I was 14 when I was told that Dad was dying.
I was sitting on the floor of our house, staring at a collage of family pictures on the wall.
My mother came in and said that she had some news. Sensing the worst, I fixated on the newspaper open in front of me, at an advert for an Italian height enhancing syrup.
It was cancer, in his pancreas, and he might only live a few more months.
Growing up, my father had been the person closest to me. He would take all my childish drama, nuisances and ridiculous questions only to end my day with a chocolate ice-cream.
They were going to try an operation, she told me and my sister, to reduce the pain. As a nurse, she must have known that this was unlikely to work, but she knew her audience and didn’t want to overload us with information.
She must also have known that pancreatic cancer has one of the bleakest outlooks, due in part to a lack of symptoms in the early stages. By the time you start to notice the nausea, jaundice or weight loss, it’s too late to hope that it’s something less serious.
I was blanked out at the thought of imagining my life without the presence of my dad.
Who would drive me to school then every day?
That night, as I wrote my diary, I could think only about how I felt. Reading it back now I wonder what it was like for my mum, still reeling from the news herself and having to tell the rest of us.
Who would take me to football coaching every evening?
In pain and alone, she was told “without a warning shot” that her MRI scan showed that the cancer had spread.
“He was basically giving me a death sentence. He sort of couldn’t wait to leave the room and I never saw him again.”
It was one of those situations, the doctor says, where you pull the curtain back and immediately think, “This is not good”. “On very few occasions do you touch something and say, ‘This is cancer’.”
Who would save me from the terrible scoldings of mom and grandma?
When she examined the patient’s abdomen it felt “rock hard”.
“She kept saying to me, ‘It’s going to be fine, isn’t it?’
And I’m saying, ‘We’ll do everything we can, let’s just do a few tests and figure out what’s going on.’ At that stage in my mind, I knew it was bad, but I still had to figure out exactly what flavour of bad it was.”
Who would take my side everytime I have a fight with my sister?
The woman was anxious to be home on New Year’s Eve to make a call to family overseas. But blood tests confirmed that she’d need to stay.
“She said to me, ‘Tell me the worst-case scenario.’ I looked at her. She looked at me. And in my mind I was thinking, ‘She’s not ready for this diagnosis.’
Then her relative stepped in and she said, ‘No, no, she means what’s the worst-case scenario in terms of how long does she have to stay in hospital?’
“At that moment, you realise that we all know exactly what we’re talking about, but we’re all accepting it to different degrees.”
Compartmentalisation seems to be important in coping – she mentions several times that bad news, death, is part of the job.
“You have to be strong for the family. I can easily go back into the staffroom and cry my eyes out, but at that moment I have to be there, I have to be the hand to hold, or the shoulder for the patient to cry on.”
The doctor speaks of the first patient she cared for, a man with metastatic prostate cancer.
She was called into his room by his wife, and as she arrived, the man took his last breath. His wife broke down onto the floor in front of her.
“At that moment, you have to say, ‘I’m sorry, he’s gone.’
And you kind of just have to suck it up and be there for them at that moment because that moment is everlasting for them.”