How to balance new traditions with old ones.
My life is intricately tied to my father. For every day that I am alive, so is he. It’s not only because his blood runs through my veins or because we have the same chocolate brown skin. It’s because, on my 27th birthday, my father got a second chance at life.
Papa was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer on the day I turned 26. I only have vague recollections of that day. I remember hearing the car pulling into the driveway, the engine coming to a sudden halt. I remember hearing the screen door open, the metal creaking against its hinges. I remember looking up from the dining table and seeing my mother enter, her sad eyes looking into mine.
“It’s not good news,” she said.
My father cried. “Take care of our kids,” he told my mother.
I cried, too. We all did.
Birthdays are supposed to be about celebrating the life you had for the past year and the life you’ll have for another year. But upon receiving news of my father’s diagnosis, I realized that birthdays, and life itself, are meant to be shared experiences; my birthday wasn’t just about me but also about the people important to me.
My father went through chemotherapy sessions for the next six months. The first two months were the hardest. Papa’s body was adjusting to the chemo drugs, destroying both cancer and healthy cells. He lost a significant amount of weight. He went through radiation treatment, the side effects of which were dry throat and frequent thirst. His taste buds failed him and, soon, he couldn’t tell the difference between sweet and salty, or sour and bitter.
I cared for my father in the hospital during some of his chemo sessions. I witnessed what he had to endure: nausea, vomiting, losing his appetite, and his hands turning purple because of constant needle injections and chemo drugs running through his veins. I would have given anything to take his place.
It broke my heart seeing Papa go through all that. I wasn’t used to seeing him struggle so much. I was used to him being the source of my strength. Now he needed me to be strong for him. But it felt easier to give in to weakness, to cry and despair, to feel devastated.
As a child, I was absorbed in playing and learning. Then, I was an angst-ridden and rebellious teen who always wanted to spend time with friends. I was busy with work, finding love and figuring out what I really wanted to do as an adult. I got so caught up in the details of my everyday life that I forgot about the other equally important details of my parents’ lives. Papa was always there for me when I needed him. He has been such a constant presence in my life that I sometimes neglected how he was doing or what he was experiencing. With my father going through cancer, it was my turn to be there for him.
On the day I turned 27, our family had a simple gathering to celebrate my birthday. But it was also a celebration of my father’s healing. He had finished all his treatments and was now in recovery. He had gained some weight and was starting to get back his sense of taste. His doctors officially declared him cancer-free.
My 27th birthday was a cause for celebration and a day of hope. It was a day to celebrate the past—its triumphs and even its challenges. More than that, it was a day to celebrate life—my own and my father’s. From now on, my birthday isn’t just mine but also his. He has given me the gift of life—a gift I now share with him.