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The Moment It All Changed

cancer change grief Nov 02, 2021

by Ilana Shapiro Yahdav


I remember the exact spot where I was standing when my entire life changed in October 2006. I remember it so vividly as if it was yesterday, and not almost 14+ years ago. I remember the gray sky; the cold, humid, not-so-clean air. I remember the exhaustion that I felt after a very long flight. I remember having zero preparation for the news that I was about to get.


It still feels like yesterday, but also feels like a lifetime ago. Such seemingly contradictory feelings I have around that one moment. 


In that single moment, I went from a carefree girl to a puddle of nerves, fear, and anxiety. It was as if I was sucker punched and all the oxygen was taken out of the atmosphere, and I was left there, in that dreary parking lot, gasping for air. 


The John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport parking lot is not the most welcoming of environments, especially on an overcast, cold October day in New York. 


You see, I had spent the last few years in China. Growing up in Upstate New York, the nearest airport, JFK, was a few hours away (roughly 5-hour roundtrip) so airport drop-off and pickups were a full-day affair for my parents. 


This was pre-GPS and smartphones. It was a prehistoric time when you actually had to print directions from Mapquest or use an actual paper map. It was not really an area that you wanted to get lost in. 


My dad always took the day off to take me to the airport with my mom. He always took the day off to pick me up with my mom. Every. Single. Time. That is, until this time. My mom greeted me in the airport after my very long flight home from Shanghai. I had just accepted a cool job and came home for China’s Golden Week to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays with my family. I had no idea what lay in store for me when I got off that plane. 


We walked to the parking lot where I assumed dad was. He wasn’t there. I remember opening the trunk and putting my suitcase in the back and demanding to know where dad was. 


My mom - rightfully so - and because there was still so much unknown - was hesitant to tell me where he was. I stubbornly stood there, not moving, “Where was dad?” 


And then came those words... 


“He was at Mt. Sinai, getting a biopsy. They found a mass in his brain and want to determine if it’s cancerous and if it’s operable. They don’t know much, but what they do know, is not looking good.”


What? My jetlagged brain could not comprehend what my mom was saying. We would be able to visit him the next day and hear the results. 


I honestly don’t remember the drive home or my first night home or the drive back to the City to Mt. Sinai. 


I do, however, remember sitting in the room with my dad’s doctor, who gave us the death sentence. Glioblastoma Multiforme? Inoperable? Embedded throughout his brain? What? Possible experimental treatment? Not a lot of time left?


To say hearing that news from my dad’s doctor was hard is truly an understatement. There are no words to properly describe the emotions at that moment. Despair and life-shattering come to mind.


But, that moment in the JFK parking lot, was truly the beginning of my non-linear grief journey. It was the first time I truly experienced pain so deep and raw that I am getting goosebumps as I sit here typing this and drudging up those feelings.


It was the first of a thousand times that my heart shattered and re-shattered. 


My life was never to be the same again. 


I have no profound lesson to share at this point in my non-linear grief journey- only that my grief was really real, normal, and all-encompassing. I so wish that I knew that back then.


I wish that someone told me that it was normal and natural to feel all what I was feeling. 


I wish someone would have validated my pain for me - because I couldn’t. 


I wish that someone didn’t tell me to stop crying and that my tears and emotions were too much. 


So, if no one has done that for you, let me be the one to tell you that your pain is normal, your emotions are normal, natural, and 100% valid. Let me write that again - ALL of your emotions are 100% valid. 


You are not alone.

You are not overreacting. 

You are, in short, grieving.


And, grief looks different for each and every one of us. That too is normal.