- Nina Riggs, "The Bright Hour"
My dad passed away almost two weeks ago, another soldier lost in the seemingly bleak battle against what has appropriately been called "the emperor of all maladies". Without timelines, I had booked the week of Ferragosto to go back to visit, not knowing it would be the last six days I would spend with him in this life. We had been riding the roller-coaster of Stage Four colorectal cancer for almost two-and-a-half years: the immediate stomach-drop upon discovery and thinking he had weeks, not months, to the surprising recovery post-surgery and post-radiation that saw him regain a startling 30 pounds and cross the Atlantic to walk me down the aisle. It was in May this year that a steadily decreasing weight and appetite led to the discovery of a recurrence and a terminal diagnosis. We were heartbroken and I was an ocean away. But God is kind and gave us time together. I spent entire days watching my dad breathe, this tiny human swaddled in blankets, all sharp angles and bone cushioned by a plethora of pillows positioned here and there. I fed him ice cream and washed his face, our parent-child roles in the distorted reversal that age and illness inevitably bring and that ultimately put you face-to-face with the intrinsic, interwoven nature of living and dying. My dad died in the morning on a Sunday. The night before, he waved a little goodbye to me. The gesture of a kid, bending and unbending the four fingers of the hand- up and down, up and down. It was the most he could do as he was no longer able to talk. I replay that simple motion in my head like a favorite scene from a movie. It has been said that cancer puts emphasis on the dying rather death itself. I agree. As the quote above, towards the end it is like being forced to watch Pompeii in slow-motion with no means to intervene or to look away and at a certain point, at the height of suffering, almost hopeful for the final explosion and finally, ashes and slow-burning ember. The ashes of a person typically weigh four pounds when all is said and done. I carried my dad's for a brief moment at the cemetery, close to my chest, and couldn't help but think about all those nights I would fall asleep on the couch as a child and he would carry me so carefully up to bed, a balancing act of blankets and teddy bears. At one point in life, we will all carry one another.
I know now is the time to write something inspirational about my dad or what losing a parent to cancer has taught me but those words have been penned time and time again so I will keep it very short. Loss and dying has inadvertently taught me about living, a proper cliché, yet more importantly, to live like my dad did. In the eulogy delivered by my brother, he said: "Dad never sat when he could dance, he never drank water if there was wine (or better yet, a good scotch), and he never stayed at home when there was a good time to be had." The title of my blog is questa dolce vita - this sweet life, and that is precisely what we should all be trying to enjoy.
Thank you to everyone who has been there during this time, readers who have reached out with their own stories, support, and prayers. You have made a world of difference in my life. Grazie.