself, aging quickly in a short amount of time. His every waking moment is focused on her, to the point of becoming overbearing and frequently difficult to deal with. He’s so terrified of losing her that medical talk is wont to monopolize every single conversation, as if the right words could keep her alive longer.
I become a buffer of sorts, reminding him to let his wife breathe and live. Although very fatigued, she’s still of sound mind and highly capable. But Dad is an incorrigible worry wart. When my stepmom and I first go into town alone to run a few errands, he calls us three times in less than two hours. So when we go again a few weeks later, we tell him to sit on his hands until we return. Even though we wind up staying out far later than we planned as we have coffee and a very long chat, our cell phones do not ring.
But when we’re home, my stepmom’s cell phone is always chirping, vibrating, or ringing.
The outpouring of love and concern from my father’s family and my parents’ many friends dotted around the country and beyond is a balm to our achy hearts.
Even though my parents haven’t been able to go out much or entertain in over a year, their social circle hasn’t shrunk one bit. Everyone they know has rallied around them and the house phone often rings off the hook too even though visitors are rare.
Apart from S., a plucky senior lady in tornado format who shows up unannounced bearing homemade food or an eyebrow pencil for my stepmom. Or a cauliflower for me because she’s fascinated by the idea of someone who eats only plants.
“I love your parents, they’re so much fun!” she tells me.
Cancer hasn’t killed my parents’ sense of humor.
In fact, it remains a proud family trait and our number one coping skill.
It’s not uncommon for me to walk in on my parents cackling in the kitchen, or for Dad and I to burst out laughing at something my stepmom says. She’s from Southern France and the way she speaks sounds like music. She’s also very blunt, and the combination of both makes for frequent comic relief.
“Ah, the flowers have bloomed since this morning. They stink!” she says one night after giving them a cursory sniff and walking away.
In that split second, Dad and I look at each other askance before losing it at the same time. Ten minutes later, we’re both in tears and unable to stop laughing as my stepmom stands before us, hands on hips, amused but not sure why the moment was so funny.
Love will do that to you, it’ll make you zero in on the smallest things and derive as much joy as possible from them because you know there isn’t much time left.
Love will get a family to close ranks and form a united front so the burden of illness can be shared instead of resting solely on one person’s shoulders.
Love will sustain you when all else fails and keep you going under the most difficult of circumstances.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.