I thought it may have been Mom’s cheesy potatoes.
It was Easter, and in between doing a million things, she added too much butter. When she first pulled the pan from the oven, a thick layer of oil wriggled at the top. My brother, father and I playfully jabbed at it with our fingers, giggling as Mom rolled her eyes and scraped the oil off into the trash before dropping it on the table with an annoyed thump.
As dinner started and we filled our plates, we traded glances with one another and begrudgingly took scoops of the potatoes, lifting small bites to our mouths with reservation to make Mom happy. But as we ate, Dad sat back in discomfort, lips pressed, looking down at the food he’d hardly touched.
There had been signs prior ― indigestion and aches in his abdomen. That January, we had taken a family trip to Mexico, and most days he’d return to the room early to lie down. At the buffets, he’d turn up his nose, nauseated. For months his appetite would wane and he’d feel uncomfortable, but we figured it was because it was flu season, or he was traveling or something was wrong with the food. So maybe those awful potatoes were upsetting him.
One month after Easter, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer.
In the year that followed, Dad stepped into his treatment with hope and resolve. He’d crack jokes with the staff that administered his chemo, forgot about the port in his chest and would walk talkative laps with us in the hospital ward when he needed stents in his kidneys. But over time, the disease gathered strength and pulled more from him. He lost weight, lost hair and, eventually, he lost faith that he would beat the cancer.
The day he was diagnosed, I had flown home from Chicago and entered into a silent pact with myself. I would never break in front of him. I wouldn’t let my fear and anger become a burden and give him more to bear. On the way home, I hid in a dirty bathroom stall, sobbing gently so no one would hear me. I nodded politely at airline attendants and hid my puffy eyes behind sunglasses. I collapsed into my mother’s arms upon arrival ― breathless, afraid my legs would give out ― and cried all the way to the hospital in an effort to exorcise my feelings.
But when we went inside and I saw Dad for the first time, I gave myself no choice but to temper the anxious fluttering in my chest. For the next year, I took solace in the shadowed corners of hospital hallways when he’d return there, symptoms flaring, but would go back to his room with a smile on my face. At home, I’d retreat to the bathroom to soothe the red gathering in my eyes or release my rage by throwing things in the basement. Then, once I’d pulled myself together, I’d sit beside him to swap jokes and tell favorite old stories.
It was 10 months into his treatment when I finally broke in front of him, and he revealed the surprising yet profound truth he was using to guide his way through his diagnosis. It was a warm spring afternoon, and I sat across from Dad in the living room where the sun poured in. Our conversation moved from everyday chatter to the latest news about his treatments, his progress, the food he could still stomach and what might be next steps.
I approached all of it ― no matter how bleak ― with optimism. I looked for a kernel of hope even where there appeared to be none. But Dad thwarted me with his steadfast practicality and the reality I couldn’t avoid. “I’m sick, dear,” he said.
I felt the anger swell in my throat ― attempting to manifest itself in words between the tears I’d long held back ― when I finally asked the question we often do when faced with the bleakest of circumstances: Why? Why him?
He looked back at me calmly and then said something I’ll never forget: “Why not me?”
Why not me. Three little words leveled the room and then hung there definitively, filling the space between us like a fog. Even in the thick of his suffering, he could so clearly see and accept what most people never do.
Why my father? Why my friend? Why my spouse? Why my child? Why do bad things happen to undeserving people?
When tragedy is personal, it feels anything but random, and we desperately try to find a reason to make it feel less so. To place blame. But Dad didn’t do anything to get cancer ― it just happened. This realization meant accepting the absolute absence of reason. Cancer ― and other terrible, unthinkable things ― doesn’t happen to everyone but can, in fact, happen to anyone.
In May 2015, just shy of one year after Dad was diagnosed, we lost him to colon cancer. My grief has lingered since then like a mild, disorienting fever I carry every day.
In these last seven years, I’ve watched colon cancer gather strength. I’ve seen more headlines about how it’s upended more lives. I’ve read more disheartening facts about how more people are battling it or losing their lives to it. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and I can’t help but look back on those three words and how they offer invaluable wisdom ― and a way to put Dad’s perspective into practice.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths. It’s estimated that there will be more than 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in the U.S. this year, and though it’s long been thought of as a disease that typically affects older people, it’s becoming more prevalent in people under 55.
Though we might not have a reason for why someone gets colon cancer, we do have ways to detect it, and the earlier we do, the better the prognosis usually is. In fact, the American Cancer Society notes that “when colorectal cancer is found at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90%.” Getting screened for colon cancer starting at 45 is important for people with an average risk of the disease, and those with a family history of the disease (which up to 30% of colorectal cancer patients have) or other risk factors may want to talk to their doctor about beginning screenings even earlier.
Unfortunately, according to the Fight Colorectal Cancer organization, more than 20 million Americans are behind on their screenings, even though diagnoses are becoming increasingly more advanced. Oftentimes waiting for symptoms to appear can be fatal because, as my family intimately came to know, they may be so mild or mistaken for other mundane issues that the cancer is not found until it’s at a later stage, when it’s harder to treat.
Armed with this information, I know I have to be vigilant about my own screenings. I take constant inventory of my health, and I hope my family’s story may motivate others to do the same. I can’t say that things would have turned out differently if Dad had been screened or had seen a doctor earlier about his symptoms, but the not knowing ― the chance that he might have been saved ― is a question that will claw inside of me for the rest of my life.
Of course, Dad’s realization ― “Why not me?” ― wasn’t just about his sickness, and it has taught me more than just to prioritize my health. It has also inspired me to live a fuller life. Chance invites risk, but it also invites reward. Dad reminded me to be careful when I can and where I should, but also to believe in myself.
Because of this, I’ve discovered I can take impassioned leaps and land somewhere I never thought possible. Whether it’s pursuing my love of writing or moving to new places, it’s helpful to remember that we don’t know what great things can happen unless we try. Dad’s words have helped me experience incredible moments and do things that I may not have otherwise done because… why not me? Why shouldn’t I reach for all of the things I want? Why shouldn’t I pursue all the things Dad would want for me ― and that he would be so happy to see me achieve if he were here? Maybe those three words were his final guiding lesson, and it’s one that has given me the strength to live a life he would be proud of.
Erin Hall is a proud Michigander currently residing in Chicago. A communications professional by trade, she spends her spare time having gone from scribbling stories on her nightstand to scribbling words for “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Believe in Angels,” Detroit Metro Times, Multiplicity Magazine and TodayShow.com, with forthcoming work in Deep Wild Journal. Find her on Twitter @ErinHall802.