The words “pancreatic cancer” were not unfamiliar to me. One of my favorite uncles had lost his more than three year battle in 2015. When I landed back in Atlanta after visiting my parents, my cousin, my late uncle’s daughter, drove from South Carolina to be with me when my mom called to tell me Dad had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I can’t remember my exact reaction – crying, screaming, denial, fear – but I do know that from that moment on, I flew home once or twice a month to spend time with my parents, or as I referred to them to my friends or on social media, “the ‘rents.”
It is heartbreaking to witness the most respected man in your life dying. For me, each time I was home in Miami, it was like there was an elephant in the room. I wanted to act as if our lives were completely normal but it was clear that everything was changing.
Here was my father, once tall and handsome at age 72 with a full head of strawberry blonde hair, looking thin and frail and balding within weeks of his diagnosis and hardcore chemotherapy.
One day I was home sitting in my room working when my mom popped her head in and asked if I could clean up Dad’s hair in the shower and around sink while she took him to a checkup. I sobbed the entire time.
Thanksgiving that year, we all chipped in on preparing the big meal and my dad carved the perfect turkey like he always did. We dined out on Christmas Eve, opened a few packages and spent Christmas cooking and unwrapping more gifts. For New Year’s, a trip with several of my friends to Havana was one of the first times that I talked openly about my dad’s illness. My family had mostly kept his condition private as my dad had requested.
Being with my friends eased my mind and when I returned to Atlanta I turned on my dating apps to get back out there. I instantly connected with and began chatting daily with someone. We texted frequently, then moved to regular phone calls. On our very first call, I felt the need to share that my dad was terminally ill and that I went to Miami a lot, but that nothing was going to happen immediately.
One Sunday after catching up on the phone with my mom, she handed the phone to my dad. He had a question for me.
I shared that I had met and was dating someone.
Of course, he already knew because I was calling mostly in the daytime instead of the evening.
We had a good laugh. He knew me so well but that was our last conversation. The next day my dad was admitted to the hospital for tests. I wanted to go back down to Miami, but the ‘rents insisted all was well and to go on a trip to New York City as planned.
Never one to sleep well the night before an early alarm, I checked my phone at 4 a.m.
“This is weird, I have a missed call and message from a number in Miami,” I said to “break up text ex.” I listened in disbelief. A nurse, unable to reach my mom, had left a message that my dad had taken a turn and immediate family was needed. I called mom on her landline and she raced to the hospital. I swapped sweaters for shorts and raced to the airport, but I would not make it in time.
My mom called and held the phone to Dad’s ear. I hesitated, then I told him he was the greatest dad on the planet and that I loved him and appreciated him so much. I told him I was on my way home but also said if you need to go, I will take care of mom and not to worry.
Mom said that he heard me, that his eyes opened and closed and then within a minute of that call, he left us, my mom holding his hand. It had been both a short (and a long) six months since he had been diagnosed.
I felt helpless and that my mom was now going to have to go home and be alone for several hours until I could get to her. I remember all of a sudden having zero strength and wanting to fall to my knees, I was so tired and so weak but I knew I had to get home and be with my mom and that gave me the strength to put one foot in front of the other and get there.
Not long after my mom called to tell me my father had passed she called back asking if I wanted to see him. If I wanted to go from the Miami airport directly to the hospital. But I chose to keep my last memory just over a week earlier hugging him at the airport after he had driven me there, just the two of us.
I had only been dating the text ex for about six weeks. It was early and a lot, I imagine for anyone. I had never lost a parent before and my focus was on my mom, she was devastated.
It took about two weeks before text ex made it all about him. There was drama every few days, and yet, I looked the other way. There was lying and cheating, and I looked the other way. I was disrespected and made to feel insecure, and yet, I still looked the other way.
When the break-up text hit my phone, I felt relief instead of panic. I felt relaxed instead of flustered. I felt as if a weight had been lifted.
It didn’t take long for me to admit to myself that I had stayed in the relationship as long as I had and put up with all that I did because it was the last relationship that my dad had known about. I suddenly felt clear headed and recalled that last phone conversation where I was telling my dad all about text ex.
“Be careful, it is still very early,” he had counseled. He knew, he always knew.
These days, I am still working through my grief and taking a page from my own dating history. I know that I will date again, but for now, I want to focus on loving and being kind to me. I know that in order to be loved the way that I deserve to be loved, I need to love and be kind to myself first.
It is difficult to comprehend that my dad will never know the next man that I date or even be there when and if I ever marry, but two years later I feel his presence with me and that is pretty special.
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