Life with a cancer-stricken family member
6th July 2016 – the first day of Hari Raya Puasa. Ten minutes before we were due to leave, my eldest brother was still in the shower, my second brother and mother were arguing loudly over green packets…and my dad was seated in the corner, watching everyone with a quiet, amused smile.
Noise and chaos was a default state in this house, but little did we know our daily shenanigans would soon come to a screeching halt. 3.5 months later, my father slipped away after a short, but brutal fight against gallbladder cancer – a dramatic reminder of just how quickly you can lose a loved one when you least expect it.
The days leading up to the diagnosis
Apart from a heart operation in the late 90s, my dad was the picture of health. He was a retired teacher who didn’t drink, smoke, or gorge on unhealthy food. A typical day for him would include tending to his garden, eating balanced meals, and engaging in his daily prayers.
Overall, he was the epitome of a fit, healthy man. So when we noticed how yellow his skin looked during that particular Hari Raya, we didn’t think too much about it.
“Ala, it’s nothing lah,” my dad said as he calmly poured himself a cup of coffee. My relatives had barraged him with demands to get himself checked out ASAP, but he insisted it was simply something he ate and that it’d go away within a few days.
It was only after he threw up black liquid at home that he decided to go to a hospital. And after a few scans, what we thought was a gallbladder stone turned out to be a tumour. It threw a spanner into his bile regulation – and our lives.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor murmured. His expression was regretful as he tried his best to maintain eye contact with my mother. “He has only 3-6 months left to live.”
My whole world crashed down.
Struggles of coping as a family
National University Hospital – my second home during the time.
Image credit: PRC Magazine
After the news broke out, the vibe at home fell silent and became thick with tension. Each of us kept to ourselves, but despite that, we kept a watchful eye on one another – especially my mother.
Between juggling schoolwork, CCA, a part-time job, and preparations for my upcoming exchange semester, I spent a lot of time commuting to various hospitals to visit my dad. Initially, these visits mainly involved conversations, from light-hearted anecdotes to more serious discussions about the future. But as he deteriorated, these conversations slowly died down, and we simply sat by his side as he fought to keep his eyes open.
All that, plus the looming notion that my dad might go at any moment, began to take its toll. My previously indomitable immune system began to shut down. Fevers that used to be a biennial affair became a monthly one. And on top of that, the pressure of keeping up in school caught up with me, and I had a humiliating breakdown in front of my professor.
Thankfully, he understood. So did my peers, after explaining the reason behind my constant absences from school.
My dad’s 70th birthday celebration with the doctors and nurses at NUH
Weeks flew by, and the healthy, wisecrack-quipping man my dad was soon turned into a shell of skin and bones confined to a hospital bed. His rapid deterioration was frightening – one moment he’d be walking around fine, and the next, he’d just lay in bed, wracked with too much pain to move.
It got to the point that we could actually see how much it hurt him to remain alive. “If you want to go, just go,” my mother told him gently one day, “I don’t want you to suffer anymore.”
And a day later, he slipped away in his sleep.
Life after a parent’s passing
This is the version I choose to remember him by – calm, healthy, and at peace.
My mother maintained her composure through it all. Between taking care of everything from our welfare to the funeral service, she handled everything that came at her in stride. She was a pillar of support when my dad needed her, and after his passing, remained that way.
That’s not to say we didn’t have our emotional moments. We knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t make the loss any easier. Tears were shed, arguments were had, and sometimes, the absence of my dad’s usual calming presence made itself glaringly obvious.
But despite all that, life slowly returned to normal. I started attending school more regularly, and managed to finish the semester with decent grades. The rest of my family went back to work, and my eldest brother stepped up as the head of the family and took on more responsibilities for us.
A picture of me in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It was day 3 of my 12-day solo trip from Milan to Dubrovnik, and 8 months since my father passed away.
Image credit: @farzana_fattah
Two months later, I embarked on my six-month exchange semester in Paris. You might think I’m nuts for going ahead with it while the wound was still fresh. And make no mistake, going away during that period was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life.
But travelling around Europe was one of the biggest dreams I had – one that my dad supported avidly. It’s odd to put it into words, but seeing the world like he wanted me to helped me find peace and come to terms with his passing.
And with some distance away from home, no one could tell me what to do or how to grieve. Freed from expectations and burdens, I dealt with my emotions on my own time – and it became the happiest, most freeing period of my life.
It’s been 3 years since then. Sure, it got easier to deal with over time, but to say that we’re 100% okay would be a lie. It’s akin to a scar that will never fully heal, but one that we’ve gradually learned to live with.
Numerous what-if scenarios had plagued my thoughts over the years. But I’ve come to realise that these questions hold no real meaning or significance. Our loved ones can be ripped away from you at any moment, and pondering over hypothetical outcomes will not help the healing process in any way. What’s done is done, and the only thing we can do is to take each day as it comes and soldier on.
Would I ever have predicted this happening? Absolutely not. My dad was a healthy man – the second-youngest in his family, with no prevailing history of cancer. And taking everything into account, I can say that the grief from losing someone you love so quickly will never really go away.
What the pain does become, however, is a quiet, dull ache – one that you learn to live with, but also one that has you looking at life in a whole new light. Life goes on, and you’ll eventually learn to march through as per normal – or as normal as it could be, with a human-sized hole in your heart.