I hated most summers, but last summer was different. Most summers were spent babysitting, wasting my valuable free time watching snot-nosed tweens for their ill-mannered parents, and occasionally going out with my friends. Last year my parents changed everything, deciding to rent a waterfront home on Lake Michigan, a house a few hours west of our home in Evanston. It was unusual for my parents to splurge like this, not that we were poor, but it often felt my parents’ motto was “frugality first”. The lake house was perfect, and for the first summer in my life, it felt as if I had discovered myself. I had met a boy, made new friends, and spent most days reclining on the beach listening to the waves rolling across lake, crashing into the shore peacefully. It was like a perfect dream. But like I had learned my whole life, when something seems perfect it never is. Suddenly the perfect reality collapsed around me. My parents weren’t being generous, this wasn’t about improving my summer or celebrating my senior year, it was a bribe. I stared into my mother’s watery eyes as my dad told me the news, his voice crackling as he fought back tears. My mom, my role model and my best friend, had breast cancer.
They said “Don’t worry, Emily, everything will be okay,” as the smile disappeared from my face. It was like a whirlwind, one day I was running across the beach enjoying the summer sun, and the next I was sitting under the glare of the fluorescent lighting of my mother’s chemotherapy center. It was like that for months before she passed, in and out hospitals and doctors offices, never seeming to get better. The day she died I wasn’t shocked. I didn’t even feel hurt. I stood at the funeral and accepted the condolences of friends and relatives and people I had never met, but then I moved on. I thought my pain was over, until my dad moved on too.
It had hardly been a year when I was once again blindsided by my father, this time his eyes showed joy as he told me his plans to marry. He had been dating for months, he was happy and in love. I moved out after that. I couldn't believe my dad would betray my mom, after only just putting her in the ground. Had he ever really loved her? I couldn’t stand seeing her taking my mom’s spot in his life away. In our life. So I just moved out.
I moved in with friends that I had met that summer at the lake house. They were nice to me but they didn’t understand what I was going through. No one did. I was working nights at a local diner, living off tips from drunk vacationers and handsy old men. I had dreamed of college, but without my dad’s support it was a lost cause. It’s not as if he never offered to pay, I just couldn’t bring myself to accept it, let alone speak to him. As the time went on, the letters piled up, my inbox filled, and my voicemail brimmed to capacity. I never responded, as far as I was concerned my father was as dead to me as my mother.
As time went on the letters came farther and farther apart. I started falling deeper and deeper into a slump. Soon I stopped getting letters at all. My roommates stopped trying to talk to me except for when they came to collect rent. Eventually my friends and family stopped trying to get in touch with me, giving up on the calls and invitations. I was alone, alienated and isolated, and I accepted it.
My boss constantly harassed me because I wasn’t living up to her standards of happiness. She claimed it was driving customers away. It kept getting worse, and it seemed as if the pity that had earned me the job was the only thing keeping it for me. My boss was on me all day, everyday, following me, smiling behind me and whispering infuriating comments in my ear like “just smile” and “be cheerful.” No matter what I did or said she was there, only making it worse that I had to work a double shift. Every minute felt like an hour, every customer felt like a pain, and every interaction continued to build my ever growing rage. When my shifts ended I was exhausted, craving the isolation of my room. As soon as I stepped through the door to my room I began to strip. I had worn that awful uniform for 12 hours, it was a reminder of the life I had given up. No, the life that my dad had taken from me. I turned toward the mirror in my room, staring at myself, trying to find something that I could feel good about. I stared into my eyes in the mirror, they were my mother’s. As they filled with tears I couldn’t bear to look into them, it reminded me of the lakehouse, my father’s voice that I hadn’t heard in years, and the comforting grin my mother gave me, trying to make me believe it would be alright. I glanced down, avoiding my own sad gaze, but instead discovered something worse. There was a lump.
I wasn’t surprised by what the doctor told me, I had heard it all before. It was going to be a tough recovery, a long road that he believed I could make it through. Six years after having watched my mother suffer through cancer it was now my turn. As I turned to leave the doctor’s office, he gave me a comforting smile and told me that I should connect with family and friends, and that I’ll need them to get through this. All I could think was that I had nobody. No friends. No family. And it was all my father’s fault. I didn’t need anyone, it was my battle, and I would win or lose it alone.
I had made it three months, through a rollercoaster of prognoses, when my doctors told me I needed to enter full time care. The doctors suggested going to a special facility for people with breast cancer with trained nurses, specific treatment plans, and friendly visitation schedules. But most importantly, it was the only one that my insurance would cover. It was also where my mom had gone, where I had spent countless nights, and where I had been told that she had died. I wasn’t the only one that remembered my time there either, the nurses, doctors, and staff were always talking about when my mom was there. It seemed as if they had a new story each day how brave she was and how supportive my dad was. How he spent each night sleeping in the chair by her bed. How he would surprise her with poems and gifts. It disgusted me. These ignorant nurses didn’t know who he really was. They would never understand, and just like the rest of the world they would never see the pain he caused me. The nurses always asked when he was coming to visit me, further increasing my anger. Eventually, just like my friends and family had, the nurses slowly stopped coming to talk. They stopped sharing the stories of my father singing to my mom, or hiding heart-shaped chocolates in her room. They stopped asking when he would come or how he was doing, for fear that I would snap at them. I had done it again, I was alone.
The longer that I laid in that room, closing my eyes and trying to picture myself on the beach, the waves crashing on the shore, the less I could relax. Eventually my anger dissipated, but it was too late for that. The nurses and staff and patients weren’t going to treat me the same. They hadn’t abandoned me, I had abandoned them, and then it dawned on me that I had abandoned my father too. I spent weeks dwelling on the stories I had heard about him, remembering how nearly seven years ago he supported my mother and me through the toughest time of his life. All I wanted to do was call and apologize. To tell him all that he had missed and ask if he would forgive me. But I couldn’t. I was embarrassed, scared and anxious. I knew that I didn’t have much time left, and I couldn’t let him lose his daughter twice. Three nights later I felt myself losing strength. My eyes had darkened and my muscles were nearly as weak as my will. It was over, and as I drifted to sleep that final night I couldn’t think of anything besides my teary mother’s eyes, and my father’s warm and consoling voice.