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03/12/2019 12:51 EDT | Updated 03/12/2019 12:52 EDT

When Cancer Hit Us Like A Tidal Wave, We Learned To Breathe Underwater

"Just give me 10 minutes, girls. I don't feel great," my father said. That's when we found out.

I started swimming at the age of three. I dreaded the pool. The chlorine stung my eyes, and water would get in my nose. But my father, who had never learned to swim as a child, insisted that I kept it up.

I knew how to dive by the time I was 10 years old. I was learning first aid and aquatic rescue drills by 12. I still dreaded it very much. My family was already so busy, with both my sister and I enrolled in dance classes four times a week, along with piano and vocal lessons in between. Swimming seemed like more of a chore than recreation. At 13, I told my parents I wanted to quit. My father shook his head.

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"In life, you either sink or you swim, and I raised a swimmer. Besides, I'm going to need you to save my life one day," he said with a kind smile, and I knew the topic was no longer up for discussion.

When I finally became a certified lifeguard at 16, my father shot me the same smile he had a few years ago. At the time, both of us were so proud of my achievement. Neither of us knew that there were lethal tides coming our way, and that those waves would try to drag us under. Neither of us guessed that, over the next year, we would have to fight harder than ever to stay afloat.

I'm not sure exactly when the cancer flooded my father's organs, but the first symptom leaked through around 10 a.m. on a Sunday. He was drinking coffee after his morning jog. He was supposed to drive my sister and I to the dance studio.

I had figured out the news well before my parents sat me down.

"Just give me 10 minutes, girls. I don't feel great," he said, legs shaking as he made his way up to the second floor. I didn't give much thought to it at the time, but I'd never seen climbing a flight of stairs look so painful.

My sister and I bussed to dance that day. My parents went to the hospital instead. When my mother came to pick us up, her eyes were puffy and she wouldn't stop sniffling.

"What happened?" I asked, on our way home.

"Hmm?"

"You heard me."

"It's nothing, I've just caught a cold."

"But it's August—"

"How was dance? Have you been working on your pump turns?"

"I... yeah, I can do five clean."

I had figured out the news well before my parents sat me down that night to deliver it.

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The next few months were sort of touch and go for my family. My father wanted us to act like everything was the same, like there wasn't a gigantic wave on the horizon. As I went to parties and hung out with friends, the doctors informed him his cancer was at Stage 3, and we had definitely not caught it early. I started Grade 11 when they told him surgery was required to remove the tumour, that he would go through nine months of chemotherapy starting in November, that he would no longer be able to run or work.

We carried on with our lives. We never cried in front of him, and we pretended not to notice when his own cheeks were red and wet. He lived at the hospital the entire month of October after his surgery. The first time we visited him, my mom stopped my sister and I before opening the door to his room.

"Your father is still your father, so act like it," she said. It sounded more like a plead than an order, and I understood why as soon as I laid my eyes on him.

The tide had pulled him under, full force. My father was the strongest, kindest man I knew. He played hockey with friends on Fridays and watched the Raptors on TV. He had big arms, and his laugh filled the room, warming everyone around him with it.

There was nothing warm about him now.

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His hospital gown seemed to swallow him whole. His skin was pale, almost blue. His laugh was absent; the most he could muster was a meek smile. It took everything in me to pretend like the waves hadn't killed him and sent a shadow of who he once was back to shore, washed up and choking on the saltwater in his throat.

But I was still a lifeguard, and a lifeguard doesn't stop saving people just because the tide is too high. My dad was still my dad, and he was fighting for his life. I wasn't about to let him drown.

The ocean continues to be merciless, pulling other families under.

So the chemo happened, and we dealt with it. My sister and I started bussing to the studio more often. We stopped vocal lessons. I walked the dog in the winter when my father's sensitivity to the cold became too much to handle. My mom carried hand sanitizer everywhere. Friends and family visited. They brought soup; they brought back the warmth. Eventually, the seasons changed, and the sun finally came back out.

By the following August, my father was going for morning workouts again. His laugh was back. The doctors called it remission. I called it learning to swim, when every bone in his body was telling him to sink. The ocean continues to be merciless, pulling other families under.

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There will always be remnants of the tide: a foggy memory, dizzy spells. On Sundays around 10 a.m., my dad takes pills now with his coffee. His morning jogs have become morning walks. We are still a very busy family. The waves don't wait for anyone. And that's OK. We have learned to breathe underwater.

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