Weeks before I moved into one of those tiny square dorms with the generic oak furniture freshman year, I called it all off. The classes, the sorority rushing, the nursing prereqs. Something in me knew I couldn’t go that far for that long while my dad’s diagnosis seemingly hung in limbo. Everything was stable, but was it really? Calling brain cancer stable seems contradictory to its very nature. At this point, Dad had battled brain cancer for 14 years already, successfully removing tumors twice with little to no change in our swift pace. But the reality was Dad’s sickness still hung like a heavy storm cloud and we were unsure of whether what would come next would be a sprinkle or a downpour.
So I stayed in our sweet hilly town on the frigid shores of Lake Superior, waitressing tables at a local Mexican restaurant. I’m certain many had their thoughts that I was wasting perfectly fine leadership and a good GPA staying put. Dad would have never let me stay for him, so I just told him I was homesick and needed a gap year to keep his lectures at bay. Months after the leaves turned every color of a burnt sunset and the college football season handed out its trophies, we were given the kind of news you knew could come but you can never fully brace for. Dad’s tumor was back. Surgery was set for 2 hours away in Minneapolis. Our large family gathered in the stale waiting room of the hospital after we kissed Dad and sent him into the hands of surgeons and God. He walked back after whispering a strong ‘I love you’ in our ears.
Hours later after raiding the vending machine with all the quarters we could gather, we walked into the recovery room expecting to find Dad strong. He was known for defeating every odd so we anticipated him to be sitting up ready to dream up our next adventure. But when we walked in, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. When closing up from Dad’s surgery, they nicked a vein, causing a stroke — leaving our larger-than-life father, husband, friend paralyzed on the left side and unable to move or speak. I will never forget the feeling of being so utterly rattled and the look of imprisonment he held in his eyes. He was trapped in his own body, unable to fix the problem, and only able to translate every fear through the look in his wide eyes. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks, his left hand lay limp as we grabbed hold of it, and he let out a wail. Our world seemingly broken at its axis, stood completely still in the aftermath. Life would be marked by this moment. No one said it but we all knew it. An invisible flag hung in that hospital room with the bright fluorescent lights, marking everything before and everything after.