I gently rubbed holy oil on his arm and prayed for a miracle. Sailendra, my precious father, lay before me on the hospital bed with the left side of his body entirely paralyzed. The noise of heart monitors, electronic alarms, and hushed conversations rang in my ears as I watched intently for any sign of improvement, small token signaling that his condition might be curable. One day, as I massaged my father’s foot, wondering what it must be like to see your own body touched without feeling it, I witnessed the slightest movement of his big toe. I was overwhelmed with joy, confident that my father’s condition would soon be reversed. However, my happiness was shattered several days later when we were told by doctors that my father had stage 4 brain cancer that was impossible to treat.
Sailendra passed away in August 2018 at the age of 50. The worst thing I could ever imagine had come true.
People react to a loved one’s cancer diagnosis in different ways. Some cannot accept that cancer is a severe disease. Others try too hard to be “perfect” caregivers. Some people simply shut down and refuse to talk about the disease and the uncertain future it brings. I think I experienced every single one of those reactions at different points during my father’s illness. After the initial shock of the diagnosis, I felt a mix of anxiety, anger, and depression. Seeing my father—a profoundly kind and optimistic man who worked tirelessly to escape poverty in his home country of India to build a future for himself and his family in the U.S.—suffering made me question my belief in God. At times it made me feel like the world is unfair and that no one has any control over what happens. In many ways, my father’s grim diagnosis thrust me into adulthood as I took on the role of caregiver, waking in the middle of the night to help my father use the restroom, feeding him, dressing him, helping him exercise, and taking time off school to help my mother bring him to physical therapy.
After my father passed, many things changed. My mother and I became more financially inhibited. I became the sole man of the house. Perhaps most importantly, my relationship with my mother grew stronger. We talk about everything now, and I will always view taking care of her as one of my responsibilities. I have become the person who thinks of the little things, like bringing my mother flowers and telling her I love her, or calling my grandparents in India every weekend. My father’s passing has made me reflect on how precious life is and develop a greater appreciation for the simple things. It’s also forced me to revisit and reevaluate several larger facets of my life —my overall priorities, my relationship with my family, my future goals, and my friendships—to ensure that I’m living each day in a way that not only would make my father proud but enriches the lives of those around me.
As a young adult, I did something that most people my age will never have to: I buried my father with my own hands. I think about him every day. As hard as it has been, I realize that my father taught me the most important lesson, both in his life and after his passing: it is critical to do your best to care for and share with others during the hardships of life. No matter what life throws at you, you have the ability within yourself to try to make the best of it. Never take anything or anyone for granted, try to make people smile, and always live in the moment. Losing my father has fundamentally shaped me and given me a new sense of purpose, and that purpose is to live as Sailendra did.