Why My Dad's Sudden Illness Made Me Rethink My Entire Life

My dad has always had migraines. Not the “bad headache” kind — the “everything hurts, I can’t function, vomiting from pain” kind. So when my stepmom took him to the hospital for a migraine late one night in 2015, I wasn’t too worried. I figured they’d monitor him for a few hours and send him home in the morning.

Midway through the next day, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I sent a text: “You guys back home yet?”

My cell phone rang a minute later. “Your dad is getting worse,” my stepmom said. He had slowly started losing his vision since he’d arrived at the hospital, and the doctors thought it might have been a stroke. “You should probably come home...”

My dad is young, extremely healthy, and tough as nails. He also hates being the center of attention, so if he was even allowing this call to happen, I knew it meant I really needed to come home, fast.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

At the time, I was the director of a marketing team at a media company, meaning my days were packed with back-to-back calls and meetings. At any given moment, I was coordinating with 30 different departments to help pitch, sell, and create content partnerships. I was exhausted, but I felt lucky to be moving up the corporate ladder fast and to be paid so well for my work. Because I was decades younger than many of my colleagues, I also felt tremendous pressure to prove myself. I took on project after project, answered emails at all hours, and rarely complained.

But suddenly, my backed-up calendar and office status didn’t seem to matter so much.

Suddenly, my backed-up calendar and office status didn’t seem to matter so much.

I grabbed my bag, locked up my office, and walked straight to the elevator, sending a quick email to my team: “Family emergency. Grabbing train to Connecticut. Need coverage this afternoon and tomorrow. Will keep you posted.”

That was it. I went home.

The doctors had discovered a rapidly growing “spot” on Dad’s brain, but they couldn’t identify it or slow it down. “Coverage for this afternoon and tomorrow” turned into “this week and next.” After countless tests, they still had no idea what was wrong. The only remaining way to find out what the spot was — and what to do about it — was to take a tissue sample from inside his brain.

I’ll never forget seeing my dad in the neuro ICU after that surgery. He had always seemed invincible, brushing off injuries that would sideline the average person. But as I watched him float in and out of consciousness, fighting off seizures every few minutes, I’d never felt more scared and helpless in my life.

I’d never felt more scared and helpless in my life.

Dad’s condition improved slowly while we waited days for the test results. We tried fruitlessly to distract him, both from the physical pain and the pain of not knowing what would come next.

“Are you sure you don’t need to go back to work?” he asked me. He was waiting to find out what mystery matter was growing in his brain, and he was worried I might be missing a meeting. We were both known for being incredibly dedicated to our work, sometimes to a fault. He wore his callused hands as a badge of honor for a lifetime of work on huge machines that produced car parts; I saw my fully blocked calendar as a signal of my success.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said. “Everything’s under control.” I was reassuring him as much as I was reassuring myself. It had been two weeks since I’d come home, and the emails and meeting invites had slowed to a halt. As grateful as I was to be able to disconnect, all that time and space to think meant I couldn’t avoid the uncomfortable truth that my work was not as important as I’d let myself believe.

The test results were inconclusive, and the spot had just kept growing. The next morning, the doctors were going to remove the mass. “When operating on the visual cortex,” the doctor warned, “loss of sight is a possibility.”

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

The doctors suggested we process the news as a family in the hospital’s “healing garden,” where Dad could escape his room for the first time in weeks and be with nature. He took cautious steps and deep breaths of muggy late-summer air. He bent down to feel the wet grass and looked around at anything and everything, taking it all in. We talked a lot in that garden and on the slow walk back to his room. Like kids trying to avoid bedtime, we kept doing “just one more lap.”

He said enough sweet things and enough morbid things to make me say, “Dad, stop,” a hundred times. He shared how proud he was of me and how he wanted me to keep going, no matter what happened the next morning.

I felt guilty being anything but positive, but it was a time for honesty, if there ever was one: “I feel stuck,” I told him. “I feel like a cog in a machine. I’m not making a difference in the world. I wish I could just start my own company.”

“So do it,” he said with a shrug. “Life’s too short, kiddo.”

Nobody wants to face their parents’ mortality at 25.

Nobody wants to face their parents’ mortality at 25, but the reality of what the next day could bring made this more than his favorite admonition that “time flies.” As we meandered back to that hospital room, every minute felt precious.

The next morning, the doctors successfully removed what turned out to be an infection and not a cancerous mass. My dad opened his eyes in the neuro ICU, and we realized he could still see our faces.

Within a few days, he was walking. Within a week, he was back home. Within two months, he was back to work.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

By that point, I was back to work, too. But it felt different — somehow more stifling and stagnant. I sat in my barren office, cycling through the endless stream of calls and meetings, and I felt this growing yearning to do more. I kept hearing my dad say, “Life’s too short, kiddo.”

I stayed up late writing outreach emails to potential consulting clients, scheduling them to be sent during normal business hours. I made a massive spreadsheet of upcoming marketing conferences and pitched more than 100 event organizers on bringing me in to speak. I wrote guest posts for industry blogs while eating breakfast, and I arranged for podcast appearances on my lunch break. When a friend made me a logo, it all started to feel real.

Somewhere along the way, I started referring to my corporate job as “my current job.” Less than two months after returning to work, I gave my notice.

By leaving my job, I knew I was signing up for a life filled with uncertainty. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50% of small businesses fail within the first five years, and since I set up shop two years ago, I’ve definitely wondered if I’d become one of them. I’ve lost clients, had gigs cancelled, and had to chase down back payments for months. Some days, it’s a fight to keep my business alive.

But as far as fights go, this one’s not so bad. I definitely grumble when I file my business taxes, and I have certainly complained about having to take red-eye flights to make gigs. But I realize how incredibly privileged I am. I get to travel to countries I’ve never seen and share my message on stages around the world — all on my own terms.

As painful as my dad’s experience was, it was his renewed perspective that forced me to re-examine my priorities and create a life we can both be proud of.

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