what my dad’s brain aneurysm taught me about life, love and faith
“I got my results.”
Four simple words that on their own, don’t carry much weight. Yet when put together in that exact order, these words have the power to make even the strongest of stomachs simultaneously drop, twist and turn.
These are dreaded words; ones that for me, would quickly put into perspective the fragility of life.
It was the week before Christmas, and my dad was saying these very words to me. Just a few weeks before, he had undergone an MRI to find the cause of recent headaches he had been suffering from. Not normally one to ever take sick (never mind have a headache), my dad knew immediately something was wrong. Though none of us in the family had thought much of it at the time, in the single moment that he uttered these words to me, I knew it was serious.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, dreading the answer. He hesitated before answering.
“It’s not good,” was all he could muster. His voice cracked and my mind immediately went into panic mode. I feared the worst.
Cancer. Oh my gosh, it’s cancer. My dad has cancer.
He began taking his shoes off, doing it in a slow and meticulous manner, as though to avoid looking at me. He slowly took off his coat and began walking towards me. Then he passed me.
“Dad, what is it?” I was a good actor- my voice was firm and steady. I seemed calm and composed, ready to face the worst case scenario. Finally he turned and looked at me, and there was no mistaking the emotion in his eyes: fear.
I braced for impact.
“I have a brain aneurysm,” he said.
My good acting skills went out the window.
Ignorance is Bliss
As children, while we quickly outgrow childish beliefs in the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, we continue to take comfort in the childish notion that our parents will live forever. At the age of 23, I was a victim of this childish faith. Having lived my life relatively unscathed by death, the idea that one of my parents might suddenly leave this Earth had never crossed my mind.
Of my four grandparents, I had only ever met one. While her death in 2010 was difficult, I was able to move past it without any emotional scarring. Her death was in no way unexpected or sudden, and while I loved her, we were not as close as most children are to their grandparents.
In hindsight, you could say my understanding of life’s fragility was quite limited.
In the moment I learned of my dad’s aneurysm, this understanding underwent a sudden and irreversible shift. Though my general knowledge of aneurysms was little, I knew the odds and they weren’t good. I knew that in essence we were dealing with a ticking time bomb located somewhere in his brain. I knew most people who experienced an aneurysm rupture died while those who survived usually suffered long term physical damage.
For the first time in my life, I was confronted with the heart wrenching possibility that one of my parents might die.
Going Through the Motions
There is no way to explain the fear of the unknown to someone who has never experienced it.
My family carried on as normally as we could, carefully stepping around the elephant in the room. We waited patiently for our appointment with the neurosurgeon and in the meantime, did our best to deal with the other health issues that began to suddenly plague my dad. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure; one morning I rushed him to the hospital when he began showing signs of a heart attack. He bounced from medication to medication, soldiering through each dreadful side effect until he found the one right for him. He had sudden pains throughout his body that couldn’t be explained, and in the end, were chalked up to stress.
I could do nothing but rely on my good acting skills, which for the most part served me well. But inside, I was falling apart. I had many sleepless nights, often tiptoeing to his room at all hours to check on him. During the day I would check my phone incessantly, worried I might get the dreaded call.
Faith in the Midst of Darkness
Though I was raised in the church, you could say I’ve often lived with one foot at the alter and the other outside. In university I was often that person who, given the choice between going to a party or church, would always choose the first option. Although I prayed every night, it was more out of obligation than anything else.
In the months before my dad’s diagnosis I had made the personal decision to get serious about my faith. I began reading the Bible every night and actually putting thought into my prayers. It was a slow process, but I eventually began to see God working in my life.
But in typical newly saved Christian fashion, the moment things went south in my life, my faith took an immediate few steps backwards. I began questioning God and what I believed to be his nonchalant attitude towards my dad’s aneurysm. I felt betrayed and angry. I stopped opening my Bible and allowed it to gather dust on my night table.
But ironically, my dad’s response to his diagnosis was the complete opposite of mine. In addition to praying even more, he talked about his aneurysm as God’s way of showing him he needed to make some physical and spiritual changes in his life. Rather than being angry, he saw his aneurysm as a necessary wakeup call and the chance to have a fresh start.
His reaction both amazed and confused me. There he was living day to day with a ticking time bomb in his brain, and yet he seemed to be at such peace. I, on the other hand, as nothing more than a bystander caught in the carnage of his train wreck aneurysm, was seething with anger.
I began questioning my own response.
Facing the Music
“I have some bad news for you.”
It was the morning of February 16 and we were at the hospital for my dad’s surgery. After careful thought, he had decided to undergo an operation to have his aneurysm coiled, rather than going without and risking it rupturing. After nine weeks of anxiety, stress and fear, we were ready to put the aneurysm behind us.
“We’ll have to push back your surgery,” the neurosurgeon continued. “A patient has been rushed in with a ruptured aneurysm, and he’s now our top priority. We need to save his life.”
We understood. Though we didn’t need reminding, the neurosurgeon’s news reaffirmed the seriousness and risk of a brain aneurysm. I quickly put on my good acting skills.
“That’s OK, Dad,” I smiled. “Let’s be grateful it’s not you who needs immediate surgery. We’re in a good place.”
We waited seven more hours until finally, the doctor came to prep him for surgery. Once again, they reminded us of the risks: loss of vision, stroke, paralysis, death.
They took him for surgery.
Little Aneurysm, Big Lesson
My dad and I are sitting on the living room couch, watching CNN. Donald Trump has just won Nevada, and we can only laugh at how ridiculous the U.S. elections have become.
“Can you imagine if he wins the whole thing?” I ask for what must be the fifth time.
We laugh again and eventually change the channel.
It’s been a week since his surgery and my dad is doing well. He’s no longer in pain and yesterday, he was able to walk up every flight of stairs in the house. Most importantly, his headaches are now gone.
The aneurysm is behind us.
When I think about the short but exhausting emotional journey we’ve been on, I almost smile. At only 5.6 millimetres, my dad’s tiny brain aneurysm taught me some big lessons, specifically on life, love and faith.
Though it’s cliché, it’s true: life is short. At any moment, it can be turned upside down and shattered by four simple words like I got my results. I’ve been reminded just how important it is to appreciate and love the ones closest to us every single day.
Most importantly, I remember my dad’s faith in his time of darkness; it was a much-needed reminder for me to never doubt the power of prayer.
God is good.
All the time.