Me with Canadian actress Lisa Ray.
It was a miracle of class scheduling that I ended up having Tuesdays off during my final three semesters of university to spend treatment days at the hospital with my dad. In fact, dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — a blood cancer that forms in the bone marrow — on a Tuesday, and many weeks since then, we did what we had always done after spending mornings together at Princess Margaret Hospital before, after or in between radiation treatments, chemo injections, blood tests, subsequent transfusions and bone marrow extracts: go for coffee on College Street.
Dad and I had some of our best talks during these weekly coffee dates. I’m pretty sure we solved the European economic crisis multiple times over, recited our jumbled-up version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and mapped out my future from exams, to internships to that time I thought packing up and moving to Australia for a year was a good idea.
Because of the unequivocal thoughtfulness and empathy dad devoted to each of these topics — including how to address a judge in traffic court and end a relationship gracefully — he became my closest confidant, my partner in crime who shared my M&M addiction and always refilled my gas tank when I drove back from the hospital.
Once, after he was diagnosed in March 2010, dad and I sat waiting for his radiation treatment when I noticed an untouched copy of the Toronto Star lying on one of the nondescript hospital waiting room coffee tables. It contained the article I’d read earlier over breakfast, clipped and promptly forgot to bring for my dad to read at this exact moment of waiting.
It was the story of Canadian actress Lisa Ray – diagnosed with multiple myeloma in June 2009 — and her battle to remission after the same stem cell transplant that my father would unsuccessfully undergo last April at the same hospital as Ray in Hamilton, Ont. On that grey morning at the hospital, I realized that as a close-enough mirror to my father’s own cancer journey thus far, Ray represented the hope that dad would also emerge from the vigorous treatment for this incurable but treatable blood disease both alive and reborn.
Dad read the article, smiled and quickly headed off to be zapped for the tumours that embedded themselves within his vertebrae, collapsing three discs in his spine as they wedged their way in.
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Me and my dad, after his stem cell transplant in May 2011.
A finished carpenter by trade and soul, my trailblazing father carved his own unpredictable cancer journey that at best of times included a family trip to Boston this summer and countless lunches at our favourite Thai restaurant at Yonge and Eglinton, and at worst baffled doctors with its bullying and rapid spread throughout his body that’s left him weak, swollen and in palliative home care since Thanksgiving weekend.
But it’s a journey that Ray — now the spokesperson for Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, which collects ponytails that are made into wigs for cancer patients — is unknowingly a part of, if not for the positivity and humour writ into her blog, the Yellow Diaries, but for the compassion and comfort she offered when she wrapped me in a big hug when we met at the Shangri-La Toronto a few weeks ago.
Ray chatted from experience about the visceral turmoil of losing your hair during cancer treatment — a visual reminder of the destructive beast circulating inside you. She proudly expounds that Pantene has received over 40,000 ponytails to date (including a thick brown pony from my roommate, Amanda), for wigs that are distributed to women through the Canadian Cancer Society.
“What’s your dad’s name?” Ray asks, green-grey eyes glisten imploringly. “Frank,” I respond. She instinctively leaps up from the couch: “Let’s take a picture for Frank!” she pronounces, scooping me under her arm as I pass my iPhone to one of the PR girls for the shot.
I emailed the photo of Ray and I smiling to dad after I left the suite; he called to ask me how the interview went — he has a soft spot for Ray, too. “She’s pretty,” dad tells me over the phone. Forty years old, the last two and a half of them cancer free and married this past weekend — she’s glowing.
Ray also participated in The Princess Margaret Journey to Conquer Cancer 5K Run or Walk to raise funds for multiple myeloma research on October 14. I told dad I’d be there next year.
To find out about donating ponytails to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, visit pantenebeautifullengths.ca.