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This has been a very difficult few years.
At the beginning of 2020, while we were travelling in Bali, I got a call from my mom that nobody ever wants to hear. My dad had gone to see a doctor to check out some dizziness that didn’t seem to go away, and an MRI scan had found the worst possible explanation there could be: a mass in my dad’s head. It was brain cancer.
The diagnosis completely upended our lives. In an instant, our days of living nomadically and travelling the globe without a care in the world came crashing to a halt. And then, oh yeah, a little thing you may have heard of called COVID shut down the entire world at the same time.
We barely made it back to Canada before our government closed the borders, halting nearly all international flights. The entire flight back I was freaking out. Not only were we dealing with an extremely serious illness, chemotherapy and radiation would make dad immunocompromised, right in the middle of a pandemic that was especially deadly to people like him.
But in many ways, dad is an exceptional person. Because despite a diagnosis of glioblastoma, an especially deadly form of brain cancer that claims 95% of its patients within the first year, he managed to make it out of surgery, radiation, and chemo with not just his hair intact, but with his MRI’s clear! The odds of such an outcome are scarily low, so for him to be on the happy side of stunningly unlikely dice roll was either a miracle (if you’re religious), or a very strange statistical anomaly (if you’re not).
Over the next 2 years, people got vaccinated, borders opened back up again, and life slowly returned to normal. The sun seemed to shine a little brighter, plans for the future starting being made, and we even returned back to our nomadic ways, with Chautauqua Colombia 2022 and our subsequent climb of Machu Picchu being a particularly happy highlight.
But fate, it seems, can’t be outrun forever. At the beginning of 2023, once again mom gave us some devastating news. The cancer had returned, and the chemotherapy drugs weren’t working this time. As optimistic as a person I am, even I knew the odds of beating a 95% dice roll twice in a row just wasn’t going to happen.
And so we packed our bags and flew back home to face the shit again.
Growing up with dad was an interesting experience.
As the children of a dentist, my siblings and I had a very strange relationship with sugar.
And this strange relationship always peaked every year at Halloween.
Every October 31, my sisters and I would go trick-or-treating along with all the other kids. But once we returned home, we were subjected to a rule that only applied in our house. Because we could only keep our candy for 72 hours.
After 72 hours, the rule stated, our candy would be confiscated.
You can probably see the flaw in dad’s plan. Because for 72 hours, we would absolutely gorge on candy. We would eat until our bellies burst, then throw up, and then we would eat some more.
The reasoning dad gave us was to protect his professional reputation. After all, nobody would go to a dentist whose children had cavities. Which we accepted to a certain extent. But one day, when I was looking upstairs for something unrelated, I happened across a suspicious looking pillowcase in my parents’ closet. Curious, I opened it to find…all the candy he had taken from us to “throw out.” Instead of tossing it, he had hidden it from us so he could eat it himself!
Growing up with Dad taught me that there are rules, and then there are “rules.” Some rules are for your own good (stop at red lights, eat your vegetables), or the good of those around you (don’t murder each other, pay your taxes). These should be followed.
But other “rules” (buy a house, retire at 65, give dad your candy) are just made up and serve no real purpose. These can be safely ignored. The trick to a fun and interesting life, it seems, was learning to identify which was which.
When we told our families about our plans to quit the rat race and retire at the ripe old age of 30, we were met with near universal shock and horror. Everyone thought we were making a giant mistake, we were throwing our careers away, we were ruining our lives, etc. FIRECracker’s mom responded to the news that we were millionaires with “Who cares? You don’t even have a house!” and it resulted in a huge fight that resulted in them cutting off communication for over a year.
My dad was the only one that accepted what we were doing. He may not have fully understood why, but he trusted us that we wouldn’t do anything unless we were absolutely sure it was safe. Dad always had our backs.
When we landed back in Toronto this time, though, we knew things were going to be different. Dad was having trouble forming sentences and articulating his thoughts. He began to rely on his native Cantonese more than English, and he started missing shots on the tennis and badminton courts that he would normally nail without even trying. The disease was progressing, and it wasn’t going to get better.
FIRECracker often describes Financial Independence as the best money she ever spent. Not only did it free of us our stressful jobs, it let us travel the world and pursue writing as an actual career. It gave us the time and the mental space to work on ourselves, and allowed FIRECracker to heal her fractured relationship with her mother.
And when it came time for my parents to need our help, FIRE gave us the ability to be there for them.
Taking care of a sick parent is a full-time job, especially for someone like my dad who basically developed dementia. He went from being an athlete to needing 24 hour care in a matter of weeks. Not only did he need help with basic functions, but he couldn’t be left unattended because he might fall.
So after arriving back in Toronto, and once we understood the severity of the situation we were facing, FIRECracker and I were able to move in with my parents. Along with my two siblings, we ran shifts and coordinated each other’s schedule to make sure that someone was with dad at all times. There were a number of times that we flashed back to FIRECracker’s old co-worker, who had to deal with a similar situation with her mom dying while her boss was demanding she get back to work. After all, those pointless meetings wouldn’t attend themselves!
Once again, FIRE proved to be the best money we ever spent.
The day dad died was the hardest day of my life.
My younger sister and I were pulling the night shift so the others could go home and get some sleep. Around 3 AM, dad’s breathing became laboured, and the nurse told us that we were nearing the end. We called my older sister and my mom so we could all be together one last time. We were all there when it finally happened.
And then, a few days later, we were back in the hospital. This time, the patient was FIRECracker, but this time, the reason was very different. FIRECracker was about to give birth.
Oh right, I may have forgotten to mention. FIRECracker was pregnant this entire time.
Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you, especially if you’re obsessive-compulsive planners like us. Becoming millionaires, retiring in our thirties, and writing a best-selling book are all things that we can model, graph, chart, and optimize. We’re both good at it, which is why those things were relatively easy for us.
But losing your dad in the same week as becoming one yourself? There’s no spreadsheeting your way out of that one.
It causes the normal emotional reactions to both events to become all weird and distorted, like two opposing waves that crash into each other. Sadness crashes into joy, grief crashes into anticipation, and what happens is a weird combination that sometimes feels like a muted version where the two juxtaposing emotions sort of cancel each other out. And at other times, they magnify each other so that you feel them twice as intensely. It’s weird and I wish I could graph it out somehow, but unfortunately, we haven’t invented a way to chart emotions (yet).
It does create some interesting situations, like needing to come up with contingency plans if FIRECracker went into labour in the middle of the funeral. How close is it to the nearest hospital? Who takes over in case I’m not there to read my part of the eulogy? Are these seats waterproof? These aren’t remote hypotheticals either. Her due date was literally the same day as the service.
Fortunately, FIRECracker managed to keep the baby in long enough, and a few days later, Little Matchstick™ was successfully delivered at the hospital. I am happy to report that both baby and mom are safe and healthy.
So where do we go from here? Do we stay put or do we travel? Do we find a home base somewhere or do the three of us pack our bags and go full nomad again? We’re still figuring it out, but I suspect travel will remain a major part of our family’s future. After all, this baby has technically visited 6 countries before it was even born, but that’s a story for another time.
This will be a completely new experience for me, and like every new parent, sometimes I wake up in a blind panic because, frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea how to care for a newborn. But then I remember that I have two major things going for me.
First, my wife. I seriously have the best wife ever. Sorry, all the guys out there reading this, but I regret to inform you that I snagged the best one. Through all the late nights I spent sobbing into a pillow, she was there. Through all the endless 4 AM’s where I had to jump out of bed because dad needed someone to help him go to the bathroom, she was there. And when dad took his last breath with his family surrounding him, she was there.
While nine months pregnant.
Money can buy a lot of things, but that kind of love? It simply can’t be bought. No matter how much money you have.
If I could pick anyone in the world to be my co-pilot in this new, scary, uncertain journey of becoming a parent, she’s my gal. 100 times out of 100, she’s my gal.
And secondly, while I have no idea how to be a good father, I had the best teacher. A favourite saying of dad was that he was a man of action, and that’s how dad showed me how to be one myself. Not with words, not with lectures, but with action.
He taught me how to be a good dad, and every time I encounter a situation where I don’t know what to do, I’m going to think back and ask myself “What would he do?”
To my dad, wherever you are, and to my newborn son, who is (hopefully) where I last left him, I love you both so, so much.
And I will spend the rest of my life making you both proud.
Now, does anyone know how to change a diaper?
Update: Wow, the comments and inbox flooded with well-wishes and many many heartfelt replies. Thank you for that, I really needed it 🙂
Also, over the next few weeks/months, updates may be a little erratic because, you know, newborn, but in between all the late nights we’ll try to keep the articles coming as best we can. Hugs!
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