On Humans Being Human

The present is all we’ll ever have.

This is reason enough to treat every day as a gift instead of holding out for tomorrow, especially when you’re running out of life.

While no one’s future is ever guaranteed, it often takes tragedy like terminal illness for the message to hit home.

When it does, you’re either taken aback and knocked sideways by the sudden epiphany or you espouse immediate denial.

This is what’s happening to my parents. My stepmoms latest oncologist appointment today confirmed what she had sensed. Her tumor has grown back and more metastases have reappeared. As of a few hours ago, she’s very clear about what’s going on while my father is locked into denial that makes him so angry he’s sniping at everyone.

Still reeling from the shock, my stepbrother spent the afternoon trying to mediate while I went online looking for train tickets. Now that my stepmom has signed up to be part of a cancer research program, there are only a few days ahead free of medical commitments.

“Dad, you guys need to regroup so you can face the next step, how about Brussels?” I ask him. My stepmom has been desperate to get away for months and anywhere will do but my father goes ballistic and starts yelling.

My stepbrother insists. My stepmom insists. I insist.

But my father isn’t having any of it. It is shock talking, he’s a whirlwind of emotions he has no idea how to parse.

Meanwhile, my stepmom is in tears. We’ve just come back from the hospital and processing the news will take my parents a while. She tells me she’s had enough of fighting but she signed the R&D consent forms right away without needing to take them home and have a think first.

She will never surrender; she wants to live.

The present is all we’ll ever have.

This is reason enough to treat every day as a gift instead of holding out for tomorrow, especially when you’re running out of life.

“It is serious,” my stepmom tells my father. But he doesn’t listen because he doesn’t want to hear what he has instinctively known for a few weeks. As is his nature, he focuses on the extra possibilities afforded by being part of the R&D program should the next chemo protocol not work out.

Then again, he admits we’re all sailing blind. Worse, if we let it, today has the potential to sink my parents completely. That’s why my stepbrother is here, that’s why I moved back from the US.

More than hold it, I’m going to have to force it at this point, assuming his own health holds out, which is also a concern now.

Watching the love of your life fight so hard only to face one defeat after another is hitting him hard and he can’t bear it.

For all his vocalizing, my father is an emotional man who feels others’ pain very deeply and his wife’s illness is not just destroying her but him as well.

My stepbrother was so stunned he detached immediately and went into reasoning mode with my parents. But I’m sure he promptly fell apart too upon getting home to his girlfriend.

My own head is spinning as I write this. None of what happened today surprised me as I made sure to familiarize myself with the reality of Stage IV cancer the moment the diagnosis hit. Since then, I’ve been carrying knowledge likely to crush everyone else and I’ll keep carrying it as long as I can.

The present is all we’ll ever have.

This is reason enough to treat every day as a gift instead of holding out for tomorrow, especially when you’re running out of life.

At this stage, no one knows how many tomorrows my parents still have together. While my stepmom isn’t at death’s door today, her cancer is so aggressive everything could change overnight. As a result, she will resume chemo shortly.

This doesn’t give my parents much time for a few days away before then, and my job is to make sure my father understands they no longer have the luxury of time.

A positive mental attitude is key when dealing with illness, any illness, and this is what the oncologist has always stressed. And so far, my stepmom has summoned more strength than all of us put together. Every day, she teaches us how to fight, refuses to quit, and had no hesitation in agreeing to let her illness and body be used to help those who will come after her.

Of course, there’s every hope science might do right by her in the nick of time. “Tant qu’il y a de la vie, il y a de l’espoir*” as we say in French and she’s in excellent hands.

Meanwhile, love has to get tough and pragmatic so every day becomes something for her to look forward to, which hasn’t been the case for months now.

While my father makes a point of celebrating small victories, my parents’ life has become very small and airtight, smothering my stepmom.

Ours is a family of humans being human and navigating an ever-changing reality in our own idiosyncratic ways, expressing pain, expressing love, expressing frustration and rage.

When death looms large, you can turn your back on it and pretend it isn’t there or you can take a long, hard look at it then push back with all your might.

Cancer is a sly, deceitful, and unpredictable shapeshifter so it stands to reason we should keep trying to outsmart it.

Including by making my stepmom’s life as fun as possible for as long as possible.

[*As long as there’s life, there’s hope.]

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.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store