It was early fall. You know, that time when the weather has just started to turn, but it’s like a well kept secret for those of us who wake up before the sun. By the time the rest of the day gets going, it still feels like the middle of July: hot, brutal, and unforgiving. But at that moment, it was cool. I was comfortable. I was going about my routine like I would on any given Tuesday, thinking, naturally, that’s all the day would be.
I’d made a playlist called “TRUE” that had all of my favorite truth-declaring worship songs on it. Lauren Daigle’s new album had just come out, and it inspired the rest of the playlist. Every morning, it was the same thing: wake up, get dressed, do my makeup, leave the house by 6:45am to get to campus at a time where there were still parking spots. I used the backroads to find my way down Red Mountain to work. It’s an involved drive, one with lots of sharp turns and narrow roads. One I probably shouldn’t make half asleep, but I do every morning. By now, I think I could do it in my sleep. At the point of this story, I learned I could do it when I was crying so hard I couldn’t see.
Upon some calendar investigation, I think it was September 4th. I’d started calling my dad as I walked into work; he was the only person I knew I could call that early, but also, I’d found it to be a surprisingly convenient time for both of us. He’d texted me the night before asking me to call him when I could. He had news. I was watching a movie with my roommates and told him that I’d call the next day. I thought he was just going to talk to me about hunting.
I wish he had just talked to me about hunting.
After I’d parked and began walking towards the building that holds my office, I unlocked my phone and quickly clicked his contact to begin the call. He’s in my phone as Padre with the bear emoji next to his name. He’s always reminded me of a bear: steadfast, strong, fierce. It’s probably a bad idea to hug a bear, but I’ve still always wanted to, and my dad’s hugs will always remind me of what I think a hug from a real bear would be like. But his hugs are probably better.
“Ayyyyye-V,” he said, like always when he answered the phone.
“Hey dad,” I replied. He asked me if I was walking into work, which I was. He asked again why I get there so early. I thought his tone was normal, but looking back, I could hear the nervousness in his voice. He carried on the normality in the amount of time it took me to walk from my car up the stairs of the library towards the Starbucks. I’d forgotten my coffee on the counter that morning.
I don’t remember how he transitioned the conversation, because everything after I climbed the stairs is a blur. I think I walked in circles for a bit playing with my feet on the steps as the conversation continued. I thought we’d only be on the phone for a few minutes, but at some point, I sat down. There are concrete benches framing the area around the library, and I sat down under a tree in a spot where I’ve seen men smoking and girls Snapchatting, but that didn’t matter. I just had to sit down. The effort I was making not to cry made me dizzy.
He’d transitioned the conversation. He said things I can’t remember, giving me the news that changed everything. His words were the first domino in a series of things that fell apart last fall, but this is the one that hurt the most.
He’d been in a wreck the month before. He was slightly injured; the car had been totaled. His body was old and sore, his head concussed. His pride hurt as his body began to remind him of his age, something he regularly denied. They’d decided to run a scan of his head after the headaches refused to leave. In that, they saw the smallest section of the top of his lungs, and in his lungs, they found a mass. After running more tests, more scans, more behind the scenes things that my dad never toldl me about, they found a series of small masses in both of his lungs.
Squamish cell carcinoma.
A series of nodules found in his lungs.
Now, cancer patient. Again.
The same kind as before, just in a different place.
I sat under that tree, and my body was wracked with sobs. I never cry unless I feel like the world is ending. Then, I felt like the world was ending, because if you were to ask me ,and maybe even now, it was.
My dad had cancer.
He talked for a while. He told me everything, and I heard nothing but the sound of his voice and my own suppressed sobs. As it grew later and he kept talking and saying things I can’t remember and couldn’t understand, more students were walking around me, so I moved. I turned my back to the main pathway. I thought when he stopped talking, I’d go to work. I kept crying, hunched over now with my hand over my mouth, tears dripping down my skin like a river and landing on the top of my hand, making their way past it into my mouth. The world was ending. My dad was sick. Was I going to lose him? I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I can’t.
Ten years before, he’d been sick, and I was young. He was sick and I was depressed, and his illness almost cost us both our lives, but then we both lived and went on to fight battles together. In the time between then and now, we’d become a team. My parents were divorced, and my brother got married. It was just the two of us, and I liked it that way. I couldn’t imagine life without him.
He was going to be okay, he said to me both times. I believed him the first time, and I refused to believe him the second. My world was ending. I needed to leave school and move home to care for him like he would me. My best friend. My fighter. My dad. Cancer. He told me again and again he was going to be okay. I heard the pain in his voice as he told me. I heard him wanting to hold me as I much as I wanted him to. I heard and felt and hated the distance. I kept crying and mumbling responses to him as needed while trying to hide my face from students.
I don’t know how much time had passed by the time we hung up, but I decided to go into work. None of my coworkers were there yet, and I’d have time to clean my face. I could go on with my day, file away the emotions like I had a million times before. I could do it. The world was ending, but I could do it. We hung up and I opened my front camera to see the mascara smeared, knowing I was past the point of return. There would be no cleaning up. There would be no filing away. There were be no ceasing to the pain in my chest that I thought was going to kill me. I left the office and decided to go home.
I got in my car. I’d just been here, but everything had changed. Out of habit, I connected my phone to the bluetooth. “TRUE” started playing again but before I could hear what it was, I called Sandy, someone who was like a mother and a best friend to me. I cried more and tried to find the breath to tell her, and somehow miraculously, I did. We hung up. I managed to stop crying. The music began again.
Emmanuel. God with us forever.
It was a song I’d heard a million times, but from that moment on, it would mean something entirely different. It was song that brought back the sobs; I leaned my face on the steering wheel, and the tears began to cloud my vision. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to keep living.
But the words, the words kept coming.
Emmanuel. God with us forever.
My dad had cancer.
But God was with me.
I was sobbing, face against the steering wheel, eyes blurred, makeup running down my face, my world feeling like it was over, but I wasn’t alone, and I never would be. I had no idea what the next months would hold, but God was making it clear then, as he would a thousand more times throughout the fall, that He was with me. He was not going anywhere, despite what my pain and tears may try to tell me. I wouldn’t always believe that truth, but He would always tell me, and He would show me.
After a few months of treatment, my dad would call and tell me that his scans were clear. I’d spent those months in the meantime forgetting about that tear-filled moment in the car, questioning where my God was on the hardest days. Now, I know that He was there waiting for me, waiting to show me He was right next to me all along.
Author | Ashton Ray
Ashton is honest, relentless, curious, and unapologetically introverted. She is in her second year of school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham pursuing a Masters in English and hopes to go on to get her PhD and one day become a professor. She graduated from Mississippi College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Writing and has six years of professional writing under her belt. Everyone that knows Ashton knows that she loves telling stories, wearing black, traveling, and learning about Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II. You can find Ashton at @ashtonvray on Instagram and Twitter, ashtonvray.com, @eighthundred.words and eighthundredwords.com .