Parting with Alaska

Alaska feature photo
A group on a 24-mile backpacking trip in a mountain range right outside Anchorage, Alaska. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

By Mackenzie Evenson
Medill Reports

During my junior year at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I was walking into an Applebees when my dad called and said, “They found a tumor in my brain.” He said it so nonchalantly that the appropriate response evaded me. In a few days, he would undergo emergency brain surgery — but I shouldn’t worry, he said. “It’s not like I’m dying.”

One day in late April of 2018, he was working at the local airport, climbing up a tiny metal ladder on the side of a road grader — a vehicle that helps maintain dirt and gravel roads — to get into the cab, though his foot kept missing one of the rungs. He tried a couple different times, thinking he had just skipped over it on accident, though in reality, a tumor was pressing on his brain, hindering a particular section of his motor abilities. At that moment, he considered the possibility he might not be OK and went to get checked out.

In May, doctors diagnosed him with an aggressive, fast-growing form of stage four brain cancer. While my sister was crying in the hospital chair next to me, I began to Google life expectancy for 57-year-old men with brain tumors. I researched treatments, therapies, survival stories — anything supported by science. I didn’t like feeling that false sense of hope whenever anyone said, “I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’s strong.” Regardless of the intention, hearing that made me feel more helpless, not comforted.

The internet said he would live 12 to 18 months. I steeled myself to expect no more and no less. I forced myself to come to terms with his condition and to become familiar with impending grief. Even before I knew anything official, I was looking up ways to deal with the loss of a parent. If anything, I am never underprepared.

Dad, Sister and I
Mackenzie Evenson, left, her father and her sister, reading a bedtime story circa early 2000s. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

During the surgery, doctors removed 90% of the tumor but had to leave 10% inside to avoid damaging his motor abilities and leaving him in worse condition.

During the first several months, he learned how to deal with his new life, including radiation treatment and chemotherapy, and I learned how to stop worrying all the time. As he lost his hair and his strength, he gained a sense of humor about his condition. Somehow he held onto the ridiculous, bushy mustache that’s been attached to his face since before I was born. I remember trying to bribe him to shave it when I was younger, telling him that getting rid of it could count as my Christmas gift, to which he said a definitive “no.” Now it serves its purpose as some of the only hair he has left on his head.

In August 2018, he had a seizure while operating a piece of equipment at the airport, officially ending his career and his ability to drive. In February 2019, I applied to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Two months later, I was accepted and said yes. My dad was doing all right, having had brain scans every three months and not seeing any new growth in that last section of tumor. I was more comfortable with the thought of leaving, but even so I knew that everything could change in a short time. Not being a two-and-a-half-hour drive away could mean that if something did happen, his last words could go unheard and his last breath could be thousands of miles away from his two children.

How could I move on without feeling like I abandoned my father? I knew I had a whole other life waiting for me outside of Alaska. One part of me wanted so desperately to avoid being trapped like so many others in the state. Working on the North Slope in the oil field, commercial fishing in the summer or rising through the ranks on a pyramid scheme team aren’t bad jobs for a small town, but I didn’t want to stay in a place that People magazine once called a “blue-collar fishing village.” The other part of me was torn apart by the image of my father dying in the big house that he and my entire family built with their own hands and raised my older sister and I in.

My stepmom Kelly is there with him, supporting him. I worry about her, too. Who is taking care of her? She is strong, modest and not the type who says she needs help because in her mind, someone always needs it more.

Here I am, wondering how I can help my family, thousands of miles away. When I wonder whether it was wrong that I left, I have to remind myself that there’s nothing for me in Alaska.

I think feeling both guilty about leaving and excited about what is to come is all right. If something happens to my dad, someone will buy me a flight home and pick me up from that small airport with one baggage claim and a glass showcase of a taxidermic polar bear. Then they’ll take me home to him in the old truck that drove me to parent teacher conferences, swim practices and school dances.

Me and Dad
Mackenzie Evenson and her father, taking a nap in California circa early 2000s. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

Here, my life events are connected by train rides and Ubers taking me from one place to the next. But when I go home, I know my dad is still there in that old house, donning the same decades-old fleece vests because to him simplistic fashion doesn’t expire, and as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” His mustache is riddled with gray hairs that he swears are from the stresses of raising daughters, but I know are from the complications of life.

He’s now taking it day by day, living his best life, texting me every so often to tell me he and Kelly snowshoed a half-mile up the frozen river. I can’t be there to be part of Harry Potter movie marathons, do crossword puzzles together or discuss which bands of his generation created timeless music (the answer is always Bruce Springsteen). But even though I’m far away, he still reprimands me for using the word “like” inappropriately in a sentence, maintaining his position as a big supporter of my use of proper grammar and my educational pursuits. I may have grown up and moved away, but as long as he’s there, a piece of me will always be in Alaska.

Photo at top: A group on a 24-mile backpacking trip in a mountain range right outside Anchorage, Alaska. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL).