Mon Retour à France
Coucou Blog World, it’s been too long since I have made my way back to this little site. I love writing but it has been almost a year since I have so much as picked up a pen. Stopping was never intentional, but simply a product life's progressions.
In the past year my world came to a screeching halt, and my family endured profound loss and pain. We lost my father to a short, but cruel, battle with cancer in January 2019. I am endlessly hollowed by his absence and I know my family will never be the same.
September 2018, I arrived in France to begin my first year as an English Language Assistant at a lycée (high school) in Bordeaux. Meanwhile, my dad was sick with cancer. I shed private tears throughout my two long flights and train journey to France. Despite my protests, he insisted that I pursue my aspirations. Sick or not, he didn't want to see me give up something I had worked toward for so long because of him.
I should also note that when I left the U.S., the doctors thought he was as good as cured.
Dad was diagnosed with Undifferentiated Pleomorphic Sarcoma. It was caught in, what we thought, were its early stages around Mother’s Day. He had weathered the early symptoms and sought preliminary medical advice alone, before he told my mom. The steadfast anchor of our dysfunctional Navran clan, he never wanted to show his limitations or let us think for a moment that we couldn’t turn to him.
All it took was one telling biopsy and the utterance of the word "cancer" from an oncologist, to make the nightmare real. Even then, he hid his pain and fatigue with covert naps on the floors of his closet and office. He wore pants long enough to cover the swelling tumor on his leg, attempting to retain his infallibility in the eyes of his adult children. Mom and Dad kept the secret of his diagnosis for three months.
I left less than fourteen days after he underwent a massive tumor removal surgery, following a summer of intense and exhausting radiation therapy. Things were looking positive and I continually comforted myself with the mantra that leaving was believing in his imminent recovery. I have since learned that “mind over matter” is a delusion. But, I digress.
A couple of weeks after arriving in Bordeaux, friendless and still homeless. I was already feeling more alone than ever, when my family and I received our first of many rounds of heartrending news. The cancer that we were assured was contained and eradicated was in his bloodstream and had embedded itself in his lungs. He had a prognosis and it wasn’t good. The doctors estimated six months without treatment. Distraught, hysterical and lost would be putting the calamity of my emotions delicately.
My entire world was up in flames 4,600 miles away and until my own dying day, I will remember that night and that news.
It was his first big CT scan, two months post-surgery. We mentally went in to that appointment in our stoic Navran nature, hiding all apprehension. I was seven-hours ahead of my family and living in a haze of my own prolonged jet lag, but I still recognized that too much time had gone by since the start of the appointment. It had been over four hours and I should have already heard from somebody. When my mom finally texted me, she was short and unforthcoming. I gathered that the news was bad.
Later, Dad, my dear father and protector, put his own stinging pain and fresh shock aside to be strong for his daughter. I was distraught, alone and halfway across the world. He Facetimed with me into the early hours of the (my) night.
Immediately after his appointment, Dad went to work. Yes, that was just the Fred Navran CPA way. In moments of indiscernible chaos, I think it's comforting to cling to the familiar. He leaned his phone against something on his desk. I stared at him and the familiar, oaky yellow wall of his office. He talked when I needed sound, he consoled me when I bawled uncontrollably, and he focused on his work during the long stretches of silence when I couldn’t summon words express what I felt. A year later I still don’t have the ability to put those feelings into words. I’m convinced that it's not possible.
Choking on my own tears, I fumbled for a way to express his significance and indisputable requirement to keep him in my life. There were the small things like taxes and not knowing when to check the pressure in my tires or how to change a flat. There were also the big things like looking into graduate school, career milestones, needing someone to cheer me on as I chased my dreams and the three days he spent preparing our Thanksgiving feast every November, just because it’s my favorite holiday. There was just no way I could stomach what lay ahead in life without his carefully constructed, and always solicited words of advice. I know that he knew all I was trying to encompass when I said, “I don’t know how to do anything without you, Dad. I NEED you.”
He looked away from his computer, focused on me, his middle child, first daughter, the faraway face in the small screen of his iPhone 6 and said, “You are the most capable person I know.”
Despite my frenzied desire to return home and be with my family, my dad was approved by insurance for immunotherapy treatment, a cutting-edge cancer medicine designed to boost the body’s ability to fight cancer. We were told it could give him years; it was a new lease on life. Reluctantly, I stayed in Bordeaux.
The two months following that night are honestly a blur. I recall October and November of last year the way one remembers a movie they watched a long time ago, hazy and out-of-focus. I worked, planned lessons for my students—and was told by my mom that my dad was losing weight too quickly. I ate my weight in croissants and baguettes, went the Bar à Vin with my friends every Monday night—and I learned that my dad was having his lungs drained once a week because they were rapidly filling with fluid. I traveled all over Europe, I saw Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna and so many other remarkable places—but I also stopped hearing from my dad because he no longer had the energy to respond to texts and emails.
Some of the best and worst moments of my life intermingled over that stretch of time, and came to a climax the Monday after Thanksgiving. I was sitting in the Bar à Vin with my normal group when I received a phone call from my brother. I didn’t answer at first. I had been racking up an impressive roaming bill with my international exploits and wasn't in the mood to hear about it. It kept ringing and ringing, I finally answered. “It’s time to come home,” was all he said. It's all he needed to say for me to know.
Despite our collective hope and desperate prayers to a god that none of us believed in, the immunotherapy didn't work. If anything, it had supplemented the spread of the cancer. He had six months, maximum.
Nine days later I was aboard a Turkish Airlines flight, booked at the eleventh hour. I ended my time in France the same way I began it—crying on an airplane.
My selfless, terminally-ill father felt so guilty that I was leaving France for him.
By the time I got home, most of the person who used to be my dad was already gone. Mentally he was still there, sharp as ever. That was the worst and most bewildering part of all. How could the smartest man I know be stuck inside of a body that was fading from this earth? Couldn’t he choose to stay?
The next month was grim, sad, and ultimately his last. We celebrated what we knew then to be our final Christmas together. No decorations adorned our house, except a sad and small tree my sister picked up at Walmart, dappled with a few red bulbs we pulled out of storage. I think she was trying to bring an ounce of cheer into a dark house, full of people who were at the end of their ropes.
I won’t go into detail of the last couple of weeks of my father’s life, his presence was so much more than the person he became at the end.
Dad was a brilliant, principled man. Stoic by nature and a man of few words so that when he did use them, they resonated. He was a dedicated CPA by trade, he nurtured longtime relationships with his clients, but was always a father first. My dad was present every night, he had a weekly plan of attack to hit all the sales at our local grocery stores and tirelessly threw together delicious meals to satisfy the varying tastes of three different children. Dad played Barbie tea party with me as often as I wanted and plunged into new books and stories with me every night at bedtime.
As we got older he fostered all of the distinct interests and passions of his children in any way he could. I developed a voracious appetite for reading—he kept me well-stocked in a variety and quantity of books. My sister and I danced so much that our studio became like a second home. Dad drove us to and from classes six days a week—even picking us up without complaint up after countless late rehearsals on frigid, pitch-black January nights. Our studio hosted "Parents' Watch Week" every trimester. He showed up, camcorder in tow, to every single one. He sat on those rickety wooden chairs, filming us from when we were toddlers in tutus, well into our too-cool-for-parents high school years, and long after all the other parents had stopped coming.
As a family we travelled to Colorado often. Dad adored nature and the outdoors, he donated to animal shelters and wildlife conservancies, he walked our dog in the park everyday and he was an avid bike rider. Most importantly, his heart beat for the opportunities when he got to see the flat Kansas prairies in his rearview as we all headed west. He shared and instilled the same passion within all of his three children. Because of him, we all feel the most alive when treading dirt paths on green mountain slopes, surrounded by crisp air and the silence of nature.
I have a lifetime's worth of memories of early morning drives to trailheads, bouncing up and down on jagged roads, blasting "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver.
He strived to do right by his loved ones and inherently put the happiness everyone before his own. Dad moved mountains to show his wife and children how much he loved them.
I do want to share a bit of my last few conversations with my dad, because they are probably the only reason I am back in France now. When we knew the end was near, we as a family were by his side night and day. He no longer had enough energy to speak, but could muster a few weak whispers when something needed to be said.
During our seldom moments of being alone together, I made sure to thank him, to tell him that I loved him, and to tell him how lucky I was to be his daughter. Speaking softly, he told me how much he loved me, apologized for the millionth time, saying that this was not what he anticipated at 59, and asked me when I was returning to France.
In his final moments, all my dad wanted was for me to keep living.
Ten months later, I’m back in France. This time, I am working in Toulouse and I am working in primary schools. I have spent my time up until now grieving, attempting to heal and searching desperately for peace. I have much more grieving ahead of me. Every holiday that passes, every crusty baguette I bite into that he'd want me to describe in detail, and every milestone I hit that I don’t get to share with him, is a agonizing reminder of the gaping hole in my heart. I am far from healed, and might spend forever trying to figure out how to live peacefully in a world that robbed me of my father at 26.
But I am here and trying. It’s what he wanted for me and I think what I want for myself.
All I can do is move forward and try to be that capable person my dad raised me to be.
I love you forever, Dad.