The good, the bad:cancer

Memory is a funny thing. Some things dissolve into the deep abyss of your mind, and others ingrain themselves in your memory. For me, I’ll always remember a late summer night two years ago. The living room blinds were open to capture the last of the sunset, and even though it was hot, I had a blanket wrapped tightly around me while I watched an old episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”. I remember the credits had just ended when my mom’s phone rang from the kitchen, and we got the news.

In the summer of 2016, I found out my uncle was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I spoke to the doctor over the phone, what he said was ‘Grade II Meningioma’, but what I heard was ‘he probably won’t make it to your college graduation’.

Initially after the diagnosis, I went through extreme denial. My parents spent hours on the phone back and forth with my uncle and his doctor, but if they tried to hand me the phone, I would run away. Answering the phone meant confronting the fact that the man who had helped me take my first steps had a terminal illness. I wanted to be strong for him, and I had never felt smaller.

It took me weeks to finally build up the courage to call my uncle, and I’ve always regretted those wasted days we’ll never get back. The beginning, before the chemotherapy and hospice, were the good days. Looking back, I wish I would have appreciated that time.

We talked a lot after that. He talked about the gross mochi jello at the hospital, and I complained about my (recently) ex-boyfriend to make him laugh. For a while, he wasn’t my uncle with cancer; he was just my uncle.

As my uncle’s cancer progressed, his memory worsened, and he began to show slight symptoms of dementia. After one of our usual calls, I said goodnight to him, and I remember school getting hectic in the following two weeks. My uncle had slipped my mind in the stress of tests and extracurriculars. The next time I managed to find time to call him, he answered the video call with a confused frown.

“Who are you?”

Every good moment that we had built up seemed to disappear with those three words. He couldn’t remember the bland jello or my pathetic love life. As the nurse explained that I was his niece, I forced myself not to cry in front of him.

Life became a big deja vu, since I avoided calling him like I had when he was originally diagnosed. It took a little time for me to remind myself not to make the same mistake I had before and to appreciate the time I had.

One night, while we were talking awkwardly about random things, he paused and said my name. “Lucy”. It was hesitant, but there was some flicker of memory in it, which was more than I could ever hope for. Once again, I had to force myself not to cry in front of him, but this time out of happiness. That was one of my uncle’s good days.

It took a good day for me to realize that being there for someone I loved meant being there for each day, the good and the bad. Running away wouldn’t make the reality any less real, and I had to choose to make the best of it for him.

Most days are still his ‘bad’ days, and I have to reintroduce myself at the beginning of every video call. But even on those days, I try and find a way to connect with him. We laugh over ridiculous Asian soap operas and play 20 questions. I get to know him all over again each time, and the bad days get a little better. I ask him his favorite color and smile when it changes from blue to yellow to purple. Once, he asked me my favorite color, and I told him it was pink. The next day, that was his favorite color too.

My name, my favorite color, I hold onto those little things. It helps me remember that when every day matters, the bad days don’t have to be so bad after all.