~ ~ ~
My uncle rang from the hospital to let us know what was happening that night. Something about a CAT scan. The word was familiar because I had heard it on the television show, ER. He promised to call when there was news. It was just after midnight when the phone rang again. All I remember was my mom crying when she heard the news. Dad had a malignant brain tumor. It was big – roughly the size of an orange. Were it not for the trip to the hospital, Dad might not have made it through the weekend. Looking back on it, we were extremely lucky that he stayed behind that December. One of the country’s top neurosurgeons worked at the local hospital. Dad was prepped for surgery that week. I do not know what would have happened if they had discovered the tumor in a ski resort, just days after Christmas.
We flew back to San Diego the next morning. I do not remember much of what happened that week; only that the pumpernickel bread in the hospital cafeteria was tasty. We spent five days at Scripps Memorial Hospital before and after the surgery. My family is originally from Mexico and the waiting room looked like a scene from a movie because we had so many friends camping out in the hallways. The hospital staff had to tell us to keep our visitor numbers down, but it was incredibly helpful to have so many loved ones supporting us. The surgery went well, thanks to the brilliant surgical team who got 98 percent of the tumor in just four hours. The recovery also seemed easier than any of us expected. Two weeks later, Dad was cheering at my sister’s soccer game. I kept telling him to sit down, and needless to say, his “header” jokes were not funny! We were relieved to put the surgery behind us. But there was still a silent cloud over our heads.
Dad had several radiotherapy treatments over the next few months. Eventually his doctors suggested a special laser surgery to get the last of it. I did not know it at the time, but there was a good chance the tumor would return. At that point the doctors put his life expectancy at nine months. We packed our bags and moved to Mexico City, where our extended family lived. Lucky for us, life expectancy estimates are only based on statistics.
A year went by and he was still perfectly healthy. I went off to college in Boston and my brother returned to the US for college a year later. We had a quiet New Years in San Diego that year with La Teacher and Guillermo, two years after the scare in the hospital. By then Dad was taking an interest in life, planning holidays to Europe and coming up with new business ideas. He was happy, playful and enthusiastic, going on and on about a franchise business that he wanted to set up. One day I asked him why he had not put his business plan into practice. He said he was waiting for the five-year mark. Until then there was still a risk that the cancer might come back. He did not want to leave us saddled with a fledgling business. I think that might have been the only time he mentioned it. All in all, we had four good years without any mention of the word cancer.
The health scare pushed him to broaden his horizons. For nearly a decade we had been taking the same holidays: summers in Mexico City and winters in Colorado. We went skiing one more time and then decided not to go back. It had gotten old. We spent the next holidays in Paris, my Dad’s favorite city, before traveling to Italy and Spain with my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was a trip down memory lane for my dad and my uncles, who had lived in Spain as teenagers. We had a lot of laughs, especially when a fancy restaurant sent a roasted pheasant, head intact, to the table on New Year’s Eve. My sisters, aged 10 and 12, screamed bloody murder as soon as they caught the look of agony on the bird’s face. Dad covered its head with a napkin, which did not help, and eventually the bird went back to the kitchen. Even today, the memory still makes me laugh.
The next summer, however, Dad went in for his six-month checkup and a tumor appeared on the scans. It was small and we were optimistic about catching it early. He had surgery again, and this time the doctors got it all. The surgeon suggested a follow-up six weeks later, but we were not worried about it. I flew back to school in Boston, my sister left for boarding school, and my brother went to Italy on his semester abroad. Only my mom and my youngest sister stayed behind for the recovery. The surgery had gone well and we expected to put it behind us. It was my senior year of college and life was pretty normal. The main exception was Sept. 11 and the chaos that ensued. Dad woke me up calling to see if I was okay. How ironic! He had just been through brain surgery two weeks earlier. I should have been worried about him, not the other way around!