I haven’t posted here much in the last year and a half. First and foremost among the reasons for this are stress and emotional disarray due to the illness and death of my parents; my mother on May 4 2023, and then my father on November 27 2023. Other unfortunate circumstances included 9 months of financial uncertainty with either no or minimal income, a dispute with a borderline fraudulent solar panel provider, a bunch of inconveniently timed illness, and an occupational strain injury that essentially forced me to relearn how to type.
It’s been a rough time. That’s not to say that good things haven’t happened. I’ve met new people, spent a lot of good times watching my son learn about the world, and gotten involved in a promising new startup which, while the source of a lot of emotional ups and downs, shows a lot of promise and offers the possibility of achieving some personal dreams of mine. The point of this post is more about achieving some catharthis through sharing and being vulnerable around the difficulties I’ve faced and continue to struggle and learn from the impact of.
My Mother’s Illness
My mother’s illness was diagnosed in mid-2022. The timing of this news was particularly unfortunate as I had recently chosen to leave a job and team that I loved due to reasons that I won’t go into here but which were very upsetting and stressful, and was in the middle of discovering that the job and company I’d gone to were not what they appeared to be when I made the move. Coupled with this, the news gave me the feeling that the life I’d built was toppling down around me, a feeling which is ongoing.
Her diagnosis was pilocytic astrocytoma, a cancer of the brain that normally occurs in children and only very rarely in adults, making it hard for the neurologist to predict how it would behave. In her case, it was in the cerebellum, leading to a number of uncomfortable side-effects such as nausea and vertigo that had a substantial impact on her enjoyment of life. There’s more to this story, but the short version I’ll share here is that she received radiotherapy in October 2022 that seemed to be helping, but then in late January 2023, she developed aphasia and had a significant decrease in her ability to move and look after herself. After a few weeks in hospital, she relocated to WindsorCare, a hospital-level assisted living facility. Bridget, Siggy and I were fortunate to spend time with her from December 2022 through February 2023, and the time she had to get to know Siggy was incredibly meaningful to me. Bridget’s visa and an obligation I had to teach a course starting in March 2023 meant that we weren’t able to stay in NZ much after her transfer, but we got frequent updates about her condition from my father and sister as things progressed. Then, in late April, I got a call that she was heading downhill and that I should make plans to come. That call came on a Friday, and I was on a plane the following Tuesday. Sadly, that wasn’t fast enough, and she passed away early in the morning that Thursday, just as I was landing in Auckland. I have immense regrets about this – I had chosen to fly on Tuesday rather than on the weekend as there was a significant difference in the cost of flights and because this would give me more time to arrange someone to cover my teaching obligations. We thought she was stable enough to last until I got there, but that turned out to be wrong, and I missed the opportunity to say goodbye in person.
Her memorial service at her church, St Paul’s Lutheran, was beautiful, but my trip was on the whole awful, as somewhere along the way, I caught Covid and spent much of my time in bed with that. Worse, I gave it to my father, though thankfully we were able to get him on Paxlovid right away and his experience of it was quite mild. Mine was not severe but was nonetheless highly uncomfortable and disruptive, and the time I’d hoped to spend with family and friends was compressed into a brief 48 hours near the end of my trip.
My Father’s Illness
On Christmas Eve 2022, we noticed that my father was getting crankier and crankier, in a way that seemed abnormal. Without going into details, it turned out that he had been experiencing discomfort and later increasingly intense pain throughout the day, eventually resulting in a long night at urgent care where he was treated with a catheter that greatly improved his level of comfort and mood. He later received prostate surgery, and was diagnosed at that time with prostate cancer. I learned of this in March or April of 2023. Scans conducted at that time indicated that the cancer had not spread significantly and so the prognosis was good. Slightly more alarming, however, were some abnormalities in his liver that the doctors were puzzled by, as they were not consistent with prostate cancer and were unclear in the imaging. Subsequent rounds of imaging were unclear and inconclusive, but showed no immediate signs of progression. As the year progressed, however, my father began to experience pain in his hips and later his back. He received treatment to reduce the pain, but unbeknowst to him (though suspected by my sister), this pain was related to the liver abnormalities and, in hindsight, we now know was part of the same cancer. In October sometime, he woke up and was unable to get out of bed himself. He made use of his medical alarm and was taken to hospital. At this point, suddenly diagnostic and medical work became much faster, and it was determined that he was suffering from a mystery cancer whose primary could not be identified. His prostate cancer showed signs of being well under control, and the best guess at this point is that he was suffering from an aggressive re-emergence of one of the other forms of cancer he’d fought (and apparently overcome) back in 2016. In early November, he was transferred to WindsorCare, two doors down from the room where my mother spent her final months. Sadly, his time there was to be much shorter, and less than two weeks later we got a call from the nurse suggesting that his time was limited. By then he had lost an immense amount of weight and was almost permanently unconscious. My sister and I stayed with him in shifts for about 48 hours, when midway through a conversation we were having, he suddenly stopped breathing. I’m not really ready to talk about my emotions related to this vigil, but I’m very grateful to have been able to have been there. It was surreal and horrific, but also peaceful and good to experience.
His memorial was conducted at the same place as my mother’s, St Paul’s Lutheran Church. My father was not a particularly religious man, even at the end, but the church had been a part of our lives since before I was born, and it just made sense to host it there. The Pastor, Mark, was very supportive throughout, and I’m very grateful to him for his compassion and support throughout. My father was a good gardener, a wood turner, a builder, a grower of fruiter trees and collector of nuts, and an old man of the sea, and so attendees of the funeral were offered bags of walnuts or small wooden items he’d made as mementoes. It felt very right. I read a poem, which I knew going in I would be unable to get through with breaking down in tears, and so I did exactly that. I also gave a eulogy, as did my sister, and her husband, Dave, gave a wonderful sermon drawing on my father’s life.
In the face of the above events, the other challenges I’ve faced this year and continue to grapple with all seem small and insignificant. If I can hold myself together through my parents’ fights with cancer and eventual deaths, surely I can cope with everything else that’s going on.
On the face of it, and from the most objective perspective I’m able to take, surely that’s true. I have my health, my mind, and my skills. I have financial resources that give me time to make choices and consider my options. I have a loving and supportive wife, a wonderful and inspiring son, and good friends. I have a robust set of philosophical and practical tools to let me cope with life. But, the reality is, I’m exhausted by this all. It seems like very few decisions I’ve made in the last 18 months have led to positive outcomes, and that I’m surviving on the momentum of resources I built up long ago.
I’m emotionally drained and struggle to find enduring joy in things. I’m grateful that I can still enjoy certain things in the moment, particularly walks in the hills, learning and reading, working on projects, and games with friends, but the context against which everything is happening feels very bleak, so it’s very hard to feel positive for long, and the time I spend learning and working seems much less justified and worthwhile, even though I know intellectually that I enjoy it. This is a difficult place to be in general, and is profoundly unsettling one in which to face the risk and uncertainty involved in entrepreneurial life. It makes me question everything. I know from my own stubbornness and the reason that I’m able to grasp at when I’m feeling objective that I will get through this, and I know from what I’ve read and the experience of others that I’ll get through it all, but right now, everything is just a bit gray, bleak, and sad.
I wrote the above largely for posterity and for my own edification, but if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for your time. If you’d like to help, I think the things I need right now are things that anchor me and make me feel like I’m still grounded in a life that’s positive and well-rounded. In a way, I need to feel like none of this ever happened, while also becoming better able to acknowledge that it did, that I learned from it, and that while it’s big and hard, it’s also just part of my story and something not to be burdened by. So, I’m looking for things to participate in that make me feel normal. Reminders that people are out there who want to include me and that I’m not alone. I figure that while enduring happiness seems to be out of my grasp at the moment, it can only be the case that moments and short periods of joy will lead me in that direction. I probably need that sense of normality more than I need condolences or reminders that I’ll get through this. I know that, intellectually – the problem is feeling that and getting past all of the emotions and parts of mind that are unable to accept it.