So these are the things you learn.
It begins when your 70-year-old father tells you he's driving himself to the ER because he's in so much pain -- and there's no way you can get there in time to drive him yourself.
You sit at the Easter party, texting your stepmother and sister and pretending that everything is OK as you talk to your friends between messages and wait for the egg hunt to begin.
Your stomach does slow flip-flops as you wait for news, and when the text pops up -- "two masses on his adrenal glands and one on his liver. These are secondary sites" -- you're surprised, maybe, sort of, but not, as it turns out, really that shocked. Dad hasn't been himself for months.
Hours later, when he's back at home, you stand in his living room, reading the words "suspicion of metastatic cancer" in his ER report.
You kick into action, calling your oncologist friend and arranging for a work-in the next morning, calling friends to take your child to school, calling in favors and begging help and, dammit, staying busy because, deep down, you know that time is of the essence, you're in it to win it, it's time to keep your eye on the prize, you eat the elephant one bite at at time, but, platitudes aside, you know that if you stop moving, you'll have to start thinking about what this really means, you'll have to accept the fact that you're going a little crazy, and, deep down, you know from the beginning that you'll make sure days or weeks go by before you allow yourself to be caught without a job, a purpose, a mission or an errand to run.
You arrive the next morning at the crack of dawn to pick the old man up for his cancer check, gathering the ER report and his insurance cards and his meds, cracking jokes, smiling as if nothing is wrong and getting to the car first to make sure the seat is back far enough to be comfortable. As you fidget with the stuff in the seat, you look up and you're struck by the fact that your Dad is dragging his left side, shuffling with the pain as he walks, and you see the first signs of what looks to be a stroke.
As you pull out of the driveway, you ask Dad how long he has been favoring his left side and, as you talk, he mentions that the left side of his cheek and chin are numb. You nod, you tell Dad you're going to talk to the doctor about his symptoms and, as you turn left to start the longest 15-minute drive of your life, you feel the panic kicking in.
As you park at the cancer center, you sit for a moment, overwhelmed by all you don't know, all you don't want to know, all you're about to learn.
You take the deepest breath of your life, you turn the key off in the ignition, you step out of the car and your world shrinks to the size of the medical building you're about to walk into.
You sit down with your father, grateful for the mountains of paperwork and the TV in the corner and the need to give him his meds for the day and the insurance-card-copying ritual and the small pleasantries with the other people in the waiting room. As you sit, you get sea-sick, knowing that exam room is a choppy ocean away and you have no idea how to paddle and the door at the back of the waiting room is really a sign bearing the words "Beyond This Point, There Be Dragons." You look at your dad and, as sick as he appears, you'll wonder if he'll sink or swim.
You make the long walk down the hall, you enter the exam room, and your father lies down on the table because he's too exhausted to sit through the whole exam. As you watch him drop like a rock into a shuddery, pain-wracked sleep, you think, "I should start keeping a pillow in the car for times like this. And maybe a blanket."
As the doctor gives you papers to carry to your next appointment, you think, "I need to buy a three-ring binder and a hole-punch so I can start keeping a complete record of everything we need."
As you struggle to recall everything the doctor said and capture it on the notepad of your phone, you think, "I should pick up a notepad, too, so I can write everything down."
As you move to the next appointment of the day, you think, "I should start packing nuts or granola bars or something in the car so I don't have to stop to eat."
As you sit at the second appointment, you realize you're carrying a lot more now than you were when you left the house, and you think, "I should probably shift to that shoulder purse with the outside pocket. That way I can keep everything in one place and be hands free."
As that first day turns to the second and, then, the hospital, your mental notes pick up speed, and you begin talking to yourself in shorthand: "Bld email tree," "buy 2nd phn. chrger," "text oncologist."
By the end of the week, you've set up a standing family update email, you've learned that the doctors tend to round after dinner, you've learned to write down your questions so you're ready when they arrive, you've learned to point out when the IV isn't hooked up, you've realized that you need to ask when the lunch tray doesn't show up.
You've learned that time bends to the breaking point, simultaneously passing so fast that your head spins and crawling as you watch the hands on the clock tick by, waiting for test results or a doctor's round or the next batch of pain meds.
You've learned that daily showers are optional and instant coffee from a machine can save your ass in a pinch and everything served in a hospital cafeteria has at least 50 grams of carbs a serving and cell-phone battery life is nonexistent when you really need it, and that, in the end of ends, all you really need to survive for days on end can be packed in a single plastic bag.
And you've learned that you're more than willing to give up everything else in the throbbing, humming, violently churning, erratically dancing world around you if it means you can sit quietly just one more day in that tiny, uncomfortable hospital room with the man who has been, since the day he picked you up in the hospital, the love of your life.
UPDATE: Words can't describe how much all of your notes, wishes and stories about your own experiences have meant to me tonight. As I sat down to write this diary, I cried myself out for the first time since this process began. I went to bed, and my 10-year-old wrapped herself around me like a blanket and I cried some more. I woke up a half-hour ago, unable to sleep, and I read your comments and I'm crying some more. I'm a bit of a basket case tonight, so I'm going to thank you all from the bottom of my heart here and circle back tomorrow morning. Peace out.