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‘Dad has cancer’: the words felt wrong in my mouth, like I was lying

My parents weren’t supposed to get cancer for at least another 20 years. Not until I was back in Dublin and finished looking after small children

Dad told me he had cancer on a visit back to Dublin from Stockholm so we could speak about it face to face.

We were sitting at the kitchen table after dinner, he in his same top-of-the-table seat he has sat in since I was a child and he would divide up the unwanted food on my dinner plate, saying: “Eat this much and you can leave the rest.”

I would wash down the partitioned vegetables, usually, with a glass of milk and be done with it. Problem solved.

I had imagined this moment in my head among the constant stream of worries that may never happen. I like to prepare myself for “just in case”.

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While I nodded and processed what he was telling me, as if it I knew it was coming, jars and bottles on the table seemed to be spreading away from each other and warping as though I was looking through the wrong side of one of those magnifying bathroom mirrors. I skimmed the edges of a thought: he’s going to be here with his cancer and I’m going to be somewhere else.

My parents weren’t supposed to get cancer for at least another 20 years. Not until I’m back in Dublin and finished looking after small children. Not until I have time to call over in the mornings with a bag of groceries, putting them away while he calls out a crossword clue: “It’s only __ and __ are all I have ... Bee Gees.”

“It’s only words ... ” I would sing.

What was initially prostate cancer had spread to his bones. His treatment plan would include nine rounds of chemotherapy.

Dad started telling friends. Text messages and calls came pouring in. It was strange saying it out loud to people for the first time: “Dad has cancer.” It felt wrong in my mouth, like I was lying. Hearing people saying how sorry they were and if there was anything they could do was even stranger.

Don’t be sorry for me. Stop saying that. Stop saying you’re sorry. Why on earth are you sorry? There’s nothing wrong, oh, hang on, oh yeah, he has cancer. Shit.

It took me a while to believe that Dad didn’t just have a bad virus that he needed extra-strong antibiotics for.

When he started the chemotherapy I had this strong urge to be there to make him soup from fresh, seasonal vegetables and a green smoothie. It was a selfish need. I don’t think he would have wanted either of those things, but I would have been able to tell myself I had helped.

Mostly, I am not like this. Mostly, I know dad will get better and, mostly, I am grateful for our privilege in having access to the healthcare he needs

“Dad is having a tough day today, didn’t sleep well, hopefully better tomorrow X Mum.”

I hated seeing these messages at first. I would fly into action, frantically searching for flights or care hampers to send. But bad days would pass and I learned to recognise Mum’s need to reach out without letting my own anxieties rise up.

Mum told me the messages were a moment for her to reach out and hold my hand for a minute. I could at least hold hers. Realising that Dad’s cancer was not about my weaknesses, but being there for them to go through theirs, was a huge shifting point for me in dealing with how I approached it.

The distance can also be a blessing, no pressure to call in on Grandad before getting home for dinner. The guilt I have felt in having these thoughts knots itself into a stiff neck, especially when I hear about my siblings, who are at home, helping out while managing their own family lives and work.

One midwinter day it all became too much knowing that my only way to my parents was through a device that lets me in and yet keeps me at such a colossal distance. Texts suddenly infuriated me; their words became meaningless. I wanted to be surrounded by Mum and Dad, to soak them up. I called one of my dearest friends and cried like a child. Hearing her voice was a tonic. It gave me home for a moment.

Mostly, I am not like this. Mostly, I know dad will get better and, mostly, I am grateful for our privilege in having access to the healthcare he needs, his wonderful friends, FaceTime, Six Nations, Sunday lunches at Catho’s and The Irish Times crossword puzzle.

Mostly, I know he knows I’m there for him, even if I’m not.

  • Grace O’Malley lives in Stockholm, Sweden with her husband Philip Konopik and their children – Oscar, Leila and Elsa Konopik
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