Six months after I married, my father’s lung cancer returned with a vengeance. Again inoperable, the months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments recommenced. Cancer will unite or divide families. Mine rallied together, battle wearied and exhausted.
The treatments dehumanized my once life-exuding father, sapping the joy from him. I didn’t notice. I was too consumed with my own life, my still-new marriage, to register his rapid decline.
My new husband and I were planning a six-week tour of the eastern coast of Africa, a place my vagabond heart had longed to see since Phantom comics and Karen Blixen’s idealized visions had dictated everything I thought it was. In preparation, we became human pincushions, embarking on a thousand vaccinations, necessary and not, with a heady cocktail of smallpox, polio, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus and yellow fever vaccines, along with dire warnings to delay pregnancy for at least a month.
The day my father struggled to breathe, and was taken to hospital in an ambulance while hooked up to a ventilator, the doctors gave us an impossible choice: a diminished life, or its extinguishment. Decision made, we felt no struggle, no puckering at the edges of our consciences. My clever, gregarious, ebullient father would have wanted no less.
There is nothing so discomfiting, so surreal, as waiting with family and friends for your father to die. There is no right way to behave. There is no right thing to say. All the platitudes that people offer after a death, are not yet appropriate.
While watching the clock tick my father’s life away, I felt nauseous and ran to find a toilet. I didn’t make it. My friend found me on the hospital floor, and got me cleaned up. There were competing voices of concern for me, and someone asked if I was pregnant. Feeling the vice-grip of fear around my heart, I denied all. We were going to Africa in five months, we’d had vaccinations and dire warnings, pregnancy was not on the carefully planned itinerary.
When I returned to the hospital room, the essence that was my father had gone. The room was quiet and cold, despite the crammed-together collection of family and friends.
Over the next week, the feelings of nausea did not depart with my father’s soul, and I finally gathered the courage to see a doctor. I was pregnant. The prognosis for having a healthy, living child was very slim. At 28 I didn’t feel equipped to deal with carrying a baby to term for it to arrive dead, nor was I ready to dedicate the rest of my life to caring for a child with severe disabilities.
For the second time in less than one month, I was faced with making a life-or-death decision.
Three weeks after my father died, with the sun shining weakly through the winter chill, smell of eucalyptus in the air, magpies trilling their morning welcome, my new husband and I steeled ourselves to walk past the black-dressed, mourning guilt-peddlers, shrieking their vile condemnations in front of an abortion clinic. My husband shielded me from the worst of the slurs, but the barbed words scratched a thousand tiny cuts into the fragility of my resolve.
When I woke in a bed in a recovery room, groggy, half-dressed, ashamed, and desperately sad, I wanted to run. Instead, I guzzled the glass of water that had been left on the table, and choked back tears. It’s hard to wail when you’re drinking.
The following few days I shuffled between the sofa and my bed. The feelings that I had desecrated my father’s soul, taken away its housing in my never-was-baby, would not leave me, and a coldness that nothing could warm, descended on me.
I didn’t have time to indulge my sorrow. A week later, my brother got married, and I went back to work.
I had spent so many years hiding my own feelings, or suppressing them, that to the rest of the world, even to my husband, I seemed to have weathered these momentous losses well.
I neatly folded and hermetically sealed my sadness, loss, and guilt into the deepest recesses of my heart. Any odd behavior, any lapse in my carefully maintained guard would forevermore be blamed on the loss of my father.
Asha Rajan is of Indian descent, born in Brunei, grew up in Western Australia, and now lives in Texas, with her husband, two sons, and two dogs. She has worked mostly in education, but now divides her time between herding children and animals, and writing. Her work can be found at parentinginthewilderness.