My dad, Jack, started losing weight long before he got really sick and everyone told him that he looked great but we, those closest to him, knew that something wasn't right. He had to use the bathroom all the time and continued to eat whatever he wanted for the most part. He was diabetic. He had colon cancer twice while I was in high school. I was certainly affected by it and upset about it, but I never realized then how serious it could be. I guess it's pretty age-appropriate to be self-absorbed at that developmental stage in life, but looking back I always think about what a jerk I was. And I have a.lot.of.guilt about that.
I got my love of music from him. Any desire to do something sports-related/athletic that I have comes from him. I look more like him than anyone else in my family. My mom and sister could just about be sisters themselves, but I look nothing like either of them.
When you lose someone, you always wonder what if? I have wondered what if he had died when I was in high school? Would that have been easier? Because in high school, you don't realize what a treasure your parents really are. They are annoying and pesky and always trying to ruin your good times with their rules and concerns for your well-being. Because they do know what's best for you (usually). But that's a hard thing to reconcile when you're 16 and want to do everything that your 18 year old sister wants to do. Or want to stay out just a little later. Or want to date that guy that they have serious reservations about (for all the right reasons).
You don't know how much it will mean when your dad walks you down the aisle on your wedding day.
By November 2006, he had lost a whole bunch of weight and was starting to feel pretty bad. Doctors started running tests and trying to figure out what was going on. Was it a reaction to the type of insulin he was on? Was it pancreatitis? By early December, he was looking frail and was jaundiced. He itched so he shaved his beard, that I'd never seen him without, and that made him look even more sickly. His jawbone jutted out. He looked older. Weaker.
He spent most of January 2007 in the hospital. He was retaining fluid in his abdomen that had to be drained 2 times a week. By March 2007, the doctors finally had a diagnosis. Pancreatic Cancer.
I didn't know anything about Pancreatic Cancer. I just knew that when my daddy had cancer 10 years earlier, he beat it with a stick and came out smelling like a rose. So when I got that call, I was initially disappointed but I had no clue what it ultimately meant for my family. No clue that this beast is incurable 95% of the time.
My dad didn't talk on the phone. It was March 23rd, a Friday afternoon around 3 or 4 in the afternoon and I was picking up around the house. I vividly remember that the lights in the living room were off and it was kind of dark in there when the phone rang. My dad rarely called, and I knew we were awaiting results so I sat down on the couch and answered the phone.
Dad: "Well, I got my diagnosis."
Dad: "It's Pancreatic Cancer."
Me: "So, now what? What are the options?"
Dad: "I'm not doing chemo or radiation again. There's no point."
Me: "What do you mean? You have to... what's the alternative?"
Dad: "I'm going to die. Treatment would only make me sicker and maybe I would live a little longer..."
Then, he said something that I will never forget.
"...but it's not like I'm going to be around long enough to see you have kids."
Another long pause... What did that mean? If I were pregnant he'd think about it?
My head was spinning. I was trying to wrap my mind around the words that were echoing in my ears. It was a surreal moment. Going to die. See you have kids. All of the sudden, I remembered a walk that my dad and I had gone on about a year earlier when he told me that he didn't think he would live long enough to retire. That broke my heart because he worked hard his entire life and there were so many things he wanted to spend his golden years doing. Fishing. Traveling. Building this or that. Watching his grandchildren grow.
I don't know what I said after that or when I started crying. I don't know when I decided that I was packing my bags and going to Tennessee right that minute to see him. All I know is by the time I called my husband, I was hyperventilating and crying so hard that I could not get the words out. He left work immediately and I got into the shower because I didn't know what else to do.
I wanted to wash away what he just told me. I wanted to wash away the way I acted when I was a teenager. I wanted to wash away my future without him. I remember crying until I was too weak to cry anymore and falling down in the bathtub, just letting the hot water pour over my back.
And I wondered some more. Is it better when someone dies unexpectedly and you don't have time to grieve before they are gone? How do you make the most of your time with someone when you know they are dying? What's it going to be like? Is it going to hurt? How long will it last? When?
I graduated from college (yes, at age 27) in May and my mom and dad were there.
After we got off of the phone, I cried. And cried. And cried. Then I turned around and went home instead of going into class.
Between December of '06 and July '07, I made more trips home than I care to count, but I know it amounted to about 20,000 miles that I put on my car. On July 21st, a Saturday night, my sister called me around midnight and said that something wasn't right. I knew that my dad had been eating less and less because he couldn't hold anything down. His digestive system was shutting down completely. He weighed next to nothing. She said that he had been lying on the couch with his eyes partially open but wasn't talking. She said that my mom had tried to get him up to get him to bed and he couldn't support his own weight. My brother-in-law had to go back and help her carry him to bed. I started washing clothes and got a couple of hours of sleep before making my last 350 mile trip to see my dad. I think I cried the whole way. We got there around 1 or 2 in the afternoon Sunday and he took his last breath around 4 in the morning on Monday, July 23rd. Exactly 4 months after he was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer.
The week that he died and the funeral and the burial was such a blur but there are specific moments that I recall so easily. I remember sitting in the house, expecting him to come around the corner. I heard his laugh and turned to see if he was there. I remember feeling guilty that we went out to eat without him. I remember smiling and crying at the most random times during the viewing as friends and family offered their condolences. I remember being numb at the graveside ceremony. And crying all the way home. Not wanting to leave my mommy. Scared that she would die before I got to see her again. Not wanting to go back to work and face normal people that weren't in the throes of all this pain.
I remember my friend Jody telling me "it will get better. it will be a new normal, but life will be normal again. everything really is going to be okay." Of all the things that people said to me at the funeral, that is what I remembered the most. And I clung to those words like nothing else. It's taken some time, but her words were true. It's not okay that my dad's not here to see Theo. To play with him. To teach him things and tell him stories about when I was a little girl. That breaks my heart when I think about it.
But I'm okay.
I have stories to tell Theo about my dad. I have pictures to share with him when he is old enough to understand. I have already started telling him little things about his Gramps. We keep him alive by talking about him with my sister's kids.
Three and a half years have passed and some days it feels like a million. Other days it feels like just moments. I wish I could hear his voice again or give him one more hug. Losing a parent well before you'd expect to is tough. It happens to so many people but it is such an individual journey. I wouldn't expect to understand how anyone else in my shoes felt or vice versa. I'd give anything to spend one more day, take one more walk, watch him play the guitar...take back the mean things I said and the thoughtless things I did that probably broke his heart.
I can't do any of those things, so I just have to go on living my life the best way I know how. And the biggest part of that is being a good mom to my sweet Theodore Jack, hoping to make the same kinds of happy parent-child memories that I have of my dad from my childhood and adulthood.