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My “Family is Everything” Wake-Up Call

How my father's cancer diagnosis taught me to stop putting work first and prioritize family.

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For many years of my adult life, work was my priority (often by unconscious choice). I sacrificed my personal life, bailing on dinners with friends due to a late deadline, or canceling dates with prospective boyfriends (or more usually not even trying to find a date in the first place). 

I was too busy at work to accept phone calls from my family. My mom knew not to call me during work hours. My dad didn’t call me often (that was mom’s job), but it seemed like whenever he did try to call me, I was too busy at work and wouldn’t answer his call. 

Don’t get me wrong, family and friends were definitely very important to me even as I let work take over my life and watched my free time fizzle away.

But I took them for granted. Friends, family, they’ll always be there, there’s plenty of time to catch up, right? As soon as this crazy deadline is finished. As soon as I’m traveling for work less and I can get some rest. Then I’ll devote my attention to them. 

The devotion to work paid off, I thought, when I took on my dream job working at world-class design agency, Stranger & Stranger, leading their NYC studio. Their aesthetic, their dark humor, the people, were all a perfect fit for me. Success!

Four days into this exciting new job, my dad called me (after business hours, since I’m sure I’d brushed off an earlier daytime call) to let me know he had just found out he had cancer. 

My mind reeled. I was devastated but heartened to hear it might be treatable. I also felt some guilt because I thought for a moment, “I don’t have time for this, I just started my dream job!”

Luckily that dream job also gave me the space and understanding about the circumstances that I didn’t initially realize I’d need to get through it. I don’t know how I would have made it through without their support and I’m forever grateful for that.

I was able to compartmentalize pretty well — I’d be completely focused on work during the business day, and then spend time with dad and the rest of my family on weekends. 

This is when I first had the wake-up call that family is absolutely everything. Nothing is more important.

As my dad’s cancer progressed, unfortunately pretty quickly, I’d get through my work day and then fall apart in the evenings and on weekends. I was splitting in two – the strong business woman wanting to be a success in her job and the scared child who only wanted to turn back time to be able to have more time with dad and my family.

Sadly, dad’s cancer went from diagnosis to death in a brief five months. Only two months in, he lost the ability to clearly communicate as the cancer spread to his brain, and three months in I had to help make the gut-wrenching, heart-destroying decision to suspend his treatment.

As I went through the unimaginable awfulness that is watching a family member go through that torture and then losing them to that cancer, I came out the other side with an unwavering, unshakeable knowledge that from that point forward: Family Comes First.

It was a wake-up call I most certainly didn’t want, but one I am utterly grateful for. 

It has allowed me to shift my priorities — whatever happens with my family will always be most important. I am closer to my family (and a small number of dear friends who are like family) now. Any work and life choices I make will always take that into account. 

Looking back, I wish I’d answered more of my dad’s phone calls when I was “too busy” or spent more time with him before he got sick. But I can only go forward. There’s no doubt — I’m never too busy to talk to or spend time with my family now! 

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