My Da Had Leukemia
The first memory I have of my Da is in the back seat of a rental car, driving to Kentucky. He was teaching me to play crazy eights. I remember how it fascinated me…the diamonds piling on top one another, like a treasure hunter dropping the coins into a chest. How the cards transformed from a black eight into a red one, like the chameleons I watched on Animal Planet. My Da – my grandfather –and me, we played this game for two hundred and fifteen miles straight. While my sister chomped on a candy bar picked up at one of the bathroom stops, we stayed in the car, playing cards. Again and again.
And again and again and again.
When I think about this memory, I wonder how Da handled the monotonous routine. How he didn’t roll his eyes or sigh every time he placed his last card on the stack. The paradox of me, pleading for another chance.
“Please! Just one more game! I promise!”
“All right,” he’d say – always in a calm, slow voice, giving such a simple answer – knowing more than well this wasn’t the last time I would ask. But then again, that was my Da. Simple and happy and intelligent beyond what I, for the fortunate years I knew him, could imagine. A selfless man. Loving.
While I focused on the cards patterned in my hand, Da watched me, embracing a moment with his grandchild – one of the many joys he valued most in his life – his family.
A memory he would never have known if the doctors told him to give up, instead of recommending trial medication for leukemia.
To me, I knew Da was a patient man because of how slow he lifted his chin, skimming his cards over the rim of his glasses. Or how casually he strolled around the ISU fountain while I bellowed into the water, like a wild lab chasing a duck into a lake. I was an exhausting child on my own and when you paired me with my cousin Jacob, who lived ten minutes from Da, forget it. “You two are like chasing chickens,” my uncle told me. “Only harder.”
I never understood how he did it, my Da, watching us without raising his voice. Everyone else in the family seemed to at one point or the other. My parents and uncle and aunt actually came up with a strategy to separate my cousin and me between the two houses. “To get you to simmer down,” my mother said. Unhappy, I pouted.
And yet, Da volunteered to watch us – Jacob and me – or maybe my family volunteered him? How did he tolerate us? How did he push me around the neighborhood on his kiddie tractor when it exhausted him to walk?
One time when I was babysitting, I taught a boy how to play TV tag, the game where “base” isn’t a tree but sitting on the ground and shouting out the name of a television show.
“You already said that one! Three times!” I’d say to the little boy, in an extra high pitch to hide my irritation.
“It counts again! It counts again!”
I managed to stand in front of him for thirty minutes, in which he proceeded to jump up and down, calling out the same show ten times. I ground my teeth into sawdust and fastened a smile on my face, but in my head, I was screaming.
My Da, he never found an alternative game for his grandchildren; he never lost his patience. He put our happiness in front of his, or maybe our happiness is what made him happy? Whenever we flew to visit my grandparents, my Mumu – my grandmother – would take my Mom and sister shopping. I hated shopping. So Da, selfless and weaved of love, packed Jacob and me into his mini van. He drove us to “King Burger” (or so I called it) while the ladies shopped, and watched us wrestle in the ball pit. For three hours.
My Da was a saint.
The last memory I have of my Da is in a hospital. After fifteen years of trail medicine, leukemia caught up to him. It spread. It ate the fat in his cheeks and the strength in his legs – but never his smile. Never his voice, which he used to tell us he loved us.
Mom flew to Indiana a lot that year, my freshman year of high school. Death wasn’t a stranger to me; I had a dog and a Grandpa who passed before him. I knew what was coming.
Cancer, though – this stage of cancer – I did not know it. In fact, Da put on such a strong face for fifteen years I hardly understood how devastating cancer really is. And it is, what it does to a body. How it chews away organs, like a lion devouring the muscle tissue of an antelope. How it preys fiercest on the physically weak.
Despite all of this, Da heaved his torso up on pillows every day his grandchildren stormed into his hospital room. He watched us, taking in our little voices and giant smiles, to document a better memory than the one before. One day, we paraded into the room hoisting a box of Popsicles over our heads, like Olympians lighting a torch to start the games. Five hours it took us, but we finally found a delicious treat he could eat without chewing. Five hours that amounted to nothing compared to the light on his face.
And so, we began our game.
“How about cherry, Da?” I said.
“Oh yes,” he would say, sliding the last word with the calm drop of his chin.
Just as I would feed a baby a bottle, I lifted the Popsicle to his mouth. His eyes burst as the heat of his tongue melted the sugary, liquidized juice. A familiar, fruity treat.
Once the red stained stick matched his lips, he turned to my cousin Samantha. “I would like some more…” he said, pausing for a breath and pointing at the box of Popsicles, “of that yummy-yummy.” The entire room – Mom, my aunt, my sister, my three cousins and me – erupted into laughter. Meanwhile Da, knowing more than well how hilarious he was, “Mmm Mmm’d,” like an actor in a Chicken Noodle soup commercial.
We finished the box, together.
My very last memory of my grandfather I often fade out. Not because I don’t remember it or it was bad, but because it broke my heart – and my sister’s – and my dad’s – and my mother’s.
How do you say goodbye to your hero, when you know it’s the last time you’ll hear his voice in this life? How do you get on a plane, go back to school, when the math equations on the white board transform into your grandfather’s limp body, lying cold in a hospital bed?
How do you explain how much you love someone when you’ve never even had your first kiss?
In the end, I realized why Da kept fighting for so long – trial medicine over trial medicine – some working better than others, some making him sick, and some bringing him back to life.
He was waiting, not for death, but for his family. He held on, until he knew we would be okay after he left.
My Da lived, so when I grew up, graduated college, got married, I would remember him not as a sick man exhausted in a hospital bed, but the grandfather of a lifetime. The man who traveled a thousand miles multiple times a year to sit me on his lap and read me the same 3-D book, over and over.
And over and over and over.
He survived, so that one day when I rock my own baby, when I read him the same story over and over, I will remember Da. I’ll swaddle my baby in a blanket and kiss his
little forehead, the way my Da kissed mine.
And I will carry on his love.
If you’ve ever known and loved anyone diagnosed cancer, please, share your story with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll blog about your story here, and together we can share amazing stories that help Color to a Cure!
And don’t forget to donate to my fundraising page on the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge, helping raise money for cancer research as I train for The Boston Marathon on April 17, 2017!
100% of funds raised go directly to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Claudia Adams Barr Program in Innovative Basic Cancer Research. The program enables scientists at the leading edge of discovery to achieve better cure rates and to enhance patients’ quality of life.
Programs like this are the reason I knew one of the greatest men in my life.
Let’s CONQUER CANCER together & THANK YOU for your support!
Happy sharing 🙂
-A. K. Perry