My sister-in-law came to get me just as I lay down in the waiting room. I was freezing, exhausted and embarrassed that I needed the rest. She hurriedly helped me into the delivery room, watching my steps and containing her excitement in my fragile state. I was barely able to stand beside my wife, Deb, let alone offer any real form of support. When Deb’s water broke, we had to call our friend to drive us to the hospital because I couldn’t.
It’s heartbreaking being a spectator when your team needs you most. As I huddled under a blanket for warmth, my wife was sweating, pushing through the pain and screaming with each passing contraction. The doctors told me to sit down. Deb endured, and I held our daughter, Lily, as soon as she was born. They say that if you don’t fear death, you can’t appreciate life. I was definitely fearing death. Introducing her to Ben, our two-and-a-half-year-old son, was pretty much peak appreciation.
“How many eyes does she have?” he asked. “Does she have a nose?” He responded shyly before saying “This is a new hostible.” After visiting me at Toronto General, East General, Western and Princess Margaret, this one—St. Michael’s—was just another hospital. He had grown to love the up-and-down beds and free juice.
Lily was born when life was out of my hands and my wife’s were overloaded. Six months earlier, I was diagnosed with lymphoma in my brain—several malignant masses were floating between my right and left hemispheres. Each round of chemo had cleared some, but others grew anew. I had been through four rounds of week-long, ever-changing chemotherapy, countless blood transfusions and several emergency hospital visits for infections.
Of course, none of that stopped when my daughter was born. My mom showed up a few hours after Lily’s birth, held her newest grandchild and helped me walk to yet another appointment, this time for day surgery to prep me for a stem-cell transplant.
Walking away from the high of new life, surrounded by loved ones, to enter another worn-out waiting room where everyone wears hospital gowns incorrectly isn’t how I’d wish for anyone to celebrate the birth of their child. This was my way of life, and I didn’t know how much of one I had left. I had already made it clear to my family and friends how Ben was to be raised without me. I didn’t worry as much about Deb—she is strong and resilient and has a great support system. But should I risk getting to know Lily? The thought of leaving Ben behind was beyond painful. What would happen if I added Lily?
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Cancer is an odd and frustratingly capricious disease: There’s a cure for some, but others have no choice but to bumble through, grasping onto whatever hope they can find. For me, that often meant another new drug on yet another IV bag dripping into my veins.
Six days after Lily’s birth, I began my 21-day stay at Princess Margaret Hospital with a “lethal” dose of chemo designed to take my white blood cells to zero. Then I was injected with my own cancer-free origin cells that had been harvested earlier to rebuild my immune system. Due to extreme conditions, anyone entering the room needed to wear a gown, glove, mask and hairnet. I couldn’t hold or touch Lily, and Ben had moved north to be with his grandparents. Deb and Lily would join them about a week after my admittance—they needed a break.
I stared out the window a lot. Often, I was too weak to get out of bed and too tired to watch TV. When I’d try to FaceTime the kids, my hands would cramp and the phone would inevitably fall and hit me in the face—I’d hit “End” and desperately miss whatever happened next. To pass the time, I’d count the routine nursing visits, watch the hands go backwards on the clock and nap like a baby, but that’s a tough comparison. I missed Ben’s chunky giggles, Lily’s pterodactyl cries and everything about Deb. I also missed the births of my brother’s son and my sister’s daughter and my dad’s stroke. My mom spent nearly every day with me, watching me drift in and out of conversation, until I could finally rejoin Deb, her parents and our two kids up north. But as I soon discovered, sometimes the end is just the beginning.
I became our family’s third child. The July heat, crying and whining didn’t make for a joyful reunion. The tension was palpable. I heard Lily all the time—her cries woke me up, but I couldn’t do anything about them. Once I finished treatment, I didn’t simply walk away from cancer cured; I slept, rested and napped in between. My mind was set on helping out, but my body had other ideas. We set up Ben’s train table in front of the couch so I could try to play with him, but the conductor kept falling asleep. We went on walks, but after one kilometre I was gasping for air and my muscles ached.
My in-laws never let their irritation show, but every time my wife yelled at her mom, it hurt. I was on long-term disability leave, not paternal leave, and disappearing into a room was easier than holding a newborn. As my wife sank into postpartum depression, we slept apart. Loneliness reared its ugly head. She tended to Lily, while I licked the wounds of inadequacy. Ben, mimicking everyone else’s cheery support, would offer to make me a coffee on the push-button machine. I’d smile, help him up on the stool and fight back tears.
I am now cancer-free, but I’m not the same person I used to be. How could I be after everything we’ve been through? A year ago, I was sinking, stuck in depression, exhaustion and fear. Six months ago, I was at 80 percent. Three months ago, I was at 80 percent but a better, stronger version of myself. The last 20 percent takes you 80 percent of the time, but it’s where I feel I am.
I hugged death, gave him a pat on the back and asked if he could wait a little bit longer. Recently, I tried to go for a run, but I tripped on the curb and face-planted into a bush—I’m pretty sure that was death reminding me he was never far away.
Do I fear death? Sure, but I use it as a motivator, not a potential detriment. I don’t plan for my funeral. I plan this day, today, right now and make sure to celebrate every little moment we have. I can drive to Ben’s swimming lessons again. I love Saturday mornings, when I have one-on-one time with Lily while Deb goes to yoga. Deb and I are able to go on dates like we’re a young couple again. It sucks to need an illness, a death or a job loss to awaken your life, but this is what happened to us. It’s been an unimaginable year, but we’ve made it through, together, as a family.