On Flying Into the Unknown

Whatever happens, this family remains united

Photo of random skies on the night the sun never set, by author

Enforced rest is the unexpected gift that greets me shortly after I make myself at home in seat 53A on the flight from Seattle to Frankfurt.

Despite my best efforts to ensure uninterrupted work could happen at some point during the 9 or so hours the flight takes and securing wifi access before leaving home, technical issues foiled my plans and on board wifi isn’t available today.

So I decide to treat myself to a long French movie and to some intensive napping to catch up on sleep. I’m flying to Paris ahead of my stepmom’s next appointment with her oncologist later this week.

As I make my way from North America to Europe, she’s back at the Institut Curie with Dad undergoing a PET scan and we’re not sanguine about the outcome. But at least tonight we won’t need to switch on the lights at home as she’ll undoubtedly glow in the dark after her radioactive brunch shake.

I text her as much and get a bunch of emojis back, which means she cracked a smile.

She also confesses to being antsy, her shorthand for going out of her mind with panic, which means my father is likely in the same state.

Now that we’re only three hours away from our Frankfurt, I’m getting restless too and because my laptop is tucked under the seat in front of me with a giant bag of books on top and I can’t move for lack of space, I start thumbing out another essay on my smartphone.

Again.

Writing is the best way to keep my thoughts organized and push back against the tears that are always just below the surface at the moment.

At 35,000 feet over Greenland, my soundtrack this morning is German pop that celebrates the human spirit, injecting some much needed oomph into my exhausted brain.

I’m going back to Europe where I already spent three months earlier this year to fight alongside my parents, a soldier of love going to war because even with an army made up of family and friends, my stepmom and my father need all the support and strength to keep going as she continues to keep death at arm’s length.

Stage IV cancer — also known as metastatic breast cancer — is a sly and ruthless enemy.

And my parents and I are all stubborn survivors who do not give up. The very personality traits — blunt, contrary, and single-minded — that occasionally make us difficult people to deal with are proving very useful right now.

If there’s a silver lining to having spent five years as a prisoner of the dark cloud that is major depressive disorder, it’s that I learned about resilience.

My illness also taught me the value of a life I can never again take for granted.

I spent far too many years trying to figure out how to end it, and I work far too hard to rebuild it every single day to let anything undo all this hard-won progress.

Instead, I’m using what little momentum I’ve achieved to keep me and my parents going.

Our worst enemies would be apathy and inertia so we don’t give them an inch. While we all get wobbly and discouraged at times and this week is throwing us all for a loop, there will be no surrendering.

When one of us falters, there’s always another one of us to boost our morale. And yes, that means a lot of death jokes and silliness and tears, sometimes all at the same time.

Just like life, cancer is a family affair and we’re far stronger together on the same continent than split between North America and Europe.

Luckily, I’m blessed with portable, flexible, and somewhat scalable work that also happens to be my vocation. And because I’ve been living across several time zones for the last 10 months, meeting deadlines is possible.

What’s more, work is a refuge and writing never fails to boost my spirits whenever I feel too weak, too tired, or too crushingly sad to go on.

While those moments occasionally happen, putting words together always dispels them. In this context, motivation is never an issue because writing is what enables me to be present for my family.

And to come back to life while fighting off death, one essay at a time.

By the time I land in Germany, my parents are having another trying day.

But at least tonight we get to sit around the dinner table and have a laugh because this is our family’s modus operandi.

My stepbrother and his partner have been tasked with collecting me and my two giant suitcases from the Paris airport so it’s bound to be a fun ride home as we get lost and take the wrong exit on the freeway again.

We’re all distracted, we’re all hurting, but we’re all in this together.

I’ve been married twice and it took me until 2018 to really understand what love is and what love does. Not only are my elderly parents fantastic teachers, but they’re not the only ones.

Whenever tragedy strikes, random fellow humans will step forward, and offer you their hand to hold out the blue.

While some will naturally fade away, others will keep showing up, day after day, through thick and thin. And they’re not always the people you expect to, either.

This is how, as death encroaches upon our family, we’re all turning every day into a defiant and joyous celebration of life.

We will not let the unknown nor cancer wipe off our smiles or joie de vivre.

And when it’s time to say goodbye, my stepmom will get to decide exactly how and when, that is my commitment to her.

Because love — in its many variations — always has your back.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor 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.

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