Waking Up: A Father's Day Reflection

I’ve known Chris for many years. He's brilliant and friendly and wonderful to his family. But a recent diagnosis changed his entire approach to life. And this Father's Day, he reflects on being an even better father and husband.

Not everyone gets to wake up from emergency brain surgery.

Luckily for me, my wife and my two incredible young daughters, I did just that. And I feel like I "woke up" in more ways than one. Here's my story.

For the first three hours of my eldest daughter Abigail’s life, I gazed deep into her eyes as I talked and sang to her. There she was, quietly looking back at me with her deep blue eyes, taking it all in. I was in a near-trance state, absolutely transfixed by this spark of new intellect and personality I beheld. It was overwhelming, finally to see my long-held hopes and dreams of fatherhood made real after so many years. My child was alive, and healthy, and beautiful. Perfect, even. And I was her father.  (The word "Abigail" means "Father's Joy" and her name couldn't have been more aptly chosen.)

Fast-forward six years (and I do mean FAST), to November 2012, just after Abi's 6th birthday, and my world fundamentally changed again.

It started with a series of intense migraines, which were ultimately diagnosed as brain cancer. In late November, neurosurgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital successfully removed a tumor from my right frontal lobe. It was the size of a small human fist.

During my recovery from surgery, time slowed to a crawl, as we waited for the all-important pathology report. This analysis would tell me whether my GBMO cancer was low-grade -- meaning the surgery was a cure -- or high-grade -- indicating I had one of the deadliest forms of cancer there is, with no known cure. To combat anxiety, I began practicing meditation, striving to live in the moment instead of worrying about the future.

On December 6, we got the initial pathology analysis, with the worst possible news: Grade 4. It was dizzying and terrifying. I'd learned that high-grade GBMO patients have a median life expectancy of 18 months. Time, which had practically stood still, now seemed to be rushing by. As a healthy 38-year-old, it seemed unfathomable. How could it be possible that I might have just months to live? My values, priorities and philosophy became incredibly clear, and they were about exactly one thing: Massive love for my family.

Then, in early January, surprising and oh-so-welcome news: More sophisticated genetic analysis showed the tumor cells had an all-important "IDH-1" mutation. This meant radiation and chemotherapy could help prevent recurrence. My condition could now be described as "manageable," and I could again hope to live a long life. I completed 6 weeks of intense radiation and chemo, continued with regular meditation, became a runner, changed my diet, and vowed never again to take my amazing family and the gift of time with them for granted.

We all hear about life-changing stories like mine now and then. We’re told by our own parents to cherish each moment with our kids. Scary stories in the news or in popular culture sometimes remind us to hold our loved ones close. But those reactions are often short-lived. Actually facing the prospect of leaving my family behind, and then learning I could in fact expect to live, has profoundly altered my perspective.

I’ve learned that being truly "present," staying in the here and now, is the fullest way to express love -- and makes for the happiest way to spend our days.

I’ve learned to stop and put down the smartphone or book, to turn away from the laptop or TV and engage fully with my daughters. As a result we experience wonderful moments of connection that will be with me, and with them, forever.

I’ve learned to take better care of my body and mind. I still run, eat mostly vegetarian and practice daily meditation. And I’ve lost 25 pounds.

I’ve learned to be mindful of the vast amounts of beauty and love around me. I have so much to be profoundly grateful for, every day.

Sometimes I feel like I was sleepwalking before, and I've woken up. And I feel, and hope, that I may have become a better father in the process. I also owe a large debt of gratitude to my own father, for his abiding love and calm and presence throughout my ordeal. He has been a wonderful role model to me.

Most of all, I'm just so deeply grateful for my wife and daughters and our shared lives. And I hold them close and tell them, many times each day, how much I love them.

On this Father's Day, I'd ask you dads (and moms) out there reading this to pause for a moment, and picture your children faced with the prospect of life without you. What moments would you want them to remember sharing with you? What message would you give them? Today would be a good day to tell them. There's no time like the present.

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