I was living overseas when I got the phone call that my father was sick. It was a call I’d anticipated since I learned the dangers of smoking in elementary school and put two and two together that if my dad didn’t quit, his fate was sealed. I knew how this story would end, especially since the end was the same for the entire maternal side of my dad’s family, but still, nothing could have prepared me for the fallout behind that call.
Almost immediately after I hung up the phone, I spiraled into the tailspin of what’s called anticipatory grief, the feeling of deep loss and sadness you experience before someone you love meets death or receives a diagnosis that you know could lead to it. Experts say this grief can be just as or even more intense as the feelings after a death. For me, it came on immediately and was exacerbated by being so far away from home. Seeing my dad for the first time after landing back in the States alleviated it to the point of being able to function again, but in the interim, I was crumbling. It was all I could do to get out of bed each day, and teaching was almost impossible. I’m not a crier, but I found myself bursting into sobs at any moment. It felt like my world, where most everything was safe, healthy, and sensible, was being stuffed through a woodchipper. Only two things helped me quiet the turmoil: walking through the woods while listening to the favorite songs my dad and I share and talking about him to anybody who would listen.
For years, I’ve been a rock for the people around me. I’m a natural motivator who tries to offer people practical solutions and cheer them into believing they can come out of situations better than they went into them. Unfortunately, a mistake people often make when dealing with motivators is thinking the motivator doesn’t need to be motivated. They drink from the well and don’t refill it, so for years, while I was holding space for others, it seemed not many people even considered I might need space, too.
I can’t pinpoint the first time somebody looked me in the eye, asked, “No, how are you really doing?” and waited for the answer. It made me uncomfortable at first, but I settled into it, so much so that eventually people quit asking because my answers were too long. I’d been carrying a load on my shoulders for a while, mostly of baggage that wasn’t mine. But last year, as the entire world was struggling with a seemingly endless pandemic, people noticed the fire leave my eyes. They pulled up their chairs, offered their shoulders, and extended healing when my grief had just begun.
Cancer is a taker. It comes into your life in a moment and flips everything upside down. The future immediately feels shorter. Moments become much more sacred. All the cliches about tomorrow not being promised become the gospel by which you now live. It happened to my friend from India when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, it happened to my Chinese student when her grandfather battled lung cancer, and it happens to millions of people around the world each day. In 2020, almost 700,000 men in India battled cancer. That same year, the number in China was almost 2.5 million. In the United States that year, it was 893,660. While concerning, those numbers have no bearing on your daily life until one of them is someone you love.
I was teaching in South China at the time, and I told my students I’d have to leave before the year ended. I hoped to come back but couldn’t be sure. Making that announcement repeatedly was a practice in vulnerability. They were watching their gregarious, snarky, unshakable teacher fall apart. One of them came to me after class, sobbing. She’d lost her grandfather to cancer, and her family got to his home one day too late to say goodbye. Those students left my classroom and told another teacher I’d be leaving soon. That teacher came into my classroom, shut the door, and took me into her arms. My story gave her a chance to share her own. She’d lost her father to cancer years before, and at that very moment, her mother and brother were in India fighting Covid. These were things she hadn’t shared with any of us before then. When I think about it, I guess cancer isn’t solely a taker; it gave us space to share and heal. It threaded us together in a way I didn’t expect. We are from seemingly different worlds, but that day was a reminder that at our core, we aren’t that different. Men we loved, who’d been pillars in our lives and their communities, were all victimized by the same predator. Those moments gave me strength for many moments to follow.
During that time, everybody who didn’t know my dad and would probably never meet him got to know him. Students and colleagues let me rattle on about my childhood: how Daddy had taught me about Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind, and Fire as a kindergartener via late night jam sessions beside his record player, how to shoot a basketball, and how to throw a punch in case my smart mouth someday got me in trouble with some man with a big ego and a short temper. They listened to me, checked on me when I thought no one was paying attention, brought me my favorite warm drink in the mornings, and took over my classes when I needed a minute in the closet at the end of the hallway. To be held in this way was transformative. It taught me how quickly rocks can erode under a perfect storm of crushing elements, so when you need help, ask.
Our world is broken in ways many of us have only read about before now. We easily believe the worst about each other, and it feels like we’ve run out of energy to challenge those beliefs. But pain is an equalizer. It hits us all the same. So we can find community almost anywhere if we’re willing to share what makes us human with others and believe the same about the people around us, no matter what stories others have told us about them.
Today, I still am a rock, but my cracks have been fortified by the love others extended to me. I wouldn’t have known it otherwise, but my colleague and student had lived my greatest fears. Their experiences further confirmed that I needed to get back to my people. They also confirmed that what I was going through wouldn’t be in vain; it would someday be the story someone else would need to make it through the days that would feel like too much.
It’s been a tough few months since I’ve been back. Daddy is still here, fighting. We never know what a day will bring, but I pull strength from the ones who’ve done this before me. They’re rocks, too. Life may weather us, and sometimes we might feel like we’ll shatter under the stress, but together, we form a mosaic wall of protection, strength, and support.