You Kept Your Promise
Meet my Dad, the million-dollar man.
It’s 1991, and the yellow sun is shining through the dusty windows of our 900-square-foot bungalow.
I’m three years old and sporting a strawberry blond bob paired with a fuzzy blue housecoat. It’s funny to see a toddler in a housecoat. As if to suggest they might have an important morning routine to accomplish before they begin their day.
My Mom is sleeping in the adjacent room, exhausted from a late night performing at the bar, so it’s just us. Me and my Dad; laughing together in the warm morning glow.
The gang is also present, lined up on the couch beside me as I paw lazily at my blueberry muffin.
There’s Squirrely the squirrel, Hedgy the hedgehog, and Wrinkles, the dog. A motley crew of puppets who appeared one day and quickly became my closest companions.
“What are you eating Mouse?”
I glance over, mock-shocked, as Wrinkles has just come to life, animated and flapping his large dog snout as he speaks.
“Good morning, Wrinkles, I’m eating a muffin!” I triumphantly croon, loose crumbs tumbling down my rosy chin as I share the news with a full mouth.
“Wow! Can I have some?” Wrinkles asks daringly.
I act fast. “Well sure!” I beam while promptly stuffing my entire breakfast into the puppet’s flapping gullet. The muffin explodes into pieces, blueberry tumbling onto the long shag carpet and into the pockets on the stuffed dog's overalls.
"Yom, thanks!" He grumbles.
We burst into giggles, my Dad and I. My three-year-old brain knowing the wild rebellion in that small act. Mom would have lost her mind.
Next up, finger-painting. With unwavering concentration I paint rainbow after rainbow in my trademark pink, yellow, brown, and blue style.
“What’s that Mouse?!”
It’s Squirrelly this time, the kind and whip-smart squirrel who leads the misfit gang.
“Hi, Squirrelly!” I quip, “I’m painting a rainbow!”
“But that’s not how rainbows go?” The fluffy puppet challenges.
“Ah, well it’s MY rainbow, and I’m an artist!” I reply defiantly.
“You are, you really are!” Squirrelly applauds - more laughter, more crinkled eyes, more secret moments together in gentle rebellion. Me and my Dad against the world.
As the years pass our secret language continues to blossom and grow. Dad encourages me to be fearless and wild, to break the rules often, and ask for forgiveness instead of permission.
At six, with spindly legs and a thirst for adventure, he takes me on forest walks to hunt for salamanders that hide under crumbling logs. In those same forests we ride mountain bikes, hooting and hollering as we pummel down muddy trails with reckless abandon.
In the spring, when the skies opened and thunder and rain tumbled out, he dares me to run around in the storm. I ran twirling and gleefully with closed eyes and muddy feet. A moon-faced girl gazing up to the heavens. Dad taught me how to feel alive.
We got it, Dad and I. We weren't lemmings or cookie-cutter cutaways, we were different, defiant, lifting each other up; he made me feel so loved that at times, the tenderness of it nearly hurt.
"You can do anything you set your mind to Mouse, anything!"
Was his mantra to me. And it wasn't until I became an adult that I realized what a beautiful sentiment that is to share with a child.
When I was 28 my Dad started acting strange. It was a subtle shift, but I felt our psychic connection dim. Where had he gone? Was he mad at me? A small stone the size of a cherry pit formed in my gut.
As the year went on, Dad’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, more people began to notice, and my worry grew. It grew and grew until my cherry pit became a smooth and cold river rock nestled deep in my thorax. What was wrong with my Dad?
On Christmas Eve, months after I had first noticed the shift, I finally snapped.
"Something is wrong with Dad," I gasped at my Mom as we made up the guest bed for our annual Christmas slumber party.
"I know, he’s been acting strange – but don’t worry, I'm sure he's fine sweety, he has a doctor’s appointment very soon."
"No - something is really wrong! I'm scared."
I don't remember exactly how the next few days unfolded, but I do know we were fortunate to have a family friend who was a physician and was equally alarmed by my Dad's changing demeanour so on December 27th my Dad went into emergency - and I waited.
I’ll never forget that day, his once steady hands, shaking helplessly. He couldn't button up his over-shirt.
“Let me help you Dad”.
The smooth river rock, pressing hard on my lungs. And then they took him away, and he was gone.
Let me ask you, on your darkest days, in a state of sadistic pondering, have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be told someone you love has a brain tumour?
I can sadly attest.
Strangley, it’s not a feeling that washes over you - it's more an altered state, as if you have been dropped into a movie or the life of someone else completely. Your mind becomes an abyss, blank, your only thought: please, please tell me I'm going to wake up from this awful dream.
But it wasn’t a dream. It was our new reality.
Derealization and shock are meant to protect the brain from trauma, and they work like a charm. That night I kept my shift closing a casual fine dining restaurant. Stumbling dumbly onto the floor at quarter past five.
"Sorry I’m late - I just found out my Dad has a brain tumour, they think it's cancer."
My go-to self-preservation technique for the weeks that followed was to look at the analytical side - What do we know? What is the next step? How can we put this behind us? But we all knew, the only way was through.
I will tell you one thing for sure - in times like this, it’s not the facts that keep you up at night. It’s the unknowns. The waiting between empty data points with nothing to hold onto. The “what ifs” that dance on a loop in your mind. Five, six, seven eight – and again from the top!
During those times, my mental pacing wore gory holes through the carpets of my mind - some of which I am still trying to repair. But with the pain came the magic and miracles. Dad always taught me to look for the magic.
The first miracles came during surgery; the brain tumour was operable, they got it all; and perhaps most magnificent – my Dad had an angel visit him in the night.
“She was so beautiful. I knew she was there to take care of me. She sat on the side of my bed, glowing and bright, and she spoke softly.”
He told me calmly when I came to visit post-op. With every fiber of my being, I knew it was true. His angel, bless her.
The second miracle was more mysterious, but equally as grand. If it hadn’t spread to the brain, impairing his behaviour, they might not have caught it at all.
And finally, the miracle of closure and a plan. Because there was a tumor, we could confirm it was cancer, lung, stage four, metastasized to the brain. My Dad had cancer.
I’m seven years old, and Dad and I pull up to a park near the industrial part of town in his beat up truck.
“I have a surprise, want to check it out?” He asks with a twinkle in his eye.
We wander for what feels like hours but were likely seconds through the winding ferns and pathways until the mouth of the path opens into a giant construction site. Rock piles, my favourite. We spend the afternoon climbing piles of rocks, gut laughs at the ridiculousness of it all. Rocks in my socks and dust in my hair. A sign of a great day hanging with Dad.
At one of my Dad’s first appointments I remember meeting the kind oncologist who would play a large role in the trajectory of my Dad’s life for the following years.
“We’re going to try something different, a clinical trial”. He calmly explained. “It's called immunotherapy, we teach the body what the cancer cells are and the body learns to fight them”. Incredible.
Before they could start treatment my Dad would have his cells tested for their reactivity. Zero was bad, twenty was average - and Dad’s results showed ninety-nine. Unheard of, more miracles.
One of the things that terrified me most about my Dad’s battle was the cost that I imagined all of these elaborate treatments would add up to.
Brain surgery, cutting-edge clinical trials, oncologists, endocrinologists, all the “ologists”. Would my parents lose their house? Sometimes my mind spun like a spool of thread unravelling as I pictured the hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, that my parents would have to forfeit. How would they make it through?
“They call me the million-dollar man”. My dad would jest when he reflected on all of the advanced procedures he had received.
The day my Mom explained that everything was covered by their medical insurance I felt a weight as heavy as an elephant lift from my shoulders. Thank God for Canada. From that day on I paid my taxes with a sense of gratitude.
At the time of his diagnosis, my husband and I had been engaged for a handful of days, but I told my Dad he had to be at our wedding, to which he replied. “I'll be there Mouse, I promise.” Our wedding was 17 months away.
“We will keep fighting this, but we may have to sacrifice some other body parts along the way”. This was the level of assurance the oncologist felt comfortable providing as the months wore on. But he was right. And in the months that followed, Dad would start to lose mobility, and for a very scary while, we wouldn’t know why. He kept a brave face as he silently slipped away once again, just out of my reach.
When you do immunotherapy – your immune system goes into hyperdrive. People assume this is a good thing – boost your immunity, the truth is a powerful immune system can be the catalyst for auto-immune disorders; the body attacks itself.
Unbeknownst to us, this was what the Doctor had meant during his previous warning.
Dad was nearly immobile and walking through molasses before we got the next diagnosis. Addison’s disease, an auto-immune disorder that attacks the adrenal glands and prevents your body from producing cortisol. The answers came just in time.
Modern medecine truly is a blessing. With the right medication, treatment, and tenacity, Dad kept his promise.
Seventeen months later, Dad walked me down the aisle.
Our wedding was at a boathouse on the ocean, it was a balmy May day.
It was after the excitement of the day, when the sun began to nestle behind the mountains, and the dancing commenced inside, that my Dad and I took a walk to watch the twinkly harbour lights.
“I told you I would be here Mouse”. He said, “I kept my promise.” And he had.
So now what? Nowadays things aren't always easy, but they aren't as hard as they were then.
The shock waves have finally settled, along with their seemingly endless ripples, and something that resembles a calm is beginning to emerge on newly etched shores.
Somedays my heart aches for my Dad, at the unfairness of it all, he was robbed, he didn't deserve this. But other days, I can see that he is blessed; we are blessed - because against all medical odds, five years later my Dad is still here - and he's in remission.
Without a doubt, My Dad is going to be here for some time to come, because he has more promises to keep. He still has to become the best Grampa in the universe (just add grandkids), and lazily enjoy his golden years with my Mom.
I love you Dad, thank you for keeping your promise. - Mouse.
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