Home + Work: How my dad’s cancer changed my path

In June of 2010, a month after his 61st birthday, my dad was on the phone with his boss, the mayor of Richland, and he lost his train of thought so completely that he had to hang up, ending the conversation abruptly.

He called my mom to tell her about this bizarre thing that had happened. After a little prodding on her part and hemming and hawing on his part, he admitted this instance wasn’t the first time. At her urging, he walked himself to the emergency room.

My dad was diagnosed with a grade-four malignant glioblastoma when I was 24 years old. My mom called me at work. She asked me if I was sitting down. I told her I was standing and sighed. “Stop being weird,” I probably said.

And then she told me.

He lived 26 more months after that phone call.

There are so many details I could share about that time in my life — about who I was and what I believed about the way the world worked, about how I couldn’t answer the “How’s your day going?” question honestly as the Safeway cashier scanned the Wheat Thins and People magazine I bought for my mom to sustain her after she and my dad rode over the mountains in an ambulance from the Tri-Cities for his emergency surgery, about how all of my relationships changed, about how my three roommates and their boyfriends and I inherited my family’s aging tortoiseshell cat, and about deciding maybe it would be a good idea to find a therapist…but this column is about Home+Work and those are stories for other forums.

The Home+Work combination, though, became my most important focus after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I looked around me—out of the skyscraper abutting the Monorail where I’d spend up to 12 hours a day, at the cubicles decorated with photos of the people we loved who we didn’t get to see as much as we wanted to, at the people I thought kept me captive in the bubble of it all — and I realized that I was deciding every day to let them.

I wasn’t in a life or financial position to walk out of the glass building I believed held me prisoner and devote myself to my dad’s bedside or full-time care. I was a beautifully layered, goal-driven, perfectionist and an anxiety-ridden, post-collegiate, low-level, 20-something narcissist. I was moving through the world convinced I was doing what I should be.

But my dad’s cancer changed all that.

What did representing a sexy global brand in a fancy PR firm mean when you weren’t really that into the brand and didn’t get to be with your dying parent? How could I keep calling HR from the hospital to tell them how to code my days off? Sick time or vacation? So many of my conversations started feeling downright absurd.

Over time, I figured out that I was the problem — not my dad’s cancer, or my first child who kicked me in the uterus until the last day I ever worked in a corporate office before birthing him and taking him with me to tell them I wasn’t coming back.

But it was my dad’s cancer that got the ball rolling so fast down the hill, and we got speed wobbles and crashed and burned a few times along the way to freedom.

My dad is buried in my mom’s hometown in north central Washington, in this Norman Rockwell place with at least three churches, wheat that waves against the horizon, and some very photogenic barns.

Last year, we bought another house there. It’s not an investment property or an Airbnb. With two young kids in private school and another mortgage in Edmonds, it honestly doesn’t make much financial sense.

But I’m no longer in the business of building a life that *makes sense.*

The life I’ve built remains steady on the foundation of time freedom, access to family (particularly my grandparents whose house I can walk to from mine in Waterville), and space to create.

I do believe my dad is with me and guiding all of my sometimes wild ideas and decisions. He shows up for me as a bald eagle whenever I ask him to. One day really can change every day, and as much as I would never wish a parent with brain cancer on anyone, I am creating my dream because I was given the opportunity to look at the path I was on and decide if it was what I really wanted.

Are you on the path you want to be on?

Ultimately, when it came to sexy jobs in big skyscrapers, long hours, and very little connection to my soul, I decided not this. At 24, I didn’t know how it would all unfold. At 36, though, I can tell you with an overflowing, only slightly broken, and forever grieving heart: Better than I could have ever imagined.

— By Whitney Popa

Whitney and Emilie

Whitney Popa is a writer and communications consultant in Edmonds and Emilie Given is a virtual assistant agency owner in Lynnwood. They write this column together to share work-from-home ideas. They love where they live and are grateful the virtual world allows them to achieve more work/life harmony. They also co-host a weekly podcast where they share their entrepreneurship journeys while learning about those of others. You can learn more about Emilie here and more about Whitney here.


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