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first person

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The Globe and Mail

“We’ll walk shoulder to shoulder through this,” my dad bravely announced to me, putting his hand on mine. He had just been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Only the week before he had been wielding a chainsaw in the woods at the cottage, the sun pouring down as he revelled in the glory of the October colours, the earthy scent of the forest. I have a photo of him there in his red jacket, looking skyward with his arms outstretched. “This is the prima weekend for the fall colours!” he might be saying. My dad sought out the “prima” in everything. Being there in the flaming leaves was his idea of heaven.

It was a terrible diagnosis. He’d been a seemingly healthy 85 year old with a sturdy constitution. He didn’t drink or smoke. He exercised regularly, played tennis and cycled into his 80s. There had been a few health crises: polio as a young man, prostate cancer in his 70s, chest surgery in his 80s. But he’d gone through treatment, healed and made a comeback each time. He was ever the optimist, planning to live to 120 according to the Jewish blessing. We always assumed he would outlive my mother, whose constitution and optimism were decidedly less solid.

I took a deep breath. “Right,” I answered quietly, taking his hand. Three months before, I’d been diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer and was now approaching my third round of chemo. There would be five more rounds over the next several months, then surgery and radiation. I wondered if I’d make it. I was feeling queasy and lethargic as I mourned the loss of my health and grappled with my baldness, my vulnerability and my mortality. And now my dad was gravely ill, it was too much for one family to bear. I desperately wanted my dad to live but I couldn’t stand the thought of him going through the assault of chemo. He was too old. Chemo was too awful.

I needn’t have worried. “I’ll go anywhere or do anything,” he pleaded with the doctors to no avail. The doctors were sorry but there was no treatment. He should get his affairs in order. They would do their best to keep him comfortable. After several days of feeling terribly weak, they admitted him to the hospital.

I wasn’t allowed to visit. It was 2009 and the H1N1 virus was felling otherwise healthy people. My oncologist deemed it too dangerous for me to visit because my immune system was compromised by chemo, so I was piped in by phone to meetings with the doctors, my mom, my sister and the rest of the team. But the leukemia was roaring through my dad like an avalanche. He could no longer walk. They started talking about palliative care: first months, then weeks, then days.

My oncologist gave me his blessing when I called to say that my dad was dying and I had to see him. When I visited over the next three days, my dad worried aloud about my mom and how she’d manage on her own as he faded in and out of consciousness. He had last visits with his grandchildren, his sons-in-law, a few close friends and some special cousins. We stood around his bed and sang to him, hoping he might catch a few strains of “Swing low, sweet chariot / Comin’ for to carry me home.”

Less than three weeks after his diagnosis, my dad was gone. It was mid-November. The fall leaves had been on the ground for weeks by then, wet, tinged with frost and drained of colour, the trees ready for their long cold sleep. We planned the memorial around my chemo schedule, for week three when the side effects would be at their lowest ebb and the least horrible. The hall was packed to overflowing. We told stories. We sang songs. We remembered a guy who had loved life and lived it to the fullest. The cover of the program was the photo of my dad in the fall leaves.

I got through the rest of chemo, withered and spent. Then my husband and I made the crazy decision to go to Mexico against all advice, ordering a wheelchair to get through the airports. I was a wreck but gradually, I started to regain some strength and even some peach fuzz on my head as the chemo slowly drained from my body. I swam in the ocean, drinking up the warmth, the colour and the possibility that I might make it.

There would still be surgery, radiation, complications from radiation, a hospitalization and cataract surgery to come. But a year after my diagnosis, I was cancer-free and done with treatment.

I’m well. It’s been 12 years since my diagnosis, almost 12 years since my dad died. The fall leaves are back in all their glory, even more spectacular than usual in the midst of a pandemic. My dad and I didn’t get to go through cancer treatment shoulder to shoulder. But he’s still with me, reminding me to savour this and all the other prima moments.

Tamara Levine lives in Ottawa.

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