The Gift of Cancer
I will remember everything about that October day: the way the hospice smelled, the blaring televisions in each room with viewers barely clinging to this world, the creak of the heavy door. Broken bodies lay helplessly on beds, waiting for nurses, or death, to tend their needs. Walking to his room, I had never been more nervous. Death had no place in my life until then and coming face-to-face with it was almost unbearable. As we entered, my parents instinctively knew how to act. Nearly 40 years older than me, to them death was not a surprise but a fact of life. I, on the other hand, had never felt more lost. The mere sight of him made my knees quake and my forehead sweat. For a week, he had not responded to anyone as a result of the constant morphine drip. Naturally, I expected no reaction when I held his limp hand, the skin soft and smelling of baby powder. The medication had soothed his pain but dulled his senses. His eyes were closed, though occasionally they’d blink open with a look of fear and confusion. I said hello and told him that I had come all the way from my home in Hawaii to see him. He seemed unresponsive and I was ready to step aside when he opened his eyes and looked at me with the most sincerity I have ever witnessed. “Hey, honey,” my uncle hoarsely whispered, obviously recognizing me. Rarely do patients so dependent on morphine communicate with those around them. The drug deadens their senses so that conversations, if they happen at all, are only seconds of understanding. I tell myself now that if there is one thing I will always remember, it is the moment my uncle defied medicine and cancer. My favorite uncle, the uncle who taught me to count to five in Spanish, sent me hula-girl t-shirts, took me to my first baseball game and put powdered sugar on my pancakes, had given one of his last coherent sentences and endearments to me. Uncle Bird died five days later. We were not shocked; his death left us with a resolution of faith and the knowledge that his ordeal had ended but his spirit lived, which gave our hearts peace. For me, his passing was a solemn reminder of the innocence and brevity of life. Death has taken away many things, I realized, but it also granted more than could be asked in return. Uncle Bird helped me see that despite his illness, his adoration of living flowed from him until his last days and infiltrated those around him, including me. Uncle Bird was one of the best men I have ever known, and the day he taught me to love life was the day I truly began to live it.