Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Everything will be fine. These are the thoughts running through my head as I write this, and as simple as they seem, they are not. A cape of venerability drapes itself over me with each new word I type, with each part of the information I reveal, but in the midst of the typing, I find myself gaining confidence and letting go. This won’t be for everyone. It might not be for you to read, but if you’ve ever lost someone dear to your heart, then this will be for you. A sort of letter that you will be able to interpret and relate to. My hope is to offer you a helping hand that you may have not had, and if you decide to take it, give you comfort in those dark times.
Death is the hardest obstacle you will encounter in life. The loss of an important person creates a ripple effect that changes the course of your life indefinitely. You will never know what kind of person will come out at the other end of the grief. And maybe you never move past grieving. Death follows you wherever you go. Hide all you want, it will still find you. You may find yourself losing interest in things, your taste buds will turn bland, and you’ll feel gutted inside. The world’s colors will be stripped down to negatives, and you’ll be left feeling entirely alone. Your mind will give birth to anxiety and depression will soon follow. There is no escaping that either. I lost my father at the worst time of my life, and each passing day, I discover more pain, yet in all the misery I found a silver lining.
My father’s health deteriorated faster than I could process. It all started on my way home from a long day at work when I received the call. My heartbeat grew unsteadily and the blood drained from my cheeks leaving a pale canvas. How do I process this news? Why is this really happening, I had just spoken to him yesterday? I promised to spend the weekend with him. I wasn’t prepared for what was to come next. I had so many things that remained unsaid. There were memories we hadn’t made yet. I just become a husband, I needed his guidance more than ever. How was I supposed to be a father without his council? My children would never get to meet the man who made me who I am. To laugh at his jokes like I had. And I wanted to make those memories before the end came.
Childhood was what any person could imagine. My father taught us, children, how to throw the football, gave us a taste for rock n’ roll, and lectured us constantly about the value of morals and values. As his sons, he prepared both my brother and me for the wife we would wed. Manners, chivalry, and respect you name it. He made me promise countless times that I would love her every day like it was my last, and I did. He made me promise that I would take care of the love of his life after his time had come. I never imagined there would be a day where that promise would be tested. What if I couldn’t handle it? What if I wasn’t mature enough to be in charge of such an important task?
Cancer was foreign to me. A colleague’s mother died from breast cancer, and whenever she talked about it, I sort of tuned her out because I didn’t know how to empathize. What can you truly say to mend someone’s wounds? Nothing bad had ever happened to me. I couldn’t begin to comprehend what it meant to have something tear your life apart. When we received his diagnosis, it was August 11th, his birthday. An ironic way to celebrate life with the news of a death in your not to distant future. When my mother informed my wife and me, the words left her mouth like poison, all of our lives changed.
“The doctors found something. Your father has stage IV kidney cancer,” she said with tears streaming down her face, hardly able to hold it together.
What was kidney cancer? Was it lethal? Why did he have it? Was stage IV bad? I couldn’t find an answer to those questions. I was left hopeless. My father was a good person with a loving family, who made the world a profoundly better place. He worked for the state government to provide for his family. He attended a catholic college later in life to have a higher earning power so that his family had what they needed. He was the dad who came to all his kids sporting events, the one who acted interested in all of our conversations, and most importantly, whipped our butts into shape when we were out of line. (I am thankful for that.)
After hearing the news, I convinced myself that the doctor made a mistake. And in my mind, I truly believed that was true.
This time period was difficult for me emotionally, I had yet to put my life completely in God’s hands, and if I had, I would have prayed endlessly to God to heal my father. Month after month, my dad asked God, “Why me?” He told me he cried for months feeling defeated in his sick body, and his concerns bled into my thoughts. I lost my appetite, resulting in loss of weight, I didn’t want to play drums because he gave me that passion. My performance at work noticeably slipped and there were many days I called off just so I could sit in bed and digest. I wanted to be left alone.
Over time silence became my remedy. It allowed me time to heal, but with each new piece of information, those wounds would spread open again. At the time, I started a new job and within the first six months, I already used all my allotted sick leave. I burned through it the second it became available. Management noticed a pattern emerging but I never told anyone about it. I couldn’t be known as that person. The person who used personal dilemmas to dictate their work. Unfortunately, everyone was intelligent enough to see through the ruse. They knew that there was much more than I lead on. But I wouldn’t talk about it, a trait that I inherited from my father. And so I never did, even until the very end.
Two years from his initial diagnosis, my father trudged through his cancer. He burned through treatment after treatment. When one stopped working, another took its place. He was determined to win. And we would be there every step of the way, as a family.
The cancer was first located in his kidney. The doctor performed a complete nephrectomy and said himself that the kidney was the size of a large football. I felt in my heart that after that surgery everything would be okay. They removed the kidney that contained the cancerous cells. His other kidney appeared to be cancer-free. It was the longest day of my life. I hadn’t slept the days proceeding the procedure.
Several months later, cancer returned, but now in different parts of his body: the spine, the sternum, and his right eye. I accompanied a visit with my parents to an Oregon hospital regarding cancer in his eyes. The atmosphere was terrible and the way they treated my father was hard to watch. A lab rat. The scraping of his eye with their imagining machine haunted him. And as a result, the appointment wasn’t a positive one. Cancer rested on the optical nerve. Evidence pointed to a possible spread into his right eye in the future. The defeat in his face was difficult to witness. It killed me. At that moment I had a first-hand account of the difficult news they repeatedly received.
Treatments went on after that appointment, none of which proved to have any lasting results. He got sicker. The color of his hair changed from the salt and pepper color that I’d known to love into to silver-white. His skin turned frail. The treatments were poisoning him. I’d tried to visit as much as I possible could. It was my duty as his son to be there for him, but watching him battle this disease was painful to witness. It open grew harder in time because I knew with each passing day I’d eventually have to say goodbye, and I would never be prepared.
He felt like a burden to his family and his will to fight was slipping. Death seemed the only way for his pain to end. In his final weeks, breathing without the support of a machine grew difficult. His lungs were betraying him.
The last conversation with my father I will never forget. No matter the pain he was in, he always remained happy at the thought of his family. He always asked how we were doing and never let a passing moment go by without telling each one of his children how proud he was of us. And the last moment we had as a family, huddled around his bedside, he said his last conscious farewells. This would be the end. He would look me in the eyes no longer. But we all knew, he would be in pain no more.
And on Sunday, June 9th, my childhood hero passed away from his cancer in the presence of his loved ones and surrounded by love from afar at a hospital that he didn’t care for. God sent nurses with compassion to help us grieve. Tears, runny noses, and whimpering plagued the long colorless hallways and at that moment I faced my biggest fear. The last breath that came from his chest I will never forget. Seeing the glow in his eye fade away into memory broke me beyond repair. I held his hand as long as I could because I knew this would be the last time. I studied every inch of his face so I could remember the man who made me everything I am today. He was no longer a slave to his pain. He was at peace.
As I looked at my father one last time, I was reminded that a piece of me would always remain absent. There was a piece that felt gone. Perhaps it was the part that pained to see him suffer. The part that I carried daily with me and felt while I thought of him. It was guilt I told myself. Guilt that if there was something I could be doing, I should be doing it. I just didn’t know what it was.
The following days after his death, I felt like a ghost inside my body. Every moment I was reminded of him. I crawled my lifeless body upstairs to see the indent where he slept and laid my head in it, wishing that if I fell asleep it would all be a dream. It seemed easier to cope knowing that at any moment all my pain and suffering could be forgotten by the opening of my eyes. But I was left to this reality. It wasn’t the one I wanted to be a part of.
Everyone says, eventually, it gets easier, but it never does. There will never be a day where you don’t miss the ones who have left you. Your wounds will never heal no matter how hard you bandage them. Death destroys all that it touches. Flowers wilt in its presence. Dark days linger year-round. And happiness seems impossible. Your emotions will betray you. One moment you experience a glimpse of happiness but you’re quickly reminded that you cannot be happy, you’ve seen death. Your life will feel like an endless emotional rollercoaster expect there is no exit.
Welcoming death into your life takes adjusting. You will change, but with the help of love and family, none of life’s events seem impossible to cope with. I was reminded why in times of trouble love truly triumphs overall. And although I do believe we all carry this burden to our graves, I do know that with the bonds between us, we are able to move forward productively. The gift of cultivating spouses, mothers, brothers, and friends will always be there to help when we need it.
One of the brilliant lines Albus Dumbledore said in the Harry Potter books was, “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.” Experiencing your emotions, feeling out what you’re going through with others will help. Holding in your pain will cause permeant damage. My father would have never wanted that, and I know that. I remember the best things about him. All of the jokes he told, the witty smiles he made, and the memories he gave to me.
My father was the greatest man I’ll ever know. There won’t be a day where I won’t miss him. He has left a lasting impression on all of those he has touched with his laughter, joy, and love. There are moments when it will be harder to move forward because he is gone. Becoming a husband and a father in the future will be different without his wise counsel to fall back on. But if there’s one thing he did perfectly as a father, it was giving me all the necessary tools to succeed at both of those roles. His lectures, words, and wisdom will stay close to me, to pass down to my son when the time is right, so that he knows what kind of man his grandfather was.