I can think of a few times in my life when I felt as though I was living on autopilot for a long stretch of time. The first time I remember experiencing this was when my husband and I had our first child. Nothing could have prepared me for the life changes and challenges brought on by parenthood, the biggest of course being lack of sleep. For a long time after Elsie was born, I spent my days just going through the motions of life. Every now and then, I may have had the time to think, contemplate life, be in the moment, but I rarely went there, as it usually resulted in a brief freak-out at the realization that this living, breathing baby was my responsibility. Most days, I think I just chose to remain on autopilot and get on with things. Slowly but surely I eventually came out of this.
Fast forward three years and eight months later to when our second child, Archie, was born. Although this time didn’t last anywhere near as long, nor was it as stressful, this was probably my next extended trip on autopilot. Once I got through the night feeding phase, and with the exception of a day here and there spent on cruise control, I was mostly able to take the wheel again. Unfortunately, I was only back in the driver’s seat for a short while before going back on autopilot, except this time it was without the joyful moments that I experienced when I had my children. This time there was no baby. This time there was cancer.
Almost exactly a year ago today, while vacationing with my family in England, I got the horrible news from home that my kindred spirit, my dad, had been diagnosed with serious esophageal cancer. Imagine the most influential person in your life, the person who just gets you, the person you know that you can always count on. My dad, he is that person for me (and probably for many others too). I was in disbelief. This couldn’t be happening! I think in a weird and foolish way, I have always felt that my dad is somewhat immortal (my wishful thinking more than anything), so as you can imagine, this was hard news for me to take.
From the moment I got this horrible news and until just recently, I was back on autopilot, but this time it was different. This time, living on autopilot became my coping mechanism. I busied myself with life, careful not to stop and feel too much emotion, afraid of what it might do to me, afraid of crumbling and not being able to be there for the person that has always been there for me. I deliberately stayed on autopilot, and I did what my dad has always done, I kept going. I had to. Like you do with one of those hidden 3-D images or stereograms, I averted my gaze or outlook on life in an effort to keep the big picture blurry, and this, for the better part of a year.
Today as I write this, I am back in England again with my family. The rainy day has me sitting in a coffee shop on my own, contemplating all that has occurred since I received that dreadful news while here almost a year ago.
It has been an extremely challenging year, in fact my toughest to date, but it has also been a year of learning and realization, AND the best part is, it has a happy ending! After extensive chemo treatment and surgery to remove his esophagus (which was rebuilt with part of his stomach), my dad is healthy again! He defied a lot of odds and kicked cancer’s butt!
So what did I learn/realize from this challenging year? Lots!
First and foremost I realized the strength of my tribe (family and friends included). Everybody stepped up to the plate at the right time and we worked through every hurdle and challenge (there were many) together as a solid team. It has made me appreciate the people in my life even more than I did before.
I also gained confidence in my own ability to overcome challenge. This was really the first trying time in my life that my dad, my rock, couldn’t help me through. In fact the roles were reversed this time, and it was my turn to see him through a difficult time.
This whole experience also gave credence to many life lessons and quotes (many from Winston Churchill) that my dad shared with us over the years, the biggest one being that you have to deal with the hand you are dealt. My dad is very much a realist and he doesn’t dwell on what can’t be changed. He has experienced what I would consider to be more loss and struggle than most people, but he has always kept his chin up and kept going. This time it was our turn to look after business and keep on going.
Although running on autopilot served its purpose throughout this challenging year, I am realizing today as I sit here, just how great it feels to be back in the driver’s seat, and for now, the road ahead looks great!
Love you papa!