There is a story my father has told my entire life. It is 1964. I am two and he is forty-three. We live on Park Lane in Bloomington, Indiana and every morning when my mother releases me from my crib, I bump down the stairs in my night diaper and I crawl across the kitchen tile and down two more stairs to the half-bath off the family room, where my father is preparing to shave. Dad reaches down and places me on the closed toilet seat, where, according to legend, I raptly watch him moisten his morning stubble, measure out the Old Spice shaving cream, and carve precise paths through the aromatic snow to reveal Daddy cheeks. Smooth. Ready for my kiss. Dad always finishes this story with, "Your mother must have put you up to it." He shakes his head in wonderment. "You came every morning."

My dad and mom often stop by with a container of chicken soup or a small gift for my 10-year-old daughter, so I was not surprised when mid-morning one day last month, the front door opened and I heard my parents' voices. I got up from the computer and headed to the front door. Mom had been crying. Dad was pale. "I have pancreatic cancer," Dad blurted out from the entryway, before I'd even reached the living room. "We just came from the doctor's." I almost say, "You're kidding," but I only allow myself a fifth of a second of denial before slap! Gut-clenched, iron-lunged, acid esophagus, then brain reverb: so this is how my dad's life will end.

The pancreas: mysterious hermit of the abdomen. The unwritten credo of medical students is, "Eat when you can, sleep when you can, and don't mess with the pancreas." An alchemist when happy, it transmutes tiny particles of food into an enzymatic energy drink that plaits bone and braids muscle, nurtures dendrites and regenerates skin. A stingy tyrant when crossed, it lies hidden while making any manner of mischief: no more insulin from its islets of Langerhans (imagine Norse gods brandishing swords against angry skies while cursing, "No more sweetness for you!"); pancreatitis (acute, chronic, infectious recurrent, and interstitial relapsing); cysts and pseudo cysts; atrophy; Calculus; Fibrosis; Cirrhosis; and, like every other part of the body, cancerous. In the United States, pancreatic cancer is the ninth most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third cause of cancer death in men. The median survival period from the time of diagnosis until death for untreated advanced cancer of the pancreas is about 3-1/2 months; with good treatment this increases to about six months. Later, I wonder how, some how, I knew, in the instant Dad said pancreatic cancer, that it meant all this – hidden, dangerous, sweet.

Kant believed the soul permeated every part of the human body. Carl Du Prel, a German philosopher who lived in the mid 1800's, argued that our emotional center originates in the solar plexus, located just above the navel, near the pancreas. One new age guru maintains a diseased pancreas is the result of rejecting the sweetness of life.

Two weeks before the news about Dad's pancreas, I am flying home from a job in New York, feeling horrendous. I had a glass of wine the night before, waiting for my college friend to call but this morning, it feels like I drank two bottles of rotgut. I write it off to a lingering cold and jet lag. Days pass. I don't recover. I get worse. Then a bit better. Worse again. Weeks pass. I decide I have a low-grade bug. Go to my naturopath. Take more herbs. Feel worse. Waves of nausea and fatigue that resemble the sudden, chilling onslaught of the flu, scurry to the bathroom. Seems to strike between ten and two.

What I have learned from my father: admit when you are wrong; do the numbers and don't hide from the truth; when you have nothing left to go on, go on your nerve; don't fence me in; humility; cordiality; a habit of driving myself toward a future where things will be better; and an often visceral sense of being one step removed from the breathtaking moments of life. Just yesterday, walking in the Grand Forest near my home, puppy darting ahead and then back to my side, a floppy silver streak, I came around a turn and the autumnal sunlight illuminated a stand of cedars and one floppy big leaf maple, everything velutinous with fairy light. The air was saturated with cedar, fir, moss. I stood still, feeling a swell of well being, connectedness, gratitude - or did I watch myself feel? Moments like this, the sweetness is there but I can only gain tiny sips. My father always murmurs the same thing at these junctures when life shines brightest, "This is wonderful. This is so wonderful. Isn't life wonderful?"

I finally go to the doctor, expecting a quick prescription for antibiotics. She orders a full blood panel. When she calls with the results, she tells me my pancreatic enzymes are elevated, very unusual. She asks if I know where the pancreas is. I can't answer. I'm too busy picturing the various diagrams of the pancreas I have seen in the last two weeks: at the oncologist, at the surgeon, at the oncologist's again, not to mention the thirty or so websites I have visited obsessively, clicking for hope. Each doctor asked my father, "Do you know where the pancreas is?"

I tell my daughter that Grandpa might be very sick. I tell her while we are in the car, doing errands. She cries, easily, immediately. "I mean, I love him, he's the best grandpa but, Mommy, he always says to you, 'Don't make her hug me.' I want to hug him!" She asks why Grandpa doesn't believe we love him for himself, without Mom as mediator. Staring at the highway, I open then close my mouth. How to explain to a child the jumbled stories we create to survive, and then, sadly, half-believe? That weekend, Lilly takes Dad outside to the patio. Dad sits, Lilly dances around him as she tells him that she loves him just for himself. That nobody makes her love him. She punctuates her declaration with a cartwheel.

An ultrasound shows my pancreas is smooth and tumorless. No one knows why I am feeling poorly or my lipases are elevated. Could I be creating a "factitious disorder," inducing my illness somehow to prove to my father I really do love him? When anybody hints at a connection, I protest, "But I started feeling ill two weeks before we learned about Dad."

A client remarks, "You are on the edge of a mystery." In some parallel universe, am I, once again, bumping down the stairs in my night diaper?

Author's Bio: 

Jennifer Louden is a best-selling author of many books, including The Woman's Comfort Book, Comfort Secrets for Busy Women, and soon-to-be released, The Life Organizer: A Woman’s Guide to a Mindful Year. She's also a creativity and life coach, creator of the Inner Organizer and a columnist for Body + Soul Magazine. She leads retreats on self-care and creativity around the country. Visit her world at: http://www.comfortqueen.com and http://www.jenniferlouden.com