Dad and I sat on our bright red couch in the basement playing LEGO Star Wars for hours. He was the kind of guy who had to collect every coin in the game and would redo a level over and over to get 100 per cent. We would laugh together at how funny some of the characters looked, and he would often imitate different characters, pulling off many voices. And if we found a LEGO car in a level? Forget it, I was stealing it and driving. But in competitive games he always won. No matter how old I was, he never let me win. I thought he could beat anyone.
Dad didn’t need to beat a video game anymore. He had to try to beat cancer. He was constantly in and out of the hospital for treatments. He had lost all his hair. It was sad because he was so proud of it. He had never had a single grey hair or a bald patch, just thick dark wavy hair. He had also lost a lot of weight with his treatments and had next to no immune system. This was the worst I had ever seen him.
In 2009 I was in grade 5. At the age of 10, you should be enjoying class, running around with friends. I strived to be the best in every class at school and be in every extracurricular activity available to me while also making as many friends as possible. I was a bubbly kid who teachers would bug for smiling so much. This was before the days of braces so I had a crooked-toothed grin that made people stop for a second, and wonder what I could possibly be smiling about. When I was this age, things changed. I had to grow up abnormally fast, ahead of my grade in maturity and emotion.
I kept my grades up despite the constant emotional exhaustion of having a sick parent and a stressed-out mother who was somehow still working to keep us in extracurriculars and our stomachs full. School was a good distraction from watching Dad go through treatments.
When I was at school, I thought about cancer maybe ten per cent less than at home. Unfortunately, at the end of that year H1N1 came to North America, my sister Jayden and I had to be pulled out of school to keep my dad safe.
My Ukrainian grandmother, who we called Baba, was living with us at the time because Mom was often at the hospital with Dad when she wasn’t at work. Baba would pick us up from school in her little burgundy Sunfire. Jayden and I would pile in the back and tell her about our day at school. She was a very small lady. She always had a cushion on the driver’s seat of her car because even at its highest she wasn’t tall enough to see correctly. Despite her size, she had one of the biggest personalities I had ever met. This made it easier to be happy because I was constantly distracted by whatever story she was telling us. I missed those car rides home with her after we had to be pulled out of school.
I understood what Mom was saying when she explained why we couldn’t go to school while the rest of our class could. Dad couldn’t risk getting H1N1 because his immune system was almost nonexistent at this point in his treatments. If he were to catch it, there was a good chance he would die. We hadn’t been eating out, having friends over or going places for a while, so I wasn’t surprised that we stopped going into school.
Mom handed us a few blue disposable masks and told us we could keep them in our room. If we were ever to wake up with a stuffy nose or feel even the slightest bit unwell, we had to wear masks around Dad to keep him safe. So, because we loved him, we wore them. My 10-year-old self saw this as an artistic opportunity and took markers to my masks to make them look more fun. I drew little cat whiskers on some and flowers on others so I could pick one to match my mood if I needed to.
In 2009, Zoom calls didn’t exist. Doing our schooling from home, we didn’t have any real class time or adapted learning plan. Our homeroom teachers gave us a stack of work to do before we got back, and we pretty much had to teach ourselves all of the material. We missed spirit week at school. I was sad I didn’t get pajama day. Jayden and I had our own PJ day and watched animated films at home instead of doing schoolwork for a day.
That same week, Mom packed up suitcases for herself and my dad. She had much difficulty because our two young cats insisted on lying inside them. Mom and Dad had to go to Toronto to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for my dad to have radiation treatments to kill the cancer cells in his leg. He had a type of sarcoma cancer related to the type Terry Fox had. That scared me a little bit because I knew Terry Fox had died. It was really hard saying goodbye to them. I had never seen my parents look so sad to leave the house.
Then there were just the three of us: Baba, Jayden and me. As they closed the door on their way out, I yelled “Goodbye” with salty tears streaming down my chubby child cheeks. Whenever anyone said that, my baba would cut them off and say, “It’s not goodbye. It’s see you later.” I knew she was right, but I was afraid he would get H1N1 on the trip to Toronto. He wore a mask, but next to no one else was wearing one. I think when my Baba put us to sleep, she felt as though she had to make up for the parental support we usually had every day, so she started to say, “I love you upside, downside, inside and out.” She had never said it before this time, but it stuck around and became our way of telling each other we loved each other.
Even though Dad was no longer in the house, Jayden and I stayed home from school. We did this to stay healthy to fly out to Toronto for Christmas and see him, even though he would still be going through treatments. While our parents were gone and Baba was taking care of us, we would call ourselves “The Three Musketeers” because we fought together every day to stay strong for my dad.
In the few weeks before leaving for Christmas, Mom would phone every single day. Dad would talk to us too, but some days it became more difficult to listen to his voice because you could hear the weakness and pain he was experiencing. He worked in radio, so I was used to the strong voice he used when on air. Mom would tell us about things she had seen on her walks around Toronto and try not to focus our conversations on our dad’s health.
Mom and Dad used to put us to bed together, so when they weren’t home at night my chest would feel heavy. I would sink into the sour feeling of loneliness even though I still had Baba and Jayden with me. I sometimes cried myself to sleep while holding my teddy bear I named Clarabelle. When you are ten years old it’s hard to sort through the emotions that come along with having a sick parent. Knowing you can do things like walk better than they can is hard to accept. My dad was a very tall man with a distinct walk, but he had a bad limp when cancer affected his leg. He never let it stop him from doing anything, but I know he hated it because it drew attention to him. He had always been shy in public.
When school ended for the holiday break, Mom flew back to Manitoba just to fly with Jayden and me back to Toronto again 12 hours later. She didn’t want us to have to be alone with a flight attendant and risk our being scared or catching H1N1 from someone. Jayden and I have never been a big fan of strangers, and she didn’t want us to have to worry. We listened to the Camp Rock soundtrack on our MP3 players and read books to keep us busy on the flight there. We always argued about who got the window seat because we both loved planes.
When we arrived, I found out I hated taxis. I was so uncomfortable and refused to talk in the car because I didn’t like knowing a stranger was listening. Instead, I decided to stare out the window. It was the biggest city I had ever been in. That taxi smelled like sunburnt faux leather that held a staleness I couldn’t imagine anyone enjoying. The long drive and the insane amount of traffic was overwhelming after the flight. Yet, I sat there in amazement, seeing for the first time what Mom had described to us over the phone. There was only a small fraction of the snow on the ground compared to back home, but I was glad it was there because it made the city feel more familiar. It was a very sunny morning when we arrived, although I knew we were there in less-than-desirable circumstances. I couldn’t help but be excited to be in a new place, even if it was just for three weeks.
When we arrived at the hotel, it was all decorated for Christmas. There were big trees in the lobby and gingerbread houses from a competition they had held days prior. One of them had a snowman made of mini marshmallows on its roof. He looked kind of melted and sad. I glanced at him and hoped he wasn’t an indication of what Christmas looked like in Toronto. When we took the elevator to our room to see Dad, Mom warned us he didn’t look very healthy and was throwing up lots.
We got to our room, and I wanted to jump on my Dad because I was so excited to see him. However, I was gentle when I gave him a hug because I knew his body was very sore from the radiation. Although he was sick, he looked so happy to see us. He was sitting in bed when we arrived and the look on his face was pure joy. Mom later told us that doctors noticed a difference in Dad when he was able to see family. We got each other through the most challenging times we had ever faced as a family. While cancer can ruin people, it can also remind people to savor the little moments in life. That’s what we did in Toronto.
The day after we arrived, Dad got up and ready for the day, with Mom’s help. He wanted to take us to the CN Tower. Mom carried a big bottle of hand sanitizer with us, and even Lysol wipes at times, making sure we were being safe if we ever left the hotel room. Mom and Dad wanted to show us a bit more of the city and attempt to make our holiday break fun, even though we couldn’t be with family or friends. On the walk there, we came across a ton of pigeons. Jayden and I were so excited to see so many birds in one place that we went and stood in the middle of the plague. We enjoyed it until they took flight and scared us.
At the CN Tower, there is this mini rollercoaster simulator experience you can go on. It simulates a log ride, but you’re just sitting in one place while the seat moves the whole time. Jayden was terrified because her legs were too short to touch the ground, so they had to stop the ride for her. She was only 8 years old, so I didn’t blame her for asking to leave. I was secretly excited she did because they restarted the ride for the rest of us, which meant Dad and I got to go on it again while Mom got off with Jayden. I don’t know how Dad got through the ride without puking. He was so nauseous from his treatments he would throw up multiple times a day. I liked to think he was just having so much fun with me that for a few minutes he could forget he had cancer. After the ride, we took the huge elevator to the top where I discovered my fear of heights. When I’m really high up, my legs feel like their bones disappear and turn into jelly, forcing me to hang on to something or someone.
Dad liked to tease me about everything. When he saw I was nervous, he kept trying to convince me to stand on the glass floor. Eventually he persuaded me to lie on the solid floor and just inch my head on the glass, so he could take a photo of me. I was so proud of myself when I stood up. I really had no reason to be because I didn’t stand on it — I chickened out — yet he made me feel like it was a small victory. He made everything fun.
During the day when he would have his radiation treatments, we would go and sit in the waiting room for him because none of us wanted to leave him there alone just in case something were to happen. Because radiation is very dangerous, it’s always in the cement basements of hospitals. As we walked down there for the first time as a family, I thought the basement was so large. This surprised me because when Mom described it to us before we flew out I imagined a small basement with short ceilings. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was one of the most intimidating places I have ever been in my life. There were three floors of basements all full of radiation rooms and people going through the same thing as we were. Before they let us into the area we had to go up to a long wall of sanitizer and clean our hands.
The cement made everything feel lifeless, and the furnishings in the waiting rooms all looked so small compared to the size of the space. Dad was called in, and Mom, Jayden and I took seats on the uncomfortable waiting chairs where the nurses brought Jay and me kids’ books to read while we waited. They comforted me more than I expected. I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be to sit there and wait, not knowing what was really happening to my dad on the other side of a cement wall.
Mom, Jayden, and I went for walks outside to avoid crowds and stay healthy, but Dad couldn’t join us because of his leg and how tired it would make him. We walked around the snowy sidewalks in the evening when the Christmas lights would be shining brightly from almost every downtown building. One evening, she took us to the Sick Kids hospital to walk through the lobby. This hospital was much different than the one Dad went to for his treatments. This one had so much colour and fun visual elements like giant teddy bears and trains moving around on the ceiling. As beautiful as it looked all fancied up for Christmas time, the mood was very sombre. We walked through with not much conversation between us. Mom told us that kids had to spend their Christmases here when they were sick. I saw posters on the walls with the faces of kids my age. Looking into their eyes made me feel nauseous. I knew Mom brought us there to remind us there are other people in the world going through a lot, and sometimes a lot worse than us. Even though Dad had cancer, we still had so much to be thankful for.
On Christmas Eve, we decorated a mini foot-tall tree. We were convinced Santa would have a hard time finding us in the hotel room with hundreds of rooms. Mom came prepared with a plan to help us prepare for Santa’s arrival. First, we walked across the street to a small park where we spread out “reindeer food,” which was oats with red and green glitter sprinkled in it. Second, we hung a “Santa key” on the balcony handle so he could unlock the door and come in with no problem. We then laid our stockings on a coffee table between our parents’ bed and our pull-out couch. I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom army-crawled across the hotel room floor to fill our stockings that year, and she was terrified to wake us.
Christmas Day was exciting in the morning as always, but everyone seemed just a bit sad that we weren’t all at home together and were instead sitting in a small hotel room in the wrong province. We usually would have Christmas dinner with my baba, uncle, aunt and cousins but this year it was a lot quieter. Dad threw up a few times that morning and went extremely pale. Mom somehow managed to cook a whole dinner for us in our tiny kitchenette, which could barely fit two people. It was about the size of a walk-in closet. She roasted a chicken in the oven that needed to be replaced as it was clearly older than me. She also made stuffing and everything else she normally would, just in smaller portions. Because of the kitchenette’s size, the smoke detector liked to go off anytime you heated something up. We always had to have someone waving a hand towel around while the other person cooked.
On New Year’s Eve, once again Mom carried on and tried to make things as close to normal as possible. We ate fun finger foods around the coffee table which served as our dining table and watched House Hunters on the giant brick of an old TV that swiveled toward us. All was well that evening until midnight. Fire alarms started going off on multiple floors because people were pulling them in celebration, not because of any danger. The hotel never told our floor to evacuate so we stayed put. A hotel fire alarm was like no noise I had ever heard before. It was a deafening beeping noise followed by a robotic voice asking specific floors to evacuate. I woke up crying because I was so scared of the intercom. My ears hurt. I got a headache, and every time the alarm would stop, and I would start to calm down, someone would pull it again. Mom came and held me to try and help me sleep. My sister tossed and turned covering her ears. All that commotion in a small hotel room was bad for a cancer patient needing as much rest as possible. It was not a good situation. The hotel has discounts for hospital outpatients, so I knew we weren’t the only family struggling with the noise. The next day I had no energy, and neither did anyone else. The new year, 2010, was off to a rough start.
When Dad’s treatments were done, and we got to go home, it didn’t mean going back to school. It meant going home and staying there until his immune system was back up and running, which took a while.
We missed a lot of being kids at the end of the year, but we didn’t miss the fun, thanks to the great family dynamic we were lucky to have. None of that fun would have been possible had we not been safe.
In December of 2012, when I was 13 years old, my dad died. While this was the worst moment of my life, I am thankful I had him for as long as I did. If I hadn’t worn a mask around my dad when my mom told me to, I could have accidentally killed my own father three years earlier in the small hotel room in Toronto.
The COVID-19 pandemic reached North America in March of 2020. To this day, I continue to watch people deny the severity of the virus and refuse to put masks on, stay home, or believe their actions affect others. Watching people go against health restrictions for selfish reasons or not care about others more vulnerable than them feels like the biggest “F you” to people who have lost loved ones due to health conditions. If people had listened and taken the time to learn, as I did at the age of 10, maybe we wouldn’t be watching families lose their loved ones to an otherwise preventable virus. Perhaps if we all pulled out those coloured markers and decorated some fun masks, we could have convinced people to wear them like I did for myself. I would say people are acting like children, but even as a child, I knew better. As of March 24, 2021, over 2.7 million people had died due to COVID-19 world-wide, and some people don’t seem to care.
If I hadn’t worn a mask, this article could have ended in the second paragraph, along with my father. So please, do more than the bare minimum. Think about those who are at risk. Take the time to sit and reflect on the times you may have stretched the rules for personal convenience, and the moments you could have done better.
While people gathered over Christmas when they were told not to by the government in order to protect their family, I sat with my mom and sister at our dinner table and ate Christmas dinner staring at the seat my father used to occupy. The Christmas of 2020, I looked at his chair and didn’t feel bad for us. Instead, I cried over the 2 million families who were dealing with a newly empty seat that holiday.