“Will you play Donkey Kong with me, Daddy?” I’m five years old and obsessed with video games and early morning cartoons. There’s not much to worry about in my life, except game over screens and why PBS keeps repeating the same episodes of Dragon Tales over and over again.
My dad looks over at me, rolling his eyes. He’s sick of playing Donkey Kong, but he never says no. “Okay.”
I excitedly shove the cartridge in and thank my dad for playing with me. He’s obviously annoyed that we’re playing the same game for the fourth time, but I can see in his eyes that he’s happy to be spending time with me. He’ll play Donkey Kong a thousand times if it makes me smile.
When we get to the boss, I make him beat it for me, too terrified to participate. I watch in awe as my dad heroically puts the villain in its place, and then I give him applause, beaming with joy. He’s my favorite person in the universe.
Fourteen years later, nothing is the same.
“Are you coming to church today?” Dad asks, adjusting his tie.
I’m still lounging around the house in pajamas. “No.”
He gave up on fighting me a long time ago. As he turns to walk away, I catch a glimpse of his eyes. The happiness that was there fourteen years ago hasn’t been seen in a long time. I look at my own eyes in the mirror and realize that they aren’t so different from his. As much as we fight each other, we have something in common. We are both depressed. And we both won’t admit it.
The depression begins with my father’s cancer diagnosis. I remember every detail of that day – the worst day of my life. You can look at a nineteen-year-old and assume that they can’t possibly know what a bad day feels like. They have no idea what it’s like to struggle, how excruciating pain can truly be.
I’m eighteen when my dad sits down across from me, staring at me more intensely than he ever has. I think back to moments when he and my mom spoke together in hushed tones, going silent the moment I entered the room, moments where I’d hear my mom speaking on the phone in rapid Spanish and I would understand the most crushing parts of the conversation, moments where I would hear her choke back a sob.
When my dad looks at me, I already know what he’s going to say, yet I don’t know that he’ll say it so nonchalantly, as if he’s announcing what he ate for breakfast.
“So it’s official,” he says, “I have cancer.” We stare at each other, both waiting for the other to speak. “It’s stage two right now, they think,” my dad says after a never-ending silence during which I fight back tears. He hands me a pile of papers and begins to tell me what type of cancer it is, describing potential treatment options and their side effects. I can only concentrate on not crying. Finally, when he mentions funeral plans, I lose it; I can’t hold back the flood of emotions threatening to burst through my heart.
“Why would you mention funeral plans?” I ask. “You said it’s stage two.”
“I just want to be prepared. I want you to be prepared,” Dad answers.
Of course. He’s always been practical. Even when talking about death.
In this moment, the memories of every negative thing I’ve ever said to him come rushing at me. I can remember our countless arguments about politics and religion. I can remember his disappointment when I went down the opposite path he had wanted for me. He imagined a daughter who walked through life with the image of an LDS temple constantly in front of her. I am not that daughter. I’m his only child and I’ve let him down. He’s going to die without being proud of me. And I am going to forever feel guilty.
I don’t stop crying. Every single time I try to take my mind off my dad, dark thoughts come creeping back, and impending doom seems inescapable. “You have to be strong,” my mom tells me as I lie on my bed, staring up at the ceiling while tears continually stain my face. “How do you think it makes him feel to see you like this? He needs you to be strong.”
I slowly sit up as a headache stabs me and snot drips down my lips and chin. I look in the mirror, seeing swollen red-rimmed eyes and a puffy thick pink nose that won’t stop sniffling. I don’t look like me, and yet, as time goes by, this is the me I’ll eventually grow accustomed to.
“How am I supposed to be strong?” I ask my mom.
“Your dad is going to be okay. It’s only stage two. Easily treated. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Her voice doesn’t tremble like someone on the verge of breaking down. She just lost her sister to cancer mere months earlier. To be going through this all over again, I wonder how she can hold it together so well; yes, she sobs while she speaks to family on the phone, and she cries in the privacy of her room, but how can she appear so calm in front of me?
“I’ll try to be strong,” I manage to say to her, but the moment she leaves me alone, dark thoughts return and so does the weeping. I’m not strong, not at all. To me, stage two is only two stages away from stage four. Stage four means I’ll lose my dad, one of the people I love most in the world. He’s the man who beat the video games bosses, who taught me how to ride a bike, to tie my shoes, the man I looked up to for so many years, and I’m going to lose him and keep all of the arguments and cruel words we’ve exchanged to each other. To me, the thought of losing him, but keeping those awful things, is the most painful feeling I’ve ever experienced.
When the worst day of my life eventually ends after a long sleepless night, I awake to see the girl in the mirror with swollen eyes. I hate her.
A few weeks go by and I try to distract myself from thinking of my dad’s cancer by working hard at school and spending copious amounts of time with my boyfriend. School is an unwelcome distraction, the pressure of a full summer schedule almost too overwhelming on top of the stress I already face. I see the girl in the mirror every morning and every night, and maybe I look like her all of the time. Maybe she’s consumed my soul and there’s nothing left of the little girl who liked to play Donkey Kong.
When my dad comes home from a doctor’s appointment after a particularly rough day of math homework, I pray for happy news. Please let the cancer be gone. Please say the doctor found a cure and no one will ever have to go through this again. Please save my dad. Of course it’s not happy news; instead, it’s something straight out of a bad soap opera. “It’s stage four,” Dad says, and my earlier worries are confirmed. I really am going to lose him.
He starts talking about funeral plans again, and this time, I speak up. “I don’t want to hear about funeral plans. You’re not going to die any time soon, Dad.” I only half-believe my words, but it makes me feel better than I have in a long time. I’m not going to let stage four kill the both of us. I’m not going to let the girl in the mirror win. My dad looks at me, and though I don’t think he completely believes the words either, he nods, acknowledging that it’s time to stop all of the depressing talk.
I enlist my boyfriend’s help in the war against the girl in the mirror. “Don’t let me be sad,” I say to him. He answers me with a kiss. He’s my best distraction, my medicine. When I’m with him, everything is better. I’m myself – no swollen face in sight. I’m legitimately happy. If not for him, I would have fallen apart much sooner. He gets me through the hardest summer of my life, and I fall more in love with him because of it.
Unfortunately, you can’t depend on other people for your own happiness. When summer ends, and he starts school after a long summer break, we go from seeing each other nearly every day, to seeing each other once a week. Twice if we’re lucky. For me, this is an incredibly difficult transition. I realize that I’ve been relying on him for happiness, and when he’s not here, I don’t know how to be happy.
It’s around this time when crying myself to sleep becomes my normal. Though my dad is trying to have a more positive outlook, and I’m doing my best to distract myself – at night – there are no distractions. School and homework aren’t around. My boyfriend isn’t around. It’s just me and my mind. Nothing can numb the searing pain when I’m alone with my mind; all of my negative thoughts are amplified at nighttime, suffocating me. I don’t dare discuss my despair with my parents because I’m trying to appear strong for my dad’s sake and most of all, I don’t want to admit to depression. I don’t want to admit I’m falling apart. The girl in the mirror is winning the war, and I’m powerless to stop her.
It’s silly. My history of social anxiety and more recent general anxiety are well-documented. Anyone who knows me, knows that my brain is not – nor has it ever been – “normal.” Yet, ever since my dad’s diagnosis, daily anxiety that was once easily managed, has become a constant burden. I worry about my dad, I worry about the dwindling money in my bank account, I worry about moving out of the house, I worry about moving into my boyfriend’s house, I worry about whether or not my dad will be disappointed in me, and if he’ll die being proud of me or if he’ll die remembering everything I’ve done wrong. I worry about everything, even about worrying.
Despite all of this, I still don’t want to admit that I’m depressed. Depression goes against being strong, it means weakness. As a nineteen-year-old girl who has always tried to act older, to me, depression means acting like a scared little kid.
I sit with my dad one day, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. In the months since his diagnosis, I’ve never seen him cry. Does he sob alone like my mom? Does he cry himself to sleep like me? He’s never been the type to reveal emotions; his face has always been a blank slate with a puzzle underneath. His eyes are the only thing that reveal even a hint of what’s going on in his mind. When I look into them now, I see sadness. And for the first time, I realize that it doesn’t have to do with me. I can’t imagine the crushing depression cancer must be causing him. I can’t imagine what terrible thoughts might be running through his mind. For all I know, he’s in a darker place than I am. I don’t know if he accepts my life choices and I don’t know if he’s forgotten about our arguments, but I do know that he loves me and I love him. Behind the sadness, I can see the man who played video games with me, who made me the happiest little girl in the world. We have to help each other with our enemies in the mirror.
He catches me looking at him, and without speaking, we have a conversation.
“It’s okay to be sad. You don’t have to hide it.”
“You don’t have to hide it either, Dad.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I’m still a scared little kid, but it really is okay. Depression is not weakness, or something to hide away. It’s not okay to drag yourself through life, allowing yourself to be suffocated by sadness. I still worry every day and I still often cry myself to sleep, but I haven’t lost my dad yet, and I am learning to cherish every moment I have left with him. I am also trying to learn how to find happiness – not only through other people – but through living life. The girl in the mirror has not disappeared, but for now we’ll try to be friends.
Kendra Nuttall is a current creative writing student at Utah Valley University. She has previously been published in Folio, Salt Lake Community College’s literary magazine. “Island” and “The Girl in the Mirror,” are two pieces that examine what it’s like to have a family member diagnosed with cancer.