Goodbye begins July 27, 2020, with a text.
The doctor just called with the scan results, and it’s not good. Can you come over?
My brand-new 14-year-old is in the middle of blowing out twisty rainbow candles on an ice cream birthday cake. It is homemade by a sister and looks delicious. We finish singing as I prepare to leave. At the time I am unaware of how this act foreshadows the following eight months. It is the beginning of me tapping out of my own family’s activity, sometimes planned, most times not, to be with my parents and siblings.
I drive across town to Mom and Dad’s house—a familiar rhythm and routine that takes five minutes by car or ten minutes by foot. Last Thursday was the weekly breakfast/coffee/story sharing time we started in 2019. We were in the kitchen preparing eggs and toast when Mom told me of an upcoming scan, scheduled for pain in her right side.
I affirmed her decision to get it checked out by requesting this care.
“Anytime something is bad enough to keep you up or wake you at night…” I began.
“I know, cancer,” she interrupted.
“No. I was going to say it is worth checking out.”
She is the one who encouraged me to have my wrist x-rayed after a kayaking accident weeks earlier, which resulted in lingering pain. My wrist was fine. She would be too.
She was not fine.
Doctors do not call immediately after they receive scan results when all is fine.
So, four days later we stand around the red-and-chrome diner-style table in the kitchen again. I hear words like pancreatic cancer, and spots on liver and lungs, and stage four.
It is all surreal, but this is 2020, and surreal has taken on an entirely new meaning.
In this moment it means my worst nightmare—unexpected news on top of so much unexpected news this year. I still have three living grandparents. My mom’s parents live independently. She drove up to Michigan and spent the month of June caring for and helping them and returned three weeks ago. I have no imagination for Mom not living into her nineties like both of her parents.
“Let’s go outside and sit at the patio table,” I suggest.
I need space and comfort; something familiar. Our summer coffees and breakfasts always begin with us carrying our plates and mugs out there, and it feels like the right place for this new beginning—or ending. Besides, the wrought iron chairs around the table bounce. Their movement is grounding. I need that, as well.
“What do we do?” My parents look at me expectantly.
“Wait, what?” I think.
I want to turn around to find the grown-up in the room before remembering that the grown-up is me. I’ve always had to be a grown-up.
Not this time.
This time I claim my role as their first-born child. Daughter.
“You need to tell your other children.”
“Really?” Mom looks at me quizzically.
“Yes. You need to tell them what I know. They need to know too.”
“Okay. That’s what we’ll do.”
We sit quietly for a few minutes. There is not much else to say. Our time ends. I give each parent a hug and say goodbye.
They make phone calls.
Sisters gather. Family visits. A 51st anniversary is celebrated days later with more pomp than if planned for months. An unsuccessful first biopsy is followed by a Covid test and quarantine. I leave with a friend for a planned trip to Kentucky, missing out on sister time with mom. They experience a successful second biopsy together and receive the likely diagnosis. A cell biopsy confirms everyone’s deepest fear. I hear the news in the hotel elevator.
Metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Impulsive Google searches result. Bracing. Glancing. Poring. How much time is left? What’s next? Maybe a miracle.
It is the beginning of the end.
Julie McClay lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with her partner of 31 years, four of their eight children, and six fur and feather babies. Two precious grandchildren bring deep joy and delight. Julie is a lover of stories and words. She serves clients, both in person and virtually, through Heart Path Story Coaching, offering a creative space of kindness, curiosity, and Story Work. Writing and Art Journaling are key elements of her process.